The MBTI: a Tool for Growth and Empathy

It’s surprising that I haven’t gotten into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) here before, because I’m a longtime fan of it.  You know: that test where you answer a bunch of questions about how you behave or what you prefer, and it spits our four letters that represent your personality type: ENFP, ISTJ, et cetera.  As it happens, I stumbled across a copy of Isabel Briggs Myers’ Gifts Differing recently, and upon flipping through it, I realized how it could enrich what we talk about in this blog.  So you can expect to hear about it in some upcoming posts!  For starters, it happens to be a good complement to the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), as I’ll get to shortly.  It has implications for social movements and organizing.  And it’s certainly relevant to feeling like you have a “weird brain.”

But first, here’s something worth addressing: I know a lot of people who aren’t fond of the MBTI.  And it’s true that, like a lot of things that people come to know through corporate settings and less-than-thoughtful BuzzFeed articles, it can be used poorly.  In my experience, this usually comes down to superficial understanding by the manager or the BuzzFeed author.

One common criticism of the MBTI is that some people end up with different results each time they take the test.  There are a number of possible reasons for this, none of which invalidate the insightful material buried beneath the imperfect testing instrument.  The subject, for instance, might be influenced by the setting in which he is taking the test, as when a natural Feeling type takes up the value of dispassionate rationality in his highly analytic workplace and is proud that he’s done so—even though outside of work he’s always glad to get a break from that mode of judging things.  Or the subject might think of times when she has applied all of the preferences—because all of us apply all the preferences occasionally—without knowing how to determine which she’s most comfortable with in general.  These hypotheticals might also indicate that the subjects have well-developed auxiliary, tertiary, or even inferior functions.  So I, too, have complaints about MBTI tests.

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None of this, however, precludes the fact that a person is likely to have a preference for either Sensing (S) or iNtuition (N), or Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), or that these preferences matter.  (And if you’re really into type theory, you’ll probably know why I picked those four of the eight preferences.  It struck me long ago that those seemed to be the core influential preferences, so I was thrilled to discover upon further reading that that’s where Jung started in the first place.  Extraversion (E) / Introversion (I) and Judging (J) / Perciving (P) certainly also have implications, but they tend to be more supplementary.)

So if people don’t know their MBTI types, then rather than having them take a freebie online test, I generally find it more fruitful to explain what each preference refers to and then ask the interested people which they identify with or gravitate toward.  People usually know.  (And if they don’t, if I know them well, I can often tell them.)  Whether they have a strong or a weak preference is also salient, though of the four core preferences (Sensing, iNutition, Thinking, and Feeling), people tend to embrace at least one of them.  Type theory would call this their dominant function.

Another problem with the MBTI is that people often have poor understandings of what each letter refers to—stereotyped and occasionally missing the true meaning of the preference entirely.  This could be the subject of a separate post, so I’ll leave it there for now; suffice it for now to say that if you don’t really grasp what the letters refer to, then knowing a person’s type won’t be very useful to you.  (If you’re curious, PersonalityPage.com has a decent introduction to the preferences to get you started.)

It’s true, of course, that there are only sixteen types in the MBTI, while there are billions of people in the world.  That means there’s going to be tremendous variety contained within each one of those sixteen types.  It’s a bit like knowing someone’s nationality: you don’t know everything important about a person just from knowing this, but you do know something, and that something may well be significant.

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For instance, I am an INFJ, and while I know that one of my best friends is an INFJ and suspect that others are as well, there are other INFJs with whom I don’t click.  Most of my friends are IN– types, with E-F- also well represented.  And there are, of course, all sorts of other types thrown in, though my opposites, the EST- types, seem to be conspicuously absent.

