Honor Your Temperament

Practice of the Week
Honor Your Temperament

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guidelines to live by.
"We need to do teacher training to educate them about what temperament means. Shyness is painful and you want to help a child with shyness - but the underlying temperament of being a careful, sensitive person is to be honoured, valued and respected." (Susan Cain)
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As hominids and early humans evolved over several million years while living in small bands, they developed a range of temperaments, with cautious, focused "turtles" at one end and adventurous, impulsive "jackrabbits" at the other end, with "tweeners" in the middle. Those bands that had a mixture of turtles, tweeners, and jackrabbits could adapt to changing conditions and outcompete bands that had just one type of temperament—the way a basketball team with nimble guards plus big forwards would beat teams with only guards or only forwards.

For similar reasons, we also evolved diversity in other aspects of temperament, including:
  • Sociability—Some people are really extroverted, some are really introverted, and many are in the middle. In a general sense, with lots of exceptions in the details, extroverts are fed by social contact and drained by isolation; introverts are the opposite.
  • Emotional inclinations—The ancient Greek model of the four personality types—sanguine (cheerful), choleric (prone to irritation), melancholic (tends to sadness), and phlegmatic (hard to move emotionally)—has at least a grain of truth to it.
Temperamental characteristics are innate, hard-wired into your DNA and thus your brain. Of course, they're just some of the tiles that make up the mosaic you are. Plus they're only tendencies whose expression is shaped by other parts of you (e.g., intelligence, warmheartedness), life experiences, and conscious intention. For example, I'm introverted but also love deep conversations (a typical therapist); so after a day of being with people, I get refueled by some time alone: reading, going for a run, and the like. Similarly, a person with a bit of a blue streak (i.e., melancholic) can internalize a soothing, encouraging sense of being cared about by others. Temperament is not destiny.

Different temperaments are a good fit with certain environments (e.g., situations, tasks, people) and not such a good fit with other ones. For instance,

  • a sensitive infant would do well with an easygoing parent who is well-supported by his or her partner, but not so well with a single parent who is worn out and irritable; 
  • a jackrabbity first-grader will usually flourish in an experiential learning setting that's like a big pasture with firm fences, but will likely get many little corrections—which are stressful and dispiriting—in a classroom that's tightly controlled with lots of fine-motor table work; 
  • in a couple, things will go better if they find ways to give an introvert (like me) enough "cave" time and an extrovert (like my wife) enough connection, but worse if they don't.

When the fit between your temperament and an environment is not good, it's hard to function at your best—whether it was in school as a kid, or in an intimate relationship or at work today. Additionally, it's natural to feel at some level that there must be something wrong/weak/dumb/missing about you—which gets reinforced by any messages from the environment that, yep, the problem is with you, not it.

For example, a high degree of jackrabbititis now has its very own diagnosis—attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—even though being jack rabbity has been wonderfully adaptive throughout most of the time humans and our hominid ancestors have lived on this planet. Further, people who are naturally wistful get told to cheer up and stop being mopey, introverts get told to go out and meet people, and turtles get told to stop being such sissies and jump into the deep end of the pool. This repeated sense that there's something not-right, not-optimal about oneself gradually sinks in and wears on a person's confidence, mood, and sense of worth.

But really, there's nothing wrong at all! We should each honor our temperament: accept it, see the things that are great about it, look for situations and relationships that play to its strengths, and take care of it when it's challenged (e.g., help a turtlish child get ready for anxiety-provoking transitions). In other words, work with nature, not against it.


Get a clear sense of your temperament. For example, compared to others of your age and gender, are you relatively:
  • Distractible, impulsive, and stimulation-seeking? Or highly focused, judicious, and cautious?
  • Interested in lots of social contact? Or in just a few good friends and considerable alone time?
  • Cheerful, melancholic, easily irritated, or placid?
(It's fine to be in the middle of the range for these characteristics; then that would be what your temperament is.)

Think back on your childhood: did your temperament and your environments collide with each other significantly, leading either to criticism of you or simply a frustration inside that you couldn't be more successful academically or socially? As you consider this question, be kind to yourself. Remember that in childhood, it's the job of parents and teachers—who have many more options than kids do—to adapt environments as much as is possible and reasonable to the temperament of the child. Then consider the fit between you as an adult and your environments.

What are the strengths of your temperament? For example, people who are quick to anger are often quick to see injustice; children who are anxious are usually very conscientious; introverts have rich inner lives. What inclinations in your nature have been longing for more expression? Then consider the sorts of environments—such as occupations, romantic partners, settings, or schedules—that would support and draw on the strengths of your temperament. What could you do that's appropriate and skillful to nudge your current environments to play more to your strengths—or to get yourself into more suitable environments?

What are the needs or vulnerabilities in your temperament? For example, a spirited person needs a good deal of stimulation or life starts feeling like a thin soup; an extrovert needs a job with lots of interaction; a melancholic person is susceptible to feeling let down. Consider how you could address your needs and protect your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you're somewhat anxious by nature (I'd put myself in that boat), it's especially important to do what you can to create structure, predictability, and trust in your home and work.

Throughout these reflections, know that any issues have probably not been located in you or in your environments, but in the fit between you and them. Regarding yourself, have compassion for any stress or pain you may have experienced; appreciate the endurance and strength you've had in the times when you were the proverbial square peg in a round hole; challenge the expectations and other beliefs you've developed in collisions with your environments, such as a sense of inadequacy. Regarding your environments, consider them more as impersonal forces that may have been not good for you in some ways—while probably being suitable for at least some people—than as something inherently wrong or bad; consider if any forgiveness would be helpful to you here.

Last, appreciate the fact that no one has a perfect temperament. We're all pretty funky variations on the basic human model. Being able to see the humor in your temperament softens its edges and eases your interactions. For example, once as I was doing therapy, I squared my pad of paper to the edges of a small table. With a smile, my client teased me by reaching over to nudge the pad so it was now askew. We both laughed at my OCD-ish tendencies, which I'd disclosed in talking about her own. And then I squared the pad again because it bugged me so much!

For Journaling

1. How would you describe your temperament? Try taking the personality-type test HERE. Do the results seem to accurately characterize you?

2. Describe a time when circumstances were difficult for you, and it seemed to you that a different temperament would have had an easier time.

3. List ways it is advantageous to the world (to society, to your workplace, to your congregation) to include people of your temperament?

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