The Journey From Type A to Namaste
A reluctant traveler’s observations
I. Being Type A
Me: “Hey, we’ve all got our problems. I just happen to be addicted to working!”
Sammy: “Yeah, but you get rewarded for your addictions!”
And therein lies the dichotomy of having a “Type A” personality. It can be a relentless, never-satisfied, always-more-to-do way to live, but it can also lead to an exhilarating sense of accomplishment, validation and pride that is hard not to like. What do you do when the balance of the weight of being a Type A personality begins to shift, and it’s clear that a need for a change to a more peaceful and centered way of being is in order? Saying that it is a difficult life transition to make is an understatement.
It’s highly likely that you’ve heard someone use the term “Type A” to refer to themselves or another person at some point in time. You might have made some assumptions about what that term means, and whether it is being used as a compliment or a criticism of that person. It’s worth exploring further. Whether you are someone with a Type A personality, or you live or work with one, understanding what the motivating factors for a Type A personality are can making living with the person much easier.
Most of us know someone who has energy to spare, who gets more done in a day than three average people, and seems to never be satisfied with their long list of recent accomplishments. They tend to also have an idea of exactly how things should look and don’t have a lot of patience in waiting to see things play out according to their vision. They move fast, they think fast, and their minds and bodies can seem to be in constant motion. They can be exhilarating individuals to be around and yet at the same time, exhausting to observe. In the best sense, they are someone you want on your team because they “get shit done”, but they can also be restless, impatient, and never satisfied.
The motivation behind all of this activity and accomplishment is as individual as the person. Some people with Type A behavior patterns are simply highly motivated, high energy individuals who seek to get the most out of each day, and make a mark on the world while doing it. In other cases, a Type A person is driven by a sense of gratitude and a feeling of needing to give back, but often their actions actually comes from a place of guilt for abundance they feel unworthy of. They can also be acting from a place of low self-worth, and a need to feel better about themselves through the acknowledgements that come from their accomplishments. Regardless of the specifics, there is generally a desire or even need for external activity and validation rather than being fully satisfied with an inner peace grounded in simply being.
The theory of Type A and Type B personality types was originally identified in the 1950s by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman1 as part of a study that speculated on the coronary risk factors associated with different personality types. While their theory was largely proven to not indicate that personality type showed reliable indication toward coronary disease, it did spark discussion in the health psychology field and opened discussions about how mental factors impact physical health. Additional investigations were done into the personality types and traits were further identified and clarified, establishing categorizations that are still referred to today.
A 1996 book by Dr. Friedman2 was the first of a number of papers and publications that began the association of some key behavior identifiers with the Type A personality: 1) quick to anger, 2) impatience, and 3) competitive drive or an achievement-driven mentality. These qualities manifest in different ways, but most Type A individuals, or those around them, report similar patterns of predictable characteristics. These traits are more pronounced and observable in some people versus others, and each person falls on a spectrum or range.
For most of my adult life, I have exhibited many of the qualities of what is commonly called a “Type A” personality: an achiever, a striver, a workaholic, a bit of a perfectionist. My mind works quickly, and I prefer to have as little wasted time in my day as possible. Not all of the Type A behavior patterns are considered particularly flattering, so the challenge for many of us is to stay away from judging ourselves over these patterns. I could pretend that I have not exhibited the qualities of impatience and competitiveness in the past, for example, but there are far too many witnesses for me to be able to get away with that kind of retelling of history. Those of us who exhibit these personality traits just need to observe them and not project anger, shame or guilt on ourselves for having them.
People develop their personality traits for a variety of reasons, including environmental, biological, cultural and social influences. But the most important consideration to idenitfy is which of these patterns and behaviors are enriching your life and which of them might be leading to problems or unintended consequences or complications. Often when things in life are flowing, there is simply no reason to spend the energy changing what are comfortable behaviors. While some people might seek the support of a coach or therapist in anticipation of making sure their life transitions flow smoothly, most don’t necessarily choose to go through the discomfort of identifying and reprogramming well-established behaviors unless absolutely necessary.
So how sustainable are Type A behavior patterns? Many observers wonder how people with these personality traits can keep up the pace of activity that seems to surround them. It can be exhausting to watch. But for the Type A individual, this is often the only way they know how to be. They have developed their routines, habits and self-identity around being a “do-er” and they have come to thrive on the pace and the energy they get from each successive life win or accomplishment. There are times, however, when a change is required, either by choice or by chance. Health issues, aging, life transitions and unforeseen circumstances can force a Type A person to see that change is in order. The real life test comes in making the needed changes.
