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Needs More Personality
February 20, 2014 7:43 AM   Subscribe

As I'm edging closer to middle age, I am struck by how little I know myself. Occasionally I am asked to talk or write about myself (mainly for work purposes) and I have no idea what to say. I am fairly aware of my range of skills, but I have very little insight as to my personality traits. I have done the Myer-Briggs test, read several books and completed various career assessments, but I still struggle to define who I am. More details inside - but in short: how do others define and describe themselves? How do you become aware of yourself? Think more pragmatic/philosophical descriptions of your personality traits and less about CV bloats.

I am a 30-something woman. I'm in a loving and healthy relationship, have a somewhat unpredictable but fun career path, and I have travelled a lot. I should have plenty of things to say about myself, yet I continue to struggle.

I usually quip that my personality is that I have none - but though a comedy answer, this does hint at how much I struggle to define who I am. I can say with confidence that I am smart and I am nice .. but I do not know what else to say about myself. I'm verbose? My favourite colour is green?

Strategies I have employed:
+ hiring people to write my bio blurbs rather than stare at a blank screen for three days.
+ asking friends and family what sort of qualities I have. Frustratingly I just got "you are you! xx" replies which felt very unhelpful.
+ reading books about various temperaments and doing tests. I register as an INTP (Myers-Briggs) - but I cannot shake the feeling that I might as well have consulted a horoscope as the descriptions all seem so vague.
+ therapy sessions - Mainly these ended up us discussing Plato a whole lot. Long story. It is certainly not a lack of stable identity (I am indeed me, as friends & family pointed out) and I have not been diagnosed with any form of disorder. I just don't have a clue as to defining that core Self.

Good friends seem very adept at describing themselves and what they are great at ("I'm great at talking to people!" - "I am creative and spontaneous!" - "I am a family man with a great sense of responsibility for my community"). How do they do that? More to the point: how can I become able to do that?
posted by kariebookish to Human Relations (32 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you ask friends (maybe on Facebook or maybe IRL) to give you a more specific one sentence description of yourself? It might be a fun (and enlightening) exercise.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:48 AM on February 20


Think about what you enjoy, not about who you are.

Kariebookish enjoys her dogs, her children and underwater basketweaving. When she's not sussing out strange and unusual items at the supermarkets, she's planning her next exotic vacation.

Feel free to use the exact same blurb every time.

Other than that, no one will hold your feet to the fire on this. So just throw some shit together and move on.

I can't imagine that anyone will actually expect you to describe your personality. I mean what would mine be?

Ruthless Bunny is a sarcastic and honest person, who balances her actual job with answering various AskMeFi questions. She has a wicked sense of humor which has caused her to be ridden out of town on a rail on more than one occassion.

I mean..????
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:56 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


A couple prompts...
- Think about things you've felt strongly about (pro or con). What is it about these things you were passionate about? For instance, not everyone has travelled much, it's not important to them. You have. Why?
- If a friend leans on you in time of need, what is it they depend on you for? If you wanted friends to take you up on offers to help in time of need, what is it you'd really like to do/be for them?
- If you're trying to craft this mostly for work purposes, think about what projects or tasks really pushed you in some way, or alternately were a breeze. Why?
- The examples you give of your friends' descriptions ("I'm great at talking to people!") fall a little flat for me. They're certainly not evoking a specific kind of person to me (but maybe that's fine for a work context.)
- You may be an introvert. Given the question, maybe one of your traits is that you're thoughtful and interested in sometimes unanswerable questions.
- You may be a generalist. I struggled with some resume-type questions at one point in my life and realized, ah, it's because I really like knowing 20% about everything, rather than 90% about two things. And I let that be ok, and a central part of who I am.

Finally? If this is *just* for work, you have permission to write something adequate without being profoundly accurate, and to get on with the business of being you.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:58 AM on February 20


("I'm great at talking to people!" - "I am creative and spontaneous!" - "I am a family man with a great sense of responsibility for my community")

These particular cases, people are defining themselves by their instinctual reactions to things. When you meet a new person, do you hit it off or struggle with it? If it's the former, then "great at talking to people" applies. Do you get ideas an execute them, or do you wave them off as flights of fancy not worth your time? If it's the former, then you're creative and spontaneous (or at least willing to be so.) Do you shy away from the community or do you take an active role in it? And so on and so forth.

Ask yourself questions about how you respond to certain things in your life: ideas, situations, emotions and so on. Do you execute good ideas on the spot, or do you get your ducks in a row and plan them out? When something you dislike happens, do you let it roll off you, or do you complain, or get angry or try to fix it in some way? Do you expose yourself to certain things to feel a certain way to the exception of other things: heart-wrenching movies, angry political articles, innocent children's television, whatever.

Every day you do a whole bunch of stuff because of who you are; you just have to be a little more aware of why you're doing this stuff and, if you're content with the way you're doing it, that's, in some way, who you are.
posted by griphus at 7:58 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


I can say with confidence that I am smart and I am nice .. but I do not know what else to say about myself.
I think that this is partly a matter of the words you choose. "I am smart and nice" doesn't sound like a description of a personality, but "I am highly analytical and enjoy solving problems, and I care a lot about other people" is more on track.

I would start with objective facts about yourself (I am smart. I like to travel.) and then try to think of the underlying personality traits that explain those things. You've traveled a lot. Is that because you enjoy traveling? If so, what does that tell you about yourself? (Often, people enjoy traveling because they like adventure and/or enjoy learning new things and having new experiences. People who enjoy traveling are often pretty flexible and able to adapt when things don't go exactly as planned. Are any of those things true of you?) Then run those personality traits by your friends and see if they think your description sounds right.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:58 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I always find that the one thing that people might not know about me is the thing I will add to spice things up like this. So at work, I'll say, "Xingcat is a knowledge manager in the X department, responsible for content management, blah, blah, blah. On his off-hours, Xingcat is a playwright who participates in theater at the community and national level, and has had plays of his performed around the world."
posted by xingcat at 7:58 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of self-description is partly how you see yourself, but more importantly how you want others to see you. Do you want the people reading your description to see you as a leader, fun-loving, a quiet behind-the-scenes person that gets things done, a gentle soul, a number-cruncher? Everyone has different aspects to their definition of self, and everyone can choose to emphasize some of these aspects under certain circumstances. Which isn't to say that you tell patent lies about yourself, of course, but as you say, a lot of these descriptions can be pretty vague. Even in the examples you give, I can imagine few people not identifying with them.

For most bios, though, I also think it's okay to just present a factual list of where you went to school, what your previous jobs involved, and maybe a hobby.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:59 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I've been reading (and writing) a bunch of personal ads lately, and have found that general personality descriptions like "I'm great at talking to people!" or "I am creative and spontaneous!" are pretty useless in understanding what a person is like. I strongly prefer profiles that tell me what the person likes to do--travel is great, but tell me what you like to do when you travel. Don't tell me you like movies--everyone likes movies; tell me which movies you've seen recently, and why you like them. Tell me about your garden, or how you walk to work. Tell me about your hobbies, or that great Indian dish you make. Then let me make my own judgement about your personality.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:00 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


Good friends seem very adept at describing themselves

"Seem" is the operative word, I think. It's a (short) story we tell ourselves about ourselves. You will never know whether the family man deep down resents his wife and children, or the creative and spontaneous woman is wracked with guilt over her constant plagiarism of others' ideas. Or maybe the stories they tell are entirely accurate.

Who do you want to be? I'm boring with no interests and filled with self doubt! or I'm a deep thinker who's passionate about animal welfare! or I'm a late bloomer on a new quest for self discovery and magick!

