Anxiety and the Melancholic: part two

In my previous post I looked at some sources of anxiety for the melancholic, in particular the conflicts that arise between us and our sanguine-oriented social environment.

Sanguines are pretty much the inverse of a melancholic. The are excitable yet changeable, where the melancholic is slow and intense.  A typical sanguine revels in the immediacy of appearances, while the typical melancholic is enveloped in their own deep and all-consuming angst.

Dealing with sanguines is always going to be a little stressful. But in this post I would like to look at another set of anxieties produced by exposure to a very different temperament: the phlegmatic.

The phlegmatic temperament is, like the melancholic, not easily excited by external stimuli. But like the sanguine, the phlegmatic also fails to make long-lasting impressions. It is precisely these long-lasting impressions that make the melancholic intense, preoccupied, and strange. It is the capacity to hold on to a single idea, a formative experience, or a powerful ideal that distinguishes the melancholic from the phlegmatic.

Unfortunately, this point of contrast between melancholics and phlegmatics is not immediately obvious, and this means that melancholics will often incorrectly identify with phlegmatics, seeing them as a model and ideal of introverted social interaction.

After all, it is nigh impossible for the melancholic to emulate the energy of a sanguine. But the easy-going and imperturbable calm of the phlegmatic is so enticing, melancholics may feel that such ease and grace is likewise within their grasp.

It isn’t.

Phlegmatics may hate conflict and experience anxiety in their own way, but the self-generated inner turmoil of the melancholic is foreign to them. You might think, as a melancholic, that you can emulate the affable, passive demeanour of your phlegmatic friends, but ultimately it will be as much a front as the sanguinesque enthusiasm you can likewise imitate for brief periods.

The many worries and grievances that assail the melancholic are, to a phlegmatic, the proverbial water off a duck’s back. The typical phlegmatic thinks differently, suffers none of the neurotic sensitivities and anxieties of the melancholic, or if he does, feels them only dimly, vaguely, and soon forgets them.  Embarrassing incidents are forgotten within days, while the melancholic will ruminate for weeks, months, and still be haunted by memories years from the date.

And yet the phlegmatic and melancholic can share similar, often introverted, interests. They may both patiently explore the complex details of their chosen fields. The phlegmatic can demonstrate an attention to detail that mirrors the melancholic’s perfectionist streak, and in being content to “do their own thing”, the phlegmatic can show a disregard for convention that strikes a chord with the melancholic’s passionate idealism.

But none of these similarities make up for the fundamental difference that the melancholic is a temperament striving, seemingly without end, to bring order out of the chaos of our inner world and to somehow reconcile the jarring disjuncture between the inner life and the outer reality.  The phlegmatic is spared this crisis, blessed in a sense by the ability to move on, to forget, and to let time lessen or erase their daily impressions.

So once again the phlegmatic, like the sanguine, presents the melancholic with a false ideal for their own place in the social environment. Melancholics are not easy-going introverts, equally happy to do our own thing or go along with the crowd. We are not at ease just quietly taking part in social engagements.  We do not find real pleasure in exploring endless details for their own sake, nor are we comfortable toeing the line in institutions or mastering policies and systems. We get bored easily when our ideals are not invoked.

For these reasons and more, attempting to imitate phlegmatics is merely a quieter, more gradual path to failure, anxiety and despair than emulating sanguines. Phlegmatic advice like “just don’t let it bother you”, “don’t rock the boat”, or “don’t sweat the small stuff”, is as inappropriate for melancholics as the sanguine alternatives of “retail therapy”, “letting your hair down”, or to make change for the sake of change.

Melancholics who pursue the phlegmatic model of social interaction, career advancement, or conflict resolution will find themselves increasingly bound by circumstances, principles, institutions and people that they loathe.  They will push themselves to the limits of stress and hypervigilance to accomplish the practical planning and manage the countless insignificant details that come far more easily to the typical phlegmatic, because a melancholic can only master details to the extent that he cares about them. Forcing oneself to care about something devoid of true meaning and significance is a kind of self-inflicted violation of those same ideals.

Phlegmatics can be wonderful people, but they aren’t our people despite superficial resemblances.  Trying to become more like a phlegmatic is a denial of the very features of ourselves that make such a transition seem desirable in the first place.

On the positive side, recognising phlegmatics for what they are can relieve some of our anxieties as well.  Melancholics are often ruled in social settings by a strict sense of how the ideal guest, host, or interlocutor should behave. This can leave us projecting the same rigid politeness onto others, as if everyone suffers from the same anxieties, concerns, and internal rules of behaviour.  It can therefore come as a great relief to recognise that phlegmatics are far more immune to social awkwardness.  A phlegmatic won’t freak out if the conversation becomes strained or lapses into silence: they may not even notice.  Phlegmatics may hate to break and bend rules, but beyond that they can actually be quite placidly oblivious to the weight of social expectations.  They aren’t quietly thinking the worst about you, either out of malice or out of sympathy. It’s probably never occurred to them to do so.


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