Until I was in my mid-twenties, I thought that every woman who wasn’t occasionally a quivering mass of emotions was repressing her feelings. I tend to cry frequently and freak out even more often. So I would sit down with my poor sister every few months and try to push all her buttons until she was sad enough to cry.
I really thought I was helping her.
When I finally found out that people are, in fact, different and not everybody needs to be such a basketcase as I am, life started to move more smoothly. It goes along with what I was saying about not judging people–the more we can try to understand people, the better we can love them. I think that learning about different personality types can really help with this.
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert on the temperaments. In fact, most of what I write here I learned from some of my kids, two brilliant girls who explained the whole thing to me when they were in high school.1 So I might be off on some of this, but it doesn’t seem to be an exact science. In any event, I’ve found this system very helpful (and I want to write a post about my struggles with humility which will make more sense if I can refer to my temperament in passing), so I’m going to sketch it out here.
The basic principle behind the temperaments is that there are four major categories that people’s personalities fall into: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine.
Cholerics are passionate and intense. They tend to be extreme in whatever they do and often elbow their way through the crowd to positions of leadership. Bible verse: “Therefore be either cold or hot, for if you are lukewarm I will spit you from my mouth” (Revelation 3:16); The Office character2: terrifying Dwight Schrute, who is more intense about beets than most people are about their eternal salvation.
Phlegmatics are the opposite: more easygoing and relaxed. They tend to be calm, steady, and rational, less driven by passion than their choleric counterparts. Bible verse: “He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it does not fear heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still produces fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8); The Office character: chill Jim Halpert, who barely cracks a smile while encasing everything Dwight owns in jello.
Sanguines tend to be confident and emotionally stable. They’re often characterized as “happy,” but what is most significant is that their emotions tend not to be extreme or to dominate them. Bible verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4); The Office character: Michael Scott, who jokes around even when his heart is breaking and never stays sad for long.
Melancholics, on the other hand, are sensitive, feeling a wide range of emotions very deeply. They are more introspective than sanguines and often have to work through some intense emotional reactions. Bible verse: “Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:6); The Office character: Pam Halpert, who (especially when pregnant) alternates between grinning goofily at Jim and crying over commercials.
Traditionally, people say you have a dominant and a secondary temperament. My girls look at it from a different angle, explaining it like a coordinate plane (ooh, check out my mathy words! I must be so smart.) like so:
Most people just aren’t as monochromatic as a single temperament would suggest. This model gives us the idea of a spectrum between two opposing temperaments and lets you be extreme in two temperaments, as some of us are. Let’s use Winnie the Pooh to illustrate:
So, to make sure we’re all following: Tigger is passionate but unemotional, chipper all the time; Rabbit is just as intense but much more sensitive and more easily upset; Pooh is hard to upset, happy to go with the flow; Eeyore is generally upset but unmotivated to fight anything. Now these four are extremes, all in the corners of the graph. You might be slightly choleric and extremely sanguine or just a little melancholic and a little choleric. Not everybody’s personality is as extreme as mine.
Where do I fit, you ask? Well, if you’ve read more than just this post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m crazy choleric. Here’s how choleric: when I was first learning about all this, my kids told me I was the most choleric person they knew. My response?
“No way! I bet I could list at least 5 people more choleric than me! And I don’t care about everything. Like hockey! I don’t care at all about hockey. I bet I could come up with 20 things I don’t care at all about!”
They just stared at me. “Seriously? Are you trying to prove our point?”
What this means is that I care a lot about just about everything. And learning that I’m the outlier here helped me to understand that when other people don’t care about something that matters to me, it’s not because they need to be inspired to care or they don’t understand how important this is or they’re bad people because THIS IS SO IMPORTANT AND THEY’RE NOT EVEN ANGRY ABOUT THIS TERRIBLE TERRIBLE INJUSTICE!!
See, some people are just phlegmatic. And it’s natural to them, when they care about something, not to have a coronary about it. And that’s good–God knows the world can’t handle many of me without a whole lot of phlegmatics to balance things out. So when people are good Catholics but don’t go to daily Mass ever, it’s not because they love Jesus less than I. It’s because their love of Jesus doesn’t naturally express itself in a commitment to going to daily Mass. And, to be honest, I don’t go to daily Mass because I love Jesus so much. I go because I’m an all-in kind of person. I decided a decade ago that I’d go to Mass every day and it’ll take a lot to change that commitment not because I’m holy but because I’m stubborn and choleric.
There’s a thrill to being as passionate as I am, and I think it enables me to serve the Church in a very particular way, but it can also be exhausting. Plus, when I care so much about everything, life is kind of a roller coaster ride. Before I planted my feet on Christ, I was a hot mess. Praise God for life on the Rock.
What about the x-axis? Oh, so, so melancholic. Those same kids who were explaining this to me were very confused on this one because they’d heard me talk about how a piece of music broke my heart or how peaceful prayer was, but they’d never seen me upset.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Because I don’t cry in front of my students.”
Practically, what this means is that I’m very, very easily hurt. I read way too much into everything and have to spend time in prayer most days taking irrational suffering to Christ to be healed. I’m very sarcastic (choleric) but also crushed–after the fact–by having hurt someone (melancholic). But I’m also able to feel very deeply. My constant and repeated heartbreak gives me a reference point when contemplating the Passion which opens me to contrition that most sanguines will never know. And the deep suffering makes the joy that much more beautiful.
Understanding how melancholic I am has actually made it a lot easier for me to govern my emotions. I thought all through high school that anyone who didn’t return my phone calls was passive-aggressively telling me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I’ve realized since that sanguines just don’t generally have any idea that they’re hurting me. I took being 10 minutes late as an intentional slight when really a sanguine might not notice that he was late. He certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to take offense.
Now, sticking people in boxes is generally not helpful. But it’s been my experience that understanding that other people might view the world in a completely different way from me helps me to love them better. It goes back to walking a mile in another person’s shoes. I can’t at all understand a sanguine phlegmatic (Pooh) until I realize that he doesn’t have to be like me. If Pooh tried to be like Rabbit, the Hundred Acre Wood would be a very unpleasant place.3
The Saints are all over this graph. Cranky St. Jerome was probably a Rabbit,4 but so was fiery St. Teresa of Avila. St. Joseph of Cupertino was Pooh, as was Bl. John XXIII. I’d think Philip Neri was a Tigger, along with St. Peter, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross strikes me as an Eeyore. The kingdom of heaven accepts all kinds, and the Church needs them.
I probably ought to have some great spiritual lesson to conclude, but all I’ve got is this: you don’t have to be like anyone else and they don’t have to be like you. Figure out how you are called to be holy, be holy that way, and let other people follow their own path to holiness.
For Further Reading:
Since all I did was sketch out some very basic principles, here are some other sites that you might find helpful. None of them seem to use the graph idea above, but they’ll help you flesh out what I said about the specific temperaments:
Ave Maria Singles explains how temperaments relate to marriage.
Fr. Antonio Royo Marin, O.P. connects the temperaments to spirituality.
Fisheaters is always good for those who want to know about the medieval roots of anything.
And of course, we can’t forget Wikipedia!
What do y’all think? Does this help you understand yourself–and those you love–better?
- Maria Guzman and Elizabeth Hanna Pham, to whom I am extremely grateful. [↩]
- If The Office doesn’t do it for you, look here for some more comparisons. [↩]
- For the record, while I’m in the same quadrant as Rabbit, I don’t think we’re very much at all. My brand of melancholic is much more cheerful. We’re both borderline OCD, though. [↩]
- All of these are guesses–bear with me! [↩]