There is nothing that makes us feel more loved than when a friend truly knows us—when she can give us a squeeze and say “I know,” and she really means it. But not all our friends operate the same way, and some are more difficult to relate to than others. This is why knowing how each other ticks can really help build strong relationships.
Dating back more than two millenniums, the concept of temperament types describes four distinct personality types: melancholic (idealistic and analytical), phlegmatic (calm and easygoing), sanguine (enthusiastic and social), and choleric (quick-thinking and determined). Originally applied in medical theory in ancient Greece, the four temperaments are now predominantly used in personality theory.
Art and Laraine Bennett coauthored The Temperament God Gave You, one of the more recent and comprehensive takes on the four temperaments. By learning to recognize these four types, the Bennetts say that “we will develop greater compassion for others and will stand ready to encourage and strengthen our loved ones.”
Reading about personality theory has helped me to better understand why some of my friends revel in a busy social life or crave alone time; why they are perfectly punctual or forever fashionably late; why they like to take charge or go with the flow. But beyond the ins and outs of behavior, the temperament types theory has taught me how to care for others in a way that is unique to their personality.
Take for example, your sensitive, serious friend. She hesitates before making any decision and is easy to offend when you are speaking off the cuff. On the other hand, she cares very deeply and truly invests herself in others. Sound like someone you know?
This friend is likely a melancholic, or more commonly, a mix of melancholic and a little of something else. This is one of the harder types to relate to if you don’t really understand her inner workings. Because we all probably know a melancholic and want to be a good friend to her, let’s get to know her a little better.
Who She Is
With her heart set on nothing less than a perfect world (beginning with herself), your melancholic friend holds high ideals and principles. She analyzes before taking action, as her projects typically begin with a bout of hesitation and self-doubt. Once she gets started, the detail-oriented melancholic pursues her starry-eyed ambitions from start to finish, leaving no project unfinished and no surface untouched. On weekends, you’ll likely find your melancholic friend gripped by a good novel or elbows-deep in paint, revamping her bedside table for the third time (this month).
Your melancholic friend savors alone time and has stayed home on more Friday nights than she cares to admit. In spite of that, she treasures close friendships. Need a shoulder to cry on? The loyal melancholic takes pride in counseling her friends. She believes in your potential, and, whether you agree with her or not, she thinks she knows what’s best for you. You can count on your melancholic friend to be supportive and genuinely sympathetic.
How to Care for Her
01. When she needs affirmation: Melancholics shine when they feel supported and encouraged. Whether she’s thriving or barely surviving, your melancholic friend longs for affirmation. When a melancholic falls short of her own high expectations, she gets bogged down in self-doubt.
“The disparity between real life and the ideal often leaves the melancholic disappointed and critical,” the Bennetts write. “The melancholic might either find fault in those around [her] or be tempted to take it personally and become self-critical or discouraged.” Encouraging words “break through this downward cycle.”
To care for your melancholic friend, remind her that she has a lot to contribute. Tell her that you’re proud of her latest promotion, for example, or reassure her that she’s a rock star mom when she’s struggling after another sleepless night. She’s not one to ask for praise, and she may even shrug off compliments; nevertheless, melancholics take words of affirmation to heart. Consider writing your melancholic friend an affirming note. This tactic lets her savor the compliment while sparing her from the awkwardness of spoken affirmation.
02. When she’s overwhelmed by worries: Melancholics sweat the small stuff. Whether embarking on a new stage of life or a demanding project, they preoccupy themselves with meticulous details and everything that could go wrong. Be careful not to dismiss her worries, or else she will feel misunderstood. Melancholics respond best to empathy. When you empathize, your melancholic friend will know “that you care enough to want to really understand [her] perspective,” the Bennetts say. “Let [her] know that you understand how [she] sees the situation and the seriousness of the problem.”
Telling her “It’s not that big of a deal” or “Don’t freak out!” will not make her feel better, as these statements do not communicate understanding. Empathetic listening, the Bennetts say, means repeating back to her what you hear her saying but in your own words. Once you establish empathy, you can offer a possible solution.
For example, your melancholic friend says, “I have a million things to do before I leave town this weekend. I’m so stressed!” You can respond with something along the lines of, “That is overwhelming! What can you check off your list first?”
03. When she needs a push: Once they take that first step, melancholics persevere. Still, they doubt their abilities and overanalyze before they act. For this reason, melancholics often need an encouraging kick start from someone else. “To build confidence, you might try brainstorming possible solutions, reminding the melancholic of [her] past successes, and eliciting willingness to take the first step,” the Bennetts write.
Motivate her to take small steps, focusing on one small detail at a time in order to tackle a larger task. An orderly to-do list will be her saving grace, so long as she keeps realistic expectations and takes each day as it comes. Melancholics should focus on “the most important goals, and allow other things to slide,” the Bennetts say. Remind her of the big picture if she cannot see it herself.
If a melancholic friend is anxious about taking a risk, try asking her what is the worst that could happen, the Bennetts suggest. “This breaks through the barrier of inaction or indecision.” Is this situation actually as dire as she thinks? Is she overestimating its importance? Considering these questions may minimize her worries.
Finally, you can help a melancholic friend over hurdles by showing your confidence in her. If she has little confidence in herself, reassure her that you have faith in her abilities. Placing trust in a higher power, as the Bennetts suggest, can remind a melancholic that the world does not depend on her efforts alone.
As you can see here, a melancholic brings complexity to any relationship. If you’re lucky enough to have a good friend with this temperament, you’ll no doubt have a great source of deep companionship in your life. And that’s something to treasure. The proper caring and feeding of our friends starts with understanding—not only why we all act in certain ways but also how to best appreciate our nearest and dearest. When we take the time to truly appreciate our friends, they’ll appreciate us for it.
Photo Credit: Violet Short Photography