Temperament–Our Personal Wild Card

We all know about the influence that comes to us from both heredity and environment.  But nobody talks much about temperament–the personality’s wild card.

The Greeks spoke of  humours–various phenomena that affected certain organs of the body–lungs, kidneys, liver, heart–and enabled or prevented good health.  More recently psychologists have looked at those humours in terms of temperaments.  The general consensus is that one of these four psychic energy levels dominates in each of us.

Phlegmatic is the least energetic.  Fritz Kunkel calls him the Clinging Vine who has to depend on someone else for meaning in life.  Melancholic has more energy but not enough to dominate, so when he’s overwhelmed he retreats into his shell like a Turtle.  Choleric is the Nero, spitting fire and running the show (guess which one I was!).  And Sanguine shines with creativity like a Star.  The trouble is, unlike a celestial body which needs no audience, the Star temperament needs someone constantly applauding and supporting him.

Our temperament is not inherited and may not even correspond to that of either parent or any one of our grandparents.

We move around from one temperament position to another, depending on relationships and situations.  But rather early in life one predominates and influences our personality perhaps even more than heredity or environment.

These temperaments can be seen to correspond to Carl Jung’s personality traits–feeling, sensation, thinking, and intuition and also to Northrop Frye’s literary genres of romantic, tragic, ironic, and comic.  I found these temperaments to fit with the OK positions (Thomas Harris); Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development; the four basic elements–water, earth, fire, air–and others as well.  We can gain insight into our personalities from pondering these grids, just as we can from thinking about the mottos we have adopted and the games we play.

We may by sheer will power change our mottos and games, but our predominating temperament remains the same.  All temperaments circle the inner region of the psyche, but we are not able to touch the center of the Self (the Original Goodness) without a transformation.  When we freely decide to cooperate with the transformation process by giving permission to an inner power to make us whole, we become this Original Goodness and thereafter no temperament rules our lives.

Games We Play

Eric Berne, in his 1964 Games People Play, showed us a side of ourselves we perhaps had not seen.  His list of ‘games’ touched such a chord that thereafter and even now we can hear someone label an attitude of another as a game of ‘Ain’t it Awful’ or ‘Blemish.’

Berne showed how impossible it is to stop someone’s game, no matter how many approaches we take.  And even labeling others’ games may also be a projection of our own.

It is unfortunate that we seem to spend so much time playing personality games that either no one can win or  in order for one to win someone has to lose.  What we all really want are satisfactory relationships with each other.  What we really want is not another episode of ‘Mine’s Better Than Yours’ or ‘Yes, But…’ but rather a game-free environment where we can laugh and joke and exchange creative ideas.  Or at least that’s what something deep inside us wants.

Sometimes I find if I exaggerate the awfulness or suggest a preposterous solution or switch to the awfulness of something that is really quite delightful, I can change the direction of a conversation.  Often it is not easy.  I think perhaps we’ve forgotten how to give each other pleasure and meaning in conversation.  And perhaps this comes from our inability to give ourselves authentic pleasure.

Berne talks about our deep desire for intimacy in relationships, not in sexual terms but rather in terms of our deepest self–the self that wants to be whole, that wants to embrace all of life in order to extract the most meaning, that wants to ponder and explore.  I am convinced that the energy of the universe is concentrated on that win-win desire for everyone.

Mottos We Adopt

From a great deal  of pondering over all my previous negative behavior, I began to see some mottos I had adopted early in my life.  It was easy to find the ‘Be Strong’ that I decided would protect me from punishments like that I received from the crying incident.  And my ‘Be Strong’ also kept me from shedding tears over much sadness that warranted them.

It took a while before I saw the other mottos. ‘Be Right’ was surely the one that had kept me from ever apologizing to my family.  ‘Be Powerful’ fed my need to be in control of everything possible.

I had no idea, however, that my mottos were so evident to others outside my family.  After my Humpty Dumpty transformation experience, I had an opportunity to visit with an elderly gentleman who had been a member of the Worship Committee at my church when I had been the chair.  When I told him I felt like I was a completely different person from the one I had been for decades, he replied, “Well, I hope so.  I decided in that committee that I didn’t want to be on your train or in the way of it!.”  We both laughed at his insight and I appreciated his revelation.

My conviction is that no matter how we are perceived to the contrary, the mottos we choose for ourselves are our best attempts to improve on ourselves–make ourselves into good people–the best we can be.

My mother gave me a motto at a  young age–‘Don’t Embarrass the Family.’  It is only just now obvious to me that her embarrassment at my three-year-old crying incident was the deciding factor.  Throughout my growing up, she often reminded me of this directive.  There must be something in my personality that continued to make my family fear I would do something that reflected badly on them because one of my sons seemed at an early age to give me the same motto.  Or maybe the mottos we give others are merely projections of facets of our personality we haven’t adequately dealt with.

Paradoxically, our mottos need to be given up in order for them to be authentically incorporated into our personality.  The ‘giving up’ manifests itself in the opposite of the motto.  In my three-day crisis, there was nothing strong or powerful about me.  I experienced just the opposite.  And in my Great Confession I admitted all the ‘not rightness’ (unrighteousness?!) about myself.  Only after the crisis did I emerge with a genuine strength and sense of power that I never had before.

My motto now is simply ‘Be.’  And I think the same is intended for everyone.  Out of the essence of our authentic Being emerges a wholeness that needs no other mottos.


Isn’t there something deep inside us that wonders if there is more to life than the best we have experienced? If we’re honest with ourselves, I think the answer for at least some of us is yes.

There is a spiritual fertilization that must take place if we are to be able to experience life in all its fullness. Both male and female parts of our personality are required. The egg resides in the unconscious and, like all eggs, contains the essence of life, the potential of a new being. It awaits the sperm of the conscious mind. The seed. The planting of permission.

Perhaps all the duality of the external world is trying to point us to the duality within ourselves. And perhaps all the tension we see between opposites externally is pointing us to the tension within that needs to be resolved.

Tension is resolved in the world when people of opposing views meet and agree on a peaceful, creative way of dealing with each other. The same is true within. All duality needs union where, as in the Hegelian dialectic, opposites come together in a synthesis that is greater than the sum of the two parts.

This is no more true than within the individual personality. The unconscious yearns to be unified with the conscious. Our conscious ego must want something more than it can provide for itself and be willing to give of itself so that union may be achieved.

Unlike most human biological yearnings, the feminine unconscious is the more wiling of the two. Eager. Obsessed, actually. So much so that it is constantly sending up invitations. Teasers.

But the conscious is a do-it-yourself kinda guy. A take-charge ruler, decision maker, multi-tasker and paramount achiever. It fails to recognize that its most authentic joy and creativity lies beyond its control.

For many of us a crisis must occur before our masculine conscious (rational control feature) becomes desperate enough to take paper and pencil and engage the inner feminine (a.k.a. Inner Wisdom). But the Inner Wisdom is available to us at all times. We do not need to wait for a crisis.