Step Out of the Personality Pigeonhole

I recently heard myself say to a friend, “I’m just such a Type A.” That was code for “I am a perfectionist,” but even as I said it I questioned the truth of it.

I leave dishes in the sink (sometimes for days), I often put my hair up rather than style it, and I’m more interested in trying new things for work than being a career-driven achiever.

That doesn’t sound very Type A, does it? Is there a Type B? And where did this whole system come from anyway?

In the 1950s, cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman revealed that who you are (meaning how you are) has an effect on your likelihood of a future heart attack.

How did they get to this conclusion?

In an episode of their (awesome) Radiolab podcast, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich spoke to neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, who relayed the story told to him by the creator of the theory himself, Meyer Friedman.

The story goes that an upholsterer had to keep coming in and reupholstering the chairs in Friedman and Rosenman’s office waiting room.

One of the upholsterers observed that only the front few inches of the seat and armrests were shredded and said to Friedman, “What’s wrong with your patients? Nobody wears out chairs this way.”

At the time Friedman didn’t register the clue, but a few years later, when their research revealed what he came to call Type A personality, he realized the upholster had been on to something.

A characteristic of Type A personalities is feeling time pressured, impatient, and anxious. People who literally sit and fidget on the edge of their seat.

Friedman and Rosenman described Type A personalities as competitive, self-critical, and hostile. They feel a constant sense of urgency, see the worst in others, think the world is out to get them, and demonstrate a lack of compassion. As high-achieving workaholics, they are career-driven perfectionists. People with these characteristics are, unfortunately, more likely to have a heart attack.

The other end of the spectrum, said Friedmand and Rosenman, is the Type B personality. Type Bs are reflective, collaborative, creative, steady workers who don’t experience stress in the same way as Type As.

Are you Type A or B? Take this quick test.

Originally meant as an indicator of health, not as psychological personality theory, the system has received a lot of criticism from doctors, psychologist, and scientists.

Despite the controversy, Type A entered our everyday language as a shorthand to identify a kind of person. We may find this person slightly annoying, but in this culture we admire them because we evaluate success by accomplishment, regardless of the harm caused. Did you even know there was a Type B? Probably not, because those aren’t the qualities we value.

For those of us who like to think about why we are how we are, this kind of categorization can be fun and help us gain insights about our personality.

But it’s helpful to remember that the world, and especially people, are not black and white. We are not Type A or B. We are a mixture of the two, and even those who spend most of their time on one end of the spectrum will have moments where they act or respond in the opposite way.

Which is why I will always meet a deadline but prefer to spend my vacations on silent retreat. And why I get agitated when others miss deadlines but I choose the non-career path with more long walks in my day.

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” —Jose Ortega y Gasset

Ultimately, I like using these types of personality categorizations as a jumping-off point for curious inquiry into why I act how I act. I like to understand how the person known as Jenn is constructed and to play with the boundaries of that construct so I’m not held back by unexamined beliefs and assumptions about myself.

Why? Because living a curious life is far more interesting than living in a pigeonhole, especially if that hole is a shortcut to a heart attack.


One thought on “Step Out of the Personality Pigeonhole

  1. neeleymain says:

    Well done piece. I used to be a Type A and am transitioning to a Type B. Though, you’re right, I never knew that there was a Type B. I just knew that I no longer wanted to be a Type A. Now I am happier and far less stressed.


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