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.


Temperament Tests

I just came across this temperament test created by a historian of ideas from Paris.

Her book is a history of the humours in Western medicine and culture, and that includes the temperaments.

Have a go at the test. Every test has its limitations, and I did this one a couple of times because I had conflicting responses to some questions.

Regardless, I ended up predominantly melancholic each time, as expected:


As a bonus, she offers some historical medical advice for balancing out your humours! Mine included taking a one hour walk every day, to which I had an immediate visceral reaction of opposition and incredulity. So it’s probably good advice.


This next test was sent to me by a friend some time ago. As with all tests, I found the questions a little hard to answer. For example, when it asks whether I prefer novelty or routine, my first thought is that of course I prefer novelty. But that just means I like the idea of novelty. If I look objectively at my life, I obviously don’t like novelty…I am a terrifyingly routine person.


This test was created using self-descriptions from people who already knew their temperament – which explains why I laughed so hard at some of the criteria, such as “I radiate joy”.

Yep, that’s me alright.

The actual explanations of the temperament aren’t amazing, but it’s still one of the best tests I’ve seen.


Searching for Four Temperaments info?

I’m planning to write a book about the Four Temperaments theory, but in the meantime I notice some of the search terms that bring people to my page, and in lieu of actual questions I thought I would respond to some of them.

choleric sanguine mbti

I use Keirsey’s temperaments to match the four temperaments to the MBTI, though I don’t necessarily follow his system.

Cholerics are Keirsey’s “rational” which is NT in MBTI terms.

Sanguines are Keirsey’s “artisan” which is SP.

My theory is that one’s secondary temperament corresponds to one’s inverse Myers-Briggs Type. So for a person to exhibit both NT and SP characteristics suggests extroverted sensing is in their functional stack, as either their tertiary or inferior function. So if we know that an NT has extroverted Sensing (SP) in third or fourth place, then they must have the inverse in their perceiving function: introverted Intuition. That means a Choleric-Sanguine (as in, a Choleric with secondary Sanguine characteristics) must be an NTJ, either an ENTJ or INTJ.

In theory, an ENTJ will be more Sanguine than an INTJ, because the extroverted Sensing (SP) that makes Sanguines what they are will be tertiary for an ENTJ and inferior in an INTJ, hence more prominent in the former.

is melancholic sensor or intuitive

Intuitive. Definitely intuitive. Melancholics are NF according to the MBTI.

skill and ways of learning sanguine temperament

From the temperament perspective, Sanguines are easily distracted and like “nice things” which includes beautiful objects, fun experiences, social events, etc. In MBTI terms, it helps to consider that Sanguines are defined by their extroverted Sensing, which simply means they are oriented to their sensory input from the external world.

I like to think of Sanguines as being either “entertainment” types or “artisan” types, borrowing from Keirsey a little. Every Sanguine I’ve ever met enjoys a party, but some are more introverted than others and seem more inclined to make things. Bear in mind that Sanguines in the MBTI system can either be Thinking or Feeling dominant, so I wouldn’t generalise about how they learn. The common factor is their appreciation for sensory stimuli.

i am melancholic but i have met some choleric type guys but we always end up fighting why

Because Cholerics are *****.

Just kidding. Some of my best friends are Choleric, I swear!

In the temperament system, both Cholerics and Melancholics form long-lasting impressions of the world. The difference between them is that Cholerics are excitable, which translates into ambition, desire to accomplish things, and pride. Melancholics are not excitable, which translates into hesitancy, rumination or endless reflection, risk-aversion and pessimism. But despite these differences, they are nonetheless on the same “wavelength” when compared to the other two temperaments.

Melancholics and Cholerics will often end up fighting because the Choleric will come across as arrogant, insensitive, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The Melancholic will come across as stubborn, unwilling to cooperate (or be manipulated), and risk averse. Cholerics and Melancholics are most likely to clash when the Melancholic has something that the Choleric wants or needs to accomplish his goals.

