Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

I spent many years trying to rid myself of anxiety by different methods, both conventional and unconventional.

But I still suffer from anxiety, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever truly be free of it.  I will certainly never be “free” from anxiety in the sense of being able to live my life exactly as I live it now, but without any trace of fear or apprehension or stress.

That’s because my anxiety is, as best I can tell, the result of conflict between my temperament and my environment.  My temperament is melancholic, and my environment is ruled by principles, practices, and preoccupations that are, if not totally foreign to me, at least very low down my private list of priorities.

Melancholics are idealists. We seek the ideal in every situation, and we are prone to a kind of self-inflicted suffering when we cannot meet the ideal, or when the ideal seems impossible, or when we grab hold of an ideal that isn’t really authentic or reasonable.

Life is especially difficult if we do not recognise the nature of our own idealism, and how it differs (often profoundly) from the motives and perspectives of other temperaments.

Let’s look at one simple example of idealism that causes anxiety:

Imagine you have the ideal of the perfect host, someone who is always available to entertain and provide hospitality to everyone you meet, with a perfectly clean and beautiful home, and a ready supply of good food and drink.

Imagine that you somehow get stuck in the role of perfect host for your extended family on every major holiday and milestone.  Every year you inevitably end up hosting long lunches or dinners for a dozen or so people, who seem to take for granted that this is your role, business as usual.

Imagine playing this role for ten, fifteen, or twenty years; going through an annual cycle of stressful preparation, enduring the day itself, and collapsing in exhaustion after the last relative leaves.

In this scenario, the melancholic becomes a victim of their own ideals. They may not want to host the big family get-together. They may not even like such events regardless of who hosts them. But on some level they accede to ideals of family togetherness, being the perfect host, not disappointing people, and so on.

A melancholic caught in such a situation will feel increasingly burdened by their own ideals and their sense of others’ expectations. They will grow to resent each year’s calendar of events – however sparse they might be – but will continually suppress their resentment for the sake of their unanswerable ideals.

Anxiety in this instance may stand for a range of unpleasant feelings that leave the melancholic in the unenviable position of routinely forcing themselves to do things they do not want to do.

Clash of temperaments

We are all familiar with the cliche of artists or creators feeling compromised by commercial forces. We understand that artistic integrity is often at the mercy of finance, and this means that artists must learn to compromise in order to survive. But it can also mean that the best art, the best creations, even the best products are hidden from the mainstream.

The ‘artistic temperament’ has a great deal in common with the melancholic temperament, though not all artists are melancholic and not all melancholics are artists. But in terms of being idealistic, of having a vision of how things could be, the comparison is apt.

What makes melancholics unique is a combination of two basic factors: how excitable they are, and how long-lasting their impressions are. Melancholics are not easily excited by external stimuli, but they form very long-lasting impressions. Compare them with the other three temperaments:


The sanguine is highly excitable, but does not form lasting impressions. Sanguines are typical “party people” who love excitement, and can be quite emotional, but quickly and easily change their minds and their emotions. They typically like nice objects, and are motivated by having fun and engaging with others.


Phlegmatics are not very excitable, and also do not form lasting impressions. Phlegmatics are extremely easy-going, don’t like conflict, and are happy to either do their own thing or go along with the crowd.


Cholerics are excitable and, like the melancholic, they form long-lasting impressions. They are typically ambitious and have a strong sense of self-worth. They like challenges, can be quite proud, and will gravitate toward leadership positions.

Anxiety as clash of temperaments

While the different temperaments can work well together, in the context of anxiety the melancholics is especially vulnerable to quiet conflict and struggle on account of the other temperaments.

If we do not recognise the significance of the different temperaments, we will make the mistake of holding ourselves to standards that do not apply, and create for ourselves ideals that are not truly our own.  Our society is more obviously shaped by the values and priorities of the other temperaments. A typical melancholic will look around at the rest of society and try to place themselves in it, without realising that what is most visible and obvious is, almost by definition, not appropriate for the melancholic.

