My Introduction to Personality Type or
How the Myers-Briggs Changed My life
Introduction to the Myers-Briggs
I have been interested in personal growth all my adult life. From psychological practices like meditation, Buddhism, and eventually neuro-entrainment, through mind-body disciplines like yoga, pa kua chang, and pilates, to mainstream practices like interpersonal communication, a master's degree in educational psychology, and public speaking, I have worked relentlessly to learn the mechanisms of personal growth. I even wrote a paper in graduate school describing the rationale and course of study for a new academic discipline: self-actualization studies.
Several years ago I was introduced to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI ®]. The introduction was little more than completing a simplified version of the inventory. Afterwards we were given handouts that described the type codes, and that was it. I was left with a lot of information for which I could find no useful meaning. Although I respected the work of Carl Jung, this experience made the MBTI ® seem as useful as a down parka in Jamaica. In the first place, categories are useful in helping to clarify amorphous thought, but they only go so far in helping one understand reality. Dig deep enough and the category inevitably becomes increasingly less useful as the importance of individual differences becomes known. Stereotyping, a stumbling block in appreciating diversity, is merely an over reliance on categories. It is not a sign of discrimination merely as much as it is a sign of lazy thinking. In addition, labeling someone as a category has a sense of determinism about it. If you are this, ergo you will act such and such a way in a specific situation. So my first problem had to do with everyone being placed in one of sixteen categories. I am not a category. I am an individual.
My second problem with the MBTI had to do with the forced choice nature of the inventory. This happened as I struggled to answer questions regarding my preference for Introversion/Extraversion. While I am a people person-I like to have long phone conversations, have a natural inclination to perform, and am totally comfortable in new situations-I must have my down time to regenerate. Along with meditation and daily exercise, one of my favorite past times during a Wisconsin snow storm is to sit on my couch, listen to music, drink a warm beverage, occasionally watch the fat snowflakes blanket the earth, and read through a stack of books and magazines, taking copious notes as I digest the material and make new connections. On more than one occasion I have encountered quizzical resistance for suggesting to a date that we go to some idyllic outdoor space, set up the Mayan hammock, climb in, snuggle, and read together. Don't misunderstand, I'm thoroughly passionate, it's just that one area I'm passionate about is the internal arena of the mind. So, my second reason for disregarding the MBTI had to do with my difficulty in reconciling two opposing inclinations.
As I continued with the inventory and came to the Thinking/Feeling dichotomy I saw a third reason for discounting the MBTI: the wall of culture. Specifically, I felt that the predilection in our culture to discount the emotional in favor of the logical unnaturally skewed our preference towards Thinking. Idries Shaw tells a tale on his tape set, "A New Psychology" of a manipulative man who raised a group of orphans to value logic over emotion because, since we cannot control emotions, they are a weakness and thus something to be overcome. The tape set is filled with teaching stories from the Sufi tradition. These stories transform one's psychology by using metaphor to sidestep conscious resistance to any personal truths revealed in the story. This one was a barely disguised commentary on the way culture discounts the emotional. And while there are some regional and subcultural variations within America-people from the south tend to express emotions more freely, as do those of African, Italian, and Jewish descent-our culture disregards emotion with some of the most strident of them.
My problem had to do with whether someone really favors Thinking or whether our culture shapes us that way. To say that some is a T over an F may just be a cultural artifact. How is one to know what his or her real preference is?
These three reasons-the limitations of categories, the forced choice nature of the test, and the effect of culture on personality-stood in the way of me taking the MBTI seriously for several years. But as I went deeper into my personal growth studies and began to study workplace training, the MBTI came up again and again. It was time to take another look.
I began my enquiry by reading Gifts Differing as well as books on psychological type by other authors. My reading led to some major revelations. The first was that having a dominant preference doesn't mean one doesn't use the auxiliary preference, but rather that one prefers the dominant preference. This reconciled my problem with being a people person who must regenerate to be effective. Another had to do with the interrelatedness of the dichotomies. The type code is more than just a summary of the preferences of the four dichotomies. It is not accurate to simply talk about being a J or a P, but rather to see the relationship to the middle two dichotomies. For example, a xxTJ will tend to move quickly toward making a decision based on logic, while an xxFJ will tend to move quickly toward making a decision based on values and being sensitive to the needs of others. For another example, an xNxP will embrace openness (vs closure) by seeking more information and ideas, while an xSxP will embrace openness (vs closure) by seeking more here and now experience.
My third revelation was that while the extravert tends to show his or her dominant preferences to the outside world, the introvert tends to show the auxiliary preferences to the outside world, keeping the dominant ones in reserve until he or she knows you better. A fourth was that one can change type designation or at least how preferences manifest as he or she matures. All of these added complexity to the type code and went a long way to attenuating my concerns about the poverty of categories. Clearly, in the MBTI the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
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