The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

I love personality profiles. Something about categories helps me feel like less of an anomaly, that there are other people out there who are like me, that I can embrace aspects of myself that are valid personality traits rather than flaws to overcome.

The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator is my go-to. I know social scientists give it mixed reviews of its science-iness, but I don’t even care, it’s so useful! Since I learned about the MBTI, it has helped me understand myself as well as embrace the differences of my friends, colleagues, roommates, and the guy I married. When bewildered by their ways of thinking, communicating, and decision-making, instead of demonizing them I recognize that it’s just a personality difference. And that is much easier to navigate than a situation in which one or both parties unnecessarily think of the other as the scum of the earth.

Here’s how it goes. In the MBTI, a person’s personality is made up of four different categories, which for the sake of brevity I will oversimplify:

  1. How you gain and lose energy,
  2. Whether you are more drawn to the details or to the bigger picture,
  3. If you react to situations more with your head or with your heart,
  4. How structured or unstructured your sense of time and space.

Let me explain the categories, tell you where I fall in each category, and (as an example to help you to put your own together) how my results in each category combine into one 4-letter combination to express my personality type.

1. Energy Loss and Gain

In category 1, you will find yourself along a spectrum of introversion (represented by the letter I) and extroversion (the letter E). Very rarely is someone 100% extroverted or 100% introverted, but I know people who come very close to one or the other extreme, myself included.

The more introverted you are on the scale, the more you are drained by other people, and the more you are energized by being alone. The more extroverted you are, the more you are energized by being with other people, and the more you are drained by solitude. People zap energy from the introvert but into the extrovert.

Some people are closer to the middle of introversion and extroversion. Often this means they gain energy from being around one or two people they love but are drained by people outside that tight circle. Others of these “ambiverts” thrive with a combo of a short amount of time in an exciting people-filled event, followed by a short amount of time in isolation, and then back with that small group of people they love.

I myself am an extreme I.

2. Details or Big Picture

In category 2, you will find yourself on a spectrum of detail-orientation or big-picture-orientation. Detail-oriented people tend to focus on what they can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear (the five senses, thus this quality is known as Sensing, represented by the letter S). They tend to rely on the knowledge they’ve gained from previous experiences–considering them helpful data points to start with and make adjustments from there.

Big-picture people, on the other hand, are more interested in and tend to focus on “6th sense” sort of things. These are the people who see more what could be than focus on what already exists. And since every situation is unique they dislike starting with the data points from previous situations, preferring to start fresh with new vision and trusting that the details will work themselves out. This quality is known as Intuition, and since the letter “I” was already taken by Introversion, Intuition is represented by its second letter, N.

I am a moderate S in this category.

3. Head or Heart

Category 3 gives us Thinking (the letter T) on one end, and Feeling (the letter F) on the other. As with all the categories, it’s not an either/or but a range with aspects of both in everyone. Contrary to a lot of jokes, “Thinkers” still feel emotions, and “Feelers” still use their brains. The question is more: Which is your automatic gut reaction when faced with a sudden decision or when something surprises, distresses, or disturbs you?

If your immediate reactions involve more analyzing, dissecting, explaining, etc, you’re probably more of a Thinker. The mantra of the Thinkers is “let’s not lose our heads.” They tend to be more stoic, especially if something bad has happened. They place more value on data and facts (which they consider more objective) than on emotion (which they consider unreliable in its subjectivity). It is widely believed that men are more likely to be T’s, but cultural expectations for that might influence men toward that way, too. I’ve heard that women who test as half-way between T and F are probably more T but have been socialized to act in a lot of F ways. After all, society says women need to be “warm and nurturing” rather than “cold and heartless” although that is not what being a T (or a man) is.

If your immediate reactions involve more emoting, empathizing, contextualizing the situation, etc, then you’re probably more of a Feeler. The motto of Feelers is to “Wear your heart on your sleeve” although most won’t tell you that–they just do it. Unless they’ve been socialized not to express their raw feelings in certain contexts like at work or in mixed company. But in general, Feelers place a lot of value on the expression of emotion. It doesn’t bother them that feelings are subjective. In fact, they tend to trust expressions of feeling more than the objectivity of “facts” because they believe that a) feelings express more authenticity in humans, and b) people can get the facts wrong. In general, women tend to be seen more as Feelers, but again, culture plays a huge role in that. Men who test as mid-way between F and T are probably Feelers who have been told over the years to “buck up” because “big boys don’t cry,” so they’ve shifted down the spectrum to a more socially-acceptable way of expressing their thoughts and feelings.

