The power of inspiration

I’ve been learning martial arts for 23 years, and in the beginning I was inspired by the thought of mastering these arts.

But as a beginner I tempered my inspiration, mindful of the gap between reality and expectations.

Inspiration kept me going but “realism” held me in check. As years passed I ceased to be a beginner, but I felt further than ever from the mastery that inspired me.

Disappointment crept in, and I grew embarrassed and then ashamed at my lack of skill.

Why was I not progressing? Why did I feel like a perpetual beginner? How could I have so little to show for my years of effort?

Realism and self-sabotage

When we pit inspiration and realism against each other we unwittingly bind and sabotage ourselves.

The more inspired I was, the more harshly I criticised myself for falling short of my ideals. I didn’t know how to draw on inspiration without then beating myself up.

I thought inspiration was about realistic hopes and goals and measurable progress, and in a sense that is true; but inspiration is also the fuel and the transformative power and the inner knowing that makes the goal achievable.

Inspiration is not motivation

I’m now learning the difference between inspiration and motivation. Motivation is what moves you into action. My goal of mastering Kungfu motivated me to practice.

But inspiration is much more than just movement into action. Inspiration informs and guides action with greater insight and wisdom than we could deduce on our own.

Motivation can set you on a path but inspiration creates a path all of its own.

Rediscover inspiration

Inspiration itself is ultimately about feeling good.

When I’m inspired I feel excited and satisfied, enthused and revitalised. My body feels more energetic and alive. My mind is clearer and more alert.

And when we feel this good it means we are in tune with our desires, our own inner being, and our “God’s-eye-view” of life.

So find your inspiration, revel in it, and feel it renew and guide you on your journey.

Feel good all day 2

The garden where I sometimes sit to write.

I love having this extreme goal, this ideal of feeling good all day.

Melancholics are idealists: it’s ideals and meaning that excite us.

Feeling good bit by bit gradually doesn’t excite me. I love all or nothing ideals, even though I know they usually contribute to gradual progress.

An outside observer might say I’ve made gradual changes over time, but the thought of gradual change just doesn’t inspire me enough to commit to it!

I want the excitement of a great ideal and an enormous goal and an absolute accomplishment to move me.

“Feel good all day” is not only all of that, it’s also vague or general enough to keep my creativity flowing without fixating on precise outcomes.

INFP-Melancholics and the Excitement Question

A great way of understanding the four temperaments is by looking at what excites each temperament.

Cholerics are excited by accomplishment, achievement, and ambition.

Sanguines are excited by nice things and good experiences.

Melancholics are excited by ideals and meaning.

Phlegmatics are not strongly excited by anything.

Phlegmatics are considered easy-going because they are not easily excited and they also don’t form long-lasting impressions.

That leaves melancholics in the awkward position of being not easily excited, but still forming long-lasting impressions, including the impression of not being excited by much!

INFPs are the most melancholic of the melancholics. We go through life slowly realising that we are not excited by much, and trying in our own way to get excited about the same things as our non-melancholic peers.

The Excitement Question

We tend to look at excitement as relative to other temperaments.

I like nice cars, I wouldn’t say no to a new one. But that level of excitement in me barely registers in contrast to genuine car enthusiasts.

Conversely, I get very excited by reflecting on the meaning of life, the best way to live, the nature of reality, and similar subjects that leave many people entirely disinterested.

We could just say that different people are excited by different things. I might feel out of place at a car show, while others would feel similarly out of place at a university library.

But we could point out that there are more cars than libraries, and that many people go through life quite happily avoiding libraries, whereas even those who love libraries might need a car to get them there.

In other words, these sources of excitement are not equal in this world. The things that excite melancholics are perhaps rarer and less widely valued than the things that excite other temperaments.

Must melancholics be depressed?

Melancholy has become synonymous with depression, and depression can be inversely correlated with excitability.

Cholerics would be depressed if their ambitions were stymied at every turn, their accomplishments went unrecognised and their achievements had no bearing on their station in life.

Sanguines would be depressed if bereft of social interaction, outings, engagements and all the nice objects they love.

Phlegmatics would be depressed if thrown into the spotlight, made to deal with conflict, while all the rules were cast aside and ignored.

And melancholics are often depressed because our ideals and desire for meaning are not widely shared, nor taken seriously unless in service to the values of other temperaments.

At least, that’s what I would have said in the past. It’s not my fault I’m depressed, it’s a function of living in a society dominated by non-melancholics.

But does it have to be this way?

You create your reality

I’m now accepting that it doesn’t matter what other people do or how friendly or unfriendly society looks to be.

I’m the one creating my reality, and if I keep telling a story of disenfranchisement and melancholic alienation, then I’ll continue to suffer accordingly.