By contrast, Sanguines and Phlegmatics can usually be convinced to go along with a Choleric’s plans. They seem more “open-minded”, less risk averse, and often have a shorter memory for the manipulation, forcefulness and deceit that some (many?) Cholerics will use to get their own way.

Ultimately, both Cholerics and Melancholics like to be in control, actively for the former and passively for the latter. Hence conflict is often assured.

intps introverted sanguine

I don’t think so. An INTP should be a Choleric, and extroverted Sensing (SP) should be difficult for them according to the MBTI.

mbti 4 temperaments

I use Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter which does a good job of linking temperaments to MBTI. Just treat the Guardian as Phlegmatic, the Artisan as Sanguine, the Idealist as Melancholic, and the Rational as Choleric.

melancholics and high stress

No thank you.

Actually, Melancholics are quite gifted at creating their own sources of stress. It’s due to the idealism that arises from our lack of excitability and enduring impressions. We don’t get excited by the same things as everyone else, but positive and negative experiences leave a deep impression on us. As a result, we start searching for rules or principles or ideals that can help us to operate more effectively in the world. Unfortunately this very search tends to make us less pragmatic and less tolerant of our own mistakes and imperfections in the world.

In addition, our society tends to be dominated by Choleric and Sanguine and to a lesser extent Phlegmatic influences. We’re told to be more aggressive, ambitious, competitive, and achievement-oriented. We’re encouraged to consume, to have fun, to be easy-going, to smile a lot, and be sociable. Finally, we’re told at the very least to obey the rules, to not make trouble for others, to not stand out, and not be demanding.

So, Melancholics are left trying to find a place in a society that doesn’t really recognise or understand their temperament, with the additional handicap of not knowing their own temperament very well either, and to top it all off they go in search of answers that tend to exacerbate the problem of fitting in.

infp melancholic temperament

All NF types are Melancholic according to Keirsey’s system. INFPs are more likely to be Melancholic with a strong Phlegmatic influence, because their tertiary function is introverted Sensing – the defining feature of the Phlegmatic.

Melancholic-Phlegmatics are hard to find, perhaps because they’re more likely to be at home on their own.

Their idealistic Melancholic characteristics are influenced by the Phlegmatic’s desire to avoid conflict, follow the rules, and get the details right. I think this tends to conflict with the Melancholic desire for eccentricity, radical change, and frustration at the status quo.

melancholy temperament and worrying

Melancholics worry because the experience of being unexcitable but with enduring impressions is like living in the midst of a thick fog, while you’re assailed from all around by the sounds of people enjoying life, achieving things, yelling at you to get out of their way or cajoling you to follow their lead.

All you can see are the brightest lights and the biggest landmarks, but you’re not even sure how close they are, let alone how to reach them.

Occasionally you work out where you are and what lies in front of you, but then the fog swirls and you’re lost in it once again.

So you worry. You worry about going the wrong way, falling down in a hole, getting in people’s way, failing to arrive at your destination, having the wrong destination, and so on.

In real life you don’t even realise there is a fog. So you experience worry on a more subconscious level with the sense that something just isn’t right, that you don’t fully understand what everyone else is doing and why, and they in turn don’t seem to understand you at all.

strange melancholics


Imagine if everyone around you suddenly became fascinated with cat feces. They started collecting it, writing about it, featuring it on the news. Some people accumulate huge piles of cat feces and are celebrated as heroes and pillars of society. Cat feces becomes a new currency, a status symbol, and an object of adoration.

What would you do? Maybe you shrug your shoulders and do your best to fake enthusiasm about other people’s cat feces and amass your own modest collection. After all, there are bills to pay.

But you would never get genuinely excited about it, and so you’d never really be able to relate to others. You’d wish there was something more to life than cat feces.

Everyone else would think you were strange.


That’s probably enough for now. I’ll continue later when I have the time…

How we vote: the four temperaments

My latest piece at MercatorNet suggests that differences in temperament may explain why otherwise intelligent and like-minded people have fallen apart over voting for Trump.

