Discovering Your Gifts, Appreciating Differences: Therapeutic Use of Psychological Type and the MBTI
Nearly 80 years ago Isabel Briggs Myers developed a personality test she hoped would provide a constructive use of differences at a time when undemocratic regimes were disrupting the peace of the world. We are again faced with turbulent times that threaten our physical and emotional well-being, so it is fitting to describe how the Myers-Briggs Type indicator (MBTI) can again help clients and practitioners see the good in human nature through strengths based psychotherapy and bridging cultural diversity (Myers & Myers, 1980, 1995) in counseling.
Despite recent criticisms of the MBTI and psychological type theory (e.g., “False Portraits,” the article by Jennifer Fayard in the January 2020 issue of Psychology Today), the reliability and validity of its latest version (Form M) have been sufficiently established (Myers et al., 1998; Schaubhut et al., 2009). Furthermore, the MBTI type model provides certain advantages over the traditional trait approach to personality in counseling, in terms of promoting psychological growth and appreciating differences among people.
Trait vs. Type
Academic psychology regards trait dimensional models of personality (especially the Five-Factor Model, FFM) as a given fact (Reynierse, 2012). However, FFM based trait instruments are not conducive to a positive constructive purpose in counseling, mainly because they generally consist of continua anchored with socially undesirable and socially desirable poles. In contrast, the MBTI points to preference dichotomies (e.g., Introversion or Extraversion, Intuition or Sensing, Feeling or Thinking, Perceiving or Judging) that are construed positively regardless of preference. The MBTI combines these preferences to form 16 psychological types that provide “portraits” for individuals with which to identify.
Additionally, MBTI types can be contextualized (Hawkins & Meier, 2015) and applied at different levels of the person-environment context (person, dyad, family, group, career, community, nation, and worldview).
A commonsense justification for typologies is that people naturally categorize the world, often in either/or fashion, and form stereotypes (Allport, 1954, as cited by Prince & Soper, 2019). As they obtain more information they refine these stereotypes through experiences with people who are different, and this familiarity reduces prejudice and increases understanding and liking. As a fictional example, many Star Trek episodes start with the Enterprise approaching a “Class M” (i.e., earthlike) planet, beaming down to the surface, encountering distrust and danger from the inhabitants, overcoming these obstacles, and finally accomplishing peace through which good qualities and values emerge and are acknowledged.
For 40 years I have included the MBTI in my individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy as a means for improving self-esteem and enhancing communication among people with differing psychological types, genders, and cultural backgrounds, in an approach akin to George Kelly’s (1955) “fixed role therapy”. In interpersonal contexts the client is invited to view others’ behavior and intentions through the lens of the 16 psychological types, appreciating differences in good faith rather than passing negative judgments. Used in this constructive way, the MBTI enhances my therapeutic alliance with my clients and helps to personalize evidence-based techniques in accord with the clients’ type preferences and values. The following example case study (adapted from Hawkins, 2000) illustrates this application of the MBTI and psychological type in the counseling context.
A Case Study in Clinical Depression
Don, a 17-year-old Caucasian single male high school student, is being referred for individual and family counseling at the recommendation of his parents, former therapist, and his psychiatrist, for a major depressive episode (in partial remission) along with a history and current diagnosis of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and a possible social anxiety disorder.
Don’s mother has been worried about her son’s low grades, inattentiveness, decreased motivation toward school work, and “rebellious attitude.” This pattern is especially notable in Don’s English class, where he notes that “my English teacher worries about me and pressures me like my Mom, but in a more highly caffeinated way.” When his mother exhorts Don to study harder, he reportedly becomes more resistant, but also feels guilty and disappointed with himself.
Don’s father is less concerned about his son’s school problems, as he describes having similar issues with inattentiveness and lower grades when he was in high school. Regarding Don’s relationship with his former therapist, he relates that he liked her because she gave him some concrete skills for coping with depression and did not “nag” him like his mother. Don disagrees with his female psychiatrist’s prescription of Wellbutrin, which he claims has not been helpful. He says he stopped taking this medication without informing his psychiatrist and has instead been experimenting with St. John’s Wort.