It's a variation on fake it till you make it. You have all the power in the world to make yourself whomever you want to be, and it often starts with telling people how they should think of you.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:01 AM on February 20


I find that it's easier to define myself by what I do than what I am. Not in the sense of "what do you do for work" or "what are your hobbies," but in the sense of how I tend to act in certain situations. For example, it feels inauthentic and generic for me to say "I am empathetic," but I have no problem saying "I often get unhappy when my friends are unhappy," because I've observed that in myself. Think about the little things you regularly feel, enjoy, or do, and you'll have a better sense of yourself. (On preview, what griphus said.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:04 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


If your question is specifically about how to write a bio-blurb to use for work purposes, I don't see anything wrong with what you have said:
I'm in a loving and healthy relationship, have a somewhat unpredictable but fun career path, and I have travelled a lot.
That, with a few specifics (married for how long? Where have you travelled? What jobs have you had?) seems pretty adequate to me.

On a more philosophical level, I recommend journalling.

Processing my thoughts in writing has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me. By recording the day's events and my feelings about those events I have come to a much clearer understanding of what makes me tick. I don't stop at asking myself what I feel, but why I think I feel it. Many of the things I know that I am - empathetic, logical, possessive, introverted - I know from writing about my days and my feelings and understanding the patterns.

Basically it is a daily check-in with myself; some quality time spent exploring my feelings. I have been journalling for many years and it has been more effective than anything else in helping me to get to know myself.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:05 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


This is what you do:

for a period of a week, watch what you SAY and what you DO, and also what you choose NOT TO DO.

That is personality. Your preferences, values and wants will always come out in what you DO.

do you tell lots of jokes?
do you keep quiet?
do you say hi to new people?
do you help people?
are you the first person through the elevator door?
are you calling friends & spending time?
are you online all the time?
are you chronically late? chronically early?
do you put stuff away or toss it around the house?

That's it, that's all. Just pay attention to what you actually do.

This will help break you out of 'who you think you are' vs. 'who you truly are in action.' You can think whatever you want about yourself (or nothing at all) but your micro-actions are a mirror into yourself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:05 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]


Why is your relationship loving and healthy? Is it because you have similar goals, and if so, what are those goals? If it's because you keep variety in your life, what kind of things do you do to attain that?

Why has your career path been unpredictable? Is it because you seek out things you enjoy doing, are you a pursuer of lost causes, or do you end up working on things important to you that might not last in the long term?

Maybe all of these have answers that illuminate who you are, and maybe none of them do. But even if all of the choices and opportunities have happened to you out of pure chance, you were in some place that made those choices appear.
posted by mikeh at 8:12 AM on February 20


If you're being asked to write about yourself for work purposes, then CV material and quips are exactly what's called for. Keep a bio you like, recycle it as needed, and don't worry about it.

If being asked to write about yourself is just what has prompted you to look at it from a more philosophical standpoint: well, one word for someone who's totally involved in a deep and full awareness of their own character traits and personality is "narcissist." You're the opposite of that. (By which I don't mean self-hate, just someone who's not at so focused on gazing at their own stat sheet.) That's not such a bad thing.

(Honestly I think for most people our personalities and character traits come roughly 80% from our surroundings and companions, and that the notion of the "self" as a discrete and individual entity is a lot less meaningful than we generally think it is. We think we have stable, contiguous personalities primarily because we tend to settle into stable, contiguous lifestyles, especially as we enter middle age -- but go through a major lifestyle upheaval and see how much your personality changes!

See also crowd psychology, the "broken windows" policing theory, Stockholm syndrome, Milgram, sick-culture offices, or any traffic jam or open-seating scenario. We're all basically nice people until we find ourselves in a crowd of assholes, at which point we're all assholes.)
posted by ook at 8:13 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


It is not for work purposes - I already have a nicely written bio (written by someone who asked me three questions then returned an hour with a great blurb. Amazing.)

It is more a philosophical/reflective question - a recent birthday made me think about my life and then about how come I really just struggle to talk about my personality traits (or even defining them).

Great answers coming from a lot of different viewpoints. Keep 'em coming - I am learning a lot here just from seeing how many different ways you can approach this.
posted by kariebookish at 8:22 AM on February 20


I used to have this very problem, saying things like, "the only adjective for myself that I'm Sure of is 'confused'". I, too, felt like Myers-Briggs and other tests did not help much, seeming almost random or horoscope-like in their generalities. It got really troubling, as if I had nothing to anchor myself to, no personality.

