Ignatian Spirituality and the Type A Personality

IgnatianSpiritualityFindingGodInAllThings2

One of the great things about blogging over the last six months, is that I have had the pleasure of virtually “meeting” a lot of interesting people. One of the blogs I follow is Ancient Christian Wisdom, a site run by Fr. Alexis Trader. Fr. Alexis has an interesting background in faith and science. Fr. Alexis is a chemist who became an Orthodox Christian monk. Later, Fr. Alexis also obtained a Ph.D. in psychology and has published a book on the intersection of psychology and ancient Christian wisdom. You can find his full biography here. According to Fr. Alexis, the purpose of his blog is to:

“use both my scientific background and my faith for a common aim: to lead a healthy life for the mind, for the heart, and for the soul. For the purpose of the blog, I try to take what is the best that science can presently offer using the consensual criteria of science on the one hand, and then the sanctifying truth of Christian revelation as understood by those who have lived the faith wholeheartedly on the other.”

Fr. Alexis’ extensive training in chemistry and psychology as well as his vocation as an Orthodox Christian monk presents a fair amount of common ground with the purposes of this blog. As such, I was very interested when Fr. Alexis started a series on spirituality and the Type A personality. For me, the interest was more than an academic exercise as I am a hard-core Type A personality.

According to Wikipedia, the Type A personality is

” ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status conscious, can be sensitive, truthful, impatient, always try to help others, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, proactive, and obsessed with time management. People with Type <!–aA personalities are often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.–>

In his 1996 book, Type A Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment,  Friedman suggests that Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.”

Yes, that describes me fairly accurately. Fr. Trader goes on to expand on this description with even less flattering terms:

“[T]hose who exhibit this type of behavior tend to have issues with time, people and events. . .  [T]hese persons view the passage of time, the presence of others, and the unexpected interruptions of occurrences as enemies and obstructions to personal fulfillment. In fact, time, people, and events are secondary to the fulfillment of personal goals, however small and ultimately trivial those goals may be. Time becomes “my time” and such persons might be overheard saying, “My time is precious, don’t waste my time.” People become a means to an end so that others are not appreciated for their intrinsic value as icons of the living God, but rather as “what can you do for me in order for me to accomplish my goals?” The logic is my goals determine your value in my mind. And even events, parsed into my events and not my events, are perceived as always within the scope of control of the individual who does not like surprises.”

Ouch! This makes me sound pathological. Looking to bolster my self-esteem and for a little support, I asked my wife to read the descriptions, knowing that she would come to my defense. Instead, she simply smiled a mischievous smile and nodded her head :-). Double ouch!!

It took more no more than a few seconds to realized that the diagnosis above is true in my case. Moreover, it helped put some of the events of the last five years of my life in perspective. For most of my 30’s, I was exhibiting the actions described by Fr. Alexis. I was outwardly successful in many areas (career, family, financial security) but my soul was paying a high price. I was focusing solely on myself and isolating myself from others (God was not even in the picture at the time). Not surprisingly, despite my apparent “success” I was becoming increasingly angry and unhappy.

It was during this period that I rediscovered Ignatian Spirituality. One of the themes of Ignatian Spirituality is that we can discern God’s will by deep self-reflection and prayer and by listening to our thoughts and feelings during prayer. Fr. Trader also emphasizes the need for self-reflection:

“A good starting point for those with (and without!) Type A behavior would be the Socratic “know thyself.” The ancient Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, wrote, “We have received a mind, that we may know what we do. And the maxim ‘Know thyself’ means here to know for what we are born. And we are born to obey the commandments, if we choose to be willing to be saved” (Stromata, Book VI, chapter 3). Elsewhere he explains that “know thyself” means to know “in whose image you are fashioned; and what is your nature, and what is your creation, and what is your relation to God” (Stromata, Book V, chapter 4). This knowledge has a calming effect on the soul, for the soul knows that she can place her trust in a loving God Who arranges all things for her ultimate salvation. This knowledge further reveals that low self-esteem is not based on the bedrock truth of being created in the image and likeness of the Creator, but on the whisperings of the enemies of the human soul. This knowledge finally changes the way the soul looks at others, they become brothers and sisters also made in God’s image, also made for freedom, also made for paradise, and ends each of them in their own right.”

