Gretchen Rubin’s Rebel, and Identity-Based Motivation
Oh, my lovely Rebels… how often you think you’re Obligers, and you’re really just Rebels in denial.
I should know – I was a misdiagnosed Rebel. I truly thought I was an Upholder. I am “one of those people” who gets things done on time, has intrinsic motivation to spare, and generally meets (or exceeds) expectations.
It was my husband who first said, “No way.” He read my copy of Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies, and shook his head ruefully as he got through the Rebel chapter. “This is totally you,” he pointed out.
(This is also proof that sometimes your spouse knows you better than you know yourself.)
At first, I strongly disagreed. What about my extreme level of responsibility, or my lack of need for people to stand over me to police me? Or – as my mom described it when I was in middle school – “psycho overachieving”?
Over time, however, I realized that he was completely right. I am extremely independent, motivated, and excellence-oriented… but only in areas that I really care about, and sometimes even in a way that could be perceived as contrary or stubborn.
Something that clicked for me when I was realized that I was a Rebel, not an Upholder, is that we Rebels can easily masquerade as other Tendencies, if we’re not aware of our own proclivities. I had seen it in clients, but I finally could see it in myself.
Need a refresher on the Tendencies? You can take the quiz here. I have also written before about the Four Tendencies and fitness, but here’s a quick rundown:
- Upholders respond well to both inner and outer expectations. They often do extremely well with personal training and coaching, because they have that winning combination of intrinsic motivation coupled with responsivity to accountability. Upholders are the type of client that make trainers feel that they are great at their job, because everything seems to happen by magic. The secret is that while Upholders would probably do things on their own, they do better with accountability.
- Questioners respond more strongly to inner expectations than to outer expectations. They also do well in a coaching setting, but they excel the most if they have some degree of flexibility, and will often change things about their program to make it fit their ethos (often without checking). Accountability is far less important to them, and I sometimes find that Questioners commonly communicate less with me than the other Tendencies (as they are not so driven by the desire to please me). The most important thing about their health and wellness is that their routines make sense to them and represent their personal values.
- Obligers are my classic client. Because they respond much better to outer expectations than to inner expectations, they struggle with independent work if they are striking out on their own, but truly shine with structured accountability. They will do the work… but not on their own. They need the help. They love working with a coach, and make fantastic progress when they are supported with specific strategies and goals. They aim to please, and I make very meaningful relationships with my Obliger clients, as the community aspect is one of the most critical keys to success for them.
- Finally, the Rebel is the most difficult to understand, because we Rebels do not respond either to inner or outer expectations. Because we often do not realize that we carry such powerful inner resistance to expectations – even our own – we can easily get stuck. This lack of self-awareness can create a toxic sense of failure, because we set ourselves up for self-sabotage over and over again.
Here’s the problem: a Rebel looks over their personal history, sees the chain of unmet fitness goals and abandoned diets, and reasonably thinks: “I really need someone to hold my feet to the fire and help me stick with something.”
We think – mistakenly – that we need more accountability.
I cannot emphasize how often I see this dynamic, but it often ends in frustration when someone thinks they need more accountability, but they are actually seeking something deeper.
Because guess what Rebels don’t like?
We think we need someone checking in on us… but it has the potential to create a self-destructive loop. When I, as a coach, follow up with a Rebel – who has explicitly expressed a desire for more accountability and feedback – I often get unexpected pushback. We don’t actually want what we think we want.
I have learned that it is not a lack of motivation or desire. We simply have difficulty responding to expectations – even our own. We need to be fueled by something that transcends expectations and accountability.
So what’s the secret lynchpin for Rebels, which will help us manage our distaste for expectations of any kind?
Here’s the question, my dear, frustrated Rebels, that will make all the difference:
“What does this goal mean for your identity?”
You don’t need more accountability. You don’t need more motivation. You don’t need more structure. You don’t need more information. You probably know all the “right” things you should be doing. You just need to get out of your own way, and connect to the big picture of who you are, and own it.
What do your health and fitness routines mean for you? How would achieving these goals represent your deepest values – the core of who you are and what you want the world to be like?
One of the obstacles for a Rebel trying to get healthier or leaner is being presented with goals and strategies that are perfect for most people… but are personally meaningless. Losing a pound a week with a 500-calorie deficit, while gradually stepping up exercise, works great for many people, but it doesn’t give a Rebel significant meaning or sense of identity.
So what confers these magical ingredients? It could be different for different people, but here are a few examples:
- A specific diet that could be unconventional or difficult to follow, requiring you to become an “expert”
- Heavy weightlifting goals that push you to the edge and focus on performance
- Long distance running goals that defy the limitations of the human body
- Events like powerlifting, marathons, triathlons that give you community identity
- Yoga, especially hot yoga or a specific discipline that comes with a corresponding set of principles and practices
Rebels need to latch onto a sense of meaning and identity.
