A Refuge from COVID, Trump, and the Culture Wars: Why Everyone is into Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram

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Spring, 1994, Palm Springs, California.

My soon-to-be-second-wife and I sit in the rector’s office at St. Paul in the Desert Episcopal Church.  Sara is from an old Palm Springs family (there are such things!), and has been raised in this parish.  She’s known Father Andrew since she was a teen, when he came to replace the older priest who had baptized her.  Father Andrew will perform our wedding ceremony in late October, and we’re meeting with him monthly for premarital counseling.

Father Andrew isn’t sure about me, and he’s even less sure when he pulls out a manila envelope with the results of the Myers-Briggs personality tests Sara and I took a few weeks before.  “You too are a very special couple,” he remarks, “and these tests can show us what kind of challenges you two are likely to face.”

He tells us that Sara has come back as a strong ENTJ, and I have come back as an INFJ. 

This means nothing to us, as neither of us had ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) before coming to Father Andrew.  The priest explains that Sara is extroverted (E), intuitive (N), thinking (T), and judging (J).  I am also N and J, but I am introverted (I) and feeling (F).   My fiancée and I are still puzzled.  We know I’m an introvert and she an extrovert, but surely, we’re both “thinking” and “feeling” people.

I decide to put the best face on whatever this is.  “Well, it sounds like we’ve got a lot of overlap.  That’s good, right?”

Father Andrew gives us a wan smile.  “Perhaps.  Let’s look a little deeper, though.  We want to head off the issues before they grow bigger, and deal with the ones that I suspect have already emerged.”

That sounds less promising, but as it turns out, Father Andrew’s concerns are warranted.  The marriage will last 18 months.

If you know Myers-Briggs, you probably already know what an INFJ and an ENTJ are, and why they might have issues in a relationship.  If you aren’t familiar, you can read a basic introduction here, and even take a test here.

The MBTI was based on the work of Carl Jung, and has become a staple in marriage counseling – and in helping human resources folks navigate workplace dynamics.  Those who believe in it swear it helps people understand themselves and each other; if we can see how it is that these 16 personality types function, we can stop taking the bewildering behavior of others so personally. Ideally, we can come to see all of our gifts (as encapsulated in our Myers-Briggs type) as complementary to the gifts of others, and create a more harmonious relationship or workplace.

Years later, in 2014, desperate for work after my fall, I ended up working as a file clerk in a tax accountant’s office.  I was his sole employee, and my boss believed not in the MBTI, but in the Enneagram.  He paid for me to take the official Enneagram test, promising that it would improve our working dynamic.  Mr. Garvey’s face fell when he opened the envelope with the results, just as Father Andrew’s face had fallen. 

“Oh gosh.  You’re a Four, with a Three wing,” Mr. Garvey said, shaking his head. He looked at me with suspicion.  “I need you to understand, Hugo, I’m a Five -- with a Six wing – and that’s how I need us both to operate.” 

Again, that meant nothing to me, but it clearly troubled my employer, who explained that I had a fundamentally independent streak that would be at odds with his careful, linear, highly disciplined thinking.  “I’m sure we can work through it, Hugo,” he said, the doubt in his voice belying his words, “But it would be better if you were at least a 5w4.”

It had been 20 years since the MBTI had predicted a disastrous marriage, and by 2014, I had Google to explain the Enneagram to me.  (Here’s a basic explanation, and here’s a free test.)  From what I read, I sure did sound like an Enneagram 4w3, just as I sounded like an INFJ, and Michael Garvey was very clearly a 5w6.   As far as I could tell, however, nothing positive had been gained by discovering this about ourselves – all that had happened was that we both had far more doubt than ever before that our working relationship could prosper.

It would be three years before Mr. Garvey finally fired me.  My termination for cause was long overdue; I am hopeless with numbers, and I am afraid that I made consequential (if unintentional) mistakes that cost his firm and his clients dearly.

The MBTI and the Enneagram have as many scoffers as true believers.  The defenders of these tests insist that their rubrics for understanding human nature are scientifically sound and profoundly useful.  Myers-Briggs and Enneagram devotees insist that they aren’t practicing astrology (though many of my friends who like these two personality systems are also fond of explaining their lives by the arrangement of the stars at the moment of their births).  And indeed, it’s hard not to be captivated by the MBTI and the Enneagram, because there are no losers –the systems promise that we each have wonderful and valuable traits.  All shall have prizes, and all are important.

In the social media age, the obsession with MBTI and Enneagram has grown exponentially.  As Elle Hunt wrote in the Guardian on Monday, noting the explosion of interest in discussions of these systems online, “discussion of personality is a way of connecting with other people, while being primarily concerned with ourselves.”

I think that’s right, but there’s a more basic point at play. We live in a culture where talking about difference has grown increasingly charged, if not dangerous.  Most of us have lost a friend, or grown distant from a family member, because of different politics.  The 2020 election, vaccine mandates, cancel culture, Black Lives Matter – so much of what we talk about has the potential to expose violent disagreement and shatter our relationship.  Almost all of us have had the upsetting experience of having a loved one espouse something we find unacceptable, dishonest, or simply bizarre. The great promise of MBTI, the Enneagram, and yes, astrology is that they are value-neutral vehicles for discussing genuine differences.  I may not be able to accept Aunt Matilda’s belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, but if I think of her instead as an ESTJ who is a 7w8, it gives me a less emotionally charged way to think of the gap between us.  The more we can compress our particularities into these personality templates, the greater the chance that we can tolerate difference without condemnation.

The more heated and acrimonious our cultural conflicts, the greater my interest in talking with my friends about MBTI, Enneagram, astrology, and other lesser-known personality inventories.  It is so difficult for we terrified and angst-ridden moderns to tolerate differences.  Myers-Briggs and its rivals give us one of the few remaining platforms we have for talking about human distinctives without judgement or derision.  As such, they are precious tools for sustaining community – even if, when it comes to marriage counseling or workplace harmony, they are hopeless predictors of success.

(And since you didn’t ask, I’m a Gemini sun, Scorpio moon, Sagittarius rising with my Venus in Cancer and my Mars in Libra.)


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