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Type A Behavior and Recognizing Our Emotions

November 13, 2013

emotional-intelligence-background-concept-19491000Setting worthy goals and achieving them are important aspects of a healthy and fulfilling life. Letting those goals and their achievement consume us, however, can actually make us less alive, less aware, and less compassionate with ourselves and with others. In the past posts, we have noted that chronic Type A personalities view people, places, and things as obstacles to overcome in their pursuit of goals. Maintaining this stance towards life not only means that we may not be able to hear others and respond to them properly, but also that we may not even be able to hear ourselves and respond to our own needs.

In their desire to achieve more and more, those with a Type A personality behavioral pattern will often forego physical and emotional needs in order to achieve a goal or accomplish a task that is identified with their value and self-worth. They may be tired, stressed, and overworked, but they keep pushing onward, ignoring or minimalizing high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, or the possibility of lurking coronary artery disease. In such instances, their physical welfare is secondary to the acquisition of their goals. Unfortunately, this is an accepted and often lauded prioritization of values. It can be seen in these slogans so popular today such as “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” or “Pain is weakness leaving the body” and “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Such catchphrases serve to reinforce that the successful person is someone who puts aside personal and physical welfare to achieve a goal.

Yet, adopting this popular mindset can have a devastating effect on our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. When such a modus operandi becomes a way of life, we become so estranged from our own selves that we fail to recognize the cues and warning signals that our minds and our bodies spontaneously produce. We don’t have the time, or for that matter the desire, to consider how we feel or what we feel. Such introspection and self-awareness is just another obstacle to be brushed away or sacrificed on the altar of material success and social status upon which contemporary society places such a premium. If physical and emotional pain is the price one must pay in order to succeed, isn’t it best to suppress it, ignore it, and pretend it’s not there in order to get what one wants?

We all know the answer to that question. It’s ultimately not worth it. It is also not what faith teaches us. The psalmist instructs us, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him” (Psalm 62:8). To pour our heart, however, requires that we allow ourselves to experience what we feel and express it in prayer to God. Saint Augustine likewise spoke of the need to express emotions, noting the powerful change that is possible when done in the presence of those who “rejoice with them that rejoice, but also weep with them that weep.” He writes, “the effect is that rough things become smooth, heavy burdens are lightened, and difficulties vanquished most wonderfully” (Letter 130). In Scripture and in the Fathers’ writings, it is a given that people feel, know what they feel, and bring their feelings to God in prayer. Today, none of these givens are to be taken for granted.

Happily, some educators and business leaders are considering the importance of emotional intelligence and the role social-emotional learning plays in a well-rounded individual. This month, Forbes Magazine devoted an article to the subject. The Forbes article quoted meQ’s Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté, PhD , who noted, “What matters most in terms of success is emotional intelligence, an awareness of the emotional state of oneself and others and how to harness that knowledge to achieve.” The Forbes article also recognizes the fundamental role thoughts play in one’s emotional life. “If you want to boost your EQ, you need to get to the root of it all: Your thoughts. As Andrew Shatte says, ‘Thoughts determine emotions.’”

Dr. Shatte points to a core principle of the ancient fathers who saw awareness of the thoughts, especially thoughts with emotional content, as integral to growth in the spiritual life. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza reminds us of the importance of introspection and awareness of our condition: “Let each one find out about his own condition, the state of his soul. A man is in one of three conditions: that of giving free reign to his passions or that of checking them or that of uprooting them. In the first he indulges his passions and gives in to vice; in the second he neither indulges his passions nor cuts them off completely but disputes with them and turns them back but allows them to remain inside him; in the third he is working to root them out and he struggles with them and acts contrary to them.” In a state of giving free reign to one’s passions, one neither recognizes them, nor names them, but lives without using one’s emotional intelligence. In a state of checking them, one recognizes them and names them, demonstrating some emotional intelligence, but does not release them. In the third state, one recognizes them, one names them, and one releases them by turning to God and choosing “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations are our natural warning signs that the direction of our life may be askew. We all need to learn not only how to “discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3), but also the signs of our bodies and our souls. They are indications to us of God’s loving care providentially woven into the very structure of our bodies and souls. Learning to recognize those signs and respond to them in a compassionate way can be a first step in learning to hear the voice of God who reminds us “Fear ye not, therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). It can be the beginning of a new way of living and a new way of being that not only brings better physical health, but also better emotional well being, so that we can all the better serve God and neighbor.

  1. Shelley (macrina) permalink

    Father Alexis,
    Father Bless!
    I’ve been following your blog for awhile now and I can’t express to you how much I’ve gained from this latest series on type A personality. I was vaguely aware that I was like this before, but now I see that this personality type is deeply entrenched in me. I treat everyone in my life as an obstacle in the way of a completed task. I teach college English part-time and homeschool our son and I do everything with great efficiency, but to the detriment of real intimacy and any depth of spiritual life. Here is my question: when I’ve turned towards deepening my spiritual life in the past, as a type A, I treat it like everything else, as another checklist to be completed; like another achievement to be accomplished. In the past, this has been a recipe for disaster. So as of late, my spiritual life has been minimal, just Church on Sundays but not really present when there. I have your book – I’ve just started it. I also have the Elder Paisios book of yours, and I own Wounded by Love. Would any of these books help in this arena? Should there be other books I look towards? I’ve printed out some of your posts here to help me and read over and over. Thank you. Thank you. This blog has been such a blessing.
    In Christ,

  2. Macrina,

    May the Lord God bless you, guide you, and grant you His peace!

    Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. They are a comfort. Your comments also show that while we may have certain behavioral patterns, we are all so much more than them and have the capacity to rise above them. And that is an encouraging thought.

    I also thank you for your excellent question. The spiritual life has to do with praxis and theoria: doing and seeing. The checklist approach might help with the doing part, but not with seeing, perceiving, and being. For those with type A behavioral tendencies, a certain emphasis needs to be gently shifted to seeing, perceiving, and being, without neglecting the doing part for which Type A personalities have a natural aptitude. For example, if one keeps an oil lamp burning night and day before the icons. It is good to light the lamp carefully, lovingly, and prayerfully with a sense of gratitude for the gift of oil, for the gift of flax, and for the gift of light. It is good to be aware of what one is doing, why one is doing it, and how the heart experiences the doing of it. It is good to move with a certain openness and freshness: to look to the icon, to venerate it, and to say what one’s heart wants to say or just to look, to watch, to be in its presence with gratitude, peace, and hope. This quiet, humble piety needs to become a fragrance that imbues one’s prayers as well as all the other aspects of one’s spiritual life in the form of Christian ascetic endeavor and virtues manifesting the life of Christ in the world. The emphasis is also best placed on the quality rather than the quantity, without getting frustrated for not being what we would like to be, but with a sense that Christ came for sinners of whom we are first. For further guidance in terms of books, some of the Russian Orthodox Saints, such as Saint Theophan the Recluse, can prove to be helpful.

    In Christ,

    Fr. Alexis

  3. Shelley (macrina) permalink

    Thank you, Father. This has been most helpful. A revelation to me really, the thought of “quality rather than quantity” and “moving with a certain openness and freshness.”
    With gratitude,

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