During my time at seminary, I remember going on a long drive with a couple of friends. On hour plus drive, I proceeded to talk to my friends about the Myers-Briggs personality profile, although my friends probably felt more like they were held hostage by my ramblings. Often reserved and introverted owing to my INTP profile, if I got into a topic I was hyperfocused on, I could give a long ‘lecture’ about it. I had become passionate about the Myers-Briggs as an insight into human personality. Having gone through trauma during my youth and in college, the Myers-Briggs offered a way of trying to make sense of myself when I was left often unsure about myself and the reasons I felt often disconnected from other people. Being an “INTP,” I had a good explanation for some of my patterns of thinking and how that could create a felt sense of distance between myself and others.
It seemed credible because it was “scientific.” In fact, Myers-Briggs was a combination of some basic insights into some parts of human psychology but was never found to be valid scientifically. In hindsight, I can recognize the credibility I gave to the Myers-Briggs was also rooted in how it made me feel about myself and giving me a set of ‘answers.’ After I had begun to distance myself from the Myers-Briggs because of its problems, I noticed another friend began to get really defensive quickly when I started to mention the limitations of it. From what I knew about them, they were someone else who seemed to have been trying to figure out themselves and their place in the world.
There is something quite powerful on a personal level about many personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. On the one hand, the very way they categorize people and explain each of the profiles can give the impression of depth and understanding that can make people think “they know what they are talking about.” Furthermore, as our description of our personalities is made up of the various things that make us human, such as cognition, emotion, motivation, relationships, activities, aspirations, etc., they seem actually applicable to our life. Add in any appearance of being rooting in some other authority, such as science, spirituality, etc., and we are inclined to believe they are reliable sources to understand ourselves.
And, to a degree, they can help to illuminate something about ourselves. When I discovered my profile as an “INTP,” I began to notice the way I endeavored to be logical in my understanding of the world. Our personality profiles can be like a mirror that we peer into and notice the handsome and attractive features of ourselves, or, if we are comfortable seeing our weakness or have a terrible low-self regard, we may even see some of the metaphorical smudge marks, pockets of skin and fat, and the scars that make us feel unattractive. Insofar as the personality profiles help us to discover what is already there: they can be of some use.
However, in a post-modern societal paradise of contradictory paradigms and confusions about what we should consider being true, we are often left with a sense of an unclear and incoherent sense of our selves. Particularly those of my generation were not encultured to have any one central identity that holds all the rest of our self-perceptions and identities together. Consequently, we look to personality profiles to serve as more than mirrors to look at ourselves. They became more like virtual reality that we don’t realize is a virtual reality; our personality profile gives us a certain skin that we then think we are and play as in accordance to the expectations we generate from them.
Being an INTP, I often told myself that I was a logical, analytic person, which was often the case. But at the same time, there was an aspect of myself that I was increasingly overlooking: that I was naturally deeply sensitive and empathetic. Instead, I increasingly took on the persona of an INTP because thats who that is who I ‘am;’ people even subtly reinforced this perception of me by focusing on and only see Something that was partly descriptive about myself became subtly and implicitly normative: I am to be as this profile says that I am. The process of answer questions for a profile can be likened to creating a relatively simple character1 in a video game. We may create a character that resembles some aspect of who we are, such as a virtuous, law-abiding hero or, and thinking that idealization which is sometimes the case is always the case. The difference is that we don’t come up with the character, but the personality profiles slots us in a category based upon how we respond to specific inquiries. Whereas we can usually recognize the limits of our own imagination, if we allow our imagination to be directed by an ‘authoritative’ personality profile, we can put on the profile as if it is a ‘skin’ in virtual reality but think this is really who we are.
Now, here is the real kicker: because our own conscious self-perceptions and identities are formed from both personal memories of ourselves and experiences and external, social categories and expectations, we can never really be sure if we are using personality profiles like a mirror or as a skin in virtual reality. Further complicating matters is that the personality profiles can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by our belief in them, leading us to submit ourselves to a mental ‘plastic surgery’ that fits in the skin that has been assigned to us that we will then eventually see in the mirror.
