The Hidden Gifts of Our Dispositions

And their potential for our personal growth

Feb 12, 2019

Personal Development Personal Growth Life Lessons Self-Improvement Self-Awareness
three wise monkeys

Photo by Chris Tweten

Prone to melancholy. That’s how the pastor described the personality type #4 that I most relate to on the Enneagram. It’s a new sermon series the church started in which they teach on this ancient and insightful tool for self-awareness. My personality type — the “Individualist” — is sensitive, introspective, and self-aware, among other things. But prone to melancholy is what stood out to me. Not just because it has a negative connotation, but because it sounded too familiar and I had to admit it’s true. But is melancholy all that bad?

Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.

— Victor Hugo

Now, I can’t go so far as saying I’m happy when I’m sad, as Hugo suggests here. But I’m also not downright depressed. To me, melancholy is that in-between place that still allows room for creativity, ideas, and imagination to flourish. Personally, it helps me connect with life and myself on a deeper level. At best, it helps me tap into my artist self and create beautiful, authentic work. I am able to use my sensitivity to life’s pain and sadness and channel it into art. For me, melancholy is as natural a state of being as zealousness is to someone else.

It’s a fine line, however, between a melancholic mood and a “gloom and doom” mood. I often have to be careful not to step over the line into self-pity, dejection, or pessimism. A dreary cloudy and rainy day is all it takes sometimes to push me over.

We all have dispositions that, when at their best, bring out the better version of ourselves, but when at their worst, take us ever closer to experiencing the “dark night of the soul.” Our job is to become aware of what actions cause which of these two outcomes. If I spend my Sunday brooding over a negative comment I received and then re-watch a really sad movie, followed by drafting an angry email while worried about an upcoming bill, I’m much more likely to turn my melancholy into misery.

The more we know about what makes us tick, the better off we are to make the changes necessary to lead emotionally effective lives.

Maybe you aren’t prone to melancholy. Maybe for you it’s fear, jealousy, or anxiety. Maybe it’s anger. We can’t help what we are prone to, or how we are wired. But we can  control what actions we take as a result. And if we dig a little deeper, we might find that in each of these lies a gift. The hidden gift of melancholy, I have found, is a deep connection to life, self, and others. Being able to feel things intensely. The hidden gift of anger can be a burning passion for something. The hidden gift of anxiety can be knowing how to create a safe space.

I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.

— Hermann Hesse

I know these emotions are not that simple and can often require outside help. But I’m suggesting that if they are “under control” and not ruining our lives, we can use them to our advantage. If we took the time to discover these underlying gifts, we wouldn’t be stuck focusing on what we don’t like about our dispositions, or seeing them as only having a ‘negative connotation.’ They would suddenly be full of potential for our personal growth and development. A potential we can tap into here and now.

It took me years to see melancholy as my own personal avenue for growth. It took me even longer to accept it as part of how I’m made. I didn’t want to be known as the “sad girl” or the “moody one.” What helped me come to acceptance is seeing how it enhanced my writing and my relationships, imbuing both with a more personal touch. I saw that when I allowed myself to become fully immersed in that state of melancholy, without running from it OR acting out of it, it had a lot to teach me. That’s the key — using these quirks of ours as teachers versus as excuses for inexcusable behavior. Once we can do that, we are better positioned to see their benefits.

As I end this post, I can feel melancholy creeping up, waiting for me like a dutiful limo driver outside the hotel. It’s never too far away, a shadow that comes and goes with the disappearance and reappearance of the sun behind the clouds. I have learned to wear it like an old jacket — faded in parts, ripped in others, and yet comfortable and familiar. Melancholy and I have learned how to coexist, giving each other just enough space so I don’t come across as sorrowful all the time. It’s still a work in progress. Sigh

Maybe I’ll eventually find the “happiness of being sad” someday. After all, connecting deeply with others can lead to happiness. Until then, I will limit my intake of heartache-inducing stimuli as much as I can, lest I turn into the next tortured artist.

What have you learned from your disposition(s)? I’d love to know. Share in the comments.