How the 4 Temperaments Can Help You Understand Others

Learn about the four temperaments and how they can help your relationships.

In the ongoing quest to “know thyself” and grow in self-awareness, the classic theory of the four temperaments can be of great use.

What is a ‘temperament’?

A temperament is best described as your innate, natural reaction to people, situations, and ideas. Think of your “knee-jerk” reaction when, for example, an unexpected change happens in your day or you have a conflict in a relationship. Are you more likely to kick into fight or flight mode? What situations cause you immediate joy, and what cause instant dread? Temperaments are the “path of least resistance” that serve as our starting point for dealing with things, or just our way of being in the world.

A good way to tap into your temperament is think of how you reacted to things as a child, before you learned to modify your behavior in various settings. Were you naturally extraverted, as our 4-year-old is, making a new friend at every playground? Or were you naturally a people-watcher, as our 2-year-old is, content to sit, stare, and take it all in?

What are the four temperaments, and where do they come from?

The theory of four temperaments has been around since ancient times. Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.), known as the “father of medical science,” first introduced the idea that four “bodily humors” (for example, phlegm and bile, etc.) and their combinations affect a person’s mood and behavior. And philosopher Galen (200 A.D.) gave the temperaments the names still used today: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic.   

In brief, here’s a description of each temperament:

Choleric: The go-getter, great at accomplishing goals

  • Strengths: A born leader with energy, enthusiasm, and a strong will; self-confident and optimistic.
  • Weaknesses: May struggle with being empathetic to others’ needs, and can tend toward being controlling and overly critical of others.

Melancholic: The deep thinker with strong ideals and passionate feelings

  • Strengths: Naturally skilled at keeping things organized and humming along smoothly; a faithful friend who connects deeply with people.
  • Weaknesses: May struggle with perfectionism or negativity (of self and others); and can be easily overwhelmed by life.

Sanguine: The “people person” and life of the party

  • Strengths: adventurous, creative, and just plain likable; thrives on social interactions and sharing life with others.
  • Weaknesses: May struggle with follow-through and gets easily over-committed; can lack self-control or tend to avoid the tougher parts of life and relationships.

Phlegmatic: The servant leader who is calm under pressure

  • Strengths: supportive, empathetic, and a great listener; often the peacemaker looking out for others; easily contented and happy to be part of the team (not the boss).
  • Weaknesses: may struggle to take initiative when necessary, and can avoid conflict and sharing strong feelings.

Do you see yourself in one of these temperaments, or in a combination? (You can take one of the many quizzes available online if you’re not sure.) Research shows that people tend to have one main temperament — the primary way they react to situations and people — as well as a secondary temperament. And remember, you’re looking for your most natural way of being, not necessarily skills you’ve developed for various situations.

How the temperaments can help you

The more self-awareness we have, the better! Understanding our unique personalities helps us thrive in relationships, at the workplace, and in life in general. Self-awareness helps us understand why certain situations feel extra hard to us, when others seem to breeze through them.

Knowing our natural temperament helps us know our own individual needs — for example, we may need a regular dose of alone time or a challenging project to jump into. The temperaments help us zero in on our weak areas and be more confident in our strengths (even if they’re different from others’). And they help us be more understanding of others, especially people with a very different personality than our own.

The four temperaments theory gives us one helpful “clue” among many others for understanding ourselves better. A strength of this approach is that it is simple: only four “options” versus, for example, 16 in the Myers-Briggs personality theory (which is also a valuable tool!) And the temperaments are “time-tested,” having been around for literally thousands of years.

In relationships, knowing both our temperament and that of our significant other can help a lot! Here, it’s all about how our personalities combine and how different temperaments interact with each other.

For example, two phlegmatic partners might find it difficult to decide on what to do for a date; but if one is a choleric, he or she may need to intentionally draw the other person’s opinions out so both feel heard. Or if you’re like us, one strong sanguine and one strong melancholic, balancing social engagements with at-home life is important so both of us feel refreshed.

Final pointers

One thing not to do with the temperaments — or with any personality theory — is blame bad behavior on them: “I’m melancholic, so I’m going to stew and be grumpy for days;” or, “I’m choleric, so I have to boss you around.” All of us must work to develop virtue so that we can best love those around us, no matter our natural tendencies.

And there’s no “perfect” temperament or perfect combination of temperaments. Depending on the micro-culture we’re in (for example, our career or our extended family), some temperament traits might be more highly praised than others. But every temperament — like every person — has strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about becoming a “better” temperament (for example, a phlegmatic wanting to be more of an outgoing, life-of-the-party person), but learning to love ourselves as we are.For further reading, we highly recommend the series of temperaments books by Art and Laraine Bennett: The Temperament God Gave You, The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse, and The Temperament God Gave Your Kids.

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