I haven’t posted about personality in a good long while.
Despite my radio silence on personality (only on the blog: I find myself chatting MBTI and enneagram over coffee all the time) I still get frequent emails on the topic. A common question is this: If I only have the headspace to learn about one personality paradigm, which one should it be: MBTI or the enneagram?
My answer: it depends.
(For better or worse, my personality type is very comfortable with ambiguity.)
A few thoughts to help you decide:
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator hooked me on personality geekery when I took my first test in high school. (I did it wrong—answering the questions aspirationally instead of realistically—and the results confused me for years, but I was nevertheless hooked on the idea.)
You probably recognize the MBTI types, even if you don’t know what they mean: ENFP, ISTJ, INFP, etc. It’s not so hard to get the hang of it, even though it sounds like a foreign language to the uninitiated. In a way, it is a language: I love Myers-Briggs because it gives me a system in which to think personality, a language in which to talk about it.
Learning my MBTI type (I’m an INFP) has helped me understand all sorts of things about myself: I’m idealistic, open-minded, and a bit scatterbrained. I’m easily persuadable and hugely empathetic. Knowing this about myself—and what it means for my life, my work, and my relationships—has made a huge difference in my life.
MBTI is often described as the system that brings your strengths into clear focus: when I read about my MBTI type, I feel like a very special snowflake, uniquely and wondrously made. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating … but only a little.)
As an INFP, my strengths are numerous:
• seek value and harmony
• open-minded and flexible
• very creative
• passionate and energetic
• dedicated and hard-working
Of course, my type has weaknesses:
• too idealistic
• too altruistic
• dislike dealing with data
• take things personally
• difficult to get to know
Those strengths ring true for me, as do the weaknesses, as they should for anyone who’s correctly identified their type. But here’s the thing about MBTI: those weaknesses don’t sound so bad.
(Read about all the types and take a free MBTI test here.)
Many people say that if the MBTI highlights your strengths, the enneagram unmasks your weaknesses. This isn’t exactly true: when I quizzed my friend (and enneagram whiz) Leigh Kramer about this analogy, she corrected me: your enneagram type identifies your motivations: the reasons that drive everything you do. (Although once you dive into the enneagram, “motivations” and ‘weaknesses” can sure feel like the same thing.)
For example, as a type 9, my driving motivation is to avoid conflict. Like my MBTI, this rings true, and it doesn’t sound so bad. Yet. But when I keep reading about what that means and how it plays out in my life, I don’t feel like a special snowflake: I feel emotionally incompetent. (Incidentally, if you read a description of your enneagram type and you feel completely exposed, that’s a sign you typed yourself correctly. When the yucky stuff resonates, you nailed it.)
In the enneagram, each person does have a core personality type that doesn’t change. However, within each type, a person can either be emotionally healthy, average, or unhealthy. (If you’ve correctly identified your type, you’ll feel an uncomfortable connection to the description of the unhealthy version of your type.)
Case in point: I suspected I was a 9 the first time I read through the enneagram profiles, but I wasn’t certain… until I had to make a decision that, by its very nature, involved disappointing a lot of people. I had the self-awareness to realize that my reaction was pretty extreme, and absolutely typical for a 9. (That didn’t make me feel lovable and unique, it made me feel like a basket case.) It was my glaring weakness—and not any of my strengths—that let me finally confirm my type.
(Read about all the types and take a free enneagram test here.)
Which to choose?
I’m no expert. But my layperson’s advice is to take the tests, read through the descriptions of the various personality types under both systems, and choose whichever one resonates the most. (Unless you’re in your mid-twenties or younger, in which case go with MBTI for now. It’s recommended that you wait to dive into the enneagram until ideally age 30, or at least your late twenties.)
Are you familiar with these systems? Which do you prefer? If you’re learning, which do you intend to start with?
P.P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.