Why INFP = Melancholic-Phlegmatic

Keirsey is the go-to guy for linking the four temperaments to the MBTI, and while his views apparently shifted in the course of his career, this table seems right to me.

Phlegmatic = Keirsey’s Guardians = SJ

Sanguine = Artisans = SP

Melancholic = Idealist = NF

Choleric = Rational = NT

I was already pretty sure I was an INFP based on tests and self-typing, and it didn’t take long to conclude I was melancholic-phlegmatic either.

Why would an INFP be melancholic-phlegmatic?

Look at the functional stack: FiNeSiTe

That means my two strongest functions are introverted Feeling and extroverted Intuition, making me melancholic.

My two weaker functions are introverted Sensing – which is what defines a phlegmatic in Keirsey’s arrangement – and extroverted Thinking.

So if I use all my functions in their order of strength, I’ll be foremost melancholic (NF) and with a secondary phlegmatic (Si) temperament.

But in my case I also seem to have put a bit of extra emphasis on my inferior function Te. I’ve gone through phases of being very Te oriented, in terms of setting myself goals, seeking to be efficient, driven, and effective.

When push forward with Te, I go into uncharted territory where my Si isn’t especially helpful. That leaves me forming a weird combination of Ne and Te, a kind of makeshift choleric influence.

It also seems to trigger bouts of stress-related illness, suggesting an imbalance from all that extroversion.

But all of this taken together is why I would describe myself in temperament terms as a melancholic-phlegmatic with a bit of choleric thrown in.

When I compare myself to other melancholic-phlegmatics, they seem to lack my awesome yet debilitating penchant for intense thinking, and my bootstrapping attitude to getting s*** done…within my otherwise very melancholic-phlegmatic parameters.

They don’t seem to know how to push themselves in that turn-yourself-inside-out way I’ve grown to love.

I wouldn’t recommend doing what I’ve done, but it’s nice to know where the differences lie.


introverted Feeling

Introverted Feeling is a really weird function.

It’s the dominant function of INFP and ISFP; it’s also the auxiliary function of ENFP and ESFP.

I’ve read and listened to lots of descriptions of introverted Feeling (Fi), but hardly any of them feel right to me.

To me, Fi is like an inner landscape of a strange world with diverse terrain. The things that happen in the real world are mirrored in this inner landscape.

So when something happens that you don’t like, it feels as if the inner landscape has become a kind of dark, arid, and rocky mountainside where you’re struggling to find your footing.

When something arduous and oppressive happens, it feels like you’re mired in a horrible swamp, up to your waist in thick mud.

When something unexpected and wonderful happens, it feels like you’re suddenly in a beautiful mountain valley on a warm spring day.

These changes in feeling can be rapid and intense, and they can occur without you even leaving your room.

In an ideal world, a healthy Fi dominant person would use this inner landscape to navigate the real world. We would make choices and seek out directions that take us to good-feeling places in our inner landscape, and avoid actions and circumstances that take us to bad-feeling places.

But as mentioned in my previous post, Fi is extremely hard to describe, especially when we’re young.

We all assume from a young age that everyone else is like us on the inside. So when people act in ways that make us feel really bad, we assume that they also feel bad, but that somehow feeling bad doesn’t matter.

At other times we are explicitly pressured to act according to external parameters that conflict with our Fi, and we are also pressured to provide non-Fi justifications or explanations for our own choices and actions.

Not only do we get cajoled into situations that feel bad, but being forced to justify and explain ourselves also feels bad, as it denies the integrity and authenticity of our introverted Feeling.

Someone calls you and says “Can you please do this for me?”…and your Fi presents you with an endless, stagnant swamp you’re being asked to cross.

But what do you say?

You can say “No”, or “I don’t want to.” But some people won’t be satisfied with that.

Can you say “Doing that for you would feel like being plunged into a foul and interminable swamp”?

I don’t think that would go over too well.

But “I don’t feel like it” sounds capricious and flippant.

So what do you do?

You look for “reasons” or excuses that explain and justify your refusal.

“I’m busy that day”, “I have things to do”, “I’m overloaded at the moment.”

It’s not that these things aren’t true, just that it’s not how your mind works.

