I used to tag the apology on whenever my personality type came up in the topic of conversation, as it will do amongst friends who’ve been exploring personality for themselves. But I’m not going to do that any more, and in this blog’s spirit of openness and vulnerability, this is why.
To be able to tell my story I’m going to need to give you a bit of background to the Myers-Briggs personality classification system, or MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator)*. This is a system for determining and understanding personality differences developed in the last century by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers after Carl Jung’s work. MBTI is based around four pairs of personality traits, each represented by a letter (capitalised for each pair below), and sees everyone tending towards one side or another within each pair. The pairs are:
- Extravert/Introvert – this is about where you predominantly draw your energy from (interaction with others or time on your own) and whether your dominant ways of thinking express themselves outwardly for all to see or inwardly inside yourself;
- Sensing/iNtuition (do you tend to be a details person, or someone who sees the big picture?);
- Thinking/Feeling (do you tend to solve problems with your head or your heart first, do you tend to consider principles or people more when making decisions?);
- Judging/Perceiving, which is actually about how much you tend to need to have things planned out or value spontaneity, rather than anything to do with being judgemental or perceptive (I confess, not understanding where these terms come from, that I’ve come to refer to them as J for planning and P for jumping..!).
Both traits in each pair are neutral; neither is better, so it’s not a measure of how good you are at a certain thing or as a person (for example Ts are not more intelligent than Fs nor Fs necessarily better with relationships than Ts). Everyone can and probably does use all 8 of those traits (ie everyone thinks and has feelings that come into play when they make decisions), but has a preferred one for each pair, in the same way you can use both your right and left hand to write but have a dominant hand that’s easier, and can be more or less practised at using your less dominant hand.
It’s measured using responses to a long questionnaire** to try to tease out which side of each pairing you tend towards. This scores how strongly your answers point towards one side or other of a pair, however the score is more a measure of how certain you are about that tendency, rather than how strong that tendency is, and this is influenced both by how well you know yourself (the more self-aware you are, the more you will know the way you think and react, and the better you will be able to answer the questions about this), and how practised you are at using your non-preferences (for example you may naturally be a ‘P’, a person who craves freedom and spontaneity, but have spent all your life in a work environment that requires you to be very organised and plan everything through, meaning you answer the questions testing your need for planning in a more ambiguous way, or even in a way that suggests you prefer to have things planned!). The result gives you a 4-letter code for your personality type (E or I, S or N, T or F, J or P), and since there are four pairs, there are 16 possible combinations of traits and therefore 16 base personality types.
I like it because it doesn’t put people into boxes; it doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of person you are or how you are going to behave, but it explains people’s underlying tendencies and helps us understand how we work. You remain an individual, because although this is a way to identify the basis of the way you tick, the simplest building blocks of what makes you who you are and from which you build yourself, your actual personality is going to be made up of that plus all the other stuff of life.
I have taken this test more times now than I can keep track of, and probably did it for the first time around 15 years ago. I’ve come out as an INTJ every single time, regardless of how much I have changed as a person over those years, how much I think I have developed different aspects of myself, and how much I’ve pushed boundaries of interpretation when answering the questions! So what does that mean?
Firstly, I. I am an introvert. I can be loud and forceful. I love to be on stage, up front, lead a group or speak in public. If a decision is to be made, you will be left in no doubt what my views are! But my batteries are drained extremely rapidly if I spend too much time socialising, or in intense one-to-one conversation. I need time alone. I can spend many happy hours away from others, content to be with myself and my own inner world. I need people very much, but I’d far rather have a few close friends than many shallow acquaintances (which is a real struggle for me at present as I feel I’m in the latter situation here just now).
I am an N. This is the trait I’ve long been most unsure about, as I’ve not really understood what it means. As a scientist, I’ve always thought of myself as someone who bases her understanding of things more on facts and evidence than on gut feeling, so how can I be an ‘intuitive’ rather than a ‘senser’? However, I’ve never been assessed as an S, and when I’ve read about S types, none of them ring true for me. Last year I took part in a workshop with an experienced MBTI practitioner and got to explore it a bit more, and it seems this pair is more about how much we tend to focus on the detail or see the bigger picture. And that clicked! I am absolutely a big-picture person, and actually that’s probably the single most important way to understand me. It’s also been one of the most helpful concepts for me to grasp in terms of the differences between how different people think. It’s not that I disregard detail, or evidence, the tried and tested or the importance of ‘now’. But so much of what goes on inside me is big-picture stuff. I’m always in the wider context for whatever it is I’m dealing with at any particular time. Don’t try to appeal to me with individual case studies; explain to me the scale of the problem and I will be dreaming of solutions and how we might get from here to there.
And this ties into the next pair; I am a T. Anyone who knows me at all knows I have feelings!! They tend to explode on me at full force, and quite often you’ll see that explosion externally too, be it anger or love or grief or whatever. I care deeply about others, whether I know them or not, because people really matter to me. But I am so much more a head person than a heart person. I say that relates to the last point, because so much of my care for others actually stems from the idea, the knowledge, the theory that the other and their situation is important, rather than an emotional response. Going back to the case study versus the concept of the problem, if you tell me about a poor cocoa farmer who is struggling to feed her family because she isn’t being paid enough for her crops, I care because of the idea of the injustice of that situation and knowledge that there must be so many farmers out there, not just cocoa growers, in similar situations because world trade is set up to pay them as little as possible, rather than an emotional connection with her as a person. I still care. I can be quite reserved because I’m not great at knowing what to do with emotion, especially other people’s emotions, and that’s compounded by my introversion. And if a decision is to be made, it matters much more to me that that decision is correct in terms of it working, than it being correct in terms of it pleasing everyone.
Finally, I am a J. Spontaneity really stresses me out, which is great when you are married to someone who finds having everything planned out stressful! His idea of a perfect day out, and my nightmare, is to just wake up one day and decide to set out not knowing where you are going, and just wander. I want to have put that day aside for a day trip at least a few days in advance, and to have agreed where we’re going the night before at least, with a map and at least a rough idea of the route, and to know the weather forecast, where the loos are en route, what time the bus home goes and how long it will take to get to the stop! We’re both learning..! I need to have an idea what to expect and to be able to plan responses to scenarios in advance, and hate last minute changes of plan being foisted upon me.
So that is my type; the head-based, big-picture-thinking, introverted planner.
So why apologise? What’s wrong with that? Well. My type is the one that frequently gets typecast as the evil genius! You see it in all sorts of fictional villains, and alas there are real evil geniuses that fit too. It’s a combination of traits that easily lends itself to a person being quite detached and calculating, wanting their own way, and also being able to apply knowledge and understanding to achieve it. There are many very basic MBTI type summaries out there that give this sort of thing as the short and pithy description of what my type is like, portraying us as cold, reserved and scheming. Not great. Especially when you are neither particularly evil nor a genius! But there is more. Digging into my profile a bit more, you’ll see we’ve a tendency to ‘be right’. We know we are right, and we will say so! What is more, even if others disagree, or are trying to take time to come to a decision together, we are headstrong and independent enough to just go off and act on it ourselves regardless, without waiting for a go-ahead or a consensus. There’s a tendency to be inflexible, both to ideas and plans of action, and to the feelings of others. Argh! Now that does hit home! I have many a time made myself very unpopular in that sort of situation, both at work and in social scenarios. It’s an unattractive arrogance. I’ve been working hard to become more aware of that in myself and to learn better ways to handle situations and treat others, but it’s not easy.
My ‘sorry world!’ response was a little tongue-in-cheek, but in truth I was always a little embarrassed by my profile, and envied other types. The trait pairings are neutral, and so are the personality types; they do not dictate who you will be, or how you will react, or what you will be like as a person. But they do explain your underlying tendencies, and I can’t deny it, some types have much nicer starting points to work from! I read some profile descriptions and frankly they sound lovely. Mine is not that!! But you can start from a profile with tendencies to be big-hearted, creative, energetic lovers of harmony, and still act like a jerk. You can start with basic materials that tend you towards arrogant independence, and build a compassionate life upon them.
