Dear Dr. Dan,
The father of my children died of a massive heart attack at age 56. My sons, except for one, realize they must be cautious in their lifestyle, health and nutrition and live accordingly, not haunted by the expectation that their death too will occur at age 56. The sole dissenter exercises religiously and eats well but voices the belief that he, too, will die at age 56. Recently I told him I want him to stop thinking that, or he will die at that age, that he must tell himself he will live to old age. His reply was that he is a Type A personality, as if that dooms him. I replied, “Well, change!” He became angry and said it is not possible because it is in his genes. I did not say anything further but thought, “You do not want to change. Type A involves a controlling personality… People are leery of crossing you because of your reactions… There is power in that.”
Can a person with Type A personality change?
There is some truth in what your son is saying. Some. What puts your son at risk is not his Type A personality, but his anger. According to a study published in the March 16 issue of Circulation, anger and hostility raised men’s risk of atrial fibrillation – an irregular heart rhythm.
But, according to Elaine Eaker, an epidemiologist who directed the study, some Type A characteristics, such as being competitive or feeling that time is of the essence, were not related to atrial fibrillation.
And yes, anger is treatable. The vast majority of people I have treated who have problems with their tempers have done quite well with a combination of antidepressants, psychotherapy and/or stress management techniques such as meditation or yoga.
But your son’s anger isn’t the only problem.
Want to know the worst way to approach an angry person? Get into a battle of wills with them by telling them there is something wrong with them and they must change! Your son may very well be a controller and that could be related to his anger. But judging from your argument with him, please consider the possibility that you are a controller also.
I don’t know about your son, but I would guess that you are arguing because you are frightened that, because of his attitude and his personality, he might die at age 56. First of all, the fact that he thinks he will die at 56 does not mean he will die at 56. The mind is pretty powerful – but with very rare and dramatic exceptions, not that powerful. As a matter of fact, a study recently published in the journal Cancer showed that optimism had no impact on the longevity of nearly 200 people with lung cancer.
But if I were in your shoes, I would be frightened because I love my child so much and I would feel helpless to stop what is potentially life-threatening. There are few things more difficult in life than tolerating our helplessness in the face of a loved one’s suffering. But when we don’t tolerate our helplessness, we inevitably try to change someone else. That never works. Never.
I also wonder if your son is angry because he, too, is frightened about the possibility of his death and feels helpless to stop it. So here are two frightened people who love each other arguing about a superficial point, not the more important underlying issues: love, anxiety, helplessness, life and death.
If the two of you could talk about those issues rather than try to change one another’s behavior, not only would the dialogue be richer, but you and your son would grow closer. You are fighting with your son because you love him so much. If you just let yourself love him, and open the dialogue about your fears and helplessness, he may do the same. Ultimately, the issue boils down to dealing with death. His death, his father’s, and maybe yours.
In the process, please don’t make death the enemy. If you spend too much time fighting with your son to keep him alive, then neither you nor your son will be able to experience the love you have for each other. And isn’t that what life is about anyway?