I find exploring personality types fascinating. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that considering the different ways people perceive the world is a really helpful exercise. Firstly, it can help me get some insight into why there are individuals who seem to be from a different planet to me; secondly, it helps me understand why there are many individuals in my life who seem to find my perspective grating (I assure them, the feeling is mutual).
Now, I always preface these sorts of discussions with an acknowledgement that I do not consider personality types ‘Gospel truth,’ and I can imagine it would be very easy to construct a cult out of these concepts. The danger is that in offering a framework for people to help understand themselves a little better, one may inadvertently create a prison out of that framework. That is, if a person comes to the conclusion they’re a melancholy – as found in the Ancient Greek proto-psychology called the “four humours” – this may help them think, “Well, I’m just not as wildly optimistic as other people.” Or, it may have the problematic effect of causing them to think, “I’m never meant to be happy.” The former can help a person relax about being a bit reserved; the latter may cause them despair. A more obvious example would be the man-woman dichotomy, the belief that all men are brutish and all women are wilting little flowers and great cooks. A useful descriptor, “woman,” as in a term grouping together the biological category referring to adult human females, can also become a prison, as in, “But you’re a woman, you can’t wear pants / cut your hair / be a leader blah blah blah [ugh, society].
So, categorising people into personality types is not always going to be helpful if it sets up these limits on human potential. Those of us with a sociology background come across this sort of issue frequently – the problem of labelling. Labels can be really, really useful forms of generalising and categorising social phenomena. You can use these labels to describe common aspects of certain people groups, like “smokers” or “cyclists,” and in a positive way. But you can also easily make the mistake of reducing a complex human being into nothing but “smoker” or “cyclist” (and, here in Melbourne, one does sometimes hear the word “cyclist” used negatively!).
Beyond that there’s also the controversial nature of typing people, and the debate as to whether or not it’s even remotely psychologically and clinically useful to do so. So, when I talk about this stuff I see it as a chance to explore concepts and different perspectives without necessarily giving it any considerable scientific weight or merit, and certainly not with the intention to limit people into a fixed set of socially constructed behaviours. And I’m definitely not trying to suggest that being one way is better or more moral or preferable to another – I imagine the world would be a horrifyingly bland and boring place if everyone was exactly the same.
That said, I personally find labels really useful, especially in the area of studying human behaviour. There’s a heap of personality tests out there. For example, there’s the Four Humours or Temperaments (Melancholy, Sanguine, Choleric and Phlegmatic); there’s one that does the round of Christian circles, the “5 Love Languages”; there’s the nine types in the Enneagram; there’s the Introvert-Ambivert-Extrovert spectrum; and then there’s the Myers and Briggs 16 types. I am convinced that someone ought to develop a personality typing system that determines which personality typing system different personality types prefer.
Most recently The Husband and I have been reading up on the Myers-Briggs system (henceforth referred to as MBTI). Out of all the different systems we’ve looked at, it’s been the one that most accurately describes us, our children, our cats, and the way we all interact with each other. (Yes, that’s right, we unapologetically anthropomorphise the nonhuman animals in our lives.)
In the MBTI system, as far as I understand it, you basically pose four questions to a person to determine which traits are dominant in their personality:
- Are you extrovert (E) or introvert (I)?
- Are you a sensory (S) person, making note of the information coming in via your senses; or are you more concerned with making interpretations of that information (N for iNtuitive)?
- Are you more likely to use logic and reason in decision making (T for Thinking), or to consider the decision in light of people and relationships (F for Feeling)?
- When you look at the world around you, are you the sort who likes to make decisions about what you see (J) or the sort that tends to keep an open mind (P)?
The types are labelled by collecting the appropriate acronyms from the responses. An Extrovert with an iNtuitive response to external stimuli who Feels their way through life and likes to Judge situations would be an ENFJ, for example.
