There is an old and terribly unfunny joke that says “There are two types of people in the world: those who like personality typologies and those who don’t.”
I’ve long been in the former category. I am fascinated by human personality and — much like the elements I discussed last week — find the different typological systems people have developed to talk about it helpful. I’m a proud INFJ in Myers-Briggs, I’m melancholic in the classical ‘humors’, when it comes to the Big 5, my thinking falls into the “Empathic Idealist” category, and in Gretchen Rubin’s “four tendencies” framework, I’m unquestionably a Questioner (with a lean toward Upholder).
But there are other popular personality typologies that don’t work as well for me. I have friends who swear by the Enneagram (a system particularly popular with Christians), but I simply don’t seem to fit into that framework at all. This doesn’t make this model ‘wrong’, but it does direct us to the important truth that no way of dividing up something as complex as human personality into four, nine, or twelve groups will be able to accurately capture everyone.
If this stands for descriptive models like these, it is all the more true for prescriptive personality typologies. And so astrology, with its insistence that a great deal of our personalities is shaped by the date and time of our birth, had a steep uphill climb to get a hearing from me. It’s one thing to say there are different types of human personality and to figure our where we fit based on our actual observed behaviours and thought patterns. It’s quite another to insist that our personalities are prescribed by the position of the planets, sun, and moon at the time of our birth!
My dubiousness towards zodiacal typology was further heightened because I never really resonated strongly with my ‘sign’. For all the ways it seemed to fit, there were so many others that didn’t, and other signs that seemed to fit me just as well. Moreover, I was annoyed at how glib and superficial discourse about these things seemed to be: “Well I’m a Scorpio, so ….” or “I can’t stand Geminis…” It all just seemed overly simplistic and silly to me.
And so my attempts at engaging with astrology with an open mind this year faced a lot of headwind.
You can imagine then how shocked I was when I took a look at my full birth chart and found it to be by far the most accurate description of my personality I’ve seen.
To take a step back, what people call ‘their sign’ is their Sun sign, which — while important — is only one planetary position among many. One astrologer helpfully described the Sun sign as being like your city of origin: If you take fifty people and have to divide them up into whether they are from, say, New York, Portland, Tallahassee, or Calgary, you could probably do it with reasonable accuracy, but it wouldn’t help you understand any of the people as individuals. The basic tendency of a Sun sign is likely to be subsumed in certain areas of life based on the the positions of other planets in the chart. This seems to be particularly relevant in my situation, since my Ascendant (what was rising in the East at my date, time, and place of birth) and three planets (Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are all in the same sign in my chart.
Looking at astrological typology with the whole birthchart in view, it doesn’t simplistically divide humanity into twelve groups, but is rather a complex system of several twelve-part typologies that interact with each other in different ways. All told, there are about twenty thousand possible charts. It ends up being incredibly individual, and in my case at least, disturbingly accurate.
I don’t really know what to make of that, since I’m still a heart a skeptic, but there are three related truths about this I think are relevant for how we think about ourselves and the world more generally.
First, personality frameworks (astrology’s most of all) are a helpful reminder that there is no one right way to be human. We all have our differences and this is okay; it’s even part of the plan. I am not you; you are not me. My journey is not your journey; your journey is not mine. And that’s okay too.
Second, as with all archetypes, there are many ways we can manifest the energies of our personalities. My chart, for example, has a lot of tendency towards planning and getting-things-done. This structure can express itself healthily, as providing a kind of scaffolding to support my life and my growth; or it can express itself unhealthily, as a too-rigid shell that might hold me back. I think this is such an important point. As Gretchen Rubin has pointed out often about her Four Tendencies framework, we are prone to wasting a lot of time and effort trying to be something other than what we are; it’s far more helpful to work with who we are to achieve our goals, to harness the strengths of our tendencies to overcome their challenges. This reminds me further of the idea from Martin Seligman’s research that we explored in the series on Good Fruit: that any good thing can become unhealthy in its absence, opposite, or excess. The same is true with the energies of our personalities.
And third, closely related to this and as I touched on a couple posts ago, a birthchart — or any personality type — is descriptive and not deterministic. At most it is a map of our personality and it’s up to us to decide and act on how we’re going to manage that. My Sun sign accurately suggests I am prone to being stubborn. I could respond to that by saying “That’s just the way I am” and leave myself to the fates of my personality. Or, I could respond by saying “Okay, so I’m prone to digging my heels in: Where in my life is that beneficial? Where is it holding me back? And if it’s holding me back, how can I healthfully create more flexibility and motion in that area of my life?” We may not be able to choose our personalities, but how we choose to deal with them — that’s on us.
And so, to conclude these reflections, I’m grateful for my exploration of astrology last year for prompting me to reflect more on both how I understand personality frameworks and my own personality. And, I have to admit, I’m grateful that it has challenged my assumptions by providing such an accurate mirror of my personality. (Anything that can teach me humility is not a bad thing!)
At the end of the day, if understanding our personality better — whether we see that in terms of Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, astrology, or even, in a very different sphere of knowledge, a psychological or psycho-educational diagnosis — helps us to expand us and overcome our natural limitations, then it’s extremely helpful. But if we use it as an excuse that constricts us and our experience of the world, then it can be detrimental.
Knowledge is power. And we’d better not abdicate it.