You haven’t sat back and thought “Can I help them? No, I can’t because I have too much to do already”.

So you end up having to translate your Fi into a reason that is completely un-Filike.

Over time you develop the unpleasant feeling of being a foreigner in your own country, translating your inner world into something that others deem acceptable.

The good news

Ah, but there is some good news.

The good news is that once you understand your Fi, and the lesser functions that are undermining or inhibiting it, the path to feeling good again is relatively simple.

I’ve discovered that so long as I recognise the interference of Si (intrusive memories, adherence to customs, past experience, old habits and sensory immersion), and the interference of Te (the demand for outcomes, explanations, efficiency, and step-by-step planning), it’s possible for me to take whatever I’m currently feeling and simply change it.

I might be presently mired in a swamp or stuck on that barren, rocky slope, but if I remove the hindrances I can fly in an instant to an idyllic forest, or a sublime mountain peak.

I can go somewhere magical in that inner landscape. I can let my feeling be the substance of my conscious experience, rather than some unhappy by-product of external forces and conditions.

I can – as terrifying and counter-intuitive as it might sound – let my Fi be the guide to my choices and direction in life.

And in that capacity, it really does feel like something miraculous. It really does feel as though “feeling good” has the power to substantively change my experience of life.


I just don’t feel like it

The INFP functional stack looks like this

Dominant: introverted feeling (Fi)

Auxiliary: extroverted intuition (Ne)

Tertiary: introverted sensing (Si)

Inferior: extroverted thinking (Te)

The problem for INFPs is that society privileges Te and Si over Ne and especially Fi.

This means that focusing on effectiveness and outcomes (Te),

or on past experience and “what worked before” (Si)

is more rewarding than

seeing abstract connections between things (Ne),

or having a deep and mysterious nonverbal inner landscape that tells you what you like and don’t like (Fi).

Yeah, that last one is a bit of a mouthful and I’ll have to unpack it later if possible.

So from childhood most INFPs are taught to put their tertiary and inferior functions ahead of their dominant and auxiliary.

This is problematic because our tertiary and inferior functions are generally weaker, less developed, and require more energy to use than our dominant and auxiliary. Depending too much on your tertiary and inferior functions means you’re not working with your strengths.

For the INFP it also means we’re not being authentic. We’re living according to the imposed values of Si and Te…demands we can meet, but at an awful cost.

The cost is that we feel awful.

Our dominant function of introverted feeling doesn’t go away. It keeps telling us “this is bad…this is bad…” even while we persist in letting our tertiary and inferior functions drive us.

We end up in this unfortunate state because for most of our lives we’ve been asked to justify and explain ourselves in terms that the broader society will appreciate; yet the very nature of introverted feeling is that it’s extremely difficult to describe or communicate to others.

Sometimes the best we can say is “I don’t feel like it”, which is not considered valid by many people.

So we stretch ourselves to come up with “reasons” that actually feel (to us) like excuses. But excuses are the only language some people will listen to. And if you can be reasonable enough, you can convince these people of your position.

They might disagree, but they’ll at least acknowledge that you’re playing their game. At least you’re giving them something to disagree with.

It’s a formative experience for an INFP to be relentlessly pushed for an answer, explanation, or justification, when really we were operating on feeling the whole time.

The people pushing for “reasons” aren’t necessarily bullies, they’re likely operating from a different function. They’re assuming that the INFP has clear and concise reasons for their behaviour, reasons that are easy to articulate and communicate.

So when the INFP struggles to communicate these reasons, the interrogator doesn’t understand the apparent reluctance or resistance. From the interrogator’s point of view, the INFP must be too afraid or too embarrassed or too malicious to share their reasons.

For the INFP, the interrogator’s scrutiny itself comes across as an indictment, an implicit charge that the vague, inarticulate world of introverted feeling is faulty and inadequate. The prolonged and persistent attempts to get an INFP to explain themselves just reinforce the INFP’s sense of being incomprehensible to others.

From what I’ve seen of other INFPs, I’m guessing I’ve gone pretty far down the road of training and depending on my tertiary and inferior functions.

But these tertiary and inferior functions are crippling when they exceed their station. I’ve begun to notice the many occasions in which Si and Te states of mind or impulses surface, to detrimental effect.

