Confessions of a personality test addict
We're craving an oversimplified understanding of ourselves and others
Anyone who’s ever met me anywhere will know that I love to talk about personality tests. I find it a fun conversation to have with new people and old friends alike. When quizzing someone that I met last week on what personality types they slotted into, they told me that talking to me felt like being in counselling. I took that as a compliment.
My favourites of these frameworks are love languages, the four tendencies, star signs (they count) and the Myers-Briggs test. There are also some more confronting ones like the saboteur test and the strengths and weakness test which are a bit much for party chatter, but I happily sent them along to my partner in our early days. It’d turn out that when it came to strengths and weaknesses we are literally polar opposites (it’s shown as a hierarchy) and the only strength we shared was humour. Our love languages are aligned though so perhaps it’ll work despite our differences, I thought.
I’ve always believed in these tests so strongly that I’ve made exploring them part of my job. I believed that through these frameworks we can have a better understanding of ourselves and therefore have a healthier, happier and more productive life. I also thought that a better understanding of our personalities would improve our relationships.
I found that simply the act of accepting that there were different frameworks and therefore people are different helpful in itself. I’d spot ways that people were fulfilling their ‘type’ and accepting it. I could think that perhaps it’s ok that I get zero compliments in my relationship, because ‘words of affirmation’ is not their love language and they do enough ‘acts of service’ to redress the balance.
On the four tendencies, the ‘questioner’ (which is me), is the one who irritates the ‘obligers’ by constantly asking questions. The questioner will challenge everything, no matter how entrenched the plan and doesn’t get why everyone else has a problem with that. The questioner thinks the obliger is lazy and the obliger thinks the questioner is difficult. Knowing that neither is true, and we are both different can improve our empathy and awareness of how we relate to others.
Even knowing if someone is a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl’ can help one not to take it personally when your ‘night owl’ living partner can barely utter hello to you in the morning or if a ‘morning person’ friend is falling asleep over dinner.
These frameworks can also launch you onto a path of greater self-awareness. Considering if we’re introverted or extroverted forces us to consider our energy levels and what fires us up and what exhausts us. Stories, which are oversimplified and edited versions of the truth are essential to our being and so there’s freedom to be found in putting ourselves in a personality test box. It allows us to believe that we understand ourselves.
However, despite this admiration for personality tests, I’ve always sensed something with them isn’t quite right (classic questioner). So I wrote for Refinery29 about my experience of being an ambivert – a mix of an extrovert and an introvert. I was curious as to why, of all the buckets, introversion and extroversion were the ones people were most obsessed with. As a bit of both, I was feeling left out.
I similarly feel left out of attachment theory. The book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love was promised to me as the answer to all my dating problems. It’s unbelievably popular and although it was published in 2010, its popularity and sales are only increasing. Am I secure? Anxious? Avoidant? I read it finding myself to be all three, which perhaps puts me in the ‘disorganised category’ which 3 to 5 per cent of people are: where you are a bit of two of the styles. But I’m not a mix of two, I’m all three. I’ve read the book and watched countless YouTube videos on the subject and I really can’t work out where I fit. Does this mean that I’m an emotional mess as I don’t fit into one of the most popular boxes that speak to everyone but me?
For my Refinery29 piece, my addiction to personality tests was challenged by Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of instant therapy service Self Space. Jodie told me that they’re a good starter, but we could benefit from letting these labels go.
I began to think that these labels could actually be dangerous. Are we entrenching ourselves into types and perhaps missing the most important thing to understand about ourselves of them all: our contradictions. Are we oversimplifying ourselves and others? In relationships, we categorise the other and seek confirmation bias, slotting in their actions to prove to ourselves that they’re as simple to understand as we crave them to be. ‘Oh,’ we think, ‘they’re being avoidant again, they’re being an obliger, they’re planning everything for us because that’s their ‘type’.’
Self-awareness doesn’t always lead to self-examination. I may be aware that I question everything, but perhaps this is actually me being judgmental and critical of others. It could be driven by insecurity because I’ve felt let down by others in the past? Perhaps I can’t trust people to get the job done. What life is it to presume people are stupid unless proven otherwise? Not a particularly collaborative or fulfilling one. This is far more complex and confronting than accepting myself as a ‘questioner.’
We crave understanding and unfortunately, I believe we’ll always feel misunderstood no matter how many personality tests we take. By clinging to our labels, we’re hiding from the discomfort of knowing that we don’t fit neatly into boxes, but we’re in fact riddled with contradictions. The fact that we’re so desperate to be unique but then also to categorise ourselves into frameworks is in itself a contradiction. The fabric of our being is made up of tensions that exist in us and we’ll learn more about ourselves by seeking those out. And so while we seek truth in frameworks, perhaps the only truth we can find is that, as humans, we make no sense at all.
Love this! I have also been a personality test addict, until they stopped helping and became an excuse to not change or challenge myself.