This category has caused me a lot of confusion over the years because I identify with both sides. It often depends on the situation, or who I’m with. Since I’m so middle of the road here, I give myself an X in this category (that’s allowed in rare instances where you really cannot figure out which side tips the scale). Perhaps I should take the official test at some point to settle it once and for all.

4. Structured vs. Unstructured

A friend of mine describes Category 4 as “making things happen” vs. “letting things happen.” On this spectrum, one side is known as Judging (represented by the letter J), and the other is known as Perceiving (the letter P), although I do not fully understand why these words were chosen to represent the difference. The lazy explanation of this category is that Judgers are time-oriented and organized, and that Perceivers are not. But a) that’s too oversimplified an explanation, b) its not always true about either of them, and c) it’s not fair to define a P by what it is not. So here’s my attempt to define the two a little better:

Perceivers are the ones who let things happen (this is according to my friend who is a P). They wait to act til they have to (some would call it procrastination), and they don’t feel as much stress about the delay because they thrive on the adrenaline. Some of their best work and ideas happen at midnight the night before a deadline. This last-minuteness extends to their social life as well, meaning they often RSVP at the deadline, or not at all if there is no deadline. They are likely to “pencil things in” which gives more freedom to decide at the last minute what they want to do that day or that weekend. This does not make them unreliable (unreliability is more a matter of immaturity or selfishness, not an aspect of P-ness); it just means they are more spontaneous and flexible than Judgers. They are mostly undisturbed by last-minute changes because of the aforementioned adrenaline rush and ease with flexibility, but sometimes also because they hadn’t had a solid plan up to that point anyway. Perceivers also like to make unpleasant activities more enjoyable, even if it means that prolongs the activity.

Judgers, on the other hand, are very stressed the closer they get to a deadline. They prefer to get tasks done before they have to be and prefer to arrive early to appointments or events. This doesn’t mean they’re never late or never procrastinate–they just feel way more stressed about it than Perceivers do. Judgers try to be prepared for any circumstance, anticipating the many things that could go wrong and trying to be prepared to prevent them. They balk at last minute changes. They keep lists (either written down or in their heads), and they love to check things off when done. This is one of the reasons my friend calls them the type that makes things happen. Instead of trying to make unpleasant tasks more pleasant like the Perceivers do, they try to get through as many as they can as quickly as they can, defer gratification, and have fun time later. As you can imagine, if they’re partnered up with a Perceiver, doing errands together makes for quite a lot of conflict.

I am an extreme J in this category.

Putting it all together

You can figure out your MBTI personality profile a number of ways:

  • Pay for the official (and probably most accurate) test here
  • Find a free unofficial test online here or here
  • Or just read through explanations like the one above and make your most-educated guess.

If you go with option #3, you will choose whether you are an E or an I, an S or an N, a T or an F, a J or a P. Then stick all four of your letters together in that order. Mine come together as an ISXJ. Google your four letter combination and see what it says about you. If you used an X anywhere like I did, there won’t be many search results for you, so look up what both possibilities say about you (in my case both the ISFJ and the ISTJ). This might help clear up confusion and help you determine if one of them seems to fit you more than the other. If not, feel free to keep the X and embrace the fact that we are all complex human beings!

You might not agree with everything the MBTI says about your type. Remember that there is a wide spectrum on which people can find themselves within each category and subsequently within each personality type. I am not a carbon copy of others who share my type, and neither are you. And certainly there are a great many other demographics that affect who we are, such as age, birth order, what generation we were born into, gender, ethnicity, and experiences. My husband tested as a ENFJ, but as a German he acts way different than any American ENFJ I’ve encountered. Asian American extroversion looks different than European American extroversion. And so on…

Using the MBTI is just one starting point to help us understand ourselves and one another. May we use that insight to love ourselves and the people in our lives a little better.


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