We don’t just “go to yoga.” We practice Ashtanga or Bikram. We don’t just “go for a run.” We run marathons. We don’t just “go to the gym.” We hit PR’s. We don’t just “eat better.” We go keto (or vegan, or raw).
A Rebel needs goals that mean something, not just an abstract goal of “getting healthier” or “feeling better.”
I would also point out that this is partly why Rebels need and benefit from coaching, even though they resist expectations. Sometimes, an expert guide who partners with you to shape your journey can be key in preventing injury and burnout.
Finally, Rebels may not respond positively to expectations, but we do respond dramatically to negative expectations, implicit or explicit.
Consider some common suggestions in our society, that are unspoken (but sometimes inappropriately spoken!) beliefs about weight and athletic performance:
- Weight gain as a part of aging (or having children) is inevitable
- Running (or dance, or gymnastics) isn’t an appropriate goal for a heavier person
- Women shouldn’t do heavy weightlifting
- We are bound by our genetic destiny
- … Or just fill in the blank with any limiting belief that has been imposed on you
Here’s a secret: put a limit on a Rebel, and see what happens next. If that limit is somewhere in the Rebel’s “sweet spot” – something’s that’s personal enough to elicit a visceral “I’ll show them” reaction – a Rebel is one of the most unstoppable forces on earth.
Rebels thrive on “proving them wrong” – defying expectations, breaking stereotypes, and becoming an exception to the rule are all things that put Rebels on a path of long-term success.
When I was getting married, I was also in the process of losing “the Weight” with a capital W – the 50 pounds that I’ve never seen since. I will never forget that one day, a few months before the wedding, an older, overweight colleague (who I did not, by the way, know well) looked me over, and sighed knowingly:
“Oh, I lost weight for my wedding, too.”
It was that knowing, complicit “too” that killed me. I seethed over this for so many reasons. I hated – and still hate – having any kind of assumption made about me. I also resented the suggestion that I was going to gain weight back after the wedding. Finally, I was furious that anyone would be this Johnny Appleseed of discouragement – how dare she go around sowing these beliefs into other people’s minds? Why do people talk to each other this way?
From that place of outrage, I had an epically stubborn “I’ll show them” moment that has now lasted about eight years and fueled a career and literally hundreds of thousands of words in public writing.
My point is that it is 100% OKAY for goals to come from a place of anger. Positive social reform, personal transformations, and other big changes often come from a deep recognition of a lack of rightness, and an inherent belief that we can make it right through ownership, action, and activism. This is where the miracle often happens for the Rebel.
Here are some words straight from self-identified Rebels from Facebook:
I’m totally a Rebel, and it’s been such a help to realize that my identity can be a strength! I’ve started working out at home with YouTube videos from Fitness Blender. Screw going to the gym – it really is possible to be active and eat well without obsessing. That is the type of person I am.” – Michelle
I’m a former ‘fatty’ who lost 90 pounds to ‘show them that I could’ and has become a micro expert in my own little niche of fitness (I powerlift). I was fat, weak and flabby (to be blunt). now I’m slim, muscular and strong. Wanna argue about it?! Haha! Powerlifting started as a total rebel move against all the people that told me that maybe I could take up ‘legs bums and tums’ to maybe get a little bit toned. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted to succeed AND EXCEED mentally and physically. My physical strength matches my mental strength kind of thing. Standard rebel move.” – Rebecca
I HATE accountability (I often say that even the thought of an accountability group gives me hives). From a fitness standpoint, I worked with one trainer who worked really well for me because I need help figuring out what to do in the gym, so having someone there to walk me through a structured workout was really helpful, but I hate assignments and he didn’t give me any (I like “here are some workouts you can do, and modifications you can make to increase/decrease difficulty as needed” as long as I get to decide when to do them. But ‘do this workout three times a week and check in with me’? Nope.). I had another trainer before him that wanted me to set a specific goal for the week and a specific reward that I would get if I completed it. That didn’t work AT ALL.” – Leslie
Learn from these Rebels. Can you line up your health and fitness goals with a problem that you see in the health, fitness, and diet industry? Can you tackle that problem in your own life, your own way? Can you take ownership for it? And – don’t skip this step – can you plug yourself into a community of like-minded people that won’t micromanage you, but will support you and your broader vision for your health and wellness, whether it’s a gym or a coaching community?
These are the first steps to making health and fitness mean something to you, Rebel. I can guarantee you from my own experience that – once that clicks for you – you can transform your chain of false starts into a meaningful lifestyle that will “prove them wrong” for a very long time!