Know Thy Temperament

In 2014, Americans spent over $10 billion on self-help books, CDs and seminars.  Although these techniques promise change, very often they fail to make any lasting impact on our lives.  The problem oftentimes is that the programs themselves have a different definition of happiness or perfection and so we end up dissatisfied even when we reach our goals.  More often however is that we lack the self-knowledge necessary to really affect change in our lives.  When we begin to confront our shortcomings, a certain amount of sadness arises in us.  In order to avoid this sadness, we develop blind spots to our true faults.  We then embark on some self-help program to fix faults we don’t really have or ones that are minor at best.  This is not to say these programs have no use in our lives, after all, only that they will be entirely ineffective unless we have self-knowledge.  Placing ourselves before God in prayer by which we come to know ourselves as He knows us is remains the most effective way to grow in self-knowledge and to heal those defects that we have.  But many people may not be aware that in the Catholic tradition there are other objective means to growing in self-knowledge, namely by relying on the knowledge of our temperament.

Fr. Jordan Aumann defines a temperament as, “as the pattern of inclinations and reactions that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual. It is a dynamic factor that determines to a great extent the manner in which an individual will react to stimuli of various kinds.”  Within this definition we can see two factors, namely that our temperaments are based on our material makeup (physiological constitution) and represent a pattern or a natural way to reacting to a given situation.  These reactions can be quick or slow and short in duration or long lasting.  Each of these four combinations maps to a specific temperament.

What makes knowledge of one’s temperament extremely helpful when it comes to self-knowledge is that it enables us to see both are natural strengths and weaknesses.  It also makes some virtues easier while others are harder.

There are two caveats that are important for us to understand as well.  First we must never use our temperament as an excuse for our bad behavior or as a way to minimize our faults.  We use it to understand our tendencies and as a means to view our weaknesses—but this is always done so that we can open the windows of our souls and allow the transforming light of Christ to shine on them.  Second, just because it is a natural tendency does not mean that we are stuck with our temperament.  As Aumann’s definition suggests, temperaments are dispositions which means they can be molded and changed.  Our goal ought to be to for the perfection of all four temperaments rather than thinking we are stuck with our own.

In looking at each of the four temperaments, we begin with the choleric.  The choleric temperament is easily and strongly aroused, and the impression lasts for a long time.   Because of this, the choleric tends to show great zeal for whatever he sets his mind to.  He tends to be strong willed and highly emotional and a man of principles.  The virtues of perseverance and justice tend to come rather easily and this temperament naturally lends itself to leading others.

On the other hand, the choleric because he is highly emotional often acts quickly and is imprudent in his haste.  He must actively work to cultivate patience, prudence, and humility.  Because he is principle based he tends to put principles ahead of people and rarely does things just to be nice.  So, on a natural level they need to practice charity in dealing with others.

The passionate partner of the choleric is the melancholic.  The melancholic reacts slowly but once aroused the impression is strong and long lasting.  By nature the melancholic is inclined to reflection, piety, and the interior life. They are compassionate toward those who suffer, attracted to the corporal works of mercy, and able to endure suffering to the point of heroism in the performance of their duties. They have high ideals and a commitment to perfection.  They also tend to analyze their projects thoroughly.

The melancholic tends to be overly critical of themselves and others, dismissive and overly judgmental.  They lack self-confidence and often have difficulty starting tasks.

Those with a Sanguine temperament tend to react quickly and strongly to almost any stimulation or impression, but the reaction is usually of short duration.   The sanguine is optimistic, sometime overly so and are usually fairly outgoing. This means that compassion usually comes rather easily to them, but they have trouble being impartial because their feelings are so strong.  They tend to be impulsive as well.

Because the deep passion in their initial response quickly fades they tend to lack perseverance.   Vanity can be a great temptation for the sanguine as well as envy. One of the greatest challenges that a sanguine faces is making impulsive decision.  One way to overcome this is by striving to cultivate the virtue of prudence.  They also need to cultivate the virtue of perseverance since they can easily lose focus on tasks that require long commitments.

