Understanding Temperament - The Primary Building Block of Life
Leslie Verghese is the Executive Director of Agape Partners International and the Vice President of a premier Social Service agency in New York. Rev. Verghese is a licensed psychotherapist and is also a minister at the Shalem Tabernacle in Elmont, NY. Married to Jessy and has four children, Japhia, Joshua, Johana and Jaynah. He can be contacted at Â firstname.lastname@example.org.View all articles by Leslie Verghese, LCSW
Psalm 139:13-16 says “For you have formed my inward parts; You have covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book, they are all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.
There are three building blocks of human behavior:
1. God Created (Inborn)
2. Man/Environment Affected (Character-Learned Behavior)
3. Self Selected (Personality – Mask)
The Inborn God Created building block is called Temperament. When we are conceived, our unique temperament is placed within us by the order of God just the same way as our genetic code. Our temperament determines how much love, affection, control and ‘people’ we need.
The second building block for understanding human behavior is that we are man/environment affected. This is called our character. At birth, we begin interacting with our environment and our environment interacts with us. The environment is everything that is tangible; what we see, hear, smell, feel, and learn. These perceptions are forever locked into our brain and they slowly but steadily mould and alter our temperament (externally only as the built in temperament remains the same), thereby forming our Character. In a mathematical formula we can state: Temperament X Environment = Character
The third building block is ‘Self Selection’. This is called our Personality, and is expressed in the way we perceive how we must behave to survive in the world in which we live. This may or may not be part of our Temperament or Character depending on how we chose to meet our temperament needs. The one major problem with personality is that it is a mask that a person wears for the world. Hence, as it is with any mask it cannot be worn for too long. Eventually, a person’s actions and reactions revert back to temperament and character. This explains why a person acts differently at home than they do in public.
In Mathew 11:29, Christ states “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me”. Yokes are used to steer the beast in the right direction, help the animal to work longer, more efficiently by tiring less under heavy burdens. They are measured and padded appropriately and made well fitting. When Christ states “my yoke is easy”, He means that His yoke is ‘perfectly fitting’. Christ calls a person to the right position ordained by God and takes into account the person’s Physical capabilities, Spiritual maturity, and Emotional makeup. Temperament is the missing link in this balance. The importance of studying the temperament is hence extremely crucial in helping the individual function better in life. Temperament deals mainly with three aspects of a person’s life, namely Inclusion – the intellect, Control – the will power and Affection – the emotions. Inclusion is the need to establish and maintain a satisfactory surface relationship with people through association and socialization whereas control is achieving the same through power, and affection is establishing a deep relationship of love. Inclusion determines who is in our relationship and whether we relate better to tasks or to people. Control determines who maintains the power and how well we make decisions. Affection determines the closeness of the relationship and how many emotions we share. The expressed and responsive needs in these three areas determine the inborn temperament of a person.
The Five Temperaments
There is no “right” or “wrong” temperament. There is simply the one God gave you—inherently good, but marred by original sin. Identifying the temperament helps one to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. One's temperament is a gift from God, an important aspect of our human nature that brings with it certain strengths as well as weaknesses. It is important to know oneself so that one does not go through life reacting instinctively, but rather acting with wisdom and fortitude. When we begin to understand our temperament, we can identify our natural tendencies and use this as a springboard for growth. As Christ pointed out in Luke 14:28-33, who would build a tower without first calculating the cost? What king would go into battle without first taking an inventory of his troops? Understanding our temperament is like taking a personal inventory of our natural strengths and weaknesses, so that we can "calculate the cost": what virtues do I need to grow in and what skills do I need to develop to become a more happy and holy person?
