What Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Can Teach Working Moms About Finding Work-Life Balance

Why working moms need Gretchen Rubin's 4 tendencies to have work-life balance

This year has been a tremendous period of self-discovery for me. After hitting a stage of burnout, I took a mental health leave from work, during which time, I had an intense period of self-reflection and learning. One of the things I repeated to many people while on leave was: “I know what I need to do, why can’t I just do it?”.

As a psychotherapist, I am highly interested in human behavior, thought processes and emotions. And curious as to how they show in me. I am a great planner. I can design a beautiful strategy for completing my paperwork in a timely manner, setting boundaries at work, healthy meal planning, etc. I love lists and charts and I keep trying to convince myself that if I make the right chart I will eventually change my behaviors. Instead I get caught in the “New Year’s Resolution effect” and am able to only change a habit in the short-term.

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    At the end of 2018, I had a long conversation with my sister about how I have set up numerous systems at work to limit my caseload and catch up on paperwork, etc. and they always fall through (especially when I am already feeling overwhelmed and behind). She suggested setting up some form of external accountability. She challenged me to own the fact that I’m not so good at something (setting limits for myself) and encouraged me to delegate it to someone else. My perfectionism gremlins appeared and said that I must do everything myself. At the same time, her words stuck with me even though I didn’t act on it right away.

    Working moms can benefit from accountability partners and delegating tasks

    Would I be able to let go of control enough to delegate? What might be the costs if I don’t?

    Soon after that chat with my sister, I met a friend for coffee. We casually spoke about writing a book together and now are shifting it toward potentially creating an online course together. The thought excites me. This friend inspires me. We are so different, yet alike in the right ways to collaborate and balance each other out.

    My friend admitted that what she would need from a potential partnership is to be “reigned in” a bit and not aim too high, too fast. I told her I would be happy to challenge her when needed and give honest feedback.

    I told her that I’ve come to realize that I require a level of external accountability when working on things, and questioned if it was something she thought she could provide me, and she said “no problem!”. In case you haven’t figured it out, that friend is Julia, my Balancing Bravely partner.

    Enter Gretchen Rubin, a Successful Woman to Empower My Success – and the success of working moms everywhere

    That same evening, I listened to a podcast with Gretchen Rubin (bestselling writer, mostly about books looking at ways people can be happier). In this instance, she was speaking about her work around what she calls the “Four Tendencies”.  She was putting language to a series of “aha moments” that I had about myself over the past few months.

    gretchen rubin 4 tendencies for better work-life balance

    Instead of reinventing the wheel, I will use the way Gretchen Rubin defines the Four Tendencies on her blog to speak for itself.  She sums up the Four Tendencies like this:

    • “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”

    If it is not obvious to you which category you fall into, I would encourage you to take the free quiz on Rubin’s website. If you’re anything like me, you will not only have a revelations about yourself, but you’ll start guessing what tendency the key people in your life fall into.

    I didn’t just listen to the podcast. I got Rubin’s book, signed up for her Four Tendencies online course, and downloaded her Better app. I swam in the Four Tendencies content.

    I’m a Gretchen Rubin Obliger – a superstar at meeting expectations of others, lousy at fulfilling my personal goals

    I am solidly an Obliger.  There was something very freeing about having it acknowledged externally. It wasn’t that I didn’t have willpower, it’s that I am wired to be good at meeting external expectations and pretty awful at meeting inner ones. I thought that if I can find a level of acceptance with this idea, it could be a game changer. 

    And, guess what Rubin says Obligers need to change behavior? External accountability. Shout out to my sister for picking up on this without having even read the book.  I suspect the fact that she is 15 years my senior and a self-aware Obliger, she has learned how to work within the tendency.

    I started brainstorming to figure out different external accountability measures to see what might work best for me to meet the goals that I have. I thought about how this can play into various parts of my life—as a therapist, an employee, a mother, a wife, a friend and all the roles in my life. Most importantly, I thought about it in terms of finding greater contentment and living on my own terms. I made a shift away from fighting my nature, which always left me sitting in some negative self-talk and engage in self-care efforts that actually worked against me . I became empowered to move toward a life that was truly in line with my values.