Finally, we have the phlegmatic temperament.  The phlegmatic is rarely aroused emotionally and, if so, only weakly. The impressions received usually last for only a short time and leave no trace. The fundamental disposition of the phlegmatic is that he is reserved, prudent, sensible, reflective, and dependable.  He is not easily provoked to anger or prone to exaggeration.  Phlegmatics are well known for their easy going nature.  They also tend to be clear and concise in their speech.  The phlegmatic however does not like conflict and will avoid it at all costs.  In fact they have a tendency to avoid not only conflict but anything that is physically or mentally demanding.


Because they tend towards laziness and even sloth, the root sin of the phlegmatic is most often sensuality.  Other ways that sensuality manifests itself in the phlegmatic person include anger and impatience in the face of anything hard, disorganization because they seek whatever is immediate, and the consistent tendency to put off prayer.  The phlegmatic then needs to cultivate fortitude and temperance.

Hebrews 10:24 says, “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”   If we reflect on this for a moment we realize that knowledge of our own temperament and of others can be used to help motivate others.

As we set out on the journey of self-knowledge, we quickly realize that, like St. Paul, we do not do the things we want to do but what we do not want to do.  There is an execution gap in our lives.  Not only that, but understanding the temperament of those around us helps to overcome a great deal of conflict in our lives, especially those we live with and work with.

In accomplishing any task, there are four key areas to consider.  They are

  • Setting the Right goals
  • Getting Started
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Persevering to the End

Each of the temperaments then has a characteristic weakness associated with one of these areas.  Understanding how to strengthen these weaknesses and the proper way to approach the person will help anyone’s motivation.

As I mentioned earlier, the choleric is a self-motivated leader who is driven to complete his objectives.  However because the choleric is quick to respond and slow to receive advice, he often sets imprudent goals or no real goals at all.  The choleric then needs to learn to take the time to choose goals properly.  The key then as a choleric is to be patient, and set the right goals.  In dealing with a choleric, motivation is normally not the key but we need to slow them down.  We can ask them if they have buy-in from others on their ideas or help brainstorm with them.  We must also help them to remain charitable because they often see others as stumbling blocks and will try to steamroll over them.

The melancholic, due to his naturally reflective nature, does not have trouble setting proper goals.  Instead, he will often struggle with actually getting started.  This manifests itself also by being overly focused on the small details because they want everything to be perfect.  The key for a melancholic is to prioritize goals.  In working with them they need a kick start—but this cannot be in the form of you doing it for them.  Instead ask what you can do to help them get started or ask them for a solution to specific problem you are having.  If you can keep them focused on the individuals steps they won’t get bogged down in the details.

Sanguines, like Cholerics, tend not to have any problems getting started.  They are usually eager to get going.  Instead they struggle with persevering to the end.  Their optimistic nature causes them to overlook true difficulties or minimize them.  The best thing for a Sanguine is to set and schedule.  They can be helped by regularly following up with them to see their progress.  Setting interim goals will keep them from getting bored.

The Phlegmatic is perhaps the most difficult to motivate because of their laid back nature.  They struggle with setting goals like the Choleric, but the main struggle for them is overcoming obstacles.  They need both encouragements throughout the process and to be held accountable at all stages of the process.  It also helps to remind them of past successes.

In conclusion, it bears repeating that the purpose in understanding temperament is to grow in understanding both of ourselves and others.  This is much more than mere self-improvement on the natural level—it should have as its goal to fulfill God’s will as a loving and joyful spouse, parent, and friend.  Understanding temperament not only helps us become more capable of controlling our emotions and moods, it helps us identify the most effective means to grow in virtue and obedience to God’s will.

***If you are interested in taking a temperament test for yourself, here is a link to one that is contained in the book The Temperament God Gave You***

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