Sorters sort. That is the explanation we give readers on www.parentingbytemperament.com when they take our temperament sorters. Sorters, and other similar temperament tests are designed to group facts that you already know about yourself into temperament/personality categories. If you didn’t already know whether you love crowds or hate them, want ironed bed sheets or could care less, and so forth, you couldn’t answer the questions. A sorter just puts this together and says, well, roughly, if that’s how you feel, then this is the type of person you are. For me, this has been hugely helpful, in realizing that a). there are other people like me, and b). there aren’t a lot of them. When you are an INTJ and female, the percentage of those who share your Type in the population is estimated to be less than 1%. (MBTI Manual, 1998). That explains a lot as you look over your childhood, your friendship choices and relationship choices. This is especially true when you analyze your successes and failures, both in relationships and in work and career.
I think, though, that it is the help in understanding others that may prove most valuable in the long run. It is not hard to notice the more obvious behaviors in your friend, spouse, child etc., but accepting that this is an inborn, natural thing may come very hard. Really imagining how that feels is yet another matter.
What started me thinking about this was a series of articles that I recently read, that began with Caring for Your Introvert*in 2003, by Jonathan Rauch. The author asks “Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentations to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate….If so, do you tell this person he is “too serious.” or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out? If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands–and that you aren’t caring for him properly.”
The Rauch goes on to explore the sad plight of introverts. They are misunderstood “wildly”. They are oppressed, basically because “extraverts therefore dominate public life.” (and social life). This is no doubt true, up to a point. In terms of how you can be supportive of your introvert he makes several suggestions. “First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.” Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say ‘What’s the matter?’ or ‘Are you all right?’ Third, don’t say anything else, either.”
This is good, and useful advice, at least from the introvert’s point of view. It suggests that the author really has some insight into what it is like to be an introvert, and–no big surprise-the author is an introvert. However, this same author sets a good example for how hard it is to understand your opposite. As sensitive and accurate as he may be about introverts, he also says, in the same article “Extraverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble and frequently inescapable interaction with other people.”
I would say no to that analysis. The actions and intentions of extraverts are much more public and obvious, and therefore easier to see, but seeing a behavior and understanding what that means or feels like for the behaving person, is quite something else. There is an old saying that tells you to “walk a mile in his shoes” if you want to understand another person. The problem is–you literally can’t. You could put on the same clothes, get up at the same time, eat the same breakfast, and go out for the same experience, but you would take your thoughts and feelings along, not the other’s.
In addition to not having genuine insight into what the other person is experiencing, you also tend to be blinded by the things that you experience. If an orderly world, orderly desk, orderly life gives you a sense of calmness and serenity, you are bound to carry that experience over when you look at someone else’s chaos, even if they seem to revel in it. Inside you are thinking”oh dear, John would feel so much better if he would just get things straightened around. Inside he must be so stressed!” Even if you accept the idea of temperament differences on a cognitive level, that information has a very hard time triumphing over everything that your own experience tells you. It always makes me smile to find that someone who resists the idea of inborn temperament differences nevertheless can be adamant about the rightness of what they enjoy or appreciate.
Learning about your own temperament preferences, Type, etc. is often reported as a sort of “aha” experience. It makes such perfect sense. But, asking an MBTI Thinker to understand why his mate (and it is more often a male/female difference here) bases her decisions on her deepest emotions and not his impeccable logic, may seem about as easy or likely as winning the lottery. For that reason we try to caution our parenting clients to take the whole process very slowly in learning about the ways in which their children may differ from them (and their spouses). We use words like”it has to seep in” “be absorbed”.
In a 2006 follow-up article, the author of Caring for your Introvert was interviewed about the email and letters he had received about the original article.** He said that he had received more comments on that article than anything else he had ever written, and that the great bulk of them were from introverts who “expressed joy and gratitude at seeing themselves described and understood.” Many expressed having an “eureka” moment as a result.
What seems most interesting, however, is a second follow-up in that same year, about input from “reader feedback about introvert dating.” Rauch, the author, found from the responses that “More often…the “yin-yang, introvert/extravert pairing seems to work surprisingly well–if both partners understand the other’s needs.” One reader comment sums this up well, as “I believe introverts and extraverts can pair –though only when both have extremely tolerant and generous personalities. If either party is the least bit selfish or self-absorbed you have a severe problem brewing.”
I think this sort of pairing illustrates the temperament divide especially clearly. Because these differences automatically mean differences in major social behaviors, the two have to make serious compromises so that each gets a fair amount of the social time/alone time that they need. And however good the compromise, it will be a compromise. Neither will have just the lifestyle they would prefer. This means first recognizing and then accepting that these temperament differences exist and are as meaningful to the other person as yours are to you. Over a long time together, and with deep affection as the motivator, the other person’s needs will become more and more real to you, and that is about as close to walking a mile in the other’s shoes as you are going to get.
This can be even harder for parents and children because we so naturally assume that it is the parent’s role to guide and the child’s role to follow. Truly accepting that each child has a nature of their own, and being willing to work with that, takes time and effort and love. Taking a parent sorter and a child sorter is just the beginning.