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Type A Behavior and Self-Criticizing Thoughts: Problem and Potential

December 29, 2013

Self-critical thoughts comprise a two-edged sword that can either lead to self-correction for the sake of a healthier lifestyle or to a deep, morose despondency that envelops the person and all those surrounding with a stagnant gloom. Those thoughts can be a positive force for those striving for perfection, but a negative influence on those who accept them as proof of incompetence, unworthiness, and unloveability. In the case of those with a Type A behavioral style, we encounter a third amalgam that combines both the positive force and the negative influence together. For Type A go-getters, self-criticizing thoughts can often spur them on to try to do more, to accomplish greater things, and to succeed more conspicuously, but unfortunately the thoughts are never dealt with head on or fully resolved. Instead, they smolder within, like monsters lurking in a child’s closet ready to emerge in the dark of night. And so for those with Type A tendencies, self-criticism leads to achievement, but an uncertain and insecure achievement that is often accompanied by hostility, aggression, and a narcissistic attitude toward the world around us.

Those in the throes of unchecked Type A behavior experience self-critical thoughts like everyone else, but rather than accepting a healthy dose of humility and gaining some understanding of their own broken humanity shared with their brothers and sisters, they fight those thoughts, trying to crush, kill, and destroy them by proving them wrong and yet that only increases their hold on them and thus sets in motion a self-perpetuating cycle that can lead to serious physical, psychological, social, and spiritual consequences. That their self-critical thoughts are not handled properly can be seen in Bracke and Thoresen’s observation: “Type A hostility often appears to arise from an excessive sense of entitlement, a hypersensitivity to perceived disapproval, or an exaggerated need for control (Bracke & Bugental 1995; Bugental & Brack 1992; Thoresen & Pattillo 1988).” An over-concern with personal rights to this or that, being touchy, and being a control-freak all indicate that one is ultimately out of control and lacking acceptance of self, acceptance of one’s limitations, and acceptance of others.

Yet, not all self-criticizing thoughts are bad thoughts. And there is yet another option besides despair, besides the Type A amalgam, and even better than a simple course correction down stream. The holy fathers reveal this other more perfect way when they speak about self-critical thoughts leading to repentance and a change of heart. The term they use is self-reproach (αὐτομέψια), which means accepting the blame for one’s wrong actions, a stance that is based on a sense of responsibility before God and before one’s neighbor. The Sacred Scriptures provide us with illumining examples of two very different routes critical thoughts can take.  Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Christ who followed our Lord throughout His earthly ministry is an example of responding to a self-criticizing thought in a way that leads to despondency.  Saint Peter, who also spent the same amount of time with Jesus the Lord, beautifully illustrates for us how a self-critical thought may be grace-filled, illuminating, and lead to repentance.  One could surmise that both Judas and Peter had personality traits that fit the Type A behavioral pattern. Both were given important responsibilities by the Lord Christ and were capable men able to get things done.  Yet, both acted at times in an impetuous fashion.  Both men committed acts of unfaithfulness against the Lord and Master. Yet, only one of them was able to transform his act of betrayal into deep repentance. Both certainly had self-critical thoughts about doing something wrong, but obviously handled that self-critical thought very differently, for Saint Peter continued on to become the chief of the Apostles, while Judas ended up taking his own life.

So, what allowed one man to make beneficial use of the self-criticizing thought and caused the other to be mortally harmed by a similar thought of self-reproach? The key is found in each man’s relationship to and orientation towards Christ Himself.  The Apostle Peter recognized his sin. He allowed his entire being to experience the gravity of his fall that caused him to weep and sob bitterly. And yet in that immense pain, there was a glimmer of hope. He didn’t just look at himself and his failing, he also turned towards His Lord with trust with a full knowledge of His goodness, His love, His forgiveness, and His light. And Saint Peter held together those conflicting states of mourning and hope together, waiting on the Lord and indeed the Lord came to him and restored him. Judas, the erstwhile disciple, on the other hand, continued to rely on himself and on himself alone. He was not willing to experience the pain of his fall, but looked for a way out, his own way out, by doing something else. And that something else was to take his own life. His self-critical thought was his downfall, because he never looked beyond himself to his compassionate Savior.

Whether we can identify with Type A behavior or not, each of us has self-criticizing thoughts from time to time.  How we deal with those thoughts depends upon our relationship with God.  In each of these blog posts on Type A behavior, I’ve noted that change involving the entire person is not possible without a deep and abiding spiritual relationship with God.  Like Peter and Judas, we have choices concerning our self-criticizing thoughts. We can isolate ourselves, become despondent, or prove our thoughts wrong by taking some action. Or we can accept the thought, accept responsibility, and then move forward not alone, but with Christ at our side, trusting in His goodness, His Holiness, His mercy, and His love, to bring about a miracle that no self-criticizing thought can even imagine, becoming like unto Him, in spite of ourselves by the grace of repentance and the wonder of His love.

  1. Ann Kelley permalink

    Thank you Fr Alex, I came upon your website from the OCA website announcing your new book.
    Your comment regarding self-criticizing thoughts was appreciated with reference to Christ’s disciples. Your prescription to seek Christ, and the importance of repentence I could not have agreed with more. I myself suffered greatly with despair for many years and fought the wiles of the devil. It is the church which needs to offer rest and “healing”, to serve as the spiritual hospital; it is the community, we the people who are on staff and maybe we need to be instructed in our role to lead the sick to community in Christ’s Church and to Christ, the Great Physician of all.
    Today much of the world is in need of healing but so many do not know where to find peace, to know Christ, hence themselves. Let us pray as Orthodox Christians, we answer the timeless call to be disciples.
    Christ is Born! Ann

  2. And thank you, Ann, for your kind comments. I couldn’t agree with you more. Psychology offers some great helps up to a point, but then another step needs to be taken and the how-to’s for that step can ultimately be found by taking recourse to the ancient wisdom of those who have attained holiness in Christ’s Holy Church

    Fr. Alexis

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