If you ask me, what’s more useful than knowing someone’s four letter type is knowing their dominant and auxiliary functions.  (These correspond directly to the four letter type, but you have to either look up what the letters point to, or memorize a formula that can be a confusing for novices.)  As an INFJ, for instance, my auxiliary function is extraverted feeling, which explains why I click with many E-F- types, while my dominant function is introverted intuition, which is very much related to feeling “weird-brained.”  Ni-dom (as dominant introverted intuition is known in type shorthand) is often said to be opaque, “mystical,” and weird to observe; it’s also the dominant function of the INTJs.  See if this blog doesn’t have Ni-dom plastered all over it, judging from this description:

Ni-doms are usually drawn to careers or interests that allow them to: examine and challenge unrecognized or unacknowledged aspects of reality; grapple with theory or questions surrounding language, definitions, terminology; explore creative solutions to philosophical problems; help others realize their potential; persuade people to broaden their intellectual horizons. [Source]

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People’s tertiary and inferior functions often come into play pretty clearly when they’re young to middle-aged adults, pointing to promising areas for growth that might be relevant to those interested in Dabrowskian development and authenticity.  While my dominant function means I have a strong preference for intuition, my auxiliary, extraverted feeling, is only a slight preference, and is balanced by my tertiary function of introverted thinking in ways that are significant to me as a writer and political organizer.

But what I’ve come to love most about the MBTI is that it’s a great tool for empathy.  I remember stumbling across—and then poring over—PersonalityPage.com back when I was a college freshman in 2000 as I tried to make sense of all the people I was meeting.  It was only when I first grasped just what sensing and intuition were that I started to understand why some people seemed so wholly other to me.  (And why I in turn confound them!)  Once I understood how Sensors parse the world, I developed respect for them, and saw how they were strong in ways that I was weak.  That’s why the MBTI is such a good tool for the Dabrowskian dynamism subject-object in oneself, which is of course the effort to try to see yourself as others see you (i.e. objectively) and see the world from the perspective of another (i.e., try on their subjectivity).  I’ve seen the MBTI be of most use when people who matter to each other (couples, colleagues, parents and children, or other pairs who interact in significant ways) find they just keep butting heads with each other.  Figuring out where their types differ often gets some productive conversations started, in as neutral a way as possible.  (The creators of the MBTI make a point to note that all types have something to contribute, after all.)

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Of course, it’s just a tool.  If it’s not the right tool for what you’re trying to do, then put it aside.  Again, it tells you something about a person, but it doesn’t tell you everything.

And the reason I’m writing about it here and now is that it is the right tool for some thoughts I’ve been thinking lately, which is why I thought I’d start off with this “what I think about the MBTI” post.  Delving into the ways that different people perceive the world around them (i.e., whether through iNtuition or through Sensing) and how they decide what to do about it (i.e., by using Feeling or Thinking) is relevant to a lot of what I’ve been pondering lately.

Before we go deeper, however, I thought I’d open this up. What are your thoughts about the MBTI? Do you know your type? Has this knowledge been useful to you, and if so, how? Does your experience contradict the defenses I’ve just offered? Either way, I’d love to know.

Image credits: geralt, Free-Photos, DasWortgewand, and GDJ on Pixabay.

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16 thoughts on “The MBTI: a Tool for Growth and Empathy

  1. I love the MBTI. When I first took it when younger, I came out INFJ quite often, but I’m consistently ISFJ now. I think the Fe auxiliary function didn’t make sense to me for a long time, because I didn’t think there was any way I was possibly extroverted in any shape. But I see how my decision making is always influenced by outward things, especially people and how I think they’ll react, and it took awhile to drive home that extroverted didn’t necessary mean what I felt it did lol.

    I think my struggle has been the fact that having social anxiety, being a loner AND an introvert has made it even harder to understand people who are extroverted, because that function makes no sense to me, and is something that actively bothers me sometimes.

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    1. Interesting, Jen! I wonder if you might have been like the person I described early in this piece, who thinks he’s a Thinker because he’s in a workplace where that’s dominant and he fits in well. As discussed below, writers online are pretty often INFJs. My sister also thought she was an N because she was in a family that valued intuition highly and so she answered accordingly. Based on your writing, though, I can see you being an S…your plots advance so well in such concrete ways without getting lost in abstract themes. (As a strong N, I admire that. One doesn’t always have to disdain the other type; I find myself admiring S’s quite a lot because I’m so inept with Sensing…but age 35 is supposed to be when our inferior functions start to develop, so my fingers are crossed.)

