As the city shut-downs and quarantines have been increasing over the past week, I’ve started to ask myself the question: How does our personality type affect our ability to manage our mental health during uncertain and challenging times?
It is in my nature to want to help. I have been watching the pandemic numbers for the last 10 days making predictions along the way and thinking “If this comes true, how can I help?” I can help on the ambulance and in the hospital. That one is easily actionable. I’m an educator…how do I help there? This is a hard one. I feel strongly that social distancing is a worthy tactic to mitigate this virus. I also recognize that my ability to empathize and innate desire to help others is also my greatest weakness. In the past, rather than help, I have hindered others by enabling them and in the process nearly emptied my energy reserves resulting in not having enough to take care of myself or others. I had this revelation today….
The COVID-19 pandemic presents humans with an opportunity. An opportunity to help each other grow. To look at our children, our spouses, our friends, ourselves. Observe and acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Discover tools to help us build tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, which looks different for each person.
I’ve been learning a lot about personality types over the last year. In particular, my own. How its strengths are its greatest weaknesses. How to prevent my greatest strengths from becoming my greatest weakness. How to adapt in environments particularly unsuited for me. Self-isolation is rather easy for me as it fits well with my personality type. I’m an INFJ according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test1. I am also a full-fledged Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)2. But most of the world is not this way. Health and financial impacts aside, this pandemic presents a huge challenge to extraverts, who crave stimulation and gain energy from the external world, and to introverts, who require their own space to rejuvenate.
It is easy for me to recommend things like go outside for a walk or a hike. Read a book. Do some journaling. Find a hobby you enjoy. These are all things I find revitalizing. While human connection is important to me, I enjoy being alone. I need to be alone! I need solo time to decompress and regain the energy that was depleted by being in an overstimulating environment. If I had children at home, I could see myself becoming easily drained if I did not plan for “me time”. On the flip side, my husband and friends who are extraverted need external stimulation whether it be in a social context or found doing some other activity where things are constantly changing.
As an educator, I value group activities in the classroom. I feel it is great for developing social skills teaching students to communicate effectively and work together. However, introverts do not thrive if there is constant group work. They often do best on assignments they can work on by themselves. In a group setting, they can adapt if individual reflection is built in at the start of an activity allowing them time to process their thoughts about an assignment and develop a plan as to how to contribute once they transition into group work. This is opposite of my extravert students, who blossom in the group environment and tend to share ideas easily. Instead, they find the individual workspace more challenging craving external stimulation. It is important for extraverts and introverts to understand each other’s needs and develop tools to thrive in not only the environments they are most comfortable with, but more importantly the ones they are not.
Personality traits go beyond just extraversion and introversion. Carl Jung, a swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, theorized that “we are all born with four psychological functions – four distinct ways of knowing and interacting with the world around us”.3
In her book Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual: A Practical Guide to Understanding Yourself and Others Through Typology, Lenore Thomson writes “We’re born with many possibilities for development, and one lifetime is too short to make the most of all of them. Thus, we usually concentrate on the ones that come easiest to us, cultivating our strengths – the possibilities that feel most “like us”. When we do this, we’re filled with energy and engaged with life.” 3
Psychology has come a long way since Carl Jung. Since then, use of technology has allowed scientists to look at personality traits on a genetic and neurological level. Brain imaging has shown that neural networks are created each time we use a function. Extraversion and Introversion even have biological markers in our DNA.3 It is important to show compassion and empathy toward each other and ourselves understanding that we react to situations differently based on how we perceive our internal and external worlds. What works for you is not necessarily a good fit for another. In fact, the people we relate to the least are often the ones mirroring the functions we left behind in our unconscious effort to develop the functions we initially gravitated towards. Rather than judge and dismiss the person in the mirror, we can allow them to help us grow. “Even small changes in our usual way of doing things can make big differences in the way our brain is operating. We develop the ability to think in new ways, and this stimulates creative change in all areas of our lives”.3
How does this help the many parents and students I wish to help in my community? Across the nation? I cannot change the negative impacts this pandemic will have on each person, on our society. I can, however, create a ripple that encourages growth in each of you. I can encourage you to take this time to learn about yourselves, your spouse, your children, and others you care about. Hopefully inspire you to find ways to adapt in the environments you find challenging while helping your loved ones do the same. Grow new neural networks so that the next time you find yourself facing adversity and uncertainty you can say to yourself “I may not know how to get through this in this moment, but I know I am capable of discovering new solutions and finding solace in the discomfort”.
In part II of this series I would like to write about various personality types and specific tools people have found to be helpful in building tolerance for adversity and uncertainty. I will share my own insights and learnings from over the years as an educator, but this piece will be so much more with your contributions. I will be grateful to all those willing and able to take the time to complete a free online version of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and fill out my online survey. Surveys are anonymous unless you choose to include your contact information.
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