Why obligers need a deep interior life…and why it’s so hard for them to take time for it. 

You may have read some of my past posts about happiness author Gretchen Rubin’s theories about the four tendencies people have with regard to habit formation and meeting inner and outer expectations. As a quick review, the four types are: 

  1. Upholders (meet inner and outer expectations)
  2. Questioners (meet inner but question outer expectations)
  3. Obligers (meet outer but resist inner expectations)
  4. Rebels (resist both inner and outer expectations)

I’m an obliger, so I’m writing from my personal experience. Obligers have a keen sense of others needs, and tend to focus primarily on them. It always feels more virtuous to be doing something for someone else rather than ourselves. We have a hard time doing stuff that’s “just for me.”  


Obligers need to reflect to make good decisions about their priorities and needs, but struggle to take that time. Often they push themselves to remain in busy activities for others instead…even when that inner voice is screaming, “No!” Instead of stalling for time so they can calmly quietly decide what to, they try to silence that inner voice of resistance and force a guilt-induced “Yes, of course!” This can lead to them getting burned out and resentful–punishing those they love most with grumpiness–a bad pattern!

So if you’re someoe who falls into this, resist the temptation to say “yes” right away…make some good easy lines to use:

“Let me just check my calendar and get back to you.”
“Sounds interesting. I’ll talk about it with my spouse and let you know.”
“Thank you for the invite. I’d love to come but I’ll just have to see what my week is looking like before I commit.”

And then pray about it. Consult your calendar. Consult your gut…and listen to it! That quiet time in which to make decisions is essential. Helping your inner life to flourish can bring such strength. Taking things to prayerful refection can help you discern which things are really the most important and necessary, and also which are actually your responsibility. This is key because obligers can struggle with boundaries and often feel responsible for the perceived needs of others, even other adults. 

My Dad told me the other day something very simple but which stuck me like lightning:

“Other people’s stuff is not your responsibility.”  Really!??! Wow!!

How freeing this is! It is such a beautiful thing to just focus on the task at hand–to totally concentrate on what you’re doing, whether it’s grating carrots, writing or folding the laundry. For there is something really beautiful about just doing one thing and not thinking about anything else. Airplane mode! Just cruising without all the beeps and bells intruding from the internet. 

Alternatively, can you imagine if God was the way we are, getting so distracted by every possible thing going on all around the world? He would be completely insane because he knows everything. And yet somehow, living in the eternal present, aware of past, present and future, He is still able to simply exist. He is able to live fully and totally present in each moment. 

What a gift it is when we have a little taste of this! But to find it we have to be intentional, and block out all the noise and distractions around us,  to focus on what really matters. We need to have the humility to acknowledge that all we really need to do is take care of our tiny corner of the world. If we don’t, no one else will. And actually no one should. 

To need to be rescued is ultimately disempowering. 

Remember this. Give people the fishing rod, not the fish. Otherwise you imply they couldn’t have done it themselves, which is actually depressing. We all want to be able to take care of ourselves. And with the grace of God, and perhaps a little help (but not rescuing!) from friends, we can. 

So, Obligers, it’s so awesome that you are sensitive to the needs of others, but pack up your super-hero capes and martyr badges and stop being so afraid to say no. The world will not fall apart if you set a few much needed boundaries and focus on taking care of your own needs and duties, your own personal mission, before deciding how much you can help others with theirs. Perhaps in what the women from the podcast Project Love call  this “brave act of self-love” you will give others the freedom to do the same, and more people can find the peace that comes from simply doing what they need to do, without getting tangled in guilty knots when they can’t do everything else! 😉

PS This rare sighting of the ‘creatura materna’ without countless offspring was captured by my friend Rachel Lalonde on an awesome 4 hour moms only coffee date and walk! Also… I highly recommend the podcast on boundaries mentioned above! So awesome…especially for women who tend to feel the need to always put others first, even to the point of neglecting themselves:

 The art of saying No and setting healthy boundaries

2 thoughts on “Why obligers need a deep interior life…and why it’s so hard for them to take time for it. 

  1. Jessica A.

    Hi Anna! I found this post via the Better app. Thank you so much for writing it.

    Your piece resonated deeply with me. The times in my life when I did have a deep inner life corresponded 1:1 with the times where my obliger tendencies were least harmful/disruptive to my own well-being.

    The older I’ve gotten, the more stressful my work, having more children (2), owning a smartphone, all of these things leave me with less time to cultivate an inner life. Without this inner life, the quality of my decisions has decreased. I am generally happy, but often find myself regretting how I’ve spent my free hour or evening (dwelling on activities that drain, rather then recharge me), or negative thinking about other people. This regret and judgement leads to unhappiness.

    I believe I that I find that confronting my need for a deep inner life, humbling. Problem is….I lack humility. My older sister taught me to meditate almost 20 years ago, and I resist it, even though I know I will be a better person for it. I tell myself, “I’m perfectly capable of becoming the best version of myself. No help needed.” I see it as a strength to remain independent, but deep down it feels like weakness today turn my back on the tools necessary to cultivate a deep inner life.

    I’m sometimes told that I’m too hard on myself. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” – but my response is that I truly envision my happiest, most life-giving self emerging from the version of me that has a deep inner life. A thoughtful, present, and kinder, me.

    I feel I’ve grown tired, impatient and critical. I feel pulled between these two versions of myself.

    Thank you again for writing this piece, and for posting it to Better. I’m so glad I found it. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Jessica,
      I’m so honoured you took the time to share your story with me, and am so pleased you found encouragement in what I wrote.
      It’s a common temptation I think to want to be able to change ourselves by sheer will-power, but I think there is a more beautiful plan…we are social beings who thrive and become our fullest selves in and through relationship. We all have unique gifts to offer, and ways we can support each other.
      But to be in healthy relationships we also need to care for and nourish our souls. To deny ourselves any quiet time to reflect and pray is to starve ourselves spiritually. No one would expect you to run a marathon without eating first, and juggling work and parenting is certainly a marathon! 😉
      So don’t be ashamed you need to feed your soul.
      “Humility is truth” has been said…and I think a lot of insight from the four tendencies is about embracing rather than denying our true self.
      Part of our true self as humans is having a longing for the infinite, for the perfect, for an ever present Love and a Beauty without stain…filling up your inner well with such peace as prayer brings can only do good for you and everyone in your life!
      Best wishes and many blessings, and please feel free to be in touch again any time to chat more!

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