The MBTI and Counselling
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a popular personality assessment developed in the 1940s. It was originally created to assist job placement during World War II, but has been applied in many other contexts since its inception. Inspired by Carl Jung's typological theory, the MBTI asks a series of questions that are used to assess four aspects of personality. At the end of the assessment an individual is assigned a 4-letter code, whereby each letter corresponds to one aspect of personality, for example 'INFP'.
There are many resources on the internet that describe the structure of the MBTI in detail, but following is a brief description of each personality aspect assessed by the instrument. Please note, the original labels used to describe the second, third and fourth aspects can be quite misleading and not truly representative of the underlying personality dimension being measured. Due to convention we must adhere to the old codes and top-level descriptors, but you should find our explanations easier to understand.
Aspect 1] Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I)
The first aspect describes a person’s preference for interaction. It has long been observed that some people are more expressive, outgoing and comfortable in social situations – while others are reserved, quiet and more comfortable alone.
People described as extraverts feel energised from interaction with others and frequently seek out social situations. On the other hand, introverts prefer time-limited, infrequent social interactions with a small number of people, and feel more energised after spending time on their own.
Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not socially withdrawn because they feel down or depressed – they simply prefer less multitasked and shorter social interactions. You’ll find both extraverts and introverts at a concert, but whereas extraverts are more likely to speak with a number of random people and stay all night, an introvert will most likely confine themselves to a small group and prefer to leave after several hours.
Aspect 2] Intuitive (N) vs. Sensing (S)
The next aspect of personality describes a person’s preferred source of information. People who rate highly on the Sensing dimension are interested in information received directly from the external world. S-types are grounded in physical reality, pleasures and distraction; they are highly practical, pragmatic, and down-to-earth.
The word ‘Intuitive’ isn’t the best label for the N-dimension, and is probably best thought of as ‘Conceptual’. N-type personalities are more interested in concepts and ideas, and have a strong ability to understand abstract theory; they think deeply about most things and take pleasure in exploring mental models. For any given situation, S-types and N-types will likely focus on and respond to different cues.
Aspect 3] Feeling (F) vs. Thinking (T)
The third aspect of the MBTI is poorly labelled for both dimensions and has generated a lot of confusion. Essentially this aspect describes what information is included in a person’s decision-making process.
The F-dimension is best labelled ‘Humanistic’, while the T-dimension is best labelled ‘Logical’. A person rating high on the F-dimension considers human factors in their decision making: specifically, how their actions affect others, and how others affect their decision making. An F-type naturally understands empathy, compassion and mercy, and considers these values when making decisions.
T-type personalities don’t relate strongly to concepts of empathy and compassion, and instead tend to analyse situations in a linear, logical manner. They pay less attention to human factors when making a decision, and allocate more attention to what needs to be done in order to achieve a desired outcome. They do what they feel is best for any given situation, even if it doesn’t win any friends. T-types see themselves as rational and efficient.
Aspect 4] Perception (P) vs. Judgement (J)
The final MBTI aspect was also labelled in a confusing manner. The P-dimension is best thought of as ‘Spontaneous’ while the J-dimension is ‘Strategic’.
J-types may be described as planned, organised, sensible, and measured. A P-type may regard a J-type as too conservative – P-personalities live more in the moment, are less structured and worry less about consequences. With a relatively non-conformist, spontaneous attitude, P-types tend to have a lot of good stories to tell, but may also find long-term goals more difficult to achieve.
As you might imagine, J-types can feel a little anxious around P-types, as J-personalities fear the unexpected. However, J-types excel at achieving long-term goals via self-discipline and organisation, at the expense of unpredictable, spur-of-the-moment experience.
So far we have discussed each aspect in isolation, but combinations are important too. For example, an SJ personality may keep their house very tidy and organised (a person who is organised [J] and focused on physical reality [S]), compared with an NJ who might live in clutter but have very organised mental models of the world (a person who is organised [J] and focused on concepts [N]).
A thorough discussion of type combinations is beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re curious about exploring deeper interpretations of code-types then you’re welcome to contact me for book recommendations.
Use of the MBTI in Counselling
Within the world of personality psychology there are many mixed opinions on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, both positive and negative. As a personality assessment, it tends to be shunned by academics who have high standards for the internal statistical structure of questionnaires, but in the real world people have discovered the MBTI is actually quite a useful instrument.
I started using the MBTI regularly in my counselling practice about three years ago as part of my standard 'intake form' (an intake form is a quick assessment of current symptoms and issues relevant to therapy, which we send to every client after registration). Initially I wanted to screen the personality type of each client so they could be matched correctly with a counsellor who shares the same or similar personality type. This approach worked very well to assist in the rapid establishment of therapeutic rapport, since two people with the same code-type tend to 'speak the same language'.
