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Modern popular psychology is filled with models of personality type and how to grow and develop. One of the most famous was created by these two ladies - Katherine Cook Briggs (R) and her daughter Isabel Myers-Briggs (L), shown here in about 1900.
Their work today is called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). But the story is of a grieving mother trying to cope with the death of two baby sons.
Katherine turned her home into a child-rearing laboratory for her remaining daughter and was, in many ways, successful. By her early 30s, Isabel was an acclaimed polymath and had written popular works of fiction. At the end of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services [the forerunner of the CIA] started using the test to profile their staff – and from then on it grew and grew, with it being used today in many firms and groups.
The theoretical model was based on Katherine’s obsession with the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. This is the man who brought us extroversion and introversion, as well as a number of other personality dimensions. They used his four main dimensions to come up with 16 different personality types.
Part of its success is the way it simplifies a seemingly unfathomable subject in 16 ways that are all pleasing to read. Everyone is a winner! However, an article in Nature (Nature 561:176;2018) said: “using the MBTI to unlock the mysteries of the self is akin to trying to understand the Stone Age by watching The Flintstones.”
It does have issues. Its low on reliability and validity (the ability to be consistent and robust) especially when studied by those who are neutral or not fans! It’s also out of keeping with modern personality research which instead focusses on five dimensions (using the acronym OCEAN) and is more about dynamic states rather than assigning people to one of 16 lifetime traits.
Who are you?
I’m an ENTJ – extrovert, intuitive, thinking, judging. Sometimes called the ‘commander’ or ‘chief’, at their best ENTJs are meant to be cool-headed, calm, rational, logical and analytical. At their worst they can be overpowering, pushing too hard and wanting everything completed now. Whilst some of this applies to me, I think there is more going on…
You can have quite a lot of fun with the MBTI. People have assigned MBTI types to the characters in everything from Lord of the Rings to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apparently, these three are ENTJs like me:
-- Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada
-- Princess Leia from Star Wars and
-- Sauron, the Dark Lord of the Ring
But this isn’t what Jung said… He never wanted us to put ourselves into one of 16 boxes. Instead, he was quite open about how these personality dimensions were meant to encourage us to be more like Jesus. Jung wasn’t a Christian himself [as far as I know] but his father was a Baptist minister and the idea was that Jesus was in the mid-point of these dimensions – both extrovert and introvert, both sensing and intuitive – and so on.
The dimensions show us our preferences and styles, but it also reveals our goal – Jesus. They explain that, whilst we may always have a preference, we can change, we can grow and we can learn.
There are other similar concepts that are popular ways to describe the human condition. One of these was invented by Meredith Belbin, pictured here outside the Henley Management College where he developed this in the 1970s and 80s. It is called the Belbin Team Roles.
He developed the system to understand team behavior. There are other models [such as TMS (team management system) or Star Roles] but Belbin was one of the first. He recognized that people tend to take on particular roles in a team, but that each role needs to be understood and that we may [in some teams] need to take on a less-preferred role. Most psychologists agree that this system has a much better psychological and research underpinning than the MBTI.
I’m a ‘Plant’ – some you can plant into a team from outside to stir it up a bit. The Belbin descriptors are:
-- Strengths: >Creative, imaginative, free-thinking, generates ideas and solves difficult problems.
-- Allowable Weaknesses: Might ignore details and may be too preoccupied to communicate effectively.
-- Don’t be surprised to find that: They could be absent-minded or forgetful.
Another great Plant description says, "The fact that the team has decided on a valid way forward and is now in the implementation stage will not stop the Plant from coming up with new solutions and disrupting the implementation process.”
This is me to a tee!
Belbin understood that a team is more than the sum of its parts. He said, “A team is not just a bunch of people with job titles, but a congregation of individuals – each of whom has a role that is understood by other members. This sounds very similar to the 1 Corinthians 12 description of the body of Christ. One body, many parts – and (ideally but sadly rarely) each understands the roles and contributions of the other parts… The APEST (apostle, pastor, evangelist, shepherd, teacher) idea in Ephesians 4v11 is similar.
Another great Belbin quote is, “No-one is perfect, but a team can be.” Perhaps not theologically accurate, but the application is that a well-functioning local expression of the body of Christ is the closest you can get to perfection this side of heaven!
A popular model of personality and relationships in Christian circles is the Enneagram. I’m a “7” – the busy, variety-seeking type. One nice aspect of the Enneagram descriptions is that maturity matters. They are clear that our natural preferences can work against us as much as for us. On a nine-point scale, the best and worst 7s will:
-- Level 1 (At Their Best): Assimilate experiences in depth, making them deeply grateful and appreciative for what they have. Become awed by the simple wonders of life: joyous and ecstatic. Intimations of spiritual reality, of the boundless goodness of life.
-- Level 9 (At Their Worst): Their energy and health is completely spent: they become claustrophobic and panic-stricken. Often giving up on themselves and life: deep depression and despair, self-destructive overdoses, impulsive suicide.
Growth and maturity are tricky topics, but one thing that both Christianity and Psychology agree on is that challenge is required. Romans 5v3-4 says, “…we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” And the idea of Resilience is a modern concept which says the same thing – by neither reacting or withdrawing, we can work through problems to increase both self-esteem and health as well as build future problem-solving ability.
Is it possible to be born resilient? Yes, to some degree, but you need life events to learn and grow. Likewise, faith is a gift, but also a muscle to be exercised to develop character and hope.
Jung may not be in vogue in empirical psychology circles, but a lot of what he says has been found to be true by generations of therapists and analysts. One popular concept is his idea of the mid-life crisis – which he calls the ‘return of the repressed’. This is where you most polarized dimension flips and comes to get you. As an extreme extrovert, for me this meant getting in touch with my introvert side.
So, I set off for the most remote cottage it was possible to rent in the UK – halfway down the banks of Glen Etive – the one made famous by James Bond in Skyfall. For a week, I read scripture, consumed nothing but coffee and whisky (my kind of fast) and met not a soul.
I can’t claim in in a rush to repeat this, beautiful though it was. But, for me, it was the start of a journey to self-understanding. A bit like an onion, a layer or two needs to be peeled away every so often.
One quote from our recent book, The Power of Belonging, is that, “ultimately we need to allow our false selves to die if we are going to start living, let alone leading.” Most recently, I have returned from two years living in Auckland – and have peeled off a few more layers as a result.
These layers were all about shame and vulnerability, about me being myself and the importance of community and relationship. In the pursuit of joy, and in our understanding of human personality, we could do worse that the old Sunday School description of JOY: Jesus Others You.
-- inspired by Jesus [for he is our goail]
-- walking with Others [to beat shame, to work together], and
-- being Yourself [because that is all you can really ever be]
This is my psychological strength. How do you find yours?
Dr Rob Waller, @docrobwaller