While internet-researching personality I took an enneagram test and got a Type 9. The system itself is Intensely woo, but seeing a personality description and for once thinking, "Yes! That's true!" gave me more confidence that I wasn't some kind of cypher. That maybe mild, kind, and amenable to many answers Was a personality.

Since then I went through years of therapy and became far more conversant with my self, personality, and emotions. I no longer identify so much with Enneagram Type 9, feeling like all "types" are kind of just bins, and we're all individuals. But finding that there was a description that felt true, even one from a system I didn't believe in the basis of, really helped me realize that, yes, Everyone has a personality.

So you might try looking more into what personality means in different contexts. A different therapist might help. A different categorization system might help. But mostly, know that you're not alone, and that you do, in fact, have a personality, even if it's hard for you to see and articulate now.
posted by ldthomps at 8:30 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Smart and nice is pretty good.

The Big 5 personality traits are:

Openness to Experience
Conscientiousness
Extraversion
Agreeableness
Neuroticism

Plot yourself in relation to those and there you go. Smart is usually correlated with openness, nice and agreeable are the same thing. You're 2/5ths of the way there.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:37 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


This is a notoriously difficult question, by the way, so if someone thinks they have it figured out, it means they are probably wrong. Personality psychology and personality testing are difficult.

It is fascinating to try to determine what we mean by "personality" and how we decide whether it actually describes anything real. How consistent do we need to be in order to be described as though we have consistent traits?

This reminds me to pop back into Reasons and Persons by Parfait. You'd probably like it!
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:48 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


One thing that has helped me figure a lot of this stuff out is to think of what I'm not. Find the boundaries past which you wouldn't be comfortable, and you can see yourself in the negative space.

For example I am never going to be one of those women who likes to wear makeup and heels and such.

I could never vote Republican.

I could never join a church.

I'm not outdoorsy.

I'm really cerebral and thrive on brainy stuff. (This is not a negative, I suppose, but definitely something I've learned about myself by trying and failing to be not that sort of person.)

Caring and trying and giving a shit are really important to me. (Another thing I've learned by observing the contrary.)

I don't think most people really care about whether you're introverted or extroverted (though it can be a useful thing to understand about yourself) or what your Meyers-Briggs type is. When I think about my identity as a person, I don't really think of any of that stuff and would be very unlikely to describe myself in those terms to other people.
posted by Sara C. at 8:50 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


This book (Personality by Daniel Nettle) does a good job of touring the evidence for the "Big 5" and has a test to score yourself on each dimension.
posted by crocomancer at 9:01 AM on February 20


My boyfriend just did this with his life/work coach. She asked him to think of what his "essence" was, and to ask 5 friends. Maybe if you use the word "essence" you'll get better friend answers?
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:12 AM on February 20


As both a woman, and an INTP, I also struggle hugely with these tasks. Who am I? Hell if I know. I get more than a little annoyed at even having to think about these things, or the expectation that I should be able to simply and easily describe myself.

I evolve, moment to moment. I'm a different person today than I was yesterday.

I'd also say that external perceptions of who we are -- particularly if we are introverts -- can be very jarring, and feel patently untrue. So that might be an awkward path to pursue.

So, a vote for not feeling bad or weird for not having a handle on this. Labels are nice, I suppose, but what happens when they stop being useful or accurate?
posted by gsh at 9:29 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Can I not answer the question and say stickwith hiring people to write my bio blurbs rather than stare at a blank screen for three days. 

And reciprocate, of course, with favors for them and smile politely when they say "Perfect - that's exactly how I see myself but I could never have phrased it so well."

And try not to freak out about what they say about you.

Seriously - if this was a housekeeping question, I'd ask if you can afford a maid.

If you know yourself well enough to enjoy your life, your relationships, and your work, then you must know yourself well enough to make the right decisions for yourself. Isn't that enough?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:54 AM on February 20


Self, variously, could be described as - the flow of conscious of experience over time (the experiencer in the moment); an accumulation of habits and preferences, informed by a biologically based temperament, along with particular experiences; the remembered self (an active re-collection of experiences and events, converging on and constantly reworked by the experiencer).

