It occurred to me recently that, after 11 months of blogging, I'd only made passing references to the Myers-Briggs personality types. Most people seem to be familiar with the system these days anyway, but here's an online test for those that aren't. (I'm actually not fond of short-form tests like this one for reasons I'll get to, but as long as you take it with a grain of salt it's a good place to start.)
Discovering the Myers-Briggs in college was literally a transformational event for me. Even setting aside sexual orientation issues (which were still relegated to my subconscious back then), I thought there was something seriously wrong with me as a teenager. I know that a lot of teenagers deal with similar feelings, but I was all too painfully aware that my mind didn't work the way most people's minds seemed to. My stepfather and I couldn't understand each other at all, I couldn't relate to most of my peers, and none of the things I was taught in church ever worked for me the way they were supposed to.
In retrospect, the latter is more a commentary on the state of the church than it was an actual problem on my part, but at the time it contributed to my conviction that I was hopelessly deficient in some way, despite the fact that I always did well in school.
When my roommate first introduced me to the Myers-Briggs via a book (Please Understand Me) he was reading for a class that semester (the fall of our sophomore year), I approached it with some curiosity. The test in the book told me I was an ISTJ (my stepfather's personality type, not coincidentally - I still had no idea who I was at that point), but the description given for ISTJs just seemed like it was missing something important. I could relate to parts of it, but there was so much more that it seemed to leave unexplained that I nearly gave up on the book in a fit of depression.
Fortunately I chose instead to begin reading through the book, and as I got to the section on the NF (Intuitive Feeling) temperament, things began to click. The concept of the NF's quest for identity sounded a bit odd at first, but it also resonated with me and soon began to make a lot of sense. From there I read the individual descriptions for the four NF types, and when I got to the INFJ I realized, "this is me." The fact that INFJ is the rarest type among men (and fairly rare among women as well) helped to further explain why I'd always felt so out of place.
For the first time in my life I knew there were other people in the world who could relate to me, who thought the same way I did, who experienced the same seemingly out-of-place emotions. I can hardly describe the dramatic change that realization made in my outlook on life except to mention that most of the people from my college years who disliked me knew me as a freshman, and most of those I became close friends with were either just getting to know me or came along later.
I know that sounds like the sort of transformation that's supposed to come out of a conversion experience, and in a sense it was a conversion. I'd been a Christian since a fairly young age, but for the first time I understood that God really had made me to be the way I was, and that it was a good thing. When I began to consciously realize that I had sexual orientation issues some time later it would throw all of that back out of balance, but for the time being it was the most liberating feeling I'd ever experienced.
On a side note, that also explains why I don't put a lot of stock in short-form tests like the one in that book. Out of curiosity I retook the tests at the two links above as I was putting this post together; one pegged me as an INTJ and the other told me I was an INFP, and while there are some ways in which I can relate to those two types, I can state with certainty that neither result is accurate.
Having said all of that, the Myers-Briggs isn't a miracle cure by any means, but it is a valuable tool for helping people to understand themselves and others and for improving communication. I have friends who dislike the system because they don't like being "put in a box" (all of them ENFPs, incidentally, but don't tell them I said that), but anyone who uses it as a box is abusing the system.
The Myers-Briggs is meant to describe the structures that underlie our personalities, not unlike a skeleton. Whereas a box (or shell, to complete the analogy) traps and confines it subject and forces its contents to conform to its predetermined shape, a skeleton helps to define its bearer while facilitating free movement and maximizing the potential for growth.
As human beings each of us has roughly the same number and type of bones (barring exceptional circumstances), but we still vary widely from each other in terms of height, weight, gender, strength, skin color, eye color, hair and so on. Despite those differences it's still easy enough under most circumstances to recognize another human being and to tell a human apart from an ape, even if all one has is their respective skeletons. Likewise, a roomful of ESTJs would contain individuals who might be vastly different in terms of their overall personality, but underneath there would be basic similarities in the way they process information, reach conclusions and act on them.
The "skeleton vs. shell" analogy also works for contrasting different approaches to theology, but that's a topic for another day, perhaps.