In my writing, these manifest as the internal pressure to arrive at decisive conclusions, explain my points exhaustively, be unassailable in the position I take, consider all possible objections, research everything to ensure I make no mistakes, and try repeatedly to communicate my meaning as effectively as possible.

None of these are bad things to aim for. But what happens so often is that my initial burst of inspiration is crushed and suffocated by the sheer burden of these demands.

I might have a meaningful idea I feel strongly about (Fi), that draws on some abstract connections or patterns I’ve noticed (Ne), but a third of the way in I’m already wondering “who cares about this? What’s the point?” (Te), or I’ve researched the issue in question and utterly derailed my train of thought by overloading it with new data (Si), or I’ve tried to adhere too closely to conventions of genre and the light-hearted piece I started with has turned into a weighty, leaden recount (Si).

There’s nothing wrong with Si and Te, but if what really drives you is Fi and Ne, then denying those functions is going to make you feel drained, worn out and depleted.





OCEAN follow-up: disorganised and disagreeable

I did an online test for the Big 5 personality traits just now, and the results were interesting:

As expected, I’m both extremely Introverted and extremely Neurotic.

In my previous post I suggested that I might be high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, but I also noted that these qualities felt forced and unnatural.

I subsequently read the actual criteria for the two traits, and concluded that I’m practicing “pseudo-” Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, attempting to mimic traits I don’t actually possess.

In other words, I’m not naturally an organised, disciplined, tidy person, but I put pressure on myself to be organised and disciplined where it counts.

The results of the online test corroborate my suspicions.

Openness to new experiences was surprisingly high, but that could be because the trait is manifested differently between introverts and extroverts. An extrovert might be open to “new experiences”, but an introvert can be open to “new ideas”, ways of thinking and seeing the world.

So I think I’m on the right track: trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Being less agreeable and more disorganised might not change my other traits, but it would be more authentic, and, if I’m right, authenticity could be the key to ameliorating neuroticism.

OCEANs of meaning for the INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic

I’ve been delving deeper into the MBTI system and in particular the dominant introverted Feeling function of the INFP.

The developing theme in either temperament or MBTI terms is that I tend to suppress my normal way of functioning in favour of more pro-social functions.

Eg. as a Melancholic-Phlegmatic temperament, the phlegmatic desire to follow the rules and avoid conflict is more socially accepted than the idealism and search for meaning of the melancholic.

As an INFP, my tertiary and inferior functions of introverted Sensing and extroverted Thinking are more respected, more ‘useful’ and easier to communicate than my dominant function of introverted Feeling, and auxiliary function of extroverted Intuition.

The curse of the INFP is that society encourages us to use our ST functions, but over-reliance on these functions at the expense of our FN makes us feel bad. Really really bad.

Because (ironically) the core value of introverted Feeling is authenticity, and nothing harms your authenticity more than systematically ignoring and deprecating the call of authenticity.

OCEAN and the Big 5

My wife showed me this TED talk by Dr Brian Little on personality.

In it he refers to the Big 5 personality traits, a data-driven set of personality traits that are observable in normal distribution across the population.

Unlike the MBTI, the Big 5 is widely accepted in psychological research. However, what the Big 5 measures is different from either the MBTI or the temperaments theory.

In effect, the Big 5 provides a kind of ‘snapshot’ of these five traits in your personality: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I’ve not paid too much attention to the Big 5 because what it doesn’t tell you is the underlying logic or rationale behind your personality. It doesn’t necessarily tell you why you are introverted and neurotic, just that you are.

But at the end of the talk Dr Little said something very interesting.

He observed that acting in ways that contradict your personality comes at a cost. He gave the example of himself as a professor acting in more extroverted ways to keep his students engaged, despite being extremely introverted himself.

After a bout of “pseudo-extroversion” he needs to take time to rest and repair himself.

Why is this interesting to me? Because acting contrary to my underlying personality traits is exactly what I’ve described above, in terms of suppressing or neglecting my dominant function of introverted Feeling, or pushing my phlegmatic traits ahead of my melancholic ones.

Usefully combining the two approaches

If I reflect on the categories of the Big 5, I would say that I am low in Openness, extremely high in Conscientiousness, low in Extroversion, high in Agreeableness, and extremely high in Neuroticism.

