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Using the MBTI for personal development

“The curious paradox is that it is only when I accept myself just as I am that I can begin to grow and develop.” Carl Rogers

The following sets out a fairly conventional approach to the way that the MBTI™ can help us understand and leverage our strengths. However, while the Centre thinks this useful we are wary of adopting a 'strengths based approach'. This is an increasingly fashionable approach in organisations and we are concerned that, while it is well-meaning, it may back-fire leading to stereotyping and limiting what people think they are able to do. We also think that approaches like these can be overly simplistic and reductionist. You can read some of our rationale here and what we see as  alternatives.

'Know thyself'

Good personal development is essentially based on self-awareness.  It is about gaining self-knowledge and this is precisely what the MBTI has to offer. In MBTI workshops, I regularly see people go through a fairly rapid personal transformation in the course of one short day. They arrive believing firmly that the way they see the world, or what they value, is just the same as any 'normal' person and they leave aware that their particular take on the world may be “normal” but still says more about their type preferences than it does about normality. In other words, the MBTI helps them to gain self-knowledge and to differentiate themselves from others and their views.

Strengths, weaknesses and self-acceptance

As a personal development tool the MBTI has another important gift as it also provides people with a way to understand their strengths and weaknesses better. As we age, we often discover the hard way what our strengths and weaknesses are. But this knowledge is rarely based on real understanding of why we find some tasks easy and accomplish them well, whereas we find other tasks a major challenge. Without this knowledge, it is easy for us to become very self-critical – silently berating ourselves for having weaknesses at all.(See section on the MBTI and confidence. Particularly point 3)

Knowledge of our preferences and the MBTI can quickly put an end to all that inner negativity as it shows us in no uncertain terms that strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked. In fact, our strengths are our weaknesses. And this simple fact leads to the liberating insight that there is no such thing as the perfect person who accomplishes everything well – that everyone has areas of weakness. And this understanding helps put us on the road to self-acceptance which Carl Rogers rightly claims is the route to all personal growth.

As the desire to be perfect, and accomplish everything really well has such a strong hold on most people in our society, let me spell out in more detail the reasoning behind the claim that our strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked and that perfection always eludes us. 

The preference scales in the MBTI are dichotomous. In other words, in each of the four scales (E/I, S/N,T/F, and J/P) we can use one function and then move across to the other but it is physically impossible to use both functions in a scale at the same time. For example:

E/I I am either paying attention to the outer world (E) or I am reflecting and paying attention to my inner world (I).

S/N I am either using my five senses to take in information and to ground my awareness in physical reality (S) or I am cutting off from the concrete world and using my intuition to discern trends, patterns, and possibilities or to ask questions about meaning (N).

T/F I am either taking myself out of the decision making process and becoming objectively logical (T) or I am putting myself at the heart of it, being subjective and consulting my personal values (F).

J/P I am either focusing my attention on organising and controlling my outer world (J) or I am keeping my options open so I can be spontaneous and “go with the flow” (P).

Having a preference means we are naturally drawn to devoting time and energy to that function or attitude. The more we devote time and energy to our preferences the more accomplished we tend to become at tasks associated with the use of these preferences. These become our strengths. But the opposite is also true – by not spending time and energy on certain functions and attitudes we become weak in these areas. It is important to realise, however, that some extremely gifted individuals while still having areas of weakness, can still accomplish tasks associated with their least favourite function more effectively than some people who have a preference in this area. But this still does not make them 'perfect' at everything.

Democratic

Psychological type theory is genuinely democratic in that it shows how each type has its strengths and its weaknesses, No type is intrinsically better than another and in that sense there are no winners and losers.

The importance of clarity of preference

People often ask if it isn’t better to have no real preference, say for thinking or feeling, so that you are able to do both equally well. But this isn’t the case. Think about it this way. Is it not better to have a really strong right hand which you can use masterfully and a weak left hand than be mediocre in your use of both hands?  MBTI research bears this out as it shows that people who are high achievers, and who accomplish things well, record strong preferences. Research also shows that it can be tiring and confusing for people if they have no strong preference in a scale as they often feel pulled in two different directions.

Strengths must not be overdone

Strong preferences can be good, as they usually translate into tangible strengths, but we must beware of the danger of overdoing our strengths so that they become a liability to us. Qualities and skills can only be considered strengths if they are not overdone.



Strengths must be appropriate

It is also important for us to realise that strengths are only strengths when they are used in a way which is appropriate to the situation we are in. To be able to reflect deeply in a work situation when solving a problem can be a great strength but it can be a great weakness if someone chooses to become similarly reflective in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime family gathering. Similarly it can be appropriate for a doctor to be objective and logical when diagnosing a patient’s illness but totally inappropriate for him or her to act this way when delivering the news that the prognosis for the patient is not good.

A question of balance

So while strong, clear preferences are good for us as individuals and help us to develop real strengths, we must also guard against excessive, insensitive or inappropriate use of our preferences. When we use our preferences in this way they no longer become a source of strength to us but a liability.

Using the MBTI to plan your personal development

Sometimes people have preferences which their work or lifestyle does not allow them to use very often. For example, a person with a preference for N and P may be in a routine administration job which forces them to use more of S and J. In these cases it is important for people to seek out opportunities for themselves to be true to type. The NP in this case may find that attending an evening class on theory helps make them to feel more like themselves.

More commonly people choose to live their lives in ways which allow them to use their preferences continually and in these cases it is often important for the person to consciously try to develop their least preferred areas so that they can use them more effectively when it is appropriate to do so. As a consultant and trainer in this area I have found that self-awareness is sometimes enough to enhance people’s effectiveness but here is a short list of developmental activities and insights which can be useful for each of the preferences:

Extraverts: developing listening skills; learning to cope with silences; taking time to reflect before action.
Introverts: becoming more assertive generally in expressing their views and opinions; taking action.
Sensors: thinking about the future; creativity, courses involving theory.
Intutitives: becoming more realistic and practical about what is achievable; living in the moment.
Thinkers: interpersonal skills or assertiveness training to increase awareness of the impact of their behaviour on others; sensitivity to others’ feelings.
Feelers: assertiveness training; becoming more independent of others’ views; coping with conflict.
Judgers: scheduling time to be more spontaneous and flexible: any form of training which helps to encourage tolerance of difference.
Perceivers: time management and organisational skills; being more realistic about what is achievable.

 

© Carol Craig

MBTI, Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries; OPP Ltd. has exclusive rights to these trademarks in the U.K.

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