In our family’s case The Husband is an INTJ and I’m an ISTP. If you’re well-versed in the MBTI system you’ll already have a bit of a feel for what our relationship is like: we barely talk because we’re both introverted nerds (that’s the I and T traits) – as I type this we’re sitting on opposite sides of the same room both staring into the blue screen abyss of our own laptop computers. We come together to watch sci-fi and then discuss the logic and reasoning behind it. We can also talk for hours on the relative merits of, say, Finnish folk metal versus Norwegian folk metal, using rational analysis and being equally absurd in the level at which we might analyse the topic at hand. But where I’m contemplating how wonderful the sound of the birds outside are (S), he’s analysing engineering data for work trying to develop solutions that he can submit to his bosses (N). And where he’s making snap decisions about the world (J), like “this is good,” and “this is stupid,” I’m tempering it with, “Well, let’s not be too narrow minded, maybe there’s no one truth, just many truths” (P). It becomes a problem when we’re stuck in a social setting, hiding in the corner, arguing over who has to make the first move and actually talk to people. Basically, I am the one who gets to pretend to be extroverted (something I am entirely capable of but which I find exhausting).
As far as we can tell, Child Number 1 is probably an ESFJ; Child Number 2 we think is possibly the mystical and rare INFJ, maybe an INFP (but at this stage manifesting more J traits than P). Poor ultra-sociable needs-a-hug Child Number 1 is the token extrovert in a family of introverts. Child Number 2 is the sort that likes to be alone to make paintings and plant flowers in the garden, while Child Number 1’s idea of joy is to make others laugh. And so young master ESFJ, when we home schooled for the duration of 2014, very quickly decided that he disliked the reduced social opportunities; whereas Miss INFJ/P found home schooling an immense relief after day in and day out of being forced to interact with other kids in school. Now they’re back in mainstream schooling – Master ESFJ is in a huge suburban school of 1,500 students; Miss INFJ/P is now in a small school on the edge of the city limits with only 300 students and tiny class sizes. It’s turned out quite well for them.
Perhaps the greatest benefit for us, so far, in exploring the MBTI system is that The Husband and I have found each other a lot easier to understand. I’ve always found him a bit too black and white about life and he reckons I’m too stuck in the present moment. I find his tendency to leap into problem solving mode frustrating, but having said that I also hate it when things get emotional and much prefer it when people are logical. In which case, having an INTJ husband has worked out well for me. To put it in Star Trek terms, he’s kind of like Data and I’m kind of like Spock. Data is an android, a hyper intelligent machine who wonders what it’s like to be human, a lot like my husband who in many ways resembles a hyper intelligent android processing vast amounts of information in his head. Spock is a Vulcan/Human hybrid, who potentially has the capacity for human feeling but errs on the side of reason, and that reminds me of me. In Star Wars terms, The Husband is like a benevolent Darth Sidious. I’m basically a female version of Darth Maul and Boba Fett (because I’m totally like the awesome good-looking one with mad ninja Sith skills whose only passion lies in coolly murdering Jedi). If we’re talking Harry Potter, I am Harry and The Husband is Draco. There are heaps of charts available online likening particular MBTI traits to film characters and celebrities, and I found it quite amusing to see my personality type likened to James Bond, because, quite frankly, who wouldn’t want to be James Bond?! (Well, his female equivalent.)
The other benefit, for me, has been that in exploring ISTP traits I’ve remembered aspects about myself that I lost somewhere along the way. Once upon a time I was a farm girl, working weekends on the land, lots of hard and physical hands on work best done outdoors and with no one else around. Lots of time to think and process and try to invent practical solutions to problems. I lost that when I moved to the suburbs, and I really miss it. That part of me was so significant that since I moved to the ‘burbs it’s felt like this whole core part of me was missing. Learning the language of personality types enabled me to articulate just why I resented being uprooted from my rural hometown in my 20s. It also kind of explains why I’ve always had a bit of a superhero complex, wishing desperately that I was Batman or a Sith or Jedi.