This is where the excitement question gets really exciting!

Instead of complaining that society doesn’t value meaning and ideals, I can rejoice that I know more clearly than before what does excite me!

There is nothing stopping me (but my own thoughts) from turning all my attention and energy to the ideals and meaning that excite me.

Isn’t that…ideal?

I’ve learned from the Abraham-Hicks teachings that it really is just my own thoughts that create insurmountable-seeming barriers and boundaries to my happiness.

Life is not ideal? People don’t value meaning? BS. That’s just a story I’ve learned to tell, and then kept on finding evidence to support while ignoring anything that contradicts it.

Happiness is possible for melancholics, of course it is! We are the ones undermining and squelching the amazing joy and satisfaction our ideals and feelings provide us. We’ve learned to do this — we can learn to build it up instead.

Be the person you want to be

Talking to a friend who was desperate for a romantic partner, I gave what I thought was pretty good advice:

Work on becoming the best version of yourself, otherwise you might meet the right person and not be ready for them.

I think there are much better ways to communicate this. My words were still focused on the negative aspect of what is actually a very positive thing:

If you get the rest of your life in order, the right person will come along.

That’s better, but I think the Abraham Hicks material is better still:

The person you desire is over there waiting for you; but you’re not going over there because you’re so firmly focused on all the things you don’t like and don’t want.

That’s paraphrasing and we can add more:

If they met you right now they probably wouldn’t like you, because you don’t even like you. You’re sending out a distress signal thinking a partner will come in and rescue you…but that’s not the kind of relationship you really want…

And so on.

Everything is like this

It’s not just about romantic partners, everything is like this.

When I was younger I unwittingly used this approach to meet my wife, find a job, and buy my first car.

In hindsight I can see how it all worked. The key is that I believed the outcome I wanted was inevitable, and with that trust and assurance I got on with other things.

I went from an attitude of need and urgency to one of inevitability and curiosity.

I know I’ll meet the right person…I wonder what the right person looks like?

It’s inconceivable that there’s no job for me out there, I’ll recognise it when I see it, and if that’s the case I bet it’s going to be something unique and appealing.

But at some point I got too world-weary and thought I knew all the possibilities. I let go of my own freedom in exchange for pessimism and a cynical kind of knowing “how the world works”.

Be ready for your life

The life we want to lead is out there too and it’s up to us to be ready for it.

Ready means: being happy, enjoying life, being healthy, taking care of ourselves, looking out for others, and being the kind of person we think we would be if we had the kind of life we wanted.

Because all the time spent worrying about unwanted aspects of life is actually time spent being a person we don’t want to be.

And that worrying, negative, pessimistic person will create a reality that matches.

Is there ‘more’ to life than enjoying it?

When people told me that the purpose of life was enjoyment I used to feel let down.

I felt there had to be more to life than just enjoying it.

But I never found the “more” I was searching for. And I could never shake the suspicion that this mysterious “more” was just a different form of enjoyment.

Why did I react so badly to the idea of enjoying life? Isn’t enjoyment prima facie a wonderfully desirable thing?

In hindsight i can see two, interrelated, reasons.

The first is that I was very unhappy from early childhood onward. While there were lots of things I enjoyed, the struggles and conflicts of home life were firmly in the foreground of my experience.

So by the time I started wondering about the meaning of life I already had a very negative outlook and had trained myself out of enjoyment.

The second reason I didn’t like being told that the meaning of life was enjoyment was that I didn’t see much to enjoy in the lives of the people who were telling me this!

To my mind they were satisfied with very little…much too little to convince me that their “enjoyment” would give me the meaning I sought.

But that was simply an error in my understanding: they weren’t telling me to enjoy their lives, but to enjoy my life.

The power of big contrast

Having spent twenty years searching for that elusive “more” to life, I can see that I was in fact digging myself deeper by constantly reiterating and reinforcing my negative thoughts and feelings.

In the Abraham Hicks system negativity is presented under a positive aspect as “contrast”.

Contrast refers to anything unwanted that sparks within us a desire for more. Big contrast or persistent focus on unwanted experience gives us a proportionately strong desire for something better.

So even if we have suffered, the good news is that the suffering translates into “treasure in heaven”, drawing us to an even greater happiness.

Hence my “mistake” of prolonged and obsessive focus on my own misery, anxiety and depression sparked within me an extremely powerful desire for real enjoyment.

With this is mind we can let go of regrets or dismay about the past. While I could have turned to happiness much earlier in life, it would not have been such an epic contrast to the unhappiness that I’ve endured and self-inflicted.

What do you enjoy?

It turns out the “more” I was looking for was really just more enjoyment of life.

