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I have the same conversation with my friends regularly. Why can’t I stick to goals I set for myself? I’m not a lazy person, and I’m reliable for other people. Why, then, is it so hard for me to exercise on a schedule, give up sugar, or finish my novel?


Gretchen Rubin believes the answer is in how I respond to the expectations in my life. In her newest book, “The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too),” Rubin explains that there are two kinds of expectations in all of our lives. Outer expectations come from the outside and generally involve accountability to others. Internal expectations are expectations we have for ourselves, like exercising regularly or making more time to read.

According to Rubin’s assessment (and a quick glance at my daily life proves the assessment is spot on) I respond to outer expectations well, but I don’t meet my own inner expectations. This makes me an Obliger, a personality type that needs outside accountability to accomplish tasks.

The three other types Rubin identifies – Upholders, Questioners, and Rebels – all respond to expectations in a unique way. Upholders meet inner and outer, questioners meet inner but not outer, and rebels don’t feel the need to meet expectations at all.

Rubin argues that knowing our tendency helps us live better lives because we can make changes using the right approach. It also explains why an approach that works for my Upholder friends – those who meet inner and outer expectations without a problem – won’t work for me.

Knowing our tendency can impact how we parent, how we interact with others, and how much grace we offer ourselves. It can lead to happier lives, a goal Rubin wants us all to reach.

Take away the overthink

Failure is never fun, and we tend to blame ourselves when we don’t accomplish what we want. Not knowing our tendency sets us up to use the wrong approaches and then wonder why they didn’t work.

Before knowing I was an Obliger, I tried to create new habits by sheer will. I thought I could just find the motivation to force myself to do things I wanted to do, and when I couldn’t I felt like a loser. The problem is Obligers don’t respond to internal expectations unless they can attach outward accountability to them. No amount of positive self-talk or will power will change that.

I also need the accountability in place early, according to research on habits. Most of us see deliberation as an essential part of habit forming. While it’s not bad to have a plan when we want to start or stop a habit, new research says that too much overthinking and planning can actually hurt us when it comes to habits. We pit the part of the brain that encodes habits against the part that plans, and this can make habit forming harder. It’s the problem of concentrating so hard on something that we actually screw it up, like missing all the notes while playing a song we know on the piano because we’re thinking too hard about it.

Knowing our tendency can help eliminate this problem. Knowing I’m an Obliger means I can set up outside accountability first so I don’t have to sit and think about doing it every time I’m trying to start my exercise program or my writing plan. It’s in place, no overthinking necessary.

If I were an Upholder, like Rubin, I would have no problem with this. However, Upholders have other issues, just like Rebels and Questioners. Each of the four types brings strong points and weaknesses into life. The most important part of knowing our tendency is that we can then set up our lives in a way that allows us to make the positive changes we want to over time without the constant feeling of failure.

Tendencies and self-compassion

Self-compassion is the ability to offer ourselves grace and kindness during difficulties. It’s a much more effective means of handling challenges than punishing ourselves or falling down shame spirals. Self-compassion requires mindfulness, and knowing our tendency allows us to intentionally show ourselves this level of kindness.

Questioners, known for questioning external expectations before agreeing to them, are told often that they ask too many questions or just can’t follow directions when asked. This can lead them to feel bad about needing so much more information than others.

However, people who know they are questioners can see what they bring to a team or relationship, and they can also tweak the downsides of the tendency so others can cope with it. Instead of disliking the way they are, they can work with it.

This is true for every tendency. Knowing how we’re wired to respond to expectations allows us to examine our feelings and failings, offer ourselves some grace, and fix whatever caused us to have issues with meeting an expectation.

Obligers aren’t undisciplined loafers who can’t commit. They just need accountability. Rebels aren’t incapable of accomplishing anything. They just need to do it their own way without feeling forced. Upholders aren’t incapable of questioning. They just need to remember that it’s okay to do so.

Knowing our tendency allows us to see our actions in a different light and offer ourselves some love when problems arise.

Relationships with tendency knowledge

Knowing a partner or a child’s tendency can change everything. Expecting a questioner child to do something just because a parent says so is naïve. This child will need to know why he’s being asked before he’ll comply. Upholders may seem like the easiest kids because they meet all expectations, but they don’t question. That can be a problem of its own that parents need to address early on to make sure Upholder kids learn that questioning is okay and necessary.

It’s not always easy to figure out a child or partner’s tendency, but one thing that can help is seeing where conflict arises.

My husband, as a Questioner, didn’t have a problem meeting internal expectations for himself when we were knee deep in diapers and sleep deprivation. He wrote books, created art, and still held down a full-time job while being an active parent.

I did not. With small children as the only ones offering me outside accountability, I gave up writing, didn’t exercise, and didn’t meet any of the goals I planned for myself. While impressed with my husband’s ability to keep everything working in his life, I also felt a tad resentful that he was living a more well-rounded life than I could manage.

He wasn’t selfish and I wasn’t a martyr mommy. We just handled internal expectations differently. Understanding that helped me appreciate him instead of feeling angry. Once he understood how I worked, he helped me find the accountability I needed to move forward with my personal goals.

Use tendency power now

There’s no need to wait for a new year to make positive changes in our lives, but many people feel motivation early in the year that makes that time perfect for focus on expectation meeting. Before setting goals or planning tweaks to your life, know your tendency so you can plan with the most knowledge about how you work. It can make a difference in your overall happiness level this year.

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