Characterizing Me

Illustration of Greek-style comedy and tragedy masks depicting different emotions.
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Before the pandemic, there was a time a friend and I, sharing a personality characterization and fondness for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, used to bring a personality compatibility chart to house parties (please forgive this dorkiness — we were studying abroad and unapologetic about our determination to make friends). After we met someone new, we referred to the chart as a group and determined whether “It’s Got a Good Chance” (an instant excuse to start a conversation) or “Uh-oh, Think this One Through” (a seductive challenge to defy the odds of compatibility). For those who hadn’t spent roughly 30 minutes determining the degree to which they agree or disagree with the 93 statements on the test, we tasked our friends to let us know their Myers-Briggs types at the next encounter. Ultimately, bringing up the personality spectrum warranted a fun opportunity to bypass chit-chat and openly talk about who we are.

Meeting someone who shares your personality type feels as if you’re meeting a fan of the same sports team (especially when Myers-Briggs calls your categorization “rare”). That particular friend and I shared a love for the MBTI because not only did this framework promise compatible pairings with fellow “Advocates” and like-minded “Campaigners” wherever we went, but the personality categorizer also promised we could be seen and understood as we are. It validated the plights members of our personality category shared — even the minor struggles, such as feeling we needed more alone time than our extroverted friends. To me, the outlook of Myers-Briggs offered an alternative to conformity, compelling people to celebrate one another’s differences.

Inspired by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, a mother and daughter began developing the MBTI in 1942. They saw Jung’s idea that people prefer to use their mental capacities in different ways as a concept that could be applied to everyday life. According to themeyersbriggs.com, World War II was a great influence on the development of the test. Myers believed that “if people understood each other better, they’d work together better and there would be less conflict.” The test could also be used for women entering the workforce as they worked toward finding jobs suited to their personalities. First published in 1962, the MBTI is now widely used in businesses, educational institutions and even government agencies, earning the Myers-Briggs Company about $20 million every year.

Many are skeptical of the MBTI’s accuracy. Some studies have shown the test is not particularly effective at predicting people’s successes at different jobs, and many people get different results the second time they complete the self-assessment. Personally, I was able to overlook these criticisms of the MBTI because I saw my classification as a way for me to examine my particular needs. Yes, my test results claiming to express how my mind works were based on my own self-judgment, but of all people, wasn’t I the best judge?

Among the many things the pandemic compelled me to reconsider, isolation moved me to question my beliefs about who I am in a way I never had before. Feeling the loneliness and hopelessness many of us felt during this time, I no longer felt as if the idealist-intuitive-introvert Myers-Briggs had deemed me to be. Maybe my frequent desire for alone time during pre-pandemic life had more to do with the sensory overload of an explorative and social time in my life. Maybe my introversion and “intuitive” focus were based on circumstances. Who I was seemed to depend on context.

Though I had always considered Myers-Briggs’ psychological base superior to astrology’s seemingly mystical one, I had long-appreciated astrology as a sign of people’s persisting interest in storytelling and character development (I’m an aspiring fiction writer) in the modern age.

Nevertheless, since the MBTI was no longer resonating, I got the sense that I needed a replacement blueprint for myself or, at least, something to remind me that there was something significant about my experience. Jung was, in fact, a fan of astrology himself. Some say that astrology is so popular right now because we are living in times of political crisis, economic struggles and declining organized religion, so I suppose it took a personal identity crisis for the stars to find me.

I like my Capricorn classification because the word reminds me of “kettle corn.” Though I do not necessarily believe everything the virtual astrologer says about who I am or where my life was going, I like listening to a horoscope every so often, noticing myself push back on some of the astrologer’s statements and predictions. At least this was a sign that there was a self within me, posing alternative opinions and directions for my supposed archetype.

More than any other period in my life, living through this pandemic moved me to question the beliefs I hold about myself. For a long time, I had thought keeping a rulebook on how my personality operates would make me better equipped for navigating life. As I continue to catch myself changing with the world around me, I’m easing up on my effort to see this increasingly perplexing world and my ever-surprising self clearly. Besides, my fondness for Myers-Briggs had stemmed from an effort to better connect with other people. Until the socializing begins again, I’ll do my best to accept that there is a limit to knowing in this pursuit of self-awareness.

Contact Cate Valinote at [email protected].