I checked yes

I took my first personality test in college. I was a sophomore and was in the process of declaring a Secondary Education major. As part of the placement application, students were asked to take a well-known standardized assessment. This was presumably to eliminate those unsuited to work with children. I remember pages and pages of convoluted and confusing questions, many of which I paused and considered carefully before answering. I don’t remember exact words, but I remember the gist.

Question #43: Do I talk to myself?

Chewing the end of my number two testing pencil, I stared into a vivid flash back to sixth grade when sixth graders ruled the elementary school. We swaggered then, so far above today’s kids relegated to the middle school steerage decks. As “upperclassmen” we had extra privileges and the primo assignment was Crossing Guard. Those chosen wore a florescent orange crisscross vest and on rainy days, a yellow slicker, all while brandishing a full sized stop sign on a six foot pole. I was assigned a corner about three blocks away from the school during lunch time when the half-day kindergarteners walked home.

Only no kindergarteners ever seemed to walk my way. I stood or sat or puttered around my corner for at least a half hour or so, proud, but all alone, or sort of alone.

I created elaborate stories during my watch—stories with so many characters and so many subplots that it was necessary to repeat them aloud to myself to keep the details straight. I borrowed from every scrap I had ever been exposed to, especially if it related to a “cause”: Abolitionist Quakers from Friendly Persuasion, Danish partisans from a World War II novel, street gang fighters from West Side Story, all were fodder for lunch time retelling. Absently I circled around my sign, intense, scrawny, muttering narrative, probably with dramatic facial expressions. This street bard behavior was more emblematic than isolated in my childhood. Did this constitute normal talking to myself or abnormal? Especially since these audible monologues continued as I got older as a viable organizational strategy for my writing.

I checked yes.

Question #77: Do I sometimes hear or sense things that are not really there?

My own stories were enhanced by an intense belief in mystical stories of revelatory interaction. My heroes were saints and prophets, people who communed fluently with all sorts of beings that others could not hear. I aspired to a holiness that offered this heightened sensitivity, but I had to be very, very good. I listened for manifestations intently, my mother’s half-slip on my head like a habit, ready and waiting to amplify angelic voices. As a ten year old Catholic child, I was told about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, conversing with God. I thought, of course, why not, this is normal, how do I sign up? By eighteen I could sense spiritual significance in a stomach ache, in a good grade, in the intricate trill of hormones when a righteous boy glanced over his hymn book. These insights were clear to me, but they could not be seen exactly.

I checked yes.

Question #195: Do I feel overly influenced by forces outside of myself?

Teaching high school was going to be the job I needed in case my husband died after I got married. Being a writer, the only thing I had wanted to be since I became aware that people could be things, was not a real life option. Being a teacher was practical and feminine and I was assured I could still publish books on the side, at least until I had babies. This is what I was told by “they” in my life, “they” were wise and knew best and were the reason I was taking this test in the first place.

I checked yes.

In spite of all my reveries, I answered quickly, increasingly encouraged that this test would illuminate the secrets of my personality. I tried to capture every nuance of my rich inner life—stuffed animals with woven genealogies, bikes with epic names, John-Boy-Walton-Red-Chief tablets full of looping, long-hand episodes that would rival Dickens.

The results of the test and subsequent entry into the program were discussed on an individual basis. I sat down to my interview expectantly, my file open on the desk with a red circled warning on the continuum of sane and not. The department had a concern that I tested a little too close to the psychotic borderline. I would be admitted as a Secondary Education major, but they were keeping tabs on me. They suggested I visit the medical center.

By my choice, I did not last as a student of education. After a succession of majors and universities and revelations, I graduated some time later in Psychology. My appetite for analysis had been piqued and I practiced how to answer questions in whatever way would produce the preferred perception. The appropriate responses require that the participant distill a million full, ripe experiences into a tidy can of frozen, concentrated juice, sliding from the mind into the waiting circle with a squelching plop. Those still “in touch” learn to dissemble, those who have lost their grip, remain honest. 

