Anyone who knows me (or even just talks to me for five minutes) knows of my deep, undying love for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality assessment. However, there are so many other people and things I love as well, and my mom is definitely up at the top of that list.
Admiring My Mother’s Abilities
As the youngest of four children, I spent the first few years of my life following her around everywhere she went—the grocery store, doctor's appointments, volunteering at my siblings' school. Everyone she met in any sort of line became a new friend. Long before Facebook "Mutual Friends" were ever a thing, she was always able to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with them in a way that inevitably resulted in the discovery of multiple connections between the two of them. "John, you wouldn't believe whom I met today!" she would tell my Dad, usually followed up with something that sounded to me like, "The second cousin of the hairdresser of the wife of that friend of yours from law school!"
Yet, even with all of the chats she would have with friends and perfect strangers alike, she accomplished so much in a day. Between the time she would drop my siblings off at school in the morning and then pick them up in the afternoon, she would have already completed the grocery shopping, folded all the laundry, deposited checks at the bank, caught up with her mother or one of her sisters, and solved about 15 problems over the phone with regards to bills, house maintenance, or some other random, unforeseen issue life always likes to throw at us.
She handled conflict with ease, always resolving issues with the perfect combination of kindness, composure, and confidence. She was a badass. She was perfect in my eyes. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.
Discovering My Personality Type
When I was 13, my dad introduced our family to the MBTI®, and we spent hours sitting around the table trying to figure out which of the 16 possible personality types we all were. The way the personality assessment works is that it determines your preferences for one thing or another on four different factors, resulting in 16 possible combinations:
- Whether you get energized spending time alone or with others: Introversion or Extraversion
- Through what means you take in information from the world around you: Sensing or Intuition
- How you make decisions (focusing on objectivity or subjectivity/empathy): Thinking or Feeling
- How you orient yourself to the world (organized/decided or open to possibilities): Judging or Perceiving
For years, it has been abundantly clear to me that I have preferences for Extraversion (being energized by being around others), Intuition (focusing on the big picture possibilities and listening to my gut/intuition), Feeling (focusing on how people are affected when making a decision), and Perceiving (wanting to take in all possible options and remain open to all of them). I have taken the assessment probably 20 times over the course of my educational career, and I have almost never wavered significantly from these preferences. I am an ENFP through and through.
Solving the Mystery of My Mother’s Type
Over the last 18 years, I have spent countless hours with friends and family discussing who we are and where we land among these personality types. My friends and coworkers would often tease me about how I could accurately predict others' results because I had spent way too much of my time and energy reading about the MBTI® and all of the characteristics of each type. And yet the one person I could not pinpoint for the life of me was the one woman I had known from my very first moments of existence—my mother.
Whenever I would try to figure out her preferences, she would grow frustrated with the lingo and acronyms. I would explain to her how a lot of the value in the assessment lies in its ability to help people understand one another. Seeing as how she has always been the type of person to make friends everywhere she goes, I thought that might pique her interest and make her want to learn more about it. "I don't need an assessment to understand people!" she would laugh. "I understand people just fine without some test telling me who they are." I can't say she was wrong. She is extraordinary at reading people.
Several months ago, however, I finally convinced her to take it. As I anxiously waited for the PDF with her results to load, I felt like a detective finally solving a lifelong mystery that had haunted me in my sleep. When I saw her results on the screen, I was simultaneously shocked but also not surprised in the least. She was an ISTJ—my exact opposite.
Making Sense of Our Differences
Suddenly it became clear why I had somehow not inherited her get-it-done attitude or her simple, straightforward approach to dealing with difficult dilemmas. I understood why I would get sidetracked by my emotions in the kinds of tough situations in which she would use logic to maneuver her way out of them. I was obviously not my mother. In fact, I was not only not my mother, but I was almost nothing like her at all.
For a long time, I beat myself up for not being more like her. She always seemed to have everything together. She raised four kids 400 miles away from the rest of her family, and we're all pretty decent humans if I do say so myself. She was always such a dutiful parent—preparing balanced meals for us every night, making our lunches the night before school each day, dropping us off, and picking us up (except for that one time she forgot me at Girl Scouts, but that was an aberration, and I forgive you, Mom). Meanwhile, I can barely manage the laundry in a household of two or make spaghetti to save my life.
She is planned and scheduled; I am spontaneous. She is realistic; I am a dreamer. She is orderly and organized; I am chaos in human form. She is logical and analytical; I am the type of person who feels bad for stuffed animals if they're face down because it makes me feel like they can't breathe. We're very different.
Learning to Love Our Opposing Preferences
For a while after I realized this, there were times I (and she, I'm sure) found it frustrating. I would want to stop by unexpectedly for an impromptu chat, and she would want to follow the schedule she had laid out for the day. I would want to eat cake on the couch and cry about something that was upsetting me, and she would want to lovingly remind me to please not get any chocolate on the new couch pillows.
We started noticing these little things and discussing them together. We'd come to little compromises. For example, we realized that we'd both feel so much more fulfilled if we were to schedule things like coffee and lunch dates so we could give each other our undivided attention. I started to understand and appreciate why she had preferences for how to feel comfortable and at her best that were in contrast to mine.
And I saw how selfish I had been to come over unexpectedly and expect her to drop everything for me just because she's my mom! Moms are people, too—and have their own lives—as I have learned. I started respecting her need for alone time now and then, and she saw how important it was for me to talk things out with someone when I was grappling with a dilemma.
I valued the order she brought to things, and she valued the spontaneity and carefree approach that I would offer as needed. We realized that neither of us was right or wrong—just different. And we started to see "different" as a good thing, a complementary thing. We were just two very different people with two very different approaches to life who also happened to love each other very much.
Realizing How Similar Even Opposites Can Be
And yet somehow I find myself making friends with people who are in line with me at the grocery store...and sitting next to me on airplanes...and renting out Airbnb rooms to me in Paris. I learn people's life stories the same way she always has, and then I come home to report back to her about them as she excitedly asks follow-up questions like:
"And what does his father do?" "Oh, interesting! How did he get into that?" "And how did his mother start up that photography business? Maybe we could hire her to make a slideshow someday!"
We love people. We love stories. But mostly, we love each other. We are so very different and yet also very much the same.
Mom, I love you.
I love you for everything you are and everything you are not—because not only do I desperately need everything that you are, but you also need me since I have a lot of the "everything you are not" stuff. And I like to hold that over you because it means I get to hang out with you more. At scheduled times. And with lots and lots of chocolate.