Exploring the Role of Personality Type in Don’s Difficulties
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was offered to Don and his family to discover how some of his difficulties might be exacerbated by personality differences between Don and his family/social environment, and uncover strengths and positive motivations that would improve communication through the appreciation of these differences. Don and his family agreed to take the MBTI, with feedback and type verification provided separately, followed by a family consultation session (Finn, 2007) where the MBTI findings were discussed.
Don’s reported preferred type is INTP (Introverted Thinking with Intuition). He strongly identified with the positive portrait of this psychological type, noting in particular that it mentioned computer science and website construction as possible interests, which Don endorsed as his major motivation in school. Don’s mother’s type preference is ISFJ. His father’s type is ENTP, and his brother’s type is INTJ. Don wondered if his parents’ MBTI types might explain why his mother worried about his school performance and future, while his father was less concerned, believing that he would “grow out of it” as Don’s older brother did. Don’s parents accepted the INTJ psychologist’s suggestion that the father work more closely with Don on his planning for college and participate with his son in their mutual interest in competitive running. In so doing the father would also help support his wife so that she would worry less about Don’s future.
In subsequent individual sessions Don and I explored the possibility that psychological type might help explain how his social relationships were more or less challenging for him due to type matches or mismatches. For instance, his former female therapist (an ISTJ) was logical minded, which allowed Don to better accept her concrete, skill-building CBT homework assignments. His female psychiatrist (likely an ENFJ), on the other hand, was less logical in Don’s view, not debating with him the pros and cons of the antidepressant she told him to take.
We also discussed other tools related to psychological type applications (e.g., the Murphy-Meisgier Type Indicator for Children, the Student Styles Questionnaire, and the Salter Environmental Type Assessment) that can be used to help accept and accommodate these differences. For example, with respect to his high school setting, which he described as “ESTJ”, Don said he could understand the logic for this structure, and would accept it if there was some flexible accommodation for his learning style.
We estimated that his English teacher’s type may be ESFJ, which in combination with a subject where he has less interest, would mean that he would perceive her teaching style to be rote, “pushy” and less “logical.” This led us to more focus on Don’s subclinical social anxiety and his unassertiveness coupled with feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. INTP males are overrepresented among clients with social phobia (Hawkins, 1989), and are less interested in “feeling talk” and less skillful in social exchanges, particularly when interpersonal sensitivity and tact are needed for effective assertiveness. We role played these social skills, which he then used with his English teacher, his psychiatrist, and even with his mother. Consequently, he admitted that sometimes “feeling talk” can be useful, especially in forming relationships with potential dating partners.
In this case study the client experienced numerous mismatches between his individual temperament and the available social environmental resources (Chess & Thomas, 1999). It is important for the therapist first to use the MBTI and similar instruments to reveal the matches and mismatches to validate the client’s understanding of himself and his world (i.e., discovering his “gifts”). Then can begin the second task of helping the client appreciate and value these differences without passing judgment on self or others. This process is an ongoing bridging of differences by seeing their complementary nature (Kelso & Engstrom, 2006). Just as Kegan (1994) offers the visual gestalt shift from seeing the two holes at the ends of a tube to appreciating the “whole” tube that links the two ends, the MBTI framework, applied at different contextual levels of the social ecological system, provides a strength-based framework to complement the usual problem-focused approach used in clinical psychology.
In this model the effects of the mismatches with both his parents’ psychological types, the “bureaucratic” school setting, his social avoidance and his limited social support failed to ameliorate depression, social anxiety, and personal/social alienation. However, through the individual and family treatment (12 individual sessions, plus two family consultation sessions) Don was able successfully to graduate from high school with several advanced placement classes under his belt, was accepted into a computer science program at a prominent university, and is doing well at the end of his freshman year.
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