As a snapshot of my personality traits, what stands out to me is that both Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are things I try to foster. Or to put it another way, they are sources of fatigue and exhaustion for me.

Introversion comes naturally, by contrast, and Neuroticism is a weird category that – to me – feels like an aspect of existence that is only observed in the negative…a lot like introverted Feeling.

Unpacking that last sentence:

Neuroticism is a tendency to experience negative emotions like anxiety. For INFPs these negative emotions are experienced via introverted Feeling. Introverted Feeling is the function that facilitates strong and pervasive emotions – both positive and negative. Not all Neurotic personalities are INFP, but I’d bet that the majority of INFPs are Neurotic.

If I’m right then Neuroticism is an expression of introverted Feeling in response to negative stimuli such as chronically ignoring and suppressing one’s introverted Feeling, or trying to live according to lesser parts of your personality. Being inauthentic.

That being so, the OCEAN view of my personality provides significant clues to what is going on, as opposed to the temperament and MBTI perspectives which show instead the underlying logic or principles of my personality.

Where does this ocean go?

Thinking about OCEAN in terms of authentic and inauthentic personality traits, it’s immediately obvious that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are forced. They represent the phlegmatic traits of diligence, following the rules (or expectations) and avoiding conflict.

The harder I try to be Conscientious and Agreeable, the worse my Neuroticism becomes. In effect, I’m only pretending to be Conscientious and Agreeable, and the pretense exhausts me and makes me feel inauthentic…hence the Neuroticism.

To complicate matters, my Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are motivated in part by Neurotic concerns like anxiety. They build on each other, creating a vicious circle.

The solution therefore is to stop being Conscientious, and stop trying to be Agreeable.

For an INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness offer a false promise of relieving anxiety and attaining peace. But instead they merely heighten our inauthentic mode of behaviour, leaving us Feeling worse than ever.

How many INFPs throw themselves into Conscientious effort, only to collapse afterward, feeling not only physically exhausted but somehow mentally or emotionally damaged by the whole process?

Being inauthentic and exhausted discourages us from exploring and being more outgoing. Our Openness to experience suffers as a result.

Pseudo-Agreeableness and Pseudo-Conscientiousness

Wikipedia describes Agreeableness as:

Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentativeness or untrustworthiness.

Conscientiousness is described as:

Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubbornness and obsession. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are obviously pro-social and valued qualities to possess. The trouble is that INFPs don’t really possess them.

Instead, more often than not I think we’re beating ourselves into submission, aping these desired qualities in deeply inauthentic ways.

Why do we do this? Why do we practice fake Conscientiousness and false Agreeableness? I think it comes from the slow and often nebulous qualities of our dominant function: introverted Feeling. From an early age, we are either slow to work out how we feel about the things going on around us, and/or unable to communicate or justify the conclusions we reach.

Even as an adult, introverted Feeling is very hard to describe. It’s immersive but impossible to communicate without experiencing it, and hard to describe even to one’s own satisfaction.

So how could we resist the pressure from parents, peers, authority figures and society generally to try to adopt or emulate “desirable” qualities like Extroversion, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness?

And how could we stand by an authentic self or cognitive function that seems so hard to pin down, even for ourselves?

Even in writing this, I’m resisting Conscientiousness impulses to check things, work caveats into the text, and arrive at “appropriate” conclusions that will hopefully please the reader.

Ironically, for an INFP it can be the hardest thing in the world to just not give a ****.

More to the story

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said, for instance: being introverted means people can easily project desired qualities onto you, especially when you’re young. So the mere fact that INFPs are quiet and slow to reach conclusions, means that people will praise us for being good listeners, or being polite, or being agreeable.

We may well seize upon these false affirmations as validations of an identity we don’t really possess. We find it easy (at first) to fill the expected shape that society offers of being a well-mannered and quiet child, and then find it hard to break out of that container, or to even realise that it’s not who we are.

Because INFPs don’t really understand themselves very well either. Maybe I really am a good, conscientious and agreeable person? How do I know that I’m not? How do I know that anxiety and Neuroticism aren’t “normal” for conscientious and agreeable people?

