‘Obligers’: Lend me your ear… A sort-of New Year Resolution post

Around December or January I usually write a post that’s a bit New Years resolution-y. Not because I necessarily plan to, but because, along with nearly everyone else in the population, it’s that time of year when I’m reflecting on life more than usual (which is saying something, because I’m constantly over-thinking anyway!). The New Year, and my birthday, are particularly angsty times. A year ago, I was angsting about being an obliger. Two years ago, I was angsting about how my resolution to reduce my social media use the year prior to that had been unsuccessful, and I just regurgitated the same resolution. In fact, still constantly working on that one…

Someone recently asked me if I had any resolutions for this year, and I was like, ‘Nah… Not really. There’s things I want to change this year but no particular resolutions.’ Thinking about it later, I realised that I actually do – they just snuck up on me in such an unusually ‘resolved’ way, I hadn’t quite noticed.

In 2017, I allowed my self-worth to get so low, I spent much of the year feeling like a Complete Failure in Life. I lost my sense of purpose and direction, my passion and drive, and I became resigned to being a disappointment to myself. From my backseat, I observed, with depressive mild interest, how other people seemed to be able to Achieve Things in Life. Not helped by recurring sickness, I basically wallowed in various states of (functional) despair, feeling confused and guilty about why I was experiencing this, given I have such a lucky and lovely life.

Looking back, I think my self-discontent started upon confirming that I was an ‘obliger’. Although this is merely a quiz about how we form habits, and it simply confirmed what I already knew about myself, this label was a rude awakening that has since never sat well with me. Canvassing some friends at a BBQ one evening, I was annoyed (at myself) to find I was the only obliger in the group, surrounded by upholders, questioners and rebels. And although receiving this label was enough to help me begin to consciously shift some of my obliging habits, I felt a deeper concern: I wanted to know why I had these people-pleasing tendencies, while others were able to be more self-directed. Eventually, I concluded that it was tied up with my sense of self-worth (and self-love, to be specific).

You know that thing we do, where we only remember the one piece of criticism among 100 compliments? I became stuck here, allowing years of criticism from a minority to worm its way in to my memory and become the way I measured myself. I believed I was shit at my job (and by association, would be at any job I tried). I believed I was boring, had nothing of value to add, and was a generally mediocre human. Listening to a guided meditation about self-love, I burst into tears and started hyperventilating because it was too confronting to listen to (in the car before work no less – I don’t know what I was thinking!). As I’ve tried to crawl out of this space, I’ve had to face some difficult truths about the way I position myself in the world, and within some of my personal relationships.

Having low self-worth and self-love meant I couldn’t distinguish the positive relationships in my life, from the ones that were less balanced, or plain unhealthy. I exhausted myself trying to do my best work to ‘win over’ the co-worker intent on undermining and manipulating everyone else*, as well as from giving and giving and giving and giving [my love/help/time/listening ear/skills/food] to others, some of whom would not reciprocate (to clarify, I mean reciprocate by demonstrating genuine interest and care, not material things). In trying to be there and please everyone, impossibly, I was entirely unsuccessful. In classic obliger style, I burned out, became resentful, and withdrew to be a lump on the couch. Surprise! After all that effort, I wasn’t a very good friend, mum or sister anyway, to the people I care about, and who care about me.

[*Hint: It cannot be done! It is never enough, and they clearly have their own issues to work through.]

I understand now, deep in my soul, that I am the only one who can change how I think about myself. In trying to work on my restoring my self-worth, I’m challenging myself, and holding myself accountable, to doing more of the things that I thought I couldn’t do out of fear. I’m trying to be more proactive about self-care, which includes carving out space for myself: proactive withdrawing to recharge, rather than withdrawing as a response to fatigue (this sounds like one of those things that’s easier said than done).

Further to this, I need to focus more on my personal relationships, and examine how these play out. This has been the single, most painful part for me throughout this time: to see, in some relationships, how this obliging pattern has established an unbalanced dynamic. Once seen, it’s impossible to un-see, and so has to lead to change in one way or another. However, I’m super lucky to have a family who is there for me, supports me, and reminds me of my capabilities (funny, how they are often the ones we still dismiss anyway? Being ‘biased’ and all that). I’m also incredibly grateful to have friends who Show Up: who check in when they think something’s not right and take the time to really listen, who visit or send flowers when I’m in hospital, who eat giant vegan cookies with me, who drive all the way to my end of town to have games nights or paint with my kids, who loan me their terrifying Stephen King books (from their sick beds no less!), who send me emails about sauerkraut, who give me fresh lemongrass from their gardens, and cycle over just to give me a packet of bacon (yes really, and just because bacon is excellent). They’re the ones I know I can trust, who I don’t have to be on my guard with.

Why am I (over)sharing this now? When I started this blog anonymously, I pledged that it would be a place where I was honest. After all, life isn’t all mocha-banana breakfast smoothies. 😉 Having a little distance from it has made it easier to identify and unpack, although it’s still incredibly confronting to think and write about, and to act upon. Additionally, because human conditions are rarely unique, I have to assume that I’m not the only one who feels or has felt this way. Some of my lovely friends are also obligers, and also exhausted most of the time – and all of the obliger-type people I know are women. Coincidence? It does appear that many women and mothers often care for other people before they care for themselves. For obligers, could this also extend to valuing and loving others before we value and love ourselves? I put this idea forward as a question, rather than a theory, and I’m open to suggestions – please let me know what you think, if you like.

Erin xx


  1. Wow Erin this is so raw! … such a great read and thought provoking blog!

    Thank you for sharing and making it feel not such a lonely and scary world out here

  2. I hope that this time next year you can see, what I already know. You are a compassionate, intelligent and articulate women, an amazing mother and someone I am so very proud to call a friend. Rani x

  3. denisewoo says:

    One of the glorious things I’ve found with getting older (50+) is a lot of the soul searching you do earlier in your life becomes rather irrelevant. You are who you are. I still like to take myself out of my comfort zone and do mad things, but my main mantra these days is to be kind. If that makes me an enabler or disabler or obliger or whatever other label someone dreams up, stiff bikkies. Providing I’m kind to everyone around me (particularly my man) and myself, then goodness comes back at you. Means sucking stuff up, biting back a mean retort and telling my mirror image that I’ve still got the goods. Suggest you don’t go too deep into it all – treat yourself and those around you nicely, and you’ll be ok 🙂

    • Erin says:

      Hi Denise,
      Sorry it’s taken me a while (ages!) to reply to your comment, I had to take some time off from blogging after this post. I agree with you about being kind. It’s something I aim for as well, but I think I’ve realised that I also need to be kind to myself, which sometimes means not just sucking it up – expecting more for myself than that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      Erin 🙂

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