Fr. Trader, coming from the Orthodox tradition, does not mention Ignatian Spirituality, but the prescription of “knowing thyself” is a crucial component to a healthy spirituality and a healthy person. Ignatian Spirituality, especially the Examen and the annual retreats, has been instrumental in helping me better understand myself and refocusing my energies away from my selfish desires and towards God and others.

Further, I want to be clear that despite some of the negative stereotypes about Type A personalities I am very proud to be one because that is the way God made me 🙂 Moreover, I work around a lot of Type A personalities and I enjoy their energy and commitment to make things better. Many of the people who have made significant contributions to society and the Church have been Type A personalities (St. PaulSt. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Ávila come to mind). Ignatian Spirituality was developed by a Type A personality (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The key for Type A personalities (or anyone) is to have a a healthy balance in the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual components of one’s life. For me, Ignatian Spirituality helps me to discern God’s will and find that balance.

What is your personality type? Are you a Type A personality? Do you live with or work with a Type A personality? What spiritual practices do you recommend to Type A personalities? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

Set forth below are links to Fr. Alexis’ blogposts on the Type A personality:

Introduction: Type A Personality
An Initial Sketch of a Type A Behavior and a Needed Change in Perspective

Self-knowledge, Free Will, and Type A Personality
Hostility, Anger, and the Type A Personality
Materialism and the Type A Personality
Type A Behavior and the Need for Control
Bank Teller Lines, Type A Behavior, Self-Monitoring and Prayer
From Type A Personality to Christian Convictions: Inner Changes That Lead to Peace
Monitoring Self to Modify Type A Behavior
Type A Behavior and the Answers of Poets and Ascetics

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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14 Responses to Ignatian Spirituality and the Type A Personality

  1. I’m never really any good at pin-pointing one ‘type’ of anything. But I had a laugh at the comment about your wife nodding in agreement with Wikipedia. 🙂

  2. gtrudelle says:

    Much like you, I am a stereotypical Type A personality. Reading the wikipedia definition was cringe inducing as it makes us sound difficult, to say the least. Yet before this I had never thought about how being Type A relates to my faith and spirituality. With a bit of reflection, this is what I’ve noticed: my sense of impatience is huge and may well be the biggest threat to my spiritual growth. This is why this past year I have made an effort to combat this tendency. For example, if I’m reading scripture or theology I don’t allow myself to read more than a chapter or two in a sitting. This doesn’t always happen but I try. The other thing I’ve just noticed is how I use my sense of organization and discipline. While some people may like a more free and loose faith, I find I flourish within some kind of structure. I set aside time everyday that is specifically devoted to nurturing my soul and reminding myself who I really am and to whom I belong, as Fr. Trader says.
    This was such a great piece. Food for thought, indeed.

    • Thank you for sharing. My impatience is a big obstacle to my spiritual life also. I am often too much in a hurry that I often overlook opportunities to grow closer to God or others. In order to help me, I have put the Patience Prayer by Teilhard de Chardin on our refrigerator as a reminder. Likewise, I flourish with structure in prayer life (like most other aspects of my life). I have a daily prayer routine that helps to nourish me.

      Thank you again for sharing and I look forward to your developing blog.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  3. time for a confession–me too

    • Interesting. I would not have guessed it but upon reflection I probably should have. I was interpreting your amazing artistic ability through my wife’s (very much a Type B personality) similar ability and drawing a connection of artists –> Type B (I work around a lot of Type As but not many artists).

      Of course, I should have known better from the amazing energy you have in your life as well as your discipline in posting every day at approximately the same time (perhaps like me with multiple blogs in the que for future days) :-).

      Have a great week my friend.

