An Open Letter to ISTJs on the Dangers of Obligation ISTJ

Dear fellow ISTJ,

You and I are not members of a rare personality type. In fact, we’re likely the most common personality type out there, making up about 13 percent of the population. Maybe that’s why we don’t get discussed as often as some of the other types do. Being introverts as well as the sort of people who have our noses to the grindstone 24/7, we don’t feel much impetus to talk about ourselves. But there’s one thing that we really need to address, friend, and that thing is obligation.

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Obligation is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that lurks in our personality profile, where ISTJs are portrayed as loyal, dedicated souls who stick to our word and get the job done. These are wonderful traits that I am proud to be associated with. But I don’t think that the ISTJ descriptions you find online are actually written by ISTJs, because none of them ever address the dark side of those characteristics.

Allow me to explain. As I said before, loyalty and dedication are great. Society needs people who will see any and every task they take on all the way through to completion. The problem is that once we ISTJs give our word, it is very difficult for us to break it. Even if we’ve only promised ourselves something, we have a tough time backing out later. This leads to overscheduling as we try to juggle too many commitments.

The solution might seem obvious. Just say yes to fewer things, right? But it isn’t that easy, because in addition to our steadfastness and perseverance, we ISTJs have an abiding respect for tradition. This means that we see it as our duty to be good citizens. If we have a chance to do something to support our community, our country, or the world as a whole, we feel a moral imperative to do it. The fact that we’re already drowning in other commitments can’t stand up against our sense of obligation.

That’s why it’s so easy for ISTJs to burn out. Even when we run face-first into the obligation wall, we often don’t realize what knocked us down. It can take a very long time for us to accept that we can’t do it all. Once we’ve learned that we still have to figure out how to back out of our current obligations, how to say no to new ones moving forward, and—the toughest hurdle of them all—how not to feel guilty about it.

For ISTJs, Quitting Is an Extreme Last Resort

It has taken me over a decade to move through these simple-sounding steps. Being a good citizen is the central tenet of my family, and that goal was instilled in me from day one. We have a hereditary stubborn streak, too, and quitting is something that is only resorted to in the most extreme cases. These familial traits ramped up my natural tendencies exponentially. I grew up believing that I needed to be the best member of my school and town that I possibly could be, and that backing out of a commitment ran counter to that effort.

By high school I was on the student council, an active member of several student organizations, and the founder of another. When I wasn’t busy with my various societies, I took evening courses at the local community college and worked twenty hours a week. In between all that, I had homework for numerous Advanced Placement classes. My life was scheduled down to the quarter hour—a choice I made myself.

The main reason I said yes to such a laundry list of tasks was my sense of obligation. No Model UN meeting was going to result in peace in the Middle East, but discussing world politics was what good citizens were supposed to do. It would also look good on college applications, and it seemed that everyone who was anyone had gone to a top university. I promised myself that I would join their ranks, and thus compounded my already overburdened sense of obligation.

You can imagine how little time I had for myself. I snatched at the few seconds of solitude I could find, reading between classes and volunteering for solitary tasks at work. Not even home was a refuge, but rather another obligation where I had chores and other family commitments. In short, I was miserable, tired, and desperately in need of some peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I pressed on. I had to; I’d already agreed to all the things I was doing. When I wanted to drop something, I thought of my parents’ disappointment, or of how that one extra activity might be what got me into the Ivy League. I attended club meetings and work shifts with bronchitis and little sleep. Not even spraining my ankle was enough to sideline me. The crutches I should have used for weeks were tossed after six days so I could help prepare for Homecoming. I don’t remember who won that game or what my oh-so-essential tasks were, but every time my improperly healed foot twinges, I remember limping down the halls as fast as I could to get to my next commitment.

And then, after all that, I didn’t get into my top schools. What I got into was the state school 300 miles up the road from home. It was a crushing blow. It was also a wake-up call. I’d exhausted myself, thrown away my teenage years, and for what?

Now I Only Have Three Commitments on my Daily Calendar

I determined to do less and dedicate some time to my own well-being in college. But it’s hard to shun your own personality, and never mind that two decades of habit had reinforced my sense of obligation. I backslid during my university years, filling my time with societies, extra classes, and a full time job instead of the TLC I’d intended to indulge in. My overscheduling wasn’t as bad as it had been in high school, but it was still excessive.

Another wake-up call came when I didn’t get into graduate school. By then I was with my now-husband, and I wanted to give as many hours as possible to him. I began to whittle down my commitments, focusing on what mattered most. It took several years before there were only three things on my daily calendar: work, writing, and my relationship. Now I finally have time for myself, and I am happier than I could have dreamed was possible back when every second of my life was scheduled.

But it’s still not easy. When an opportunity to do more comes up, be it volunteering or attending a gathering at the home of a friend, my first impulse is to say yes. My sense of obligation tries to commandeer my tongue. I still feel like I should fundraise and letter-campaign and go to my extroverted friends’ fetes, even when I know I won’t enjoy it. It still feels like my duty, and I still feel guilt when I finally manage to say no.

If I’ve learned anything through all of this, it’s that the guilt of saying no is much less painful and shorter lived than the guilt of backing out is. Saying no is also the first step to clearing your overbooked calendar. Given time, everything that doesn’t really matter to you will fall away. If you keep filling that empty space with new commitments, though, you’ll never be free to focus on your true cares, your true calling, or yourself. And when it comes down to it, taking care of yourself is the most important obligation you’ll ever have.

Committedly yours,


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