Personality Tests: What They Are, and What They Are Not
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were house sitting for a family of five kids under the age of 19. We tried our best to keep our cool as we were thrust from no-obligation DINKs (Double Income No Kids) to exhausted uber drivers. We had an absolute blast laughing at ourselves, as we reflected on how insanely hard and beautiful parenting is—and on how much more we have to learn in the years ahead. As we were wrapping up our time, one of the older kids asked my husband, “Do you and Jenna ever fight?” (a hilarious and naive question for any 20-something couple to be asked)
Whilst John and I certainly pride ourselves on a madly-in-love and strong-communication marriage, we had to laugh out loud at how our best behavior can be deceiving. My husband and I certainly do fight, not necessarily often, but when we do they tend to be long, verbose, deep, exhausting explorations of our clashing psyches (did I mention they tend to go long?) And one of the ongoing top-of-the-list fights we continue to have is about personality tests.
I, like any good psychotherapist, love typology, personality assessment and evaluation. I think these tools are one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. It makes my life easier, helps my clients discuss themselves with greater insight, and aids in therapeutic treatment and healing. You will unlikely get past two minutes of small talk with me before I ask for your enneagram or myers briggs profile (I’m an enneagram 4 and an INFJ).
My husband, on the other hand (like any good individualist) hates personality testing. He finds my attempts to classify him with letters and numbers thoroughly unhelpful and ultimately impotent. He frequently counters that personality testing is used as a weapon to box people into predetermined caricatures that fail to accommodate for the full breadth of who they are and are ultimately unhelpful for growth.
It’s around here that my figurative blood begins to boil and an Iron man vs. Captain America scenario begins to brew.
I will concede that personality testing absolutely has significant limits and weaknesses that can be used for evil. But, understood properly, and used appropriately, I still maintain that personality models have the potential to help everyone in their personal, professional lives—and even their spiritual lives—for good.
In today’s present cultural moment, personality profiling is #trending, as the kids say. As millennials, we are more navel gazing and introspective than those who came before us. It should come as no surprise that we hunger and thirst for data on ourselves. But that hunger can, unchecked, become a frustrating obsession—or even worse, an obstacle to pursuing a dialogue about personality with others. In this article, I hope to articulate what personality tests are, what they are not, and how they could prove helpful to recovery from trauma. In order to address any critics (including my beloved husband) out there, lets begin with what they are and what they are not.
1. They are not magic or in control.
Personality theories and typology can sometimes feel like ‘mystical’ or ‘magical’ information that others shouldn’t or couldn’t possibly have about you. Some of you may have had the experience of reading a personality profile and having your stomach knot up in paranoia that a computer or a person knows something about you that you don’t remember telling them. Even worse is when a personality enthusiast tells you something you haven’t yet even told yourself. It can be eerily unsettling to have so much personal information poured out in front of you by a screen—or worse, by a complete stranger. Here it is important to remember—personality testing isn’t magic. It’s an organizational classifying system.
For the trauma survivors among us, it can be incredibly important to fight potential paranoia that may arise around coming into contact with an organizational classifying system that has the appearance of control. The other side of this coin could be reading a profile that doesn’t resonate at all, and feeling an interior split inside that says: “I don’t feel known by this information at all. Does this know something I don’t?” Sometimes encountering intimate information about our inner workings can feel like a system outside of ourselves has the upper hand on us—this simply isn’t true.
2. They are completely dependent on the answers you give. You are in control of getting successful results.
I like to remind my clients about this fact all the time: “There is nothing in a personality test that you didn’t tell the test.” A personality profile is completely dependent on you giving it the answers. If you answered in a different way, it would give you different answers. So if it tells you: “You like the color blue,” but in reality you hate the color blue, your opinion trumps the test, because you gave it the false information about liking the color blue to begin with (trippy).
Personality tests are best understood like looking in a mirror. The mirror is the test, and the more honestly, clearly, and unflinchingly you look into the mirror, the more clearly you will see a reflection of your own face—if you angle the mirror to look at someone else, or at only one aspect of your face, then you will only see that data reflected in the mirror.