I once heard a former smoker say that if they could, they would have continued to smoke because they loved everything about it…….the taste, the smell, the routine, how it made them feel. But they knew that at some point, they just couldn’t do it any longer if they wanted to make the most of their life. One of the first times I had to come to that same conclusion was in addressing my former Diet Mountain Dew habit. I used to drink it morning, noon and night. I loved the taste, the carbonation, the sweetness, and how it made me feel. But at some point, I simply had too many related health side effects and I had to make other choices. That doesn’t mean I am happy about being without it, or that I don’t miss it. I do. But it just is a new reality and the downside of choosing to drink it comes with a price that is not worth the temporary satisfaction.
Such is the reluctant traveler’s journey for a Type A personality. Often there comes a point where the need for a change in this way of being becomes clear, and delaying that inevitability requires more energy than it is likely worth. The speed of the transition can vary depending on the reason for the transition. Illness can create an urgency in decision-making that can actually create clarity very quickly. But a person reluctant to make the transition, who is doing it because they “should slow down” is more likely to have a drawn out and challenging experience.
With all due respect to dear friends of mine who have bravely overcome addictions, there is a dynamic of the Type A behavior patterning that is very much like having an addiction. Consider this definition of addictive behavior:
An addictive behavior is a behavior which is both rewarding and reinforcing. It may involve any activity, substance, object, or behavior that becomes the major focus of a person’s life resulting in a physical, mental, and/or social withdrawal from their normal day to day obligations.3
Most people exhibiting Type A behavior patterns would confirm that a key reason that they are reluctant to make any change away from these patterns is that there are rewards that come with them. They regularly have a sense of contributing, giving back, keeping all the balls in the air, and standing out from the crowd. What’s not to like about that? That’s all good, right? Well, those same people would also likely confess that at some point, those behaviors have also meant that they were not physically, mentally or emotionally present at times when they should have been, due to their Type A behaviors. There are ranges of the magnitude of their presence, of course, but to some degree, at some point Type A people have had their focus on something besides the non-work event that they intended to have their focus on. Surely you have seen the soccer parent on the sidelines who was ostensibly on the sidelines watching their children play soccer when in truth they spent the entire time on a phone call or checking e-mails and social media on their phone. If we consider this example without adding the charge of a label of “good” or “bad”, most people would agree that this circumstance repeated over and over would indicate signs of an addictive behavior.
There is always, of course, a reason or story to support justifying this lack of presence. And often those reasons are valid. But if someone truly wants to reflect on whether their Type A patterns are interfering with them living a full life, it requires an honest assessment. Without the ability to step back and observe this behavior with an objective eye, the Type A personality will always have a reason that the patterns should stay the same.
An interesting situation occurs when someone with a Type A tendency (Person A) speaks with a fellow Type A personality (Person B) who is feeling overwhelmed. You will generally see Person A implore Person B to “take it easy”, “don’t take on so much”, or “don’t be so hard on yourself”. The irony is that this is often exactly the advice they have heard from those around them who wish they themselves would slow down. Hello black pot, meet kettle.
But the reality is that modifying behaviors tied to an addiction like those associated with a Type A personality is extremely difficult. These are deeply rooted habits and routines linked very directly to the heart of who the person defines themselves to be. As far as they are concerned, they ARE their accomplishments, they ARE their hectic schedule, and without those qualities that they feel define them, what remains? They have seen the reflection of themselves through activities and when that changes, it can leave them feeling adrift.
Telling a person with long-established Type A behavior patterns to “just slow down, don’t work so hard” is akin to telling someone who has anorexia to “just eat something”. Behind those behaviors can be deep-seated psychological issues and patterning that take more to unravel than that a casual piece of advice. Navigating through the re-setting of Type A habits requires honest self-reflection to identify the true source of the behaviors, and a willingness to achieve real change.
Now, I am the last person you would expect to be writing about making the decision to explore another way of being…..of stepping out of the “work hard” mentality that has defined most of my life. I have made no secret about my love for a fast-paced, connected, active life with lots of work and volunteer commitments. But at some point, time, health and life transitions create an openness for reconsidering what has been. The natural course of life often makes the need for external validation undesirable and even unsustainable. Life leads us to recognize a desire for the true sustainability of internal fulfillment.