I’ve been fascinated with personality since one memorable family dinner when I was in my late tweens or early teens. My mom mentioned her church group would be reading a new book together. I’d never heard of the book and didn’t know much about the subject matter, but what my mom said intrigued me.
She explained that the author had taken an old idea and updated it for the twentieth century. Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers had sorted people into four categories based on their “humors,” believing each individual’s unique combination of these elements determined their personality. For the modernized version, the four categories of people are the popular sanguine, powerful choleric, perfect melancholy, and peaceful phlegmatic. These categories aren’t good or bad. There is no “right” answer, only the possibility to accurately see yourself as you truly are. The promise is that when you understand yourself better—your strengths and weaknesses, emotional needs, and driving motivations—it is much easier to understand others as well, especially when they aren’t like you.
I begged my mom to share her copy of the book and spent hours and hours poring over it, trying to spot myself and my loved ones in its pages. I was hooked.
I became obsessed with the idea that by discovering who I was at my core—what made me tick, who God made me to be—I could gain insight into important questions, such as What should I study? Who should I marry? What do I want to be when I grow up? How am I going to remember to buy milk at the grocery store?
I surmised that finding the right answers to these questions— the profound and the prosaic—would change my life.
But they didn’t—or not for a long time, at least. That’s because even though I was fascinated by personality typing and started learning more about it, I was doing it all wrong. When it came to connecting what I was learning to my real life, I was failing. Totally.
Wait a minute, you say. I thought that with personality there are no wrong answers?
Well, yes and no.
Objectively speaking, when it comes to your personality type— at least according to the frameworks in this book—there are no wrong answers. No personality type is better or worse than any other. Some people are better suited than others to be engineers or teachers or executives, while others are naturally more compassionate or more analytical. It takes all kinds to make a world.
But there is a wrong way to approach personality, and I had inadvertently found it.
An Inadvertent but Common Error
When I initially tried to figure out my personality, the crucial first step in understanding myself and others, I didn’t begin at the beginning. I didn’t ask myself what I was really like. Instead, I asked myself what I wished I were like.
It was an inadvertent error, and so insidious I didn’t even realize I was doing it. (And I wasn’t alone. When it comes to personality frameworks, this happens all the time.) But my understandable mistake still ruined my chances of gaining any useful self-knowledge from the experience.
To illustrate, let me tell you how much I hate parking garages. It relates, I promise.
When it comes to operating a large motor vehicle—and by large, I mean “bigger than a bicycle”—my spatial abilities are, er, not great. This isn’t a big deal (my driving record is beautiful, honestly), unless I’m parking. Parking is hard. I can manage just fine in a suburban parking lot or my own driveway (don’t laugh). But put me in a parking garage, and I start shaking.
I don’t know about the parking garages in your town, but in the garage I regularly have the displeasure of parking in, it’s important that I pull my car all the way in to the parking space or my Honda’s back end (did you notice how I avoided saying “minivan”?) will block the driving lane. In theory, this is no big deal. But in practice, this means cringing with every fiber of my being as I ease the front end of my vehicle closer and closer to an immovable concrete wall—inch by uncomfortable inch— dreading the repugnant metal-on-concrete scraping noise (and costly-to-repair damage) that will result if I misjudge the distance.
When I first started parking in this awful garage, I would pull my car in just as close as I could bear. Then I’d kill the engine, hop out, check out my parking job, and discover I was still a full two feet from the barricade. I wish I were kidding.
My early experience with personality frameworks was a lot like parking in that garage.
I remember in college when I first really dove into the MyersBriggs Type Indicator (MBTI)®. The system identifies and describes sixteen distinct personalities, which we’ll learn more about in chapter 6, but for now, suffice it to say, it’s important to accurately identify your type. I spent hours poring over the various profiles and found the information simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.
When I first took the assessment, my result was clear: INTJ. For those of you to whom this sounds like total alphabet soup, allow me to explain. The INTJ is known as the architect, the mastermind, the scientist. This result was no surprise, given my history and upbringing; many INTJs are little bookworms as kids. They’re smart and creative and highly analytical. They prefer to work alone or, at the very most, in small groups. These types are hardworking and determined; they think critically and clearly; they tend to be perfectionists. They grow up to become software and mechanical engineers, project managers, marketing analysts, and attorneys.
I knew the INTJ type, all right. I come from a long line of attorneys and judges and knew the type and their skills very well, even if I hadn’t known to put the alphabet soup label on it. Those skills were valued in my household growing up. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy for me to see myself as an INTJ. And because I knew the type so well, I didn’t realize a critical flaw in my thinking. I didn’t see the INTJ type as one way to be; I thought it was the way to be. So I wasn’t surprised when my personality test confirmed that I was a rationalist type who could grow up to become a terrific attorney one day.
In my assumptions, I completely misunderstood myself, yet I had no clue I had done this. Instead, I continued merrily on my way, convinced I was a strategic thinker and analytical planner and occasionally wondering why this “insight” didn’t seem to help me much in my day-to-day life. I thought my parking job was just fine.
I was wrong. I was still three feet from the barrier, and my back end was blocking the lane.
