I was introduced to the Myers-Briggs personality test at my first job at a startup in my early 20s. We all did the test and the results put us into one of 16 personality types. The test was created during World War Two by mother and daughter Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the belief that an understanding of personality preferences would help women entering the workforce for the first time to understand what jobs would be best suited to them.
Many years later, the Myers-Briggs test was being used to help me understand myself in the workplace – as it was in many workplaces across the UK. People talk about the test now as though it has prophetic powers for everything from dating to careers and family relationships. I came out as an ENFJ (extraversion, intuition, feeling and judging). It felt like the Myers-Briggs was a magic eight ball that would predict my future and I was genuinely excited to be (apparently) the same personality type as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
The letter ‘E’ and the fact that I was supposedly an extrovert stayed with me. I can barely remember what all the letters in the Myers-Briggs framework mean yet the question of whether I was inwardly or outwardly focused stuck. Even those who haven’t heard of Myers-Briggs will be familiar with the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ and likely assign themselves one or the other. It begs an important question of nature and nurture. How much do these labels define us and how much do we define ourselves by them? It’s chicken and egg.
I went about my early 20s believing that I was an extrovert and therefore couldn’t be alone. I was constantly surrounded by people. Was this because I am an extrovert or because I subconsciously believed that I needed to be around others all the time?
An extrovert is defined as someone who gets their energy from being around people and who needs to think problems through out loud with others. They’re considered more talkative and outgoing. By contrast, an introvert is someone who gets re-energized from alone time and needs to think things through by themselves. Introverts are considered quieter and more reflective than extroverts. This carries an implicit value judgement about which ‘personality type’ is better.
At its core, introversion versus extroversion is an oversimplified way of understanding how we relate to other people and ourselves. I think it says a lot about humanity that introversion and extroversion are the most popular and discussed of all the Myers-Briggs personality buckets.
As I grew older, my life changed and my belief that I was an extrovert was challenged by the day. I moved to New York, where I had few friends, worked in smaller companies and spent a lot of time alone, travelling for work. I was increasingly someone who’d be energized by alone time and needed time away from people to recharge and reflect.
Personality types are a good starter but we mustn't stop at the definition. We've got to go further and deeper.
Then, at 29, I was fired from my job, became freelance and loved nothing more than working alone all day. This was the final straw in my suspicions that I wasn’t a proper extrovert so I did another personality test and this time the results put me in a new, third category that I hadn’t heard of before: an ambivert.
This made sense. I no longer fit into the extrovert trope but I didn’t identify with the introverts' narrative either and so it didn’t feel right to cross over to their tribe. I looked back over my life with my new label and it all became clear. I have equal love for group holidays and solo travel, I can go out a lot or spend a lot of time alone at home. I can go to places and be itching to return to my solo cave afterwards or stay out all night, high off the energy of others. It just depends on the people, the situation and sometimes even where I’m at in my menstrual cycle. The acceptance that this is because I am both introvert and extrovert was freeing. It made further sense because I’m a Gemini (if you observe astrology) – the twin star sign – and I found a new box to put myself in to explain my lack of label in another.
Despite the freedom of this acceptance and new understanding of myself, I began to feel left out. Introversion versus extroversion was getting an increasing amount of attention as more people identified as one or the other. I looked on as the discussion became increasingly tribal.
An ambivert is a personality trait used to describe someone in the middle of the spectrum of introversion and extraversion. The term was coined in 1923 by a psychologist named Edmund Smith Conklin.
According to Conklin, sometimes ambiverts are leaders and sometimes they're followers. Ambiverts can grow up as extroverts, then become introverted later in life. They can also change to fit any given situation. "This ability to oscillate between what is clearly introversion and what is as clearly extraversion, to find values of life frequently in each phase of activity, is what I have called ambiversion," Conklin wrote in a 1924 paper.
The pandemic further complicated things for me and, I imagine, for many people. With each lockdown, our hectic world which favours extroverts slowed. People began to throw around the idea that lockdown was introverts’ time to thrive.
Arguably, the disruption caused by coronavirus to our work and social lives could have proved that perhaps it was time to abandon these labels once and for all. Introverted, extroverted or ambivert – the reality is that lockdown sucked for everybody.
