In 2008 I became obsessed with Myers-Briggs. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality test that gives you a 4-letter result. Each letter is a different binary that represents a dimension of personality.
The first letter of a Myers-Briggs result is either E for Extroversion or I for Introversion. That one’s pretty straightforward.
The second letter is either S for Sensing or N for Intuition. This one revolves around how a person generally processes information. A Sensing orientation means a person tends to focus on the here and now and the basic info the way that it’s presented to them. Folks with an Intuition orientation, conversely, tend to interpret that basic info, add their own meaning to it, make connections between abstract concepts, and try to make predictions about the future.
The third letter pertains to decision-making. The two groups here are T for Thinking and F for Feeling. A Thinking type tends to weigh logic and impersonal concerns more in their decision-making whereas a Feeling type tends to heavily weigh principles, values, and the people involved.
The final letter represents J for Judging or P for Perceiving. Those with a Judging preference prefer structure and planning, and those with a Perceiving preference prefer life to be spontaneous and flexible.
When I was tested, I learned that my type is ENFJ — which stands for extroverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging. ENFJ is sometimes also known as the mentor, the pedagogue, or the protagonist. We’re allegedly very kind and friendly. Good teachers. Born people pleasers who don’t necessarily want to lead but may end up doing so by bringing out the best in others. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however. ENFJs can be very sensitive and most struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth (especially when left alone to their own thoughts). Wanting to help everyone, they also tend to over-promise and if they’re not careful can easily find themselves spread too thin and unable to help anyone at all.
But ENFJ is just one type. There are 16 possible combinations within the Myers-Briggs framework.
And in 2008 I set out to figure out what type everyone around me had. I couldn’t get everyone to sit down for the official test, which also costs a decent chunk of change (mine had been required by my employer at the time, and they paid for it). But I was able to find a free online one that gave me the same 4-letter result. One by one, my friends took it. Maybe out of genuine curiosity. But I also suspect they were spurred on partly because I was talking so much about Myers-Briggs and they wanted to be able to understand what the heck I was going on and on about.
It was extremely helpful when my partner at the time took it. He got INTP as a result. It explained so much. For years I’d felt like there were limits on what we could talk about. Typically, he was always up for a discussion of philosophy or video games. But the moment I’d start talking about interpersonal conflicts around us (y’know, the local gossip, spilling the tea), he was done. His eyes would glaze over, and he would check out. Because he categorically found that sort of discussion boring. Where I was forever considering what other people must be thinking, what their motives could be, what was really underpinning their actions. I spent a long time daydreaming about people’s inner lives. It was one of my favorite things to do.
For years, my partner had framed this as my liking “boring shit.” It was unmistakable that we were different, but to him that signaled that he was better than me in those dimensions.
In his worldview, differences couldn’t be equal; they always had to be ranked, best to worst. Healthy to unhealthy. Normal to aberrant.
But Myers-Briggs didn’t take that view at all. Certain types of people did get along better with other types. But the framework was very firm on the position that no personality type was objectively better than any other.
And just like that, a silly test I had to take for work helped me to mentally destigmatize differences. Which was a real boon since I often found I stuck out like a sore thumb in my small town. For being busty and wearing earth tones all the time. Supporting myself as a jazz musician, typically surrounded by male coworkers twice (or three times) my age. Writing and directing plays that asked uncomfortable questions. Being a bisexual who was socially awkward and not conventionally attractive.
I was suddenly able to block out the criticism of my parents, my partner at the time, and half of my friends. Sure, I was weird. But that wasn’t necessarily bad. I was just in a different category.
One by one, my friends took the test, and I gleefully mentally filed away their results. Even now, over a decade later, I can tell you the result of virtually everyone who was in my life at that time. I also read several books on Myers-Briggs, including a few that specifically focused on romantic and friendship compatibility between types. And I formed a complex personal understanding of how various types interacted by extrapolating and connecting insights from each source.
Myers-Briggs Lacks Scientific Validity
After a few years of unrelenting obsession, I would later go on to learn that Myers-Briggs lacks scientific validity. Once I became a psychological researcher myself, I’d learn that in spite of the thin veneer of science (the association with Jung, who as a lay person I didn’t understand wasn’t a psychological researcher but more of a former of hypotheses, a theorist), the types aren’t really based on anything solidly empirical. The test was originally authored by mystery novelist Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. Basically, they read Jung (whose own work was not based on objective experiments but clinical observation and anecdotes) and a bunch of biographies and developed the framework.
In spite of a glaring lack of objective basis, Myers-Briggs took off in popularity after it was published in 1944. And it’s still wildly popular over 70 years later. Much more popular than actual empirically based personality tests like the Big Five (OCEAN). Y’know, ones that were developed by researchers with a careful scientific basis designed to weed out bias.
I myself still struggle to stop myself from going, “Oh yeah, you’re just doing that because you’re an INFP.” (And in spite of myself, I’m aware that these days my best friend and husband are both INFPs, which is quite stereotypical as they tend to get along best with ENFJs). And the most I can achieve is a disclaimer, “I know Myers-Briggs is probably bullshit but –” before launching into the observation anyway.
Because the reality is that while Myers-Briggs might not be scientific, it was there for me when I really needed it. And it’s hard to step away from that. It gave me validation that there might be a whole range of “normal,” a bunch of ways to be different without being flawed.
Moving Away From Fighting About Which Way Is Normal and Focusing On How to Bridge the Gap
I later felt that way again when I started dating a guy who was super into Love Languages. At the time I was describing some frustrations I’d experienced in other romantic relationships, and he stopped me midsentence to ask me if I’d read the book.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t.”
He gave me a copy immediately. I still have it. Actually, I have two copies, believe it or not, because the guy was so into the book he gave it to me again.
“The guy’s a little out there,” he warned me. “A preacher. So he’s gonna say stuff every now and then that raises the hair on your neck. But there’s a lot of good stuff in here.”
When I read the book, I saw what he meant. Now, was it hard science? Nope. No fucking way. There was even less of a veneer here of empiricism than with the Myers-Briggs test.
But was it potentially helpful? Could it make me feel better and have more productive conversations with people? Yes. It really could.
Because it operated on a very simple premise: There’s no one right way to love another person. Different things can make us feel loved, and we can show our love in different ways. And it’s entirely possible to be in a relationship where someone loves you deeply and you don’t feel it because feeling loved and being loved are different.
Whatever else was going on in the book was really secondary. The categories (Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Quality Time, and Gifts) were helpful conversation starters but didn’t necessarily need to be the be-all and end-all for the idea to be helpful.
Just like Myers-Briggs had done for me before, Love Languages destigmatized difference. And it changed the conversation from fighting over whose way is right (or “normal” as my ex liked to put it) to focusing on how to bridge that gap and set up scenarios where everyone could be happy.
So when I hear people these days excitedly discussing either of them, I stifle that voice inside that wants to rise up and say, “Well, that’s not science.” Or “Gary Chapman is a kook, and I can’t believe any LGBT person would stomach his work.”
Because I realize that’s not really the point. The point is that people have finally found something that destigmatizes differences in a world that seems hellbent on shaming us for them, and they’re excited to get to work making their lives better with the new tools they’ve found.
Imperfect tools, sure. But they’ve at least entered the right conversation.
And I’m happy for them.