I spent hours studying the various MBTI profiles, again fascinated and frustrated. And again, I had new information but no insight.
I wasn’t looking for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I wanted practical information I could put into action. I wanted to cash in on the promise of the first personality book that hooked me: that I could understand others better by first understanding myself better. Unfortunately, the information wasn’t helpful to me because, while I was gaining an understanding of personality typing systems in general, I still didn’t understand what I was really like. I didn’t have a correct understanding of my own personality.
Thales of Miletus, one of the sages of ancient Greece, put it plainly: “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” Without realizing it, I had bumped straight into a key problem the Greeks identified more than two thousand years ago: knowing yourself may sound easy, but it’s surprisingly complicated. I was just a kid; I had no deep-seated, long-established wisdom. I had a lot to learn about myself, and I was just getting started.
Looking back, I wonder, How could I have gotten myself so wrong? How could I have misunderstood myself so thoroughly?
Perhaps, because I was young, I didn’t have the life experience I needed to see a person clearly, even if that person was me. However, I place the bulk of the blame on my own blindness, caused by plain old wishful thinking.
Denial Is a Powerful Force
I have an obstetrician friend who has delivered thousands of babies, including a surprisingly high number from women who didn’t know they were pregnant. Having carried four babies to term, this blows my mind. I’d expect one such delivery over the course of a career, maybe. But my doctor friend has seen dozens—and he’s still young. When he first told me this, I thought he was making it up just to get a laugh, but he was being truthful. When I asked how this could possibly happen over and over again, he explained that, in all seriousness, denial is a powerful force. Or as Christopher Alexander said, “We are not always comfortable with the true self that lies deep within us.”
Whether my own mistake—of seeing only what I wanted to see—was born of ignorance or deep-rooted discomfort, I know this much: when it comes to understanding yourself and others, wishful thinking will get you nowhere. If personality information is going to help you, you’re going to have to get comfortable with the true self that lies deep within you.
All the personality tests in the world won’t mean anything to you if you’re not honest with yourself about your own personality and the personalities of those around you. Aspirational answers won’t do you any good; only true ones will. And so, the first step is to take an unflinching look at who you truly are. What are you really like?
The Beginning of Understanding
Fast-forward a few years to the winter following my June wedding. My husband, Will, and I had just had another painful fight. It was awful, but not in the way you’d imagine. We hadn’t fought about anything earth-shaking. Our conflicts were excruciating because we lacked the skills we needed to work through routine marital disagreements.
It doesn’t matter how often couples fight. However, how they fight is critical. Married people need to learn how to disagree, figure things out, and move on. Will and I were married, but we hadn’t figured out how to do those things yet. That first winter we were still terrible at conflict. When we disagreed, he became cold and distant. I was extraordinarily sensitive to his change of mood, and I’d get upset, which baffled him. Then I’d become angry because he didn’t understand why I was upset. Secretly (or maybe not so secretly), I thought I was being reasonable and Will was doing it wrong. I blamed him for shutting down whenever we disagreed, and I told him so. Often.
Back to the fight. I don’t remember what it was about—how to fold the laundry, where to store the container, what we should do on Saturday morning—whatever it was, it was mindnumbingly mundane. But we disagreed, as people do. Then I told Will what I thought, and he acted aloof, then I got upset, and then he was baffled—which made me furious!
Instead of talking circles around our stupid issue again, I did the only thing that seemed to help—I went for a run in the freezing cold to cool off. Then I came home, took a shower, put on my pajamas, and plopped on the couch with a library book. Coincidentally, I was reading David Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II, which I now jokingly call the MBTI Bible.
The previous year Will and I had gone through our church’s required premarital counseling program. We drove across town on a Saturday afternoon to meet the couple we’d been randomly paired with. They were kind, if a bit eccentric. I can still remember our surprise when we pulled into their driveway and saw three hundred pairs of teddy bear eyes staring at us from their home’s bay window.
We drank lukewarm tea and made awkward chitchat at their kitchen table under the watchful eyes of the teddy bears, which lined not just the bay window but every room of the home. After the introductions were over, they presented us each with a personality assessment and a number 2 pencil. Our future discussions would be based on our results.
We spent the next half hour bubbling in answers to a few hundred questions about how we handle conflict, what we dream of, how often we seek out new experiences, and if we tend to be agreeable. A month later, we returned to the land of the teddy bears to find out how we did.
According to our results, we were more or less compatible, more alike than different. “There’s one thing we noticed,” our hosts said. “Your tests indicate that you might have problems with conflict. But don’t worry too much. All couples do.”
I found the whole experience frustrating. What kind of conflict—and why? What would we do about it when it happened? I felt as though I’d spent too much time bubbling in answers to get a result that felt like the kind of “wisdom” I could find in a fortune cookie.
I was dissatisfied because, again, I was so close to discovering some genuinely useful information. Could Will and I truly use some good info about our strengths and weaknesses, sticking points, and blind spots? You betcha. We didn’t get it there, but when we left that day, I felt as though it was possible to find that kind of information somewhere.
