Destructive Self-Reflection (Part 1)

I enjoy discovering more about myself, and I really enjoy taking personality tests. I remember the first time I took the Myers-Briggs personality test as a sophomore in college. I can recall scrolling through my Twitter feed one day and stumbling across a personality profile called “the Enneagram.” I’ve taken the DISC personality profile a handful of times. And yes, of course, I’ve completed countless “church” personality inventories over the years (you might know them better by the title “spiritual gifts inventories,” but for Christians they basically function like personality tests). 

I’ve probably taken almost every personality assessment under the sun. But at the end of all my self-searching, I’ve wondered from time to time if the pursuit of such knowledge is but a striving after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:17): how much do I really know about myself after all of this test-taking, and how helpful has it truly been?  

After all, when it comes right down to it, we’re surrounded by all-you-can-eat buffets of personality tests. Simply grab a plate and pick the ones that looks most scrumptious to you. Do you want a plate that gives you the savory taste of your strengths? Or do you want a more salty and biting dish of weaknesses? How about a plateful that gives you a smack of both? Take whatever suits your fancy. In the internet age, it’s never been easier to get a good and healthy helping of self-knowledge -- but it’s also never been easier to gorge yourself on, well, your self. 

In a “selfie” culture that is obsessed with self, self-reflection and self-knowledge can quickly transform into selfishness and self-centeredness. What begins as an honest look inward can become a hopeless cycle of navel-gazing that leaves us hunchbacked. As Augustine once said, because we are sinners by nature, we are all naturally incurvatus in se, curved in on ourselves -- and if we’re not watchful, our efforts to learn more about ourselves, which are meant to help turn us outward for the sake of others, will only curve us more inward. The question is: how can we know when self-reflection is curving us inward rather than outward?

While there is, of course, no simple answer to that question, there are at least two general ways that self-reflection can put our spines out of alignment, so to speak. 

CLOAK OF STRENGTH

The first is perhaps the most obvious: we weigh ourselves down with the heavy cloak of our strengths. This is the garb worn by those of us who seem to be on a perpetual, never-ending winning streak. When we don this mantle, all of our conversations with one another might as well be political stump speechs: we cover our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and only let the strengths of our personality show through. But when we’re only strong, and never weak, what do we need God for? When we self-reflect only to learn more about what makes us great, all the while ignoring our sins and flaws, we are curving in on ourselves. 

NAKED FAUXNERABILITY

The second way may be less apparent, but it as equally as detrimental to our well-being: we expose ourselves with what one writer has called “fauxnerability.” We willingly talk about our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our sins -- but we do so in a way that draws a disproportionate amount of attention to ourselves. We don’t use this kind of vulnerability to connect and empathize with others -- we use it to manipulate and gain an advantage over others. We use it as an excuse for all the ways we mishandle situations and mistreat people: “This is just the way I am! It’s my personality type.” It is a false sort of vulnerability, and thus the term fauxnerability. It is also the kind of self-thinking that can keep us from turning to God for grace, because we quickly find ourselves lost in the whirlpool of our sins and vices and think that God will despise us for our wretchedness. When we self-reflect only to learn more about what makes us frail and helpless, all the while ignoring the gifts of grace God has given us, we are curving in on ourselves.

HEALTHY SELF-REFLECTION

Healthy self-reflection, on the other hand, helps us practice the kind of humility that C.S. Lewis wrote about: the kind that doesn’t make you think less of yourself, but simply makes you think of yourself less. Healthy self-knowledge looks like knowing and confessing your sin, learning and acknowledging your weaknesses, and yes, growing and mastering your giftings. Wholesome self-knowledge helps us discern what we have to offer to our neighbors, see where we tend to stray, and frees us to become self-forgetful in the best possible way as we seek the welfare of others (Romans 15:2). 

When the result of our self-reflection is dependence upon Christ alone for grace and mercy, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit for the strength to do the work he has called us to do, our self-reflection is curving us outward.

All of that to say, I’ve found personality assessments to be helpful tools when I’ve used them appropriately. The Myers-Briggs has helped me better understand why I perceive the world the way I do; the Enneagram has equipped me with a vocabulary for discussing my fears and needs with my loved ones; the DISC has given me insight into my leadership strengths and weaknesses; and yes, all those spiritual gifts inventories have given me a better idea of how God has uniquely equipped me to serve in his kingdom.

But at the end of the day, if you really want to get closer to the heart of who you are, then personality assessments will only take you so far. If you want true self-knowledge, there is one thing that is far more telling than any personality test you will ever take. And what is that, you ask?

(Part two of this article coming soon)