Choleric temperaments see the world in terms of achievement and ambition. They excel at rational calculations of whatever is to their advantage. Voting in an election is no different from investing in the stock market – you want to park your money or your vote where it has the best chance of making a return.

By contrast, the melancholic temperament sees the world in terms of ideals. For a melancholic, a vote for Trump implies an endorsement of the man and his politics, with all the accountability such support entails. In an ideal world, voters would take personal responsibility for the moral character of the candidate they support.



Temperaments and the MBTI

Following up on the previous post where I introduced Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, how about we take a look in more detail at the implications of linking the temperaments to the Myers-Briggs system?


We’ll stick with the Idealist type, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament.

First a brief run-down on the MBTI.

I was reintroduced to the system in my previous workplace as part of a Human Resources thing. I use the word ‘thing’ advisedly, since that particular episode defies more insightful analysis.

I fully intended to write something hateful and contemptuous about it, but found in the course of further research that I had a great deal of sympathy for the system, if not the practice of it in a corporate environment.

As with my aversion to corporate meditation, the problems lie in the self-serving, incoherent, and banal spirit that infects everything it comes into contact with, no matter how good or noble or valuable (or simply harmless) it may be.

So I spent some time digging deeper into the MBTI and came across various good resources.

The core of it lies in the cognitive functions of perceiving and judging. Perceiving comes in two forms: Sensing (S) and Intuition (N). Judging also comes in two forms: Feeling (F) and Thinking (T).

That gives four possible combinations of perceiving and judging: SF, ST, NF, and NT.

Broadly speaking, you could say that Sensing is about facts, details, and precision. Intuition is about patterns, similarities, and generalities. Feeling is about meaning, relation, and authenticity. Thinking is about reason, systems, and achieving goals.

To make matters more complex, the MBTI theory holds that these perceiving and judging functions are further divided by introversion and extroversion. That is, we use different functions to perceive interiorly as opposed to exteriorly, and likewise with judging.

If a person uses Sensing to interpret the exterior world, they will use Intuition to interpret the interior world. If a person uses Thinking to arrive at judgements about external things, they will use Feeling to reach decisions about internal ones.

In terms of notation, we can add a little i or e to the functions. So an NF person may be NiFe (introverted Intuition and extroverted Feeling) or NeFi (extroverted Intuition and introverted Feeling).

Not only are your functions introverted and extroverted, but you yourself are also more or less introverted or extroverted. In fact, introversion and extroversion of the individual (as opposed to the functions) is one of the most solidly researched and supported aspects of personality theory generally.

Why does this matter? Well, if your functions are NiFe, but you yourself are predominantly introverted (I), then your individual focus is going to be centred more on your introverted function: Ni – introverted Intuition.  That is to say that your introverted Intuition is going to figure more in your experience of life than your extroverted Feeling.

An Extroverted NiFe person will have the inverse experience. They will still have introverted Intuition, but their extroverted Feeling will be more central to their experience.

For some reason, the Myers-Briggs notation settled on four characters. So instead of writing, for example, INiFe, they write INF, and add a P or J to tell you which of the functions is extroverted.

Thus, an Introverted person who has introverted Intuition (Ni) and extroverted Feeling (Fe) will be written as INFJ, because the Judging function is extroverted. Conversely, an Introverted person who has extroverted Intuition (Ne) and introverted Feeling (Fi) will be written as INFP.

Phew! This is hard work. Writing strictly explanatory material like this is rather exhausting. A structured, detailed approach is really better suited to a Sensing type.

Anyhow, as I was saying, all NF types are classed as Idealists in Keirsey’s system, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament. But in MBTI terms, there are still notable differences between the various NF subtypes. An INFJ and an INFP may have a lot in common, but these commonalities will highlight their differences as well.

One way of thinking about these differences is in terms of temperament. There aren’t a lot of Melancholics around (half of them are hiding), but even so I know enough of them to spot consistent differences. Some Melancholics are a little, dare I say, Sanguine. Others are a little more Phlegmatic.

