OCEANs of meaning for the INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic

I’ve been delving deeper into the MBTI system and in particular the dominant introverted Feeling function of the INFP.

The developing theme in either temperament or MBTI terms is that I tend to suppress my normal way of functioning in favour of more pro-social functions.

Eg. as a Melancholic-Phlegmatic temperament, the phlegmatic desire to follow the rules and avoid conflict is more socially accepted than the idealism and search for meaning of the melancholic.

As an INFP, my tertiary and inferior functions of introverted Sensing and extroverted Thinking are more respected, more ‘useful’ and easier to communicate than my dominant function of introverted Feeling, and auxiliary function of extroverted Intuition.

The curse of the INFP is that society encourages us to use our ST functions, but over-reliance on these functions at the expense of our FN makes us feel bad. Really really bad.

Because (ironically) the core value of introverted Feeling is authenticity, and nothing harms your authenticity more than systematically ignoring and deprecating the call of authenticity.

OCEAN and the Big 5

My wife showed me this TED talk by Dr Brian Little on personality.

In it he refers to the Big 5 personality traits, a data-driven set of personality traits that are observable in normal distribution across the population.

Unlike the MBTI, the Big 5 is widely accepted in psychological research. However, what the Big 5 measures is different from either the MBTI or the temperaments theory.

In effect, the Big 5 provides a kind of ‘snapshot’ of these five traits in your personality: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I’ve not paid too much attention to the Big 5 because what it doesn’t tell you is the underlying logic or rationale behind your personality. It doesn’t necessarily tell you why you are introverted and neurotic, just that you are.

But at the end of the talk Dr Little said something very interesting.

He observed that acting in ways that contradict your personality comes at a cost. He gave the example of himself as a professor acting in more extroverted ways to keep his students engaged, despite being extremely introverted himself.

After a bout of “pseudo-extroversion” he needs to take time to rest and repair himself.

Why is this interesting to me? Because acting contrary to my underlying personality traits is exactly what I’ve described above, in terms of suppressing or neglecting my dominant function of introverted Feeling, or pushing my phlegmatic traits ahead of my melancholic ones.

Usefully combining the two approaches

If I reflect on the categories of the Big 5, I would say that I am low in Openness, extremely high in Conscientiousness, low in Extroversion, high in Agreeableness, and extremely high in Neuroticism.

As a snapshot of my personality traits, what stands out to me is that both Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are things I try to foster. Or to put it another way, they are sources of fatigue and exhaustion for me.

Introversion comes naturally, by contrast, and Neuroticism is a weird category that – to me – feels like an aspect of existence that is only observed in the negative…a lot like introverted Feeling.

Unpacking that last sentence:

Neuroticism is a tendency to experience negative emotions like anxiety. For INFPs these negative emotions are experienced via introverted Feeling. Introverted Feeling is the function that facilitates strong and pervasive emotions – both positive and negative. Not all Neurotic personalities are INFP, but I’d bet that the majority of INFPs are Neurotic.

If I’m right then Neuroticism is an expression of introverted Feeling in response to negative stimuli such as chronically ignoring and suppressing one’s introverted Feeling, or trying to live according to lesser parts of your personality. Being inauthentic.

That being so, the OCEAN view of my personality provides significant clues to what is going on, as opposed to the temperament and MBTI perspectives which show instead the underlying logic or principles of my personality.

Where does this ocean go?

Thinking about OCEAN in terms of authentic and inauthentic personality traits, it’s immediately obvious that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are forced. They represent the phlegmatic traits of diligence, following the rules (or expectations) and avoiding conflict.

The harder I try to be Conscientious and Agreeable, the worse my Neuroticism becomes. In effect, I’m only pretending to be Conscientious and Agreeable, and the pretense exhausts me and makes me feel inauthentic…hence the Neuroticism.

To complicate matters, my Conscientiousness and Agreeableness are motivated in part by Neurotic concerns like anxiety. They build on each other, creating a vicious circle.

The solution therefore is to stop being Conscientious, and stop trying to be Agreeable.

For an INFP/Melancholic-Phlegmatic, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness offer a false promise of relieving anxiety and attaining peace. But instead they merely heighten our inauthentic mode of behaviour, leaving us Feeling worse than ever.

How many INFPs throw themselves into Conscientious effort, only to collapse afterward, feeling not only physically exhausted but somehow mentally or emotionally damaged by the whole process?

Being inauthentic and exhausted discourages us from exploring and being more outgoing. Our Openness to experience suffers as a result.

Pseudo-Agreeableness and Pseudo-Conscientiousness

Wikipedia describes Agreeableness as:

Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentativeness or untrustworthiness.

Conscientiousness is described as:

Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubbornness and obsession. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are obviously pro-social and valued qualities to possess. The trouble is that INFPs don’t really possess them.

Instead, more often than not I think we’re beating ourselves into submission, aping these desired qualities in deeply inauthentic ways.

Why do we do this? Why do we practice fake Conscientiousness and false Agreeableness? I think it comes from the slow and often nebulous qualities of our dominant function: introverted Feeling. From an early age, we are either slow to work out how we feel about the things going on around us, and/or unable to communicate or justify the conclusions we reach.

Even as an adult, introverted Feeling is very hard to describe. It’s immersive but impossible to communicate without experiencing it, and hard to describe even to one’s own satisfaction.

So how could we resist the pressure from parents, peers, authority figures and society generally to try to adopt or emulate “desirable” qualities like Extroversion, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness?

And how could we stand by an authentic self or cognitive function that seems so hard to pin down, even for ourselves?

Even in writing this, I’m resisting Conscientiousness impulses to check things, work caveats into the text, and arrive at “appropriate” conclusions that will hopefully please the reader.

Ironically, for an INFP it can be the hardest thing in the world to just not give a ****.

More to the story

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said, for instance: being introverted means people can easily project desired qualities onto you, especially when you’re young. So the mere fact that INFPs are quiet and slow to reach conclusions, means that people will praise us for being good listeners, or being polite, or being agreeable.

We may well seize upon these false affirmations as validations of an identity we don’t really possess. We find it easy (at first) to fill the expected shape that society offers of being a well-mannered and quiet child, and then find it hard to break out of that container, or to even realise that it’s not who we are.

Because INFPs don’t really understand themselves very well either. Maybe I really am a good, conscientious and agreeable person? How do I know that I’m not? How do I know that anxiety and Neuroticism aren’t “normal” for conscientious and agreeable people?

I won’t finish with a neat conclusion because I’m resisting the compulsion to be conscientious and agreeable.

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