The most ‘successful’ way to take a personality test is by being as honest and gut oriented in your answering as possible. My husband frequently comments that he can get any personality he wants out of a personality test - and I completely agree. To put it another way, a personality test is like describing your appearance to a police portrait artist - you could technically describe your appearance any way you want and end up with a sketch of Kim Kardashian or Benedict Cumberbatch. But you wouldn’t end up with a portrait that looks like what you see in the mirror. The point isn’t to deceive the test or answer in an ‘aspirational’ manner that describes a non existent version of you. The test or theory is a tool that exists to serve you, and how you wield it will greatly impact its ‘knowledge’ and effectiveness for you.
With regards to trauma survivors, it is important for me to point out that it can be difficult to honestly self report in a personality test when you may regularly disassociate or feel disconnected from who you are as a result of PTSD symptoms, your honest personality will likely come more into focus the more you work on initial symptom recovery to avoid splitting when test taking. Manipulating a test for your own gain will result in invalid or unhelpful data. In fact, the majority of more sophisticated personality tests will also have what are known as validity scales built into them to determine if you are answering in a consistent, random, self-inflating, or self-depreciating way anyway, resulting in an invalid test. To quote the ridiculous rapper Lil’ Dicky: “If you’re hurting me, you know you’re only hurting yourself.”
3. They are not to be used as weapons.
This one should be obvious, but alas, this is where the majority of the bad reputation has been formed around personality testing. My husband has very intelligently and importantly pointed out (and I do agree) that too often other people want to know your personality typology out of a desire to control you, and in so doing they harm you. Too often we pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of another person’s personality profile out of a desire to point and laugh when they show their predicted weakness, and to undermine and mock their successes when they show their predicted strength.
For example, as an enneagram type 4, I frequently have people make flippant comments about my emotional intensity in order to undermine my point, or redirect the conversation. “Well we all know fours are sensitive and ‘lonely’ all the time anyway, am I right?” This use of personality testing is deconstructive, insecure, and ultimately unhelpful.
With regards to trauma survivors, we also need to be incredibly respectful and careful of wielding power or information over another for our own gain—this will only trigger or retraumatize the people around us. The knowledge of another person’s strengths and weaknesses is sacred information to be used with great care and responsibility, and not as a measure to seize the upper hand or protect your own ego.
4. They are to be used to see the world through another’s eyes.
My favorite description of the Enneagram personality test is: “Nine ways of being, nine ways of seeing.” An instructor once described it like nine pairs of glasses—each pair allows you to see the world through the eyes of another person. For me, this is where the true beauty of personality profiling comes to life. I don’t want to know your personality so I can control you. I want to know it so that I can better understand how you see and experience the world—so I can better empathize with your strengths and weaknesses instead of feeling baffled and confused.
For me, life without personality typology is like the Wild West, there are no rules, no bearings, and no footholds by which to grasp another person’s viewpoint. As a psychotherapist I have to quickly enter into the perspective of a hurting stranger on a regular basis. Whilst I absolutely want to build organic and self-discovered insight into another person throughout the course of therapy—it would be foolish for me to reject a basic map that helps me to begin navigating their inner world.
Knowing whether or not you are more introverted or extroverted doesn’t give me everything, but it does give me a place to start in understanding how you see the world and how to shape your goals. I like to think of it like making use of night vision goggles instead of stumbling around while you describe being lost in the dark.
With regards to trauma survivors, using a personality model can make or break the early rapport I build with a client. Most, but not all, trauma survivors have a hard time explaining themselves due to the negative effects of shame wrapped up in their identity. Having basic building blocks to know them more quickly creates necessary trust in that early stage that is at high risk for drop out. If I tell someone my personality type, I am giving them a vulnerable map that I trust they will use alongside me to see the world like. I use it in moments of strength and weakness, and to help me navigate difficult terrain from multiple perspectives. The “types” of personality should build empathetic connection, not division.
5. They are not excuses for bad behavior.
If you’ve been around a personality junkie for a while, then you’ll begin to see the frustrating humor that develops around someone else hiding behind their personality profile to justify bad behavior. “Well you know I’m an INTJ, so as an introvert I never talk to new people.” or “As an enneagram 7 I’m running away from that crying person because I never go deep.” Whilst it can be fun to poke at our weaknesses, when we start owning them with arrogance or pride, we’ve lost the point of the information we’ve received.
Justifying our weaknesses is redundant. It is so much more important to be aware of weakness in order to compensate or seek corrective action around it to lessen its impact. I am so proud of introverts that practice the discipline of small talk more often, or a seven who increases their exposure to pain gradually. A good personality test should both encourage us and humble us. It should give us direction to improve, and directions to celebrate and lean into.
