Unstick that Label

Confession: I used to be a personality test junkie.

I’ve always been fascinated by personality types. I read my first personality psychology book when I was in middle school. As someone who always felt a little different, I craved the chance to understand myself and the people around me. I knew there was power in knowing my own strengths and weaknesses and how other people perceived me.

In high school, I got sucked into taking online personality tests, ranging from serious to fluffy, but even the light-hearted ones had some legitimate insight. Sometimes the results were so accurate, it was a little eerie. I felt understood. I felt seen.

Over the years, I’ve watched aspects of personality psychology enter the public consciousness—the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, the DISC profile. They’ve moved out of the realm of psychological research and into the workplace.

At first, I celebrated the use of these tools. After all, doesn’t society benefit when we better understand ourselves and the people around us? But then I started to notice something—I saw people making assumptions based on results.

“Oh you must hate details,” someone told me. (Not true.)

“So that means you don’t like to talk to people, huh?” someone else remarked. (Not true.)

I reached a point where I stopped sharing my results in professional settings, even if asked, especially since I often found myself in educational programs and workplaces where my personality type was uncommon. Instead of providing insight into my personality, I saw how my results encouraged people to stick a label on me and shove me into a box. A series of letters or colors or numbers allowed other people to skip the work of getting to know me as a complex human being and gave them permission to pretend they already did.

The truth is, personality test results can provide a lot of insight. But there are a lot of things they can’t tell you.

My results can’t tell you that I’m smart and I work hard at everything I do. They can’t tell you that although I’m creative, I’m also remarkably logical and objective. They can’t tell you that I’m comfortable on a stage because I started acting when I was eight or that I have a master’s degree in management. They can’t tell you that I was on the math team in high school (I don’t even like math) or that 90% of the messages written in my high school yearbooks talk about how nice I was. (True story. I just found my yearbooks the other day.)

I am not one set of characteristics. Who I am is both innate and learned. I’ve been shaped by my experiences and my choices, driven by the traits I value. I change, I adapt, I become the person I want to be. I’m the one who decides who I am and who I will be, not a test, and certainly not other people.

So you can keep your labels. They don’t stick to me any more.

mbti me

Ahh, personality. You probably know by now that I’m nuts for anything relating to personality. And you can’t talk about personality without acknowledging the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In my management program, our divisive, hot topics weren’t politics and religion, but how you felt about the MBTI and Lean Six-Sigma. And since I didn’t care much for Lean Six-Sigma, we’re gonna chat about the MBTI.

So what is it? You know those four letters people say they are? Like ESTP, INTJ. That’s the result of an MBTI assessment. But a lot of people don’t exactly understand what it is. This assessment measures four psychological functions. Everyone uses all of them to some degree, but we prefer one over the other. Think of it as your dominant hand. You use the other one. But you rely on your dominant hand more.

Let’s take a look at the four preferences:

1. Energy. Do you get your energy from internal or external sources? If you get energy from being alone, thinking, pondering, then you’re an Introvert (I). If you get your energy from being around people, talking, hanging out, you’re an Extravert (E). This one is the easiest to see in other people and in yourself.

2. Absorbing information. So you find yourself in a new situation. How do you take it all in? Do you take it in detail by detail and see problems as requiring specific solutions? If so, you’re classified as Sensing (S). If you take it in more creatively and see problems as a chance to innovate (aka change the system), you’re Intuitive (N).

3. Making decisions. Pretend you need to make a decision. You’ve got two options in front of you, two plausible possibilities accompanied by arguments for each. If you seek logical clarity and look for the flaws in an argument, you’re a Thinker (T). If you seek emotional clarity and look for points of agreement in an argument, you’re a Feeler (F).

This doesn’t mean feelers don’t Feelers are emotional basket-cases or that Thinkers are emotionless drones. This refers specifically to what you rely on in making a decision. Do you develop a pro-con list and rely completely on the data (T) or do you emotionally connect with a choice and stick with that (F)?

Allow me to share a personal example. (It is my blog after all.) Choosing a college is one of the first major decisions a person encounters. It can be overwhelming. When I was going through the process, I narrowed my options to three choices. I visited them. I went through scholarship competitions. One of the colleges offered me a full-tuition scholarship. I ended up choosing that one, but not specifically because of that. Yes, I wanted to graduate from undergrad without loans, but that was secondary to the fact that it felt right when I walked through campus. My thinking function guided me toward a decision, but it was my feeling function that made the final decision.

4. Lifestyle. No, I’m not talking about how much coffee you drink. 😉 This refers more to how you handle your life. Are you the person who sets up routines and schedules and trusts the plan above all else? Then you’re judging (J). If you’re the person who likes to be flexible and reserves the right to change your plans, you’re perceiving (P).

Sounds pretty good, right? What could be so controversial about that?

Well, the problem comes when you take this information and use it to make assumptions about other people. For a long time, I didn’t share my results with people because I didn’t want them to make assumptions about me. Too many people and organizations use these results as labels to define people.

You may know that someone is an ESFJ, but it doesn’t mean you know them. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. It can only tell you about their preferences. It can’t tell you about their background or experiences. It can’t tell you that although I’m naturally Perceiving, my mother is off-the-charts Judging and taught me to be Judging when it comes to work and school. When I’m comfortable, I’m flexible. When I’m stressed or the stakes are high, I have plans and lists.

And although I may be Feeling, I can also be intensely logical when I want to be. And because I value people so much, I can become whatever I need to be if it would help someone else. The MBTI can’t tell you that about me.

It’s also not a this-or-that choice. Yes, you can be classified into one or the other, but there are degrees. To illustrate, here are my results from an MBTI assessment:

Clearly, my Intuitive function is much stronger than any of the others. And because I’m only moderately Perceiving and Introverted, it’s not difficult for me to shift into Judging or to become more Extraverted as needed. Not as difficult as it would be if I had to turn off my Intuition.

Some people fall completely in the slight category. That doesn’t mean they only have a slight personality. It just means they’re the ambidextrous people of the personality world. It’s easy for them to shift from one side to the other.

If you read the description of an INFP, you’d know a bit about how I function. But you wouldn’t really know me. It doesn’t capture all the things that make me unique, and it certainly doesn’t decide what I’m capable of. Only God decides that.

The bottom line is, you and I are more than our personality results, as fun and interesting as they may be. We’re way too complex for any test to fully capture. And that, my friends, is not a bad thing.