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Bank Teller Lines, Type A Behavior, Self-monitoring, and Prayer

November 25, 2013

If self-awareness and self-understanding  are the beginning of positive behavioral change for those with Type A behavioral pattern, the next step on the way to better physical, psychological, and as we shall see, spiritual health is self-monitoring. In much the same way that anger doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a complex interaction between inner states, idiosyncratic ideas about how things should be, and external situations, so in the case of the Type A behavioral pattern, there are discrete stages that lead to that behavior. A thought related to goals or time crosses the threshold of the mind, the person entertains it, accepts it, and then the cranks that start up the engine of Type A behavior begin to turn until the person with a one track mind can be as out of control as a runaway train not only with tensed muscles and rising blood pressure, but also with festering impatience and escalating irritation.

This is why self-monitoring is so crucial. It is precisely at the level of thoughts that Type A must be acknowledged and monitored. In their work, “Reducing Type A Behavior Patterns,” Bracke Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.01.02 PMand Thoresen provide an example of how this self-monitoring works: “Derived from behavioral research on self-monitoring (Thoresen & Mahoney, 1974), the Type A self-monitor procedure was developed to help participants detach from the personal distress in a situation by refocusing their attention more objectively on the occurrence of distress itself. For example, when a person impatiently waits in a slow bank line, the person may start criticizing the incompetence of the teller or the bank’s deplorable understaffing. The self-monitor would ideally intervene with the awareness of the hypercritical and impatient feelings and suggest that patience, rather than criticism, is a more desirable response. The self-monitor might, for example, note that ‘waiting in line gives me the opportunity to reflect on some interesting thing I could do this weekend or could remind me to observe specific Type A signs of others waiting in line or relax.’ Essentially, the person develops metacognition, an observing and more objective ‘third person’ perspective, one that optimally provides an intimate awareness of the participant’s emotional responses, fears, and rationalizations, as well as behaviors (Powell & Thoresen, 1987).” Bracke and Thoresen further recommend that frustrating situations like waiting in the bank teller line should be brought to a group therapy session where the triggers of anger and impatience are acknowledged and seen as natural, but ultimately unhealthy, manifestations of TABP.

The fathers would offer similar counsel, but deepen it by reference to the spiritual dimension of our reactions, the spiritual opportunities inherent in difficult situations, and the spiritual aim of our lives as a whole. First of all, they would agree with the idea of monitoring self, although they would use the term watchfulness (νήψις). Saint Augustine taught that Christ “became the way calling us back to introspection and advising us about what we should seek from God. He also advised us to notice the way thoughts react to each other initiating an impulsive wave that we can, nevertheless, go around by choosing what is true” (Homily on Psalm 78). Secondly, they would note that anger and impatience are natural reactions only within the context of the fall. In the context of the abundant life to which Christ calls us, they are manifestations of the passions in need of healing by a more intimate union with our Lord. Concerning impatience, Saint Gregory writes, “Since they fail to bridle their spirit… they rush down a steep slope leading them unintentionally into iniquity, for tempestuousness drives the mind to places that would not attract the desire. And though perturbed in ignorance, they later grieve in knowledge” (The Book of the Pastoral Rule, part 3, chapter 9). Concerning anger, Saint John Chrysostom warns, “If we are to have boldness before God, we must flee from wrath, so that no one will be able to construe our words as being the result of anger, for no matter how right your words may be, when you speak in anger, you ruin everything…” (Homily 16 on Acts 7). In other words, impatience and anger are not problems just because they cause our blood pressure to rise and harm our relationship with others, but also because the passions, and not the incompetence of others or delays they cause, are the real obstacles, not for achieving passing goals, but for reaching our ultimate aim, union with God.

While cognitive therapists rely primarily on metacognition to bring about a change in maladaptive behavior, the fathers place their hope and trust first and foremost in the God of their heart. Elder Paisios once remarked, “Divine grace cannot act where there is no struggle against passions. We need to cleanse our soul from passions. The more the person cleanses himself, the more the Divine grace acts in him. One depends on the other. When the person is cleansed from passions, then he can see both: the Divine grace and the fulfillment of what Christ has promised us.” This again stresses the importance and the reality of synergy in a Christian understanding of healing and health.

Saint Paul once wrote to the Ephesians, “Look then carefully how ye walk, not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:15-17). Certainly, people with a Type A pattern of behavior can understand this passage, for they naturally have a sense of the need to redeem the time, but unfortunately the reason to do so is often misdirected to achieving materialistic aims or receiving the praise of others. If they would but redeem the time as Saint Paul taught for the sake of their souls and the Christian life, a marvelous transformation can take place in their lives. Then, their very Type A tendencies could push them on, not to high blood pressure, but to the very heights of heaven.

When waiting in a long line at the bank, rather than mulling over what you won’t be able to get done or getting irritated by someone dawdling at the teller’s counter, it would be so much more beneficial to see this time as a gift from God. Of course, you can use the cognitive strategy of saying, “Ah yes, impatience is not in my best interest, I will be patient” or start thinking about monasticismrelaxing on the weekend, but I think the ascetic fathers show us an even better way. You can use this opportunity to stop and pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Or you can even pray for the souls ahead of you in line who may be in need of your prayer. And each time a distracting thought of impatience or anger bubbles to the surface, you gently and slowly return your focus to the Jesus Prayer, saying it slowly and with compunction. With the grace of God, you might even find yourself grateful for the opportunity to slow down and tend to your soul. In this way, you not only reduce the negative effects of Type A behavior, but also make use of the Type A drive to approach God and your ultimate goal of union with Him.

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