However, there were unanticipated, additional uses for the MBTI personality assessment in counselling, which is why I encourage all clients to complete the questionnaire before commencing counselling and therapy.
As an aside, I'm not suggesting the MBTI is a perfect assessment – it doesn't come close to describing all aspects of human personality – but from a practitioner perspective it's probably the most useful personality assessment I've discovered for counselling (in contrast, I find the NEO-PI [MBTI's biggest rival] not very useful at all).
So in what ways is the MBTI useful in counselling?
One of the most rewarding outcomes of counselling is an increase in self-knowledge. There is something about knowing who we are, what we like, what we stand for, and what we believe in, that makes us feel stronger and more confident. Collectively this is called self-knowledge and is developed via the process of self-insight (that is, learning new information about yourself).
Although we are the conscious 'experiencers' of all events in our lives, most of the time we are looking outward, observing or thinking about the external world. In doing so we learn a lot about the different environments we encounter on a daily basis – our home, our work, our social playgrounds – and the people we meet. Even the characters we watch on television help us form a model of the world that has (perceived) predictive utility (enables us to predict what might happen next). How many of us could predict what the characters on “Friends” might do in particular situations? :) We watch, we infer patterns, and we make predictions.
Perhaps there is some evolutionary adaptive reason why humans tend to focus exclusively on the external world. Our introspective ancestors may have found themselves with less access to food and reproductive opportunities than their survival-focused brothers and sisters. And so, a general human trait of thinking about the external environment probably emerged to keep us safe and alive.
But safe and alive isn't necessarily happy and confident. The Palaeolithic environment in which our homo sapien brains developed to maturation was very different to the environment in which we find ourselves now. For the most part, we don't need to scan the external environment for wild animals, we don't have to think about how to stay warm at night, and most people are quietly confident they can find food over the next week. In other words, our brains developed to find ways to survive in a prehistoric environment that are no longer relevant in Western society.
“But safe and alive isn't necessarily happy and confident. The Palaeolithic environment in which our homo sapien brains developed to maturation was very different to the environment in which we find ourselves now.”
One consequence of our in-built inclination to focus on the external world is lack of self-knowledge. Just as with anything else, until we have been through a process of learning we don't know much about a particular topic, and most clients arrive in counselling not knowing much about themselves. They don't know how they ended up in a job they hate, an incompatible relationship, or why they're addicted to certain behaviours. Most of us just bounce from one situation to the next, grabbing opportunities without a strategic plan – until we start to realise something isn't quite right. It's at those moments, usually when something goes wrong, that we turn inwards to try and assess why we feel on edge, a bit gloomy, or downright depressed.
At this point there is a lot of individual variation in what happens next. Some people have grown up in circumstances that promote introspection, so they have at least some rudimentary self-assessment strategy to compare their external circumstances with their internal values, desires, beliefs etc. Unless the situation is very complicated they know what needs to happen to get back on track.
Others, however, get a little stuck – they turn inwards but don't know what they're looking for – they don't know by what criteria to evaluate their external circumstances, and without an evaluation process it's impossible to devise a strategy to change things for the better. Rumination usually follows, which is useless repetitive thinking about an unpleasant situation, over and over again.
Sometimes supportive friends and family can help break the cycle of rumination by suggesting plans and strategies to move forwards. After all, one consequence of human external focus is that friends and family probably know an individual better than they know themselves!
If an insightful support network isn't available then rumination tends to continue until psychological symptoms become severe enough that the individual seeks professional help. That's why most clients I see are in a pretty distressed state initially, as they've endured weeks or months of prolonged psychological and emotional anguish.
**Best to visit us earlier if you notice you're dwelling on a particular issue **
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, self-knowledge is one of the most rewarding aspects of counselling. Put simply, counselling helps you learn about yourself – your motivations, your attitudes, your beliefs that drive your behaviour – things that most people haven't thought about in a systematic way.
Clients usually start counselling focused on some external issue that has lead them to feel distressed: they feel anxious in particular situations, their partner cheated on them, they were overlooked for a promotion, someone close passed away, their housemate keeps eating their food. Whatever the issue, the counsellor will listen and provide emotional support, but will also be looking for patterns that help to understand a client's underlying psychological traits that give rise to their habitual tendencies.
By completing the MBTI right at the beginning of counselling, counsellors have access to personality information that would take weeks or months to infer. Plus, the assessment also orients the client to start thinking about themselves in a deeper way, and how they might play an interactive part in shaping the environment around them. The 'self' becomes an active variable in their model of the world, and not just a passive recipient of the environment.