I won’t finish with a neat conclusion because I’m resisting the compulsion to be conscientious and agreeable.

Follow your feelings?

If you google “follow your feelings” you’ll find disparate advice.

Some people say you should follow your feelings, “listen to your heart” and so on.

Others say that this is terrible advice. You need to think clearly, reasonably, objectively, before you act.

So which is it? Are your feelings an infallible inner guide, or bound to lead you astray?

Different personality types

We can find exemplars and tragic cases to illustrate either side: people who follow their feelings…and leave a trail of destruction in their wake, or those who ignore their feelings only to end up leading hollow, empty lives.

But if we take seriously a personality theory like the MBTI, it quickly becomes clear that feeling and thinking play different roles in people’s personalities.

In the MBTI feeling and thinking are distinct cognitive functions. Those who are “good at” thinking tend to be bad at feeling and vice-versa. But throughout the course of our lives we also tend to go through a process of embracing our weaker, “inferior” function, relying on it too much, and finally coming to accept its subordinate role in our personality.

So for example, a feeling-dominant person discovers the untapped potential of their inferior thinking function and embraces it. Thinking seems mysterious and powerful, but they’re not naturally adept at it and are blind to the weaknesses and flaws in their use of it.

Eventually they will come to realise the limitations of thinking, and return to their dominant feeling function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well describe it as the discovery that they should have “followed their heart” all along. That’s because denying their feelings and pursuing their weaker thinking function was essentially a self-limiting and flawed approach to life.

By the end of this journey, the individual should be more balanced and centred, and objectively happier.


A thinking-dominant person will go through the inverse process – embracing their inferior feeling function at some point in their early life, and pursuing it beyond its natural limits in their personality.

For the thinking-dominant person, their feeling function really will lead them astray.

Eventually they too will reach a point where the limits of feeling become clear to them, and they resolve to return to their dominant thinking function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well reject the illusory wisdom of “follow your feelings”. They will reassert the merits of their thinking function. The image they project and the narrative they recount will be at odds with the feeling-dominant person, but the general shape of the journey should be analogous.

If you put these two different personalities side-by-side they will describe the same kind of process of disintegration and reintegration, of abandoning and then rediscovering their strength, but they may nonetheless still argue with each other and vehemently disagree about the role of thinking versus feeling.

Intuition and sensing

The same process should theoretically occur for people who are either intuition-dominant or sensing-dominant according to the MBTI. This dichotomy might be described as “follow your intuition” versus “stick to the facts”.

Depending what is called your “functional stack” both dichotomies will emerge throughout your life.

For example, if your functional stack is FiNeSiTe (INFP), you’ll experience a major pull toward your inferior thinking function, and an eventual return to your dominant feeling function. But at the same time you may also experience a more muted struggle to make sense of your auxiliary intuition and your tertiary sensing functions.

By contrast, an INFJ has a different functional stack: NiFeTiSe. They’ll experience a strong pull toward their inferior sensing function, distracting from or overriding their dominant intuition. At the same time they will struggle to work out the balance between their feeling and thinking functions, though on a less dramatic level than the struggle experienced by the INFP.

Who should you listen to?

The problem is that people can make compelling cases for either side in the two dichotomies…because people generally are experiencing both sides of the struggle.

If we don’t know our own personality, we can become confused about which direction we’re meant to be headed.

A feeling-dominant person struggling in ignorance to suppress their feeling function may find encouragement in the advice of thinking-dominant people who have overcome their struggle with inferior feeling.

But that would be a mistake.

The two circumstances are quite different. Feeling-dominant people will not be led astray by their feelings. Thinking-dominant people will be.

What makes these struggles even more confusing is that stress, abuse, and suffering in early life will contribute to the embrace of the inferior function as people seek out adaptive strategies to survive difficult circumstances.

So some people will find that embracing their inferior function is the only way they know how to live. You might be a feeling-dominant personality, but if you feel terrible you aren’t exactly going to revel in the rediscovery of your dominant function.

Perhaps the best we can do is to become aware of the limitations in our inferior functions. We might enjoy using them, we might even be very good at them, but they will have serious deficiencies or blind-spots, and take significantly more energy to use than the functions that ought to come more naturally.