      And I reacted that way when I first read that auxiliary functions are going to be the opposite of our dominant EI preference, too. I am definitely not an extravert! This is one of those places where I think knowing exactly what the preference is describing is helpful. It’s not necessarily about being shy vs. being social, or even “getting your energy” from the internal or external world (which is how I described it until recently). It just means the internal world or the external world is where you naturally prefer to spend your time. In fact, I’d wager that a lot of people who have social anxiety disorder are actually extraverts–but shy ones! So they suffer because of it, because they WISH they could be out there being with people, but worry about it at the same time. (As for the introverts, like you describe, extraverted people just don’t make any sense at all. I myself don’t have social anxiety; I just have too much I want to do in the inner world to maintain a robust social calendar.)

      But we all have to exist in both the internal and external spheres. I only recently dug into the reasons that the auxiliary is the opposite on the EI scale, and it seems to make sense. At any rate, it does fit with my patterns of behavior. Ideate intensely but quietly, then put those ideas out into the world in ways that I attempt to fit into people’s subjective experiences, even as my tertiary function of thinking finds the objective holes in my extraverted feeling output, circling back to the ideating of intuition again. (And then I try to go make dinner and it starts to burn when I space out because of the ideas.)

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  2. I do know my type – I’m INFJ as well, which is rare except among writers on the internet! 😉 – but I don’t know the meaning or methodologies as well as you do. What I do know is that every description of strengths and weaknesses of my type I read gives me a little bit of insight. It was largely thanks to reading up on my type that I began to trust my intuition a bit more. I do tend to have a flashes of insight that make me feel like I understand something or someone, even after only a few minutes; learning to trust that if I *think* I understand something, I probably do, has been incredibly liberating.

    (Of course, the flip side is figuring out the fine line between intuition and anxiety. Anxiety skews intuition horribly – because I trust those sort of gut feelings from my intuition, but anxiety lies yet feels very similar.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gasp, B, you are also an INFJ? 🙂 (And look, of the three people who have posted so far on this subject, we have two INFJs and an ISFJ who sometimes tests as INFJ. I know one of the founders of the MBTI was also an INFJ. Go figure.)

      Your insight about learning a little bit of your strengths and weaknesses every time you look at the INFJ descriptions rings so true to me. That’s why I think it’s so useful! Honestly, even if a person ends up rejecting what the profile says about them, they’re still learning something about themselves (possibly identifying their true type after the test failed to pinpoint it, or possibly just gaining unrelated self-knowledge). Intuition is not at all something we teach people to listen to, which I think is a mistake. (Yes, back it up with sensing, i.e., concrete research, but don’t doubt yourself!)

      I hear you about the anxiety. I haven’t suffered from anxiety chronically, but over the past couple years, I’ve found myself in situations that really brought it out in me. It’s true that intuition can be wrong, of course (even if it’s usually reliable)…maybe anxiety results when one’s intuition picks up on something that seems like a danger signal, even though sensing or thinking can reveal that it really is not. If we’re weak on either of those, then maybe that means we won’t be able to switch off intuition’s danger signal. Hmmm…that’s just something I ideated right now based on your insight and might be totally off the mark, but next time I’m feeling anxious about something, I’ll try to engage in sensing/thinking activities to counter it. Can’t hurt to try!

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  3. I’m an INFJ through and through. For a while there I hoped to change the F to a T (shame issues)… it’s not going to happen. I live with two INTPs. The main (only?) ‘clash’ with us seems to be the difference between ‘J’ and ‘P’ – it can be mind bendingly frustrating to me at times. The two of them don’t care so much – in fact they benefit from my J function (ok with me – I feel it’s one of the main things I have to offer within the family unit).

