Geekin’ Out: The four temperaments

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It’s time for another new blog series! Say hello to Geekin’ Out, in which I’ll be sharing Catholic stuff that’s more in the head than it is in the heart (like most of my faith-based content). It’s basically me being a huge nerd over Catholic things.

Let’s get started!

One of the things that I’ve grown to love about the Catholic faith is how thoughtful, thorough, and intentional it is, and how inter-connected its teachings are to tradition and scripture. I don’t consider myself a very intellectual person, but that part of my brain geeks out a little bit when I learn about those connections and see them for myself. Things in the Catholic faith, from my experience, just make sense.

One recent example of this: the idea of temperaments and how they shape a person’s spirituality. Temperaments aren’t a hard and fast doctrine in Catholicism, and it’s not necessary to believe in them to be Catholic. It’s not even an originally Catholic concept. But understanding my own temperament has illuminated my own spiritual journey quite a bit.

A bit of basic information on the four temperaments: the temperaments are grounded in a theory in Greek medicine, developed by Hippocrates, called the “four humors.” He believed that certain aspects of personality were controlled by the balance and imbalance of four basic bodily fluids (humors): blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. If certain personality traits were more apparent than others, it was thought that the corresponding humor was more present in a person than the others. A person with an excess of blood was considered “sanguine;” an excess of black bile was “melancholic,” an excess of yellow bile was “choleric,” and an excess of phlegm was “phlegmatic.” Obviously our understanding of behavior has come a long way since Hippocrates, but those terms are still used today, and tests based on the four temperaments aren’t that hard to come by (though they don’t seem to be as popular as, say, Myers-Briggs or The Big Five).

(It’s worth noting that “temperament” is not synonymous with “personality.” Temperament is part of personality, but it does not include all aspects of our personality. Temperament is simply a term that refers to how we react to stimuli.)

As with any personality test, I wouldn’t recommend putting a lot of stock in your type, as no test can fully capture how wonderfully complex each of us are. But I do find it interesting that the four temperaments have been studied and written about quite a bit in Catholic circles. A few months ago, when I attended the GIVEN Forum, Laraine Bennett (co-author of The Temperament God Gave You) delivered a keynote all about the temperaments and how they impact our spiritual life. When I first started conversing with my spiritual mentor, she recommended that I take a temperaments test so I can better understand my spirituality and identify areas where I need to grow. CatholicMatch even has articles dedicated to them on their site.

Before I launch into an exploration of my own dominant temperament, a short description of each type might be helpful. You will note that in the descriptions I talk about reactivity to stimuli and duration of reaction; as I said, this is the best way to understand temperaments.

Sanguine. Sanguines react quickly to things and their reactions are quite short-lived. For this reason, they are often the most outgoing, friendly, and cheerful of the temperaments. Because of their short reactions, despite their best intentions, they are often flighty and forgetful and have a hard time following through with projects and plans, even if they were eager to start them.

Melancholic. Melancholics are slow to react but can react over a long period of time. They are introverted and can be perceived as distant, but since they react to and process things over a long time, they are also highly thoughtful, reflective, and studious. They tend to be idealistic and are therefore prone to discouragement and self-doubt if they feel they don’t live up to their idealistic vision.

Phlegmatic. Phlegmatics are slow to react like melancholics and their reactions are short-lived like sanguines. They are quiet, calm, and steady. They are agreeable and they dislike conflict, often to a fault. They sometimes have a hard time sticking with plans when things get tough, leading to the perception that they are apathetic and uninterested.

Choleric. Cholerics, like sanguines, are quick to react, and like melancholics, their reactions can last a long time. They are friendly and outgoing, and their long-term reactions mean that they are determined and strong-willed, which often leads to the stereotype that cholerics are stubborn and hard-headed.

There are no shortage of articles and resources containing Catholic takes on the four temperaments. Many such articles list saints that exemplified each type, vices that each type tends to fall into, and virtues that each type should especially work on. When I read descriptions of my type (I’m melancholic), I was floored by how true the match was. Melancholic Catholics tend to prize their prayer and meditation time (true). They are drawn to piety and holiness (yup). They’re reflective, which can lead to them being withdrawn and getting into their own heads too much (yes and yes). And because of their perfectionist tendencies, they frequently get discouraged in their faith journey (bingo). I look back on moments in my journey and can identify moments where my melancholy was obvious, in good and bad ways. For example, the instance that prompted me to write this blog post: I didn’t understand it fully at the time it happened (slow reactivity time) but it became clearer to me as time went on (reacting to/processing things for a long time). The period of reflection and intense gratitude (and sadness) that led up to my departure from West Virginia. My love for writing, I think, is an expression of this temperament, too.

I learned, too, that it was no coincidence that I found myself so drawn to Divine Mercy as my first year as a missionary drew to a close. Because melancholics are so prone to perfectionism, and thus to discouragement when they fail to live up to their ideals, it is often recommended that they work on virtues such as self-love and total trust in the mercy of God. Divine Mercy spoke directly to my tendency to get impatient with my shortcomings and assured me that Jesus doesn’t need me to be perfect to be a good follower of His. Devoting myself to Divine Mercy hasn’t been a miracle cure by any means; I’m still melancholic, and I still get discouraged in my shortcomings. The point of the virtues that different temperaments should work on isn’t to rid them of the “bad” side of their temperaments. But they can keep us from growing complacent in the not-so-pretty parts of our temperament. They make us aware of the toll that those parts can take on us and on others, and what we can do about them.

Does this sound intriguing to you? Here are some articles and resources for discovering and learning more about your temperament!

  • First, an actual test to discover your type.
  • Fisheaters shared this excellent series of articles about the different temperaments on their website.
  • CatholicMatch has great profiles of each type. If you click the “learn more” link after each brief profile, you can see full descriptions as well as the different primary/secondary combinations.
  • You can read a short selection of Art and Laraine Bennett’s The Temperament God Gave You here.
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