been hearing some priests talk about temperment recently. How useful a concept
is this in psychology? Can it help me get along better with other people
if I know what their temperment is?
ell, first of all, just for
clarification, the word is temperament, with an “a” in the
The term derives from medieval
physiology and refers to one of the four conditions of body and mind:
sanguine (i.e., cheerful), phlegmatic (i.e., apathetic or
sluggish), choleric (i.e., irritable or quick-tempered), and
melancholic (i.e., gloomy or depressed).
Modern psychology has borrowed
the concept of temperament to refer to the underlying demeanor of
an infant that allegedly precedes any higher level of personality development.
The supposition here is that infants are “born with” temperaments,
whereas personality is developed through social
interaction. The problem with this supposition, however, is that it derives from
a psychological world view that fails to comprehend the
psychology of the unconscious.
Once we understand the nature of
the unconscious, we might wonder, then, what
the concept of “born with” actually means. Many persons assume
it means a biological predisposition, something “hard wired” into
brain chemistry and functioning. But it could just as well mean that the
infant has been infected, so to speak, with the unconscious conflicts of the
parents, beginning with the entire process of conception and continuing on
through uterine development.
I know of a case where the mother, in her second marriage (after a divorce)
and in her late thirties, was literally desperate to get pregnant by her
new husband. She spent thousands and thousands of dollars over a period of
several years not only on medical fertility treatments but also on
New-Age “therapies,” and she became almost
hysterical in her attempts to conceive. And then, when she finally did conceive,
her entire pregnancy was overshadowed by her intense worry that she might
have a miscarriage. So is it any wonder that her baby was born choleric?
Is it any wonder that the baby came into this world frustrated and bitter
that she wasn’t conceived in an atmosphere of
love, that she wasn’t conceived under the
protection of faith and the Sacraments, and that
she was conceived in absolute, naked desperation—desperation not for
her as a person, but for a baby, any baby, at any
find the concept of temperament, and its focus on the descriptive imagery
of surface behaviors, to be of little use clinically. To facilitate psychological
and spiritual healing, it is far more useful to
understand and heal the unconscious
defense mechanisms that
motivate a person’s behavior.
In other words, labeling a person
as choleric, or quick-tempered, or impulsive, for example, does nothing to
explain why that person is afraid of facing
his or her painful inner emotional experiences and why that person
is always angry at
Such labeling can also foster the illusion
that “That’s just the way I am,” as if it were an excuse for
not changing your behavior. But if you get to the core
conflicts and defenses that maintain your
lack of emotional awareness and your desire to “push” others into
seeing their own faults, you have the opportunity to heal those defenses
and to radically change your social behavior and spiritual life.
As for “getting along
better” with others, the concept of temperament is spiritually irrelevant.
There is only one way to treat others: with love.
Regardless of how others treat you, and regardless of whether they may be
gloomy or sluggish or angry, you, as a Christian, must persevere in patience,
compassion, forbearance, mercy and
forgiveness. Love is love; it’s the same everywhere
and every place, now and forever.
I had an employee
who needed reassurance constantly; she was wishing I would “mother”
her more or less, that I would “hold her hand” with each duty I
gave her in the business. As a child, though, I disliked my father
“breathing down my neck” and so in an attempt not to do this myself
to others, I did the opposite. So I left my employee to herself, supposing
that if she needed help, she would ask for it. In my mind, I was being thoughtful
of her, and showing my trust in her ability to learn—but in her mind,
as I know now, she felt that I was abandoning her, and did not love her.
Eventually, she threw up her hands and resigned. I accepted her desire in
this with much sorrow, but I thought she had to do what was best for her.
A year later, she lit into me that I did not love her enough to
“fight” for her, to explain my need for her to stay in the business.
I was completely floored! She was angry with me for not showing my love,
when in every way I thought possible, I had been showing her great love.
Anyway, I read the book on the temperaments later, and realized how different
we are from one another, and how our expressions of love may vary with our
temperament. This understanding helped me realize there are different ways
to respond with love, and what I would prefer for myself, could very well
be much different for another.
This case illustrates two points.
First, it shows us how frustrating it can be to deal with persons who have
not done their own work in learning emotional honesty. You can find many
persons like this in the world, and you can often find them asking God why
they are treated so miserably in life. Yet the true answer to their
prayers—an answer they are too afraid to
hear—is that they cause most of their own problems. Your employee had
plenty of opportunities to speak openly about her needs, and yet, instead
of following the Four Steps of Humility, she
kept her feelings stuffed away and hidden in her unconscious, until her
resentment finally exploded in
Second, this case tells you something
about the psychological work you yourself have to do. You say it very politely,
and yet the truth is that your father must have been overbearing and dictatorial.
Most likely, you were furious with him, but, like your employee, you probably
stifled your feelings, taking everything quietly and patiently on the surface,
telling yourself that you were being loving, while the resentment boiled inside
And what is the proof of this
Well, you tried not to
be like your father. Whenever you avoid something so deliberately, it tells
you that there is more going on
unconsciously than you want to acknowledge.
So, instead of treating your
employee with real love, you treated her with one
of your psychological defenses. And everything
went downhill from there.
Therefore, the issue here isn’t
that this woman had a particular temperament and needed to be treated in
a special way. The issue is that both of you failed to live according to
humility and love. Neither one of you really opened your heart to the other
as Christian love demands. Instead you both closed yourself off behind your
defenses, and you both suffered unnecessarily.
1. Most persons unconsciously develop a lack of
emotional awareness as a way to avoid facing the dark, ugly emotions of hurt
and resentment deep inside themselves. And to whom is that resentment most
likely directed? Most likely, it’s unconsciously directed at their fathers.
Why the father? Well, if you understand the proper family role of a
father, you will understand that even if a mother
tends to be harsh and critical, it’s still the father’s responsibility
to protect the child from any abuse. If the father fails in his responsibility,
then the child—in addition to the outward conflicts with the
mother—will be unconsciously angry at the father for his failures,
and the child’s consequent disobedience
will be an unconscious attempt to “show” the father the
“fruits” of his failure.
Psychological Healing in the Catholic Mystic Tradition
by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
A treasure of a resource for psychological
and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites is now available at your fingertips
in book form with a comprehensive index.
Psychological defenses help to protect us from
emotional injury, but if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your
childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously—your quest
for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts.
Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and
conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull:
So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your
enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you.
You will go where you desire.
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information
gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips
in book form.
Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological
defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the
defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on
into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual
healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God
has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and
conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its
pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice
between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to
come from you. You will go where you desire.