MBTI and me: how and why I study personality types

MBTI and me: how and why I study personality types

Alex Rosenblatt

In 2018, my eighth-grade science teacher had each member of my class take a short personality quiz to aid him in assigning partners for an upcoming project. The pages explaining the result I received from the quiz read as if someone had reached into my deepest, innermost monologues and spilled them out for the world to see. 

Here I was, surrounded by people who I believed didn’t understand me, reading the result of a 60 question quiz that explained my thought process, my strong suits, and my insecurities more thoroughly and accurately than anyone else ever had. I was hooked. I felt a need to learn all that I could about this system that I had just discovered in the hopes that I could finally understand myself and everyone else around me.

While my understanding of psychological type, the study of systems that propose “types” with sets of personality traits, has changed quite a bit since then, the fundamental reason I continue to study the topic has remained the same: to further my quest to understand myself and others as deeply as possible. This is also why I encourage others to learn about type. I want to help everyone feel as understood as I felt on that fateful eighth-grade day. I want everyone to believe that they can explain themselves to others, that others can understand them, and that everyone can have a common language to discuss the complexities of human personalities.

Anyone who has asked me to describe someone I know will tell you that I’m notoriously terrible at it. Descriptors such as “kind” or “annoying”  are infuriatingly general and subjective. Psychological type is a step in the direction of having a more detailed vocabulary for discussing personalities. 

To me, types in these systems are simply descriptors, just as “tall” or “green” are descriptors. Systems of psychological type are merely tools to describe personality, thought processes, or behavior. Those who criticize type accuse it of “fitting people into boxes,” a jab at its perceived inflexibility in light of everyone’s individuality. I feel that this dispute is less of an attack on type itself and more so on how it is used. The best way to use type is not to fit people into boxes but fit the boxes into people. When someone discovers their type, they should think of it like this: of the traits and/or types presented by this system, this particular type within the system fits the most of me. Of the personality traits presented, this set describes me the best.

This philosophy of applying type is also why it is beneficial to learn about multiple systems of type. The system I am most familiar with is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It happens to be one of the most popular and widely recognized systems, but it is far from the only one. Others, such as enneagram, Big 5, and the NERIS system, offer their own tools to describe people, and, like MBTI, all have their quirks, philosophies, strengths, and weaknesses. The more systems you discover, the richer your type vocabulary will become, and the more complete your picture of yourself and others will be. These systems all offer their descriptors to contribute to a greater whole: you. 

Often those who believe that type systems are inflexible do not read far enough into the workings of the systems. The deeper one studies most systems, the more flexibility one will typically find. For example, in the enneagram system, which is based on nine numerical types which each have traits associated with them, with each the most basic way a type is expressed is a single base number (for example, mine is type 5). However, Enneagram practitioners will often also express a wing type, which means that the person the type describes most predominantly exhibits traits of their base type and strongly exhibits traits of another type (ex: 5 wing 4, or 5w4). 

To everyone who asks something to the effect of “is type real?” or means to degrade it by pointing out the fact that we are all unique and individual human beings that cannot possibly fit into prescribed “boxes,” I invite you to think of type differently. When encountering a type system of any sort, I invite you to ask, “what can I learn from this system?” A type system is simply an idea about ways to describe personality traits. Therefore, if you study a system and discover even a single new thing about yourself or others, you have succeeded. 

If you do not consider a particular system to be comprehensive, bear in mind what it doesn’t say while focusing on what it does say and whether or not it is interesting to you. In other words, if you were to take a quiz that tells you what type of sandwich you are, I would invite you to read all about what that particular quiz says that it means to be a turkey on rye, and also to investigate whether or not it is possible to be a turkey on rye with lettuce but without mayo, and how that is distinct from just a turkey on rye. I invite you to investigate type systems in a detached but open-minded way and to always search for deeper detail if possible.

Finally, remember: type is here to serve you, not the other way around. The objective is not to find what types you fit into, rather what types fit into you. At the end of the day, you are the object of study. The human mind is the complex whole, and type systems are merely tools at your disposal in the great quest to understand and describe yourself and others.