It’s up to us as individuals to find out what form that takes. In fact for myself I would say I have a very strong, yet-unfulfilled desire to find out what my enjoyment looks like.

Though life rolled on for those twenty years, I felt as though I had deferred the question of enjoyment until after I had found the answers to my questions.

I wanted to know the meaning of life before I committed myself to really living it.

And now it turns out that the answer is just to enjoy it, and the way to enjoy it is by feeling better about life as it is right now.

Overcoming ‘ordinary’

I used to have a strong repugnance toward anything that felt mundane or ‘ordinary’.

But lately I’ve come to recognise that this is really about my own unhappy formative years, and the fear of reliving that experience for the rest of my life.

It’s the sense of having grown up in an ordinary middle-class home that was actually dysfunctional, and equating dysfunction with everything mainstream and ordinary.

But it’s also about the yearning for “more” and quickly rejecting anything that felt like “same old”.

Yet if we bear in mind the Abraham teaching that we get more of what we are focused on, then my insistence on avoiding my past experience only guarantees I will find more of it.

We can’t remove things from our experience by pushing against them, only by choosing something else to focus on.

Finding a new normal

It doesn’t really matter if my life is ordinary or not, because the only reason I feared the ordinary was that I equated it with feeling bad.

But everything in my life can be viewed in either a wanted or an unwanted aspect. There is always a path to appreciation and immediate relief no matter where I am.

Who cares if your life looks ordinary to you or others? All that matters is you enjoy it. And who decides what is ordinary? What is your comparison point and scope? A middle-class Australian gen-Y perspective of ordinary is actually incredibly narrow and specific!

Rather than being hampered by a need to overcome the ordinary, I can come at all of life with the aim of enjoying it as it is, and as it will be, confident that my focus on enjoyment will lead me further down that happy path.

And freed from an obsession with the ordinary, who knows where the path of enjoying life will take me?

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

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:

Sanguine

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.

Phlegmatic

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.

Choleric

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!)

 

 

 

Self-will gets in the Way

“People often say, “We have goodwill.” Theirs is not God’s will, though; they want to have their own way and dictate to God to do so and so. That is not goodwill. We must find out from God what his will is. Broadly speaking, what God wills is that we should give up willing…

There is no making of a proper man without surrender of the will. In fact, unless we give up our will without reserve, we cannot work with God at all. But suppose it came about that we did give up our own will altogether and had the heart to rid ourselves of every single thing inside and out for God, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.  Of such people few are to be found. Knowingly or unknowingly they want something definite, some experience of higher things. They are set on this condition or that boon. It is nothing whatever but self-will. Abandon to God altogether your self and all things without any qualms as to what he will do with his own…

There is no true and perfect will until, entering wholly into God’s will, a man has no will of his own.”

Meister Eckhart

It’s been a long time since I read any of Eckhart, but I opened him today to this section and it reminded me immediately of my recent reading of Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing or Laozi:

An attitude [corresponding to] the capacity of the hollow is the only means to follow the Way.
Hollow means empty. Only having taken being empty as [one’s] capacity will one then be able to act in accordance with the Way.

That’s just one line, but if I quote more of it I’ll never get to bed tonight.  The Way is “empty” yet it guides and nourishes things according to their nature. For humans to return to the Way, we should likewise empty ourselves and be without contrived action; then we will act in accordance with our nature.

The difficulty of this is hard to overstate, but is most evident when, as Eckhart notes, we set ourselves on particular conditions, paying lip-service to the Way or the divine Will, whilst clinging nonetheless to our own will.

There needs to be an element of trust that in abandoning self-will and the outcomes or ideals we covet, we are in fact abandoning obstacles to the fulfillment of our nature.  Sometimes the goals we have in mind are simply wrong for us – they will not bring the satisfaction they seem to promise. But even when the goals are good, noble, and true, we still miss out on the higher goal of surrender.

I suspect this might be the meaning of “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Likewise “the man of highest virtue never acts, yet nothing is left undone.”

But that can mean embracing the reality of circumstances that seem to deny your deepest hopes and dreams; worse – it means dragging your deepest hopes and dreams into the light of a faith that will feel too cold and too harsh for the delicate fantasies of your self-will.

There are undoubtedly consolations to be had after the fact, but this is beside the point; the point is that no matter how good and alluring our dreams and desires may be, if we cannot abandon them for the sake of the divine will, the Way, then we are merely clinging to burdens of our own creation.

 

Trauma and the ingratiate melancholic

The past few days have brought up several instances that bring to mind a phenomenon I will call the ingratiate melancholic.

As mentioned in a previous post, the melancholic has a tendency to act towards others according to ideals of human behaviour that do not necessarily match how he actually feels, what he really wants or values.

