I have seen many personality-type fads come and go in my time. Astrology was already on its way out when I was a pre-teen; nowadays, it survives mostly in psychic gift shops and tongue-in-cheek Onion articles (even Cosmo, that well-meant communication from our alien friends to squishy human women, has relegated the horoscope to a single page behind the classifieds). The eastern zodiac came into vogue briefly, but never crossed over into American popular culture. The Enneagram was a hit in certain circles, but the complex quizzes and elaborate charts kept it from reaching the mainstream.
But the Myers-Briggs test stuck; it’s used in hiring, in dating, education, and so much more. Even normally reputable publications have fallen for it, with articles instructing readers on Caring for Your Introvert and How to Manage an Extrovert. And then, of course, there are the Ambiverts. Most of these articles begin with the assumption that introverts and extroverts are completely opposing personality types, with radically different needs and expectations, and navigating the other’s world requires a slew of self-help books and explanatory articles and, of course, an exhaustive understanding of your own Myers-Briggs profile.
Sometimes I enjoy hanging out with people. Sometimes I prefer to be alone. I believe this is called “the human condition.”
While the Myers-Briggs test is one of many ways to examine your own assumptions about problem-solving and social skills, it has plenty of problems as a categorization system. It groups people into opposing categories, when actual humans reside largely in the mushy middle between these extremes; very few people are always exhausted by the rigors of social interaction, just as only the rarest are always in need of attention. It groups traits together that don’t necessarily fit: one person can be both gregarious and in need of downtime, or shy around strangers but also fond of large parties.
Worst of all, in my observation, it encourages people not to test the limits of their personal comfort. It’s entirely your choice to describe yourself as an introvert, and decide that you do not like meeting strangers or going into crowded spaces because of your personality type–but in the course of your life you will have to meet many strangers and go into many crowded spaces, and if your fear of doing so is preventing you from events you would otherwise enjoy, this is something a therapist can help you overcome. Or you might consider yourself an extrovert, and become anxious when there is no one to keep you company. Over the course of your life, there will be times when you will find yourself alone for a short time–and again, if the fear of this possibility is crippling, professional help is easy to obtain.
Because “personality” is not a series of rules etched into the brain. It is the sum of an individual’s preferences and peeves; it is what makes each of us unique. But personality is not behavior; behavior can be changed by dint of personal effort, by pushing past the boundaries of comfort. And this is something that we all must do, because the world is not and never will be individually tailored to our personal ideas of comfort.
Myers-Briggs aficionados would have us believe that the way people behave is determined entirely by their personality type. This is not true. And even if it were, the Myers-Briggs is just another clever way of telling people what they want to hear about themselves.
All pictures are from this article, one of the finest collections of baffling stock photos I have ever seen.