Thursday, April 2, 2009

One Extremely Long Ramble on MBTI Personality Types

I’ve been reading all these things about my personality profile—it does look silly, on paper, to be talking about MBTI types as though this were some sort of workplace community-building seminar, but so be it—it’s my blog and I do what I want. This is what I’ve been thinking about lately so now I’m going to inflict it on you all. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that my mom is an INFJ, too, based on what I’ve been reading and what I know about her, so I called her up when she was on her way to the airport in Buffalo to tell her about it. "That's really interesting,” she said, and then, “Sorry to have inflicted that on you," like she is solely responsible for the way I relate to the world…which is a characteristic trait of INFJs.

Then I called my dad at home and told him about it and his first response was, "Yeah, I'm pretty skeptical...what does that actually do for people? Why is it necessary to type people at all?" And I was all, "Well it helps me to know that the way I see things is just the way I see things, and not the way the world is," and he was all, "Is there a particular way the world is?" (Just fyi, ENTP’s are apparently the most resistant to being typed and the most inclined to argue, and they also get along famously with INFJs…guess what my dad probably is.)

In typical INFJ fashion I didn’t have an answer right away, but I have one now a few days later, which will be the end focus of this super long, rambly post.

Nalin said something to me over the weekend which struck me very much—not what he said, I guess, actually, but my unspoken response. He said, “It seems to me like you want something in particular—what is it?” He went on to say that it seemed like I wanted to create, but before he had said that, in my mind I formulated a response that went something like this: I want to be a catalyst for people—for a few people in particular—for the people I love the most. I want to take people’s lives and change them, show them the depth and the intensity that is possible; I want to help other people create. I can’t help but wonder if that’s really any sort of goal at all—if I am not just trying to dedicate myself to being some sort of human stepladder.

All the personality profiles say that INFJs appear aloof and cold to people in general, which surprised me until I remembered something that Cara said to me a while ago. I had been telling her some story about an extremely attractive guy at my previous job who made me so nervous that I would drop things around him, and she laughed hysterically and said that it was so funny just because I always seemed so cool and collected, especially around men. I was astonished to hear her say that; reflecting on it now, I can see that it may be true. But I always feel so many things—there are always four or five emotions in varying degrees writhing below the surface—I fully expect that they are absolutely transparent to other people, like waves rippling across the ocean to show the motion of the tides. But I think of my mother, and the way her face went carefully, calculatedly blank when our family friend, a French scholar, began discussing a course he wanted to teach, and how my father knew immediately that her expression meant she was absolutely enthralled by the idea and desperately wanted to take the course, but the friend thought she was uninterested and tried to change the subject—I must have the same sort of nearly trans-muscular control that my mother has.

Today I decided to step outside of my usual reaction to things: I made an effort to express my feelings rather than bottle them up and smile the way I normally do, and I told Nalin that his constantly telling me I “amuse” him makes me feel like a child, like he is indulging me, putting up with me because I am cute and enthusiastic rather than genuinely being interested in what I have to say and treating me like an equal intellectual. It is the same feeling I used to have around ex-boyfriend #6, like he was thinking, “Oh, look at Hilary! isn’t that precious. dear—would you like me to put it up on the refrigerator? Is it a house or a car? Oh, it’s a werewolf—how nice.” So I said so and quite immediately it backfired—Nalin seemed to think I was much more upset than I actually was, and did not take it as I intended, as an extension of myself, a baring of the jugular to the teeth of an enemy, an attempt to be vulnerable. And then I remembered that there are very concrete, reinforced reasons I have developed these sorts of controls: I am so attuned to nuance, to connotation and the slightest changes in dynamics between people, that it is occasionally overwhelming for me, and almost always completely incomprehensible to other people. Other people think I am overreacting, that the underlying currents I see aren’t really there, that everything is all in my head. Maybe it is all in my head; but either way I have learned to hide it from view so that they will not look at me, amused.

