We are all born with a certain temperament, which varies from child to child – even siblings in the same family may have very different characters. Exactly what gives us our temperament is still being investigated by psychologists, but it's probably a combination of our genes and brain makeup, as well as experiences during pregnancy and early infancy.
One thing is for sure: your temperament is extremely important, because it determines how much you are affected by the experiences – both good and bad – you have in the family and at school, throughout childhood and into early adulthood, when your brain, personality and ways of thinking, behaving and coping with life are all being formed. In schema therapy, we are also very interested in schemas and modes, which are also formed in part because of your temperament.
You can think about temperament in terms of spectrums, for example between being introvert and extrovert, rational and emotional, sensitive and thick-skinned, passive and aggressive... If you plotted where you fall on all of these spectrums, that would be your temperament.
Sensitivity: a double-edged sword
Most of the people I see for therapy have sensitive, emotional temperaments, which means they are much more vulnerable to negative experiences in their family such as abuse, emotional neglect, harsh criticism, angry outbursts, excessively strict parents, or those struggling with drug, alcohol, or mental health problems as they try to raise their children. Having a sensitive temperament means you will be much more affected by even minor problems in the family – this will lead you to form painful schemas, which will be triggered in adult life when you experience similarly difficult events.
But as I often tell my clients, having a sensitive and emotional temperament is a double-edged sword. It does make life difficult, but it also gives you great gifts – of kindness, empathy, intuition, creativity, the ability to love and nurture others. I know this to be true, because this describes me very well too! Being a sensitive and emotional sort of person has made life difficult at times but also makes me – I hope – a kind, compassionate, insightful therapist.
So if you are struggling with the impact of a painful childhood, remember that a big part of this story is your temperament – which, of course, is not your fault, because it's something you were born with. Try to be compassionate to yourself as you embark on a journey to heal your painful schemas, free yourself from the long-term effects of a tough childhood and become a happier, stronger, more self-nurturing person.
If you would like help with healing your schemas, email firstname.lastname@example.org