I don’t mind admitting that the Disney movie Frozen brought tears to my eyes. As the father of two daughters, it was the self-sacrificing love between sisters that really caught me in the tear ducts. But the film is full of other powerful archetypal themes: hero, obstacle, quest, death and rebirth, and the story of human transformation that connects them all. One of the reasons that Frozen is the most successful animated movie of all time is that its characters are each significantly shifted by their experiences, drawing on courage to access new, previously unseen aspects of themselves. Any screenwriter will tell you that this is Screenwriting 101: make sure the central characters follow an arc of development and are left altered by the events of the story.
Which is why a specific line from the film has always bugged me because it seems to contradict the film’s overarching perspective on personal evolution. The line belongs to Mama Troll in the song ‘Fixer Upper’, in which she sings:
‘We aren’t saying you can change him,
‘Cause people don’t really change’
That may be true of your personality type, but…
I’ve heard this sentiment many times before and the truth it holds is plain to see. There are aspects of people that never seem to change, regardless of what they are exposed to. Yet, people also change all the time. We seem to have this notion that we are fixed beings, pretty much the same person today as we were yesterday and will be tomorrow. But this is an illusion. Biologically, emotionally, energetically, intellectually, and spiritually, we are in a constant state of flux. In small, supremely subtle ways we are always moving in response to our experiences. And over time these small changes become big shifts: a selfish bachelor becomes a doting father, a devout believer becomes an atheist, an actor becomes an activist, a rebel becomes a conformist.
It seems to raise a conflict: on the one hand people never change, and on the other hand they continuously. But the apparent contradiction is made easier to hold if one looks at what changes and what stays the same.
What changes is usually our value system or worldview. For most people, what they considered most important at 13 no longer rings as true for them at 43. What we want out of our work may be very different when we’re 50 from when we were 20. And what matters most to us might change significantly after we’ve started a family, lost a loved one, fallen ill, had a spiritual experience, or gone through a divorce. Though frequently life-changing, such metamorphosis is often difficult and to some extent explains why the fields of coaching and mentoring have grown so much in recent years.
What doesn’t change very much as we move through our lives is the type of person we are. Types can be quite basic, such as gender, or more complex, like personality. In the case of personality, your base type doesn’t really change once you finish adolescence, though facets of your personality may become stronger or weaker. What does vary quite a lot, however, is how your personality is measured. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to be put in box, take solace in the fact that there are many different approaches to personality typing.
The Four Temperaments is a theory that pre-dates modern psychology. Originating in the ancient four humours theory, and popularised by Greek physician Hippocrates, this approach suggests that there are four fundamental personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic. Each of these types has specific characteristics that help explain human behavior, and though the theory has declined in popularity since the rise of the psychological sciences, a recent study concludes that there are, in fact, four basic personality types: optimistic, pessimistic, trusting and envious.
If you’ve worked in a large organization, chances are your employee intake process has included a more sophisticated personality assessment, such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Founded in the work of Carl Jung, the Myers-Briggs was first published in 1944 but remains widely used today in business and personal development. The assessment identifies the individual as being one of 16 major personality types, each with their own matrix of proclivities, strengths, and weaknesses. Though the types are defined by combinations of letters to describe their tendencies (eg. INFP or ESTJ), contemporary versions of the test identify each type as a character (eg The Artist, The Scientist, The Thinker, The Doer).
Less known, but possibly the most sophisticated type analysis tool, due to its inclusion of psycho, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual, is the Enneagram. It classifies according to 9 major personality types, commonly expressed as numbers (eg Enneagram type 1, type 4) or characters (eg The Enthusiast, The Loyalist).
Making better decisions
Many coaches use personality typing to help build understanding of their clients, but whether you are taking a personality test for your own interest or as part of a coaching intake process, there are a few important considerations to bear in mind:
1- You are not your personality type. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘don’t confuse the map with the territory’? Well, in this case, your personality type and its general characteristics are just a map, a guide for you to use as you navigate the territory of the self. You are a genuinely unique individual, not a category.
2- Hold it lightly. Whether you are basking in the glow of your personality type’s typical strengths or struggling to accept some of the typical weaknesses associated with your type, don’t get too attached to your type definition. Your type does not define you, it should be used lightly as a reference tool to help you develop weak areas or blind spots in your personality, and capitalize on natural capacities your personality grants you.
3- Feel your way into it. As you work through the description of your personality type, sense into what feels right for you, and what feels off. Remember, these are general guidelines. Also, try to spot those areas where you discard a characteristic you don’t like on the premise that ‘I’m not like that’ – it could be a great clue to a potential area for self-development that you are simply resisting.
4- Use the knowledge. Finally, once you have a version of your personality type that feels like it fits, look at it in context of the rest of your life. Having this extra perspective on yourself, do you have new clues about whether the structure of your life serves you? What kind of career are you well-suited to? What kind of work are you involved in? How could you have better relationships? What impact does your personality type have on your health decisions? What could you change to make better use of your strengths, while addressing your weaknesses?
Want to identify your personality types? Try the Myers-Briggs-based 16 Personality Types test (free), or the deeply revealing Enneagram RHETI test ($12). If you feel comfortable, share your results with your coach – the information will help them craft a more attuned coaching programme.