Clashing with a sanguine

For example, a melancholic who grows up around sanguines will feel insufficiently sociable, unable to keep up with the high energy and excitement of the sanguine temperament. Our society is profoundly influenced by the “fun-loving” sanguine.  Media and advertising take advantage of their infectious enthusiasm, and reinforce the image of expressive, emotive, and exuberant personal style as a kind of ideal. Yet for most melancholics this ideal will simply be unobtainable. We do not have the kind of energy that a sanguine has. We are not immediately excited by large crowds, bright lights, and loud music. We are not energised by buying new clothes or a new car or going to see a new movie (unless these things accord with our personal ideals: the ideal clothing, car, or movie).

But there’s a flip-side to all this sanguine energy. Sanguines make quick, impulsive decisions, often without much forethought or consideration. They tend to change their mind easily, and necessarily back away from poorly-considered choices.  And while the sanguine can easily “get over” anger, sadness, and disappointment, sometimes we need to learn from these things before we let them go.

By contrast, a melancholic can’t help but dwell on anger, sorrow, and disappointment. We turn these troublesome and painful events over and over in our minds, often months and even years later. Like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go until every last bit of life has been drawn out of the painful or instructive memory; and even then we may return to it to rehash and recapitulate the lesson.

When a sanguine says “live life with no regrets”, they typically mean “try everything, don’t hold back, seize every opportunity, live life to the full.” When a melancholic hears “live life with no regrets” he slowly reminisces on all the stupid, embarrassing or foolish things he’s ever done. The melancholic life is full of regret – but it’s more the regret for the consequences of mistakes than for opportunities left unexplored.

Melancholics will experience anxiety if they fail to recognise the fundamental differences between themselves and the sanguines of this world. Trying to match sanguines, let alone beat them at their own game, is a recipe for melancholic exhaustion, fatigue, and anxiety.  I don’t think I will ever stop feeling anxiety in apprehension of some forthcoming social occasion. This is because most social occasions are slated toward the strengths of the sanguine temperament, where a love of crowds, genuine enthusiasm, and a short memory for embarrassment and mistakes makes the sanguine impervious to anxiety in many if not most social occasions.

So what is the solution?

Ultimately I think the solution is to be true to your own temperament. If you don’t enjoy sanguine social occasions, it’s okay not to go to them. A great deal of anxiety comes from forcing ourselves to do things we simply do not wish to do. Unfortunately, when we look at sanguines without understanding how they are different, we make the mistake of treating their unique features as ideals that we must simply strive to mirror. If I just try hard enough, I can be at ease in the purposeless social engagement I don’t really want to go to. If I just “let go” I too can find happiness in impulse-purchases of shiny consumer goods.  If I just get out there and have fun, I can forget about how someone’s behaviour is making me uncomfortable, or how I’m not entirely okay with the direction my work is headed, and so on.

These are false ideals for the melancholic. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, and while we can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of others, we must do so with awareness of our fundamental differences.  And when it comes to anxiety, remember that the other temperaments can suffer just as much as the melancholic does; it just happens that the other temperaments are quicker to realise what they do and do not like, and hence our society provides them with more obvious answers to their fears and desires.

Our society does not, for example, encourage sanguines to be less sociable, to live more simple, modest lives, and to sacrifice everything they enjoy for the sake of some deep and obscure ideal.  Imagine if society encouraged sanguines to take a vow of silence, to spend long periods of time alone, or to give up all their possessions, as strongly as it encourages melancholics to party, be heavily invested in social media, and accumulate pointless possessions.

Of course, melancholics do not want to become hermits either (at least not typically), and simply refusing to do anything that makes you anxious could end up making you more sensitive to anxiety and hence even more restricted in your routine. The solution here may be to recognise that the real cause of anxiety is not in going to some sanguine event, but in failing to conform to the sanguine attributes. The anxiety might come from the thought of being at such an event, and failing to be as sparkling, witty, extroverted, or fun-loving as the sanguine ideal tells us we ought to be.  Indeed, it is easier to not go to something than to go to it and be viewed as boring, tedious, too reserved or seemingly in a bad mood all night.

