Myers-Briggs and Bipolar: Finding Your Emotional Sweetspot

by John McManamy Patient Expert

The other day, I talked to a friend about the personality test, known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I searched through HealthCentral to sift through the ten or more pieces I knew I had to have written over the last nine years, only to discover there were none.

Let's amend that deficit ...

First principles ...

In managing our bipolar, it is essential to understand the difference between illness and personality (or temperament). This amounts to the distinction between "state and trait."

Temperament is inherited, and is not likely to change over time. Bipolar - a cycling illness - by its very nature is all about change. Consider the following example I often cite here on HealthCentral:

Two women are dancing on tables. One is Marilyn Monroe, the other your stereotypical librarian. Which woman may be in danger?

The answer is the librarian. She may be experiencing a hypomanic episode that is about to spin out of control. Her episodic behavior is clearly out-of-character with her bookish personality. Marilyn, on the other hand, is fine. She is simply being Marilyn.

Flip it the other way to Marilyn spending a quiet night at home. We all know the tragic ending to that story.

Where the MBTI enters the picture ...

The MBTI is a popular personality test, used by individuals seeking greater self-awareness and by corporations in assessing prospective employees. The test is drawn from the work of Karl Jung, based on his idea of contrasting cognitive functions. The MBTI breaks this down into groups of four:

Extraversion (E) vs Introversion (I)

Sensing (S) vs Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) vs Feeling (F)

Judging (J) vs Perception (P)

It's not that thinkers do not feel or that sensors lack intuition - it's that we tend to consistently favor one over the other. Thus, some of us trust our feelings over our thinking.

From these four pairs of preferences emerge sixteen distinct personality types. To contrast two: INFP vs ESTJ. The common descriptors for an INFP are "Idealist" and "Dreamer." These are people deep into their inner world in quest of big ideas, suited to contemplative professions like writing or meditating in a cave for ten years.

By contrast, ESTJs - "Guardians" and "Supervisors" - feel most at home in rules and hard facts. They are best suited to professions that involve action and organizing - and running the world.

How bipolar factors into this ...

Back in 2003, when I was putting out a Newsletter, I asked my subscribers to take an online Myers-Briggs test and report to me their results, along with their diagnosis. My results pointed to a decided preference for introverts and intuitives and feelers. (Perceivers and judgers were about evenly divided.)

Thus, INFPs - who comprise from one to four percent of the general population - made up 14 percent of my poll while the equally rare INFJs - made up 17 percent. By contrast, just two ESTJs - a far more common group - turned up to this party. Completely absent were ESTPs ("Doers") and ESFPs ("Performers").

I am hardly about to hold my results up as science, but in the absence of academic research into this area, it would be foolhardy to ignore where the evidence is pointing. This applies in particular to introversion, which I have written extensively about (see here and here).

Introversion leads to a dangerous tendency to isolate, which depression feeds on. On the other hand, we also need to recognize introversion as a positive trait that opens us up to meaningful inner experiences. Hence the need to cultivate the wisdom in knowing when our natural tendencies are good or bad for us.

So, here we are - an introverted population in an extraverted world, an intuitive people in a mundane society, feeling people on a Vulcan planet. What now?

A couple of quick points ...

Separating out illness from personality is an enormously complex business, and we are not always going to succeed. Nevertheless, the need to engage in ruthless self-inquiry cannot be understated.

For instance, how much "feeling" is "too much?" There is no universal rule. A feeler may have an entirely different threshold from a thinker.

Likewise, how much feeling is too little? Our meds have a tendency to blunt our feelings. Yet all of us require feelings to respond to our environment and make appropriate decisions.

Where, in short, is our emotional sweetspot?

About taking the Myers-Briggs

My MBTI personality type has remained constant over the course of 25 years, but the same might not apply to you. A number of readers, in responding to my newsletter poll, informed me that their results changed depending on how manic or depressed they were.

Thus, don't treat your first test results as definitive. Take the test several times more, spaced over time, and with an awareness of your shifting moods and medications side effects.

You can take an online test here. Let's treat this as the beginning of the conversation. Tell us what you think. Comments below ...

John McManamy
Meet Our Writer
John McManamy

John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.