What I’ve learned about ISTPs is that we don’t have a huge tolerance for emotional and loud types, but that those emotional and loud types seem to think we’re a project that needs help. It’s laughable now, but it has proven difficult to communicate to specific individuals in the past when I find their wild hand gestures and hugs and yelling alarming, anxiety inducing, and even repellent.
Apparently ISTPs come across as a bit cold and emotionless; I’d say it’s that we prefer finding safe people around whom we can thaw out. Safe people are rare commodities and in general it takes me years, literally years, to make friends. The people I consider friends and who’ve managed to climb my well-guarded introvert walls would, I think, tell me they consider me (and I’m using their words!) intelligent, kind, encouraging, present in the moment, a good listener, someone who won’t shut up if we start a conversation about one of my personal interests, caring, passionate, interested in people who’ve been pushed to the margins of society, a social activist, and very knowledgeable about some very random things because at one point I fixated on these topics and learned everything I could (like, for example, I can draw from memory taxonomic cladograms of numerous dinosaur species; I can phonically read Cyrillic script without understanding the languages, go figure), very well-read, a little bit eccentric, and, occasionally, a little scary (my inner Darth Maul takes that as a compliment).
But the teeming masses I call “acquaintances” by and large don’t see me like that. They call me things like “naïve,” “boring,” “unfriendly,” “cold,” “hostile,” and “lazy.” Some family can be just as difficult and I’ve come to realise that it’s possible that the times they’ve been enraged at me for not responding enthusiastically enough to unexpected news, or not being quick enough to offer cups of tea to visitors could be a simple case of personality clash. There are a lot of extrovert-feelers in my extended families, and it’s highly likely that my reserved-thoughtful approach isn’t quick enough or loud enough to register as an adequate level of reaction. I’ve also noticed that they tend to treat me as being of a lower intelligence or savvy. I’ve read somewhere before that ISTPs are often mistaken for being quite childish and naïve – but the reality is that we tend to keep our thoughts to ourselves, preferring to reserve them for safe people (and, perhaps, for the blessed anonymity of the internet).
It’s interesting though because realising that I possess a set of personality traits that are fairly predictable in the response they evoke from others is kind of comforting. It enables me to not take it too personally, while perhaps highlighting areas in my life I could try to address. As far as I can see it, an inherent personality trait towards perceived rudeness isn’t an adequate excuse to be rude.
I even realised that I do exactly the same thing to other ISTPs in my life – before I had considered them in light of the insights of MBTI, in my mind I characterised them as uptight, unfriendly and a little bit boring. Then I realised that under that cool exterior is, well, another layer of cool, but then under that is a nice, intelligent human who actually does have feelings, though those feelings take a while to float to the surface and are only visible to people who take the time to treat those feelings kindly. I realised that the other ISTPs I’ve met are very, very similar to me. Oh yes, we are absolutely individuals in the things that interest us, and in some ways we differ (I know ISTPs who are the classic skydiver types, where as that part of me is broken!) but there are major similarities. A bit of a wild streak, a love for the outdoors, a desperate need for alone time and thinking time and book time, and the ability to do “hands-on” work. In my case, that has normally been in the form of gardening and farm work, both of which are difficult to access in the suburban rental property context in which I currently live. We also tend to be lone wanderer types. I recall that when I was about 15 years old and a friend’s mum asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, my response was, “I want to be a drifter, or maybe a hermit living in a swamp somewhere.”
I’ve heard that ISTPs also tend to find long-term commitment to anyone and anything quite difficult. It is difficult. Because the here and now is the only moment that seems to matter to an ISTP. We are here, right now, in the moment, and it’s as if the past and future can’t exist. It is an effort for me to consciously remember to challenge my perspective if I ever say, “It’s always been this way,” or “Things will never change.” I have to fight the urge to get despairing about the future because, well, things do change, they are always changing, but it is very, very difficult to perceive that. Commitment to a relationship, for example, is painful if in this very moment things are difficult. But then, as a typical ISTP, I also have a strong set of moral beliefs. Flexible, but only in the sense that I am always taking in new information, processing it, and making any necessary adjustments to my perspective. But my moral framework includes a strongly held conviction that marriage is good and valuable and worthwhile. So I stick with the commitment, and have done for 13+ years now, despite the low points. It’s been worth it.