There are four temperaments which were originally proposed by Hippocrates (the "father of medical science"). 350 years before the birth of Christ, to explain differences in personalities, based on the predominant bodily fluid—hence the rather unappealing names: Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, and Melancholic. Even today these same terms are used to describe temperament, by which we mean an individual's tendency to react in a certain way throughout their life, forming an identifiable pattern. For example, the choleric tends to react quickly and intensely, and to take action immediately and decisively. The sanguine is your classic "people person," known for their warmth, enthusiasm, and cheerful optimism. The melancholic is deeply thoughtful and analytic, slow to respond, skeptical, sensitive, and idealistic. The phlegmatic is usually a "peace-maker"—slow to react, calm, cooperative, and reserved. Also, the “sanguine” temperament was thought to be eager and optimistic; the “melancholic” reticent and somewhat doleful; the “choleric” passionate; and the “phlegmatic” calm.
The National Christian Counseling Association has developed a fifth temperament called ‘Supine’. The supine is labeled as a ‘bowing temperament’. They see everyone else as valuable and themselves as worthless. They look at themselves as being placed on earth to serve others. They have a great capacity for service, liking people and have a gentle spirit. However, they also have a high fear of rejection, expect others to read their mind and have a lot of ‘hurt feelings’
Hippocrates used the following body fluids to describe the four original temperaments:
Choleric: Yellow bile from the liver
Sanguine: Blood from the heart
Melancholic: Black bile from the kidneys
Phlegmatic: Phlegm from the lungs
Although the concept of the four types had been around since the early Greeks, the use of the word “temperament” (from the Latin temperamentum, or “mixture”) first came into use in the seventeenth century. In the history of the Church, the concept of temperament was long used as a means to aid spiritual development through growth in self-knowledge. Understanding one’s self required understanding the whole person—his emotions and passions, natural tendencies and reactions—as well as his virtues and spiritual gifts. Spiritual directors have long understood that one would be better able to identify not only one’s natural virtues, but also those virtues which may be more difficult to attain and the areas in which one would be tempted to vice—depending upon one’s God-given temperament.
In the 1920s Swiss psychologist Carl Jung advanced the theory that different personality types approached the outside world in distinct manners, and could be clearly categorized accordingly. Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1979) spent forty years refining the Jungian typology into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, with its sixteen different types of personality. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, is considered to be one of the most widely used personality inventories available, and has achieved great popular success. Curiously enough, from Hippocrates to Isabel Briggs Myers, and even up until today, the concept of four basic temperaments underlying more complex personality theories has remained virtually unchanged! David Keirsey, Ph.D. author of the Keirsey Temperament Sorter avows that 2,000 years of consistency in terms of temperament distinctions is no accident. These distinctions “reflect a fundamental pattern in the warp and woof of the fabric of human nature” (Keirsey 26).1
Each one of us is uniquely and predominantly one of the temperaments or a blending of them — choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine, and supine. After more than 2,000 years of intervening medical and psychological advancement, the concept of temperament itself — and in particular the classic four divisions — is still referenced by contemporary psychologists, educators, and spiritual writers. Today, Christians all over the world are re-discovering the value and wisdom of this most ancient tool for understanding ourselves and others.
Temperaments and the Gospels
Many of us have a favorite Gospel writer—wouldn’t it be interesting if that Gospel is the one that relates most closely to our own temperament? In fact, many Christian writers have speculated about the temperaments of the Gospel writers, as each seem to reflect a unique--and slightly different--perspective. To the extent that each of the Gospels offers a slightly different perspective on the Paschal mystery, it may be possible to characterize each one’s “temperament.”
Matthew demonstrates definitively that Christ is the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament and emphasizes the Kingdom of God. Luke highlights Jesus’ relationship with the Father, especially through prayer, as well as the poor, women, the lowly and the suppressed. Mark is the least “scholarly” and tells a straightforward fast-paced story; he shows Christ’s urgency and his conquering action. John is the most mystical, poetic, and theoretical of all the four. To hazard a guess, we would propose that Matthew is choleric, Luke the relationship-oriented sanguine, Mark the straight story, simple and unadorned (phlegmatic), and John (the truth will set you free; the only Gospel where Christ carries the cross alone, the most poetic and mystical of all four gospels) –idealistic, melancholic.
