There’s a played-out plot line in the teen-movie genre: A nerd and/or straight-A student finally tires of obeying the rules and cuts loose in a night of misadventure. They roll up to their first ever party or fess up to their supercool crush, and when we’re not cringing, we’re cheering them on: Go for it, Sara! YOLO!
It’s the sort of behaviour that Gretchen Rubin labels “obliger rebellion,” except in real life, it’s generally not that funny — and it rarely ends with an awkward smooch.
Rubin has written multiple books about human behaviour; her latest is “The Four Tendencies,” in which she divides people into four categories based on how they form habits. There are upholders, questioners, rebels, and — the most populous category — obligers. (You can take Rubin’s quiz to find out which tendency you fall into.)
Obligers typically find it easier to meet other people’s expectations than their own. As in: They know it’s important to exercise, but they only work out when they have got a friend waiting for them at spin class. They leave work early when they have got to pick up the kids from school, but not when they’d simply like to get a massage.
Obligers also run the risk of eventual rebellion, Rubin says — after weeks, months, or years of yielding to other people’s demands, they snap.
Rubin visited the Business Insider office in September and explained how obliger rebellion works:
“Sometimes it’s small and funny, like, ‘I’m not going to answer your emails for two weeks because you’ve been asking too much of me!’
“Or, sometimes it’s like, ‘I’m going to divorce you’; I’m going to end a 20-year friendship’; ‘I’m going to walk out on this job, even though I’m a very valuable employee, because you people are dead to me. I’m going to go to the competitor.'”
Rubin went on: “It’s meant to be the emergency rip cord that gets them out of the situation that has become insupportable because they feel exploited, or they feel taken advantage of, or they feel like they’re not being heard.”
Rubin said obligers often describe their rebellion using “the metaphor of explosions, boiling over, things bursting; it’s not a controlled resistance.”
If you’re working with an obliger — or in a relationship with one — it’s important not to overload them with expectations and demands. Keep in mind that they might be inclined to meet all of them, even at the expense of not taking care of themselves.
That said, if you’re an obliger, you can’t always rely on other people to look out for you.
Simply knowing that obliger rebellion happens can help you look for the signs of burnout and resentment that Rubin cited. It can help to do a regular check-in with yourself and see whether other people’s needs are starting to obscure your own.