One of the first personality inventories I took sorts people into groups represented by one of four animals (lion, beaver, golden retriever, otter) developed by Smalley and Trent in the 1980s. I never liked taking these inventories mostly because the questions could be answered differently depending on the day, or two answers were equally true. The animal incarnation proved this when my responses graphed a line nearly straight across. Also, I resist being placed in a box.My dyslexic-processing brain confronts categories of any kind, and to place billions of beautifully unique persons in 1 of 4 categories is anathema to me.
Still, our culture insists. There’s the assessment based on the Greek humors – Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholy, Phlegmatic – developed by Graeco-Arabic medicine, c. 400BCE. And the most widely used by businesses and university-entrance constabularies, Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory first published in 1944, based on Jungian categories of personality traits. And the MMPI, the TIPI, the Keirsey, and the DISC. The one that holds some promise for meaningful insight in my professional opinion, though, is the Enneagram. Its origins are in dispute, but likely set with Oscar Ichazo in the 1950s. It is the most nuanced test, inviting the numinous that plays a very real role in how we express who we are.
By far the most enjoyable types of personality sorters are funneled through Buzzfeed and other social media channels. My daughters will often send me one along with their results, at once laughing at the absurdity of its validity and giving a nod to a modicum of the same. Apparently, I’m Hermione Granger, my Disney princess alter ego is Rapunzel?, and my Norse god counterpart is Odin. I took that last one three times, adjusting my fence-top answers, and it always returned Odin. Grr. I’m Thor! I. am. Thor. Ok, I suppose “wise” and “leader” are characteristics I hope describe me. And I do have a little issue with being in control. But that hammer.
The real concern I have with personality sorters is two-fold. One, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or cop-out default (well, I am choleric, after all, I’m just stating the truth), and two, human beings are organic, living, changeable creatures impacted by one another, circumstances, brain chemistry, the weather . . . . Sure, I have some overarching tendencies that are characteristic of my behavior. We are habitual beings, too (and there are good, psycho-socio- and neurological reasons for this). Crucially, each carries a specific genetic piece of God’s character, unique. And because we are human and made in the image of this same God, we will recognize God in each other—and, in a similar way, I will recognize myself in you.
The point is, perhaps I have the expertise to see that you process your thoughts out loud and might be categorized as “extroverted.” By understanding this I can then discern that when you are talking about a solution, it is not your final draft. But to call you “a thinker” or “lion” or “phlegmatic” or Loki, well, I will miss all of the other beautiful bits about you that are not in the “S” category, or whatever. I can blow you off because I am not comfortable with introverts, or read your stand up comedy for “socializer” and misunderstand your need for alone time.
Sometimes these inventories are fun for validating the aspects that are true about me, and can help begin to understand someone else a bit better. But there is a gaggle of studies that show how “personality” traits change over time. Indeed, brain chemistry and hormone distribution changes at many stages of development. Mindfulness practice is shown to augment these changes in productive ways, as well. The most salient of these is that it helps me see you for who you are without my junk getting in the way. When I am present with you, mindful of your being, your personhood, I can see you more—and love you better—because to be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known! And my prayer is that at (nearly) 50 I might have such a disposition of presence as this. So, my goal today (or tomorrow—it’s a bit late now): be with someone and notice 5 distinct things about her that I love, traits that he does that I would like to develop. Will you join me? Because, I am just like you. And, I am unique.