“I am really worried that my daughter is never
going to get married,” a woman told me at a recent talk my husband and I were
giving on the four temperaments. “I think she is too mature for the guys her
“Is she melancholic?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said her mom. “She is
attractive, smart, works really hard, and nobody asks her out.” She is
practically perfect in every way, like Mary Poppins.
But who wants to date Mary Poppins?
It is tough for melancholics these
days, particularly if they are women. Melancholic women are less likely than
most to do the sorts of things that give young men the confidence to ask them
out. Melancholics are high minded and principled. Flirting is considered
beneath them. My 19-year old son (a phlegmatic) tried to convince his older
(melancholic) sister about the importance of flirting.
Flirting, he explained, is really
just a way of letting the guy know that you are interested in them. Guys are
generally very insecure, and need to have some sort of indication that it will
be safe to come over and talk to a girl. So it is not a bad thing! Melancholics
are usually not swayed by this sort of argument.
Once, when I was at a Catholic
conference, I met a very attractive and well-dressed young woman from an
excellent Catholic university. She was asking me about our book, which she was
studying in her book club. Obviously, she was a melancholic. (Book club is the give-away.)
“I think I would really like to
meet a sanguine boy,” she said wistfully.
“Honey, you are going to have to go
to some parties!” I replied. She sighed and said, “But would he notice me
sitting in the corner by myself?”
In previous generations, a
melancholic woman was not only attractive to men, but there were social structures
that allowed her to meet eligible young bachelors. (Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.) In our
contemporary era, a sanguine woman is more likely to be noticed by the young
men. She is talkative, enthusiastic, and fun-loving. However, all this
attention is not necessarily good! It may be superficial and short-lived.
While the melancholic may be more reserved
(and therefore more difficult to get to know) once you know them, they are
golden. They are thoughtful, sensitive, deeply loyal, with noble intentions. They
may not be flashy and flirty, but they have something more profound to offer.
I asked the mom whether she had
tried setting her daughter up on dates.
“That was a disaster!” she said. “Forcing
my melancholic daughter to instantly relate to someone—which happens on a blind
date—was putting way too much pressure on her. She is very slow to warm up, and
the dates did not go well.”
We were stumped. What to do?
“We may have to wait until she
meets men who are older and more mature,” the other mom offered. “Perhaps
melancholics marry later in life.”
Melancholics are, by nature, cautious
and reserved. They care about the details. They appreciate order, correctness,
and want to get everything just right.
But, sometimes they can be prone to perfectionism. And perfectionism comes at a
price. Melancholics often worry about
getting the details right. They can become anxious, critical, and pessimistic.
But there is a greater danger: hidden beneath the perfectionism can be fear
and a subtle form of pride.
Father Emmerich Vogt, O.P., reminds
us, “Fear is the primary activator of our faults.”  Fear
itself is a passion and as such, is not sinful. But fear may lead us to sin. We
might remain silent when we should speak out against injustice because we fear
what others might think. Or, we might fear making a mistake or looking foolish,
so we fail to reach out to someone who needs a friend or a kind word. We might
be too afraid to take a chance on love.
Being perfect for the sake of being
perfect focuses our attention on ourselves, instead of on others. Perfectionism
(which can afflict any of the temperaments) is rooted in fear: I fear that I
will only be loved and accepted if I am perfect. Perfectionism makes us
want to prove our worthiness or our loveableness by being right, or pleasing
others, or never making a mistake. We become slaves to perfectionism, and wind
up criticizing others (in order to build ourselves up) or criticizing ourselves
(because we failed). We become envious of those who appear more perfect than we
are, and then we can become mean-spirited, angry, isolated, or depressed.
The antidote is to realize two
things. First, we are sinners. “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive
ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8). Secondly, God
loves each one of us. God loves each of us, not because we are worthy of his
love, but because he created us in his image and likeness. He made us out of
love, for love.
So, what’s wrong with
perfectionism? After all, Christ said, “Be perfect just as your heavenly father
is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
The perfection Christ demands, is
the perfection of love. “[A]ll Christians in any state or walk of life are
called to … the perfection of love” (Lumen
God does not love us only if we do
everything perfectly, get all the answers right, have money in our savings
account, dress well, make no mistakes, have a great job, get an advanced
degree, or anything else. We cannot ground our dignity in any of these things,
or we will ultimately wind up disappointed and discouraged.
Father Emmerich Vogt says that our
growth in holiness depends on detaching with love. We first need to realize
what we are attached to! We can be attached to being right or pleasing people
or having others think that we are perfect. So long as we have these inordinate
needs, we cannot be free to love.
It is both a spiritual and a
psychological fact that freedom is necessary to become who we ought to be. God
wants us to love him freely: “I no longer call you slaves … I have called you
my friends” (Jn 15:15). Psychologically,
the principle of freedom is essential to a healthy personality. Someone
addicted to drugs is not free to love another person—he is enslaved by his
addiction. But we can be “addicted” in more subtle ways—to being right, to
being perfect, to having everyone like us. “It is only in freedom that man can
turn toward what is good.” Freedom is “an exceptional sign of the image of God
in man.” (Gaudium et Spes, 17)
So, to break the cycle of
perfectionism and criticism (whether of myself or others), and to grow in
freedom and love, I need to turn to Christ in prayer. But I also may need to
turn for counsel to others who are wiser than I am, who may be able to help me
detach from my inordinate needs, so that I can more freely turn to Christ. Then
I will be free to love God—and my neighbor.
And, a point of practicality for
the melancholics: If I don’t become more
outgoing, I won’t be going out.