When I was about ten, there were three major teen magazines in my area. They had pretty similar content, even though one was intended for a younger public, one a bit more oriented towards music and shopping, and the last one a bit more outrageous. However, one thing all three had in common was a test at the end. Needless to say, I was always skipping all the articles, even though I love reading, to start with that test that would necessarily make me learn more about myself. And I did get to know myself better when I went through “Which Spice Girl are you?” and “What type of girlfriend are you?” You build a wall brick by brick after all, right?
Who are you?
Even though I am now in my late twenties, my love of these tests is still very alive. I guess it is linked to my eternal quest to find meaning and to define a purpose to my life that makes sense and is aligned with my values. Any possible way I can find to help me along the way is welcome, and that’s why I was super excited when I found the Myers-Briggs personality test (the grown-up version of “Which Spice Girl are you” I guess) on one of my favorite bloggers’ site, Penelope Trunk.
I did the test a few months ago, and then forgot about it. It is only recently that I got back to it, and as always, requestioned myself about the result. So I did the test again, and found that the result was a bit different. Instead of an “ENFJ”, this time I came out as an “INFJ”. How could I keep on living without knowing what personality type I was? I couldn’t, so I wrote to Penelope, which answered me super fast (how great), letting me know that the major difference between the two is whether you think out loud or think before you speak, the “E” never shutting up “because they don’t have a thought unless they say it”, the “I” needing alone time “to sort thoughts and figure out what to say”. She also mentioned that after tons of talking the “I” needs a break but the “E” is energized for more, which was the deal breaker for me. Even though I love you guys, I definitely need time alone to recover and put together my thoughts.
The power of identity
So now I kind of know. I am an “INFJ”. Just to make sure, I double-checked the results by doing a second test on another website. But I still can’t be sure, because I was influenced by the results of the first test, which highlighted some aspects of my personality, which then had an impact on the way I was answering the questions to the second test.
See? That’s the power of identity. Believing that I am an INFJ made me answer the way I thought an INFJ would answer. I still recognize myself very much in the descriptions I found about the INFJ, but how can I be sure? Unless the descriptions would be very far from me, I believe I could recognize parts of myself in other descriptions as well.
All those tests, as well as other experiences, roles, activities, are helping us build our identity. On a morning run, a sweet sir I often meet on the mountain greeted me saying “Good morning gazelle!”. Instantly, I started running faster, with a proud chest and a tall posture. I added the idea of being a gazelle to the vision I have of myself. At yoga, when I am able to perform a complex arm balance, I add the “yogi who’s standing on her hands” concept to my definition of what I am. Working on projects at work, if I find myself doing a great job at listening to others and coming up with innovative solutions, I start seeing myself more and more as a “great project manager”.
This vision that I have of myself has an impact on my “performance” at work and in my personal life. Believing that I am more of an introvert instead of an extrovert changes the way I interact with others, and also challenges me, confronting who I am vs who I wish I was. I always wanted to be that people’s person, who loves being in a group, but I have to accept that I might need more time alone than I wish I did.
These tools aren’t therefore only a reality check: they can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers’ believe they have been given the best students, even when it is not the case, those children perform better. And when children also believe in their capacities, when they see themselves as great students, they also perform better, as Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy proposes. When we believe in our capacities to reach our goals, our motivation and performance improve. The way we see ourselves, the way we define who we are, our identity, impact how we are living our life.
As Dan and Chip Heath exposed in their book “Switch”, identity can also be a powerful driver for change. Using the idea that this parrot who can only be found in St-Lucia was a strong symbol of this Caribbean island, Paul Butler, an engineer passionate about conservation, was able to unite island’s inhabitants to protect the endangered species from extinction. In the same vein, Kathleen Davis, a registered nurse and vice president of hospital operations at Lovelave Hospital Systems in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the help of Susan Wood, a consultant specialized in Appreciative Inquiry (who basically works on finding the bright spots to help people solve organizational problems), reinforced the sense of belonging and pride of the nurses working this hospital, contributing to the development of a stronger sense of identity, which lead to the diminution of the turnover by 30%.
How not to get stuck though
Identity is a strong construct, which we cannot ignore. As human beings, we will inevitably built stories around our experiences, and eventually develop that vision of ourselves. The identity I have built since childhood can be seen as something more and more fixed as I am getting closer to thirty now, which is great since it can help me make wiser choices about how to live my life based on what I know about myself.
However, this fixed identity can also become a problem. That’s what Dan and Chip Heath refers to as a fixed mindset, vs a growth mindset. One of the downsides of identity is that it can become something we get attached to, or stuck in. When we start to define ourselves with a label, a role, trying to grasp who we are with definitions, categories, we inevitably reduce our magnificence. We cannot seize our whole being with a single word.
The challenge then is to use those tests, the experiences we live, whatever life brings to us, to help you get to know yourself better, and then let them go. Although some personality traits are more permanent, identities are often related to a moment, a timeframe, and we are constantly evolving. Just like a snake, we sometimes have to be able to let go of our old skin to embrace a new one. The paradox is that the more we get to know ourselves, the more we need to let go of that idea we have of ourselves, of any ego. Learning to let go of whatever we think is our identity, not looking to fit into one category, under one label, but to simply be with what is right here right now. Sometimes, some days, you might even surprise yourself if you let yourself not be so defined, not stuck into one confining definition. To define is always to diminish, as one of my yoga teachers says. Let yourself be amazed by how wonderful you can be, how courageous, how generous, despite what your personality type says. That’s the real test: to be your best self no matter what, to act upon your desire to do good, to be in full adequacy with the values that are the most powerful to you, regardless of the identity you choose to embrace.