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?

keirsey

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:

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!)

 

 

 

Stress and the melancholic temperament

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

And:

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.