Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.


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Why personality tests can’t give you an identity

Now that you’ve graduated, you might be longing for someone to tell you who you are. But personality tests can only result in binaries, and living the results may turn you into someone you’re not.

A busy street “The world isn’t made of binaries”. Photo: niallkennedy/Flickr

There was a brief period during my degree, somewhere between chunder charts and FitFinder, when personality tests became the in thing.  More specifically, people got really into the Jung-influenced Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which categorises personality into 16 “types” and then gives vague but encouraging advice on how to best apply yourself.

I wasn’t that bothered at the time – someone telling me at a party that they knew me better than I knew myself, based on a few multiple choice questions, did nothing but make me walk in the opposite direction and down another glass of Blossom Hill.

But graduating changes your perspective. Once the structures I used to depend on disappeared, I became desperate for someone to tell me who I was and where I was going. Lost in a sea of post-graduate self-doubt and desperation, I finally took the test.

MBTI divides personality into four binaries: introvert/extrovert, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling, perceiving/judging. You can be any combination of these four binaries, leading to 16 grandiose-sounding ‘types’, which each come with their own in-depth profile.

At first, it worked pretty well. I was given the ‘mastermind’ type INTJ (introvert, intuition, thinking, judging) and cautiously read all about this interpretation of myself. The single-minded and obsessive approach to work that the profile described reminded of my time as editor of a student newspaper. The failure that comes of trying to solve relationships like you solve your next career move was harder to swallow – but, ultimately, still familiar. For all of about five minutes, the test did exactly what it was supposed to; I felt like I had gained an insight into myself, my strengths, and how to improve them.

Then things got weird.

After being told that I put logic over emotion, I found myself thinking in more and more clinical ways about the situations around me. Other people’s pain began to look frivolous. My own pain made me angry and frustrated. “I’m not supposed to have feelings,” I thought. “I can’t even do my own personality right!”

Believing in personality categorisation means believing that people don’t change. That you are, incurably, who you will always be.

But people do change. They become more introverted or extroverted as they get older; they have emotional days and logical days. Like gender identity, sexuality and political affiliation, people exist across spectrums, not binaries.

Although one of the most popular personality tests in the world, it has been proved unscientific by many psychologists. I’m also distrustful of any multi-million dollar institution that stands to lose an awful lot if its founding principle falls into disrepute.

Not being a psychologist myself, I decided to ask what my brother, Harry, thought of the test. Having graduated from the University of Warwick with a first in psychology, and currently working in a mental health unit while training to become a counsellor, he’s the most qualified person I know for this kind of thing.

So – why do people use personality tests like Myers-Briggs?

“People are attracted to personality tests because they simplify things, and people like to understand things. Personality tests are particularly attractive because they help us to understand ourselves and other people (people being the most complex entities we encounter).

“My concerns with Myers-Briggs are with its artsy outlook. The categories it gives are suitably vague and interchangeable, and mostly remind me of that special brand of broad applicability seen in horoscopes and fortune tellings.

“As an item of curiosity, the Myers-Briggs is interesting. It can be useful to writers creating characters, for example. My only worry is if people take these categories too seriously, when personality questionnaires are used for profiling or research. If we start to take these narrow, reductionist categories and hold them up as a view of a whole person then we are diminishing and misrepresenting them.

The thing is, I have friends who really do find the guidance that Myers-Briggs gives useful. Who am I to judge, just because I hate being labelled? Clearly, people can have characteristics which they display on a regular basis. There are things about all of our friends that make us smile and say “That’s so typical of Flopsy.” But Flopsy is not the same person as Mopsy, even if they get the same score on the MBTI test.

The world isn’t made of binaries. Happy/sad, right/wrong, masculine/feminine – everything falls somewhere in between, and limiting yourself to them is just that: limiting.

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Why is no one talking about depression after university?

Every year, thousands of students’ lives change dramatically, often leaving them isolated, anxious, and even depressed. It’s time we started talking about it.

“Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.” Post-university depression is not only real, but also rarely talked about. Photo: Flickr/pigeonpie

“Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.” Post-university depression is not only real, but also rarely talked about. Photo: Flickr/pigeonpie

“Imagine sitting on a limb for a long time and, when you try to stand on it, you buckle under. You can’t get up. Everyone around you is standing up and telling you to do the same, but you just can’t. You dare not.”

Robyn Hall* graduated from university last summer. Despite being one of the lucky few to quickly find a job in her chosen field, she still struggled with the transition into her new life.

She described the difficulty of coming to terms with her feelings of depression.

