Personality Types and Ghosts of the Past

In the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts who give him the chance – and the choice – to change his course in life and become a good man. The first step in Scrooge’s transformative journey is to travel back in time with the Ghost of Christmas Past to witness some of the most critical moments of his life, choices that he made in his youth that gradually turned him into the heartless old man he has become. 

But Scrooge wants no part in it. After a lifetime of repressing his emotions, denying himself friendship and love in his single-minded pursuit of wealth, Scrooge finds that reliving these moments dredges up feelings of guilt, remorse, and even despair, and it’s too painful to bear. “Why do you delight to torture me?” he asks the ghost, begging, “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”

Have you ever felt that way about your past? Or taken the time to examine it so honestly, in all its unvarnished detail, for better or worse? It’s not an easy thing to do, and some of us may be as uninterested in considering our past choices as old Ebenezer is. In Dickens’s story, of course, Scrooge comes to understand how his actions have shaped not only his life, but the lives of others – but only after a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present and another from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Horrified by the future that awaits him, he resolves to change for the better.

To see how we might relate to our pasts based on our personality type, we asked our readers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “You do not spend much time thinking about your past actions or choices.” Only 30% agreed overall, meaning that most of us do take time to look back on what we’ve done in the past. The Identity aspect proved to be a major factor: Assertive personality types were 22% more likely to agree than Turbulent types (41% vs. 19% agreeing, respectively).

Which personalities are most interested in reflecting on the past? And which might require a ghost to drag them back in time before they’d do so? Let’s examine the results in more detail below.

Roles

Explorers, Sentinels, and Analysts (32%, 31%, and 31% agreeing)

Virtually identical in their agreement on the issue of looking back on the past, these Roles could be seen as a standard to which the more past-conscious Diplomats (discussed below) can be compared. The data showed that personality types with the Thinking trait were 8% more likely to agree with our statement than types with the Feeling trait, and Observant types were 7% more likely to agree than Intuitive types. Thinking types see things logically and rationally, rather than emotionally, and Observant types are grounded in the present. Types with a combination of both these traits, such as Entrepreneurs (ESTP) (45%) and Executives (ESTJ) (39%), tended to agree at the highest rates, recognizing that the past cannot be changed and perhaps believing that dwelling on it is not an effective way forward.

Explorer personality types tend to live in the moment more than any other Role, seeking new experiences and immediate gratification, so it makes sense that they would spend limited time thinking about the past. Sentinels and Analysts, when they do think of their pasts, may tend to do so in a perfunctory fashion – looking to remember a particular fact rather than ruminating endlessly on what has come before. George Washington, a Logistician (ISTJ) (34%) personality type, advised a purely pragmatic approach to the past: “We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dear-bought experience.”

Diplomats (23%)

A slight outlier among the Roles, Diplomats spend more time than others thinking about their past actions and choices. All Diplomats share the Intuitive and Feeling personality traits, which means they spend a lot of energy questioning why things happen the way they do, and that they perceive things through their emotions. Many may feel a stronger need than others to understand the hidden meanings, both positive and negative, of their pasts, and they may also be more intensely aware of how their actions have impacted others, leading them to analyze their past behavior more closely and more frequently. Whether this impulse comes from a desire to learn from their transgressions, or simply because the feelings are too profoundly felt to escape, Diplomat personalities are decidedly reluctant to leave the past in the past.

Strategies

People Mastery and Confident Individualism (43% and 39% agreeing)

While Introverted personality types were 8% more likely to spend time thinking about their pasts than Extraverts – perhaps because they spend more time in their own heads to begin with – the biggest difference among the Strategies was between the Turbulent–Assertive trait pairing. The Assertive Strategies, People Mastery and Confident Individualism, agreed at notably higher rates that they don’t spend much time thinking about their past actions and choices. Highly self-assured, types with Assertive Identities refuse to worry too much about anything, including the past. Many Assertive personalities may feel that what’s done is done and see little point in further examining the past.