This happens, by the way. On the rare occasions when I have gone to an event and not tried to appear more expressive and excited than I was, I have typically been asked if I’m okay, if I’m sick, if something is wrong, or that I should smile more, have more fun, mingle more, and so on.  But if you are happy to go and just “be yourself”, then surely that is good enough? We can’t all be sanguines, and we shouldn’t have to pretend to be sanguine just to avoid offending or upsetting others. Yet after decades of being implicitly told that sanguines are the ideal for social engagements, it is hard to put down that mask.

For some of us, the mask is so firmly attached that we no longer recognise the difference between our true feelings and our learned responses, or between what we really want to do, and what we believe we ought to want to do.  In such cases, anxiety might feel inexplicable. We may not recognise the deeper conflict that is producing it, or the deeper nature onto which we are imposing more superficial demands.

I hope this description of conflict between temperaments is useful. In subsequent posts I will look at the conflicts that arise between melancholics and the remaining two temperaments: choleric and phlegmatic.

Feel free to ask any questions or seek further clarification; I’ll do my best to answer (because that’s what the ideal blogger should do!)




12 thoughts on “Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

  1. This is quite an eye-opener. How cliche it might sound, acceptance is half the work. This surely contributes to that. I find mental health labeling and the journey towards acceptance (as in: i have to deal with this label of anxiety/depression for the rest of my life) quite harsh and confusing. (Melancholic depression is also already an official label..) This read offers a much more humane approximation. Much more in the line of álready accepting that your body and mind is one chaos, the world around you also is a chaos which works for some individuals but may not work that good for you. If you know what I mean.. English is not my first language. Being a melancholic does not necessarily mean you are depressed.

    • Thanks for your comment flabergas.
      It’s something I take for granted now – that anxiety is a likely side-effect of conflict between my temperament and my environment. I still hope to diminish the anxiety by managing the conflict in new ways, but I’ve mostly stopped forcing myself to try to fit other temperaments’ way of doing things.

    • Thanks!
      That’s what drew me to the four temperaments theory. No other system offered an option that was as full of contradictions and inner conflict as the Melancholic, and when I discovered it, I too had that sense of recognition at last.

      I’m hoping one day to write a book about temperament. Perhaps a “Melancholic Survival Guide”.

      • oh my God, a “Melancholic Survival Gude” would be a life saver
        I almost cried while reading your post. I grew up a melancholic-choleric with a family that was definitely sanguine/sanguine-choleric, and sanguine ridden standards. I always felt socially disabled since I just couldnt do the things my family wanted me to want to do. My choleric side was definitely suppresed, and all this contributed to an anxiety problem that got too big for me to handle. I was looking for answers, and you certainly put my thoughts in order for me. It gets easy when you understand why you feel like you do, and that its NOT because you’re lacking something. It’s because you’re different. And that’s ok.
        Thank you, and good luck. (I’ll be waiting for that book)

        • Thanks Carmen! The book is a bit slow coming, but the encouragement helps.
          Melancholic-Choleric can be tough because the choleric part keeps pushing you to accomplish things and achieve things, but the melancholic part has no idea how to do those things, and doesn’t feel particularly inspired by them.

  2. I needed this. I just found out last night that I’m a pure melancholic. Through the lens of temperament, I can now see how all of my cognitive dysfunctions (e.g. perfectionism) tie into the melancholic archetype. The manifestation of the highly negative traits have reeked havoc in my life. Now I just need to figure out how to accentuate the positive ones and mitigate the negative ones. The light at the end of the tunnel just got a little brighter.

    • Good for you! Melancholics have the most to gain from understanding temperament. How did you determine that you are melancholic? What resources have you read?

      Feel free to raise questions or subjects for discussion. I can also point you to a couple of good resources, though I’m yet to find a “perfect” account of the four temperaments….I’m yet to write it ; )

      Discovering my temperament was an immense relief to me. I’m still passionate about it, and helping fellow melancholics understand themselves is extremely satisfying.

      Anyhow, congratulations!

      • My initial research was based on just Google search. I went through many websites detailing the traits of Melancholics and I related with almost all of them (most of the positive, but all of the negative) because they pervade my life. My overexuberance though in discovering my temperament might have led me to jump to the conclusion that I am a “pure”

        In addition, I was able to access the chapter on Melancholics in the book, “The Missing Link, Revealing Spiritual Genetics”, online and I fit its description of the Melancholic in inclusion / affection / control. However, the book’s Christian approach to therapy was off-putting.

        As you can probably guess, the reason I’m researching temperaments is to “fix” myself. Any resource would be greatly appreciated including your book you have yet to write! I feel fortunate you replied to my post, thank you.

        • Excellent. I think it’s necessary to read a range of resources, because all of them are influenced by the temperament of the author.
          I’ve come across Richard Arno’s work before though I haven’t read into it deeply in part because he and his wife created a fifth temperament, which I think skews the traditional model. I did a post on it if you’re interested:

          I highly recommend reading Conrad Hock’s book, which is available online. He was a German Catholic priest who died in the 1930s, and his German text was translated and “updated” by some American priests decades later.

          If you can look past the religious aspect, I think you’ll find it helpful in framing the four temperaments.

          My theory is that Hock was drawing on then-contemporary research into temperament in Germany. Some of the language he uses matches the conceptual framework of the renowned German-Jewish anatomist Jakob Henle, who described the four temperaments in terms of the nervous system’s excitability versus duration of impression.

          Anyhow, I strongly recommend it:

          I think Hock was probably Choleric, which colours his interpretation of the others, especially the Phlegmatic about which he says very little.

          Another good resource is this one

          He has a lot of good information though I’ve no idea where he got it from.

          There are other bits and pieces but I find those two resources capture a good range.

          Your exuberance is appropriate. I’ve been working on this stuff with my brother for a number of years, and we’ve arrived at some conclusions about how it all works.

          We’ve ended up using the Four Temperaments to get a broad picture of a person’s temperament, followed by the MBTI system to go into greater detail and nuance.

          Without temperament the MBTI is confusing…I used to wonder if I was INFP or INTP, but in light of the temperaments it’s obvious that I’m Melancholic (NF) rather than Choleric (NT).

          So there’s useful stuff in that system which you’ll find me referring to on my blog quite a bit. But in the beginning it’s really good to get a solid handle on the four temperaments and how they differ. It can be a lot to take in, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the difference in worldview.

          In terms of fixing yourself, bravo! No one else will do it for us ; )

          I guess I would point out as a start that Melancholics tend to take things to heart far more than other temperaments. Off the cuff I’d guess that if you feel you need fixing, you’ve probably taken on board other people’s rules or admonitions, without realising that those rules are really aimed at different temperaments.

          We are the people who hear others say “it’s rude to boast” and take it to the extreme of not even letting ourselves feel good about compliments.

          So it really helps to understand our own temperament along with understanding the others. Then we can see that many of the rules we’ve internalised are there to hold cholerics and sanguines in check.

          Because of my background I tend to be very “negatively” focused…for example, I just mentioned the rules we may have internalised that don’t serve us.

          I’m working towards focusing more on the positive, and for a melancholic that means feeling our way towards personal sources of meaning and happiness.

          The four temperaments literature (such as it is) tends to depict the melancholic quite negatively, and that may be due to the kinds of melancholics who were most easily observable.

          But if you follow through the matching MBTI types (NF) you’ll find more positive depictions of melancholics. For example, INFPs (extremely melancholic with secondary phlegmatic) are described as dreamers or idealists in an almost hippie kind of way, which is the sort of image I would once have recoiled from.

          But over time I’ve come to see that the things that feel good to me would seem very ethereal and otherworldly to others.

          You could say that I spent a number of years crushing those feelings and ideals and trying to make them fit the “real world”, but now I can see that the “real world” is actually just the most mainstream world of choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic influences.

          Ironically, I would have derided melancholic expressions of freedom and meaning and idealism…

          Anyhow, there’s no prescription here and I’m beginning to ramble. Let me know what you think of those resources and I’m more than happy to continue the conversation.

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