6. They are blueprints for growth and dictionaries for self expression.
The most frequent thing I hear in protest of personality profiling is: “I don’t need a test to tell me who I am. I can explain myself.” Whilst I do get this sentiment, I have often found the opposite to be true. Most people (myself included) are actually quite bad at objectively describing who they are and how their inner world works. Most people need a lot of assistance to become good as self-expression. We may think we are an expert in being ourselves, until our relationships and experiences require a skill level we simply can’t offer at our current level of development.
When a client comes to me for counseling, it normally begins with an admission that they are ‘stuck’ and would like to become “unstuck.” Personality theory provides information that can jumpstart the car and prevent it from breaking down again. I am always helped when a client resonates with a personality profile in such a way that it helps them talk about themselves more readily, more objectively, and more deeply. It feels so much more personal to say and explore the observation, “I am an angry person,” but we can get so much further when we externalize these conversations to personality traits and types: “As someone with low agreeableness, I find myself in a lot of conflict that provokes a regular state of anger.”
For some people, it can also be comforting to know that there are scales and personality traits that help them know they are both similar or dissimilar to another person. Apples and Oranges. This blueprint gives you a starting point to know and begin talking about yourself, and more importantly it gives you a vocabulary of self reflective categories to use when sharing about your inner life. I like to appeal to the old Irish adage, “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” Sure, you could come up with a language and vocabulary all of your own to describe yourself—but it will likely take longer to develop and longer to translate. Why not use a language that’s already been developed and utilized for your own gain?
7. They are not psychopathology tests.
I am being nit-picky here, but it is important for the general population to be made aware that personality tests and psychopathology tests are different ball games. I think this is particularly important for people recovering from trauma or a significant stint of mental illness to know. A psychopathology test (like the MCMI, the MMPI — you can take these tests here and here) are designed to provide information on potential mental health disorders. Personality tests are designed to provide information on strong or weak personality traits held by a particular individual.
Why does this matter? Well, it often goes without saying that if you take a personality test in the middle of a major depressive episode, your results may come out skewed. What you really might be trying to find out is that you have major depression (again, for that you would be better served to contact a psychologist and take the MCMI-4 or the MMPI-2. This matters because our personalities are often muted, polarized, or exaggerated during periods of extreme stress and mental strain—so, taking a battery of personality tests right after a traumatic event will likely leave you wanting.
I often say that your personality will emerge more fully and more accurately around 6 - 12 months after a traumatic event has taken place. For this reason, it can also be important to take personality tests somewhat regularly throughout your lifespan development to keep getting the most accurate reflection of yourself. Whilst it’s true your personality stays largely ‘fixed’ throughout the lifespan, your ability to self-report on it in a test can change dramatically.
8. They are a cluster of traits.
No matter what personality test you take, all of them, to some degree or another, are providing you with a shorthand of a particular cluster of personality traits—like a bouquet of flowers. The Myers Briggs displays this most plainly, for example: an ESTP is a cluster of the traits extroverted, sensing, thinking, and perceiving. Each of those traits can be discussed both individually and in combination with other traits.
An extroverted judge is different than an introverted judge, and so on. Understanding this takes away some of the mystery of how accurate certain profiles can become. The more traits you identify (and the more time you put into observing them in combination with other traits) the more specific your description of a personality can become. I like to think of this like being an expert florist. You can describe each flower individually, but also describe beautiful bouquets of flowers that combine multiple flowers to achieve a beautiful effect. Each personality ‘type’ is an arrangement of trait flowers that as a whole portray a picture of who you are.
Personality Theories are a Way of Going About Trauma Recovery with Excellence
All this to say (in case you haven’t caught my drift yet): I’m pretty big on personality profiling—it helps us have more meaningful conversations more quickly in pursuit of health and posttraumatic growth. And, if being in the counseling business has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t want to waste time when it comes to the art of soul transformation and recovery.
In other articles, I survey the land of several of the most popular personality assessments available for public pursuit and review how to know which personality test is right for you, and more importantly, what you can expect to gain from taking each one. In the meantime, in light of my bombardment of marital ninja-ry I hope you now have a pretty easy choice to make in front of you, Iron Man or Captain America?