“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”.
I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI) several times in college. The first time I took it, I was on a retreat my sophomore year. Before taking the test, I read through the descriptions of each four-letter jumble. I knew I wanted to be either an ISTP (“the mechanic”) or an ISFP. I read that these mystical ISFPs are careful people: they didn’t want control and they contemplated. In a word, ISFPs are pleasant.
I was shocked when my results came with the letters ENFJ across the top of the page. Though my introversion-extroversion spectrum fluctuated wildly each time I took the test, an ENFJ I have remained. And, as you know, ENFJs are the exact opposite of ISTPs and very different from the demure ISFPs. I was completely different than what I wanted to be (discerning readers will notice a recurring pattern here). Now, though, I am at peace with being an ENFJ.
It was fun to go to parties — albeit, gatherings of herds of nerds — and talk about the MBTI. You compare yourself to other people. You laugh at the fact that you didn’t know how to talk to your ISTJ-boyfriend until you realized that ISTJs had frozen, dark souls. The Js could envy the P’s ability to not care about itineraries and the placement of socks in the drawer. With the right over-educated crowd, the MBTI is an excellent ice-breaker.
It is a better place to start a conversation, though because if you know each type, you know how to talk to the introvert-feeling-people and the sensing-thinking-folk. If you are not a natural communicator like me (a loquaciously graceful ENFJ) you could learn. For most of us, the MBTI unlocked certain mysteries in other people and in ourselves. People suddenly make more sense.
But, how deep does the MBTI explain the mysteries of what it means to be human? Sure, it is a fine tool for communication. It is a fine tool for developing the other parts of your personality (like my perceived lack of sensing-thinking-perceiving). Even though the MBTI is backed by so-called empirical evidence and psychological research, the question stands: is a quantifiable stereotype still a stereotype?
Once when I took the test, a friend complained to me: all of their spectrums were near the center. They considered themselves both an introvert and an extrovert. This is exactly what Jungian therapist John Sanford says about Jesus in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (1987). Jesus, perfect in his humanity, is shown by scripture to be both an introvert and an extrovert. Sanford, among others, suggests that a developing Christian will move more and more towards the center of their MBTI, like Christ. Yet, by being all of the letters, though, Christ is outside the MBTI (Kierkegaard, I think, would be well pleased with this).
After all, almost all psychological conceptions of what it means to be human to do not take Christ into account — how could they? These conceptions struggle to understand Saints and even geniuses, after all, as anything falling outside these definitions is either impossible or considered a disorder. They treat anything outside of it like the feared “other”. For these psychological constructs, man is not a gift to be revealed, but a problem to be solved.
The MBTI ignores the extremities of human experience, so when filtered down to the lay level, the MBTI just becomes another stereotype. Remember stereotypes? Things like: gays like musicals and are slutty; black men are shifty, lazy; ENFJs feel lonely, Asians are good at math and the violin; and ISFPs are “pleasant”. What makes any of these different from the other? If you’re inclined to cite all the so-called empirical research, then I need only to remind you of Phrenology in nineteenth century and Eugenics in the twentieth for the perils of empirical research. The MBTI is a socially acceptable — and yes, quantifiable — stereotype.
Ask the gay NASCAR fan or the straight man who likes ballet if they feel like the “other”. Ask my friend who felt like the MBTI didn’t capture his personality. Ask the Saints who were deemed insane by the thinking heads of their day. Ask Christ who was accused of having a demon. Stereotypes alienate anyone who falls outside them, even quantifiable ones. Thus, humankind in all her beautiful, irreducible complex messiness is reduced to four letters, and we think we understand each other better because of it.
In the same way that Christ taught that Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, perhaps it is time for us to realize that constructs have a place, a purpose. They have an appropriate time. But definitions only alienate and make “others”. They do not plumb the depths of the soul. Perhaps it is impossible to truly quantify humankind, as man will always frustrate any explanation of his existence.
Perhaps, though, it would be better to cast off the stereotypes (quantifiable or not) and experience each other as we are — not as we should be, not as we are understood to be — but simply as we are, letting those four-letters disappear as the mystery that is you is revealed. Because at the center of every man and woman is a mystery, waiting to be revealed. One day, maybe — just maybe — we’ll learn that exchanging one set of shackles for a looser set of chains is still a prison. It is still hell.