spirituality, psychology, and philosophy for an age of anxiety
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are widely seen as the two seminal figures in contemporary psychology. Yet, for good or for ill, the American academy has clearly given the nod to Freud. He is the Paul Simon to Jung’s Art Garfunkel; the Penn to Jung’s Teller; the Garfield to Jung’s Odie; the Huey Lewis to Jung’s News. Freud is the most cited author in the psychology literature, while you could conceivably get a PhD in the field without ever needing to seriously grapple with Jung.
There is one place that Jung has exerted considerable influence: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). But, in a cruel twist of irony, most people don’t even know that it’s based on Jung! Say “Oedipus Complex” or “id, ego and superego” and people know who you’re talking about, but try “dominant extraversion” and people just stare at you blankly. This is unfortunate, not only because Carl Jung is freaking sweet and provides a nice counter-balance to the bleak pessimism of the Freudian tradition, but because he had a very helpful and healthful way of looking at personality types, which is often not captured in modern-day presentations of the MBTI.
For the uninitiated, the MBTI is one of the most widely-known and widely-used personality instruments. Based on the work of Carl Jung, and developed in the early 60s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs, it has been used extensively by psychologists, career consultants, life coaches, spiritual counselors, and human resource departments to give people insight into their behavioral patterns and decision-making styles. Many people can spout off their four-letter typology, even if they don’t really know what it means.
I would like to suggest some ways we can use the MBTI for personal growth by putting it back in its Jungian context. Before that, however, some brief words on those four letters and what the hell they mean.
The four-letter typology is made up of one attitude, two functions and a preferred style.
Attitude (E/I) tells you where you prefer the action – outside, in the world of objects, actions and people; or inside, in the realm of thoughts, and ideas.
Perceiving Function (N/S) indicates how you take in information. Ss prefer pure, concrete data, whether it is numbers or sensations. Ns like principles and theories.
Judging function (F/T) is how you make decisions. Fs trust their gut, and prefer to connect to the subjective aspects of the situations. Ts prefer logic, and look at things more objectively.
Preferred style (P/J) tells you if you give preference to the Perceiving function or the Judging function. Ps like to take in information, and so will keep their options at the expense of making settled decisions. Js like to have their decisions made.
In all, sixteen combinations are possible (2 x 2 x 2 x 2). There are a number of free, online tests that will give you a good guess at what your MBTI is. For a thorough introduction of the 16 personalities, I recommend David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates’ book Please Understand me: Character and Temperament Types and Please Understand Me II. In it, they simplify the picture somewhat by organizing the 16 personalities into four temperaments: the Artisan (SP), the Guardian (SJ), the Rational (NT), and the Idealist (NF).
The question, then, is what do you do with this knowledge. There certainly may be something intrinsically satisfying just in seeing your foibles and idiosyncrasies described so clearly and succinctly in a few paragraphs, and it is probably very helpful in understanding the weirdnesses of others. Yet, there are two mistakes that I see people make when they learn their MBTI.
1. Reductionism. Once someone learns their personality type so pithily stated, they tend to view everything they do through the lens of those four letters. Even worse, perhaps, they look at everything other people do through the lens of that persons typology.
2. Staticism. Not actually a word, but I mean that sometimes personality is presented as something which is relatively fixed and immovable. A good interpreter of the MBTI will tell you that your typology is meant to be a starting place, but nonetheless it happens quite a bit.
Jung intended for neither of these things to happen, and he probably cries whenever they do. You don’t want to make Carl Jung cry, right? Neither do I. In his writings, it is clear that he thought that once we have understood our dominant behavioral tendencies, we have really only scratched the surface. We are only dealing with one aspect of our personality, which he termed the persona. This is the visible, conscious part of you – the part that others see most of the time, and often the only part that you see. Yet Jung believed that we were infinitely more complex than this surface part of our personality. If we go deeper, he believed, we will encounter new depths our being – parts of ourselves that are fascinating, surprising, strange, and sometimes downright scary. Since these parts don’t fit in with our standard image of ourselves, we tend to push them away. But if we have courage, we will find that they form a picture of ourselves that is so much bigger than we would have thought.
Jung called this part of ourselves the shadow self. In Myers-Briggs terms, the shadow can be seen as the opposite of your dominant typology. Since my MBTI is INTJ, my shadow is ESFP. For me, ESFPs defy understanding. For this reason, I am both attracted to them and repelled by them, as we are with all things that we do not understand.
But the whole point is to realize that 1. there is more to you than you realize, and 2. personality is a dynamic thing. The various letters, rather than standing in for your personality, are actually dialectically-arranged poles, between which personality moves.
The goal is not to be in the center – in fact, many people’s dominant style very much favors one side rather than the other – but to allow for more tension between the two different poles. Explore the territory that the ‘other side’ can lead you to. Exercise muscles that would otherwise lay dormant. The result is an expansion of cognitive and emotional resources, and greater flexibility in adapting to and taking on challenges.
This is a web site where you can take the test: