Emotional Temperament Helps You Deepen Self-Acceptance
Learn what you can change about yourself and accept what you can't.by Richard Brouillette, LCSW
When you were growing up, did people tell you that you were “too sensitive?” Or did you hear “Why are you so angry all the time?” Did people make fun of you for being introverted or empathic? Or maybe you were shy or impatient? So often children can be criticized for aspects of their character—their temperament—that are totally out of their own control. It’s like being ridiculed for being tall or having red hair. But people still make it into adulthood feeling self-conscious or even shame about their temperament. In more extreme examples, temperament causes intense feelings of shame, or betrayal and wounding and lead to painful, lifelong challenges with trusting people, allowing yourself to feel emotions, or self-sabotage.
In schema therapy, having a clear idea about your temperament can clear up a lot of questions that would otherwise leave you feeling insecure, or more painfully, like you’re just hopelessly broken. With some awareness of the role temperament plays in our lives, you may find your way to better understanding what you can change about yourself and your relationships, and what you should try accepting, tolerating, and working with.
The most clinically useful development in the theory of temperament comes when Jeffrey Young, Janet Klosko and Marjorie Weishaar introduce the schema therapy hypothesis of emotional temperament, or ingrained elements of personality on a range of seven dimensions of emotion, each going on a range from:
- Labile to Nonreactive
- Dysthymic to Optimistic
- Anxious to Calm
- Obsessive to Distractible
- Passive to Aggressive
- Irritable to Cheerful
- Shy to Sociable
We can certainly plot ourselves on the spectrum of each of these dimensions, but how does that help exactly? It’s a little complicated, but worth it.
We have to remember that, while it’s important to start with a sense of the kind of temperament we came into this world with, it’s equally important to place temperament into the context of social, economic, familial and parental factors waiting for us when we arrived. Each of these factors plays a role—along with temperament—in setting up our personality and character. Once we have a sense of our emotional temperament, we can fit it into the context of what it was like in our family and house growing up, in terms of the level of emotional warmth and availability. What challenges were we born with, and how did upbringing affect those challenges? (This is where the “schemas” in schema therapy come from, by the way: mix temperament with environment and you get a schema.)
Self-Acceptance in Two Steps
Now we’re getting to the part of understanding emotional temperament that leads to a new kind of self-acceptance. There are two steps:
- Consider forgiving yourself for having the temperament you were born with.
- Have some understanding for how it may have been difficult for others in your life to get what was happening at the time.
Let’s create a case study from the emotional temperament chart and explore the above two steps. I’ll volunteer. Starting at the top of the list of seven emotional temperament traits, let’s say I am more labile (meaning excitable), more dysthymic (pessimistic), more anxious, more distractible, more aggressive, a little more cheerful, and very sociable. Start to think about this combination of emotional traits: I sound like someone who can get into bad moods, and possibly get anxious, which makes it harder for me to pay attention and focus. And maybe I turn to others to feel better since I’m also cheerful and sociable.
Now if I grew up in an environment where I had caregivers who were more patient, loving and supportive, I may have received the love and social support and hopefulness I needed to keep from getting too discouraged and anxious. This early experience would train me to be even more outgoing, and have more experience feeling good with others. As a result, my social skills would develop and improve really early, and—look at me—I kind of have a head start.
But to be realistic, parents who are exceptionally patient and loving and supportive are kind of rare. Most of us are imperfect and our parents were too. So maybe a more realistic take on my self-case study would be that my parents kind of lost patience with my negative moods (“Why are you down so much, could you just cheer up a bit?”). And suppose I start to feel like my more pessimistic temperament isn’t acceptable. I start trying to hide it and feel a little resentful about that. I try to get close to people because I’m sociable by temperament, but now I don’t feel like I can really be myself, so I might become more isolated and fear rejection. My social skills get confused and fraught and this makes me even less hopeful. And life gets harder for me.
It’s hard to overstate the role emotional temperament plays in the interaction we have with ourselves and others. It’s very high-stakes territory, as temperament can make us see ourselves with self-blame, self-hate, and shame, and to see our parents as insensitive failures or worse. It’s a touchy issue because it moves so quickly to blaming ourselves or others. In my self-case study, should I blame my parents for being intolerant of my moods? Should I feel flawed and broken for my moods? If only we had all known more about how temperament works, maybe my parents would have been able to extend themselves more with supporting me and my moods and maybe I would have been less intolerant of myself. It must be said there are of course examples of people growing up in abusive, traumatic environments, and it is crucially important to determine how much trauma is a factor in how survivors experience emotional temperament.
Schema therapy is founded on the idea that it’s not too late. If you can plot your position in the seven areas of emotional temperament, you can start to view your childhood through a new lens. You may see a tragic element of the combination of your temperament with the reality of your caregivers’ shortcomings. You may see how your temperament and schemas got you into the cycles and patterns you were in, and understand how this helped you cope. You can consider in a new light how your parents may still be to blame for some hardships and failings, but also how you have a responsibility to account for your own temperament now.
You may also see that each temperament has advantages and disadvantages, and there are no “wrong” ways of being. George Lockwood, of the Schema Therapy Institute Midwest, shared with me a wonderful point on temperament: those who, as children, found it most difficult to build relationships and trust will grow up to be adults who have the potential to get more out of a good therapy relationship than anyone else. Or, as a client put it to me, “Why would I want to give up being more sensitive if that also makes me a more caring person? It’s who I am.”