The ideal spouse, friend, child, parent, guest or host, all of these impose an expectation or a role that the melancholic might feel more comfortable, more self-assured if he adheres to.  But at the same time, in adhering to the role, the melancholic is not truly being himself. He is not being true to himself and is not developing the virtue of sincerity.  His motives may be good, but he is actually giving people less of himself than if he were able to express the thoughts and feelings that do not fit into that ideal.

There is, however, another way to interpret this phenomenon: through the lens of the human response to trauma and stress.

An excellent book on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by Pete Walker introduces the concept of PTSD developed not through single traumatic events but through consistent patterns of traumatic abuse and neglect, such that the individual develops survival-mechanisms or maladaptive responses to trauma that are in turn subject to the abusive environment. The individual is left with a personality riven through by maladaptive responses; he may not even know which parts of himself are ‘original’ and which are maladaptive response, because both have developed together and are interdependent.  So while sufferers of PTSD may be conscious of distinct personality differences before and after the trauma, for complex PTSD sufferers, no such distinction can be made.

Walker describes maladaptive responses in terms of four instinctive responses to trauma. To the well-known triad of fight, flight, and freeze, he adds the ingratiating response of ‘fawn’.  For people in long-term abuse or neglect scenarios, the most successful maladaptive strategy can become an ingrained part of the personality, whether it be fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.  Of particular interest in the context of the melancholic temperament is Walker’s depiction of the ‘fawn’ response type:

Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. They often begin life like the precocious children described in Alice Miler’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, who learn that a modicum of safety and attachment can be gained by becoming the helpful and compliant servants of their parents. They are usually the children of at least one narcissistic parent who uses contempt to press them into service, scaring and shaming them out of developing a healthy sense of self: an egoic locus of self-protection, self-care and self-compassion.

Walker does not utilise a temperament theory, but what interests me is the possibility that the melancholic temperament may be predisposed to developing the ingratiating ‘fawn’ strategy in response to environments that may or may not be dysfunctional in and of themselves, but are experienced as such by the melancholic child in the absence of positive role models or intelligible social and cultural messages and cues.

While a melancholic child could develop any one of the trauma responses, or multiple trauma responses, the fawn response is in many ways most appropriate to the melancholic child’s circumstances.  Firstly, like phlegmatics, melancholics are not well-attuned to the external environment to begin with, but unlike phlegmatics they also struggle to recover from traumatic experiences and incidents. An extreme melancholic child will struggle to recognise the same cues or mirror the behaviours of other children, yet will be acutely aware of this disparity and may well suffer for it. Persistent disorientation, confusion, and implicit ostracism can exacerbate actual dysfunctions in family and environment, such that the melancholic child is more severely traumatised than a child of a different temperament would be.

Yet at the same time, the causes of these trauma are systemic and normalised: imagine a melancholic child sitting confused and disoriented in a classroom where all the other children show no signs of confusion or disorientation.  If the child expresses his confusion and disorientation he will be the subject of negative attention from the teacher and other students. Of the available responses to this negative attention, fight and flight will only exacerbate it. That leaves freeze and fawn, though even freezing will bring about greater negative attention than the meekness and compliance of the fawn response.

Extrapolate this dynamic across nearly every aspect of life: the growing melancholic child fears hurt and humiliation, has a long memory for it, yet is predisposed to experience it afresh because of his relatively slow and sedate response to external stimuli. Surely such children will learn soon enough that the best way to avoid humiliation, trauma, and negative attention is to ingratiate oneself with others (especially authority figures) where possible – learning to play a compliant, amenable, obedient and good-natured role.

For adult melancholics, the pressure to maintain this long-practiced response to stress and trauma can be both reasonable and deeply emotive. On the one hand, it is reasonable to take care in how you express yourself verbally to others, so as not to unwittingly offend people with careless statements. On the other hand, it is certainly a maladaptive strategy to maintain a deeply guarded approach to social interactions, and to filter one’s statements compulsively so as to avoid any possible negative interpretations.

The danger identified through the complex PTSD concept is that melancholics may mistake this maladaptive strategy for their own personality.  They may think that they are ‘nice’ people or ‘considerate’ people rather than simply fearful and ingratiating people, who may even lack the capacity to exercise consideration or ‘niceness’ when their behaviour is already so tightly determined by stress-oriented strategies.

They may find themselves acting in ways that deny their actual thoughts, feelings, and values due to the ingrained influence of their maladaptive responses. Ultimately, they risk being unable to express themselves honestly and sincerely with friends and loved ones, living instead through the filter of an unwarranted survival mechanism that has outlived its usefulness.