Understanding Our Differences

Georgia Shaffer, M.A.


Excerpted with permission from A Gift of Mourning Glories.



ian-schneider-39678What do you mean you just want to be left alone?” my best friend asked me. “I feel like you’re withdrawing from all your friends. We know things aren’t easy for you right now, and we want to help.”

My friend and I, however, had two different perceptions of what “help” looked like. As an introvert I yearned for long stretches of time by myself to rest and renew. How could I explain this to my extroverted friend who was energized by people? She was convinced that I needed to be surrounded and entertained by friends to keep my spirits from sagging.

In order for our closest relationships to help rather than hinder healing, it is necessary to recognize that we don’t all grieve or heal in the same ways. Some of us like to be left alone. Others require lots of company. You may prefer to take charge of your problems while your best friend likes to allow things to work out on their own.

Likewise, each plant in my garden has distinctive preferences. My irises, for instance, like to bathe in direct sunlight. Hostas, however, are happiest in filtered sunlight under a tree or shrub. For my flowers to flourish, I need to provide the conditions that encourage healthy growth.

What do you need when going through difficult times? Although one pat answer is far too simplistic, it is safe to assume that only those people with similar personalities will have the same desires or preferences during adversity.

In their book Wired That Way, Marita and Florence Littauer describe four different personality types and their emotional desires, based on a system originated by Hippocrates and other Greek philosophers.

The Popular Sanguines, like my best friend, are outgoing, fun-loving, and full of energy. Their basic desire in life is to have fun. They like attention, affection, and approval, which can be supplied by lots of visitors, flowers, cards, and calls.

The opposite of the Popular Sanguine is the Perfect Melancholy. This is my personality.  Melancholies tend to be meticulous, sensitive, and organized. While the extroverted Sanguine is recharged around people, the introverted Melancholy is energized by solitude. We enjoy silence and space to be alone with our thoughts and emotions. We desire a feeling of warmth and sensitivity in our relationships and are happiest with good doses of well-spaced company rather than a steady stream of guests.

jeremy-beadle-129624Powerful Cholerics are strong, dynamic, natural-born leaders. Their basic desire is for control. They crave a sense of achievement and accomplishment, as well as appreciation for the challenges they are facing. During troubling times, if they are able, they will work hard to gain an upper hand on the problem. If that approach isn’t successful, they will pour themselves into their jobs, start a new project, or exercise harder. When life gets stressful Cholerics like to be provided with choices, such as what to eat or which movie to rent. This helps them to regain a sense of control.

The Peaceful Phlegmatics are the easygoing, likable, balanced people. Emotionally they prefer peace and quiet, and like the Melancholy they are recharged by silence and space. Respect and a feeling of worth for who they are, not what they have done, are important to them. During stressful times, it is not unusual to find the Phlegmatic watching TV, taking a nap, reading, or fishing.

Darlene from New York and her husband, Nelson, frequently fought after the loss of their family business. “She would have as many as forty or fifty friends here in one week,” Nelson complained. “There was always a meeting at our house with people coming and going. To me, it was craziness!”

In contrast to his Sanguine wife, Nelson retreated outdoors to be by himself.

When seventeen-year-old Nate Heavilin was killed by a drunk driver, his mother, Marilyn, wrote that her marriage was severely tested before she and her husband understood that they were grieving differently. Marilyn’s Melancholy/ Choleric personality wanted to make everything right and have control, even if it meant fighting for it. Glen, a Phlegmatic, yearned for peace and hated the conflicts brought on by the insurance company and a manslaughter trial.

“Glen didn’t look like a peacemaker to me anymore,” Marilyn says. “He looked like Mr. Milque Toast. I wanted him to protect me from the cold, cruel world and make people be nice to me. Instead, he kept telling me I should be patient.”

When Marilyn realized that each personality has distinctive goals, she said, “Glen was not responding differently from me just to buck me, and he wasn’t necessarily saying I was wrong. We simply were looking at the world through different eyes.”

Whatever our personality, we alleviate much of the tension in our relationships during adversity by giving ourselves permission to grieve in our own way and allowing others to grieve in theirs.

scott-webb-120552“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” is a familiar expression. My experience in gardening, however, leads me to believe that the grass is usually greenest when it is given what it needs, whether that be water, lime, nitrogen, or sunlight.

Do you prefer moments of lighthearted distraction in the midst of your problems and pain or quiet moments to be alone and sort through things? Do you want a chance to work more or exercise longer? Or do you prefer the opportunity to withdraw from life and rest?

When adversity strikes, remember our responses to tragedy are not the same. Like my best friend and I discovered, this understanding can be the difference between hurting and healing.

Want to read more from Georgia? Her book, A Gift of Mourning Glories, helps readers avoid the self-doubts, frustration and painful mistakes often made when beginning anew. Using a practical five-step approach, she shares how we can move from despair and helplessness (mourning) to hope and joy (glory). Purchase Georgia’s book here! http://www.georgiashaffer.com/wordpress/store/books/a-gift-of-mourning-glories/

shaffer_georgiaGeorgia Shaffer, M.A., MCLC, CPLC, is a credentialed life coach, Pennsylvania licensed psychologist, professional speaker, and the author of five books, including: Coaching the Coach: Lessons from Christian Coaches and Taking Out Your Emotional Trash. She is on the teaching team of AACC’s DVD-training series: Life Coaching 101 and 201. In 2015, Georgia received AACC’s award for Excellence in Christian Caregiving. She specializes in individual coaching for coaches, women, and communicators, as well as group coaching using EQ, Strengths Finder 2.0, and personality assessments for coaches. To find out more, visit www.GeorgiaShaffer.com.

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