Reading the Label

I recently completed the online Myers-Briggs inventory for the third or fourth time in fifteen years. (Disclaimer: This is not the official version with a trained administrator, but the free online version because I’m “frugal”). I got the same results, which says something about test reliability and my personality.
 
And while I’ve definitely changed and matured with age, I suppose my hard-wired personality hasn’t. The consistent results seem to indicate that certain characteristics have remained stable, despite experiences and lessons learned.
 
Maybe I’ll tell you what my profile initials are, maybe not. Because I’m not sure the value in using labels outweighs the danger.
 
Labels can be appealing because they can help us categorize our world and communicate a wealth of information succinctly.
 
We use labels all the time when we describe a person’s gender, ethnicity, or occupation. Each time we do, our listeners make assumptions that are typically associated with the label, without us having to articulate the details each and every time. So you can say labels provide a kind of shorthand.
 
For example, if I told you I worked in an elementary school, you’d automatically assume I worked school hours, a school calendar, and had a lot of patience. If I told you my mother was Italian, you’d probably assume I grew up eating delicious Italian meals with homemade tomato sauce. More on that later.
 
Labels can also “legitimize” characteristics that are sometimes tinged with judgment. Take for example, the sensitive souls that have repeatedly heard they are “too sensitive” and may have spent many years second-guessing the validity of their own feelings. Knowing there’s a group of people who respond and interact in the world with similar sensitivities can be empowering.
 
This is exactly what happened to me when I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I felt as if I’d arrived home, in a place that understood and welcomed me after spending many years thinking there was something wrong with me for shunning large crowds and being exhausted by boisterous gatherings. I thought I was a “loner” because I recharged in seclusion and solitude while others filled their calendars with many more social events and outings. I actually felt guilty because they seemed to be having a lot more fun and living fuller lives.
 
(I can practically see my fellow introverts nodding their heads!)
 
After finishing the book, however, I felt validated and appreciated for the unique strengths that introverts bring to the world. Having a label and description for this characteristic helped me understand myself better and gave me a sense of acceptance and community.
 
This was also how I felt after rereading my Myers-Briggs profile. It was uncannily accurate and again confirmed the traits I’ve increasingly recognized over the years.
 
If you are in a relationship, knowing your partner’s profile can also shine a novel light on recurring conflicts. To someone who is naturally a planner, spontaneity can look like impulsivity. A spender who lives for today can seem financially irresponsible in the eyes of a saver who feels most at peace when there’s a nest egg in the bank. When profiles bump up against one another it’s helpful to remember our differences are just how we’re wired, and that we have to work harder to find common ground for the relationship to be mutually fulfilling
 
But labels can also be dangerous.
 
Labels are a type of shorthand that allows people to make assumptions. But assumptions are not always accurate and in fact, can cause problems and misunderstandings.
 
Even though I’m employed in a school, I usually work the summer school session, therefore I don’t have a full summer off like most colleagues in my profession. My mother was 100% Italian and I never had tomato sauce out of a jar until I got married (much to my mother’s horror), but my mother didn’t cook all the Italian dishes you’d imagine given my father’s dietary restrictions. I’m not even sure she knew how because of her chaotic upbringing, and so Mom didn’t fit the profile of the Italian mothers you’ve heard or read about.
 
Labels can box you in. To name and define a character trait is a step away from imagining it written in cement. But people are far more complicated and nuanced than that, not to mention inclined toward self-improvement, particularly when you’re a faith filled person learning to be more Christ-like, or when a trait leads to undesired consequences.
 
Although my Myers-Briggs results are stable, I have moved closer to center in some areas, indicating that maturity and experience can exert some influence over results. Will I ever be an extrovert? Highly unlikely. But if I think being an introvert is immutable, then I’d lose motivation to learn skills that make it easier for me to function and cope when thrust into uncomfortable situations.
 
Ultimately, no matter what initials define my profile, I know I’m God’s daughter. He created me, with all my “strengths and weaknesses”. More importantly, He loves me right now, even if I never learn the art of small talk and continue to be a procrastinating perfectionist. And that fact trumps any label proclaiming my identity.
 
So my love/hate relationship with these personality tests endures. I find them comforting and confirming, but also confining and confounding. And maybe they even distract us from remembering who we really are.
 
But that won’t stop me from taking the inventory again a few years from now.
 
If you’ve never taken a Myers-Briggs, and are interested, click here.
 
And when you’re done, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
 
 
Scripture for Reflection
 
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Psalm 139:13
 
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Psalm 139:14

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