For most of my life, I’ve felt like a failure.
If I stopped to think about it (a sad task I try to avoid), I could list dozens of things that I’ve thought about and planned, but never came about: gifts I meant to give, projects I wanted to create, letters I wanted to write, meals I wanted to make, tasks I should have completed, and exercise I wanted to challenge my body with. DOZENS.
When thoughts of these failed projects, these things I could have, should have done but didn’t, I feel really unhappy. When I can’t get them out of my head, I feel sick and I can’t sleep. All those missed opportunities to better myself, bring creativity into the world, to make someone else feel loved. All things I failed to do.
“What is wrong with me?” I’ve always wondered (and still do sometimes, in spite of myself). I figured I must be lazy, or a terrible procrastinator – probably both.
Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before completely changed the way I see myself in this area, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s going to change my life. As I briefly mentioned in my review, her book identifies what she’s named the Four Tendencies – a framework of organizing people by the way they respond to expectations.
According to this framework, there are four types of people, based on how we respond to both internal and external expectations. Very briefly, the four types are:
Rebel – resists inner expectations, resists outer expectations
Questioner – meets inner expectations, resists outer expectations
Obliger – resists inner expectations, meets outer expectations
Upholder – meets inner expectations, meets outer expectations
As I read her description of Obligers, who struggle with inner expectations, I felt some important puzzle pieces falling into place. The description matched me completely, and I realized: this is what’s ‘wrong’ with me.
I’m not saying I’m never lazy and I never procrastinate. I am, and I do. But they don’t touch every aspect of what I want to do. This, my Obliger nature, is much larger.
Rubin encourages readers, rather than fight their nature, to learn how to help themselves and work with their own strengths. For Obligers, this means building external accountability into our own personal goals. It’ll be different for each person (one person might go to the gym on behalf of their future self, another might need to pay for classes, and still another might need to meet a friend or have a personal trainer), but we all need an external system.
As frustrating as it is to feel like I can’t just do all the things I want to do on my own merit, it’s incredibly liberating to have a solution. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it.
I could be wrong, but I feel like this Tendency knowledge is most valuable and enlightening to Obligers. I think we tend to be the hardest on ourselves in terms of our own expectations. Not to say that the other three types don’t have their own challenges, but understanding how to finally begin doing what we’ve wanted to do for so long is incredible.
Better Than Before is the first place I learned about the Tendencies. I’d recommend starting there, but I might be biased. Rubin has also published a new book entitled The Four Tendencies which goes into much more depth, and she discusses the Tendencies often on her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. I’m also a minor expert on the topic by now and I’m always happy to talk!
I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to build external accountability into something like a personal project. Maybe for a birthday card I’ll have to abandon the surprise and say something like “I’m dropping something in the mail for you this weekend!” to ensure it actually gets done. We’ll see how it goes.
But for now, I have hope that things can change, and that is enough.