Temperament Can Make Coping Difficult

Temperament. Basically, it refers to personality dispositions. When people say, “Jim is really an angry person,” or, “Sarah always sees the negative side of things,” they are talking about Jim’s and Sarah’s temperament, fairly consistent traits that, independent of the situation, dispose them to view the world in a particular way. Unfortunately, in interactions with others, temperament can be that random, unknown variable that throws everything off balance and makes coping difficult. Evan, for instance, is an upbeat – “great day to be alive” – kind of guy, and people generally enjoy being around him. Even strangers usually find his attitude elevating when he passes them with a smiling, “How’s it going? Have a good one!” Most people meet his smile with one of their own. But sometimes there’s the grouch temperament, the perpetual malcontent who meets Evan’s cheer with a “Buzz off!” reply, or ignores him completely. Or how about Gail, an executive in a large company who likes to dish out social praise to employees who perform well. “I find praise has a motivating effect on them,” Gail says, “although the other day I praised a guy in accounting and his boss told me later the guy thought I was setting him up to be fired! He thought I was lying to him! What the hell? What’s his problem?” His problem is, he has a distrustful temperament.

Temperament is the “X” factor that can mess up general principles. Psychologists know, for instance, that rewarding an action will increase the frequency of that action in the future. But there are always individuals who are unaffected by rewards. Always that “X” factor that messes everything up. As another example, take marriage counseling. Psychologists know that it works, but there are always those temperament complications. As therapist Michael Church puts it: “Just as with individual counseling, not everyone is an appropriate candidate for marital counseling. Some people are simply too rigid, oppositional, argumentative, distrustful, manipulative, cognitively distorted, or emotionally dysregulated to benefit from marital counseling.”

Do you think you could apply Dr. Church’s comments about marital counseling to coping with stress in general, that is, to any sort of stress in any aspect of your life? The answer is probably, “Yes,” but with the caveat that you must always be aware of the “X” factor: Individual temperament. Church notes that some people are just not cut out for counseling; too many traits comprising their individual temperament work against them. Extending that observation to another case of conflict, imagine arguing with someone about some conspiracy theory – such as the one that the coronavirus vaccine is implanted with microchips so the government can keep tabs on you 24/7. You may make rational, logical arguments showing the absurdity of the theory, but to no avail. Your opponent refuses to be dissuaded from a paranoid belief that someone or something – the government, another country, a leader, a political party – is out to get them. At some point you realize that because of the temperament of your adversary – ingrained traits, personality dispositions, biases, and well-practiced actions – you are wasting your time. Essentially, you are arguing with a committed cult member. Forget about it. Do yourself a favor and terminate the discussion.

But suppose you are arguing with someone about what political philosophy, conservative or liberal, is best for a democratic republic? What if your opponent makes statements that, like yours, are rational, reasonable, logical, and supported by objective evidence? You present evidence supporting your argument, and your opponent does the same. Now what do you do? Is there a civil way out of this conundrum? The answer might depend on the nature of the conflict, of course, but in most cases, the answer is, “Yes,” if – and it’s a big if – qualities like humility, empathy, and accountability can be injected into the exchange. These qualities tend to counteract temperaments like egotism (“It’s my way or the highway!”), disrespect (“You’re nuts for believing that!”), and tribalism (“You people just can’t see past your nose!”). In general, humility, empathy, and accountability tend to inhibit temperamental traits that cause disruptive emotionalism, and that interfere with constructive problem-solving. Remember that the next time you’re having a rational argument with someone.

Here’s the coping lesson: If you tend to enter arguments with the attitude, “There will be a winner and a loser in this confrontation and I’m not going to be the loser,” you are not coping well. That attitude will just reinforce any temperamental tendencies you also have that impede problem solving when interacting with others. But you can learn to restrain such attitudes. You may be temperamentally argumentative, disagreeable, self-absorbed, and aggressive in your interactions with others, but you can learn to counterbalance those personality dispositions by injecting empathy and humility into the situation; you can become more tolerant, civil, accountable, and reasonable in your social exchanges if you work at it. Yes, your best outcome may be, “We will just have to agree to disagree,” but even that is better than an unruly conclusion that causes everyone to storm away angry, resentful, and unforgiving.

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