“Why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.”
― Malcolm X
If you’ve been on Facebook lately, undoubtedly you’ve seen prolific sharing of articles, photo quotes, and quizzes attempting to define “your true personality.” Extrovert, introvert, and the new “extroverted introvert” seem to be the most common subjects of these listicles. And while I’ll admit that I’ve read a few (several) — I’ve been thinking a lot about what this focus on personality and personality tests really gives us.
I mean, you know extroverted introvert is an oxymoron right? But you know what else? We are all probably both. (Also, the word is ambivert.. but I digress :)) Two things can be true at the same time, and personality is on a continuum — not a binary. Liking to be a in a group sometimes and then liking to be alone sometimes doesn’t make you anything but a normal person.
Personality doesn't fit into a neat and tidy list — but my thoughts about them do :) So read this before you put too much credence into the third “What Color Am I?” test you take before you go to bed tonight:
1. Personality Tests Promote a False Binary
Introvert or extrovert. Thinking or feeling. Dominant or compliant. Generally, personality tests present two choices — you are either one or the other. And while many of the tests may show a continuum of sorts — you are still dominantly _____. Based on some questions you mindlessly scrolled through for thirty minutes. And these binaries are very different!
For example, I have always been an E on the Myers-Briggs (extraversion). On the long report I got (after taking a paid version for a professional development class), it showed that it was only just barely trending towards the E — almost exactly in the middle — but from then on I was defined as an extrovert. (funny if you know me, right?) Anyways, Carl Jung himself -- on whose theories this test was based -- didn’t agree with this binary. He wrote that people tend to favor one over the other, but not that they necessarily are one or the other.
Whether you’ve taken a test or not, we all have likely identified at some point with one of the types. And there are some people who are probably textbook versions of one or the other 99% of the time — but I’d say that the majority of us are not. I hear people say a lot “I'm actually an extrovert” or “I’m actually more of an introvert” in a situation where they seem to be the opposite — how about, “I am a normal person who shows up in different ways at different times based on a myriad of things”? How about not feeling the need to explain at all? You aren’t one way all of the time, and if we expect each other to be that is our problem.
For example, last week when I was in New Mexico I went to a hot springs and got an hour in a private, riverside pool. It was beautiful on its own, but I wanted a subject in the photos so I took a causal pool loungin' photo before I fully immersed myself in the hot water. I love to share (duh) so I went to put it on instagram that night -- and hesitated. I text my sister and asked "Am I the type of person who would do this?" but also thought, "I don't want people to think I am __________ because I put a picture of myself in a bikini on the internet" This is a (silly, but real) example of the false binary. I can be the type of person who does whatever I want to do. If I do something, I am the type of person who does that thing. It doesn't matter if it's unexpected.
2. Inherent Problems with Personality Tests/Profiles
Of the major “Personality Assessments”, the Myers-Briggs is the most popular and widely used, so I’ll talk about it more specifically here. It was developed during World War Two by two housewives (not a criticism, but also not scientists) who were interested in Jung and wanted to develop a system to help women find jobs suited for them. Now it is used in hiring and professional development, as well as personal development (and memes). It’s seen in pop culture as a scientific test while psychologists have generally rejected it entirely.
So what’s the problem?
From a methods perspective — a lot. The test derives a lot of information from a small amount of not necessarily scientifically based questions. Depending on the reason for the test (jobs, personal etc), you may skew your answers without even realizing it (answering how you think someone in that job would). Even if you’re just taking a random Buzzfeed version, we answer based on how we would like to be. “I think I am a person who ______” But is this accurate?
And like I mentioned before, there are excessive binary choices. This is a logical fallacy. Two things can be true at the same time. I might feel one way when I answer a question on a personality test and then completely different a few days later.
Have you heard of the “Forer” effect (or Barnum effect/acceptance phenomenon)? It’s basically the tendency for people to accept things that are vague or general as being true if they think they were specifically for them. Bertram Forer identified this effect when he gave his psychology students a personality assessment and then an analysis that was supposed to be totally personalized to them. Of course, they were actually all the same report. He found that 85% of the students thought it described them accurately before they knew of the ruse.
Surprising? Not really. It’s the same effect that drives interest in horoscopes and the personality lists you see online. The indicators are just vague enough that almost anyone (because we are humans on a continuum and our feelings change) can relate. Likes being around people sometimes. Yep, that’s me. Likes to be alone sometimes. Oh wow, so accurate. Umm…
3. You Don’t Need to Fit in a List/Profile/Personality Report
It’s not all hogwash. I do think that some of the more specific things I’ve read about ENTP’s are really accurate to my general “state of being”. ENTP’s are supposedly really great at starting projects and not so great at finishing them. This is me (but maybe it’s a lot of people). The problem with this distinction, even if it seems accurate, is that I might start to define myself as just “someone who doesn’t finish things” — then use it as an excuse.