Temperaments Characteristics and Some Examples
Choleric - Ignatius of Loyola, John Bosco, Rush Limbaugh, George Patton, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates
If you are a choleric, you are a dynamic, self-motivated leader who can set your sights on a target and relentlessly pursue it until success is achieved. You are a strong-willed individual who makes decisions quickly and decisively, and who readily and easily grasps difficult concepts and strategies. Learning comes quickly to you, and you like to take action immediately. You think logically and pragmatically, and are sometimes accused of "rolling over" people once you have set a plan in motion. You do not readily reveal deep emotions—except anger. Cholerics are often accused of being stubborn, domineering, and dictatorial. You demand loyalty from your friends, and thrive when you are in control. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a choleric president: "There is nothing I love as much as a good fight," he famously said.
Strengths and natural virtues: Active, assertive, bold, brave, capable, compelling, confident, competitive, determined, decisive, driving, dynamic, effective, energetic, enterprising, focused, forceful, goal-oriented, independent, opinionated, passionate, persevering, positive, pragmatic, productive, purposeful, quick, resolute, self-motivated, sharp, strong-willed, vigorous, zealous
Weaknesses and natural vices: Aggressive, ambitious, angry, antagonistic, argumentative, bossy, combative, defiant, dismissive, domineering, harsh, impatient, intolerant, oppositional, prideful, pushy, relentless, shrewd, stubborn, unempathic, unsympathetic
Sanguine - Peter (Sanguine-Choleric), Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Tiger woods.
If you are a sanguine, then you are most likely the life of the party. You are funny and relish the limelight. You are affectionate, enjoy social activities, and make friends easily. You are imaginative and creative, and are often the one who enthusiastically promotes new ideas on the job. People call you vivacious, generous, and light-hearted. You wear your emotions on your sleeve, but you are always quick to “forgive and forget.” You probably struggle with follow-through, are chronically late, and tend to be forgetful. As quickly as you discover a new hobby or pursuit, you can also lose interest--when it ceases to be engaging or fun.
Strengths and natural virtues: Active, affectionate, affable, animated, ardent, carefree, compassionate, cheerful, creative, docile, eager, enthusiastic, entertainer, expressive, generous, fashionable, flexible, forgiving, funny, fun-loving, high-spirited, imaginative, joyful, light-hearted, lively, open, optimistic, outgoing, popular, responsive, resilient, sensitivity, sparkling, spontaneous, story-teller, vivacious, warm-hearted
Weaknesses and natural vices: Attention-seeking, changeable, chatty, distractible, disorganized, emotional, tendency to exaggerate, faddish, fickle, flighty, frivolous, forgetful, gossipy, inconstancy, insincere, lacking depth, scattered, sensuality, smart-alecky, superficial, prone to vanity, undisciplined
Phlegmatic - St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvin Coolidge, Tim Duncan, Sandy Koufax, Ian Crocker, Keanu Reeves
If you are a phlegmatic, you most likely possess a dry wit and a steady, amicable demeanor. You are dependable, polite, and even-tempered. You feel more comfortable in a small group of friends or even spending a quiet evening relaxing at home. You are never flashy, belligerent, or self-aggrandizing. You would rather take the blame (even unjustly) than stir up controversy or pick a fight. On the job, you seek neither power nor the limelight, but work steadily, patiently, and methodically. You are reliable, patient, and methodical on the job, and can work alone, or with the most difficult of personalities. You will prefer job security, working within a structured organization, but can also be a leader of great character and service. Former U.S. president Calvin Coolidge, for example, was known for being a man of few words, conservatism in maintaining the status quo, and a propensity for "effectively doing nothing." Once at a dinner party, a young woman bet him that she could make him say three words. Coolidge dryly replied, "You lose."
