Do Personality Types Put You in a Box?
It’s one of the most common things people say when you ask: “Have you ever looked into personality types?” I’m sure all of us have been given the response — “I don’t like being put in a box.” — multiple times. Nothing kills a conversation or shuts off further query like this answer, which reveals an unwillingness to explore.
However, while this response usually provokes frustration for both parties, it is often accurate. The argument against personality tests — like astrology — is that they use stereotypes infused with vague information that anyone can identify with. Most of the time, this is a valid argument.
The other argument is that “I just don’t feel like a test can capture the ‘whole’ me.” And this is where the “box dilemma” emerges from. Do personality tests and personality theory constrict or enable self-understanding?
The purpose of this article is two-fold:
1) To find some responses to the objection of “Those put people in boxes!” Sometimes, the person will not respond to further questions — they have made up their mind, after all! — but other times you can find the root of the problem that is holding them back and address it.
2) To learn the foundational principles which distinguish good and bad personality tests/theories from each other.
The reality is that most people have a point when they say, “That’s putting me in a box.” Theories have a way of reducing or diminishing the individual aspects of a human. But that’s not to say that just because something reveals a general pattern it should be made obsolete.
The Enneagram & the Nurture Angle
The first time I encountered a thoughtful response to the “box” dilemma was while studying the Enneagram. Multiple Enneagram authors recognized the closed-mindedness in people’s attitude toward personality theory. They arrived at similar responses to the close-mindedness, captured in quotes like: “The Enneagram does not put us in a box, it shows us the box we are already in—and the way out.” (Riso & Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram).
In the context of the Enneagram — a personality theory primarily devoted to unraveling the complexity in human nurture — this quote is profound. At the base of the Enneagram theory is an appeal to the extreme effects of early life experience. Everyone will be missing something in their childhoods — particularly childhoods rife with trouble and trauma.
The ensuing years of a person’s life, as they emerge from childhood, will be devoted to finding a way to fill that hole or numb the feeling of emptiness that results from being incomplete. The human nurture aspect of “boxes” strikes hardest when we realize what the Enneagram is trying to show us, “I’ve been repeating the same behavioral patterns for years.”
While the Enneagram has its flaws (more on that in a later article), it does help us shovel away one layer in response to the box dilemma.
“That will put me in a box.”
“Well, you already are in a box. Do you want to stay there or learn how to get out?”
At the root of the complexity of human nurture is behavior. Our biologically-based personality has huge effects on us, of course, but so does the programming of our parents, teachers, siblings, environment, experiences, ect. We need to learn how to distinguish between nature and nurture without separating the effects one has on the other.
So how does nurture relate to the box dilemma? We all follow unconscious patterns of behavior that have been instilled by our nurture. So, if someone is unfamiliar with the effects their nurture had on them, and then they wake up, they’ll find themselves securely tucked between the walls of a box. In other words, realizing you’re in a box is a step to freedom. Most people live under the illusion of freedom and they are the most imprisoned.
The MBTI’s Attempt to Reveal Human Nature
The “MBTI” is such a big concept and the term applies to a variety of historical contributions. However, in the culture, “MBTI” is usually in reference to those fun tests with 16 different avatars for types. 16personalities.com and related sites have aimed to create a culturally attractive and easily digestible version of Jungian Analytical Psychology.
There are risks and benefits to this approach. For one, the MBTI has become widespread because of tying personality-theory and cultural entertainment onto the same string. The downside, however, is a lack of depth and sophistication. The MBTI, after all, is just a test.
A lot of the MBTI tests suffer from the same criticism that astrology does. The MBTI’s type descriptions fail to clearly distinguish between the 16 archetypes. Usually, this is because the layer of analysis comes from the letter dichotomies (E/I, S/N, etc.) and not the functions (Ni vs. Ne, Fi vs. Fe, etc.) Of course, anyone who is familiar with Chase’s work knows that functions are just the beginning — the building blocks — of understanding personality. Most tests — not just the MBTI — don’t even cover that much!
The problem with a lack of depth in the MBTI sphere is that people’s response, “That puts me in a box,” is often valid. They feel that the general nature of the type descriptions diminishes their individuality into vague, “box-like” patterns.
But the intention of the MBTI — a cultural counterpart to the Enneagram — has been to steer into the scientific basis of personality more so than other personality models. While there are many pieces of the MBTI that were once rooted in deeper scientific and philosophical thought, it’s become too shallow.
However, the intention — to connect personality with deeper scientific and philosophical elements — is absolutely vital. And, in response to the box dilemma, a dedication to the deeper factors of personality is a must.
