Being Phlegmatic

A former supervisor-turned-dear friend once described me as someone who accommodates others day after day until reaching an unspoken limit where I can’t take it anymore. He said that’s when I “dig my heels in” and refuse to budge, catching everybody off guard because they had no idea I was accommodating that whole time since I seemed to be participating so willingly. I learned much later that this was classic Phlegmatic behavior.

I first heard about the 4 ancient temperaments (Phlegmatic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Melancholic) post-college, after I’d already marinated in the Myers-Briggs personality indicator for several years. My Meyers-Briggs lens (ISXJ) was so dominant that it influenced me to self-diagnose as a Melancholic: someone who is typically perfectionistic, introverted, moody, and pessimistic. Since I was all of those things I just assumed my role as a Melancholic and moved on.

Years later I was handed a “4 Temperaments Questionnaire” and was completely surprised that it diagnosed me as a Phlegmatic instead. But the more I read up on it, I could see how it was much more dominant than my Melancholic side, and my supervisor/friend’s comment made a lot more sense.

Phlegmatics are described as conflict-avoidant, submissive, sacrificial, and afraid of what others think of them. They serve behind the scenes, are loyal friends, and, like my supervisor/friend told me, they give of themselves without complaint or request for reciprocation until they just can’t handle it anymore and draw a strong boundary, to the bewilderment of the recipients of their sacrifice who hadn’t realized it had been a sacrifice all along.

I knew that I did that occasionally, but what I didn’t know was that it was frequent enough to be noticed by my supervisor and that it might not be interpreted by others as such a good thing. I thought accommodating people was the good Christian thing to do, to love them by doing what they wanted. That is, until what they wanted went against my deeper values or continually wore against my own personal needs. Then I drew a hard line and justified it with the thought that I’d given them enough of what they wanted so now it was my turn. To me, it was a compromise. The problem was that I negotiated the compromise all by myself, rather than with the other person. And that’s not actually a compromise. And it doesn’t help much in deepening relationships.

My first steps toward growth in this, when people asked me if I wanted to go do something (which was frequently), was to start adding honesty to my accommodation: “I don’t want to, but I will.” Often after hearing this answer, the requester dropped the request because they didn’t want to make me do something I didn’t want to do. And it made people feel like I never wanted to spend time with them, especially those who heard it frequently. Although a good step in the right direction, “Honesty + Offer of Accommodation” caused just as much hurt and frustration as my “Silence + Accommodation” had.

The next step was to learn how to negotiate. Here’s my working model of how this can happen.

1. You ask me to do something for you or with you. I have other responsibilities or plans that are more pressing or desirable to me.

2. I tell you what I was hoping to accomplish during that timeframe.

3. I ask you for a trade, i.e. you accommodate one of my needs/desires in exchange for me accommodating one of yours.

4. We agree on a solution where both of us get something we need/want. It could be that the trade happens at the same time (you do something for me while I do something for you), or that one of us fulfills our side of the trade at another time.

5. We implement the solution.

Now, I must say that this kind of harmonious negotiation is not always the way to go. Sometimes my plans are too urgent to make a trade with you, sometimes your plans are too urgent to make a trade with me. In those cases, you need to make some kind of sacrifice to your plans/desires to accommodate my more urgent ones, or visa versa. But negotiation gives a third option for those non-urgent requests, and that third option can be a real relationship-saver (or relationship-deepener). It takes the conversation from “your plans, my plans” to “our plans.” And while that is not necessary every single day in every single moment, it’s pretty nice to throw in the mix.

Being Phlegmatic (or any other personality type from any personality profile lens you prefer to look through), does not have to limit you. If there is an unhealthy tendency associated with that personality, find out what the healthy tendency would be, and take steps to incorporate that into your life. And have grace with yourself as you find that your step 1 didn’t work as well as you hoped it would. Use it as helpful research to figure out your step 2, and remember that with each new step you are moving forward to a more emotionally- (and relationally-) healthy version of yourself.