I started writing this post nearly a year ago, after losing a dear friend, but I couldn’t finish it then. While I was grieving and watching the people around me grieve, I started wondering if the ways individuals respond to grief might be influenced by personality type. Once I started thinking about it, I was surprised that it wasn’t something I’d already read about in my personality studies.
People experience grief in such different ways that it would make sense for someone to try and find commonalities between how each personality type deals with grief. Maybe then we could come up with a self-help method for the grieving process more individualized than the inadequate and outdated 5 stages of grief model.
A few Google searchers later, I’d found plenty of forum topics where people who shared personality types were getting together to compare notes on how they deal with grief. I also found the following on the official Myers-Briggs website:
There have been many books written about personality type and grief, and it is perhaps one of the most profound uses of type. Understanding one’s personality type helps a person recognize why certain expressions of grief are better suited to his or her personal journey through this difficult process.
Unfortunately, they are neglected to give any more information about the “many books.” I’ve only been able to find Recovery from Loss: A Personalized Guide to the Grieving Process by Lewis Tagliaferre and Gary L. Harbaugh and Understanding Grief Types: Working with the Individual Nature of Bereavement by Lisa Prosser-Dodds (which had not yet been released).
Survey of Available Information
Recovery from Loss is specifically written for people who are grieving the loss of a spouse. It proposes a 20-step model for dealing with grief, and does address the role of personality type. However, the authors’ ideas are drawn from general knowledge of how different types respond to stressful situations rather than on actual research. They suggest this would be a profitable study, but do not undertake such a study themselves.
For such a study, I found a The Relationship Between Grief and Personality — A Quantitative Study by Lisa Prosser-Dodds, who presented this study of 239 individuals’ responses to grief as part of her PhD (I’m assuming it was also the starting point for her soon-coming book). Her study asks, ” Is there a difference in grief response between groups with differing MBTI personality types?” According to her, previous explorations of the MBTI’s role in grief are very few. She mentions four:
- a 1990 study of 51 bereaved mothers that said, “Extroverts reported higher levels of coping resources and focused on Social, Cognitive, Emotional and Spiritual resources.” The sample group mainly consisted of Extroverts and Feelers.
- a 1999 study of 14 people who had lost a spouse. This study “found differences in styles of grieving between varying personality types” but not “a significant use of inferior function,” which we would expect to show up in times of stress.
- the 1990 book Recovery From Loss, which I’ve alredy mentioned. Prosser-Dodds thinks their 20-step recovery model is presented “at a level of intellectual requirement that most grievers might become unable to digest,” and notes their observations are “not grounded in empirical data.”
- the 1994 book Voices of Loss, compiling first-hand accounts of grief and loss (not necessarily due to death) from various personality types. It is also “not based upon empirical data.”
What We Can Learn
If you’re interested in reading part of Prosser-Dodd’s study, her summary of results begins on page 68 of this PDF document. The aspect of her findings that I found most surprising was that “When the dominant function aspect of the personality was compared, none of the results showed significant differences. All six subscales and the total scale scores failed to support the hypothesis.” Given Naomi Quenk’s writings on the role of inferior functions in times of stress, this is quite shocking. I would have assumed eruptions of the shadow played a key role in grief, but our dominant function might actually have more to do with how we grieve than our inferior functions.
Instead, “the results that showed the most significant differences were with the predictor variable functional pairs (NT, ST, NF and SF).” This probably wouldn’t have surprised Isabel Myers, since that is the method she used to divide personality types into four groups: “ST- Practical and Matter of Fact Types,” “SF – Sympathetic and Friendly Types,” “NF – Enthusiastic and Insightful Types,” and “NT – Logical and Ingenious Types.”
Prosser-Dodd found that NF types had “higher levels of despair, disorganization and detachment” in their grief response, as wells as “slightly less personal growth.” NF type tend to feel things deeply in general, so it is hardly surprising that our grief response involves high levels of emotion. They are, however, better able than thinking types to find meaning in the tragedy of loss and regain balance in relation to the world.
Intuitive Thinkers scored lowest on all aspects measured by the Integration of Stressful Life Events Scale. This measures the ability to make meaning out of a loss and to find one’s footing in the world while recovering. Prosser-Dodd said that considering NT types as “as the logical and strategic types, it would follow they might struggle with a comprehension of the loss in general and perhaps find it difficult to regain their footing in world following a loss.”
SF and ST Types
On the scales of despair, disorganization, and detachment the ST and SF types scored in between the NF and NT types, with SF types just a bit higher than ST types. Interestingly, ST types were the most likely to use a loss for personal growth. SFs scored higher than STs in being able to find their footing in the world and make meaning out of a loss (they’re better at this than NF types, as well).