Late last month, I was driving home from work, taking the back roads, listening to Happier with Gretchen Rubin, podcast 74. Per usual when wearing slip-on shoes, I had kicked off my shoes and was driving barefoot. Gretchen and Elizabeth were discussing a listener question about family and Gretchen’s Four Tendencies: Obliger, Upholder, Questioner and Rebel. Gretchen was giving a hypothetical example about an obliger parent being perplexed by having a questioner child who keeps saying, “but why…” The last “but way” in her list of example questions was “But why can’t I drive barefoot?” and she continued with this example saying that if you know the child is a questioner you can take five minutes and explain you can’t drive barefoot. Aloud, I said, “You can’t tell me what to do, Gretchen Rubin.” It was at this moment that I accepted that I might be a Rebel.
Gretchen’s Four Tendencies are based on how people respond to expectations. The degree to which a person falls into a category varies, for example you can be a strong obliger or a moderate one. The following is a quick description of each classification, taken from Gretchen’s blog.
Upholder—accepts rules, whether from outside or inside. An upholder meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution. I am an Upholder, 100%.
Questioner—questions rules and accepts them only if they make sense. They may choose to follow rules, or not, according to their judgment.
Rebel—flouts rules, from outside or inside. They resist control. Give a rebel a rule, and the rebel will want to do the very opposite thing.
Obliger—accepts outside rules, but doesn’t like to adopt self-imposed rules.
She has written a lot over the past three and a half years about the four tendencies and her theories have evolved over time, but the basic premise remains the same. She’s even developed a quiz to help people identify their tendency.
A Rebel in Obliger’s Clothing
The quiz had an opposite effect on me, though. Rather than helping me to identify my category, it obscured it. I am terrible at answering personality-type quizzes because I sometimes answer based on what I think I want to be rather than being authentic. Furthermore, I don’t have strong tendencies for any personality framework. To use another of Gretchen’s classifications, I’m an “alchemist” who can reinvent myself rather than being a “leopard” who doesn’t change my spots. At any rate, before taking the quiz I suspected that I was an obliger and my answers “proved” me right. Those answers felt true at the time, but they obscured a deeper understanding of how I truly respond to expectations.
It took me a long time to recognize that I’m a rebel. I think that being a rebel doesn’t always look like we think it should. Rebels don’t sport James Dean haircuts or ride motorcycles. They aren’t necessarily covered in tattoos. As Gretchen notes, rebels are uniquely motivated by doing what they want to do. And if what they want to do goes against the grain in some way, all the better. I think this is why I often tempted to jump into extreme habits. So, if I decide–for any number of reasons–that I want to eat less meat, my inner monologue would sound like this:
“I could start doing Meatless Mondays. But that is so easy, anyone can participate in Meatless Mondays. If anyone can do it, is it really a worthy goal to set for myself? Why not just become vegetarian? Or better yet, I’ll just be vegan. Foregoing all animal products is a real goal.”
And so I will become vegetarian for six months or vegan for two months. Both of these things I’ve actually done. And I quit being vegetarian or vegan because I decided I wanted to. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if I would have looked up the statistics (only 3.2% of Americans identify as vegetarian and 0.5% as vegan) I would’ve been motivated to double-down on my self-imposed eating patterns. In fact, just thinking about it right now makes me want to take a vow to quit eating meat and dairy right now. (Confession: I’ve never truly been vegan because I can’t get past the bees issue. Bees are necessary for pollinating a lot of plant foods so I feel entitled to eat honey. I’m such a rebel vegan.)
My trouble in identifying my true tendency was further complicated by the fact that Gretchen identifies a trait in obligers that she calls “obliger rebellion.” Obliger rebellion is when an obliger gets fed up with being an obliger and refuses to meet some outer expectation. I would suggest that this person isn’t actually an obliger, but a rebel, who has been socialized to meet external expectations, especially to avoid facing consequences. I have some budding theories on how this could be the case that are built around being raised in an authoritarian household, but I think a key to figuring out if someone is a rebel or an obliger is to ask why they meet external expectations, not just if they meet external expectations. Does a person feel bad about breaking the rule, or do they feel bad about being caught breaking the rule. (I wonder if there isn’t an unrecognized gender bias about putting “mild” rebels who are female in the obliger category. Gretchen notes that the rebel category is the smallest category, but I think some obligers who have “obliger rebellion” might be miscategorized.)
