Personality Tests: Growth Tool or Typecast?

Y'all, I love personality tests and typology. This is the story of self-awareness, and how it led to better awareness of some people I love. Some people who hate personality tests and typology.

It all started with the irresistible allure of "What Kind of Girlfriend Are You?"-style quizzes in Seventeen Magazine. To this day, I often succumb to the Buzz-Feed-type quizzes on Facebook. In case you're wondering, the movie mom I'm most like is Leigh Anne Tuohy from The Blind Side and the Disney couple my husband and I most resemble is Carl and Ellie Fredericksen from Up.

The first legitimate personality test I ever took was the Meyers-Briggs assessment in my Honors Psych Class in high school. I found out I was an E(xtrovert) N(intuitive) F(eeling) P(ercieving) person. It range true, true, true. I still remember the staggering idea that the profile presented to me: that my "type" was less than 10 % of the population, that I was often misunderstood being both fun-loving and deeply serious, and that -- gasp -- my type placed more significance on just about everything than other people did. What teenage girl doesn't like to be told that she's special and misunderstood?

But the last part really got to me: You mean, I might be over-thinking and over-emphasizing things that are not that important? This was a revelation, the first time I truly realized that my style of thinking might sometimes be errant, which was a critical truth that I clung to when I was battling anxiety and depression, and one I still remind myself of regularly.

Now in my 40s, one of the ways I make sense of myself is by fusing the data from the number of other typology tools I've learned. I took spritual gifts tests in a number of formats, showing me to be teacher and hostess (true that). From Boundaries, I learned that I can be both a compliant and a controller; I have a hard time saying no, and also hearing it. From How We Love, I learned that my attachment style is Vacillator: I get scared when people offer inconsistent attention and affection but instead of acting sad I act angry. And then of course, there's the Enneagram, through which I came to understand myself as the Two, The Helper, with a 1 Perfectionist wing. The Two values relationships above all else, is warm and nurturing, but also helps in order to get validation.

These tools have helped me be a better wife, friend and mother, and to actively surrender wounded or sinful parts of myself to God so I could be healed. I value them highly.

So it was a shock to me when I discovered that one of my favorite people in ministry at my church -- I'm going to call her Kate -- hates the Enneagram. "I'm not going to call you a Two. I'm not going to go around labeling people." she said. "You're a child of God." Wow, I thought. That was confrontational. She must be an Eight.

And then my eldest daughter, when I started coming at her with my typology knowledge, got upset when I talked about how she and her dad were alike and her sister and I were different. "I don't like these labels, mom. I don't like how they pit us against each other."

Now, my husband and I named this kid Sophia (which means wisdom), and she often lives up to it. Both Kate and Sophia are telling me the same thing: that labels are a tool we can take too far. They are meant to help us understand ourselves and grow up and out of some of the knee-jerk attitudes and actions common to our "types." How We Love (about attachment style and marriage) and The Road Back to You (my favorite book so far on the Enneagram) are both about this process of healing and maturation.

But the danger of typology of any kind is two fold:

1. It can cause us to judge and label others too quickly, and then typecast them in our lives. (Oh, of course he's not sharing his emotions with me. He's an Avoider, we might think.)

2. Because we are all, as Karen says, children of God, made in his image, first and foremost. And as such, we are vastly complicated and have the capacity to break every mold you try to put us in.

My friend Brittany (see last week's blog for more on this thought-provoking gal in my life) sent me an excerpt recently from a book called Biblical EQ: A Christian Handbook for Emotional Transformation by John Edmiston. It said this:

"Do not take the latest bit of psychology you have read and dump its conclusion sand observations on everyone. ..typology can became an obstacle to judgement when taken too literally. In general look at the objective facts about the person first then, much later, employ your theories."

This is what both Kate and Sophia object to: labels can highlight our differences and make us more quick to judge rather than more understanding and merciful. They are great servants of self awareness, but bad masters, and never to be used as weapons.

Several years ago, I entered a period of Twelve Step recovery for codependency (P.S. unhealthy Twos often struggle with codependency). There I learned that we take on a label only for the sake of surrendering it: we name the disease in order that it may be healed and become lesser in our lives so that we can live out our real identity is Loved Child of God.

Singer Tim Timmons says it this way: