Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Untamed Temperaments": O How Can I Change Thee?

Photo credit: sciencedirect.com

by: Kathy Vestermark 
I'm a strong extrovert with mild melancholic tendencies. I only fall into melancholic tendencies when the exertions of being a Choleric-Sanguine push me past my limits.

Can anyone relate to this?

Does it seem a little bipolar*?

My highs can be very high, but my lows are never so severe as to warrant intervention. They are just exhausting and require rest and rejuvenation.

The Temperaments chart above delineates a person's behavioral tendencies. People's behavior can be differentiated into four distinct categories of temperament: Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic and Melancholic. Each temperament has particular behavioral traits associated with it.

As I noted at the start, my primary temperament is Choleric -- you can all feel sorry for my husband and children now. I have tried over the years to rid myself of many of the choleric tendencies in my behaviors. Each time I would try, I would get angry and frustrated. I'd behave, in essence, more and more like a choleric!

Often, I would grouse, "Can it even be done? Can I possibly be rid of these nasty tendencies that drive me and others crazy?"

It certainly seemed impossible. I was praying, of course -- a bitter, tantrum-like prayer. Not so surprisingly, I wasn't making much progress (actually, no progress). It became necessary to ask myself if I was praying for the right thing?

I wanted those particular temperaments to go away and be gone for good. I didn't want to be responsible for them anymore.

I thought I would be better if I was different. Wouldn't it be great if I could be a Sanguine/Phlegmatic? That's a wonderful combination -- as if I could simply put on a new temperament as easily a I could change my clothes.

I realized that I was asking God to change the essence of me -- "who" he made me to be.

That couldn't be right.

What was I supposed to do with that nasty choleric list then? How would I be able to go on being that?

St. Augustine came to mind one afternoon as I brooded over my situation (he and I share some temperament traits). He's an inspiring saint, and offered many wonderful words to ponder. I found part of the answer I needed in this less commonly quoted phrase spoken by the dear saint:

Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.

This wasn't really a new concept to me. It had been recommended to me previously as a means of penance for Lent; I should try to cut down on something I found pleasant and stick to it, rather than abstain from it entirely. My confessor hadn't attributed the idea to St. Augustine. And I had never really applied it to anything besides my Lenten penances.

Imagine my delight when I recognized that it was a more universally applicable notion. It was an epiphany!

I didn't need to change temperaments! I needed to "temper" my temperaments, make them holy and gradually move to a more moderate expression of them.  I began to ask God to show me how to perfect my primary temperament.

I quickly came to this realization: I couldn't undo my temperaments, I couldn't "un-be" who I was. I would be destroying the fabric of who I am, and possibly undermining the purpose of what I was meant for in this life.  I needed to look at each of the attributes of the choleric temperament and find a way to make them virtuous. (I honestly believe that without the tenacity that comes along with being a choleric, I would have buckled under the strain of some of life's circumstances.)

For instance, aggression -- It doesn't sound like an attribute that anyone would aspire to. I didn't want to lose my edge, though -- I liked that don't tangle with the tiger part of me. So, what was I to do? I attempted with God's grace to refine its expression. I no longer felt compelled to make minced meat out of those who got under my skin. Instead, when I used that tendency to defend and protect, I'd start with a prayer and operate with love and with mercy; even if anger was necessary, it wouldn't be released in a negative form of aggression -- it now looks more determined and self-assured.

This choleric temperament is a gift, not a curse. And I have a responsibility to use it wisely.

Lately, it has become exceedingly commonplace to expect the world to conform to our whims. Accept me for how I am -- You -- accept Me -- whether my behavior deserves acceptance or not. There is very little, if any, personal responsibility for being good, or moral, or truthful. Concerning? Absolutely!

It unnerves me to consider: What if I had continued down the path of the "untamed choleric"? I'd have been miserable, angry, defiant, rebellious, etc. In actuality, I have already been those things (through my teens and early 20's -- I'll let you imagine that for yourselves). I know for certain that if it had continued unchecked, no one with any real joy would want to be around me; that would have been a great sadness to me because I truly love to be social (my Sanguine side) and yearned to be truly and consistently happy.

It would have been pointless, fruitless, and ultimately a detriment to me to expect others to accept the "untamed choleric". I would have been asking to remain in my misery -- a repellent to anything good, true and beautiful. I would have been surrounded my people of like temperament.

Sadly, I do notice many of them, they're hard to miss -- angry, depressed, leading others astray, good natured, but easily swayed -- and mostly miserable because they are trapped in their "untamed temperament".

Beyond any doubt, I came to realize that the only way to be happy was to take responsibility for my behaviors that left me feeling angry and unhappy. God and I were finally on the same team in this regard; I wanted to perfect my temperament, and He wanted it for me all along.

I am grateful for my little epiphany. It helped me make a positive behavioral revision in my life (one that requires continuous attention). It allowed me to be strong and confident, with more obvious Sanguine undertones. I became more pleasant, and for that I'm sure many people are grateful.


That and prayer have helped me turn a corner to perfect and put to good use my choleric temperament. I now gratefully take what the Lord has given and employ it with his grace each day. Each day, I start anew to keep what is best, cast off what causes pain, anxiety, unrest.

It's been a life changer, a change that this Choleric/Sanguine can live happily with -- and so can everyone else around me.

For more information about the temperaments, I recommend: The Temperament God Gave You, by Art and Laraine Bennett.

*Bipolar disorder is real and requires medical intervention. The strains of daily life and the inability to control mood swings as a result of chemical imbalances in the brain must be addressed, of course. But, here I am speaking of behavioral tendencies more so than psychological diagnoses.  
About the Author: Professor Kathy Vestermark, MA Theology

Professor Kathryn VestermarkProfessor Kathy Vestermark is a wife and mother of six children, one with significant special needs. She worked for 13 years in medical education at USUHS on a project to include families of children with special needs as faculty and advisors to medical education. She received her MA in Theology from CDU, and has put it to use as a Coordinator/Instructor of RCIA at her parish, Women's Bible Study facilitator, lecturer, writer of a Catholic blog and contributor to other Catholic/Secular books and publications. Professor Vestermark also serves as a Student Life Coordinator for the CDU Online Student Center.

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