Here is an example of how I uphold the rule to avoid consequences. I used to speed all the time. I mean all the time. When I was 21, I got three speeding tickets in one year. I almost never speed anymore, not because the speed limit sign affects me, but because I do not want to suffer the consequences of getting pulled over.
Similarly, as a kid and young adult I used to be terrible about keeping my room clean. When my mother would tell me to clean my room, I would start cleaning and then find a book I hadn’t read in awhile and sit in my closet or behind my bed and read. It would take several threats before I would actually finish cleaning my room. Often, finishing meant shoving things into other things to give the illusion that I was done rather than actually doing the job.
Being motivated by avoiding consequences isn’t the only sign I’ve identified that I’m a rebel. I think another sign of being a rebel is how you act around people who are supposed to give you unconditional love. That kind of environment is supposed to be relatively consequence-free. You may irritate a family member or make them mad for awhile, but they aren’t going to fire you because you didn’t do the dishes for two whole days. In fact, using friends and family as accountability partners is often counterproductive for me. I’ve often experienced the situation where I would keep up with a certain habit or goal until I told someone about it. Once they had an expectation that I was going to do x, I struggled doing it. When I thought I was an obliger, this situation puzzled me deeply, but when I looked at myself as a rebel, it made perfect sense.
There are also certain characteristics of rebels that Gretchen has written about or talked about on her podcast that are so spot on for me it makes it difficult to deny my rebel nature. On her blog, she writes:
Rebels wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. (I used to think that Rebels were energizing by flouting rules, but I now I suspect that that’s a by-product of their desire to determine their own course of action. Though they do seem to enjoy flouting rules.) They really don’t like being told what to do.
While the idea that I wake up think “What do I want to do today?” isn’t quite accurate, I realized that I used to have a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I would often wait until the last possible second, hitting the snooze button multiple times, before getting out of bed. On the weekends, however, I would wake up naturally at the time I tried to get up during the week. I would typically hop out of bed and get my day started. Similarly, when I started blogging in the mornings, I had no problem getting out of bed super-early. Nowadays, I sometimes wake up on my own at 4:30, get up and head for my computer. Even if my brain doesn’t wake me up that early, I still crawl out of bed at 5:45, pour myself a cup of coffee and head into the office. The difference between now and before is that I have an answer for the “What do I want to do with this time?” questions that is something I actually want to do.
Shortly after I had the driving barefoot realization, I was listening to the next Happier podcast. Near the end, Gretchen and Elizabeth were answering two listener questions that were exactly the same: how do I help my rebel significant other with a job search. Gretchen’s advice was to do nothing. Encouragement would make a rebel less likely to do what they knew they should do. This completely mirrors my own recent experience with making a dermatologist appointment. I knew I needed to make an appointment to get my moles checked. I was about three years overdue, and yet I couldn’t make myself do it. My husband started nagging me, which made me feel bad but also made me resist doing it even more. Eventually we had a fight and in my memory of this, he expressed that he didn’t think I was ever going to make my dermatologist appointment. This is what motivated me. It wasn’t until I was listening to the podcast that I linked earlier in this paragraph that I realized the real motivation for me wasn’t the nagging, but the “you can’t / won’t do it” statement. While that doesn’t work all the time, having someone express to me that something is out of reach usually makes me want to at least try that thing.
Now that I’ve finally identified that I’m a rebel in this framework, I can start to use this as a way to motivate myself to change my habits and finish projects more effectively and, just as importantly, stop beating myself up so much for not being able to meet certain expectations. Giving myself grace to reject certain expectations without guilt or to meet them in my own way is certainly helping me to cultivate healthier state of mind.