I think it’s human nature to want to find an excuse for our behaviors that aren’t so great. “I’m just this type of person”, “It’s who I am”, “I was born this way”. They’re all excuses. If I have a problem finishing things, and am aware of it, guess what: I can just make myself finish things. It’s not rocket science. So that’s where an occasional personality assessment can be beneficial. Maybe you didn’t realize something negative about yourself, but reading it and looking back you see it in your life. Cool — but don’t use it as an excuse. Make the leap from understanding to DOING. Don’t live in a definition of some sort of simplistic “type of person.”
Also, why are you listening to some random person on the internet (oh, hi) tell you who you are anyways? If a friend at happy hour started saying “based on your reactions to a few things I've seen in your life, this is how you respond to struggles… “ wouldn’t you be just a little (a lot) annoyed? What do they know? I’m unique, damnit! But really, we are. I may respond to things in a similar way most of the time -- but not all the time. And maybe I only respond in that way because I know it's expected? Hmm...
4. What’s Wrong With Being Complicated?
Personality types are all about absolutes. A quick search of “Personality Tests” comes up with a plethora of articles using them. “18 Struggles ALL ______ experience.” “13 things ALL _____ know” “10 things you’ll ALWAYS catch ______ doing.” The problem with absolutes should be obvious, but no one is ALWAYS anything. The world can’t actually be categorized into 16 tidy boxes where everyone inside is the same. I mean how boring would that be?
And what’s so wrong with being complicated? Complicated is just defined as, "consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate" -- sounds like a good thing to me. I think that’s really the core of my problem with this personality obsession — I’m not always anything. I’m always changing and I have many parts of my personality. Sometimes I am adventurous and outgoing, sometimes I am quiet and boring. Sometimes I finish projects, sometimes I don’t. And sometimes that ENTP definition is spot on — but I can’t use it as a crutch.
I think I’ve tried for a long time to fit into a role that’s easy to understand. Simple. But if anything it’s backfired. Simple is easy. Simple is boring. I don’t want to be easy to understand, easy to predict. Sometimes I keep myself from expressing my opinions or doing certain things that I think would be surprising to people (like on first dates yikes) because it feels safe. But remember, simple = boring and studies have actually shown that psychologically, complicated = interesting (and interesting = seductive but that’s another blog post entirely haha) There will always be someone who disagrees or is turned off by your opinions, actions, whatever — but there are always two sides so someone will also agree. If you’re boring that means you’re not producing any reaction — and isn’t that the worst possible way to go through the world?
People love to talk about "the type of person they are". It feels comfortable. Safe. But I’ve always thought that the type of people who say they are the type of people that ________ — really aren’t that type of person. If you have to say it, or read it in a personality profile to believe it, then you might not be that thing. You want to be, sure — but are you really?
The good news: you can define yourself! You can pay attention to who you actually are, or aren’t. You can change the story, the definition, labels, personality type, whatever. It’s uncomfortable, but sit in the discomfort — that’s where growth happens (so yogi of me but it’s true). People don’t know your backstory. They don't know your Myers-Briggs type, your Enneagram, the color of your aura -- they don’t know the why of who you are -- but they know the how. How you show up. How you act in ______ situations. Focus on those things. The How.
Personality tests can be fun, I get it. We want to understand ourselves better — but without putting in the effort of actually finding ourselves through, you know, actual experiences. Through paying attention to how we respond to things, how we feel in contrasting situations, what drains our energy, and what puts fire in our soul.
No, no, I will just take a test and it will tell me how I respond in these situations. No, no, I will read this Buzzfeed article with random cartoons who like to make plans then cancel them and define myself as that. Sounds ridiculous right? But I think we’d be surprised at how much we allow these ridiculous things into our thinking.
Don’t take the easy way out. It’s boring. And it’s not accurate! Don’t put yourself in a “type” box. Define yourself. Leave room for change. Remember that everyone can be everything all at once and that’s okay. Complicated is a good thing. Learn about yourself through yourself — not the internet. Believing a simplistic definition of yourself will cause you to become the label. You will simplify yourself and in turn make yourself small. We aren't meant to be small - we are meant to be big, interesting, and yes - complicated.