The ancient adage of 'Know Thyself' is very relevant for psychological maturity, and the MBTI is a great first step on the path to self-discovery.
(Note for the Millennials: The philosopher Plato remarked 'Know Thyself', not Know Thyselfie :)
Relationships are complicated. Simple physical attraction can bring two individuals together, but our physical appearance is like the tip of an iceberg. Simmering underneath is a very complex system of psychological factors (what we call ‘personality’) that interacts with another individual's highly complex system. When these systems work in harmony the interaction (the relationship) can bring us great joy, happiness, and fulfilment. But when the systems conflict, the iceberg can tear us apart like the Titanic.
The MBTI assesses personality variables that describe some important aspects of the complex system. For example, an extravert (E-type personality) likes to go out and socialise quite often, while an introvert (I-type personality) feels drained by long social engagements and prefers the company of one or two close friends. As you might imagine, putting an E-personality together with an I-personality creates potential for conflict. The E-personality craves social engagement, to be around lots of people, and the I-personality might begrudgingly follow along, possibly leading to arguments or quiet dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the E-personality might become bored by the I-personality's homebody lifestyle, again leading to a division in the relationship.
In couples counselling, apart from specific issues such as infidelity or domestic violence, most conflicts can be partially explained by MBTI differences, and a lack of understanding of each other’s point of view. I've already explained a typical example above using the E/I dimension, but differences in N/S, F/T and J/P types can also cause problems.
Although the differences between N- and S-personality types are less obvious than E/I conflict, nevertheless the N/S dimension determines where an individual places their attention. S-personality types are focused on the physical world – what's happening, with whom, where and when. S-types are 'hands on', whether it's fixing a car, playing sport, or feeding the poor, they are happiest when they feel grounded by sensory experience.
On the other hand, N-types are the philosophers, the conceptual thinkers, the inventors and the dreamers. They are most comfortable discussing or thinking about ideas and cognitive models rather than the immediate physical world around them. People who write psychology articles for fun are usually N-types :)
Try to imagine an N-type and an S-type in a relationship – they would interpret every situation quite differently. For example, at a party an S-type might pay attention to the clothes and fashion the guests are wearing, the type of food being served, and what people are saying about each other. Conversely, the N-type is thinking about the meaning and significance of the event, what type of people are attending the party, and how to find someone interesting to talk to. Both interpretations of the event are equally valid, but they are quite different, and usually the opposite interpretation doesn't really interest the other. While the N-type is discussing politics with a new acquaintance, the S-type is extremely bored, and while the S-type networks and mingles like a star, the N-type doesn't see the point. Subsequently, sometimes it's difficult for N/S relationships to find common ground for communication and shared experience.
Probably the biggest cause of conflict in relationships (and one of the most difficult to solve) occurs when F- and T-type personalities (somehow) get together. The F-type individual is humanitarian and cares deeply about their impact on others, and how they fit within their social network. The F-types are people-oriented and tend to have higher emotional intelligence (they understand their own emotions, can read emotions in others, and know how to express and soothe their emotions appropriately). A T-type individual is more logical, epitomised (in an extreme way) by Spock from Star Trek. Decisions are made without much consideration of how they might impact on others – not in a malevolent manner, but with more of a utilitarian bent – the greatest good for the greatest number.
To an F-type, T-types can come across as ruthless and callous, while T-types sometimes see F-types as irrational, weak and self-centred. An F-type needs emotional support that doesn't come naturally for a T-type, while T-types are more methodical and can become frustrated by (what they consider) undue focus on how people feel about everything. The F/T discrepancy is difficult to reconcile as F-types usually feel their emotional needs aren't being met, while T-types regard the F’s as being too needy.
Lastly, the P/J difference is the basis of most trivial relationship arguments. Do you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom or the top? Do you wash the dishes before going to bed or leave them soaking overnight? Do we plan our weekends in advance or see what we feel like doing on the day?
The P-type personality is often described as spontaneous, fun loving, flexible and easy-going, perhaps at the expense of being organised, on time, and neat around the house. On the other hand, a J-personality is more strategic in their approach to life, and feels more comfortable and secure with plans, schedules and longer-term goals. They usually have a secret desire to be more spontaneous, but in reality it makes them anxious.
When someone is very high on the J-dimension they can come across 'as a bit OCD' (a common phrase I hear in couples therapy), as events and situations have to be planned and anticipated, and at home everything needs to be 'in its right place'. A P-personality can feel a bit stifled or controlled by a J-personality, while a J-personality may regard their P-type partner as messy, disorganised, and lacking direction. Most of the time J/P arguments and differences can be reconciled without too much trouble.