And THEN there was a website devoted totally to the INFJ personality type, and they even had INFJ-particular vocab words (I know, this is totally getting kooky, but I stop at nothing to find out what the hell goes on inside my head—because most of the time I don’t even know) and there was a word for how I feel when other people do embarrassing things. It’s called “the dumbchills,” which is really pretty accurate. Both my mother and I have to leave the room during movies when people put themselves in awkward situations. I can’t watch Seinfeld, for example, because of George; I absolutely cannot stand watching him, it’s horrible to me and I have to hide behind a pillow. It makes me cringe. Napoleon Dynamite was like that, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also Eagle vs. Shark and Flight of the Conchords. As a clearer example, I nearly ripped my fingernail out with my teeth at the part in Napoleon Dynamite where he draws a picture of that girl and hands it to her in order to ask her to prom. I seriously can’t laugh at these things, it’s just too awful for words. Other people laugh at me because I get so upset and flustered, but I seriously just can’t handle it. The only way it’s okay is if I’ve already seen the movie and I know what happens, but if it’s something really embarrassing I still have trouble the second time around.

I swear this post has a point.

The point, dearest father, is that typing people’s personalities gives them a language with which they can talk about themselves and how they relate to the world. The point is the sharing of information with other people, of comparing and contrasting their worldview. It enables people to think and share information about themselves, just like language itself enables people to think and share information about the world. How better to communicate the self than to create words—like dumbchills—to express it? Because you can’t experience someone else’s self, not the way they do, and the best you can get is to talk about it.

And no, the universe isn’t any particular way at all, but that’s a different post.


  1. To be an objective transcendental universe or not to be (quantum/fractal).

    Does the MBTI system feel at all like astrology, just with feedback? I find that my Libra description fits in quite perfectly with my INFP that fluctuates with F/T and P/J. I can't help but finding it all hilarious. I'm no ENTP, but who would call me an "idealistic healer" type?

    PS. I would also toss a P on to you more often than a J. There's more to it than just going to extremes.

  2. Oh, John, you're totally a healer. You like to medicate people's toothpaste.
    Seriously, though, you really do like to help people and listen to them, and somewhere under your abrasive exterior is a heart of gold. Or at least a wellspring of whiskey.

    My dad compared it to astrology, point is, if it helps you talk about yourself and who you are, what does it matter if it's "real" or not? Obv God doesn't go "I think I'll make an ESTJ today, I'm feeling like shaking things up." If it could totally describe all aspects of someone's personality there would be six billion types--not useful for comparison purposes. Also I think it's a little more grounded in fact than Astrology, because it's based on a set of questions developed by psychiatrists that are answered by the people themselves, rather than on the relative position of the universe at the moment of your birth.
    The moment of truth when it came to P versus J was when we talked about shopping for things: I decide what I want, and then I go in and get it. I picked out the kind of bike I wanted, walked into the store and said "I want a hybrid for less than $400," the salesguy showed me one, and I bought it. I don't like to spend a lot of time researching options...I just want my bike!
    I think the N-J combination is weird, because I like to go with the flow but I also like to know what's going to happen in the future. I don't give a shit if my closet looks like it exploded, but I plan out conversations in my head and write to-do lists...I'm just not concerned about methodology.

  3. After our sessions with the psych, the immediate warning was, "you now know just enough to be dangerous." It's important to remember all this information comes with specific contexts as to how it is meant. For example, your MB type is simply your preference; everyone's behavior changes all the time based on how they want to be and how they think they are expected to be.

    The biggest dangers are:
    a) attempting to apply your wonderful new MBTI knowledge to other people without talking it through with them. it's no better than sterotyping in my opinion, because how we act can be very different from how we prefer to be acting, or are thinking/feeling. they were very adamant that only that person can say who they are... that's why its called an "indicator" not a "test". Best example I can think of is me; I tested ESTJ and many would observe me to be that way... guess what? Engineering is a very STJ profession, and I will exhibit those behaviors because I am expected to, even though I am *very* ENTP.

    b) getting into a self-reinforcing cycle (your astrology comment) where you think this is how you HAVE to be or are ALLOWED to be all the time now that you know it.

    You're absolutely right though Hil, it is really just a language for talking about these things, which we don't really have good language for otherwise.

  4. I want to edit my above post, it comes across really derisive of the process, and that's not what I intended. I do not find it "hilarious," but am skeptical.

    I feel like we have had a language for personality for a while, and this just puts people in groups. Extrovert and introvert labels have been around, as well as all the other words used. They just had not been put into acronyms before.

    This being said, I also understand that some of my own skepticism is rooted in a need to make value judgments. Nothing in any description is expressly negative, so the system rings hollow for me.

    Props to the bike buy, that makes me wince just hearing about it.