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Who are you? How do you respond to the world?

We are constantly learning how to answer this question as our lives unfold – especially during adverse life experiences like a pandemic. I think understanding who we are can help us navigate these situations with a greater sense of compassion: for ourselves and for those around us.

I think it’s natural to notice others and compare ourselves. Back in the day as early humans, if we noticed an aggressive animal, we would need to match our state of being in order to survive. Today, social media offers a view of what others are doing and people often compare. It’s a natural reaction to think we need to match what we’re doing to what others are doing in order for our ourselves to survive – but now it’s the survival of our ego. The problem with comparison these days, as more evolved humans, we may judge ourselves unfairly. Even though we’re all human, we’re different. And that’s okay. Like apples and oranges – they’re both fruit but they’re different. And that’s okay it give ourselves permission to be different. That’s what this podcast is about…

When I was a school counsellor, I facilitated an evidence-based program in the classroom called, Roots of Empathy. It was developed by Mary Gordon to promote emotional literacy in school-aged children. The facilitator would teach the students a concept, such as temperament; then the parent and infant would visit the classroom so the students could witness that concept unfolding between the baby and parent; they would the students apply that concept in their own lives – especially to how they interact with their classmates.  The empathy they felt for the infant would translate to empathy for their peers.  

I wanted to share some ideas today about temperament so that you can navigate the challenges of living life in a pandemic on your own terms, rather than you may see other’s doing in social media, television, your friends, colleagues, or even your own family members whom who share a genetic blueprint.  That’s a whole other podcast nature and nurture. Temperament is our focus today.

What is temperament? It’s a term to describe a child’s natural reaction to their world and is defined by researchers, Rothbart & Bates, as the “stable individual differences in the quality and intensity of our emotional reaction, activity level, attention, and emotional self-regulation” (Berk, 2005, p. 258). The reason why a program like Roots of Empathy includes it in its curriculum, is that temperament traits, combined with life experience, are believed to form the backbone of our adult personality. 

I think these terms can be useful as a lens to view not only our children but maybe even ourselves. Maybe if we understand how other’s respond to their environment, then we can meet them where they’re at rather than where we think they should be…may lead to a greater sense of compassion and acceptance, well-being, richer interactions, and self-confidence.

Researchers Thomas & Chess developed a model of 9 temperament traits in children. Each trait is rated as low or high and offers insight in how to respond to and support the development in children. When I facilitated the Roots of Empathy course, it made me think about my adult self and my traits in a different way.  I thought it might be interesting to think about ourselves within each category as a means to offer compassion in how we’re responding to our lives unfolding in this pandemic.

  1. Activity level is the ratio of active to inactive periods.  What’s your activity level? If your activity level is low, your natural inclination isn’t to be active all the time. Moving according to your body’s innate style is more important than keeping up with activity level of others who may have a higher ratio than you. Something to keep in mind when you notice someone else’s level activity of activity on social media or in your own household.
  2. Rhythmicity is the regularity of natural body functions like sleep, hunger, excretion.  Do you wake up at the same time everyday without an alarm clock?  If not, you may find yourself struggling to get out of bed.  Does that mean someone with low rhythmicity is “lazy”? Maybe  it means the body may need some outside structure – like a schedule similar to Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory.  Perhaps it may help to purchase a lamp that mimics sunrise and sunset and offers daylight to support your body’s natural circadian rhythms. Or maybe using an app to remind you to take a break for lunch or eat a banana before bed to help cue the body to sleep. Knowing our innate reaction helps to offer compassion for the way we natural respond rather than how we expect ourselves when it isn’t our natural way of behaving.
  3. Distractibility describes how easily stimulation from the environment can affect behaviour. For instance if an infant is offered a toy, would it stop crying? Or if a phone beeps, can it alter your concentration? Could a certain music playlist distract you from a funky mood?  
  4. Approach or Withdrawal describes the First Reaction to a new person, object, or food. Some people respond quickly to new things, others are slow to warm. Are you someone who engages others in conversation or are you quiet in order to figure out how to respond? Remember either way isn’t better or worse, it’s just an understanding of your way of doing things. When we understand our reaction to the world we can better support and accept ourselves leading to a healthier sense of self.
  5. Adaptability is the ease in which a child adapts to their environment. How have you responded to isolation – working or studying from home? How have you adapted to zoom or other virtual platforms?  If your adaptability is low, then it’s been difficult getting used to working from home.  Knowing this, does it help you feel more compassionate towards yourself and others who’ve struggled to change during this pandemic?  
  6. Attention Span or Persistence refers to the amount of time devoted to an activity – for a child, perhaps playing with a toy. If the level attention span is low, then the length of an activity will need to be considered when scheduling events. What has your persistence been like with working from home?  Is your attention span low or high? Do you need support in keeping attention? What works for you?  Do you work best in 20 minute focused sessions with breaks in between or 60 minute sessions.  The most important factor is what works best for you so that you plan your day around your innate reaction in order to maximize your productivity.
  7. Intensity of Reaction is the energy level of a response like when a child cries, talks, or runs. Has anyone ever told you that you’re intense or soft?  Remember that one way isn’t better than another. It just is. And if we can accept our innate responses to the world, then maybe instead of wasting time and energy on changing who we are, we can capitalize on our strengths and support our areas of growth so we can feel better about who are, as we are.
  8. Threshold of Responsiveness or the intensity of stimulation required to evoke a response or sensitivity. Have you ever been described as too sensitive? or that you never notice anything?  It might help to think of it like whiskers on a kitten or dog. The more they have, the more they can sense in their environment. Some people have a few whiskers, others have many.  If you have a few, you may not notice some things that those who have many do.  It isn’t better or worse, it’s just different. If you are someone who has a low intensity of stimulation, you may be that person who needs the TV on to do their homework or write a report. Or maybe you’re that person who needs to sleep with earplugs otherwise you’ll wake up to every little noise.  Knowing your threshold may help you meet your needs. And if you can meet your needs, then you may be happier and more productive.
  9. Quality of mood refers to the amount of friendly versus unfriendly behaviour – optimism versus pessimism.  If you innately have a cloudy versus sunny disposition, it may help to know what brightens your day so you can add your own sunshine.  Is it being able to have your coffee before the kids wake up? Do you need to eat lunch with others to feel more joyful? Next time you’re in a good mood, maybe create a list in your phone and over time you’ll have a menu of sunshine activities to brighten your day when your mood is low.

Please remember that how you react to the world is unique to you. Understanding yourself and how you’re different than others may help the next time you notice that your judging yourself as being less than someone else when really, you’re just an apple and they’re an orange. Fruit is Fruit.
If you could use some support understanding yourself better, maybe it’s time to reach out for help. Check out the Safe Harbour website and choose the therapist who’s the right fit for you.


Berk, Laura E. (2005). Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood. Fifth Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.