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Type A Behavior and the Need for Control

November 18, 2013

In the previous posts on Type A behavior pattern (TABP), I’ve written about the outward behaviors characteristic of this pattern. In this post, I will examine one of the principal factors related to TABP: the need for control. In his doctoral dissertation, “Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Type A Behavior,” the author notes, “Overall, type A individuals exhibit achievement-striving, hostility, competitiveness, and time urgency in an attempt to exert control over events they cannot control (Bingham & Hailey, 1989; Koivula & Hassmen, 1998; Prkachin & Harvey, 1988; Rosenman, 1978; Strube & Werner, 1985).”

For the Type A individual, control is thought to be within the scope of achievement and is tantamount to mastery over self, others, and situations. When the individual fails to exert control over these aspects of life, as he or she ultimately will, the realization of failure does not lead to the recognition that some things in life—in fact, most things—are beyond one’s sphere of control and influence. Instead, failure in control compels Type A individuals to re-double their efforts to achieve the control that they equate with success. Sorensen concludes, “Type A individuals have a tendency to attribute their successes to internal rather than external factors. This leaves their fate within their conscious control, placing more pressure on themselves than if it were left to fate,” or to put it in explicitly Christian terms, placing more pressure on themselves than if their lives were also in the providential hands of God.

This need for absolute control and the belief that one’s self-worth derives from the level of their success and achievement fuels Type A behavior.  According to Sorensen, “Control theory states that Type A individuals are driven by a desire to control their surroundings (Glass, 1977a; Glass 1977b). The striving for control creates the need for the Type A behaviors.” The ensuing destructive behavior, of which I’ve written in previous posts, is only intensified as Type A individuals are cornered into confronting situations in which control is not possible. If this impasse is not dealt with in a healthy fashion, Type A people may spiral into further destructive behavior, further alienating themselves from family, friends, and colleagues.

For Christians with Type A behavioral patterns, the core message of the Gospel challenges this control-oriented way of relating to themselves, the world, and others. When the message sinks in that God is ultimately in control and that their very salvation is achieved not by their own efforts alone, but by working with God and trusting in His mercy, they are forced to recognize a conflict between their faith and their way of life. At this point, they can either seek help or deny the validity of the Gospel message. This can prove to be a harrowing moment in the life of the Type A person. On the one hand, his Type A “self” tells him, “You must work harder, you must achieve.” On the other hand, Christ, the Lord and Master of the Universe beckons him, “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on [all basic activities that we can and do control]. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature [that is, who can control one’s height]? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin [they don’t control, they simply drink from the rainwater and light of heaven]: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek, for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

For the Type A individual, these words of the Lord Christ must be as terrifying as stepping out from the confines of a small boat into a raging sea with winds blowing and the waves cresting. Yet, the truth of the matter presents the beautiful irony of the Gospel: by losing your life, you gain it. By relinquishing the control you thought you had, you gain serenity, peace, and the promise of a new life. This is a comparable scenario to the one involving the alcoholic who comes to recognize that a power greater than self can restore sanity. While not all addicts exhibit Type A behavior, they share the same issues concerning the need for control and both groups would do well to live according to Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change [and cannot control!]; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it [through all my efforts to control]; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.”

Individualistic control and a self-centered desire to control every aspect of life is an unfortunate byproduct of the Fall and a separation from the source of life. As a result, we live our lives believing we are the sole masters of our own destiny when in truth we are capable of controlling very little. Elder Paisios once wrote, “We must not despair when we struggle and continuously see nothing but the slightest progress. We all do nearly nothing—some a little more, some a little less. When Christ sees our little effort, He gives us an analogous token; and so our ‘nearly nothing’ becomes valuable, and we can see a little progress. For this reason we must not despair, but hope in God.” Rather than seeking more control, the ancient fathers sought to please God knowing full well they were capable of little, but He is capable of much, and together miracles do happen. This conviction increased their hope and trust in God who rewarded their faith and humility. They lived their lives in a joyful sorrow, recognizing that God is the source of their lives, their repentance, and their joy.

By taking “no thought for tomorrow,” the fathers would place God in control of their lives and in this way become unencumbered and winged for flight.” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on Matthew). They knew full well that the tendency to control everything, especially those things beyond our control, just creates needless anxiety. That is why Saint John Chrysostom taught, “So let’s not be anxious, since we won’t gain anything from it other than tormenting ourselves. After all, He gives to us when we worry and when we do not, especially when we do not. What do you gain from anxiety other than needless punishment? Someone going to a lavish banquet doesn’t let himself worry about food, nor does someone going to a fountain worry about drinking. Since God’s providence is richer than innumerable banquets and flows more surely than any fountain, let us not be beggars or of small mind” (Homily 22 on Matthew). Trying to control everything and everyone is a small-minded way of dealing with the expanses of life that blinds us to opportunities to draw closer to God and neighbor through fulfilling Christ’s commandments. The Gospel calls us to open our hearts to God and to let Him guide us. That can only happen when we begin to trust more in Him, less in ourselves, and view success not in terms of what we do, but who we are in every moment by virtue of our prayerful reliance on God.

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