    It was interesting to me, viewing a discussion about types within a ‘High IQ organisation’ – almost all of us were INxx. The one E was viewed with slight… should I say, annoyance? Someone stated that S’s are “less intelligent” (there was one S joining in the discussion). NT’s were upheld as the paragon of high intellect. NF’s like me were thought of as emotive losers.
    Well, that was my impression of how things went down, anyway 😉
    By far, most respondents within the group were INTx – but of course most people in the world with high IQ are not members of a high IQ society.

    These days I can usually type people fairly easily – as you say, an online test isn’t required. Knowing someone’s type can be useful in discerning what is important to them, and the best ways we can relate with each other. Understanding that my husband and daughter are both P’s, helps when I look around the house in despair after an extended period of me being unable to clean and tidy. They’re not trying to torture me – they are simply Ps whereas I am a (strong) J.

    D’s T function has assisted me in becoming less wildly emotive I believe. It has acted as a sort of psychic anchor over the 16 years we’ve been together. I seem to have internalised some of his T function – but am still an F.

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    1. I just read that P types are not generally less concerned with mess than J types. But I’ve read anecdotal evidence that suggests otherwise. Or perhaps the interplay between P/J and the other functions is what is most important. Admittedly, I’ve always glazed over slightly when I get that far. One of these days I need to go more in depth with the MBTI.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s it exactly — the interplay between JP and the other functions is what really matters. The J and P preferences were added later, and really the least useful in terms of test taking, in my experience. To get into the nerdy stuff, what the J or P in your four letter type indicates is whether your leading extraverted function is a judging preference (i.e. thinking or feeling) or a perceiving preference (i.e. intuition or sensing). It tells how you choose to interact with the external world — which means that for introverts, it gets messy. My dominant function is a perceiving function (intuition), which is why I always relate to a lot of P qualities as described on tests. Perceiving is clearly my preferred mode of interacting with the world — but I DO tend to demonstrate those J qualities (i.e. liking order in the world around me) with respect to the outer world.

        Confusing, right? Don’t worry if you glazed over as you were reading this, too. 😉 It took me a while to find a description that I understood. It doesn’t get explained well, especially if your introduction is through a MBTI test. I always knew I was a strong INF- and could never figure out what the last letter was. P traits felt more comfortable to me, but I often exhibited J traits just the same. Now it’s clear why.

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    2. Ro, you just brought up the two MBTI issues I’ve thought of blogging about! 🙂 I cannot stand the way some people who score high on IQ tests get this superiority complex about intuition vs. sensing. I have a more diplomatic post about this in draft form at the moment, but right now I’ll just say frankly that I think this does nothing to help with gifted education and so on. It seems likely enough that IQ tests were designed to measure intuition, because abstract thinking is something we associate with intelligence. But as people now come to largely agree that IQ tests are not giving us the whole picture (with those who have staked their whole self-worth on their high scores not part of this group), it is quite possible that there might be a way that high intelligence manifests in sensing types. More on that later, probably. 🙂

      And the F/T thing is another one that gets me. REPEAT AFTER ME, THINKING TYPES: FEELING DOES NOT MEAN EMOTIONAL OR IRRATIONAL. These types would be better described as “subjective” and “objective.” Feeling types center the impact on people, while thinking tend to focus on some non-human end. A high level of skill with subjectivity is intelligence, just like a high level of skill with objectivity (and no, that’s not only in the world of Gardner’s multiple intelligences). Moreover, knowing when to apply thinking and when to apply feeling is wisdom, which is something we ought to value even more than a raw IQ score. Wisdom is intelligence used intelligently, with experience and sophistication.

      As for your internalizing D’s T function…introverted thinking is your tertiary function, so it’s there for you to develop! Being around people with strong T preferences can surely help us do that…though in my case, my thinking comes out when I’m with people (T or F) who are being profoundly irrational.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your informative replies, Jessie! I will return to them when I’m at the point that I can focus better.

        “Feeling types center the impact on people, while thinking tend to focus on some non-human end.”
        Very helpful.