    Are working moms socialized to be Obligers and is this detrimental to our work-life balance, mental health, and encourage burnout?

    how working moms are socialized to do it all until burnout

    What occurred to me in this process is that the working moms I know, regardless of their tendency are socialized to be Obligers. It’s all about putting the needs (and expectations) of others in front of our inner needs and expectations.

    Now, of course, your natural tendencies will still shine through. Questioner working moms will likely collect data and create effective systems for work-life balance.  Upholder working moms will be reliably thorough and conscientious at both home and work. And Rebel working moms will be creative and authentic in their parenting and work lives.

    But it’s the highly committed, responsive Obliger tendencies that spill over into the social narrative of what a working mom is supposed to be. As Anne Kenny and Natalie Tulsiani reported, moms are expected to do double duty and make sacrifices at work. The viral post about society’s expectations of working moms highlighted how working moms are supposed to do conform to this idea of what working moms should be doing – essentially it’s a societal expectation that moms be Obligers and that Obligers will be praised more than the other tendencies.

    Rubin repeatedly speaks about how Obligers are by far the most common tendency. If you’re not an Obliger yourself, you certainly know one. So, whether you are an Obliger, are confused by Obligers or agree with me that we as working moms are socialized to be Obligers, I hope the following list will be helpful.

    How to harness the Obliger tendency (and/or support other women and working moms in your life with an Obliger tendency) to prevent burnout and overwhelm

    1. Accept the strengths and weaknesses of Obligers

    Like every tendency there are strengths and challenges. Obligers are often excellent team players and bosses, reliable, go above and beyond for others and are responsible. However, because of the focus on external expectations, they often have trouble saying no, may be taken advantage of, and can even build resentment to others.

    It can be difficult for Obligers to ask for help, so even admitting their weaknesses can be challenging. From personal experience, I repeatedly fall into the trap of trying to push myself into being an Upholder. Setting internal expectations and making plans convincing myself that this time I’ve figured out the trick to stay on track. But without external accountability the follow through rarely, if ever, happens.

    By accepting the strengths and weaknesses you can work within them instead of fighting again them.

    2. Set up external accountability to improve your mental load and prevent burnout

    Yes, I’m starting to sound like a broken record on this, but this has been such a huge learning during the past year.

    For me (and many working moms), I felt like I didn’t need to ask for help, that I could manage everything on my own, and if I couldn’t than that’s a failure on my fact. That somehow by needing an external deadline or system, I was being weak or burdening others.

    But, I’ve learned some things that have helped me move past my hesitations. First, external accountability isn’t typically a burden to others. In fact, if it makes it easier for you to get things done, it often eases the load on others. For example, at work, I send a weekly email to my boss letting her know how many clients I saw that week, the status of my paperwork, and progress on any projects I’m a part of. She gets a clear sense on where I’m at and can help me not take on so much, as well as having an employee who is productive and not heading down the road to burnout.

    Second, external accountability doesn’t always need to be someone you know (or even an actual person at all). It can include, reminder apps, online accountability groups, or even thinking in terms of supporting your “future self”. Get creative and take the chance to get external support.

    3. Working moms and Obligers need to master the art of delegation

    working moms need to delegate for better work life balance

    This is a huge challenge for Obligers. You know who else struggles with this? Yep—working moms. We’re trying to be superstars in work and at home. In many households the moms have trouble relinquishing responsibilities (from packing lunches to bedtime routine) because they have a set way they want to do it and have made the expectations on them personal. Many working moms get in their heads that there is no such thing as work-life balance. They have a love-hate relationship with their mental load, and feeling overwhelmed becomes a default.

    What if you could give yourself permission to ask for help? Find tasks at work and at home that either you can detach some investment in and/or recognize that maybe you’re not actually the best person for the job. For example, my husband is way better/calmer at giving the kids baths than I am, so guess who’s in charge of bath time now?

    This could come in many forms, hiring someone to help out with household tasks, getting a personal assistant at work, or simply saying “no” more often. I say simply, but let’s face it “no” is one of the hardest words for working moms and Obligers to say. I’ll save that for another post.

    Make delegation your friend, recognize that your time is valuable and it’s OK to focus on what you want to do and what you’re best at and let go of the rest.

    4. Watch for exploitation

    OK, I guess I will talk a bit more in this post about saying “no”. Working moms and Obligers are both notorious for keeping up the appearance of “doing it all” and just taking care of things. Rubin’s quote for Obligers is “You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me.” This can become a viscous cycle. If you’re the person that both at work and at home that becomes the “go to” problem solver and task completer, you will inevitably will have more tasks on your plate than you could ever accomplish.

    People of other tendencies will assume if you can’t do it you’ll say no, but we’re not named Obligers by accident. “No” is not a common word in our vocabulary, so as a result whether intentionally or not other people will exploit an Obliger’s willingness to help.

    I can’t tell you the number of times my children run past my husband to ask me a question or to do something that my husband could easily have done. I don’t think my children are exploiting me in a deliberate way. I have “taught” them that “mommy will drop everything for your needs”. My husband has taught them, “I will help you with your needs, but sometimes you will need to be patient”. It has taken deliberate practice on my part to say no and send them to their dad in efforts to “re-teach” them (and me!) that I’m not the immediate solution for every concern.

    This extends to so many areas of my life. Dropping everything if my husband has a question about something, being the “go to” at work if a task needs to be done. If you always say yes, people will keep asking more of you. Can you blame them?

    working mom rebellion derailing work-life balance

    I’m not trying to blame the victim here. At the same time “you teach people how to treat you” (that is the one and only time you will hear me quote Dr. Phil). If you want to be treated differently, then behave differently. Pay attention to where you are consenting to your own exploitation and find ways to move away from it. 

    5. Look for warning signs of Obliger rebellion (or working mom rebellion)

    Rubin points out a further pattern of Obligers that can really be a cautionary tale. If you ignore points 1-4 above, you’re bound to get into a period of Obliger rebellion, or what I like to call the “Fuck its” (excuse my crude language, but sometimes only an F-bomb will do).

    Do you feel balanced or struggling to get it all done?

     Can't find time for your kids, your work, your spouse, or yourself? 

    You don't need to live like this - you can have so much more balance.


    Grab the free guide to get started with 3 simple steps to improve your work-life balance 

      We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
      Powered By ConvertKit

      According to Rubin: “if they feel overwhelmed by external pressure, Obligers may meet, meet, meet an expectation, then suddenly reach a point of Obliger-rebellion, when they simply refuse to meet it—often dramatically and without warning.” This can play out in many ways, in varying degrees of self-destructiveness. From failing to return a phone call to quitting a long-term job. The bigger the rebellion the more severe and longer-term the consequences are. It’s less about the action itself and more about what’s driving the action. If something feels like “the last straw”, it’s probably Obliger Rebellion.

      If you are able to recognize signs and triggers of Obliger rebellion (or Working-Mom rebellion—not sure that term exists, but it should), you can minimize the fallout. I think it’s important to recognize the feelings that are arising for you when needing to complete a task, if you’re feeling an increasing sense or frustration, overwhelm, shame, guilt, or impatience you may be heading toward a rebellion.

      The solution? See steps 1-4 and beef up your self-care efforts.   

       So, whether you’re an Obliger or a working-mom feeling pressured by vast external expectations, there are ways to let go of some of your mental load, improve your self-acceptance, and find greater work-life balance through these 5 steps:

      1.      Accept the strengths and weaknesses of Obligers

      2.      Set up external accountability to improve your mental load and prevent burnout

      3.      Working moms and Obligers need to master the art of delegation

      4.      Watch for exploitation

      5.      Look for warning signs of Obliger rebellion (or working mom rebellion)

      Which of the 4 tendencies are you? Do you have any tips or tricks to help out other working moms?

      Good luck!