On Earth: the melancholic temperament

(Temperaments, part 2)

If you haven’t read it, here’s part 1.

*When it comes to temperaments, we are never just one. It takes a combination of all the elements to give something life and complexity, so we all have elements of all of them, however we’re going to have much more of some than others. So if you read this and you think ‘this sounds like me but I’m not ENTIRELY like this’, then that’s good because it means you’re a complex human with nuance, not a robot. We usually have one primary temperament, a secondary that influences the first, and then a tertiary that influences the primary two slightly. Depending on who we are, there might be evidence of a fourth and there might not. I, for example, display very little earth/ melancholic characteristics at ALL, however I have surrounded myself with them in my friendships, most likely an attempt to balance myself out! This is one of four basic temperament explanations.  

Want to learn more about temperaments? Come to jim mcdonald’s class in LA at the end of January!*


Earth as an element: 

Earth: the solid, the stable, the structured. In symbolism, it is represented by the number four, which incidentally is the number of the carbon atom which makes up everything in the organic world, and at its most condensed, the diamond which is the hardest thing there is. Earth incorporates both stone and soil, and on one side it is that which gives life to everything and on the other is it that which provides the structure for it all. Which is to say that earth, while often in the background, is very important indeed.

While air is quick, and fire is fierce and water is timeless, earth operates on a time scale that is is geological. Not measured in minutes or teaspoons or days or even years, the earth’s time is in aeons, and its voice is the slow rumble that growls from its big mouth reluctantly, deeply, at a frequency often too low to hear. To understand the earth you have to get down on your hands and knees or even your belly and really look at the details of things, of the lichen that grow on the surface of rocks, at the minute variations in soil colour as you climb in elevation, and the tiny individual pieces of sand that were once mountains and rocks and still contain the sleeping giants within each pearl. Speaking of pearls, the pearl itself is an earth-like protective shell built to protect the soft belly of the oyster from harm. The time scale and slow pace of the earth is sometimes unfathomable until you see the streaks of limestone along a mountainside and realise that was once the flat earth. To understand this however you have to stretch your timeline: To think of the rocks and soil as inanimate is to not get close enough to truly hear them and see what they are capable of: rocks speak in a language so low they are hard to hear unless you yourself slow down; soil gives birth to life in a pattern so slow that if you don’t slow down to observe it you’ll get frustrated. If you slow down enough to observe it, you’ll uncover a world within a world, layer upon layer of interesting thing that you might never discern if you just give it a quick glance and then walk away.

Earth the solid, earth the stable, earth the giver of perspective: for how can you start looking at the world from a geological perspective and not start to see the brief flash of our human existence as something bordering on insignificant? This perspective gives earth what could be perceived as compassion from outside but is in reality just patience: grand irritations to us are blips and twinkles in earth time, and to truly rattle earth the fault has to be significant, the pressure great. Then, when earth rumbles, as it does, and is bent on destruction, it can obliterate with thunderous calm. Earth roars and cities fall, mountains move, and then it returns to its previous calm, having changed the world around it with great force, seemingly effortlessly.

garner valley

Hit the earth with water and it absorbs it, hit it with fire and it drowns it out, hit it with air and it bounces off the stone surface. Earth doesn’t respond well to brute force or frontal assault. Lap its shores with water and over time it will move, slowly heat it and it will melt, blow on it over a long period of time and it will crumble off, grain by grain.

Words that sound like earth:

Stable. Structured. Rigid. Unmoving. Nurturing. Live-giving. Stony. Solid. Immutable. Slow.

Earth in the personality: meet the melancholic.

The same words you use to describe the earth itself can be used to describe the melancholic (earth) person: Stable, structured, loyal, secure. 