Of all the personality types, Assertive Entrepreneurs (ESTP-A) were the most likely to agree with our statement – and the only type to agree in a majority (55%). For an Entrepreneur, there is no place but here, and no time but now. Notorious risk-takers, Entrepreneurs push forward with determination, not at all slowed down by past missteps. And for those with Assertive Identities, worrying is just a waste of energy, especially when it comes to things in the past that can’t be changed. As one Entrepreneur type, Ernest Hemingway, wrote, “Worry never fixes anything.”

Social Engagement and Constant Improvement (21% and 17%)

Worry, however, is a defining characteristic of personality types with Turbulent Identities, and as such, we saw the Turbulent Social Engagement and Constant Improvement Strategies agreeing with our statement at much lower rates. Turbulent types may experience intense anxiety over the thought that something they have done has had, or will have, negative ramifications for others or for themselves.

This is in part because of their self-critical, perfectionistic natures. But Turbulent personality types also experience a wide range of emotions, so lingering on memories of their past choices, whether doing so provokes feelings of anxiety, sadness, nostalgia, or joy, can be a cathartic experience. The singer Adele, a Turbulent Entertainer (ESFP-T) (18%) may have expressed this attitude perfectly: “I miss everything about my past, the good and the bad, but only because it won’t come back.”

Turbulent Mediators (INFP-T) were the least likely of all personality types to agree that they don’t spend much time thinking about their past actions or choices (14%). No amount of giving is enough for Mediators, who may agonize over missed opportunities to aid someone in need. Ironically, an outside observer might see little for which a Mediator should feel guilty, but that doesn’t stop these personalities from revisiting their every decision after the fact. At the same time, because, as Constant Improvers, they’re always searching for ways to improve not just themselves but also their communities and their world, Turbulent Mediators value an understanding of the past as being crucial to creating a better future.

Conclusions

Is our past a vital part of who we are, inexorably shaping the person that we will one day be? Or is it dead and gone, best left buried?

We all know what Charles Dickens thought about that. But for most of us, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Still, some of us are particularly prone to revisiting previous events in our lives. Namely, Diplomats and Turbulent personality types may spend hours reliving lost moments, perhaps in an attempt to take comfort in what went right and rectify what went wrong, to avoid making the same mistakes again and to make sure they’re on the right path going forward. When approached in a healthy manner, reflecting on our pasts can help us all of us learn, heal, and grow.

What about you? Do you live in the moment or dwell on the past? Let us know in the comments!

You can see the full set of data, including correlation coefficients, here. Please also consider participating in our Member Surveys!

2 weeks ago
I'm an ENTJ-T, and seemingly contrary to what is revealed by the survey, I ruminate quite a lot on my past. I actually went through a period of depression not too long ago where I dwelt constantly and obsessively on my past mistakes, where I thought I had failed and unnecessarily damaged a close friend, acted impulsively out of pride, putting immense pressure on some people without stopping to consider their feelings, and come across as unintentionally hostile and rude, causing countless misunderstandings. I think I was trying to punish myself by dredging up those memories and beating myself over the head with them again and again to make sure I understood just how horrible I had been and to make sure I never hurt others in that way again. I've realized since then that this isn't healthy, and that those situations weren't nearly as bad as I made them out to be. I'm rather anxiety prone. But still, when I discover mistakes and behavior patterns that are counterproductive (read "idiotic and brainless") and have caused me to harm others, I get quite upset and it takes me at least a few days to get over feeling depressed and guilty unless I talk to someone more sensible. Another reason I examine my past is to uncover behavior patterns and traits that stretch back as far as I can remember into my early childhood, in my quest to understand who I am at the core of my being, how I have changed as I've grown, and why I react to situations the way I do.
2 weeks ago
I dwell on the past quite a lot but I do it when I need to get info and remember experiences. When that happens I normally recall my activities in being a general dick to people without knowing so that makes me sad
3 weeks ago
what is the future without the past?
3 weeks ago
I... dwell on the past. I think it's good, but I wish I'd do it less than I do. I live more and more in the present though, because I'm trying to improve. As a Constant Improver!
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