Everyone is unique — that’s one of the great things about humanity. Your brother might be laid-back and easy-going, while your dad is high-strung and anxious. Perhaps you’re quick to argue or simple to please or a bit moodier than your friends.
These differences in personality define your temperament, which — especially in a psychological sense — refers to biological differences that impact behavior or emotional response to stimuli. Your temperament is the emotional scaffolding that makes you you. Often, this biological wiring is established at birth, calm babies often grow into calm adults, and vice versa.Of course, everyone is capable of feeling the broad range of human emotions. Regardless of your temperament, you’ll still have happy days and sad days; when a loved one dies, you’ll feel grief; and if you’re dealing with stress at work or school, you might get moody. Temperament dictates your overarching demeanor, and the strength and significance of your reaction to setbacks and successes.
Temperament can dictate something else, too: Your predilection for mental disorders. Studies show that innate traits directly contribute to the development of psychiatric illnesses. For instance, the study found that “negative affect” — or a gloomy view of yourself and the world — can predispose you to a wide variety of mental disorders. Similarly, in children, “low effortful control,” or the inability to control actions and emotional responses, can lead to oppositional defiant disorder.
Breaking Down Temperament
Interested in learning more about your temperament? A lot of mental health experts break down personality and temperament into “Big Five” traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. But some divide it even further. While the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation is (surprise!) designed for early childhood, their easy-to-understand categorizations can offer an interesting way to look at your own personality. Here’s how they break down the most common temperaments:
- Activity level: Would you rather shoot hoops or lay in a hammock?
- Distractibility: How good are you at focusing — are you more keen to zone out?
- Intensity: Are you usually pretty measured, or do you have an outsized reaction to negative or positive news?
- Regularity: Is your routine stable, or does it vary every day?
- Sensitivity: How much you react to external stimuli, like bright lights or itchy clothing?
- Approachability: Do you love traveling and meeting new people, or are you a bit of a homebody?
- Adaptability: How well do you handle change?
- Persistence: How long will you keep trying when things get hard?
- Mood: Are you generally cheerful, or a bit dour?
As you can see, “temperament” covers so much more than just your mood. It analyzes all of the little bits and pieces that, when added together, create you —and your mental health. Each aspect comes on a spectrum. You’re not either “regular” or “irregular,” or “active” or “lazy.” Every person is different.
For example, let’s imagine you’re a pretty intense person who tends towards dour. You might be predisposed for depression: After all, your glasses are always half-empty, and you react strongly to setbacks. It’s easy to see how these personality traits, or temperaments, can lead to depressive disorder, especially if you start spiraling.
Can I Change My Temperament?
But even if you’re predisposed to depressive traits, all is not lost. Coexisting peacefully with your temperament is possible — if you’re willing to work. No, you probably won’t change your innate self. If you tend to give up when things get hard, you’ll have to learn to fight that impulse, since these basic traits never truly go away.
Working with a therapist will be the best way to counteract your basic temperament. Together, you can learn to identify your unique personality traits and discover how they might be predisposing you to mental illness or just making your mental health worse. Perhaps you’re oversensitive to criticism, creating increased anxiety. Recognizing your oversensitivity and learning to move on — even when you’re feeling bad —can be essential to improving your mental health.
Temperament doesn’t have to define you. Overcoming your basic instincts is entirely possible, as long as you’re willing to reach out for help.