Fixing a melancholic

Harry Potter is an excellent allegory for how a melancholic engages with the world.

The contrast between “normal” life and the melancholic search for meaning is wonderfully depicted in the revelation that a secret world of witches, wizards, and magic exists alongside, but carefully hidden from the muggles.

The quick derogatory explanation that Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin are muggles – that the whole of Harry’s small world up to that point is a muggle world – immediately validates Harry’s deep dissatisfaction with life.

Breaking a melancholic

Melancholics correspond to the MBTI types ENFP, INFP, INFJ, and ENFJ. The combination of intuition and feeling typifies the melancholic temperament.

For NFJs, feeling is externally oriented, seeking harmony with others. For NFPs, feeling is internally oriented – arguably the most mysterious and introverted of the cognitive functions.

INFPs have introverted Feeling (Fi) as our dominant function. It’s hard to describe, but imagine your feeling state dominating your conscious experience prior to, and seemingly independent of, any other aspect of experience.

Imagine watching a movie with an intense soundtrack that dominates and overwhelms everything else, including dialogue and visuals.

This soundtrack is inescapable.

The health of an INFP might be viewed as a function of the coherence between the soundtrack and the rest of the movie. If the two don’t match, there is dissonance that reverberates through the score, and the INFP is then caught in a feedback loop where the only option is to shut down, retreat, sleep it off.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to live “normally”, while the soundtrack plays heavy, leaden themes that wear me down. The thought of living a “normal” life….the thought that a normal life is all that there is, all that is possible, is deeply destructive.

The soundtrack of introverted feeling informs me constantly that this is not what I want. But through my formative experiences and my subsequent worldview I’ve persisted in this unwanted direction.

Suppressing the dominant function

A dominant function can’t be truly suppressed in the sense of eradicating it. But if a soundtrack continues long enough in monotonous tones of protest, you can learn to ignore it for the most part.

The functional stack of an INFP is introverted Feeling (Fi) , extroverted Intuition (Ne), introverted Sensing (Si), and extroverted Thinking (Te).

Learning to ignore my Fi, I turned to the lesser functions and tried to live through Ne, Si, and Te.

This matches the common experience of neglecting one’s dominant function in favour of the inferior function, a stage of life that IIRC corresponds to the 20s-30s.

My inferior function of extroverted Thinking is all about efficiency and goals. Te-dominant people revel in achievements and outcomes; but Te in the inferior position is a far more modest and limited version.

Ignoring my Fi, I tried to view life through the lens of Te. This translated into a very uneasy, irritable and stressful form of goal-directed motivation, and an intense, acute, but wearying analytical mindset.

I describe this as a “problem-solving” attitude to life. At one stage I even looked to problem-solving as a possible strength or “vocation” in life. But problem-solving didn’t leave me with any lasting solutions. I could critique and analyse and deconstruct, but it wasn’t fulfilling, and it wasn’t creative.

Rehabilitating introverted Feeling

What I’ve been working towards (now that there’s nowhere else to go) is the rehabilitation of Fi.

Positive-thinking has been instrumental and life-changing in this respect; it might be more accurate to call it “positive-feeling” since how I feel is the first indicator and measure of the thoughts I am thinking.

But the goal-oriented mindset has been deeply ingrained in me. I even approached “feeling better” from a goal-oriented, problem-solving perspective.

Yesterday I realised that like everything else, engaging in a problem-solving attitude doesn’t bring me lasting solutions, it just attunes me to further problems. If I really loved solving problems, the good news is that there is no end to the available problems to solve.

But since a problem-solving attitude is wearying and detrimental and ultimately unsatisfying, it’s time for me to find something else.

Enjoying life

You can try to enjoy life as the solution to a problem, or to achieve the goal of “feeling better”. But to really change, I have to stop trying to solve problems or achieve goals and instead start enjoying life for the sake of enjoyment.

The difference is profound. Seeking to enjoy life tunes me in to all the things I can enjoy. It lets me forget about “keeping score” with whatever problems I’ve been trying to solve or goals I’ve been trying to achieve.

I feel physically different, because ignoring Fi introduced unnecessary tension into my mind and body, and employing Te was an additional effort.

I can honestly say that in the past 20 or so years I haven’t “let go” of that problem-solving attitude except for occasional instances of revelry or relaxation.

20+ years of internal conflict, unnecessary effort, and unremitting tension come to an end when I choose to enjoy rather than solve, and appreciate rather than answer.

I feel rejuvenated, because I’m judging by different criteria now. The considerations and concerns of extroverted thinking don’t matter at all to introverted feeling. At most, they’re my fourth priority instead of my first.

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Stages of positive thinking

My journey into positive thinking has gone through a couple of different stages so far.

Decrease negatives, increase positives

In the first stage my focus was mostly on feeling less bad.

I tried to soften the impact of my most negative thoughts on a number of subjects, and at the same time inject more optimism into my life on other subjects.

The biggest positive of all was the thought that this positive-thinking stuff might actually work!

I liken this stage to being a beginner at any skill or hobby: a beginner tries to decrease the number and frequency of their most egregious mistakes, the kinds of mistakes that make them want to give up entirely.

At the same time, a beginner benefits from being inspired, star-struck even, by the greatest examples in their field. These positive examples inspire hope and optimism.

But a beginner really has no idea of the scope of the skill. They can’t even imagine how much time or effort will be required to gain proficiency. Even if they think the task is enormous, they really have no idea how enormous it is.

Watch your thoughts systematically

Eventually I had the feeling that I wasn’t making as much headway as I would like.