        “Moreover, knowing when to apply thinking and when to apply feeling is wisdom, which is something we ought to value even more than a raw IQ score.”
        Very true. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. P.S I appreciate how gracious you are, even to someone like me who responds in an ignorant way to your carefully considered post, Jessie (note: not fishing for reassurance here). Thank you for your generosity of spirit. I look forward to reading your future posts concerning the MBTI!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh my, I didn’t think your post was ignorant at all, and I know you were not fishing for me to say that. I was just moved to stand up for you and all Fs against those who malign us! Plus, you gave me an opportunity to expound on one of my interests. Thanks so much for your comments and kind words, though I feel I’m the beneficiary here!

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  4. Myers-Briggs and the 16 Types are fun. And useful.
    I highly recommend the book: Life Types, by Hirsch & Kummerow, which also has profiles of all 16 types in it. Another kewl thing about that book is: it follows each of the 16 types, as children, young adults, into retirement and talks about how each type acts in learning, leisure, career, relationships. Very informative.

    As useful as the 16 Types are, I don’t feel that they’ve quite got all of the bugs worked out yet, because in reading the profiles, 3 and possibly 4 types seem to fit me about 75% but with any of them, there’s always 1 or 2 fairly-big things that seem waayy-off. Still, all of this is useful.

    There are 2 things I see online–alot!–that I tend to reject:
    1. All this mania of “All “functions”, all the time”. It’s overdone. Who even talks about the actual 4 letters anymore? These days, you can find loads of folks rambling on and on about: Introverted sensing, extroverted intuition, introverted thinking and on and on. IN MY OPINION, this was largely influenced by some guy on Youtube who went under the name of “Dave Superpowers”. This was some years ago when there alot fewer MBTI videos on Youtube. He made ” a ton” of them, talked kinda fast, and I think far too many folks just didn’t bother to question him and went along with it all. Is he certified? Has he written any book? Whatever happened to him? He was very big on “functions” (as if he somehow knew better). I prefer the books: Life Types, and also another book called Type Talk, bu Kroeger and Thuessen.

    2. I notice that there are websites that give a “title” to each of the 16 types. Like this site: http://www.personalitypage.com/html/portraits.html I DO like the info in the profiles, but I wish each type didn’t have an “assigned name” or title, cuz people will want to be whatever has the coolest title. No offense to the ISTP’s, but who would want to be “the Mechanic”, when they might be “the Visionary” (ENTP) ? or David Kiersey who I believe called the INTJ’s “the Mastermind”. OOOOOHH! Another 3rd thing I’m not crazy about (for the same reason, people wanna be the kewl one) is websites that say each type is like this or that cartoon character or famous person. Far better in my opinion to examine how each type:
    learns, talks, acts on the job, in a relationship, and in their hobbies & free time.

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  5. Hey,
    I discovered your website when googling Dabrowski and idealists, read your profile and thought you must be an INFJ! Then I discovered this post… I love your term “weird brained” BTW…. anyway I agree with your comments on the MBTI, it’s not a very good measurement instrument but that doesn’t mean that the basic 16 types are not accurate for a lot of people. The challenge is to find type profiles that are not banal! I’ve typed as INFP and INTP in two official tests, read the profiles and thought I was an INTJ unil two years ago. That’s until I heard an INTJ talk about how she couldn’t understand other people’s emotions and I thought – “what do you mean? I can FEEL other people’s emotions!”

    All this is a long winded way of saying that the test may be inaccurate, but the actual profiles can be very useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome, fellow INFJ! Maybe there’s something about the self-deprecating aspect of “weird-brained” that resonates with our type in particular…. 🙂 Glad to hear someone else has had a similar experience with the test and the profiles, too.

      I have a post that just needs a bit more polishing to dive into the SN distinction and its effect on weird-brainedness, though I have another paper for something else that I need to finish first, so hopefully I’ll get there this week. But I’m delighted that others with this overlapping set of interests are finding the blog. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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