One lens of viewing human nature distinguishes us by characteristics of personality. These range from esoteric systems such as Astrology and the Enneagram to somewhat more scientifically-minded systems such as the Big Five personality characteristics or the popular Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.
In a culture so prone to viewing ourselves as unique individuals, we seem to gravitate instinctively toward such ordering systems to grasp something about ourselves more clearly. Even little “quizzes” posted on social media—What Type of My Little Pony Are You?—emerge from this desire. We know ourselves well enough to know that we are different from those around us in some fundamental ways, and wonder whether it is us, wholly alone, or whether there are others like us in the world.
Identifying one’s type of personality can be the beginning of growth. To know that the way I am corresponds to this type, this Sun sign, can provide clarity, comfort, and the beginnings of self-knowledge. What it can also do is provide insight into points of struggle, our limitations, and where we can grow as individuals.
We can look at ourselves as heady, intellectual types who prefer thoughts and ideas and anxiously suppress feelings and bodily instincts. We might be more emotional, caught in the tidal pulls of feeling that sweep away reason with their urgency and sense of rightness. We might be bodily-oriented, rooted, earthy, attuned to the intricacies of physicality and prone to illness when stressed but otherwise not spending much effort to look beyond what is.
These distinctions are rather crude, but point to other possibilities. Identifying our types and becoming grounded in its strengths and power is a useful way to begin developing, but eventually we are confronted with its limitations. For some, these limitations can be managed and disregarded. For those of us suffering from mental, emotional, or spiritual difficulties, we might find these limitations to be too painful to ignore.
Whatever typological tendencies we have, we benefit and grow from acknowledging and working to integrate those tendencies we have not. The aforementioned intellectual who spins and ruminates in his mind and feels paralyzed to act resists the pain she fears in her heart and body, but by becoming more thoroughly anchored to these, she can access greater personal power and more flexibility in life. The body-type person who gets sick when under stress may be rewarded by taking time to experience the feelings the stress evokes, and reflect upon what choices he makes in life and whether that truly serves his health. The emotional type might be tossed about by the ever-shifting tides of feeling, but accessing the power of hir body may provide needed groundedness that allows hir to analyze the situation with some distance.
An integrated personality is like a sailing boat. The body provides the frame that engages with and floats upon the waves of feeling. The power of the mind are the sails that harness wind to propel the boat forward, guided by the deliberate intention of will. I believe we are capable of refining and developing our vessels, though we all begin with different pieces and different odds.
When we begin to be conscious of our selves, our sense of “who I am,” the ego, is often identified with only one facet of who we can be. As an intellectually-oriented person, I might treat my thoughts as though they were myself, or the most important part of self, and relegate the rest into the unconscious. Psychological and spiritual growth expands the ego’s boundaries by becoming conscious of, and eventually integrating, that which the ego once believed it was not. Emotionally-identified people might look to the intellectual types as snobbish, superior, or aloof, disowning their own potential to engage their minds. Intellectual-oriented folks might look down upon athletes and laborers who develop their bodies, thinking it a waste of time, while their own bodies grow weak and sickly.
Eventually, that which has been neglected and begun to harm the whole organism will communicate its needs to the ego, but likely in a way the ego will struggle to recognize: dreams, diseases, accidents, obsessive thoughts, uncontrollable impulses, surprising emotion, any repetitive issue that never seems to resolve. Often these distressing occurrences are the warped masks worn by really basic and simple needs that otherwise cannot seem to get the ego’s attention. We continue to ignore these at our own peril, because they will keep coming back in scarier and more dangerous guises. From this comes the wisdom of dream work: if something in a dream is chasing you, set an intention to stop and turn to face it. Eventually, it might tell you its name.
This brings me back to conscious suffering as therapeutic and spiritual growth work. Suffering can point us to what we most need to integrate to become whole, healthy, and adaptable individuals, though often our ego will interpret this suffering in a way that reinforces its existing beliefs. “This is only happening to me because I am bad.” We have to acknowledge this surface level and sink deeper, bringing conscious attention to what is beneath what we think we know. When we sink from the surface level into the personal unconscious, we can access the life-giving truth we need to bring up and transform the conscious ego.