The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is still wildly popular as a personality assessment method. In 2014, two million people took the test, in seventy different countries, and in 21 languages.
But MBTI has drawn a lot of bashing over recent years, with the main criticism being that it relies on ridiculous dichotomies. Are you ‘perceiving’ or ‘judging’? ‘Introverted’ or ‘extroverted’? You must decide between them.
However, that reductive quality and relative lack of sophistication compared to other self-awareness systems such as the Enneagram is also a gift. MBTI has managed to get self-understanding onto the map for many people with no natural appetite or curiosity for self-observation. For that reason, I am always down for some four letter trading with people.
But as we all know, your MB type is just one (quite small) piece of the jigsaw that is you and I. And there are things it doesn’t account for – a person’s intelligence, for example, or their willingness to balance out their shortcomings.
This post contains a few suggestions about how to get the most from MBTI.
Do’s and don’t’s with MBTI typing
- Don’t: do an assessment – it’s so quick and dirty.
- Do: work for your MB type. Learn about all of the categorizations (or letters – there are 8, and therefore 16 possible configurations of the letters E,I,N,S,F,T, J and P). Observe yourself to pinpoint your letters – both the current you and past you.
- Do: understand that the categorizations are not what they initially seem. A person can easily mistype themselves based on a superficial understanding. For example, before I took the time to understand each categorization, I would have typed myself as INTJ, when ENFP is much more like it. My profession as an editor/writer has required me to develop a lot into the opposite direction from my natural starting place. I needed to observe myself in various settings to type myself accurately, and reflect a lot on my earlier decisions.
- Do: figure out your middle two letters first. The middle two letters of the MBTI refer to ‘mental functions’ (sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling). Sensing and intuition relate to how you perceive or take things in, and thinking and feeling are about how you make decisions.
Note that I have listed the categorizations ‘out of order’, because of what I said about figuring out your middle two letters first: the correct order for the sake of your final four letter categorization is:
- E or I
- N or S
- T or F
- J or P
N and S (intuition or sensing)
How do you perceive information?
Do you pay more attention to data that comes in through your five senses (S), or do you pay more attention to the patterns you see in the information you receive (N)? Do you tend to favor ‘reading between the lines’ (N) over strict adherence to fact or evidence (S)?
Just an aside: with all of the categorizations, neither is better. Life calls on us for both S and N. I am a huge N, and have often ignored pragmatic details to my disadvantage. Luckily (and also sometimes gratingly), most of my family are S’s so they naturally help to balance me out.
T and F (thinking or feeling)
How you like to make decisions?
Do you like to put more weight on objective facts (T) or do you pay more attention to personal concerns and the people involved (F)? Think about how you have made the last few big decisions to do with your career, vacation time, relationships.
Once again, we need both T and F. T might be more useful for financial planning; F when organizing a family holiday.
E and I (extroversion or introversion)
Where do you put your attention and get your energy? Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things, or in your inner world of ideas and images?
Another way to think of this categorization is an expression of the dominant mental functions (letters 2 and 3).
Let’s say you have figured out that you are more N and F (intuition and feeling). Do you extrovert (i.e. look outside for) your intuits and feeling, or introvert (go inner for) them? I don’t know whether this makes things clearer for you. It did for me.
As my example illustrates, don’t use your work as a defining factor. There are extroverts that can do very well doing introspective work. Also, some introverts are brilliant in leadership/entrepreneurial positions.
(Here’s a more in depth article about the value of the extroversion and introversion categorization.)
P and J (perceiving or judging)
This is about how you like to live your life. It is your orientation, if you like.
Do you prefer a more structured and planned lifestyle (J) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (P)?
Understand that everybody is both a J and a P. If you are J on the outside, you are a P on the inside. A person may feel very orderly/structured (J) on the inside, yet their outer life looks spontaneous and adaptable (P). Another person may feel very curious and open-ended (P) in their inner world, yet their outer life looks more structured or decided (J). For the sake of the MBTI, you are looking at your outer world. Before I understood that, I had mistyped myself as J.
Your four letters
How your four preferences/letters work in concert lead to descriptions or a ‘feel’ for each of the 16 types. I have found that reading those is a little comical, like reading your star sign or something. But they are a data point.
Some general do’s and don’t’s with using MBTI
- Use MBTI to identify what you are strong at, and what needs developing. With a more dominant extroverted intuition, that leaves some of my decisions lacking the well rounded quality that a more introverted sensing perspective would give. I try and recall that as I move through life.
- Use it to improve your empathy with other people. It is really difficult to get angry with people once you understand where they are coming from. Introverted friends don’t seem so rude. Your ‘go with the flow’ pal doesn’t seem flaky; they just need to keep their options open more than you do.
- Use it to become more self-compassionate. Don’t give yourself such a hard time if you find that you prefer the company of others to extended periods of being alone. You are just following some natural tendencies that you can balance out with awareness.
- Use it to catch yourself about to do use your default thing (say T) to make a decision where a more F approach is needed.
- Know that dichotomies when it comes to humans don’t really exist. You may have taken your personal growth to a level where you are more middling on the continuum.
- Use it to box yourself. I wrote about how dangerous this is here.
- Use it to make snap judgments about other people.
- Include it on your online dating profile. 🙂
- Treat your MB type as the final word on your personality and what’s possible for you.
- Use it to determine friendship or relationship compatibility with others, or to reinforce separateness.
- Let it be the last self awareness effort you make.
- Ask too much! Don’t expect Myers Briggs to offer you a path of development like the Enneagram can offer.
The biggest problem with MBTI is what happens when any useful descriptor gets turned into dogma. So just don’t! Enjoy it for the useful, albeit limited, self-awareness method it is.