However it seems that our obsession with subscribing to the identity of introvert or extrovert is stronger than ever, especially as lockdown lifts and we’re becoming more aware of how we want to return to society. Everywhere I look there are articles and Instagram posts on the subject.
There is good reason for this. Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of instant therapy service Self Space, told me: "When we're at sea in our lives, we look for stability, and that stability can come from these labels." She continued: "I think we’re complex so we look for a framework to understand ourselves. It’s like children who look for boundaries because that’s where they feel safest."
This ability to oscillate between what is clearly introversion and what is as clearly extraversion, to find values of life frequently in each phase of activity, is what I have called ambiversion.
Edmund Smith Conklin
It’s part of our survival instinct to be hyperaware of how we interact with and relate to others so it makes sense that a framework that can fuel our understanding of something we’re self-conscious about, be it on a conscious or unconscious level, is the one we cling to most.
Jodie added that we ought to approach ‘personality types’ with caution. She said that labels are helpful as a springboard for self-examination but they can hold us back from going deeper about how we really feel. She explained: "We look for answers sometimes outside of ourselves when we can't find them within ourselves."
Jodie also told me that labels can become a comfort blanket that can stop us from challenging ourselves. "Thinking about how we feel in social situations or how we feel about our confidence is more work than just sticking a label on ourselves, which can be a form of avoidance," she added.
I identified with this and as a personality test aficionado, I wondered if how we label ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I frequently experience social anxiety and it’s gotten worse since emerging out of lockdown. Recently I was going to a party alone and I was terrified. That fear meant that I felt exhausted and barely able to rip myself off the sofa. However, the knowledge that I am an ambivert and that I could be an extrovert once I got to the party got me out of the house. I didn’t stay at the party for long but I did feel energized from talking to new people. I found it stimulating: lockdown made my social world feel small and I felt good for challenging myself. So perhaps a more flexible approach to these ‘types’ can be useful.
Jodie told me what’s good about being an ambivert. "It really allows you to choose from all the aspects of introvert and extrovert so it’s taking us back to neutral, and the idea of being a melting pot for everything is more productive as it doesn’t keep you polarized. It gives you choice. The ambivert label is more liberating, it’s the idea that anything is possible."
Without realizing, the label I’d stumbled across by accident had given me a choice. The belief that I’m an ambivert means I can’t make decisions based on being an introvert or an extrovert so I have to perform an assessment each time I want to do something and make a call based on how I believe it will or won’t serve me. Jodie explained that it would be better to let go of labels and ask ourselves instead if something will nourish us. "If it won’t, then choosing not to do it becomes a choice rather than an imposed idea about ourselves."
In Jodie’s experience, we’re a bit of everything. "If we’re able to work through challenges more deeply, people would find that they had access to all components, the extrovert and the introvert parts, when they wanted to."
Jodie encourages us to ask ourselves questions about how we really feel. "Anxiety may be one layer but what’s underneath it? Is it fear of having relatable conversations or not being able to relate to others?" She encourages us to consider if we have the energy resources to manage the situation and think about how it’s useful to our lives.
"We don’t always get to choose where to go and so we can ask ourselves a different set of questions and think about what we can manage when we get there to make it less depleting," she added.
Perhaps letting go of a label allows us to consider how we can thrive in a situation when previously we simply accepted that we’d find it challenging because of our ‘type’.
"We’ve got to go further and deeper but what’s good with these frameworks is they pique our curiosity about ourselves," Jodie said. "They’re a good starter but we mustn’t stop at the definition." She added that the fact we’re even drawn to a certain label tells us something about ourselves.
This prompted me to consider my own determination to solve the riddle of whether I am an extrovert or an introvert.
I recalled that when we did the Myers-Briggs test at work all those years ago, we did it for others at the same time, and everyone put me higher on the extroversion scale than I saw myself. People thought I was more extroverted than I am and they probably still do. Perhaps my own obsession with this subject comes from a desire to be better understood.
I’ve often felt a mismatch between my internal world and how others perceive me; perhaps that’s why I’m so attached to all these frameworks and this one the most. I’ll forever love a personality test as a gateway to growth but there’s a power to be found in letting go of labels and seeing them instead as a launchpad for enquiry rather than our defining features. Or, if we’re not quite ready to do that, we can all label ourselves as ambiverts who have the ability to be extrovert and introvert at varying times.