Autobiographical writing is one way of taking a perspective on your life and forming its narrative; this might help you take yourself as an object, in the way I think you mean. (E.g., reviewing your historical responses to situations, and how the first have changed; choices you’ve made in given contexts). Also, you can identify places, situations and activities that are comfortable and rewarding for you.

(I’ve changed in many ways, following certain experiences, and stayed the same in some ways. I do know what these are, enough to have a framework for living, but I don’t know; I’m also uncomfortable publicly talking about myself in the “I am this” sense, and am actually a little suss about people who spend loads of time labelling themselves rather than doing things.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:55 AM on February 20


how do others define and describe themselves?

I split it in half.

On things that are entirely self-contained and independent, I identify myself with the times where I feel most motivated and engaged (in a Flow type of way). I also note the things that seem to be my biggest drains and difficulties.

With aspects that involve groups and interactions with others, I only use the positive or negative feedback I have consistently (n = 10+) gotten from other people. Likewise, many things in life involve external measurements or standards. How did I do?

Once I have developed both halves, then I weave it all together into a consistent picture of myself. That's what I hold onto. I can attempt to modify myself, but until the feedback or my habits change, I am still me. The picture gradually evolves over time, but it's a mostly stable image of who I am. I can dress myself up in different clothes for different situations but I am still the same person underneath.

I realize my approach might be very problematic for people who have received a lot of negative feedback in their life. There can be an extra step where I evaluate the source of the feedback and adjust the weight. One person's perspective or one external measure is still only one source of feedback.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:13 AM on February 20


I teach a class to homeschoolers called Know Thyself, so I'll jump in.

I introduce the kids to the idea of the existential question, and teenagers are asking exactly this question, and of course always will, but hopefully they will get enough resolution to move on. Adults are more likely to be asking something like "Can my life count" but I suspect we all have to resolve the who am I and who can I be questions. There is a TED talk about finding your life's purpose in five minutes, that I found fun, but frankly the teenagers weren't ready for.

I like using the Big Five personality test and contrasting it with the Myers Briggs. It's a good start. One of the best dates I ever had with my now wife was when we were stuck inside on a lousy day and took every test we could find together, like our Ayurvedic types. She still remembers that I am prone to ... nevermind, TMI.

Another theme is change. I recommend a NYT article "you are not the person you expected to become>"

Well, that's a start.
posted by mearls at 11:23 AM on February 20


You've got some great advice and suggestions of frameworks here. Just two things:

I'd really recommend committing to externalizing this thought process of yours as you go forward, whether through writing or talking to friends (the two best options I think). It's too easy, when thinking about yourself (or thinking in general) to sort of abbreviate your thoughts and jump from one thing to the next. This is especially true when you start to think something like "well, I am a wonderful people-person -- but I'm also a people-pleaser, oof!" It helps to spell it out, give it some weight and test these little descriptors outside of yourself.

These little phrases and descriptions are most helpful for folks because they give us a space to take a load off and rest a beat from the pure volatile ambiguity of the ego (this has been discovered again and again throughout history, so don't beat yourself up over just not knowing! some folks have passionately advocated for just your mindset -- see Hume, the Buddha: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_self ) So maybe take a pragmatic tact and think about why your friends rely on those one-liners-of-self. Sometimes, it's to make excuses for future behavior ("I'm just someone who's always late" = "you should anticipate that I will be late in the future and please don't get mad at me!"), to find ways to laugh at things that are actually painful ("I'm somebody who becomes a mess when I don't see a single person over the weekend, it's absurd!"), or whatever. Perhaps try to identify your goals: one is clearly to just get through and contribute to conversations about yourself, but maybe you have others? I like to cue that I'm nerdy and want to bond with others over being nerdy, if that makes sense.
posted by elephantsvanish at 11:29 AM on February 20


I could have marked every single answer as "best" but I opted to mark those that either pointed towards a framework or which made me think about the consistency (or likelihood) of Self.

