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On water: the phlegmatic temperament

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Water as an element:

Our planet is blue and that is evident mostly when you look at it from far away: the glow of the water that covers 3/4 of its surface shining out into space like a beacon. The clouds, comprised of that water’s vapour hovering above the surface as a harbinger of that which gives life, nourishment and sustenance to all of us here. It is the water here that makes this planet what it is, that allowed the first life, millions of years ago, to emerge from the waters an amoeba with feet, crawling to land and crying out its first breath. And so we do the same each time we are born, crawl to land and cry, removed from the water that sustained us. And throughout our lives, we are called back to the water in one way or another, be it the sea, the river, the lake, the snow.

It is water that represents us: not just our planet but our humanity, making up, as with the surface of the earth, 75% of our body’s mass. We are water, and we are the space between our cells, and yet for some reason, we forget this. It is the water in us that moves, constantly, ever changing yet always the same. Plasma, moved by external forces and pressure becomes interstitial fluid becomes lymph becomes plasma and all along the way it is the same substance underneath it all, despite the name change. Water in the world becomes vapour becomes cloud becomes rain or snow or sleet or hail and hammers its way back to earth, then moves, pushed by outside forces, moved by pressure, tumbling over itself to seek out its lowest point again, always seeking to settle, and yet never settling, because settling brings stagnation, and stagnation brings decay.

It is the water that contains our wildness: that which we cannot tame and cannot know in full. We’ve tried to understand the water, can algorithm-ise to our hearts content and think we’ve got it solved and then out of nowhere a rogue wave will appear and blow all previous theories out the water. Like trying to capture a wave, or capture something that is at its most alive when moving, to still it is to create stagnation. To hold it in is to kill what makes it a mystery, and so in this world of knowledge and understanding and dissection, I hope that we never solve the mystery of the wave. And yet it is this mystery that makes us fear, resent, trash it. Pumping all of our crap into it, as it absorbs and takes it all. We can’t see it so it’s not there and yet it is there and we are responsible for it.

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Flood myths, dating back to the beginning of human history, sent by a deity to cleanse the earth, rain crashing down for 40 days and 40 nights, a giant wave swallowing us whole, wiping away everything that was, leaving a clean slate. In the watery depths exist entire civilisations, covered by water, cleansed from history. And we do this on a smaller scale when we perform ritual purification, be it a bath, a swim, an ablution, a baptism, a mikvah. Religions worldwide hold the water sacred, from the Ganges to the Tiber to the Styx, water marks boundaries, passages, the divine. It carves canyons into the desert, laps at mountains and turns them into sand, contains the deepest mysteries on this planet at a crushing depth. Water doesn’t have a time scale; it encompasses time, remaining the same through its changes, holding age-old mysteries in its depths, the archetypal myths of our planet that never really age.

Simple in its configuration, always there in the background despite solutes, salt, dirt, debris, plastic, blood cells, hormones, sewage, lipids. It is all that stands between life and not-life on this planet is one little molecule, passive in its surrender and movement and yet capable of sustaining all life as we know it, of giving life or ultimate destruction, all encapsulated in a single O and two little H atoms. Changing but the same, polar and yet constant, moving but still, and that from whence we came and to which we will always return, like a wave lapping the shore then tripping over itself to return, again, to its source.

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Water in the personality. 

Water, so open and changeable, is the hardest element to write about in the personality. Mainly because it manifests in so many different ways. We’re all influenced by our environment, the place we live (places have overall temperaments too!), our families, our upbringing, but phlegmatics appear so different based on these variables that it can be difficult to tell sometimes, until you look deeper at their motivations.

Did you know that all the trigonometry skills in the world cannot explain rogue waves because water it still too unpredictable? I know this is frustrating to the science nerds, but as a human who loves a lingering mystery, this makes me happy. Looking out at the sea and its un-measured depths gives me a sublime sort of pleasure: there are places that we still have not tamed. Emotions, as with waves, cannot be predicted or controlled. They move of their own volition and they, too are untamed. I think it’s one of the reasons that the rational sect gets so irritated with emotional types— there’s no structure to it, no reason, it doesn’t make sense. If you’re the type of person who can push emotions aside to get the job done, that’s fantastic, but to the phlegmatic that simply isn’t a possibility: emotion is the filter through which they see the world, and in order to get the job done, the emotions must return to their neutral baseline first.