Like the book nerd I was, I took myself to my friendly local library and started looking for books about personality types. (This was in the days of dial-up internet, so I consulted my local library, not Google. A good thing, I think.) I came home that night with a long reading list.
Because of the typical pre-wedding craziness, I didn’t start reading those books until after the wedding. Trust me on this: spending the first winter of your married life reading books about personality isn’t a terrible way to begin.
Most of what I read went straight over my head, but I was learning. I wasn’t yet able to see myself clearly in any of the profiles. I still felt clueless about my inner workings, my strengths and weaknesses. But I was at least acutely sensitive to the fact that everyone innately has strengths and weaknesses and that all people are different—very different—and that isn’t a bad thing.
I couldn’t type myself, but I was beginning to suspect I’d been all wrong about the INTJ diagnosis. I was studying up, trying to find myself (for real this time) in the type descriptions.
So I sat at home on my couch, in my comfy pajamas, with a copy of Please Understand Me II from the library and a hot cup of tea. I flipped it open and started reading.
It Changes Nothing; It Changes Everything
That night I opened my book to a new chapter in Please Understand Me II, where I’d left off the night before. That chapter was all about temperament and romantic relationships, including the strengths and weaknesses for different pairings in married life. When I came to the part where David Keirsey explains how the Rational (NT) types function in married life, and especially what a pairing between the Rational and the Idealist (NF) looks like, my jaw fell open. That was us. He was describing Will (clearly an NT) and me (who must be an NF) so accurately it was spooky. It was as though I was reading the history of my courtship and early marriage, right there on the page. (Don’t worry about the alphabet soup. We’ll get there.)
Here’s what I learned that night. First, because of Keirsey’s dead-on description of the way an Idealist tends to handle conflict unhealthily, I was absolutely sure I’d been typing myself incorrectly. (This would be the first of many times I would discover that the easiest way to type yourself is to pay attention to how you’re likely to screw up.) For the first time, I could see clearly that my behavior matched the NF type. The description was so uncannily accurate in regard to my behavior that I knew instantly I’d been typing myself incorrectly for years. It was suddenly clear where I’d gone wrong: I hadn’t been seeing myself as I actually was but as I wanted to be. No wonder those personality rubrics hadn’t helped me.
Contrary to my belief, Will, who I could now clearly peg as an NT, wasn’t terrible at conflict. In fact, his approach to marital disagreements was textbook for his MBTI type. And my behavior was textbook for mine. We were experiencing what Keirsey called “an endless problem”5 in relationships between our types (which, except for this sticking point, Keirsey declares are extremely well-suited for marriage). My type is naturally emotionally expressive; Will’s type is naturally resistant to emotional displays. When we disagreed, I would tell Will how I felt, and he would remain calm, seemingly cold. I thought that meant he didn’t understand me, or care, and I’d get upset. He didn’t understand why I was upset, because he definitely understood—and felt my disappointment deeply. Then I’d get angry that he seemed not to understand.
That night I finally understood that Will wasn’t being cold or trying to exasperate me. He just wasn’t me, and I’d been expecting him to act like me.
I cannot tell you how freeing this insight was. Let’s just say the clouds parted and I’m pretty sure the angels sang. We were still the people we’d been the day before, a couple who still didn’t know how to fight. But that discovery dialed our conflicts down from epic to ordinary. Our disagreements weren’t alarming; they were normal. Expected, even. My epiphany didn’t change anything except our perspective—not that day, at least—but it changed the way I moved forward.
For the first time, I began to see the dynamics at play when Will and I disagreed in a new light. It was my first big aha! moment about personality, the first time I felt the power of having accurate information about my personality (and, in this case, my husband’s personality) and applying it to my life. Once I understood what was actually going on, and why, I could begin to do something about it.
Maybe when I first started exploring personality—and couldn’t get mine right—I’d made an honest mistake. Maybe I simply wasn’t comfortable with the true self that lay deep within me. But I suspect the problem was simply this: knowing yourself is hard. It’s difficult to clearly see yourself for who you really are. The process requires that you ask a difficult question of yourself and face the answer with as much honesty and grace as you can muster, because sometimes “What am I really like?” is a scary question.
Asking yourself this question and facing the answer is intense, but it’s also possible—and absolutely worth it.
Probing your own personality isn’t an easy process, not even in the best scenario. But I’m keenly aware of how my frustrating experience could have been so much easier if I’d known—even a little bit—what I was doing. Looking back, I wish someone had pointed me in the right direction. I wish I’d had someone looking over my shoulder, encouraging me when I headed in the right direction, and gently calling me back when I wandered off track. I needed someone to ask me the right questions at the right moments and to point out the key things I should have been paying attention to. I’m a big reader, so I wouldn’t have minded if this guidance had existed in the pages of a good book. I can’t go back and smooth my own road, but maybe my experience can make yours a little less bumpy. Stay with me, as that’s what I hope to do in the chapters ahead.
Anne Bogel is the creator of the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, which averages more than 1.2 million unique visitors per month. Anne is a respected tastemaker in the literary community; she is known for her book recommendations, reading lists, and thoughtful commentary on a variety of issues that resonate with women everywhere. Her new book, Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, is available now.