The Trouble with Personality Typing

I am a recovering personality test obsessive. Seriously, I have a hard time resisting all those Which Hogwarts School Would You Be Sorted Into? or Which Kind of Entrepreneur Are You? types of quizzes that look like games but are really gathering data to sell. When they first became popular, it took serious willpower for me to resist giving my data away for nothing.

But that’s not the problem with personality tests.

Personality tests typically come with instructions not to think too hard about the answer. This is because your gut reaction to the questions taps into your felt sense of who you are. As soon as you start thinking about your answer, who you want to be or who you think you should be or how you are when you like yourself the most start to influence your answer.

The “aha” moment we get when we see the results of a personality test is the sense of being seen. Because the test results reflect back to us our felt sense of who we are, we feel like the test understood us. Feeling seen, heard, and understood is a fundamental human need.

We need to have our internal sense of who we are validated, or we start to think that we are crazy, hiding our true selves, or out of integrity.

So taking personality tests is good, right?

Not so fast.

Type Isn’t Identity

The problem with personality tests is that the basic premise underlying them is wrong.

The most famous modern personality test is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The assessment reveals 16 personality types identified by four letter types in the form ENFP, ISTJ, INFP, ESTP, etc. Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers created the assessment using categories identified by Carl Jung. But they missed a crucial part of Jung’s theory as they made it the basis on their work.

Jung identified the types as bad habits, patterns people develop as they push parts of themselves into their shadows. A type identifies the parts of ourselves that we use too much.

The goal according to Jung is to act against type in order to bring your shadow into consciousness and become whole.

Type Isn’t Fixed

The other problem with personality tests is that when people experience a sense of recognition as they read about type, they often interpret the sensation of self-recognition as having wider applicability than it does.

When someone sees types as fixed and a description of a type reflects how they see themselves, it is logical to conclude that this is how I am, how I have always been, and how I always will be.

But this is a false conclusion. It turns out that personality type is determined by how we think, feel, and behave, and that how we think, feel, and behave changes far more over our lifetimes than we imagine.

A personality test gives us a snapshot of how we see ourselves in a moment in time. It gives permission to be that. But it does not say anything about who we are in any essential, lasting way.

A study published in 2016 in the journal Psychology and Aging, published by the American Psychological Association, followed a cohort of people from 1950 to 2012. The participants were given the same tests assessing six basic personality traits at different times. There was virtually no overlap between the younger and older selves as assessed. These people changed so much overtime that the test from their past selves could not be matched to the results of the later testing without already knowing which individual was being assessed..

Most of the time, we don’t notice our personalities changing. Change is typically slow; our sense of identity takes time to catch up; and we are very good at remembering and forgetting things in ways that support our sense that we are the same people over time.

Personality is defined as the collection of characteristics that together form what is distinctive about a person. It is determined by examining behaviour patterns. And the thing about patterns is that human beings are not only capable of finding subtle patterns, we actively assume patterns exist where there are none.

You Do Not Have a Fixed Personality; You are Constantly Creating an Evolving One.

You started life with tendencies and inclinations that were then shaped by the culture around you. The result is that who you are now has habitual ways of behaving and habitual ways of thinking. At this moment in time, you have a sense of who you are.

Often, who we feel we are is out of alignment with who we have become even if it was accurate once. And, even more often, who we think we are is getting in the way of our ability to get what we want out of life.

As an example, I started life as quite conscientious. I had high standards and a desire to excel and I worked hard to reach my standards. This conscientiousness was rewarded and encouraged by parents and became part of who I thought I needed to be in order to make them proud of me.

Later on, I came to the conclusion that high grades were what made my parents happy and that working to my high standards trying to excel was not necessary in order to make my parents proud of me. At about the same time, being seen as conscientious was one of many things that seemed to be interfering with my sense of belonging with my peers at school. So, I stopped being conscientious.

I didn’t drop my standards, but I did stop trying to excel. I became lazy and sloppy, just doing enough to get by.

Fast forward several decades. My lazy and sloppy habits had interfered with my ability to perform up to my own standards in many areas of life. I was frustrated that I had not made the professional strides that I could have done. However, I still thought of myself as conscientious.

Personality tests that I took then did validate my sense of myself as a conscientious person, because that felt like the right answer when I was asked relevant questions, but it was not an accurate reflection of my behaviour.

Everything changed when I became a mother. Having a baby totally dependent on my care brought my desire to excel to the surface. I started working hard to provide him with everything he needed to thrive. Given the sloppiness that I had let permeate the rest of my life, it wasn’t easy. It took a few years for my sense of identity as conscientious to be replaced by realization that I was anything but.

It wasn’t until I questioned my identity as a conscientious person that I was able to see who I had become over the years. Once I accepted my then current reality, I was able to decide who I wanted to become. And then, I started building new behavioural habits that reflect the conscientious person I want to be.

My new sense of identity is less that I am or am not conscientious, but that I am a person who values conscientiousness and strives to do my work well but sometimes falls short. When assessed by a personality test now, my gut feeling that I am not as conscientious as I want to be is reflected in the results.

As I went through this inner transformation, people around me saw that I was changing. There is no doubt that I became a different person in their eyes, with a different personality. I became tougher on myself, more ambitious. I stopped settling for things that didn’t meet my standards.

This change had a huge upside. I am happier now than I have been in a very long time and I am pushing myself to excel, accomplishing meaningful goals.

How Can You Use This Knowledge to Lead Your Life More Effectively?

Can you think of a time when you realized that the way you thought of your personality wasn’t the way other people see you?

Or have you noticed that your family of origin or old friends see you as someone you no longer are?

Understanding that our personalities change may feel scary, but it is also a source of freedom.

Think about something you want for your life that you are having a hard time getting. What sort of person would have an easier time seeing the good in the life you have? What sort of person would have an easier time doing what needs to be done to get the thing you want?

I should add a warning here. Becoming someone different is hard and rewarding work. And there can be costs. As I changed, my friendships shifted and some of them died. The relationships I have now are more fulfilling, so I don’t regret the losses, but the changes weren’t always fun to live through.

Do you have goals that would be easier to achieve if you let your personality shift?

If change was as easy as understanding what needs to shift, you would already be who you want to be. A coach can help you move faster than you are able to do on your own, but whether you assemble a support team or do it yourself, it is courageous work. Cut yourself some slack as you explore the possibilities.

If you are ready to see what might be possible if you let yourself shift, here a process to get you started.

Who would you need to become to feel better about your life? What one thing can you do that someone like that would do?

I invite you to let those questions ripple through you. Notice what happens. Does anything shift?

To get traction, you need to take action. Take a step in the direction of your dreams.