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Free-floating Hostility and Type A Behavior

October 30, 2013

In a letter to the Abbess Felicitas, Blessed Augustine once wrote, “For as vinegar corrodes a vessel if it remain long in it, so anger corrodes the heart if it is cherished till the next day” (Letter 210). Although the Saint was speaking metaphorically, it turns out that his words can be taken quite literally as well. Free-floating hostility is an empirically identified character trait in the Type A behavior pattern leading to heart disease. It is also intertwined with the topic of the last blog post concerning time urgency. In their work, “Empirical Basis for Cardiac Psychology”, authors Robert Allan and Stephen Scheidt note that the “two major symptoms of TABP are time urgency and free-floating hostility.” This brings to mind Saint John Chrysostom’s remark that “as time passes, the tension of anger relaxes” (Homily on those who had not attended the assembly), which could be translated into the language of modern science as “when time urgency is absent, free-floating hostility decreases.”

Free-floating hostility is not necessarily causally connected to any event or circumstance. Rather, it is a chronic attitude toward people, places, and things that is typified by an adversarial stance. Blessed Augustine’s correspondence again provides an apt description of this free-floating hostility as “a tumultuous eagerness to take out of the way those things that restrict our freedom of action. Thus, we usually vent our anger not only on other people, but also on objects such as the pen with which we write, damaging it or breaking it in our passion; and so does the gambler with his dice, the artist with his pencil, and every person with the instrument that he may be using, if he thinks that he is in some way being thwarted by it” (Letter 9).

Allen and Scheidt speculate that free-floating hostility stems from a “lack of unconditional love during childhood because of parental overemphasis on accomplishment.” If the authors are correct in their analysis of the origins of free-floating hostility, a person exhibiting TABP equates success with accomplishments. In such a dynamic, self-esteem and self-worth are intimately connected to getting things done regardless of the cost, rather than to being made in the image of God Who loves us since the foundation of the world. Hostility manifests itself because accomplishments are not so much related to the task at hand as to the self-esteem and self-worth that are perceived to underlie the successful completion of a task or a goal. In most instances, the connection between self-worth, self-esteem and goals is not conscious and remains latent unless a therapeutic intervention successfully makes the connection between the two. It is common for such a person to be unaware of their hostile attitude or outbursts of anger. Even when these are acknowledged the source of the hostility and anger remain a mystery. Unless such behavior is challenged and brought to the conscious level, the hostility continues unabated. Allan and Scheidt write that, “typically a success cannot be savored for long but leads to a new round of challenges that are ‘bigger and better’. Ultimately, time urgency, hyperaggressiveness, and free-floating hostility become pervasive, leading to a deterioration of personality and exhaustion. It is hypothesized that the pathophysiological process accompanying the chronic Type A accelerate artherogenesis, leading to premature CHD [coronary heart disease] over the course of several decades.”

In addition to the physiological damage such behavior produces, there is profound psychological, social and spiritual harm done. Free-floating anger is a poison on many levels. In The Institutes , Saint John Cassian provides the following analysis by reflecting on scriptural verses on anger: “The deadly poison of anger has to be utterly rooted out from the inmost corners of our soul. For as long as this remains in our hearts, and blinds with its hurtful darkness the eye of the soul, we can neither acquire right Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 12.18.29 PMjudgment and discretion, nor gain the insight that stems from an honest gaze, or ripeness of counsel, nor can we be partakers of life, or retentive of righteousness, or even have the capacity for spiritual and true light: ‘for,’ says one, ‘my eye is disturbed by reason of anger.’ Nor can we become partakers of wisdom, even though we are considered wise by universal consent, for ‘anger rests in the bosom of fools.’ Nor can we even attain immortal life, although we are accounted prudent in the opinion of everybody, for ‘anger destroys even the prudent.’ Nor shall we be able with clear judgment of heart to secure the controlling power of righteousness, even though we are reckoned perfect and holy in the estimation of all men, for ‘the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God’ (James 1:20). Nor can we by any possibility acquire that esteem and honor which is so frequently seen even in worldly people, even though we are thought noble and honorable through the privileges of birth, because ‘an angry man is dishonored.’ Nor again can we secure any ripeness of counsel, even though we appear to be weighty, and endowed with the utmost knowledge; because ‘an angry man acts without counsel.’ Nor can we be free from dangerous disturbances, nor be without sin, even though no sort of disturbances be brought upon us by others; because ‘a passionate man engenders quarrels, but an angry man digs up sins’” (Book VIII, chapter 1).

Free-floating hostility damages not only the arteries in the body, but also the very fabric of the soul. When free-floating hostility runs rampant, it harms us on every level. Psychologically, free-floating hostility leaves us blinded, disturbed, and unable to be honest with ourselves. Socially, it causes us to get labeled by others as argumentative fault-finders and to feel as though others disrespect us and don’t appreciate our efforts. And spiritually, free-floating hostility prevents us from walking in the paths of righteousness, leaving us to wander along dark paths without the light of God. Indeed, the fathers correctly recognize the mortal harm caused by anger. The relationship between anger, free-floating hostility, and time-urgency as well as the toll it exacts have been well documented in scientific literature since the 1950’s. Yet, the most penetrating question concerning this issue was posed in the Gospel by the Lord Himself, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

  1. Margaret permalink

    Thank you for this insight. Is there a recommendation on how to deal with “free floating hostility” because you mention even when the behavior is acknowledged this way of living and interacting can continue? Does this have to be treated by a professional psychologist? Of course I have had some relief with prayer and worship, especially since becoming Orthodox Christian. For example, can outdoor work or work different from vocation help a person to stop living in free floating hostility and the anger and time-urgency that are often found with it? I’m concerned that the chosen vocation practiced for the last 30 years is one that involves daily negotiation and arguing on a certain level.

    • Thank you, Margaret, for your comments and your excellent questions. Acknowledgement is an important starting point, but changes in behavior, thought, the way we look at others, the way we look at ourselves, and the way we look to God are needed for more lasting relief. A professional psychologist can be helpful with some of these issues. Likewise, concrete, specific guidance of a spiritual father can help form another mindset, the mind of Christ, that looks at life from another calmer, more hopeful, and more forgiving vantage point.

      Your own suggestions are certainly helpful. Both fathers and psychologists note the importance of one’s environment and recognize that changes in environment bring about changes in people. Monks are monks by virtue of living in monasteries. Outside of monasteries for a sufficient time period, and they will differ from others mainly by their garb.

      In the upcoming posts, God willing, I intend to speak about what can be done to help move in a direction of equanimity and patience, the opposites of free floating hostility and time-urgency. So, for the time being, a little patience and more suggestions will come.

  2. Margaret permalink

    Thank you for your reply! I look forward to reading more and continue to pray. God is good!

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