From now on, I don’t want to put myself in a box.
From the time I was a teenager, I liked taking personality tests. I was an avid reader of astrology, and not just the silly, generic newspaper variety: I read in-depth analyses of things like ascendants and houses and moon signs, trines and oppositions and retrogrades. I read about numerology and palmistry, too, scrutinizing my hands alongside a grainy, mass-market paperback’s diagrams of head-, heart-, and life-lines. As an adult, I moved on to seemingly more sophisticated divination, supposedly based in science. There was Myers-Briggs, DISC, “Big Five” (AKA “OCEAN”), and even, created by a supervisor at my job, an in-house version of the four-trait type of test wherein the types were labeled, whimsically, Hummingbird, Eagle, Bluebird, and Owl.
Like a lot of people, I guess, I wanted to know not just who I was, but how I was. Clearly, given the proliferation of personality diagnostics online, I’m not the only one who has been lured in by the prospect of finding my true category, the identity-type to which I belong, the essence that the never-mistaken Sorting Hat can discern magically at the core of my being (Ravenclaw, if you’re wondering).
What I really wanted to know, especially as a teen, was how others saw me and what they thought of me.
Was I okay? Funny? Pretty? Smart? Mysterious? This sort of knowledge is not at all what a personality inventory can disclose, of course, but since we can’t ever get inside the head of the person we’re interacting with to see what they really think, the personality quiz steps in to take the place of omniscience. It provides a measure of reassurance in its apparent thoroughness and complexity. Armed with a label (Eagle/Owl), percentages, or a string of letters (INTP), you can face the world as a defined someone. A legitimate entity.
My roommates, in my freshman year of college, answered my real question — how do others see me? — in a shocking way sometime during the spring semester. We were hanging out, laughing about something, when one of them — the blunt one — said something complimentary to me, maybe that I was funny or clever or nice. I don’t remember, because what she said next, almost as an afterthought, overshadowed the rest: “at the beginning of the year, we thought you were a bitch.”
That knocked the wind out of me, almost literally. I felt the terrible drop of my stomach. I tried to look nonchalant about it: “what? what do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, you just didn’t talk much and we thought you didn’t want to hang out with us.”
“Well,” I managed to say, while crying inside, “I’m just kind of shy at first.”
“Yeah, we know that now,” she said.
Personality testing relies mainly on self-reported data, on questionnaires that people voluntarily fill out. Anyone who’s spent time on social media has probably taken a quiz involving some amount of self-assessment. And many of us have taken personality inventories in a guidance counselor’s office, an employment agency, or in some sort of professional-development scenario created by our employers. The guiding idea seems to be that, armed with the concrete evidence of our strengths, weaknesses, and true predilections, we can choose a job or a college major that will suit us to a T, we can choose a partner whose contours fit ours like puzzle-pieces, and we can iron out the wrinkles on the job by assembling teams with a balance of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion.
Since we move through the world limited to the lens of our own consciousness, it makes sense that we’re susceptible to instruments that promise us insight, or better yet, clear prescriptions for happiness and success. Besides that, when we feel flawed or out of our element, it’s comforting to at least have a solid reason that we feel that way, especially something that suggests we’re not alone in our anxiety or awkwardness. “You’re not broken, you’re an introvert,” the tests tell us. At last, we think, a rebuttal to those who pass me off as a bitch or snob. Science has given us a response to tough-loving older relatives who insist that shyness is just bad behavior.
But the accuracy of self-assessment is dubious for plenty of reasons.
Even as a teen, I wondered how the tests could be accurate when I could tell what trait the particular questions were designed to measure and could, if I wanted, answer according to the trait I wanted to possess. By the time I’d worked through a number of questions, it was easy enough to know that this one was asking about my sociability, and it was easy enough to know how to answer consistently — or not. I wasn’t one to try to mess up the results just because I could; I really did want the tests to tell me something I didn’t know. But how could the results not be skewed by my beliefs about myself and desire to have those beliefs either confirmed or countered?
Recent research has attempted to find neurobiological support for theories of personality, and as best I can tell, there are some correlations between cerebral blood flow and “big five” traits in research subjects. There also seem to be some links between brain structure and personality traits. Still, our ability to identify and measure the mechanisms of subjective experiences like emotion and perception is extremely limited.
As painful as it was, that glimpse of myself from the outside, from the eyes of people who I considered my friends, was illuminating.
It told me something that was unavailable to me through the innumerable inventories and questionnaires. The truth I learned from that experience wasn’t some insight about myself, however. It was that other people saw me in a way that was determined by a lot of factors, some of them within my control and some of them utterly out of it.
Over time, this would be confirmed again and again. Some people I’ve met like “introverts.” Some don’t really seem to notice one way or another. Some people find introversion off-putting. I’ve learned not to assume that my supposed personality traits have much bearing on the people I’ll get along with.
Furthermore, I’ve decided — recently — that my acceptance of the labels, whether they’re from the occult, like “Pisces with Moon in Leo” or have a basis in scientific theory, like “introvert,” hasn’t served me very well. Thinking of myself as an introvert, it seems to me now, has mostly helped me feel justified in not getting out of my comfort zone as often as I used to.
It’s one thing to accept yourself as you are. It’s another to cling to something you don’t love about yourself because it’s difficult or uncomfortable to try to grow.
These days, I’ve been thinking that I don’t want to stop growing simply because I’ve settled down inside the familiar container of “introversion” and reconciled myself to its confines. So I’m not going to be an introvert anymore.
From now on, I’m just a person.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.