Personality tests — the good, the bad, and the ugly

Personality tests are kind of all the rage right now. Their validities range from the silly (WHICH DISNEY PRINCESS ARE YOU) to the more reputable (e.g., Clifton’s Strengthsfinder assessment).

I love them. Well, most of them. While most of these tests show us how we see ourselves to be rather than who we actually are, they are nonetheless revealing (“this is how I see myself?!”) and can be very helpful for personal growth.

A classic of the genre.

I really do think, rightly used, that personality tests can be a window into our true selves, a good way to start figuring out who we are now and who we would be if we were fully authentic. I found great comfort when I took the Myers-Briggs personality exam and read the description of my type, the INFJ. I found even more comfort and relief when I read the description of the Highly-Sensitive Person and realized there is a reason I am the way I am. (A reason not tied to some inherent defect on my part.)

Getting the most out of these tools means we need to be aware of the limitations of personality tests, however. I tend to think that almost everything in its right and appropriate place is good, that it is only in application or misappropriation that it is bad. And sometimes, when misused, things can get downright ugly. But we risk falling into the bad and the ugly when we want to see something as perfectly or totally good, in and of itself, because it has been so helpful to us, and refuse to see it clearly and objectively.

I AM ALL AND NONE OF THESE I CONTAIN MULTITUDES. Photo from automarketinsights.com.

So to rescue my beloved personality tests from too much censure, here is what I consider to be the good, the bad, and the ugly of personality tests and how we use them. I’d love to hear your thoughts (and your type, if you feel like sharing and risking my pre-determined judgment!!! I KID. [Sorta]).

The Good

  • They give us words for what’s going on inside of us, in that wordless place.

In general, naming things is a good and right thing to do. I think that’s one of the spiritual epistemic lessons we can take from the Adam and Eve myth — there is something Good and human about discovering and naming new things. Naming is participating in truth. Naming things, even if they are bad things (like cancer) is good because it gives us a way to work with things in the world, a way to understand the mechanics and workings of a thing more fully, a way to figure out how it fits within the world, and thus a way to figure out what the heck we should do with it as we work to make the world a better place.

This same idea goes for the language and concepts we use to describe ourselves. It can be so frustrating to feel something about yourself but not know how to communicate it with others. Personality tests give us a linguistic framework for recognizing our traits, behaviors, tendencies, and motivations. All important for knowing who we are.

It’s equally important to name our good parts and our bad parts. It’s very, very good to have names for our weaknesses and blind spots. We can’t fix what we don’t know, but the idea that “Knowledge is power” is only partially right. Knowledge by itself is latent power; power is knowledge only when coupled with intentional application (though that isn’t nearly as pithy a saying). Good self-analysis can help us gain the knowledge, the power, and the path forward to making ourselves and our relationships healthier, by giving us words to think and speak of them.

  • They can help us understand more about others, how they respond and react to the world in ways that don’t make intuitive, natural sense to us.

One thing I’ve enjoyed and wish I could do more of is figure out which personality types I can find in my friends. While I don’t want to “type” anyone too restrictively (their type is for them to decide, not me), it can be helpful to read about a type with a friend in mind, as it makes me think more charitably about types that may, on paper, sound like a pain-in-the-ass. (I’m so fortunate that my type, the INFJ, is NEVER a pain in the ass! Never ever ever.) Reading about how other kinds of people behave and react is helpful, reminding us that our way of seeing, interpreting, and navigating the world is not the only, nor always the best, one. It gives us positive words to describe and understand others and words to start to probe why some relationships are more difficult for us than others.

The Bad

  • They never tell the whole story.

In general, humans all want to know themselves, and personality tests can be helpmates. But tests never give us full access and answer to all the depths of who we are. They only give us a piece. (If even a piece — I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what my Enneagram type is.) Hoping any one test, or collection of tests, will give us the “answer key” to ourselves is a false hope and a fool’s errand. Expecting a test to do so only leads to disappointment and frustration.

  • They can open us up to self-involvement.

Ugh, this one I can talk about from experience. A few years ago, I couldn’t stop looking up articles about the Myers-Briggs INFJ type. It got to the point where I felt physically unsettled — the narcissism I was allowing to fester in myself actually felt as toxic as it was in reality. At some point, every personality test stops being relevant or helpful. It has a specific use and context; beyond that, it should be discarded. What really matters, at the end of the day, is how we behave. We only really know who and what we are through action — even just the action of thought. Focusing too much on learning about “our” type and thinking too much about how we describe the way we are can, ironically, become more self-destructive than self-revelatory. Everything rots, people.

Finally, the most fun: The Ugly

  • We can use them as excuses for refusing to fix our bad habits and tendencies.

Goodness, I’d love to say “Well, I’m just Highly Sensitive, so I don’t need to go to that work event and mingle with lots of people.” Or “I’m a people-pleaser so I can’t be honest and my loved ones should know that and interpret accordingly.” But I can’t. Sometimes I need to do the things that are hard or draining for me, because those things are simply good and important to do. Too often I see people using their types as justification for being… well, for being kind of an ass. Just as knowledge with intentional application is power, so is knowledge responsibility. Once we know what we do and why we do it, we have a moral responsibility to those around us to try to fix our bad, hurtful, damaging habits and behaviors. Just because someone was born a Scorpio rising (not even sure what that means?!) doesn’t mean she gets to dominate all conversations to the exclusion of the more unassertive folks. The words and concepts we have should become fuel for the ways we make new decisions in the world, because we are not bound by what a test says we are.

  • We can use them to judge others before getting to know them.

There are a couple types I’ve read about for which I think “Man, I would not enjoy this kind of person in real life.” While that’s fine in theory (no one likes everyone, even though EVERYONE loves INFJs!!!!!), if I were to meet someone and somehow find out they were one of those types, I might be tempted to write them off prematurely, or to judge them more harshly than they deserve because of all that I have already assumed about them as being of “that type.” Personality tests at their best show the many ways humans can be good in their authenticity, and to idolize or obsess over our own type risks devaluing and denigrating other people who don’t fit the mold we have decided is optimal.

Now that I’m maturing intellectually (ah, pretentiousness… ah, late 30s…), I find myself being more and more comfortable with a nuanced and “yes but” or “yes and” way of thinking about the things we humans discover and create to explain the world. Personality tests fit that mold very easily — so much good to be gleaned, so much potential for harm (small and large). I hope, if you’ve taken some of these tests, that you’ve been able to extract what is good and helpful and leave behind what is not, and I hope this little blog post might have helped put some of that into perspective.

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