I’m an Upholder

I was speaking to a friend recently about how she manages stress. We’d previously discussed how important exercise was for her mental health. I asked if she’d been making time for it. Her response was fairly typical. Not lately, she said, not since her sister had become too busy to go with her to the gym.

And that’s when I knew – she’s a classic Obliger.

See, I’ve been learning about how people respond to inner and outer expectations. How can some people meet work deadlines and manage family expectations, but not maintain a commitment to themselves? How can some people be so disciplined in their work, but unable to kick a damaging habit? Why do some people adhere strictly to some rules and not others? Why do others reject the status quo altogether?

Gretchen Rubin considers these questions in Better than Before. She proposes that people fall in to one of four categories with respect to how they respond to inner and outer expectations. She calls these categories The Four Tendencies. According to Rubin, we are either Upholders, Obligers, Questioners or Rebels. The Four Tendenciesframework is dissected in great detail in her subsequent book of the same name.

The thing is, because people respond differently to expectations, they may need different motivation strategies and accountability mechanisms to support them to acquire and maintain habits and fulfil commitments. Although an Obliger might need a gym buddy in order to maintain the discipline of exercise, a Questioner needs no such external accountability providing they are convinced of the value of an exercise routine. When you understand your tendency, you can play to your strengths. When you can identify the tendencies of others, you can tailor your approach to maximise their potential for success.

So what are you?


Upholders are self-directed and self-motivated. They like routine, schedules and ticking things off lists. Upholders are also good at keeping a side-hustle, like, say, a blog. This is ME. But don’t think this is a boast. Upholders certainly have weaknesses. They can be rigid, defensive and they tend to go forth with activities or stick to rules without querying their value or worth. Also ME. Upholders find it difficult to understand why all people aren’t Upholders. No place is this particular frustration more apparent than in a group FB chat. People who “see” and then fail to act upon a question / comment / request are particularly grating to the Upholder sensibility. Upholders need to let go of this.


The gym buddy story is classic Obliger. Obligers respond well to external expectations (they hate to let people down), but struggle to meet inner expectations (they don’t extend themselves the same courtesy). Rubin tells the story of a pregnant woman who had been diligently taking her pregnancy vitamins for months. Then, somebody told her that the pregnancy vitamins were for the benefit of her, the mother, as the baby already had preferential access to all of the vitamins and nutrients it needed. The woman immediately dropped the habit of taking the vitamins. Once the habit shifted from an outward facing act to an act of self care, she no longer felt obliged or motivated to uphold it. You need to be careful with Obligers as they have to potential to fall into Obliger rebellion. Obligers are reliable, and people can take advantage of that. Obligers can grow tired of the burden and snap.


Questioners are more about the why than the who, what, when. Questioners will respond to inner and outer expectations if they believe in the why. They will not uphold for the sake of upholding. Questioners can be good for Upholders because they remind them to question expectations and consider whether, in fact, an item should be on the list at all. Questioners despise queues and drive at above the speed limit to a point that they determine is acceptably unlawful. It is these descriptors that leave me with zero doubt that I live with a Questioner.


The Rebel disposition is so foreign to my own that I find it difficult to even write about. Rebels are motivated by their inner desires and the cultivation of their identity (or “personal brand” in a corporate context). Rebels will do something if they want to, and if its consistent with the person they want to be.

Rubin sums up the Four Tendencies neatly with these questions:

How do you get an Upholder to change a light bulb?

He’s already changed it.

How do you get an Obliger to change a light bulb?

Ask him to change it.

How do you get a Questioner to change a light bulb?

Why do we need that lightbulb anyway?

How do you get a Rebel to change a light bulb?

Do it yourself.

What are you? What is the person you live with? What are the people you work with?

In light of these answers, consider whether you could change up your internal dialogue, or the way you approach others, to extract the best from yourself and those around you.

Thought leader(s): Gretchen Rubin 

Book(s): Rubin, G (2016) Better than Before, Four Roads BooksRubin, G (2017) The Four Tendencies, Four Roads Books









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