The Limits of Personality Typologies

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I’ve always loved personality typologies: the tests, categories, theories, indicators, charts, or whatever other terminology you want to use. In high school, my youth group got really into the four humors/temperaments tests, popularized in Christian circles through Florence Littauer. I loved diagnosing my friends and family as sanguine (the life of the party), melancholy (the artistic romantic), phlegmatic (the thoughtful peacemaker) or choleric (the driven leader). During Bible college, we all took a (free) Meyers-Briggs test and spent the rest of the year saying things like, “I’m really struggling with __________ because I’m an ENTP.” In university, we identified each other by our “colors.” Recently, with the rise in popularity of the Enneagram, I’ve had countless conversations with friends about which number we are and which wings we have.

I’m not alone in my love of all things personality. Each of the personality theories mentioned above have been popular in Christian circles: religious universities, small groups, youth groups, and Bible studies. A quick Google search reveals at least 50 books on the Enneagram, many of them religious, with titles like, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr, or Using the Enneagram in Prayer by Suzanne Zuercher. There are countless Enneagram podcasts, including many catered specifically to each of the nine numbers.

If this is all gibberish or nonsense to you, you’re also not alone. Many people are sceptical of personality typology, for good reasons. There’s little, if any, scientific or psychological support to these theories. There are benefits and drawbacks to these self-discovery tools. Many people laud personality charts for providing them with insights into themselves and into others, to better understand our strengths and weaknesses. Reading about one’s own personality traits can make one feel understood, validated, comforted in knowing one is not alone in one’s thoughts and feelings. On the flip-side, these self-explorations are often accused of leading us to naval-gazing. Some see personality typing as a self-fulfilling prophecy: we see what we want to see in ourselves. We’ll identify with the traits we most admire.

Personality categorization can reveal to us the diversity of God’s people, the many different ways God’s image is reflected in individuals through complex personality traits. However, when we rely on them too heavily to understand each other, we run the risk of reducing people to labels and categories, rather than realizing no one can fit in a nicely prescribed personality box.

Even the distinction between extroverts and introverts can be problematic. Last year there were a few articles about “outgoing introverts” floating around Facebook. These unique people are often misunderstood, the articles stated, because they love being around people but also become socially exhausted and need their alone time. The funny thing was, it seemed like many people identified with this description. Could it be that almost everyone needs both time with others and time on their own? People seem to exhibit extroversion or introversion in differing ways in different areas or times of our lives. Perhaps our traditional definitions of introvert and extrovert have been too simplistic.

Another problem with personality typology is that we risk seeing the individual as static, as possessing one specific personality that stays with them their whole lives. Some personality tests like Meyers-Briggs or the Enneagram will account for this by explaining that at times in our lives we are not acting with clarity or in alignment with who we really are. Difficult circumstances, unhealthy relationships, societal pressures, and other factors can certainly make us act in ways that are not true to who God has made us to be. But the other reality is that we evolve, develop, adapt, and change throughout life. Our personalities can look very different at different periods of life.

Furthermore, we need to use these categorization tools to help us grow rather than permitting us to stagnate. Sometimes people use these personality systems to excuse bad behaviour, in others or in themselves. While these tools can be helpful in enabling us to identify our flaws and the reasons behind them, they should never be used to justify our negative tendencies or to keep us stuck in sinful behaviours. They work best if we can identify our mistakes, offer ourselves and others God’s grace as we understand our propensity toward sin, and seek to grow and change through the freedom offered us in Christ.

For many of us, reading personality theories elicits a series of light bulb moments in our relationships with other people. They can move us into a deeper place of empathy, as well as empower us to communicate better with people in our lives. A youth leader friend of mine told me about discussing the Enneagram with a difficult boy in his youth group. He watched the kid’s jaw drop as he asked him “Do you ever feel like. . .?” questions about his perceived personality. “How did you know all of that about me?” the boy asked. The youth leader’s understanding of the Enneagram has helped him better navigate conflicts among the teens he works with, as well as empowering them with skills to process their emotions and grow in their relationships with others.

Personality typologies often endow readers with a sense of being known. They provide us with vocabulary to describe our unique selves and to communicate better with the people with whom we work and go to church, our friends and family. They can be effective tools in helping us understand our unique God-given gifts and traits as well as understanding other people we are in relationship with. But we should be wary of letting them limit our interpretation of the complexity with which God made us. It's important to recognize that God did not make personality as something that is fixed or static. We are creatures made in God's image, ever changing and developing and ideally growing more and more into Christ-like people.

About the Author

Melissa Kuipers writes fiction and non-fiction. She is also director of discipleship ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont.

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Comments

Thanks, Melissa, for pointing out some of the pitfalls of personality typology.  You also point out some of the benefits and truisms of such categorizing of personalities.  What you suggest in regard to such pseudo science (as Enneagram theory) is just as true for just about any form of psychology today.  With the diversity of approaches to psychology and personality today, most (experts) will either agree with or disagree with any form of psychological counseling, including many forms of Christian counseling.  Psychology is not what most would call an exact science. It majors in the area of opinion.  So, user beware.

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