For example, by just adding the distinction between the eight functions (never mind Cognitive Attitudes, the Four Sides of the Mind, Temples, or even Reflector Functions!) how much more depth will you be able to offer in your analyses of other people’s types? Most people want to feel understood and if you can offer a depth of understanding — able to interpret nuances in behavior and link them to deeper, more personal drives — they will feel seen.
So, how does human nature relate to the box dilemma? In some ways, they are like nurture’s relationship to the box dilemma. “You’re already in a box.” And that box happens to be a brain, skull, bones, and skin. This may not clear up the dilemma very well. However, the appeal to human nature regarding personality types permits access to one of the most powerful methods of persuasion: “why?”.
“What & How” vs. “Why”
The characteristic trait of a nuanced personality system is that it can articulate why you do something. The question of “why” depends, in part, on how you are analyzing behavior. The Big 5— or OCEAN — test might attribute a certain behavior to the dimension of “Neuroticism.” But why is someone neurotic to begin with? Consider this question when evaluating the utility of a personality system: How many “why’s” can the system absorb before it breaks?
This is not to say that the Big 5 is useless, or other supplemental personality systems — DISC, Strengths Finder, etc. — are not valuable. But when it comes to the “why” — why the types are the way they are — there is seldom depth within the analysis of these tests.
The Big 5, for example, reveals in great detail the “what” of your personality. You are Neurotic, or you are Open, or you are Conscientious, etc. This is WHAT your personality is. It is also proficient in detailing “how” people with certain traits will act or perceive.
But the “what” and the “how” are comparable to mere symptoms. If symptoms are utilized in isolation, they become low-hanging fruit. Further, I would posit that you cannot change your behavior unless you understand the “why.”
The real value of a personality model lies in its ability to accurately and compellingly describe “why” you are who you are.
The Limits of Why
Reductio Absurdum lies at the bottom of an infinite amount of “whys”. No personality model can answer the whole “why” behind any foundational element of psychology. Even within Chase’s Four Sides Dynamics, we might ask: “Why do we have Four Sides in our Mind to begin with?” There are a number of responses here, many derived from Jung’s own teachings. But eventually, we’ll run out of answers.
At the place where we can go no further, we have to content ourselves with reality. “Because that’s just the way it is,” is, to some degree, the best response we muster for the answers we cannot see. Philosophically, when we reach the base floor of cognition — the introverted and extraverted binaries of human awareness — the territory beyond this area becomes religious. The territory beneath, however — physical reality — lies open to exploration through science. We still have much unexplored territory to reveal.
The question of “Why?” is vital; but to wield “Why?” without wisdom or caution is akin to carelessly stripping away the floorboards that you stand upon. As Nietzsche said, “Once and for all, there are many things I choose not to know. — Wisdom sets limits even to knowledge.”
However, while we must be careful not to rashly rip away the floor we stand on, “Why?” is what allows us to determine depth, meaning, and possibility. If a personality model doesn’t provide a “Why,” its depth and utility should be called into question.
“Why” the Box?
We set out to accomplish two things in this article. 1) To find a sophisticated response to the “box dilemma.” 2) To learn what distinguishes high-quality from a low-quality personality model.
We have answered the second one. “Why?” is the guiding tool to inspect personality models. This allows you to determine how much substance a given model or theory may have. Now, having answered the second problem, let us take that answer and apply it to the first problem.
Why do people object to personality models using the “box dilemma” response? There is a plethora of answers, but I posit that the primary reason is because people don’t want to feel like their lives have been, are, or will be scripted. It is a painful day when you wake up to the possibility that most of what you’ve done in your life has been as a result of your innate (nature) and conditioned (nurture) personality.
There are aspects of us that are programmatic. Until we awake to this reality, our programming will dominate us unconsciously. The answer to “why,” then, becomes a problem of human consciousness, and what it means to be awake.
Is it any wonder that a cornerstone quote in philosophy — and the cornerstone quote in Jungian Analytical Psychology — is “Know thyself!”? Philosophy, a historical discipline dedicated to reflection, mediation, exploration, and awareness is the essence of what an individual gains from knowledge of their own personality.
Can we simply say that those who use the “box dilemma” are simply trying to stay asleep? This is on a case by case basis. What must be said, though, is that those who perpetually seek awareness are a rare breed, indeed. But, there are also other ways to increase awareness than through studying personality theory.
Does that make people like you and me — committed to learning more about ourselves and others through studying personality — an enlightened sub-section of human beings? The risk of being asleep is just as big for us, perhaps even larger. Wakefulness is a perpetual action, and how easy is it to fall asleep under the guise of completed knowledge?
So, what is the answer to the “box dilemma” — if there is one? If people are resisting being put into a box, then they are resisting what it means to be a human being. Limitation is a characteristic of anything alive. And, at bottom, if someone is unwilling to become conscious of their limitations, they will never be strong enough to break free of them.