I have a confession: I am an Obliger. And if you’re reading this, you’re likely one too. We are the people who “have trouble saying no,” says author Gretchen Rubin, a writer whose special subjects are human nature and happiness. She’s over from New York to publicise her book, The Four Tendencies (Two Roads).
Obligers find it easy to do what other people request and expect. This Christmas, I’m living proof of that. I am buying 99 per cent of the presents my husband and I are giving. I filled in a form promising I’d make a cake for the school Christmas fête and ran out of time. I’ve cancelled two long-standing fun lunches due to deadlines and I’m thinking about cancelling some evenings too – I can’t afford an unproductive hangover day.
In Rubin’s framework, people divide into four types: the Obliger, and then the Questioner, Rebel and Upholder. (You can take the quiz at gretchenrubin.com, to find out who you are). Your tendency is in no way a picture of your whole personality. Just because I’m an Obliger, she says, doesn’t mean I can’t be successful, ambitious or happy (phew). Shoshanna in Girls is an Obliger character, but Oprah is too.
What your tendency can do, is reveal the hidden patterns behind why you – or your partner, sibling, friend, parent or child – can get some things done, but not others. “And how to manage other people better,” says Rubin.
According to Rubin, the other three tendencies are less likely to get into a Christmas pickle than an Obliger. The Upholder does what others expect in as far as what she wants to: her presents are already under the tree but, if she’s tired, she’s in bed. A Questioner will investigate and decide the most efficient way to spend her time and money at Christmas. And a Rebel? “She does exactly what she wants to do in her own way,” says Rubin.
All you need, to say no and manage your load, is some outer accountability – that is something or somebody outside your own free will
If you’re an Obliger, you may have even reached the “Obliger rebellion” point of Christmas, a place of “deep anger and burnout”. “Obligers will meet, meet, meet, meet expectations and then suddenly snap,” says Rubin. It’s true: every year, I lose the plot in December, what with the Ocado order, running out of wrapping paper/tape/patience, the guilt of unreturned Çhristmas cards, the nativity play, and what to do with all the bloody recycling that piles up from all the parcels I’ve ordered. Oh, and work of course.
But you don't have to go into meltdown. All you need, to say no and manage your load, is some outer accountability – that is something or somebody outside your own free will. Here are Rubin’s Say No strategies:
Play for time
If you’re asked to do yet another job – order the turkey, pick up a relative from the airport, be in charge of a joint present – stall for time. “On the spot it’s very hard not to say yes. Say, oh I need to think it over or let me check my schedule or I’ll get back to you. Give yourself a little moment to work yourself up to resist that expectation.”
Question the expectation
Do you really need to make cranberry sauce from scratch or cake for the school fair? “This is an interesting thing about Obligers, they often feel like certain tasks cannot be delegated,” says Rubin. What’s wrong with Ocean Spray? And does the school really want the cake, or would they be happy with the money? “You don’t have to give a lot of explanations, you can just say: ‘I’m not able to do that, given my schedule.’”
Think about the trade-off
You cannot do everything you’re asked. Think: if I say yes to this, I’m going to have to say no to somebody else. Say, “You might want me to come to this Christmas party but if say yes to you, I’ll have to say no to my family and they were really looking forward to having a quiet night when we were going to bake gingerbread cookies.”
How will your future self feel?
Create a future you to be your gatekeeper now. Future You is going to be really disappointed/angry if Now You agrees to do a job she hasn’t got time for.
Ask a loved one
What would your mum advise? Or a friend or sibling or partner? Ask them. If you can’t, then think yourself into their mindset. “A friend realised she could always spend money at the holidays on her husband and two children but not on herself. Now, what she thinks is: if my mother were alive, she would buy it for me,” says Rubin. “Or maybe your mother would say, you need to take a little time off work, you’re too tired.”
Find a partner in virtue
If you’re going out for dinner in a group, team up with someone else who doesn’t want to overdrink. “Say, ‘I know we’re going to go out with these eight people, and they love to buy bottles of wine but you and I, we’re not going to drink, right?’”