A note on interpreting old temperament material

It’s usually pretty negative.

Take it with a grain of salt. We don’t know which individuals informed the perspective of the various historical commentators on temperament. They might have had in mind people who would, in our context, be in need of intense psychiatric care.

What I’m looking for when I read this stuff is tendencies, trends, clues as to how temperament was interpreted.

They shouldn’t be taken as universally authoritative texts.

Especially since they often contradict one another at various points!

I mention this because a reader wrote inquiring about part of Kant’s work that I quoted at length. Kant was a pretty unusual guy himself, but what does he mean when he says:

In case of perversion of his feeling and lack of a cheerful reason he succumbs to the adventurous: inspirations, apparitions, temptations.

If the understanding is even weaker, he hits upon grotesqueries: portentous dreams, presentiments, and wondrous omens.

He is in danger of becoming a fantast or a crank.

I think what Kant is describing is one of the dangers for a melancholic who loses his way. I stand to be corrected by any scholars of Kant who might come across this, but my interpretation is that melancholics are prone to let their ideals become detached from reality.

A ‘fantast’ is a dreamer, someone off on an adventure who follows (as Kant puts it) inspirations, apparitions and temptations.

A crank is an eccentric…the kind of person who clings to dreams and premonitions and omens.

I think Kant is warning that we can go off in strange directions if our ideals deviate too far from reality. This is under the heading of “degenerate form of the character”, so it’s not something we should all worry about.

Ultimately this is just Kant’s view. It tells us something about Kant, and the things he observed. I approach it as something potentially useful, but not necessarily true.

Then again, I’m a bit of a fantast and eccentric myself.

Kant on the melancholic

An excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime:

The person of a melancholic frame of mind troubles himself little about how others judge, what they hold to be good or true, and in that regard he relies solely on his own insight.

Since his motivations take on the nature of principles, he is not easily brought to other conceptions; his steadfastness thus sometimes degenerates into obstinacy.

He looks on changes in fashion with indifference and on their luster with contempt.

Friendship is sublime and hence he has a feeling for it. He can perhaps lose an inconstant friend, but the latter does not lose him equally quickly. Even the memory of an extinguished friendship is still worthy of honor for him.

Talkativeness is beautiful, thoughtful taciturnity sublime.

He is a good guardian of his own secrets and those of others.

Truthfulness is sublime, and he hates lies or dissemblance.

He has a lofty feeling for the dignity of human nature. He esteems himself and holds a human being to be a creature who deserves respect.

He does not tolerate abject submissiveness and breathes freedom in a noble breast. All shackles, from the golden ones worn at court to the heavy irons of the galley-slave, are abominable to him.

He is a strict judge of himself and others and is not seldom weary of himself as well as of the world.

In the degenerate form of this character, seriousness inclines to dejection, piety to zealotry, the fervor for freedom to enthusiasm.

Insult and injustice kindle vengefulness in him. He is then very much to be feared.

He defies danger and has contempt for death. In case of perversion of his feeling and lack of a cheerful reason he succumbs to the adventurous: inspirations, apparitions, temptations.

If the understanding is even weaker, he hits upon grotesqueries: portentous dreams, presentiments, and wondrous omens.

He is in danger of becoming a fantast or a crank.

A brief history of temperament

The four temperaments theory is the oldest and most consistently utilised theory of personality in the Western world.

Its origins lie at least as far back as the 5th Century BC when Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, described human health and composition in terms of four humours or bodily fluids: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile.

The four temperaments were further developed and codified by Galen, personal physician to Roman Emperors in the 2nd Century AD. Galenic medicine remained the authoritative medical paradigm in Europe until the 18th Century, and his texts were still studied as late as the 19th Century.

But even as Galen’s theories about the human body were slowly discarded, his observations of the human mind continued to fascinate philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists even to the present day.

What underlies temperament?

Various theorists have attempted to define the temperaments in terms of more basic physical elements.

Galen described them in terms of heat and cold on the one hand, and moistness and dryness on the other. The Choleric is hot and dry while the Melancholic is cold and dry. Sanguines are hot and moist, while Phlegmatics are cold and moist.