Given the potential misunderstandings that can occur from a mismatch of personality types in a relationship, one might prematurely conclude it's important to find a partner with exactly the same MBTI code! After years of assessing personality types and literally thousands of counselling sessions focused on relationship issues, I have to conclude that close type matches are associated with more harmony and less arguments. However, two individuals don't necessarily need to possess exactly the same type code for a relationship to work. Indeed, in some respects a little difference can be useful (for example, two introverts rarely take initiative to go out) so long as good communication is present, combined with a willingness to understand each other's needs.
When differences in MBTI types lead to relationship misunderstandings, these approaches in counselling can be useful:
- Recognise the virtues (good aspects / benefits) of the opposite type (actually write them down), and develop a healthy respect for those virtues. For example, although P-types can be a little messy and disorganised, they can also bring a lot of pleasure and new experiences into a J's life. Similarly, a J-personality can help a P-type become more organised to achieve longer-term goals that bring a sense of fulfilment beyond immediate pleasures.
- Find extreme examples of your own type to put yourself in the shoes of your partner. An extrovert might be asked to think about an unbalanced extrovert who never has any downtime. By extension, an extrovert can start to understand how an introvert values their downtime. An N-type might conceive of an extreme N-personality who is 'away with the fairies' and lost touch with the physical world. In this way, the N-type can start to see the virtues and importance of being 'grounded'.
- Communicate your needs to your partner, help them understand, and realise they can't read your mind. A good way to initiate shared understanding is by reading each other's personality type descriptions together. It's important to read them together as there will be some aspects of the description that don't apply, and other aspects that are extremely important. A shared understanding goes a long way towards managing your expectations for each other.
Work / Careers Counselling
Apart from relationships and family, work is one of the most common topics discussed in counselling. Many people don't enjoy their work, feel undervalued, unheard, forgotten or simply disinterested. Self-awareness of one's values, skills, strengths and weaknesses are critical to choosing a satisfying job and career-path.
While there are several good assessment questionnaires specific to careers counselling, the MBTI can assist to narrow down the vast diversity of different job choices to a manageable number of relevant options. A strong F- or P-type personality may not enjoy accounting and finance, while an introvert would cringe at the idea of working in sales. An F-personality would excel in any of the helping professions – for example, many of my clients working in nursing are ESFJs: they like being around people, are grounded, caring and organised. On the other hand, many of my psychologist colleagues have an NF personality type: they tend to think conceptually and care very much about the welfare of others.
I can think of many successful lawyers and surgeons with TJ personality types – they can come across a little harsh, but excel in what they do. You want these people on your side when times are tough.
In other words, there's a calling for every personality type, and knowing your inclinations and preferences goes a long way towards narrowing the field of choices. We can contrast this strategic approach to choosing a career with the old approach of trial and error, or following in your family's footsteps (who may have a different personality type) or choosing a career based on school grades.
On this last point, I have quite a number of clients who studied medicine or law simply because they ‘got the marks’, but eventually realise they're not personally suited to their chosen profession. As an example from my own experience, back in my school days (the 80's, which excuses my fashion sense :) we didn't have ready access to insightful psychologists or careers counsellors who could recommend the MBTI. Subsequently I also made an error in career choice (Economics and Marketing) that fundamentally wasn't suited to my personality type (INFJ). At age 26 I abandoned my business career to start the long process of becoming a clinical psychologist, and have enjoyed every aspect of my working life since then.
For the reasons outlined above – increased self-knowledge, happier relationships, and wise career choice – I thoroughly recommend completing the MBTI personality assessment prior to starting counselling.
However, and this point is very important, when you take the assessment, answer the questions as you are right now, not as you would like to be. Also, take the assessment alone, without anyone else present, so you can be completely honest.
When I first started administering the MBTI three years ago, some clients would report the personality descriptions didn't match their understanding of themselves. Over the years I've discovered these clients were taking the assessment with a friend or partner observing their responses, or they were answering the questions from the perspective of their 'ideal self' or how they would like to be, instead of their 'actual self' or how they really are right now.
The best type of MBTI assessment is done by a psychologist who has completed specific training in the administration and interpretation of the original Myers-Briggs instrument, but such assessments are usually quite expensive and not covered by Medicare or private health insurance. Instead, there are many free versions on the internet that approximate the original MBTI questionnaire and tend to derive the same results.
My recommendation is the 16Personalities.com assessment that my clients have been using for years. It only takes 10 minutes to complete and the free descriptions are quite thorough and accurate (just don't expect them to summarise your personality perfectly).
When you complete our intake form after registration there is a box to insert your 4-letter MBTI code – it's completely optional but very useful for your counsellor to know your personality type.
If you have any questions about the MBTI assessment you’re welcome to Contact me.
For more information, or to access online counselling services, please visit OnlineCounselling.com.au