And this leads to where I am today; I am starting to love what I am. Yes, after 15 years working with it, starting, though I’ve loved who I am much longer. I’m beginning to recognise the beauty and wisdom of what God has made me out of. I’ve known in my head that all the types are needed to make the world work, but in practice have struggled to appreciate why such a potentially difficult character like myself might be necessary. But this is the good news isn’t it? All of us are full of potential, and none of us are sorted yet. We can all, particularly walking alongside the God who put us together and knows us, has a plan for us and gives us strength to be our best, build something amazing from the basic building blocks we’ve been given. I find the MBTI tool incredibly useful in understanding myself and my strengths and weaknesses, and in developing my character, and also in understanding the different perspectives those around me are coming from and so working better with them (particularly understanding that different styles of thinking are not wrong, just different perspectives as innate as my own). So there’s a fair bit in my make up that requires self-awareness just to behave decently. But we all have a bit of that, and I’m discovering that actually my type have some really beautiful characteristics waiting to be developed. I’m finding God has been at work in me, at least over this past year, helping me to uncover this, and I hope with God’s help I can grow into it in future.
So far in my journey with MBTI I’ve found it easier to see what I suspect others see of me; my tendency to put forth my ideas. What I have overlooked is what goes on inside me all the time; the vision. What is that inner world that I feel so at home in? It’s full of big ideas, concepts, dreams and an ache for justice, for the Kingdom of God, for restored relationships in all things and everything to be put right. That is where the INTJ mind can be a thing of beauty, and I’d never really grasped that before! In Switchfoot’s words, the tension is here, between who you are and who you could be, between how it is and how it should be… I see what things are like and where they’re headed, but I also see the potential. I may be short of the practical details on how to get from here to there but I am forever dreaming up vague roadmaps. The big picture drives me. As a scientist, activist and Christian, it makes sense. Somewhere inside I see before me the coming Kingdom of God, the world put right. I see the potential of humanity to not only turn around and overcome problems such as climate change, xenophobia and unjust trade, but actually be a creative force for good in the world, shaping it into something better than we started with (probably way outside my lifetime and even this era of history…). Big dreams! I think God can use that.
I recently wound up my latest round of counselling with an amazing session with my therapist*** in which she had me go over some of the damaging labels that had been put on me as a child (weirdo, daydreamer etc), and we worked through them (I won’t go into detail here, it would make a whole other blog post!) until I recognised I could replace those unhelpful labels with a better one: Visionary. I may have been a bit weird, and I was frequently off in my own world, elaborating in my own head ideas and stories based around what I’d been taught and read, which would have frustrated a teacher trying to keep me on track with the lesson. But there is the seed of the person I am now.
I may not be the person with the wild and original ideas, or the practical sense to make something work, or the patience to see a project through, and certainly not the people-person with the natural warmth and sensitivity to bring people together and look after others’ needs along the way, but there is a place for the ones with vision, especially vision grounded in the present reality, who can see the potential in the wild ideas and lift the collective expectation above the everyday. I have a way to go to work out what my place is in the world and how to harness a mind like this to make a useful contribution to the world. There’s definitely more for me to work on when it comes to working with others. But it’s exciting to see what’s always been in there!
So, no more apologies. I am an INTJ, I offer the world this perspective to work alongside yours, and I believe in us together. 🙂
*Disclaimer – I am not a psychologist, just someone who’s been using this to understand herself and how she relates to others for some time now, so apologies for what I’ve undoubtedly got wrong! This piece is really about my own journey.
**You can try a version here or here, these sites also give you a bit more background, plus you can read more about all the different personality types too
***Incidentally, the same tendency to see the big picture and resist inertia probably put me in therapy in the first place; if I wasn’t so bitten by failure, I’d be the sort of person who would much rather aim at the big vision and fail than to accept things as they are, and that is likely exactly what I’ve done with myself, to the point that I now have failure issues…