Part Three: The Upholder

by | Jan 23, 2018 | Blog Posts, Goal Setting, Lessons from Books, Uncategorized | 2 comments

I have some friends who have always mystified meHow do they always seem to get everything done?

One of my oldest, dearest friends is a talented playwright…

She’s always carved out time to write, even when she was just starting off and hadn’t had any plays produced. She now works full-time as a university professor and has a dear husband and two tiny children. Still, no matter how busy her life gets, if she tells herself that she’s going to write at 6am or 6pm, she’ll sit down at her desk and she’ll focus during that time. Her unwavering commitment to the time she sets aside for herself is mind-boggling to Obliger-me.

She’s equally good at meeting external expectations, which has helped her succeed in academic settings, full of assignments and deadlines, her whole life.

Another dear friend works at a very high level for a major corporation…

In her spare time, she’s hands-on renovating a huge old house, along with her husband. While I have had a burnt-out lightbulb in my closet for about a month, this friend has kept plowing through her to-do list, steadily creating a lovely home with the most thoughtful design details.

Again, in addition to consistently meeting her own internal expectations, she’s equally good at meeting external ones. For example, when a bestie asks her to host a shower, it’ll look like a magazine spread and it’ll be a day that friend will always remember.

After reading The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, I finally understand these two friends.

They’re Upholders.


This is Part Three of a special series on Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies.

What’s an Upholder?

Upholders respond to both internal and external expectations.

If an Upholder wants to practice the piano, or do Whole 30, or run five miles everyday at 6am, an Upholder will.

If an Upholder’s boss asks for an assignment by Friday at 5pm, it’ll be in their inbox then. If another parent asks an Upholder to bring a treat to the little league party, there will be a plate of nut-free cookies on that folding table.

As an Obliger, I think it sounds amazing to be an Upholder.

Gretchen Rubin, who’s herself an Upholder, writes: “Because Upholders easily meet both outer and inner expectations, they rarely suffer from resentment or burnout, and they don’t depend on others to motivate or supervise them. While their discipline may make them appear rigid to others, Upholders themselves feel free, effective, and independent.”

She does talk about about a few challenges of being an Upholder. For example…

  • The rest of us can be frustrating to Upholders. “Upholders sometimes become impatient – or even disdainful – when people reject expectations (Rebels), can’t impose expectations on themselves (Obligers), or question expectations (Questioners).”
  • It can be difficult for Upholders to delegate.
  • Upholders may feel like they have to follow rules, even when the rules make no sense.
  • It can be hard for them to “go with the flow” when plans change.

As an Obliger learning about Upholders, those challenges seemed like no big deal. I still wanted to be one.

You can imagine that I was floored when one of my clients let out a huge sigh and bemoaned being an Upholder.

According to him, there are so many internal and external expectations, all of which he wants to meet. It can feel relentless and never-ending. It can be hard to ever relax.

When he put it like that, my envy went away.

Just like with Obligers and Questioners, there are challenges to being an Upholder (that can likewise be side-stepped with understanding).


There are Upholders that lean towards being Questioners and there are Upholders that lean towards being Obligers.

From conversations with them, I think one of the biggest challenges of being an Upholder (especially an Upholder that leans towards Obliger) is that it can be hard to distinguish between inner and outer expectations.

Case in point, I asked an Upholder for an example of an external expectation she meets.

“I’m up reviewing the 2018 financial plan before my grandmother’s viewing today even though my boss told me not to bother. Ironically, I remember doing the 2010 plan while my father was getting his liver transplant. I just can’t leave my team hanging….”

It’s really interesting that she thought that was an example of an external expectation…even though she wrote that her boss had told her not to bother.

She was frustrated that she was working while out-of-town for her grandmother’s services. As we talked more, it became clear that she was actually working because of her own internal expectations. When she realized that, she was able to give herself permission to take a step back this week.

Remember when we talked about Obliger-rebellion in Part 1? Upholders/Obligers can also hit a breaking point.

Upholders, when you’re feeling the pressure of all those expectations on you, how can you consider which are internal and which are external, which are really important to you to meet, and which you might let go of for now?

Being an Upholder can be fantastic.

~ If you tell yourself you want to learn a new instrument, cut out carbs, or run a marathon, you can depend on you.

~ If your family, co-worker, or community asks something of you, they can depend on you.

That said, no one can do everything for everyone (including themselves) all the time.

Upholders, when all of those expectations start to pile up, how can you cut yourself some slack?

In cutting yourself some slack every once in a while (and perhaps considering some boundaries, self-care, and self-compassion), you’ll actually be able to thrive more as an Upholder in the long-run.


Want to revisit the first two Tendencies? Click to read about Obligers (Part 1) and Questioners (Part 2).

Next week, we’ll look at the fourth tendency, the Rebel. (I’m excited for one of my Rebel clients to write for it.)

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  1. I am in a relationship with a lovely woman that has really strong Upholder tendencies. Makes list of things that need to be done every day and gets everything done always. The problem I am facing is that anything that is not on the list is immediately not important to her. That behavior feels to me a bit selfish and self-centered and when one is a relationship there should be some flexibility. My question is what ways have you found to try to induce some this flexibility from your upholder friends without making them bemoan the disturbance of their plans and to-do-lists? I am genuinely grateful for my girlfriend’s upholder personality cause it can make both of our lives more organized and structured (I am an obliger) so I want to change how I frame things rather than trying to make her less of an upholder.

    • Hi Elias. Thanks for your comment. I love the framework of the Tendencies, but it’s the only useful tool for looking at things. Have you thought much about your Core Values? What’s most important to you? What’s most important to your girlfriend? Is it possible that some of the frustration stems from a feeling that she’s not respecting or honoring your Core Values? (If you’re not sure what I mean, google core values and you’ll find some good posts. One of these days, I’ll write one!) 🙂


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