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Understanding the Client's 'Type'

March 1, 2006
by Christine MacDonald-Kramer, MEd
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A widely used personality tool can help professionals tailor treatment

Practitioners in recovery work need an approach that is effective with a variety of people representing an entire spectrum of personality types. This diversity explains why a good relapse prevention strategy for one person may be disastrous for another. Professionals need a system that offers insight into how people see the world, express and defend themselves, deal with the past and future, have fun, and fall in love.

Such a system exists in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI is one of the most widely used personality inventories in the world, transcending national and cultural boundaries. Because it is neither judgmental nor pejorative, it helps to raise self-esteem in the client. In the counseling process, the MBTI often helps us pinpoint the work to be done and the healing we need to be open to.

Development of the instrument

Carl Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychiatrist and keen observer of human nature, suggested that differences in behavior result from innate preferences in people's personalities. He believed that healthy development requires people to accept and nurture these preferences. He saw the maturing process as becoming aware of and accepting one's preferences.

Jung introduced the terms “extra-vert” and “introvert” into everyday language.1 He intended us to recognize two different preferences in the ways in which individuals focus their attention in order to replenish their energy: from the outer world of people and things, or from the inner world of thoughts and ideas. He also identified two ways of taking in information: through experiencing the present (sensing; S) and imagining future possibilities (intuiting; N). In addition, he determined that some individuals process information and make decisions through logic and analysis (thinking; T) and others through a more personal process (feeling; F).

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, an American mother- daughter team, spent decades developing ways to measure these preferences, eventually creating the MBTI. They added a concept related to how people live their everyday lives, with the two attitudes of judging (J) and perceiving (P). Judgers like to make plans and reach closure by deciding. Perceivers like to go with the flow and stay open to last-minute options.

Although everyone uses all functions and attitudes every day, the psychological profile identifies which functions and attitudes we prefer and use predominantly. The MBTI was tested for years at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, and was made available to the public in 1975. It identifies 16 distinct psychological profiles.

Individuals with ISFJ Myers-Briggs preferences (introverted, sensing, feeling, judging) are the type that is often most heavily represented in reports from substance abuse treatment centers.2,3 A review of two actual clients with ISFJ preferences illustrates how adapting therapeutic strategies to their MBTI results facilitates recovery for both.

Case studies

Catherine and Carlos (not their real names) both demonstrate ISFJ preferences. They are quiet, friendly, practical, loyal, responsible, and conscientious workers when in their recovering selves. Because they are dominant sensors, they focus on the here and now—today's reality as opposed to the past or future.

Catherine, five years into recovery, is a 38-year-old office manager, divorced with no children, and the third of five female siblings. Carlos, six years into recovery, is a 39-year-old carpenter, single, and the oldest male sibling in a family of four.

Being of service to others is meaningful in their lives. Their characteristic concern with making others happy makes them susceptible to getting stuck in codependent behavior, an experience both have had in their families of origin and in adult relationships.

During the intensive phase of their behaviorally focused treatment program (Carlos was in residential treatment and Catherine was in day treatment), they both appreciated the facilitator, who worked in an orderly fashion, clearly stated the agenda, and stuck to it. Whenever the facilitator seemed unprepared or spontaneously followed another direction, or another staff member unexpectedly filled in, Catherine and Carlos discounted the possibilities of the session. When they felt safe enough to speak about these experiences, they expressed negativity and judgments.

They both prefer quiet personal support and approval for feedback. But because they are prone to codependency, both also exhibit a strong need to be needed by others, thriving on the idea that “you can't do it alone.” A facilitator's feedback to them about their situation does not by itself meet this personality type's need to be helpful to other clients in treatment.

It helped both Catherine and Carlos that other clients in the group modeled how to work with interventions in the initial portion of the program. Typical of dominant sensors, both remembered these instances in detail and used them as a way to find the necessary courage to take the next steps for themselves. This shows how group therapy may be beneficial in the intensive phase of the program, even though some group members may not be ready to do the deeper work until much later.

Learning to recognize what is known as the “shadow function” is important in relapse prevention. This refers to the least prominent of the four functions, but it is the function in which transformation takes place. The letter of the shadow function does not show in the client's profile but is the opposite of the dominant function. For Catherine and Carlos, the dominant function is sensing. Their shadow function is intuition.