The Gift Of The Right Words

I often describe my poor mental health in my tween/teen years as the fault of not having the language to explain what was going on with me. I don’t know if anyone ever talked about Depression but I know no one talked about Anxiety – and that’s always been the better word to describe what steals my sunshine on many days. 

As I have learned the language around personality and mental health, I have found that a lot of the language I used to use was so very wrong. From age 10’ish to some time in my 30s I used to call myself a Type A person. Mainly because I saw a lot of the products of my anxieties (worry about perfection, worry about order, worry about failure) and felt like they were simply reflective of someone who fell under that Type A umbrella. But the more I went to therapy and the more I deep dove into my own motivations and learning about mental health I realized: Nope. Totally not Type A.

I got to thinking about this again this morning when a friend of mine posted this cartoon on Facebook:

I read this cartoon and was reminded: Oh, yeah. I am very much NOT that person. 

I’ve never been competitive and definitely never been a workaholic but I worry about pleasing people and in many environments, that sometimes gives the appearance of being a workaholic or competitive…at least temporarily…but that does not last long. My motivations for any sort of compulsive – typically Type A behavior – always stem back to me trying to get the approval of someone. 

But that is also often at war over my fear of failure and sometimes the fear of failure drives me to COMPLETE AND TOTAL INACTION which is actually another issue all together.

I remember calling myself Type A to a therapist one time and she shut me dow SO HARD. She told me that Type A Behavior Patterns (TABP) tend to always come back to ACHIEVEMENT of some sort whereas the only thing I’m every trying to ACHIEVE is that people like me. Or, more importantly, that they do not dislike me. Because – to me – someone disliking me is a sign of failure.

I sometimes like to be in control of a situation, or be in charge of projects, or lead groups, and I always used to put that under the “TABP” umbrella. But really it was more about A) wanting to control things which tended to ease my anxiety and B) thinking that leadership positions would make people like me.

I have learned in the last decade that most of the time I do NOT want to be in charge. I do still know that controlling some elements of things does ease my anxiety so I will take control in situations like trip planning or scheduling because it helps me plan for things that might go wrong. BUT, the perfect situation would be to have someone professional do the planning INSTEAD. I’ve always said that I want to go to NYC as part of a Senior Group where someone else plans all the travel and has transportation waiting and tickets purchased and all I have to do is show up and ride a bus.

It’s just amazing how much easier it is to navigate your own mental health once you have the right words and categories for your own behavior. I often find myself stopping now and saying, “Who are you trying to please? Who are you worried you’re going to disappoint?” as a way to dig into some of my behaviors. Whereas before I’d just write some stuff off as, “Oh, Kim…Type A Control Freak.”

But it does seem silly, sometimes. Because I’ll still explain some of my behavior as Type A simply because I relied on it for SO LONG that I have a hard time not using it as a descriptor/explanation. This is even after TWO different therapists have pointed out how FAR FROM THE TRUTH that really is. It’s hard to let go of old language, partly because it’s a quick and easy explanation whereas saying, “I have anxieties and abandonment issues that cause me assign value to the short-term/immediate opinion of others above many other things that I actually value more in the long term” doesn’t quite hit the point home when I’m trying to explain behavior.

2 Comments

  • Colleen

    I agree that having words to describe things can really help with mental health. You’ve taught me words like social anxiety. Before I had those words, people called me shy because I don’t talk a lot, especially in larger groups. I knew i wasn’t shy but I didn’t have the right words. I’ve that my quietness is a mix of being an introvert who is listening and processing and social anxiety over saying the wrong thing/sounding stupid. It does help to have words for it! I’m competitive at times but I don’t think I’m either type A Or B. Maybe something in between?

  • Olivia

    I love the cartoon for type A/B cariacatures. It sounds like you have worked very hard to figure out who you are, what your motivations are, and how to be mentally healthy. It takes a lot of de-programming and introspective thinking to change your mental framework of yourself, and it’s harder the more years you’ve held a false belief. Kudos to you!

    Maybe sometimes striving for achievement IS striving for approval. What if some type A’s are really working hard all the time because winning gets praise and approval, and they feel better about themselves when they achieve because it earned them love in the past? If this association is subconscious, then it can feel like we are achieving for our own self-esteem when really our whole concept of self esteem was built upon early expectations established in childhood that we’ve now weaved into our sense of self-worth which were never our own values to begin with. This has been a topic of my own self-examination of my choice in music as a career field. I’ve realized that many choices I’ve made in music were in an attempt to recreate the praise and I got for being successful as a teenaged musician, and are less related to the enjoyment of the activity itself. As a teenager, I would have called my practice ethic a type-A personality trait, but looking back, the end goal was to win the attention and praise of family and friends for “winning”. My dedication to the trumpet started to wane once I got into a serious relationship with someone who seemed to praise and love me whether or not I worked at music, and I’ve since tried to do some deep self-reflection to figure out what my own interests and values are, and how they are separate from the interests and values I assume for myself in order to win approval. Probably a lifelong endeavor.