Let’s talk personality typing.
As a teenager I was told I was choleric: one of four types in a temperament theory of personality. This theory has since been rebranded as the popular “colour” theory. The choleric type is characterized by focus, efficiency, practicality, and ambition. But it’s also known for aggression, inflexibility, dominance, and impatience. I grew up believing I was a poor leader and a friend who demanded loyalty and love. I understood myself to be manipulative, controlling, rude, and disliked. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy and an excuse for poor behaviour. And it was horrible.
In university I learned that this old theory of personality was based on one’s balance of bodily humours — body fluids! It was literally about having more or less blood, phlegm, yellow bile, or black bile. This information was presented practically as a side note in class; that’s how insignificant this theory is in psychology. I remember exactly where I was when I found out. I audibly gasped and stared at my professor in shock. I had defined myself for a decade by an ancient and unsubstantiated theory. I was outraged and relieved all at once.
This experience with personality typing left a nasty taste in my mouth — perhaps an excess of black bile? But personality assessments are a significant part of psychology and I’ve since taken several courses in it. In one of my favourite classes — ever — we learned how reliable and valid assessments are developed and the history and details of specific assessments. We also completed many assessments on ourselves. I loved learning more about myself and how much I actually make perfect sense. I also loved that my professor knew me so well he could accurately predict what my results would be. Unfortunately, I still didn’t love everything I learned about me. I scored high on things I didn’t want to score high on. For example, I consistently get very high scores on neuroticism on the Five Factor model of personality — arguably the only negative factor! But, overall, I became quite loyal to the concept of personality assessments when they’re used in a healthy, productive, and edifying way.
But, this is often not the way they’re used — especially, and unfortunately, in the Church.
Let’s be really clear about the purpose of assessing personality and organizing it into types. First, personality types are not: an all-inclusive summary of who we are, a way to get out of trouble or excuse poor choices, a judgement on who we can or cannot be in relationship with, or a definitive roadmap to who we will become. Personality types are a strategy — among many — for personal health and relational understanding. They’re one tool in our tool box for knowing and growing ourselves and others and — more importantly — having compassion for ourselves and others. Personality is not all of who we are. And, even if it were, personality cannot be summed by a colour, a number, or an acronym.
I’m trained to trust in — and have experienced the importance of — the structure and credibility of assessments. Validity and reliability are psychometric measurements of assessments — personality or otherwise. Validity means that a test accurately measures what it says it measures (e.g. it assesses personality, not intelligence). It’s not uncommon for a tool to measure something close to the goal area of study, but not measure the goal itself. It can take a lot of reworking and redeveloping for assessments to measure what they intend to measure. Reliability means that a test is consistent in what it measures. If the same individual takes the assessment multiple times, a reliable test would result in the same outcome each time. A target analogy works well here: validity means the assessment hits the bull’s eye; reliability means the assessment hits the same place — hopefully, but not necessarily, the bull’s eye — over and over again. Validity and reliability are measured with objective and mathematical methods, and are not something we can subjectively determine.
Because of the above, when the Enneagram test became the new it thing — especially among Christians — I was extremely hesitant. I thought that if it was truly credible I should’ve learned about it in at least one of my courses. In my research, which has been admittedly insufficient, I’ve read that the Enneagram has decent psychometrics. Its validity and reliability are satisfactory — not incredible, but sufficient. I personally feel — based on my experience and education — that nine is too many types. I think it’s possible some types are not distinct enough from one another, which could be further investigated by factor analysis. Many people I know, including myself, get equal or almost equal scores on two — or more! — of the nine categories. This indicates to me that the lines between types are too blurry for the Enneagram to be a legitimate assessment tool.
However, I have come to accept the Enneagram as a valuable resource. What’s really helped me to embrace the Enneagram has been the following: (1) I stopped considering it as being comparable to psychometric personality assessments. It’s a different thing altogether in my mind; it’s about one’s subjective experience of the self rather than objective assessment. (2) We aren’t a distinct number and the Enneagram wheel is designed for the types to bleed into each other. As a result, it’s okay and natural for us to identify with more than one type — including those that aren’t our wings. See Dr. Jerome Lubbe’s work for more about this perspective. (3) Brené Brown believes in the Enneagram. She approached it with the same scientific caution and academic assessment as I did and she’s much more qualified to determine the value of the Enneagram. I trust her judgement and the fact that her approval is a game changer for me is so six of me. Which brings me to (4) My subjective experience of the Enneagram is that it helps me to understand myself and others. It’s not the tool of all tools — is there such a thing? — but it’s a tool I’m happy to add to my belt.
I score equally as a six and two, and I have next to no seven in me. Anyone who knows me well and is familiar with the Enneagram is likely not surprised by these results! I’ve come to accept that I’m predominately a six, although I’m not all that fond of being a six. But that’s a blog for another day!
This post is merely an introduction to my thoughts on the power and danger of personality typing. And I’ll admit it was also a release of suppressed frustration with popular personality typing! I hope to write soon about learning to love being a six. I’d also love to share about what types I wish I was and why!However, this will all have to wait! I’m going to take a few weeks — possibly the remainder of the summer — to focus on finishing my coursework.
My hope for you in the meantime is that you stay engaged in the hard things, that you continue learning to live Upside Down, and that you give yourself grace upon grace upon grace. Stay well.