But with the advances of medicine people have sought to describe the temperaments in ever more up-to-date terms, corresponding to changes in medical or psychological paradigms.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant described the temperaments in terms of either feeling or activity that was short-lasting or long-lasting.  A Choleric is characterised by long-lasting activity while a Melancholic has long-lasting feelings. Sanguines have short-lasting feelings and Phlegmatics have short-lasting activity.

A generation later the German “father of psychology” Wilhelm Wundt described the temperaments in terms of either strong or weak emotion and slow or rapid change. Cholerics have strong emotion and rapid change, while Melancholics have strong emotion and slow change. Sanguines have weak emotion and rapid change, and Phlegmatics have weak emotion and slow change.

Another 19th Century German, the physiologist Jakob Henle, suggested that the temperaments might arise from the inherent activity or tonus of the nervous system.

Henle described each temperament in terms of the speed and the duration of reactions within the nervous system. Cholerics have quick reactions of a long duration while Melancholics have slow reactions of a long duration. Sanguines have quick reactions of short duration, and Phlegmatics have slow reactions of short duration.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also studied the nervous system and he too drew on the ancient four temperaments to frame his theories.

For Pavlov the Choleric has a strong but unbalanced nervous system while the Melancholic has a weak nervous system. Both the Sanguine and the Phlegmatic are strong and balanced but the former is fast while the latter is slow. Though his studies focused on dogs, Pavlov applied his observations to humans also:

The melancholic temperament is evidently an inhibitory type of nervous system. To the melancholic, every event of life becomes an inhibitory agent; he believes in nothing, hopes for nothing, in everything he sees only the dark side, and from everything he expects only grievances.

The choleric is the pugnacious type, passionate, easily and quickly irritated. But in the golden middle group stand the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments, well equilibrated and therefore healthy, stable…

The phlegmatic is self-contained and quiet, – a persistent and steadfast toiler in life. The sanguine is energetic and very productive, but only when his work is interesting, i.e., if there is a constant stimulus. When he has not such a task he becomes bored and slothful.

The psychologists

While the physiologists were studying nervous systems and linking their findings to the four temperaments theory, the new field of psychoanalysis founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud approached the same questions of personality and temperament from a more psychological, clinically-oriented perspective.

Freud’s collaborator and contemporary Alfred Adler developed a personality theory that mirrored the four temperaments system.

Adler described each type or temperament in terms of high or low energy and high or low social interest. Adler’s Choleric equivalent has high energy and low social interest while his Melancholic equivalent has low energy and low social interest. Sanguines have high energy and high social interest, while Phlegmatics have low energy with high social interest.

Other psychoanalysts broke away from the four temperament model as they delved deeper into their own theories and observations. Carl Jung, for example, described a more complex range of cognitive functions and mental predispositions that were later codified into the famous Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most popular personality theory in operation today.

Yet the four temperament model was not entirely forgotten. It was retained primarily in the work of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who described the four temperaments in terms of extroversion and neuroticism. Extroversion refers to how outwardly oriented a person is, while neuroticism is defined as a tendency to worry, anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and jealousy.

In Eysenck’s model the Choleric has high extroversion and high neuroticism while the Melancholic has low extroversion and high neuroticism. The Sanguine has high extroversion and low neuroticism, while the Phlegmatic has low extroversion and low neuroticism.

Temperament today

Modern trends in psychology and medicine make researchers wary of trying to match their research to pre-existing ideas and concepts like the four temperaments.

Contemporary psychology does draw on the concept of temperament, but it avoids the original four in favour of a research-driven approach. Psychologist Jerome Kagan is one example of an influential researcher on temperament, demonstrating throughout his career that key biological/behavioural traits in infants persist throughout adult life.

Kagan’s work focused on high and low reactive children, and he acknowledges that there are many other ‘temperaments’ or aspects of temperament yet to be studied.


For a lay person like me, learning about these different theories and approaches to the four temperaments adds to the sense that there’s a central phenomenon behind the archetypal four, and help us clarify exactly what the differences between them are.

As Kant wrote:

In this way the ancient forms can be preserved, and only receive a meaning better suited to the spirit of this doctrine of temperaments.

I still believe that Henle’s two-factor model of excitability versus duration of impression is the most fundamental, yet it helps me to have the others available too.

