Musing on Expectations and Being an Upholder


I’ve followed the work and blog of Gretchen Rubin for probably a decade now… wow!  She’s the writer behind The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and most recently Better Than Before.  She has created a framework that’s the subject of her next book: The Four Tendencies.  Gretchen has been blogging and talking about this framework on her podcast for a few years now.

The Four Tendencies framework divides all people into one of four categories, based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations.  Here’s Gretchen’s explanation of the tendencies:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

When I first started reading about this framework, I knew that I was either an Upholder or an Obliger.  So, I took the quiz to get a definite answer!  Upholder, indeed.

For years I’ve followed Gretchen’s discussion and explanation of the tendencies with minimal interest, especially after I went through my awakening.  I liken the Upholder tendency to an A-type personality, where you need things to be a certain way.  As I strove to be more present in the moment, let things go, and not plan excessively, I tried to turn away from my Upholderness.


Then, last week, my Team at work held one of our weekly huddles to discuss The Speed of Trust, a program that my firm has been working through the past few years.  The behavior for that day was one I struggle with: Clarify Expectations.  Generally, I’d been thinking about the concept of expectations and how to be better at identifying when an expectation had been set.  Later that same day, I was walking and talking with a friend at work when I noted this issue of expectations and explained that inner expectations hold such power over me.  I gave as an example my weekend long runs.  If I run less than the 10 miles I had planned (i.e. expected), I feel like I failed.  Nine miles?  Not enough because it’s less than what I had set out to do.

Suddenly, a thought popped into my mind: “Because you’re an Upholder.”  Oh yeah.

Re-reading through the material on her blog and listening to Gretchen’s podcast on The Four Tendencies, a lot of aspects of this expectation issue became clear to me.

As I had identified during my awakening, my tendency leads to a high risk that I will be too conscientious at following an expectation once I set it.  That’s why keeping a planner doesn’t help me stay organized, but instead feels like a task master and tends to pull me into my mind and out of the moment. Planners are a great tool for some people, but not for me.

Also, I’d recently focused on being more intentional about my actions.  I realized that what I called “being intentional” was synonymous with clarifying expectations.  As an Upholder, I was setting inner expectations ALL THE TIME, but without consciously being aware of them.  For example, I would have a passing thought that we could go to the library to return books tomorrow, and then it would become an expectation that I needed to meet.  The trouble arises later when something else derails that “plan” and I feel like I’ve failed to do something that I set out to do.

By the way, I recognize how neurotic this post makes me sound!  But, it’s actually very freeing to label this tendency and be able to recognize it’s virtues and drawbacks.

In terms of positives, I can readily set goals and met them without much external accountability.  When I set decided to run a marathon last year, I did it.  I trained and focused, and was able to cross that goal off.  When I started running with the club, I had several folks comment that they’d never be able to run 20 miles on their own, as I had recently done. That surprised me, but now I recognize that those folks were Obligers. They could meet an external expectations but not necessarily an inner one.

Also, I love tracking things and keeping logs to reinforce good habits.  When I’m focusing on low carb and a whole foods diet, there’s nothing that brings me more satisfaction that logging my blood sugars!

The major pitfall is the one I describe above, inner expectations can take over and make me feel chained to my to do list.  But, I believe the key is being mindful and aware of when an inner expectation has been set.  Because the great trick is, I can always set another expectation instead!  This is why the mantra “Why don’t I wait and see how I feel…?” works so effectively for me.  When my mind starts spinning on the various options of what I could prepare for dinner that evening, I can stop and think “I’ll wait and see when we get home” and the expectation becomes “wait and decide later” instead of trying to make a decision now.

This insight also made it clearer why I struggle to Clarify Expectations with others.  I have so many unconscious inner expectations, that it’s challenging for me to identify them as such.  This is where mindfulness and being intentional helps me so much.  When I can identify an expectation, it becomes much easier to clarify it with others.

In hindsight, I realize that my push/pull relationship with following Gretchen’s work was a reflection of our shared Upholderness.  A lot of her habits, tricks, and insights really resonate with me.  However, when I was learning to be more present and less “in my head” I would pull back and revolt against her suggestions.  The thing I now see is that a tendency is fairly hardwired and you can’t really turn it off.  Instead, by embracing my Upholder tendency, I can figure out how to avoid the pitfalls and therefore struggle with myself less.

Now I’m excited to have my husband take the quiz – though I’m pretty sure I know which tendency he is!  That’s where this framework can be so helpful, in identifying more effective techniques within relationships where two different tendencies meet.

Take the quiz and let me know what you think about your tendency!

2 thoughts on “Musing on Expectations and Being an Upholder

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