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Changing Unwanted Aspects of Type A Behavior through Self-awareness, Stillness, and Repentance

November 21, 2013

Many persons who are characterized with Type A behavior patterns spend so much of their mental and physical resources on getting ahead and accomplishing their goals that they have little time or energy left to devote to their inner lives. For this reason, they often lack a certain self-awareness or self-understanding that manifests itself in their inability to curb their behavior or at least modify it in order to live not only a productive life, but also a healthy one in body and spirit.

This is why self-awareness and self-understanding become focal points for therapeutic self-discovery and healing in the treatment of coronary patients with Type A behavior patterns. In their study, “Reducing Type A Behavior Patterns: A Structured Group Approach,” authors Paul E. Bracke and Carl E. Thorsesen write, “More than most people, those with TABP seem to have lost much of their innate ability to be subjectively aware of themselves (i.e., to know what’s going on within and around themselves). The most serious consequence of this loss is that participants too often direct their lives in mindless attempts to please, impress, or protect themselves from others. Many participants have chronically ignored their feelings (e.g., exhaustion, insecurity, and loneliness) in order to strive aggressively for more professional status and economic gain.”

Self-awareness requires quiet time alone, moments of self-reflection, and a capacity to be quiet in the presence others. For the fathers, this practice of stillness was by no means a self-centered reflection, but a calming of the mind and body so that the soul could be purified and eventually illumined by God. Self-awareness for them is always related to their relationship with God. Thus, Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 11.46.03 AMSaint Seraphim of Sarov counseled his spiritual children, “If you do not understand yourself, can you reason about anything else and teach others? Be silent, be ceaselessly silent; keep always in mind the presence of God and His name. Enter into conversation with no-one, but by every means guard against judging those who speak much or laugh. Be in this case deaf and dumb; no matter what may be said about you, let it pass by your ears. As your example you can take Saint Stephen the New whose prayer was ceaseless, his disposition meek, his mouth silent, his heart humble, his spirit filled with tender feeling (umileniye), his body and soul pure…whose true poverty and non-acquisitiveness were unmurmuring, his obedience thorough, his execution patient and his labor diligent.” Being silent, physically and mentally, as well as refraining from judging the behavior of others can soften the heart that has been hardened from a Type A approach to others and reshape it with shining virtues, worthy aims, and holy ideals that conform, not to a personal self-aggrandizing agenda, but to the very image of God who humbled himself and became a vulnerable human being for our sakes and teaching us to rely on Him, ever mindful of Saint Paul’s words “my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Of course, those who believe that their self-worth is ultimately connected to the esteem and regard of others will no doubt find the words of the fathers about fostering a humble spirit to be hard to accept, or at least impractical and unrealistic. In order to acquire professional success, a trade-off is required, or so it seems. Personal health for the sake of professional status and gain is often the contractual bargain Type A persons willingly sign in order to fill the deep inner void, but this quid pro quo is ultimately unsatisfying and leads to physical, emotional, and spiritual damage that is difficult to overcome. As Thoresen notes, awareness of the problem is the first step in overcoming destructive TABP behavior. Denial is the greatest initial obstacle in dealing with TABP and it is recommended by therapists including Thoresen that group therapy be explored in order to confront and break down the denial.

“Without an accurate and reliable awareness of their own TAB, participants are seriously hampered in making informed and healthier choices about how they respond to the situations they encounter. The cultural glamour sometimes associated with TAB can be eliminated by reducing TABP to its essential features and effects. To do this, the acronym ‘AIAI’ (anger, irritation, aggravation, impatience) was created to facilitate a greater awareness of the actual nature and consequences of TABP.” Recognizing AIAI as passions can further help one become humble and repentant. There are also a variety of therapeutic interventions as well of patristic counsels that can be employed for dealing with anger that I have covered in a previous blog series on that subject.

While secular therapy recommendations are helpful to a degree in addressing the consequences of TABP, they generally do not address the deep-seated spiritual issues at the heart of TABP. The core belief that self-worth is derived from the esteem of others and that material success and that prosperity are key to a positive view of the self are at the crux of the problem. These distorted views on self and on life must be dealt with on a spiritual level if lasting peace and change are to occur. Saint Macarius the Great noted the path of those who seek to change in his Spiritual Homilies, “If a city has been laid waste, and one wishes to rebuild it, he at once demolishes completely the things that are ruinous and fallen, and so begins to dig and lay his foundations where he dug, and to carry up the building, though there is as yet no house; and he who wishes to make a pleasure garden in a waste, ill-smelling place begins first to clean it up, and to make a fence round it, and to prepare water-courses, and then he plants, and the plants grow, that thus after a long time the garden may bear fruit; so the purposes of men since the fall are dried up, laid waste, and thorny. God said to the man, ‘Thorns and thistles shall the earth bring forth to thee.’ There is need, therefore, of much toil and labor, for a man to seek and lay up the foundation, till fire shall come into men’s hearts, and shall begin to clear off the thorns, and so they begin to be sanctified, glorifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit forever” (Homily 15, paragraph 53).

Perhaps a good place to start is with a prayerful recitation of Psalm 51. In this beautiful psalm of repentance, the Psalmist humbly acknowledges his condition before God while simultaneously placing his faith and hope in God for deliverance and healing. This psalm is not a morose recitation of one’s failings, but an awareness that our heart’s desires and our mind’s schemes can lead us to looking at others as means for our selfish satisfaction or as obstacles to be disposed of much in the way David’s lust led him both to sin with Bathsheba and to cause her husband, Uriah the 6a00d8345168f369e2010536a27267970c-320wiHittite, to be killed. Allowing such desires and schemes to drive us, as they do with Type A behavior, darkens our hearts, estranges us from our neighbor, and ultimately severs our connection with God. And so the psalm awakens an awareness of ourselves, our actions, and our ultimate calling that can make us contrite, humble, and still. And in that humble, contrite stillness, we see, strangely enough, that God still loves us regardless of our sins and certainly regardless of our earthly success and material possessions. And although we begin this psalm of repentance with sobering self-awareness, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3), our souls soon take flight with sacred aims and accomplishments worthy of pursuit with God’s help as we say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me with Thy governing Spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12). This is the fundamental change a person suffering as a result of TABP behavior needs in order to get well: a clean heart, the presence of God, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the joy of salvation. Once aware of God’s abiding love and presence, once the eyes of the heart are purified to see life differently, once the Holy Spirit can be felt crying “Abba” within the heart, the need for self-affirmation through the recognition of others dissipates and those things and situations once believed to be crucial are revealed to be shadows no longer worth chasing. Then, in place of TABP behavior, the soul is filled with boundless gratitude towards God and like David the ancient prophet and King, cries out with one final prayer: “Lord open my lips and I will declare thy praise” (Psalm 51:15).

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