Last week I helped facilitate a training seminar in which we utilized a color based personality/ temperament test to initiate a discussion on empathic communication. The idea is that if a person understands their own temperament and can recognize basic temperament classifications in others, they can choose to give feedback in a way that both resonates with and respects the other person’s differences. I watched the reactions of people in the room as I led them through a series of exercises—reading information, choosing groups of words, determining totals, chatting in small groups. Some people zipped through with resounding self awareness, each activity confirming what they already knew. Others hesitated and raised their hand for clarification. Some were surprised at the results, shaking their heads, how could this be me? Others nodded, wide-eyed, as if they had discovered the Rosetta to every moment of their lives. A few did not know where they should be and kept looking around, finding a bit of truth in every group’s disclosure. A few were just bored.

No one made the leap as to how this would help them get along better with others, there was far too much to explore in their own one-colored world.

According to this test, my color is shared by only five percent of the population. Although the methods of this particular test seem ridiculously simple, the resulting descriptors, which embrace a high level of imagination and curiosity, seem to match my personality exactly. And because the exercises are about connection and not organizational fitness, there is no diagnosis to sort through. I once again felt the yearning for and reluctance to being labeled and explained—how easy it would be, how wrong. Nevertheless, I considered how much more confident I felt participating in this assessment, having matured far beyond the naive girl in college so long ago. I discussed it on the way home with my Honda Lulu and the Virgin Mary, and together we decided: I must be a very special woman indeed.



6 responses to “I checked yes”

  1. ssw says:

    Warning! Long comment ahead:
    I have learned most intimately about the downside of surveys/tools when we were at the eye doctor a few months ago, and molly had to answer some general questions about herself to rule out major eye problems. She wasn’t at an age of enough maturity to discriminate between a serious ongoing problem versus feeling something ever which may simply have to do with a lack of experience being asked about herself. So, “do you experience headaches” wasn’t perceived as, “Do I have headaches often, that really hurt, and are disrupting my day every day, to where I can’t concentrate on my work” turned into something more like…”Mmmmm..Have I ever had a headache before at school? Sure” The checklists don’t necessarily speak to the critical factors of frequency, duration and intensity, which in Molly’s case were followed up on from her doctor (whew).
    But, I think the phenomona you were writing about is related–and speaks to how reality is pretty subjective (and plausibly, that not enough people are ever asked how they feel about things, ever! They’re more likely to be asked about what they think about a product than their own feelings). So from a teacher/trainer perspective, unless you know how to do the asking and the follow-up of asking, a lot of surveys/instruments aren’t hitting the mark of what was intended, and have to be shaped until they do.
    For the record Pandora, you know this about me, but I LOVE personality tests and am equally compelled by and repulsed by the labeling. There’s a really critical value to those tests (Myers Briggs, Colors, Enneagram, you name it) which I happened to find them in my 20s but can be very helpful for understand yourself and others, not to label, but to begin a conversation.
    BUT, the most important and compelling part of your post is at the end (of course, this is a theme with you!) is when you describe the conversation with your car/yourself on the way home. Not because you’re suffering from mental illness, good try, but, because you radiate a passion for what is happening inside with own relationship to yourself, which I love and admire. I always thought this was the work that teens are supposed to do, as they separate from parents and develop their own identity and that someday (round about 25) it would all just be complete and you’d be “grown up” (whatever that means). It’s been a radical awakening for me to actually live out my life up to now and at 35 almost 36 to realize that self-awareness, and identity shaping just continues to deepen. When I don’t overthink it, or beat myself up for what has/hasn’t happened to date–it’s actually a surprising gift to realize that I’m just getting started. xoxo you make fridays special

  2. LP says:

    Pandora, this is one of my favorite posts of yours. By the time I got to “bikes with epic names,” I was transported. And the ending was perfect.

    One of the things I love about your writing is your ability and willingness to reveal what some might consider embarrassing things yourself, while simultaneously showing how they’re actually quite normal and even lovely.

  3. AW says:

    A very fun post. And I’m with LP: part of the PB magic is the elevation and cherishing of the kooky or idiosyncratic–in ourselves and others. Ironically, it makes us all seem more human and connected in the process.

  4. lisa t. says:

    If there were a poll asking me if i like PB’s blog posts, i would check YES.

  5. that last line is blessed and it blessed my long and nerve-wracked day.

  6. MF says:

    PB, Can I marry you?