And being in the moment certainly isn’t a bad thing – that’s the mindfulness stuff, and it comes a lot easier to me than other people in this household. Also, I suspect it’s the source of the sense other people get that I’m a good listener – because I am actually there, present in mind and body, listening to them in that moment. It’s like living always in that eternal present, in the bit where the space-time continuum collides with the current point in history.
I’ve lately been reflecting on how my personality type affects my spirituality. I was raised Catholic, which was wonderfully rich in sensory stimuli: the visual beauty of the sculptures and the building and the stations of the cross; the scents of incense and candle wax and flowers arranged about the statuary; the mystical sounds of hymns and the glorious extended periods of reverent silence; the physical aspects of worship with times of sitting, standing and kneeling as appropriate in the liturgy; the limited social interactions of greeting others with “Peace be with you” – nice and predictable and not at all intrusive; the sense of taste enacted in the Eucharist and in that most holy of days, Shrove Tuesday (pancakes, anyone?); the intellect engaged in the scripture readings and the homily; the sense of justice and inclusivity and open mindedness encouraged by our wonderfully progressive parish priests and sisters. In so many ways I realise now how good this style of worship was for me as an ISTP. I also went through a journey through Wicca, as a solitary practitioner who over the course of about six years occasionally met with other Wiccans and Neo-Pagans for shared sabbats, but most of us were wary of joining any formal group setting like a coven. I guess we were mostly introverted book-geeks, really wanting to be in tune with the rhythms of nature (the Wheel of the Year and the Liturgical Year both had a similar impact on me).
Then I married a Pentecostal and, well, there is a lot I love about Pentecostalism, so don’t take this as a critique of that style of Christianity. But as I journey through a time of self-discovery, growing in mental health and spirituality and understanding, I am noticing with growing awareness that Pentecostalism just doesn’t mesh with my personality. From an ISTP perspective it is almost like an assault of loud noisy settings, scores of huggy extroverts having emotions about God, colourful, bright lights, hands waving in the air, sort of like stepping into a rock concert. Now, I love the community I’ve found in church, and I love live music and rock concerts (read: heavy metal concerts), but not as a regular thing. And it needs to be a band I really, really love for me to be motivated to get off the couch to go see them. Karnivool have been most successful at this, luring me out of the house on three separate occasions to stand in a crowded room with all the other fanatics.
It’s been interesting attempting to assimilate into the Pentecostal community as a very introverted individual. There are a lot of hugs – in fact, my first visit to that style of church involved a young lady leaping out of her chair to hug me, a complete stranger, yelling at me that Jesus loved me. It was terrifying and alarming – I mean, it was very nice of her to notice me sitting there, me obviously uncomfortable with the megachurch environment – but as I get older I appreciate more and more that sometimes uninvited, unwanted physical contact of any sort, including the most platonic of appropriately conservative side-hugs, can still feel invasive to those of us who are very strongly introverted. In many ways I still stand with one foot firmly planted in the quieter and reserved Catholicism of my childhood, because for all the things I like about Pentecostalism I still find the whole experience quite literally exhausting. It’s in Susan Cain’s fascinating book Quiet that there’s a really interesting chapter on the effects of megachurches on introverts, and how there’s a real danger of equating extroversion with Godliness. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book for anyone in the megachurch environment who’s either struggling because they’re an introvert, or an extrovert struggling because they can’t understand why not everyone wants to come to every single meeting ever.
I guess, in a sense, what I learned through discovering the concept of the ISTP personality type was the realisation that I wasn’t alone. Before reading up on it, I already knew certain things, like:
- If I am consumed by a particular interest, any attempts to direct me away from it are going to fail or uncover my unpleasantly stubborn side.