Phlegmatics navigate the world through their feelings. Where a melancholic will think something through and make sure it makes logical sense, a phlegmatic won’t act until it feels right. This can be confusing to those who operate based on logic, but understand that this is simply, like reason, another way to see the world; another language. It is as alien for a phlegmatic to forge ahead when something doesn’t feel right, as it is for a melancholic for whom there is no rational reason to do something. This language of feelings is one that phlegmatics use to navigate the world around them: cooking by feeling, playing music by feeling, taking driving routes by feeling. It’s often a finely tuned art, a response to stressors in the environment that others aren’t aware of. I know a phlegmatic cook who never sets a timer for her steak but always knows when its done. Always. You could study it, see if maybe she’s sensitive to a different sound, or a change in smell, or just accept that when she feels the steak is done it is and leave it at that. A phlegmatic painter will paint until the painting feels right. I, in formulating, do so feeling as though my insides are on the outside, and know that a formula is done when it clicks into place, and settles into a calm. How can this be explained rationally? It can’t, of course, and this is one of the reasons that phlegmatics often feel so incredibly misunderstood in our rational society.

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Water, in its natural state, is open and receptive. The universal solvent which absorbs everything that comes into it. Phlegmatics, too, are incredibly open and receptive, solvent, seeping out in to the world around them, taking on the things they come into contact with. Easily influenced by their environment, sensitive to sounds, smells, colours, and even things like wifi signals, chemicals, the emotions of those around them. And the thing is, these things affect them, often deeply. This is both the phlegmatic’s strength and their weakness. For it is in the openness that they feel the world around them and understand things that lie beneath the surface, but because of this openness they are incredibly sensitive to overstimulation.

Information processing is something that happens on multiple levels in our bodies: our senses take in information, our digestion takes in information, our circulatory and respiratory systems exchange information constantly. We have barriers and boundaries in place to help us disseminate the information coming in in a usable way. For example, the gut lining is that which separates self from not-self in terms of food being digested. These are the front lines of the body. Boundaries, and ability to separate self from not-self, are what make us comfortable. If the boundaries get too lax then too much information gets in and this leads to systemic overwhelm. This happens in the digestion, in the mucous membranes, even in the capillaries, and it also occurs in the senses and nervous system.  Phlegmatics, tending towards openness in the first place, often have a lot of trouble with information processing, be it in the world (as sensory input) or in our guts (as food). Laxity in the membranes that separate self from not-self means open floodgates and a whole bunch of information coming in all at once. Which is often uncomfortable. To deal with it, they will then, often, make themselves tense and stressed as a means of holding off the world, so that they don’t notice as much information. That is, they make themselves more choleric to survive. 

We’re all subject to adrenaline stress, but for the phlegmatic, it can be completely detrimental. The tunnel-vision that accompanies adrenaline stress shuts down the open-connected-to-world feeling, and as a result, the phlegmatic is cut off from that which gives them strength. Humour me for a second and picture the last time you were super stressed out. Did you expand into the world around you then? I’m assuming the answer is ‘no’ because, by nature our stress response is constructed to narrow our focus. Conversely, however, too much stimulus when feeling wide open can lead the phlegmatic to feel complete overwhelm by all of the information coming in. Because of this, phlegmatics have a hard time living in places that have a lot of sensory input, because this overwhelm stresses them the hell out.  Which isn’t to say that the phlegmatic person needs to live in a bubble but they need time to recharge, time alone, time in nature. They need to feel relaxed and safe enough to unfurl their feelers back into the world, because that is where they draw their energy. If they have to curl in on themselves for protection for too long, they will start to feel incredibly out of balance, exhausted, emotionally volatile, and panicked.

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‘You’re too sensitive’ is something phlegmatics have been hearing their whole lives. At some point, often they’ll try to hide this sensitivity, make it seem less prevalent, because it’s something they feel persecuted for and eventually ashamed of. In our highly choleric society, the receptive, open state is dismissed as pointless, excessive, un-productive. If we could only look at the world rationally all the time then our problems would be solved. And yet, without this sensitivity we have no empathy. Without empathy we don’t have bridges built between people, we don’t have compassion and understanding. We don’t *actually* build on what came before, but just continue to move forwards in our own, often opposing, directions*. Where cholerics move forwards, phlegmatics connect. They connect, themselves, to the world around them, they connect people to other people, concepts to other concepts, they make people feel understood, accepted, heard. It’s not that they even need to care, per se, but that it’s something they do naturally.

Phlegmatics are often described as incredibly empathetic, and yes, when they’re in balance, they definitely can be. But instead of calling phlegmatics empathetic, I’d say that the phlegmatic has the most natural potential for empathy: they are the most likely to emotionally understand where someone else is coming from. Because of this, people will seek them out to talk about their problems. In communication ,the phlegmatic often searches for common ground and emotional understanding. Think of this— water seeks to settle itself, to mold to its environment. It is influenced by pressure, becomes agitated, but its individual molecules will always draw downwards and seek calm. It’s not something that they consciously do, and in fact if you were to describe them as peacekeepers they’d often not realise it or even think about it in that way.

But phlegmatics ARE natural peacekeepers, not because they actually, naturally want peace, but, its because they have this natural ability to get along with people. It all goes back to that molding thing: a body of water between two different shores will unite those shores, despite their differences. Because it seeks to mold to one, and the other at the same time, in that middle water is an understanding of both. Each side feels comfortable with the water, because the water, molded to it, says ‘I get you’. In interpersonal communication, this is something the phlegmatic does naturally too. Chat to a phlegmatic about something difficult and you will feel understood— they’ll nod and say ‘oh that must have been so hard’ or ‘I get it’ or throw out a comment that makes you think that they have been there too and then only later realise that they might never have been there at all, but have made you feel so acutely understood that it eased your burden anyway. It’s healing, on such a basic and fundamental level: truly connecting with someone and making them feel heard, understood, and not alone. It’s utterly genuine too, which makes it even nicer. Because of this, people naturally seek their phlegmatic friends out when they need someone to talk to, and because of this, a phlegmatic, if out of balance, can often feel like the universal dumping ground— the person everyone comes to to vent. This is one of many reasons that it’s important for a phlegmatic to have healthy boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are so incredibly important for phlegmatics— not only so that they can prevent total overwhelm from happening, but so that they can interact healthily with the world around them. Phlegmatics who lack boundaries in a clear way will, well, they’ll seep into the world around them. But there’s something deeper than will go amiss when a phlegmatic’s boundaries fail: in not knowing where they end and the rest of the world begins, they will feel as though the connection they seek is missing, and feel incredibly lost as a result. When a person has intact boundaries, they are aware of where they end and the world around them begins. Where they end and another person begins. When boundaries fail, the world can get pretty scary to a phlegmatic, and they’ll seek out boundaries, pushing further and further to try and connect with another person. I think of it in this way: water naturally seeks the edges that contain it. It’s a natural thing, as it spreads. It’s passive, moved by pressure. When contained it will move within that container, but not run into the world around it. When the container smashes, the water goes everywhere, seeking to settle down, seeking that edge that will hold it. When a person has strong boundaries, aware of where they end and another person begins, they can connect with another person without feeling lost, and don’t necessarily feel as though they are losing themselves.

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The phlegmatic side of people has been systematically shut down, for years, in society. For a lot of phlegmatics, this leads to an imbalance of sorts: not feeling like they have a RIGHT to feel things, if there’s not a rational reason that comes along with it, that can be explained in point by point detail. One of the things that happens when a person can’t express their emotions is that they build up, until they start pouring out in a deluge. It’s the phlegmatic who gets pushed and pushed and pushed until one day they lose their absolute crap and start screaming and crying and unleashing YEARS of pent up emotional buildup. This is one of the main points of contention between phlegmatics and cholerics: the choleric loves pushing for fun, because that’s their natural state; the phlegmatic HATES being pushed, because it makes them feel pressured. Eventually it’s not a joke anymore and the phlegmatic loses it at the choleric, and then the choleric is hurt because it was taken out on them in a personal manner. But that’s the thing, when you push a phlegmatic, it IS personal to them. Because we don’t get much practice in society in expressing our feelings clearly and directly, it can be really hard for phlegmatics to learn to do this. It can feel terrifying to them, and it’s often easier, instead of expressing it directly, to let it leak out the sides, or to radiate off them in waves. It can feel frustrating to those around them, because they want to just hear it directly, but understand that after years of being told that their feelings aren’t rational, or having them dismissed entirely, it can feel like an invalidation of their very self, and to re-train themselves to just come out and say something can take a long time. The best thing you can do for your phlegmatic is to allow them the space to feel things, without trying to explain it or make it better. The flip-side to this is that some phlegmatics don’t take the time to figure out what’s underneath their emotion, which makes it really difficult for people to understand what’s going on. For all of us, emotions are more of a guide to let us know that something is wrong, not the actual thing that is wrong. But because phlegmatics filter life through their emotions, it often feels like the end point to them. It’s not, there’s always some sort of reason for the emotion, and figuring that out before communicating it makes life a lot easier for the people around them. With regards to this, here’s a hint: ‘I don’t want to’ is a perfectly valid reason.

And therein lies the crux of things: being so fluid, a lot of phlegmatics have a hard time figuring themselves out. On top of being influenced so easily by the world around them, there’s also years upon years of being taught that their point of view isn’t valid. When it comes to the point where they do start to express themselves, it often doesn’t even occur to them to think of their own free will as being a valid reason. “I like it that way”. “I don’t want to do that”. “I hate crowds and would be miserable so I’m not going.” We don’t need there to be reasons other than our own desire to do something, or not do something. To a lot of phlegmatics, figuring this out can be a revolutionary act, but its the beginning of a process that strengthens their sense of self, and in turn their boundaries. This sense of self is strong and powerful enough to handle the constant information onslaught. They also have coping mechanisms: ways to express or drain the excess when it gets to be too much.  There is this point where the force driving movement starts coming not from outside but from within. In this regard I cannot stress how necessary it is for the phlegmatic to find, and move at, their own pace.

Where cholerics have a natural understanding of time (I daresay it was cholerics who decided to divide the day up into uniform quantities in the first place), phlegmatics (and sanguines) have a much more fluid sense of how time works. Where you’ll have cholerics in society say that being late is disrespectful of other people, phlegmatics simply don’t see time in the same way. It’s not a matter of respect or lack of respect, it’s that time does not move in measurable increments to phlegmatics (and sanguines). Have you ever lost yourself in something and time just disappeared for a minute? Or noticed how some things feel SO much longer than they do on the clock, and some things fly by? Imagine that your life was like this constantly. While time moves in strict measurable increments for cholerics and melancholics, for phlegmatics and sanguines, it’s a bendable fluid thing. To a choleric, time is important. Time is money— a choleric phrase— and so every moment spent waiting is a moment that is costing the choleric. Time is not money to phlegmatics. Time is an arbitrary measurement of something that is fluid. Often, phlegmatics are so used to moving at society’s pace, while being incredibly stressed about it, that they don’t even realise they HAVE another pace to move at. When left to their own devices, however, they’ll tend to meander more, maybe spend longer getting ready than most, or walk at an entirely different pace to that which they would with other people. When left to explore this pace idea for themselves, they’ll start to find a place of internal time motivation, where they can move quickly or slowly as they please. People often assume that phlegmatics are slow, and yes, some are in comparison to cholerics or sanguines, but really, phlegmatics just need to be self-motivated in terms of speed, to move at the pace they see fit.

When I picture a healthy phlegmatic it is this swirling mass of feeling that stands separate from the world yet connects to it intimately. That ability to see, connect and understand is something that we need more of in society, and that we need more of in a strong, powerful and healthy way. Contained by its boundaries, lit up from within by its strong sense of self, the phlegmatic temperament is the feeling, noticing, expanding soul that heals not because it wants to be a healer, but because that’s simply the effect it has on the world around it. It’s a rich inner world, a rich underworld, where numbers don’t fit, and rationality is left at the door and there are monsters under the bed, and shapeshifting, mysteries and mythical creatures. The phlegmatic’s inner world, their sensitivity, openness, serious nature is something that we all have within us to varying degrees, and something that at its most basic, keeps us human. Connected to the collective, the dreaming, and the world of myth, it is the phlegmatic state that opens us up to the hidden. It is from here that we feel the most deeply, connecting to each other and the world around us. While the choleric state is the great ‘I’ of separation, the phlegmatic is the ‘we’ of the universal— that which is under the surface running through all of us. Different yet the same, coming from and returning tot he same place again, just like that single drop of rain that eventually becomes an ocean.

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In balance: 

A balanced phlegmatic is incredibly easy to talk to, putting people at ease, making them feel comfortable, understood and accepted.

Balanced phlegmatics are often open to hearing other peoples’ points of view, and find it easy to understand where others are coming from, even if they don’t necessarily agree.

Out of balance: 

An out of balance phlegmatic can have this thing with no boundaries, where they constantly seek stronger connections with people: longer hugs, deeper eye contact, the things that make a ‘connection’, while at the same time, making the people around them very uncomfortable.

Because of their aversion to expressing things directly, it can feel really manipulative when an out of balance phlegmatic wants something, because they won’t ask or express things directly.

Out of balance phlegmatics often think that they are being empathetic, but are in fact projecting their own emotions onto a situation.

What to know if you are a phlegmatic: 

Pay attention to the way that other people communicate. While it’s perfectly natural for you to communicate in terms of feelings, not everybody does this and it can actually make people uncomfortable. 

Take some time to figure out your feelings, figure out where they are coming from and why, before communicating them to others. This serves a couple of purposes: first, it clears it up for you, but second, it gives others something concrete, because people need concrete. 

If you’re meeting someone choleric, be aware that they see time differently to you, and make an effort to be on time for them. 

Find and do some sort of self-healing method. It will help you differentiate yourself from the world around you, but it’ll also give you more clarity and confidence. 

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

Phlegmatics hate arguing. If you get to the point where they lose it with you, then you’ve pushed them far far beyond their comfort level. This is important to keep in mind because some temperaments (*cough* cholerics *cough*) enjoy the feeling of having a fun heated discussion, but this just plain sucks for a phlegmatic— it makes them feel cornered and attacked.

Empathy doesn’t mean agreement. That is, just because your phlegmatic makes you feel understood doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel the same.

If your phlegmatic starts leaking emotions, if its like being around an emotional storm cloud. Ask them what’s wrong: they often have to *learn* that it’s safe to express these things and that can take time. 

Give your phlegmatic space to feel. It can take them some time to sort out why they’re feeling the way they do, and in that space, there might be lots of emotional outbursts. If you’re, say, a choleric, then it can sometimes feel excruciating, sitting with a phlegmatic who is [often crying] and trying to sort through why they feel so wretched, but in allowing that, without trying to fix it, without trying to tell them what’s wrong, just being there while they sort through their feelings, you’re showing that you support them in their natural state, and this is one of the greatest gifts you can possibly give. 

*Case in point: American politics right now. 

 

****Extra special thanks to Val Paul and jim mcdonald for hashing this one out with me****

 

  • Nicole Reid

    I’m not really sure where to start with my thoughts on this, so please bear with me…

    My first thought as I was reading this was, “Oh my goodness, this is me, down to almost every word I’m reading!” My second thought was, “How the heck did you get into my mind!?!” I’ve never come across such a thorough and validating perspective on what it means to truly be myself.

    The timing of this post is uncanny for me. I’m emerging from a 12-year cycle of life filled will the oppression and neglect of everything it means for me to be a phglematic. Your words shine such an illuminating light on who I really am and why it’s entirely okay to be me. But your words bring me a flood of both relief and grief. As the universe opens more doors to allow me to see my path, I’ve gained so much clarity on how long I’ve been curled up on myself and how much deep pain that’s brought me.

    I can’t find the right words to express how grateful I am for your sharing this. For the time, effort, insight, and wisdom you’ve put into this, you have my most humble and grateful thanks and gratitude <3

  • Nycol Chapman

    So, I’m a phlegmatic. good to know. This beautiful article is right on time for me. Thank you!! This is just what I needed. You rock! (as always). Happy Spring!!

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  • Richardjhonson1

    Beautiful Blog!!! Thanks

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