A few years ago, I created a personality framework called “the Four Tendencies,” and I’ve spoken about it a lot on the Happier podcast. If you want to find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, you can take the free, quick quiz here.
For this little story, it’s enough to know that “Obligers” are people who readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. They keep their promises to other people, but they often have trouble keeping their promises to themselves.
Sometimes, when outer expectations become too heavy, an Obliger can fall into Obliger-rebellion, which is when an Obliger meets, meets, meets expectations—and then suddenly that Obliger snaps, and says, “This I will not do!”
Sometimes it’s small and funny; sometimes it’s huge and dramatic. Sometimes it’s helpful; sometimes it’s destructive in the way it blows up a situation.
Sometimes it’s directed at other people, like “I’m not going to answer your emails for two weeks” or “I’m quitting this job where you exploit me.” And sometimes it’s turned toward the self, with ideas like “With the boss I have, you think I can exercise? No way!”
And sometimes Obliger-rebellion can take the form of what seems like indulgence, but in a way that seems almost…angry, or resentful. Like, “I’ll show you! I’ll eat this entire bag of chips!” but who are you showing?
This pattern is quite common, but it can seem mysterious, so I can’t resist quoting at length from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir Summer (Amazon, Bookshop). I’m a giant fan of the writing of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I’ve read thousands of pages of his voluminous autobiographical work.
Knausgaard’s writing makes it clear that he’s an Obliger, and in the essay “Ice Cream,” he writes about an episode that strikes me as an obvious example of Obliger-rebellion.
Here’s the story he tells, lightly edited.
“So can I have another ice cream, then?” the youngest said. “Since I can eat as much as I want?” “No, you can’t,” I said. “Why not?” he said. “Because you’re a child, and because you are under my control. But I can eat two ice cream cones,” I said. “No, you can’t,” the eldest said. “Oh yes, I can,” I said, stuffed what was left of my wafer into my mouth, stood up and walked over to the kiosk, bought a pistachio cone and walked back to where they were sitting. They looked on in shock and consternation as I proceeded to eat it. Two ice cream cones in a row, in their world that was something totally unheard of. How come I never thought of that before? I thought as I sat there eating and gazing out at the sea with the children’s eyes fixed on me. Why have I never eaten two ice cream cones in a row before?
The children still remember that time, even though it was three years ago. To them it was a demonstration of force, since they didn’t get another ice cream no matter how much they nagged me. To me it was a joke, although the joke also had a hint of seriousness to it, since it made me understand that I really could do whatever I wanted. That I used that freedom to eat two ice cream cones in a row also gave me a thing or two to think about.
I’m fascinated by the pattern of Obliger-rebellion. Now that I know to look for it, I see it often.