I agree that as we pass throw time and we gain experience, our Selves change, evolve and grow. I am not really trying to define that sort of ever-changing Self (although the idea does thrill me on some sort of nerdy level - the centre is not the centre blah blah blah) I think I am particularly interested in that area where my vague, non-articulated beliefs about my Self intersect with stated feedback (e.g. I was told yesterday I am very observant - my first thought was "but I have no idea where anything is on my work desk!"). Tension is good.

Focusing on actions rather than intent is an interesting idea and I'm going to experiment with that. I am also grateful for all the suggested reading. I like books :)

Finally, thank you to the people who said they had similar problems and that sometimes it is just best to accept yourself - even if you are not sure who that is!
posted by kariebookish at 11:59 AM on February 20


Two things that might help a little. (I don't have links -- sorry, I'm on my phone.)

A friend once gave me a useful frame for this, which is "career anchors" -- I assume this is Google-able. Going from memory, there are about five basic career motivations that everybody has to a greater or lesser degree: the desire for recognition/status/social approval, the desire for harmonious team relationships, the desire to make the world a better place, the desire to excel and gain specific expertise/mastery, and the desire to achieve some level of security or safety. Thinking about those motivations might be useful for you.

You could also explore your values. There are hundreds of frameworks for this, and I've found many useful. Values might include things like "I like novelty and hate routine," "loyalty is important to me," "competency is important to me," "truth matters more than kindness," "I prefer order and am uncomfortable with mess" and "I am a planner: I hate winging it." This stuff can feel kind of abstract, but it can be useful too. I used to have a deck of values cards from some leadership development thing I was involved with, and I found about 80% of them not that meaningful, but a small number incredibly resonant.

Oh one last thing! An instrument you might like! There's an online questionnaire that costs about twenty dollars and gives you an automated, detailed, instant report. It's called the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI), and you can find it at www.capt.org. It fits you into one of twelve (Jungian-influenced?) archetypes -- basically, it tells you what role you are playing as the hero/protaganist of your own life. Some people are Warriors, some Rulers, some Magicians, etc. I know that some people find this kind of stuff super-reductive and dumb (and I enjoy the MBTI, so consider the source here ;-)) --- but I *loved* the PMAI and found it extremely useful in understanding myself better.

Fun question! Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 1:52 PM on February 20


By the way, Reasons and Persons is by Parfit, although I'm sure Parfait is a fine philosopher as well.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:57 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I've always found character and personality a very fluid concept... Maybe instead of trying to capture what you 'ARE' and describe yourself based on what these tests tell you, try to work out the type of person you WANT to be and just do the actions and moves that are consistent with what you want! It's good you don't have all these self-limiting beliefs right now, so just be who you want, rather than let some test or book tell you who you are!
posted by dinosaurprincess at 5:12 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


a recent birthday made me think about my life and then about how come I really just struggle to talk about my personality traits (or even defining them)

Until I saw your followup I was going to tell you that therapy was overkill for being stumped by writing your bio.

Some people talk very confidently about their own personality traits. This doesn't mean they actually are confident about their personality traits. If they are confident about them, this doesn't mean they know themselves as well or are as unchangeable as they think.

You don't have to define your own personality traits this way.

If you want some little quips of "I'm very X!" to tell others, just come up with what you want to say.

I think I am particularly interested in that area where my vague, non-articulated beliefs about my Self intersect with stated feedback (e.g. I was told yesterday I am very observant - my first thought was "but I have no idea where anything is on my work desk!")

If you don't want to be inaccurate, this can be "I'm told I'm very observant".

There are many things one can be observant of. It's likely the other person meant that you looked beyond what was on your work desk, in an area that they thought was important. If you were very observant of something they thought wasn't important, they wouldn't describe you this way.

We are not how others perceive us.

You will never feel that you have consistent personality traits if you rely on other's descriptions of you for your sense of self.
posted by yohko at 11:28 AM on February 23


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