“‘But you’re a graduate!’ my brain yelled at me. ‘Grow up!’ But the self-loathing continued. You leave a place you’ve been in for three or four years, where you developed so much, leaving behind the closest friends you’ve possibly ever had. Even if you do get a job, nobody tells you that once you ‘hit the jackpot’, you’ll struggle to make new friends; that 9-5 will leave you exhausted. You’re scared of not being good enough, that you won’t live up to expectations. It’s the ultimate disparity between representation and reality.”

Robyn is not the only one to struggle with depression after leaving university. When I graduated, I went from feeling the happiest I’ve been in my adult life, to the worst. By October I was jumping at sudden noises and afraid to leave my bedroom. When a year-long relationship suddenly ended, I didn’t know how to see past the black clouds pressing in on me.

I sought help from my GP, who referred me to a local mental health outreach programme. But in the end, it was time, a relocation, and support from friends that began to stabilise the feelings of anxiety and depression.

I can count graduates with similar stories on two hands – and those are just the ones close enough to confide in me. Every year, thousands of people’s lives are turned upside down when they jubilantly throw a hat into the air, then watch it come crashing down into reality. So why does no one talk about the feelings of hopelessness that so many are left with?

After all, with over 900,000 young people currently unemployed and benefits for under-25s constantly under threat, is it any wonder that mental health issues in young people are rising across the board?

I spoke to Matt Tidby, who stayed in his university town of Norwich following graduation, supporting himself with temp jobs. “The majority of the work itself was doable, if monotonous – but things like the telephone, where I was expected to advise on mortgages after about half-a-day’s training, left me hugely anxious and very unhappy. I suffered on a personal level, and lost a lot of confidence in my ability to do both that job, and any of the jobs I actually craved.

“Quite ridiculously, I lived in fear of being ‘put on the phones’ – I built that minor stress into a mountain of worry that blotted out everything. After about a month, the job applications stopped. I got into quite a destructive system of trying to make it to each weekend without things getting too shit to handle. Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.”

Matt eventually left the job, recognising the damage it was doing, and said that things were beginning to get better. “It’s a daily, rapidly changing situation, really – a positive email or a phone call can reverse many days of feeling low. It’s a strange inversion of my time temping; whereas once I lived in terror of the phone ringing, now I urge it to. I’m more hopeful that it will.”

While researching this piece, I found very little information targeted specifically at graduates suffering from mental health problems, despite an article in the Independent last year that found that of 40 students and recent graduates surveyed, “95% believed that post-university depression was very much a real thing”.

With so little information available, I contacted the mental health charity Mind directly. Head of information, Beth Murphy, had this to say:

“Moving on from university is often the biggest change a person has experienced up to that point in their lifetime. Added to this, today’s graduates are facing the double-whammy of the debt associated with paying for university and a tough job market that can seem impenetrable.

“Financial stress and uncertainty around employment are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Mind has seen a surge in calls to our Infoline from people struggling with financial difficulties, many of them post-graduates. Our In the Red report actually found that 85% of respondents said their financial difficulties had made their mental health problems worse.”

So if post-university depression is “a real thing”, why does no one talk about it? Is this the same stigma surrounding mental health that affects all sufferers, or is there something else going on? Robyn believes that there is a pressure on graduates to feel grateful for their position.

“Once you get a 9-5 job, coping with depression can be worse. People are all over to congratulate you, help you in any way they can; you’re so afraid of disappointing everyone that you just let the guilt fester away. I think even in the media it’s not represented enough that you can do your ‘dream job’ and not feel right.”

So what can be done? Beth recommends communication above all else. “If you are worried about your mental health, confide in a friend or family member or speak to your GP. There are also lots of small things you can do to make yourself feel better – exercise can be hugely beneficial, releasing chemicals which help increase wellbeing and mood. Keeping in touch with friends is also important, as withdrawing from social contact can make things worse.”

Whether you attended university or not, being young and uncertain about your future is the perfect opportunity for feelings of anxiety to take hold. I’m constantly struggling with my own mental health, but I’m one of the lucky ones; I have a job to focus me, friends to listen when things get dark, and access to medical help. But the same can’t be said for everyone, and with mental health trusts asked to shave almost 20% from their budgets next year, that last, vital support system is more at risk than ever.

It’s time to stop suffering in silence and acknowledge depression after graduation as a real risk to young adults. And it’s time to stop cutting the very services that may well save their lives.

• For information, support and advice please visit mind.org.uk or call Mind’s confidential mental health information service on 0300 123 3393.

• To find out more about starting conversations and tackling mental health stigma, visit time-to-change.org.uk

*Names have been changed.