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  • Writer's pictureStacy Taylor, LCSW

The Four Temperaments

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Do you have friction with people at work? Does your partner drive you crazy sometimes? Do you feel perplexed by your child's behavior?

One of the most fascinating, and useful, ways to understand others' (and our own) behavior, is called the Four Temperaments. This system is ancient, and harkens back to the Greeks, who labeled it the Four Humors.

Temperament is different than personality. While personality is shaped by environment, temperament is inborn. That's why parents often scratch their heads in wonderment why one child is so different than another. Each child has his or her temperament.

You can see inborn temperament even in babies. Some babes are easy going; they wake up laughing and happy. Other infants are difficult to comfort, no matter how much rocking a parent does. While basic temperament cannot be changed, it can be worked with and understood.

Another important point about temperament: there is no pure temperament. Most people are a combination of two or more types. But there is always a primary temperament. Understanding how temperament works may be a key to improving your relationships with others.

Let me go through the four types:

1. The first is sanguine. Sanguines love to laugh and have fun. There's rarely a party that a sanguine doesn't want to attend. Sanguines enjoy social gatherings; they can feel restless and bored when alone. Because of their fun-loving nature, sanguines are prone to overdoing it and making poor, impulsive decisions. Sanguines are generally easy going, although they can be prone to big bursts of emotion, which they quickly forget. Sanguines can get angry, but they don't tend to hold onto gripes or hold grudges.

2. Next we have the melancholic. The melancholic is very different from the sanguine. Melancholics are serious, intense, and sentimental; they may cry at a touching television commercial or be moved to tears by a sad story. There are countless artists and and writers with a melancholic temperament. Melancholics are outraged by injustice and care deeply about the underdog; but they may over focus on the difficult, negative aspects of life and become pessimistic.

Melancholics generally prefer to read a book alone or engage in small gatherings with friends, not big and noisy parties. They are prone to mood swings, guilt, and shame. Melancholics fret about small things, particularly perceived or imagined insults from others. They have difficulty making decisions, tend towards perfectionism, and are prone to anxiety and worry. Melancholics are slow to trust; but once they trust someone, they are the most loyal of friends. However, a rejection or betrayal by someone with whom they trusted is absolutely devastating. Melancholics remember insults, and they can hold onto grudges. When melancholics make a mistake, they are very hard on themselves, and can spiral into depression.

3. Third, we have the choleric, who tends to be a visionary. Cholerics have grand ideas, though they can be weak in the finer details of the project. Cholerics become frustrated and irritated at barriers in their way to success; and they do not "suffer fools gladly," as goes the expression. Cholerics are confident (if not overconfident at times) and natural born leaders. Cholerics can have a temper, be impatient, and snap at people when frustrated. Many politicians, heads of fast-paced companies, and top attorneys are cholerics.

4. Lastly, there is the phlegmatic. These folks are rock solid; they rarely get stressed or bent out of shape. Phlegmatics are dependable and conscientious. They are affable, easy-going, and peaceful. But phlegmatics may lack charisma. They relish routine and consistency. Other people may complain that phlegmatics are passive, possibly dull.

As you can see, there are four distinct temperaments, all with their particular strengths and challenges. From learning about the temperaments, it's clear why people would have interpersonal challenges dealing with others; with so many disparate temperaments, it's no wonder that people clash.

Let's take a typical workplace, with a combination of all four temperaments. Try to guess which person has which temperament type:

--Jason started his award-winning tech company 8 years ago in his parents' basement. People told Jason that he couldn't do it: that he lacked the funds and the experience. But, believing in himself and his ideas, Jason defeated all of the odds. Today, the company makes millions, and is about to go public, with Jason at the helm as the CEO.

Which temperament type is Jason?

--Ryan is Director of Sales at the company. Jason can depend on Ryan for pretty much everything. While Jason has the big picture ideas, Ryan makes them happen. There is a problem, though. While Jason values Ryan's steadiness and dependability, Jason is concerned that Ryan is a bit stuffy and lacks the personal charm of a Director of Sales.

Which temperament type is Ryan?

--Susan is second in command at the company, as Director of Operations. Susan is extremely hard working, often working evenings and weekends. While Susan loves her job, she is very anxious about making a mistake and being on the receiving end of Jason's temper. When Jason has snapped at her, she's cried long and hard in her office -- and later at home with her husband. Susan's staff complain that while Susan works incredibly hard, she can have a hard time making decisions and can have overly high expectations.

Which temperament type is Susan?

--Lastly, we have Tricia. Tricia is the top salesperson at the firm. The clients' love Tricia for her lively, outgoing, and effervescent personality. Tricia relishes making people laugh, and can be found gathering up the rest of the staff after work for an early happy hour. While Tricia is good at her job, she has a tendency to drink too much and come to work late. She can become extremely restless after a few months in a job, and then leave for another one. Tricia's boss, the dependable Ryan, values her charisma but is perturbed by her lax attitude about timeliness.

What temperament type is Tricia?

Here are the results: Jason, the CEO, is choleric, with dependable, but dull, Ryan, a phlegmatic. Susan, the worrier, is melancholic. And Tricia, the party girl, is sanguine. With all of these differences in temperament, you see why conflict at work (and other places) is almost inevitable.

If you are drawn to this system, called the Four Temperaments, there is a lot online about it. You can also take one of the many online tests to discover your temperament.

One way to get along better with people is to figure out their temperament. Then, rather than personalize the friction or get frustrated, you can view it as a clash between your temperament and his or hers.

And if you discover your own temperament, you'll start to see why you push other people's buttons, although inadvertently. Understanding your temperament can also illuminate why you may struggle with anxiety, or frustration, or boredom.

Although temperament is inborn, there is a lot that we can do to manage our temperament, despite its downsides. In a future blog, I will write more about how we can excel in life, regardless of our temperament.

(Please note: people referenced in this blog are not real people, but composites.)

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