Introspection: the impact of religion on personality.
Introspection: the impact of religion on personality.
A friend has recently revived my interest in the Myers-Briggs personality designations. She’s an ENFP, and I’m an INFJ — experts say that our personality types mesh the best, which we find oddly fitting. She’s one of my oldest friends, the kind of person that you can go years without seeing (not for lack of want!) but pick right up where you left off, even if you both have changed considerably. We’ve noticed in our 20-year friendship that our enthusiasm tends to fuel each other, which makes total sense considering both of us are NFs (iNtuitive Feelers).
During a visit a couple of months ago, we were talking about just how difficult it can be to nail down your type. She related to me that she’d struggled with identifying various aspects of her personality, as she exhibits different traits in different scenarios (work versus home, for example). This led to a discussion about how nature versus nurture can affect the development and exhibition of personality, and I just haven’t been about to stop thinking about it since.
When I first took the test several years ago, I was newly married and still a fundamentalist Christian in the Plymouth Brethren movement. As I elaborated in a recent post, Plymouth Brethren pride themselves on being able to suppress their emotions in favour of what they deem to be reason (as described by their literalist interpretation of the Bible). When I was still an assembly girl, I was often praised for my thoughtfulness, level-headedness, ability to study the Bible as I was taught to study it and come to the same conclusions that distinguished preachers came to. Friends from that time often commended me for my ability to “make the right decision” even if it was hard, usually with a bit of awe in their voices, as if I were doing great things for God.
I’m not sure if any of these people really realized what was happening. I mean, I certainly didn’t. But the reality is that I was constantly working to change who I was, fundamentally, in order to fit the picture of Assembly Girl that I was supposed to fit. Or, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was supposed to be invisible so others could see Jesus. This necessarily meant squelching emotions, analyzing every thought and action, studying to prove myself acceptable to God and the authorities He’d placed over me, and getting rid of everything I thought was coming between me and my Lord.
There were two great music purges I went through, throwing away literally hundreds of dollars worth of Christian music I felt didn’t honor the Lord. I dropped out of my conservative Christian school after deciding that my classmates were too worldly to be good influences on me. I stopped performing music publicly because I reasoned that I was taking a leadership position by doing such and that wasn’t my place as a woman. I separated from friends I felt weren’t as serious about their relationship with Christ as I was. I curtailed my language to be totally above reproach (unless talking to myself: I saved the most abusive language I knew to describe myself). I spent most of my spare time reading my Bible, listening to sermons from my fellow brethren, and growing closer to the friends I felt would bring me closer to the Lord.
I deliberately sequestered myself from everything and everyone that I felt convicted weren’t pleasing to God, no matter how much personal pain it brought me, and I rationalized my decisions every step of the way with every Bible verse and assembly apologetic I could think of to justify this gas-lighting and silencing of my true self.
So…when I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test, still thoroughly embedded in the fundamentalist Christian tradition of my youth, I scored as an INTJ, rather than an INFJ. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I skewed more heavily to Thinking rather than Feeling, since I was taught to fear and distrust feelings. Feelings were often considered sinful, bringing guilt and shame, whereas Logic (According to the Word of God) was holy and true, bringing stability (supposedly). I didn’t understand that divorcing feelings from thinking the way I had been taught to do was utterly damaging both to myself and others, not to mention ripping conversational rhetoric out of its context and reality.
The thing is, I could never totally eradicate my Feelings. In fact, in some way I acknowledged this as I started college and began training for my career as a graphic and web designer. I explained it thus: I had Art Mode and Programming Mode. It was nearly impossible to switch from one to the other on a whim, but whichever I found myself in would be the medium I’d excel in. I justified this to myself by saying that I was using my artwork and graphic design for the Lord. Without this justification, I feared that my artwork and design work were just like the feelings that fueled my creativity: unreliable and worthless. In fact, a big part of the reason I allowed myself to go into graphic design in the first place was to help spread the gospel without being in a leadership position, along with being able to have a career that wouldn’t require me to leave my home when I got married. (Oh, how naive I was!)
As I began to recognize stunt for my entire life began pouring out of me intuition that I’d always had but deeply distrusted kicked into high gear, and I honestly felt like I was becoming an entirely new person. I kind of think I was becoming a new person; or rather, I was discovering who I’ve always been at my core.
It took a while, and I’m still not all the way there, but slowly I leveled out, became more sure of myself, learned how to identify and express my feelings without necessarily being snowballed by them. (It’s definitely a work in process, though.)
And to my surprise, as I became more confident, started setting my own boundaries, expressing myself and embracing my full personhood feelings and all…my faith simply wasn’t able to make the cut.
I feel a bit odd saying that. Usually it’s not feelings that leads one to abandon the faith of their childhood. And don’t get me wrong, logic and reasoning certainly played a rather large part in my deconversion, a topic I hope to continue to explore in my writing. But perhaps it was the realization that fundamentalism demonizes human experience and emotion while prizing unyielding devotion to an ancient book (under threat of eternal violence) that made me realize that Christianity as I knew it was neither logical nor safe.
So. When I retook the Myers-Briggs test a little further into my rediscovery of myself, I was surprised to see that while my score for Thinking vs. Feeling was pretty even-keeled, Feeling won out. And I was amazed and relieved to see myself reflected in the description of the INFJ. The INTJ had never quite fit, never quite helped me understand myself better. But now that I’ve shaken off some of the confines of the toxicity of my religion and am deliberately cognizant of power structures and their affect on individuals and cultures, I’m very happy to have found myself. And I can’t help but wonder in what other ways religion impacted my personality, and how it might impact the personalities of its adherents — for good or for ill.