Strengths and natural virtues: Amiable, calm, collected, composed, conservative, coolheaded, cooperative, courteous, constant, content, deliberate, dependable, diplomatic, dry, easy-going, efficient, even-tempered, fair, friendly, gentle, good-humored, kind, level-headed, meek, mellow, mild, modest, neutral, peaceful, philosophical, polite, quiet, relaxed, reliable, self-controlled, self-possessed, serene, sincere, sober, stable, steady, sympathetic, tactful, traditional, understanding, undisturbed, unflappable, untroubled, without hostility
Weaknesses and natural vices: Apathetic, boring, distant, indecisive, indifferent, impassive, inattentive, lackadaisical, listless, lukewarm, obtuse, passionless, procrastinating, sluggish, slow, simple, spiritless, unconcerned, unenthusiastic, un-opinionated, unmotivated, unresponsive, languid, content with status quo, lack of aspirations
Melancholic – St. John (the beloved), John Henry Newman.
Time alone is vital for this reflective, introspective temperament. A perfectionist at home and on the job, the melancholic is likely the one with the perfectly organized closet and kitchen, the tidy desk-top, and the painstaking attention to religious observances, sometimes to the point of scrupulosity. Melancholic longs for a deep soul mate, yet when he is around people, he often finds himself mistrustful and disappointed. Sensing this criticism, others will keep their distance—thus further entrenching the melancholic in his solitary life. In relationships, the melancholic tends to be slow to initiate, cautious, hyper-critical, and pessimistic--yet, once committed, they are unwaveringly loyal and self-sacrificing.
Strengths and natural virtues: Analytical, artistic, careful, cautious, choosy, conscientious, deliberate, delicate, discreet, detailed, elegant, exacting, guarded, idealistic, introspective, judicious, lover of truth and beauty, meticulous noble, orderly, painstaking, particular, quietly passionate, persevering planned, pondering precise, prudent reasoned, reflective, religious, reserved, restrained, romantic, shy, serious, sensitive, studious, thorough, thoughtful
Weaknesses: Aloof, apprehensive, brooding, cool, critical, demanding, distrusting, envious, fearful, grudge-bearing, haughty, hypochondria, highbrow, jealous, judgmental, nitpicking, perfectionist, pessimistic, reluctant, scrupulous, self-righteous, skeptical, snooty, standoffish, strict, superior, suspicious, timid, uncommunicative, unsocial, undemonstrative, wary.
Supine – Martha of Bethany
The supine wants the same as a sanguine but does not express the needs. They in turn look and act as a melancholy. The supine becomes his or her own worst enemy because of this indirect behavior. They carry an unspoken sign declaring “I do not want’ when in fact they want and need very much.
Strengths and Virtues: Servitude, people friendly, gentle spirit, hard working, taking on numerous tasks at one time, obedient, enforcing, dependable, loyal, committed.
Weaknesses: Fearful, easily offended, indecisive, hypersensitive, born victim attitude, fearful of rejection, harbors anger, inability initiate love and affection, weak willpower, openly dependent.
Temperament and the Kingdom of God
God has placed unique gifts and talents in every individual who is a member of the body of Christ. Every church is expected to operate the five fold ministries of an Evangelist, Prophet, Pastor, Teacher and Apostles. The different temperaments that each member of the body of Christ has can be utilized effectively for the expansion of the Kingdom of God. The world’s best evangelist and preachers are Sanguine. The charming, inspiring, personable individuals are able to instill the gospel of love in the hearts of people very effectively. The optimism, upbeat nature, and fiery and emotional words can bring thousands of people to the saving grace of Christ. The sanguine is already on the go to focus on other people. However, the baby Christians need a patient mentor to bring them to maturity. The self sacrificing Melancholy takes the scene as a patient, intellectual is there to answer questions and to teach. As these Christians grow in the Lord, the needs increase. Building a church, raising funds for the same and establishing up a ministry are some of them. Who else but a Choleric will be able to do it in such a methodical way! Who else can place the new ‘mature Christian’ in a position that is a perfect fit for them? Now the question arises as to who will keep the financial records, process the data, handle the mails and other jobs that require precision and accuracy. Of course it is the Phlegmatic. The Kingdom of God needs some people with a limitless service capacity. The Supine’s position cannot be filled by anyone else.
Completion of the Building Blocks
The Temperament of a person is in born. It can never b changed or transformed. Hence, we must realize that it is not up to us to change it, but to help find ways to live within the temperament and fulfill the God given life.