We might, in the typically crude style of the temperaments theory, suggest that some people are Melancholic-Sanguine and others are Melancholic-Phlegmatic. And if we look at the MBTI in Keirsey’s approach, we can see how this might work.

An INFJ has Ni and Fe as his predominant functions. But that means he also has Ti and Se as his tertiary and ‘inferior’ functions. Each of us uses all of the functions to greater or lesser degrees. What the MBTI really indicates is one’s preference or strength in the various functions. So when you see NF, you know immediately that S and T are in there somewhere.

Extroverted Sensing (Se) in Keirsey’s system signifies that a person is of the Artisan or Sanguine temperament. Whether you are an ISTP, ESTP, ISFP, or ESFP, you all have extroverted Sensing and are therefore all Sanguines.

This implies that all NFJ types are a little bit Sanguine, since they have Se as either their tertiary (for ENFJ) or inferior (for INFJ) functions.

Accordingly, all NFP types are a little bit Phlegmatic, since INFP and ENFP types have introverted Sensing (Si) as their tertiary and inferior functions respectively.

In theory then, all INFP types are Melancholic-Phlegmatic, though in practice it will depend on the individual as to how strong the relevant functions are. The functions of any given INFP will tend to be arranged as follows in order of preference: Fi, Ne, Si, Te.

But if you’ve ever done an MBTI test, you might find some unusual results. You might find, for example, that your inferior function is almost as strong as your dominant function.  In fact, before I really understood the functions I was never sure if I was INFP or INTP, because I usually scored equally high in both F and T.

As various sources suggest, the inferior function is not supposed to be so strong but can emerge under stress or duress, or even as part of a developmental stage. The idea is that this weakest function can come to hold a certain mystique, potency or promise. Discovering an underdeveloped function that is, in a sense, the other side of the coin to your dominant function can present apparent opportunities and adventure.

For me, the development of extroverted Thinking coincided with my discovery of a system of ethics and an approach to philosophy that was new, exciting, and extremely powerful.

I pursued this philosophy in a single-minded way for several years. It was pretty much all I talked about.  What I loved most about it was the clarity and certainty it provided, in stark contrast to the relativism and pluralism of the academic philosophy I had been exposed to.

And yet, the more I pursued it the more confined and restricted I felt. The sense of having all the answers at first provided wonder, but eventually the wonder collapsed in on itself. The excitement at having the tools to discover answers in time became weariness at the kinds of answers these tools could provide, or the kinds of puzzles they could solve.

In MBTI terms, I reached the limit of exploring my inferior extroverted Thinking. It no longer felt mysterious or interesting or powerful.  The answers it provided may have been as true as ever, but they were no longer satisfying.

Developing or relying on my inferior function skews the results of various tests, and can result in MBTI mis-identification. I did wonder in the past whether I was INTP or INFP…but if we revert to the temperaments theory such mis-identification becomes laughable.

An INTP is, like all NT types, a Choleric. An INFP is, like all NF types, a Melancholic. And while Melancholics and Cholerics can have a lot in common, on closer inspection there is really no mistaking the two.

Yet prior to discovering the four temperaments theory, I did see strong similarities between myself and several Cholerics I know. The similarities are real, but from a Melancholic perspective, they are not as significant as the elements that give us a different ‘feel’.

And this is, again, where the MBTI suffers compared to the temperaments theory.  By going into greater detail, offering 16 types rather than four main temperaments, by dealing in functions rather than reactions, the MBTI offers a lot more, but at greater risk of confusion and mis-identification.

In a very unMelancholic style, it turns the extremes of the four temperaments into the finely variegated 16 types. It reduces the ancient biological analogy of the humours to the interchangeable binary of the MBTI pigeon-holes, and loses something in the process.  Like the inferior function that (for me) it represents, I don’t mind delving into it on occasion, but it’s not something I can depend on wholeheartedly.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clash of temperaments

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

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

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


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


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


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

Anxiety as clash of temperaments

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

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

Clashing with a sanguine

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the solution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Stress and the melancholic temperament

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Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.


Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.