Myers Briggs Useful, But Love Rules

I was first introduced to Myers Briggs in 1981 when I read the book Please Understand Me. I did the sorter and found myself classified as an ENFJ. The rest of this posting assumes you know something about Myers-Briggs. If you don’t, I would recommend giving the type sorter a try, and read a bit about what the letters I/E, S/N, T/F, J/P mean, and how these attributes break into four personality types which are nicely summarized on a wikipedia page about Keirsey Types. Actually, the description and sorter above is Keirsey’s which is very similar to Myers Briggs, but differs in emphasis which is nicely explained on the wikipedia page.

When I read the description of the ENFJ I found myself surprised and delighted. Surprised that it seemed to be such an accurate description of my inner life which I thought no one understood, and delighted because I generally liked the description. My pleasure with the description of the ENFJ would often produce annoyance in Libby. She would say to me “You know, not all of the things that are in that description are good?  You understand this, right?” My words might have been “Yes”, but in my heart I had a very hard time seeing where there might be problems. If anything, the problem was that I was not fully embracing my ENFJ-ness. Reading the book was good in that it helped me understand people who were quite different from me.

A few years ago my copy of the Please Understand Me fell apart, so I picked up the current version of the book, appropriately called Please Understand Me II. As Libby and I were talking about the material, our daughter Helen asked if she could take the test. She was young, maybe  eight, we weren’t sure how accurate the test would be, but we said sure. She tested out as a INFJ, the introvert version of me. This seemed to match what I had observed in Helen’s life. For the next several years, assuming Helen was an INFJ colored how I interpreted her actions and words.

In the last few months I pulled Please Understand Me II out. I am thinking through what I want to do in the second half of my life. I figured reviewing my core personality type would likely help me navigate this season of change. As I read through my description this time I found myself asking questions I don’t think I have asked before. For each personality feature described I asked two questions:

  1. Does this describe wholeness as God has intended, a life of love and impact, or is this something that is broken or corrupted, that falls short of what God would desire?
  2. How does fully embracing this aspect of my personality effect life? Does it result in something good, does it result in being more loving, or is it likely to bring problems? I was careful to think through the full consequences, because while the immediate results could be good, several things could easily become idols that would result in an unhealthy life. 

Libby would have been happy. For maybe the first time I could honestly say “Yes, I realize that everything here isn’t good.” Doing this exercise has been very helpful. Over the next couple of weeks I found myself thinking about the people I was interacting with and asking the question, what type are they? How are they looking at life differently from me. As Helen and I talked about Myers Briggs, she wanted to do the test again, wondering if she had changed. She still sorted as an INFJ. As Helen read the description of the INFJ she often said “Yes, I do this”, but something didn’t seem quite right. Helen’s F was just slightly higher than the T score, so I suggested Helen read the description of the INTJ. The number of times she said “Yes, I do this” was about the same, but her countenance was completely different. When she said “Yes, I do this” she would have a huge grin. It wasn’t just a recognition of the description, but a pleasure in the description. Clearly the sorter is fallible.

Over the next week Helen and I ended up talking about Myers-Briggs quite a bit and developed a theory about why the sorter misclassified her. We decided we were seeing a nature/nurture dynamic.  Helen’s core nature likely had a very strong “T” component, but that she was raised by parents who were very strongly “F”. We encouraged her to develop a strong sense of empathy, to cherish compassion, even if justice (fairness) might suffer. In her younger life, Helen was a compliant child. She trying to act as instructed, she tried to please her parents, so she looked like she was strongly “F”. Helen’s no longer a young child. She is a young women who has really found her own voice. Yes, she continues to value many of the things she learned from Libby and me, but she is her own person. She believes compassion is important, but for her, telling things as they are… even if that might hurt someone, and caring deeply about justice has taken on an increased importance.

Realizing that Helen is fundamentally different from me has been such a relief, and been so helpful. In the last few years I would sometimes hear  Helen say things that would shock me. My reaction was “How can she be so ruthless, so brutal?” I found myself being concerned about her heart. You see, if I said some of those things it wouldn’t be truth speaking. The only way I could say some of those things would be if I was bitter and really angry. But Helen is different from me. Saying these things isn’t an indication of a heart problem, it’s just telling it as it is. As I reflect on this more, I realize that Helen continued to practice compassion, to treat people well, it was just the way she talked about issues that seemed brutal. All sorts of things have become clear. We have been talking a bit about future plans, college majors, careers. I had been surprised by her preferences and tried to steer her more toward areas that I know would be good for someone with a personality like me. The thing is, Helen has a different personality. The majors / professions Helen has expressed an interest in make sense realizing she is an NT (Rationalist) rather than an NF (Idealist). It’s  been funny to see how our differences work out in all sorts of ways.  For example, she loves characters in books and movies who are extreme caricatures of rationalists like Sherlock Holmes and House. I have mixed feelings about these characters. On the one hand I find them challenging / simulating, one the other, they drive me crazy.

Of course, personality is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to career or life choices. When I look at recommended careers for an ENFJ, many are variations of either teacher or therapist, careers that focus on personal interaction and soft skills. The recommended short list does not include engineering or other fields that focus on analytics skills because they are not something that are nature strengths for my Idealists. Yet I have found myself not only in a field which tends toward analytics, but deeply involved in projects that specialize in collecting and analyzing hard data. When working in the physics department, I was regularly mistaken for a physics postdoc. I lead numerous initiatives related to developing hard metrics or applying statistical analysis to a complex problem set. Two of my favorite phrases when looking at problems are “Objectivity is your friend” and “If you can’t measure it, it not real”. This sort of scientific approach spills into personal life. Over the years we have purchase highly sensitive thermal probes, scales, sound spectrum analyzers, etc so we could get real data to make decisions.

So what’s going on? Like Helen, it’s a nurture thing. My dad was a scientist and engineer. When I was growing up, I wanted to be just like him. Even when it was clear I wasn’t exactly like him, I still desired to follow as closely in his shoes as I could because I very much respected him and liked his values and approach to life. Math and science didn’t come easily to me in school the way things like political science and sociology did, but I was willing to fight to learn the material.

What am I doing with this? I am working to appreciate these personality fueled differences. People are different. This is something to cherish and embrace.  I am finding identifying how people are different makes it easier to be gracious with them as well as to recognize their strengths. I think it’s helping me to be encouraging rather than critical.  In essence, it makes it easier to love people. And yet, while these differences have significant consequences, they all pale when compared to mature love which all personality types are capable… and that should be our goal. Not to become more ENFJ, or whatever personality type someone is, but to learn to love and serve others. In the book of Corinthians, Paul wrote about how people were given different gifts, and how it was good to have the diversity.  But he concludes in the following way:

And I show you a still more excellent way. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I Cor 12:31-13:13

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