      • In a lot of ways I am a type A personality but not as far as being a part of the rising to the top mentality. I never cared to be a ladder climber. In fact I was never one for advanced degrees or seeking administrative posts which seems inevitable for the long term dedicated teaching lot. I have always leaned towards being selfish with my time—and juggling my time—doing the best I could as wife, mother, teacher–balancing all three equally. But that is not to say I am not driven, just in a different capacity.
        I am very time oriented with punctuality being keen. I am ordered, as things must flow smoothly and I work to make it so—I am not one to deviate from the course at hand–as there must be plans,reservations, schedules–not being one for spontaneity.
        I am not an artist type of personality. I really don’t get along with artists as they are too laid back for my tastes. I also tend to be too conservative for the artsy crowd. My many principals always thought I should have been an English teacher as I did not fit the bill as an art teacher. 🙂
        If I was still teaching, I would have been posting each day around 6 AM but I gave up the alarm clock when I retired, so somewhere now between 7:30 and 8 AM, in pjs with coffee in hand….;)
        My husband calls me the little general as I tend to run a tight ship—my way or the highway—and that comes for being in the classroom for far too long…..:)
        Mix a pitcher of my apple sours using the simple syrup for you and your wife and enjoy a relaxing evening William!! 🙂

  4. William,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for your gracious comments about my blog series and for your own musings on Type-A behavior. Yes, we do have a good deal in common in terms of interests. I too have some Type-A traits such as time urgency that twenty-five years of being a monastic have not yet excised. Your wife’s reaction was priceless as was your own response. Humor itself is a wonderful healing approach for those who are Type-A. I especially appreciate your positive, grateful attitude about being Type-A. The world really does need Type-A people, especially when they turn all their Type-A energy towards God.

    Your article is a very nice piece, intertwining the personal, the scientific, and the religious, a wonderful mix. Thank you.

    Fr. Alexis

  5. Henry Jekyll says:

    Hi William, this is a particularly thought provoking post. I’m curious about your opinions on the following question regarding personality types. What part do you think reinforcement that is construed as positive contributes to repetition of particular behaviors that fall under the umbrella of a particular personality type? For example, if your dedication to work and organization had not led to “positive” rewards or reinforcement, or if your desire to help others had been met with contempt and hostility, do you think you would have likely continued to manifest an embracing of those particular qualities? If there’s any validity to this, then the idea of pre-determined personality types loses credibility.
    Ah well, just wanted to get your opinion. Great post nonetheless.

    • Great question. It is one that is far beyond my knowledge and experience to answer with a high degree of confidence but I will share my own anecdotal experiences. In summary, I believe you correct that external feedback from others affect our personality. I believe that we are born with certain personality types and tendencies but these can be molded and shaped based on praise / criticism from others. I also believe that other factors such as gender, birth order, etc. contribute to personality as well.

      In my own experience, as a child I had loving parents who highly valued both hard work and service to others. As such both my two brothers and I had similar feedbacks. My personality type was more geared toward the feedback of the former and I tended in that direction. In contrast my two younger brothers (one three years younger and one 12 years younger, so it was like having a younger brother and an only child) are more service-oriented than me.

      As a father of two boys (ages 9 and 6) these issues are important. I find it fascinating that they have very different personality and what works for one does not work for the other. I have had conversations with a child psychologist who said that the key formative years are between ages 4-7 and the teenage years.

      I am very interested on your perspective on these topics as you likely have more experience and knowledge in this area than I do.

  6. Henry Jekyll says:

    I think the personal understanding of these things is often the only reliable one as generalizations often tend to reduce the infinitely complex into a finite analysis. So I assign the most weight to the analysis as relayed by the experiencer and avoid the psycho-analysis that’s applied across populations. That being said, I like your conclusion and tend to agree. It seems that society rewards or punishes the inherent characteristics that we often possess. Sometimes however, I think this external suppression of our individuality or forced display contrary to our natures often yields negative reverberations within the psyche.

  7. GWS says:

    God did make you and all of us. However we have the choice to change and become his servant more like Jesus and remove the obstacles we have within us. God wants those who make this choice freely.

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