In other words, personality profiles can help us to identify something that is there or, alternatively, they can form us into the image of the creator(s) of the personality profiles that we submit ourselves to. It largely depends on the makeup of ourselves when we use them. If we have a relatively entrenched sense of who we are that is reliable and not built upon some sense of denial, then personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram will be like a mirror. However, if our sense of self is highly fluid and unsure, our own self-perceptions are going to be more influenced by what the profile tells us we are, making it more like a skin in virtual reality that can eventually turn into psychological plastic surgery.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of playfulness, exploration, and openness to trying out different personas that the personality profiles can guide us in, insofar as we recognize that we aren’t finding our true ‘essence’ by doing so. Where the real problem is when we give these personality profiles an authority to reliably help us to see who we actually are. In this case, we are being formed into the image of its human creator(s) fashioned from their own selves that they ‘projected’ onto their understanding of human personality, along with other people who use and propagate the various personality profiles.
From a Christian angle, a simply playfulness and imagining ourselves based upon the personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram isn’t bad or wrong. Insofar as we as humans are formed into the pattern of God’s image, our own thoughts about human life can reflect the image of God. If our own sense of our self is relatively secured, then the personality profiles can help us to identify something about ourselves that is true to how God made and formed us.
However, insofar as the image of God has been defaced and erased in ourselves corporately and personally, the image of humanity imagined from the creator(s) of the personality profile will reflect their brokenness and sin, both corporately and personally. The impacts of the brokenness and sin can be hidden in the ways the creator(s) and propagators divide up the human life and personality into ways that separate different motivations, traits, cognitive patterns, etc. from others that can reflect the way they divide the world up. Put differently, personality profiles rely upon our cognitive dissociation of the various aspects of human personality from each other to be able to provide in language a clear and coherent account of human personality. Their own humanness, both in its glory and its shame, is embedded into the very way their thoughts on personality is communicated used. As a consequence, when we submit and unconsciously surrender ourselves to the authority of the human creator(s) and propogaters of the various personality profiles, we risk inviting the brokenness and sin of their lives into our own lives. In addition, insofar as we consider ourselves able to understand and use these profiles for self-awareness, we can also exacerbate our own brokenness and sin within our lives by filling in the gaps with our own brokeness. If we are not careful, the end result is that we can come up with an extreme, distorted personality that we have created by our psychological plastic surgery, taking us further and further from God’s given image.
More scientifically rigorous personality profiles have many hedges against this form of unconscious self-mutilation. Personality profiles like the Big Five and the MMPI have specific definitions that constrain the significance of the findings. The scientific processes used to determine how reliable the tests and results are and why they are reliable means that their usage is less susceptible to the fancies of an undisciplined human imagination. Their often technical, less evocative language offers hedges against the misunderstandings that other personality profiles can readily fall prey to. While not perfect, more scientific personality profiles keep their imperfections more contained.
Furthermore, the scientific nature of these profiles reminds us that we are by nature more ignorant than we are knowledgable and that the truth about something as complex and frequently hidden as the human heart only comes through sustained learning and reflection that allows itself to be falsified and challenged. However, the usage of other personality profiles (or even the more scientific ones when their original intentions are not well understood) offers us an illusion of our own self-understanding and expertise about other people. They can engender within us an illusion of epistemic confidence about who we are ourselves and, if we are not careful, even others. The blindspots of an exaggerated sense of self-awareness will reflect the motivations of our heart and our own ideals, subtly blinding us and denying within ourselves the very things that go against the ideals laid within our hearts. To that end, personality profiles can also offer us a way to escape from learning about ourselves, to escape from things that we worry or even feel are true about ourselves.
My own understanding of being an INTP, as true as it may have been in part, was also a way of escaping the deeply sensitive and empathetic part of myself that had been scarred over from bullying, from the suicide of my brother, and from the violation of my significant personal boundaries. It offered an escape from the burdensome realities that I didn’t want to believe and accept as the way the world is, or the way the world could be. Insofar, as I was rational and reasonable, I could continue see the world as a reasonable place. My own exuberance from the Myers-Briggs reflected a person wanted to solidify a sense of self and identity that would drown out the howling, shrill pitch of the ghosts of past trauma. It helped to create a sense of myself as a person that ultimately became increasingly susceptible to the emotional breakdown that came when faced with other difficulties. Insofar as the Myers-Briggs is actually rooted in the psychological theory of Carl Jung, who himself underwent an episode of psychotic breakdown, could one say that my exuberance for the Myers-Briggs lead me to ultimately be formed into the image of Carl Jung? Maybe that is taking it too far, but maybe there is something to it.