- I loathe, beyond the capacity of descriptive terms, being told what to do or when to do things. Like, I can handle advanced plans along the lines of, “Let’s get a coffee in three weeks’ time.” Hey, I’m a busy person and I need that level of warning and room for a sense of spontaneity. When we’re there, maybe a, “While we’re here I wanted to go check out that new store, and you’re welcome to join me but if you have to go soon that’s fine,” will be well received. But I HATE when it turns into, “Gee, you haven’t gotten out much lately, you have to come out for a coffee with me, oh and then we’ll go to this shop and buy this thing and then I’ll talk at you for three hours about all these people you’ve been avoiding oh and I saw that thing you wrote on [social media website] the other day, what was that about, you know I reckon you’ve been drifting in your beliefs, are you backsliding, hey I’m only asking because I care so much, oh and then I have to let you know that you upset so-and-so the other day because she was going through this hard situation and you were pretty insensitive just standing there not saying anything…” or worse, “We don’t like it when you come to our social events, you’re so uptight and quiet, is that because you hate us, you hate us don’t you, if you liked us you’d have more to say, you know maybe we should organise more events because you’re not getting out enough and we’ll have a dress up day and it’ll be great, you’ll love it, it’s so you…” (Inspired by true stories.)
- I get bored, like, super bored. I generally don’t go to the movies or watch tv because they’re too passive, and the profound ennui that washes over me is unbearable. The only exceptions to this are the occasional tv shows and films that genuinely make me think (Star Trek), that genuinely spark my imagination (Star Wars and Harry Potter), or that make me laugh (Father Ted, the first 16 seasons of The Simpsons, and the first two Naked Gun films).
- Conversely, in things that don’t make me bored, I love books, particularly those epic tomes that were in fashion in Europe in the late 1800s. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dracula, Les Miserables – give me an 800-page 19th century classic novel and I will read it with such intensity that if I am sitting outside and it starts to rain I won’t notice until the blurring of the ink on the pages ticks me off and I finally notice the weather (this actually happened).
- I am not what anyone would call a romantic. I don’t do “mushy.” For years I tried to communicate to my husband that while deep down I do in fact have feelings, I didn’t know how to express them. He didn’t believe me until he read about ISTPs and recognised me in those traits. There seems to me to be an irony in the idea that an INTJ could demand an increased emotional response from any other type, but here we are – probably the two most unemotional personality types going, somehow actually married.
- I am NOT touchy-feely. And in the context of some parts of the Pentecostal community I have encountered an attitude that this somehow represents a moral failing, a lack of warmth, or some other ghastly anti-Jesus attitude. Being introverted is not a sin, though. Didn’t Jesus Himself wander off for long times alone for prayer? He had a pretty decent balance between interacting with the crowds and then recharging in the alone times.
- I have an ability to retain huge amounts of information if a particular subject grabs my interest, and to recall it years down the track if it comes in handy.
I was long aware of all these characteristics in me, but quite frankly, felt a sense of relief in discovering that there is a label for them, when they’re put all together in a neat little human bundle. Because, while labels can be a form of constraint, sometimes – I think – it can help in the process of trying to articulate a perspective. I’m not cold, I’m just introverted. Not shy, just selective about who I interact with. Not lazy, just not interested in being out all the time. I’m not naïve, I’m just reserved in giving my opinion to people I don’t trust. I’m not unfriendly, I just want to get to know people before launching into a friendship. I’m not boring, I’m just bored with the whole freakin’ system we call Western capitalist society. (And not trying to be defensive, just marvelling at the ability of the MBTI system to accurately describe not just what I’m like, but how others might perceive me.)
I don’t know if I can think of a snappy conclusion for this almost 4,000-word spontaneous essay. I guess it just goes back to my original point: personality type tests can be a helpful means of understanding oneself, and others. And it really helps me to realise that being an ISTP could explain a whole lot of clashes I have with people of other types (basically anyone with an E or an F in their type…).
And, once again, just to re-iterate that I don’t hang all my hopes on any personality typing system to provide all the answers. It’s one of many interesting ways that people have reasoned through human diversity.
Further reading on personality types that resonated with me: