Personality typing isn't exactly psychology -- it's something better
Dividing humanity into types is a prime way that people understand one another, from ancient esoterica like astrological signs to modern systems like the Myers-Briggs inventory, used (and abused) by businesses in assessing employees. By asserting that groups of people share characteristics, regardless of other differences (such as life experience), typing can seem like fate, a too-tight box. Yet it has the potential to transcend divisions like gender and race and make us more conscious of the contributions we all make. In this section, we introduce some major typing systems and suggest ways they can make our lives richer and more real. -- The Editors
I don't know many people who like workplace meetings, but a few years ago my reaction to them was negative to the point of panic. I thought I loved and respected my colleagues, but all the emotions swirling around just under the surface of our get-togethers made me feel crazy before the meeting even got started. Someone would suggest what seemed to me a self-evidently terrific idea -- to which someone else would say, 'Okay, but how would we actually do that within our budget?'
My stomach would churn. Didn't this person understand that Utne is a visionary magazine? How dare he or she shoot down a good idea with a bean-counting quibble! Besides, I knew there was a subtext in that remark -- a resentment going back to the last issue, when we'd had a hard time with a last-minute idea. My mind would jump to a whole new future scenario of struggle. And on it went until soon I would be near despair. There's something about meetings, I decided, that lowers everybody's IQ and fosters obstructionism.
At about the same time, my wife, Laurie, a personal coach, began to study personality typologies. As part of her training, she explored several systems that parse the human race according to certain tendencies of the personality and/or the soul -- including the Soul Type work developed by Alan Sheets and Barbara Tovey (www.newequations.com), which is loosely based on the very popular Enneagram typing system. Both the Soul Type scheme and the Enneagram divide humanity up into nine numbered types. Soon Laurie and her friends were talking Soul Type talk: about how territorial Eights could be, how you could expect Ones to hold everyone to a high standard, and how Twos had a particularly intense gaze.
At first, I didn't even suspect that all of this might help me understand my colleagues at work. My response was anti-authoritarian skepticism. Calling people 'Twos' and 'Nines' felt more Orwellian than Orwell.
I held to a basic idea underlying both clinical and Freudian psychology: that human nature takes a single, general form. At the same time, some of my favorite European novels, influenced by existentialism, suggested that people were ultimately unknowable, individual worlds unto themselves. This number stuff appeared to put people in boxes. And the Soul Type system, which tied people's essences to aspects of their bodies, seemed a little 'woo-woo' for me.
An aikido expert, Sheets had observed that in simple martial-arts exercises, each person seems to have a certain stance -- say, head down and arms back, or head up and arms pushed forward -- in which he or she is best able to offer resistance. In this position, Sheets believes, the person accesses a power that is 'beyond physical strength, and connected to soul.' So instead of administering questionnaires as in other typing systems, Sheets pushes people around a martial-arts mat and, when they assume a position so strong that he can't budge them, well, that position indicates their Soul Type.
I was beyond skeptical, but when Sheets visited the Twin Cities, I agreed to let him 'type' me. As you might expect when an underexercised endomorph joins a wiry martial arts expert on a mat, Sheets shoved me all over the place . . . until I assumed The Position. Head down, arms at my sides. Suddenly, I was like a rock. I was like a mysterious, undefeatable kung-fu master in a Hong Kong movie. 'Six,' said Sheets, with certainty.
Okay, Six it was -- Six I was. But what was a Six? Evidently, Sixes are supposed to process information in a special way: all at once, getting simultaneous inputs from everything and everybody. They had problems with focus. They were often experts at reading the mood of a room full of people. They had a gift for insight into problems.
This all sounded vividly familiar. My mind darted back to those workplace meetings, when the pressure of my perceptions of everybody else's wants, needs, likely angers, and unspoken subtexts had come to me as a sort of information overload. Could this have been a Soul Type Six response rather than just the inherent misery of meetings?
I was both exhilarated and humbled. Exhilarated to belong to a new 'family' of people who resembled me -- as I met other Sixes, we nodded and smiled as we exchanged observations and anecdotes -- and humbled, because my cage had been rattled.
My previous method of 'typing' other people, developed over several years in graduate school, was brutally simple: Some people were smarter than others. I added to this 'method' the idea that people suffered from hang-ups, neuroses, and insecurities that made them act the way they did. But the Soul Type system suggests that many people, in various walks of life and with varying levels of intelligence and education, shared remarkably subtle tendencies with me. It holds that all types are equally valuable; they even need one another. As Sheets puts it, 'Understanding your type and all the others is a way to be with people without conflict or competition.'
Well now, I thought -- I'd like to be able to do that. If I'm going to have to put up with my particular kind of Six sensitivity, if I'm always going to be 'reading the room' whether I want to or not, I'd like to be sensitive to others' strengths instead of their supposed pathologies.
Though typing goes all the way back to ancient Greece, India, and China, its modern form begins with Carl Jung's 1921 book Psychological Types, in which he plots humankind on a grid divided among attitudes (the familiar introversion/extraversion) and functions (sensation/intuition and thinking/feeling). Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator -- today's most widely used typological test -- in 1942, adding a fourth pair of functions that they felt were implicit in Jung's writings: judgment/perception.
Jung never intended his attitude or function 'readings' to be airtight explanations of a personality; their purpose was to make psychologists conscious of and cautious about human difference. As the psychologist James Hillman puts it in an essay called 'The Dark Side of Typing,' applying Jung's system leads to a useful 'psychological relativism.' In other words, rather than creating boxes for people's heads, selves, or souls, typing has the potential to mobilize humane skepticism about one-size-fits-all psychology.
Rightly used, typing is not stereotyping. It's not science, either, but rather a humane corrective to science that, like literature and art, draws on age-old human wisdom and close observation of our fellow creatures to say: The human world is not just a hospital of symptoms but also a mandala of possibilities, tendencies, and talents, all of which are necessary and valuable. Your type, my type, is not a pigeonhole or a destiny but a contribution to the human whole. This is, of course, a spiritual insight. It makes us more likely to see the body of humanity as the body of Christ, the Universal Consciousness, or what you will.
Now that I know what my own type is -- Soul Type Six, Enneagram Type Six, endomorph, INFP -- and how my type fits into the greater scheme, I have a new perspective on my colleagues, especially in meetings. Rather than a roomful of neurotics who simply refuse to conform to my standards of How People Should Be, they're folks who bring widely varying gifts to the conference table (a stubborn practicality, a careful sense of intellectual responsibility, a visionary ability to leap). It's also made me more willing to see some of my wife's 'foibles' as contributions to our relationship, and more likely to examine my occasional discomfort with them as a function of my own characteristics.
Understanding typing systems also fosters healthy conversation and connection -- an unexpected benefit. It's difficult to talk about idiosyncrasies, boring to talk about big, vague psychological generalities, and tiresome to exchange symptoms. But exploring my type and yours -- two essentially healthy and valid ways of being human -- is almost endlessly fascinating and useful.
I'm even beginning to imagine a time when an appreciation of types could influence public discussion. What if every type in every typology you could imagine had an equal, and equally honored, role to play in work for social change? The sensitive Myers-Briggs INFP could, in his or her quiet way, help connect people to one another or write a powerful poem, and be seen as just as necessary to the new world as the worldly Enneagram-Type-Eight politico or the passionate Type One idealist. Wouldn't it be endlessly energizing if all the types began to see that they need each other's energies and insights in order to live fully? Then, I believe, we would all be out of our boxes.
Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne.