Credibility and connection: personality theory



It really infuriates me when people dismiss a topic out of hand. It often happens when I mention something I believe in that is slightly off the beaten track, and whoever I’m talking to gets the smug look on their face that precedes their making a definitive statement about a topic they know almost literally nothing about.

“Oh, personality types?” they say. “Well, that’s just putting people in boxes, isn’t it?”

I don’t know, is it? Do you know anything about it, or are you just working off an assumption you’ve made based on a comfort born of ignorance? Have you taken the time to try and understand the topic before assuming you can dismiss it?

The answer is usually, no.

Human nature

Don’t get me wrong, I can see what’s happening – I’m surely guilty of it myself often enough. I understand that we fear new knowledge, and that not everyone possesses a need to analyse and understand everything. Or perhaps lots of people do, but they confine their interest to certain widely-accepted fields of knowledge, such as the natural world, politics, philosophy or general history.

Or perhaps they just want to watch some TV.

My primary area of knowledge is people, which I consider a valid category for understanding in the same way as chemistry or mathematics.

From my observations over my short life so far, there is a human system at work, maybe more than one, and I intend to understand what it consists of. I maintain that understanding people, their motivations, fears and desires, is not simply restricted to the fields of psychology, sociology or psychoanalysis, though one could be forgiven for thinking it was.

Systems thinking

In the same way as I want to understand computer systems, I want to understand human systems.

I think it comes down to labelling. A fear of putting things in boxes, and wanting to stay inside a box of your own making, and so closing your mind to any system that usefully might be able to categorise difference, because it threatens your complacency about yourself and others.

I think the basic problem is a failure to understand that personality typing is a system rather than a set of static definitions – but first, what is a system?

For the explanation of which, we will turn to Wikipedia:

A system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

That is the point of personality typing systems. The purpose of the system is up to us, and therefore it is admittedly open to abuse.

People who are interested in the theories place their own values on using certain labels to justify their actions, find affinity with their ‘type’ or dismiss other types, but that is not the fault of the system.

That is the fault of human nature.

Value versus objectivity

I’ve been thinking about forms of knowledge and the tendency of human beings to create hierarchies. We impose values on systems which are actually just neutral, and therefore risk the integrity of the system.

Typology systems are frequently abused by their own zealous adherents, who for example want to find a link between being a certain personality type and liking a particular flavour of ice cream, or suggest that their type is more ‘intelligent’ than other types.

Hardly anything could be further from the point of Jung’s original personality theory. I think he’d be baffled and amused by the notion, and probably write down some notes about it.

The two main personality systems I’m interested in at the moment are: Jung’s theory of psychological functions, and Riso and Hudson’s Enneagram theory, which is a system of spiritual and emotional development.

Together, they represent mind and spirit respectively, and I believe they are interconnecting systems.

As an aside, I’m also interested in other systems that can help me to understand the rest of the human experience: for example, neurobiology to understand the body, and I’m working on finding one to apply to the external environment.

What’s the point?

But why be interested in systems at all? Why not just accept life as it is, and stumble relatively blindly through it?

It arises from my need to understand my environment and the people in it, and a belief in the greater possibilities for achievement and growth that can be attained if one uses a sensible system. Systems provide appropriate language we can use to understand each other more deeply and effectively, and a roadmap to help us navigate through the quagmire of life.

Unfortunately, many misconceptions arise from mistaking the part for the whole, and mistaken notions about typology – both Enneagram and Jung’s theory – fall into this category.

Labels are a necessary component of a complex system, and are what you could term the language of the system, but are not the system in its entirety.

Labels like ‘INFJ’ and ‘Fours’ are not the purpose of personality systems, but simply a language for people to use to express themselves and communicate these ideas with each other. The reason personality systems can be difficult to penetrate for beginners is the fact that, to use a system, one must first learn its language, which takes time and dedication.

Rather than limiting or restricting the staggering complexity of human experience, labels are signs and symbols with which to express phenomena that is readily observable using basic powers of perception.

We can also use such observations to formulate insights able to predict patterns and behaviour, and hopefully even avoid potential pitfalls.

Where does it come from?

Whether personality systems are embedded in the fabric of our biology, or a pattern we unconsciously choose to see because it’s in our nature to do so, isn’t really important to me.

Divinely ordained? Maybe, maybe not.

Whatever caused a system to exist wouldn’t change my desire to understand it.

All this talk of systems is exhausting, especially as someone who operates primarily based on feelings and whims. But I’m trying to develop my logical capabilities, and hopefully not sounding too mad or stupid in the process.

But why, why try to understand human beings? For a very human reason.

To help with self-development and growth, and try to understand and nurture the complexity of being human. To see where we fit into this cohesive, magnificent whole. The idea of being connected spiritually and mentally to a system of human beings is thrilling to me: not limiting, but expansive.

The need I have  to define and explain this experience is almost impossible to ignore.

Read some more about prejudice against certain types of knowledge, or some nice poetry. 

300x350-catCatherine Julianne is a writer and digital communications professional interested in the field of personality theory. She also likes drawing, meditating and being in nature. 



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