How better to explain a melancholic than “low energy, low social interest”? That’s me in a nutshell.

Other theories may seem more or less apt, but at the very least they show how different people have perceived the temperaments. We can also see where they have gotten it wrong, describing temperaments in ways that don’t at all accord with our experience, or letting their own temperament blind them to the true nature of the others.

Melancholics and inhibited body language/facial expressions

Aquinas took from Aristotle a cool view of the emotions…

Basically the underlying emotion (or ‘passion’ because they can be viewed as external objects causing us to have a ‘passive’ response or undergo change…like the ‘patient’ who suffers…)

The underlying emotion is love which is our natural response to things that appear good (or are good).

Which is pretty cool, because it means love is the root of all our responses to our experience.

So it goes something like:

I perceive something good in the distance -> desire  (distance can be time or space.)

I perceive something evil/bad in the distance -> fear

I attain the good thing -> joy

The bad thing arrives -> sorrow

— I think about getting rid of the bad thing -> anger

How I feel about good things finally -> I love them

How I feel about bad things finally – > I hate them

I think good things are attainable/ bad things can be overcome -> hope

I think good things are unattainable/bad things can’t be overcome -> despair

Pretty cool, huh?

All of these passions/emotions have an effect on our minds and our bodies, because we are psychosomatic beings.

The old system was  a bit vitalist, so they would talk about heat and life in your body.

Eg. when you feel love the heat expands in your body. Love is expansive, and makes you actually feel warm. Fear makes your heat retract inward, which is why you may feel cold when afraid. In anger the heat rises up into the head. Sorrow is the worst because your heat shrinks right back inside and you feel lifeless and awful.

These passions have corresponding facial expressions. They effect your posture, your gait, your movements, and your face. That’s how people can learn to read “body language”.

So let’s say you feel happy. You’re experiencing joy, and your face shows it. You’re beaming joy naturally without any effort.

But then someone shouts at you “what the hell are you grinning at, you look like an idiot!”.

Being yelled at is scary, being told you look like an idiot is bad. These produce feelings of sorrow and fear, which change your expression immediately. But you might also be confused, not sure why they are saying these things, not sure why your joyful feeling would cause a bad reaction in them.

You might also feel anger, and your expression changes again.

That’s still fairly natural. Your face is responding automatically to the emotion you are feeling.

But what if someone yells at you enough times that you realise your automatic expressions are going to get you into trouble again and again? Then maybe you decide that you should hide your joy, or your anger, or fear, or whatever it is you think will get you into trouble. You become afraid to express your feelings naturally in your expression.

But the only way to stop your face from automatically expressing is to give it a different task to do. So you practice holding a facial expression, or you stay really mindful of what emotion you might be feeling, ready to dampen it down with “serious face” or “polite face” or “happy face”.

The problem is that these faces are not natural. they aren’t expressing your authentic emotion. Instead they are expressing a complicated internal conflict, based on a fear of how people will react to you.

Holding that kind of tension in your face, and monitoring your expression, is very taxing and stressful. It sucks. It’s inauthentic.

I think Melancholics are especially prone to this because we do have strong emotions that are often out of sync with the people around us.

People might think you’re sitting grinning at nothing, when you’re reliving a past experience in your mind. Get told off enough times…get told it’s disrespectful or that you look like there’s something wrong with you, and yes you probably will internalise that message and learn to inhibit your natural expressions.

The way out of it is not easy, because you need to actively resist the impulse to control your expression. It takes more effort to overcome this effort-laden habit, but the effort has to be careful and light.

You might need to relearn intentionally how to let your face express your feelings automatically without fear of other people’s negative reactions.

One place to start is noticing that there is actual muscle tension in your face at this very moment. The weird, constant feelings of tension or tightness aren’t imaginary, they’re caused by tight muscles reacting to your fear of having the “wrong” expression.

If you can be aware of that tension as something the muscles of your face and head are actively doing, then that may help you ease off the tension a little.

It’s not just facial muscles, but also the muscles that control the eyes and the eyelids. Looking at the individual muscles of the head and face might help you understand the strain you’re creating in trying to keep your face unresponsive to your natural internal impulses.