Many people who take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will ask whether or not their psychological type can change. According to type theory, basic type preferences for perception or judgment are inborn and do not change. However, it is also known that people, as a result of interacting with their environment and through life experiences, also develop behaviors, habits, and strategies that are not consistent with their type description. It is not uncommon to hear a client say, “I used to be an INFJ but now I am an ENFJ.” Or,” I am an introvert but I enjoy parties and nights on the town.” How can this be?
The first Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, also known as Step I, was an instrument to identify individuals who have similar preferences leading to an assigned personality type. The terms INFJ, or ESFP are well-known to many individuals. However, even as these general tendencies could be validated, it was still clear that certain people within a type could have out of preference characteristics. An example would be a “QUESTIONING ENFP, with “questioning” normally being a facet associated with a thinking preference .” It is true that the ENFP personality type tends to be accommodating valuing harmony above all versus finding flaws in both their own and others’ viewpoints. However, some ENFPs may develop this as a result of living with questioning thinking types or as a skill that is required at a job. There are 20 such variations known as facet poles (5 for each dichotomy) that are possible and they are identified in the MBTI Step II (or Form Q instrument). A client’s development of Step II facets in response to environmental demands may give the client the impression that their type has changed.
As an MBTI practitioner, I noticed these variations and apparent changes in reported personality type. However, what would explain this if our innate preferences for introversion-extraversion, sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving were supposedly hard-wired? I stumbled upon what I consider to be the best brain-based explanation of this phenomenon when at a recent conference on neuroplasticity, or the notion that mental experiences and mindfulness can change the structure and function of the brain. This is what made the explanation so compelling:
1. In order for neuroplastic change to take place, some sort of dampening down of the usual mind map has to take place. So for example, if you were going to learn a new language, you would have to eliminate as much use of the native language so the new language can build resilient neuro-connections in the brain. The brain doesn’t like competing stimuli. That is why language immersion programs seem to work. Similarly, if you were relying on your sense of touch to get around in a dark room, you would immediately switch to your preferred mode of sight to get around if the light switch was turned on. In other words, the preferences that were present first take precedence but if they are greatly attenuated, then new pathways can develop. Likewise, an ENFP whose natural preference is to be casual about schedules, may in fact develop a more scheduled approach as a result of working in an environment that demands a more structured day. However, if the ENFP ultimately left that structured environment, it is likely she would be comfortable with her natural preference for a relaxed schedule once again. When I discuss these type variations with clients, they often say, “I HAD to do it that way at work” or “my family was that way.”
2. Also, a deliberate development of a non-preferred facet can also bring about a resilient change in the brain. For example, one of the facets of extraversion is “expressive” versus it’s opposite which is “contained”. Basically, this is the “chatty” facet and it describes an individual who talks often but who may not be aware that certain situations call for a more contained approach or more listening and less talking. A deliberate or mindful monitoring of behavior can create a self-awareness that one has to talk less and over time, a resilient change in the brain can take place. Another example would be a natural introvert learning to extravert in many situations so much that at times, it may even feel like a natural preference. In the neuroplasticity seminar, examples were given where a mindful, deliberate approach was shown to alleviate symptoms of a host of mental disturbances. Either through self-driven intent or the therapeutic guidance, the brain can adapt to the demands placed upon it.
So why is this significant? For one, you may natural preferences (of innate tendencies) that are not fully utilized or have been suppressed that can be tapped into now which can bring about a more fully functioning self. Or, you may have facets of your personality that you would like to modify so that you don’t fall into the same bad patterns time and time again. The elegance of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instruments is that it is a dynamic system that acknowledges and encourages an individual to change as a part of healthy type development (even as one’s basic type theoretically does not change). There is emerging evidence from the neuroplasticity studies that either the environment or deliberate intention can indeed bring about these changes. As a life coach, this is very good news indeed!