Appreciative of structure, the melancholic is more likely to apply the structure to themselves, with discipline and self-regulation. This self-regulation emerges as a form of containment that, to the other temperaments can appear unhealthy or even impossible. Sometimes it can be, but at other times it’s simply who they are. It’s often really difficult to tell how a melancholic is feeling about something, because they won’t tell you, and unlike other temperaments when they feel it it won’t roll off them in waves. If you find yourself to be one of the people for whom the melancholic emerges from behind their wall of silence, you’ve been gifted with something rare: don’t throw it away. Because of this silence, the melancholic isn’t the most expressive: they might feel something, incredibly deeply, but the likelihood of them bringing it up and expressing it out loud is slim to none. For them, it’s simply enough to feel it. Similarly with creating things, the melancholic has a rich inner world and, if creative, probably creates a lot, but they rarely feel the need to share it. This is different from being too shy to share it, or insecure and lacking confidence: for them, it’s simply enough to be making it in the first place. All of these are examples of how the melancholic person can look relatively uninteresting on the surface, but usually underneath they have a rich world, intense feelings and often hidden interests and talents that you’d only find out after years of knowing them. This is the type of person who wins an Oscar and never mentions it to anyone. It’s not humility, it’s that it’d never occur to them to brag about things like that, and their self-worth isn’t determined by their achievements. Similarly, you can’t compliment a melancholic very often as they’ll start to get suspicious: since it’d never occur to them to determine their self-worth based on these things, too many compliments just ring false.

screamingrockSilence. Your melancholic is unlikely to call you. It’s not personal. They’re probably really happy that you called them, and listened to your voicemail and felt loved and they’re not calling you back so get used to it. They love silence. Not just the sound of silence, but emotional silence. The nicest thing you can do for a melancholic is to not try and manipulate them emotionally, to just let them be. In fact, often times a melancholic dream day is to just be left to exist either alone or with their closest loved ones. 

This wall of silence is both their biggest weapon and their hardest thing to overcome. When feeling pressured, attacked or like they need to be alone, the melancholic can throw up an impenetrable stone wall that makes them impossible to access. If you’ve been shut out, no amount of coaxing, cajoling or begging will get them to emerge, they just need time to think through whatever it is that’s happened so that they can emerge on their own. It’s their biggest downfall because in a relationship it’s often really necessary for someone to know how the other feels, and the lack of communication and retreat can also feel like a partner is pulling back their love and affection, which to other temperaments can be terrifying. 

What happens behind this stone wall of silence? Well, usually thinking. Melancholics like to think things over, and be absolutely sure that their decisions are correct. For those of us who make snap-decisions or are impulsive, this can seem excruciating, especially when we bring up our own ideas. Bring up a brilliant idea to your melancholic friend and they’ll start pointing out the different areas that your idea can go wrong. They’re not trying to be ‘pessimistic’, they are pointing out weaknesses in the structure, because this is what they do for themselves. To look at this trait and call it ‘pessimism’ is to simplify what is actually going on: being ‘positive’ about an outcome despite flawed planning is opening oneself up for disappointment; planning carefully taking all possible errors into account is setting oneself up for a successful outcome. There’s also this: the person who naturally tends to fling themselves into things is often less damaged should a plan fail— these are the people who pick themselves up and fling themselves into another plan. The melancholic, deep, slow and feeling, upon embarking on a plan, should it fail, will be deeply wounded. Because each wound cuts so deep, the melancholic, next time, will think through the plan even more, and to the outside will appear even more pessimistic than before. It’s simply self-protection. When your melancholic starts pointing out possible things that could go wrong, she isn’t trying to dissapoint or dissuade you, but is simply trying to make your plan better, to spare you hurt. Because of this fear of failure, melancholics can quite often talk themselves out of action by over-thinking. The way to affect them otherwise isn’t through optimistic thought (which after what I’ve described, I’m sure you can understand just rings completely false) but with reason. 


The melancholic is an astute observer. While in a social situations other temperaments find ways to become a part of the fray, the melancholic often stands just outside the crowd watching. They’ll often be really happy to be there, will often remain relatively silent most of the night, though will gladly engage with others if the topic at hand is something interesting, but in a room of strangers they are at their most comfortable observing. It’s this observation skill that makes the melancholic a really good person to go to for advice— they will actually listen and evaluate what you have to say. Melancholics make truly excellent listeners, partly because they’re more comfortable listening than talking, but also because they’re often genuinely interested if its a person they care about doing the talking. Because of their tendency to think things through to a great degree, they also make excellent advice-givers. 

Slow to move, unstoppable once moving. It might take a melancholic a long time to like you. It might take them a long time to decide upon a course of action, or to look over the information at hand and decide how they feel about it. You’ll find that once they’ve set a course, however, they’re practically unstoppable. In a friendship they are as loyal as people come, often standing by people long after others would have jumped ship. When they decide upon a course of action, they are stubborn and steadfast, and will spend years if necessary to reach their goal. Remember that geological time scale? A melancholic is in for the long game plan. They’re hell to play chess with, FYI… 

In balance: 

In balance the melancholic is loyal, stable, structured and secure. The type of friend you go to with your most sensitive problems because you know they won’t tell a soul but will help you come up with a solution. The type of employee who will show up on time every day and get the job done no matter how long it takes. The type of partner who might not tell you they love you a whole lot but will love you with a fierce loyalty and intensity that will render you speechless at times. 

Out of balance: 

When imbalanced, the melancholic can be too stubborn, too isolated. If they have nobody to trust then they will never express their thoughts and feelings and they can build up to a point of being unhealthy. 

They can overthink, and edit themselves into inaction.

The rigid structure can become a prison, obsessive in its scope, and what is attention to detail when out of balance can become nit-picky and perfectionist. 

The stone wall of silence that serves as a protective mechanism can become a weapon to loved ones if the melancholic feels hurt. 


What to know if you are a melancholic: 

Sometimes, just communicating that you need time to think, or that you don’t feel comfortable talking very much, is all people need to know to back off. 

Sometimes, despite you understanding that you love someone, they still need to hear it. 

Call your mum, even if you don’t understand why she wants to talk to you so much. 

What to know if you have a melancholic in your life: 

Your melancholic probably wants nothing more than to feel accepted for who they are, taciturn nature, not phoning and all. 

If your melancholic opens up to you about something, it is truly a gift and while bringing it up to them as such would embarrass them (and ensure no more opening up) you can yourself recognise what it means for your melancholic to open up to you. 

Never, ever tell a melancholic’s secrets if you’ve been gifted with them. 

If you’re interacting with a melancholic, give them time: they don’t like to talk about their thoughts and feelings before they’ve thought through them fully, and if you ask them before they’re done, it’ll just throw off their train of thought and make them grumpy. 

If you want to convince a melancholic of something, have a rational, logical argument (ie. don’t appeal to their emotions) or they’ll dismiss you from the get-go. 

Remember that geological scale time thing? A melancholic’s loyalty lasts for years if it is earned. A melancholic also never forgets a betrayal. Don’t betray them: it’ll hurt them deeper than you can possibly imagine. 

They might not tell you how they feel very often, but if you get down on your belly and look closely you’ll realise that they’re showing it in their own way: look at how they treat you compared to the other people in your life and don’t doubt for a moment that they won’t move heaven and earth for you if you ask them to.

  • Lorina

    Yes, yes, yes!! So weird. I’ve been introspective on this, just recently! Your article is SO helpful!! :)

  • Kaela van Breevoort Reed

    I think I’ve seen on facebook that you are a melancholic yourself, so I’ll try to hold back the deluge of gratitude and appreciation, but I must say that reading your posts is always an incredible experience for me. I always come away feeling very full and inspired. This post specifically almost moved me to tears, as you so wonderfully related your interpretation of the Melancholic/Earth slice of pie in such a clear and understandable way. You put into words things that I know about myself but could not put into words myself. So…
    Thank you!!

  • Lauren | The Soaked Bean

    LOVE this series. So bummed I’ll be across the ocean late January and missing you and Jim (dream-team), but super grateful for all of this juicy and gorgeously rendered info. More, please!

    PS. Do you (or anyone else for that matter) have any recommendations on modern texts re: humoral temperaments?

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  • Ren

    Fantastic series. Great writing and insights. Thanks for sharing this with us! xo