I’d seen some genuine improvements, but they were more haphazard than the material suggested they should be.

I mulled on this for a while. It had been perhaps six months since I really started, six months of unsystematic practice.

Finally it dawned on me that I really needed to work at this. When they said “every thought is either making you feel better or feel worse”, they really meant every thought.

I decided to make the effort to focus on every single thought, daunting though this may seem.

This is just like when the beginner realises they must seriously apply themselves in order to gain skill. It’s all very well to dabble in a skill or art and see occasional improvement following occasional inspiration, but eventually you want to see your efforts rewarded. You want to make real progress.

And the effort paid off rapidly.

I very quickly observed that indeed each and every thought either contributed positively or negatively to my emotional state, with a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and feelings.

The greatest byproduct of this close attention to thoughts was to rapidly reduce the severity of my negative thoughts.

Paying such close attention, my mind suddenly made the connection between the negative thought and the negative feeling, and automatically softened the thought accordingly.

Wanting more

It’s been a couple of weeks since I started observing my thoughts like this, and the results were impressive.

But gradually I began to feel as if I’d plateaued.

It’s great to reduce the severity of negative thoughts and feelings, but the absence of negativity is not the same as positivity.

Feeling neutral isn’t the same as feeling good.

Breaking the feedback loop

The explanation for this plateau appears to be a kind of feedback loop.

Reducing negatives is great, but if we are consistently focused on external reality as our point of reference, we will never advance beyond that point.

In learning a skill we would always be exposed to a teacher and peers who are more advanced, pushing us to improve our own performance.

But in positive thinking, your experience always reflects your own thoughts. Therefore, the answer is to let the quality of our thoughts improve without regard to external reality.

Don’t let external reality be the determinant of your thoughts or feeling. In practice this might mean taking the time to “meditate” and allow thoughts and feelings to improve, trusting that external reality will eventually catch up.

Otherwise, we will keep repeating the same quality of thought over and over, and experiencing the same quality of experience over and over.

Breaking the feedback loop is as easy as letting go of that focus on external reality. Why let the momentum of past experience determine how you feel?

 

How positive thinking works

If you start paying attention to your thoughts while noticing how each thought feels, you’ll soon discover that some thoughts are a bit strange.

What’s strange about them is that they may be focused on a subject that seems “positive”, yet the thought itself feels negative.

The thought “I need to get something done now” feels both good and bad.

That’s because the subject of accomplishing things is a positive one. I want to accomplish things, it would feel good to accomplish things.

But the focus on “need” is negative. The subtext is that if I don’t accomplish things then I will have failed.

There’s a big difference between “I need to get something done” and thinking of a specific thing I want to do.

“I need to get something done” vs “I really want to do this specific thing”.

The former focuses on the absence of what I desire.

There’s self-sabotage built into this kind of thought. It doesn’t aim towards what I really want, nor does it aim away from what I don’t want.

Instead it beats me up for not doing something unspecified right now.

…which isn’t especially helpful.

Imagine saying it to someone else in an anxious voice: “You should be doing something right now!”

Not especially helpful.

How would they react? Probably with a well-deserved “Wtf are you talking about?”

Imagine saying it to them again and again at every opportunity. Maybe say it every time they sit down, every time they appear to be relaxing or enjoying themselves: “Shouldn’t you be doing something???”

If you don’t pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll just feel a kind of acceptance that you should be doing something… followed by the frustration of not knowing what it is you should be doing.

Maybe you’ll throw yourself into any activity just to escape that unpleasant feeling, and you might be productive.

But there’s a big difference between the productivity that comes from escaping unpleasant feelings and the productivity that comes from doing what you feel genuinely inspired to do.

If you accept the thought at face value then your orientation is toward “I need to do something…but I don’t know what”.

By paying attention to how the thought feels, you notice instead “I’m making myself feel bad for no good reason”.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t decided to pay attention to all of my thoughts.

Imagine choosing to no longer activate thoughts of that type…the “feel bad for no good reason” thoughts.

The trajectory of positive thinking is such that removing these kinds of thoughts makes space for new thoughts, since there’s a limit to the number of things you can focus on in a single day.

But it also lifts your overall mood, removing one source of negativity and thereby making more positive thoughts accessible.

And on the subject of “things I want to accomplish”, perhaps we’re now free to consider things that feel good, instead of repeating thoughts that feel needlessly bad?

Or perhaps what would feel best right now is to accept that the whole subject of accomplishments is not about “should” or obligation, and was never something best framed by need or by external pressure.

Are we best served by approaching accomplishments from the direction of avoiding shame and humiliation? Or are we better served by looking at it through the lens of inspiration and appreciation?

In fact, we might begin by completely letting go of any thought of accomplishment for now, and focusing instead on appreciating the many things we have already accomplished, beginning with the mere fact of being alive, of having survived to enjoy this present moment.

Abiding insecurity

I need continual reminders that maintaining a positive focus requires partial detachment from the reality around me.

Remembering that our focus is reflected in our thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality, it follows that true change begins with a change in our focus.

But too often we try to change our focus, using reality as a gauge. This is a bit like trying to lose weight and staring at your reflection for immediate signs that it is “working”, and getting discouraged when there’s no immediate change.

The relationship here is even more significant: if you begin to focus on your present reality, your thoughts, feelings, and your subsequent reality will follow suit.

The positive-thinking material therefore suggests a degree of detachment from the reality around you. Not only that, it suggests coming to view the change in focus itself as the desired outcome, with the understanding (but not the grasping or clinging) that reality will eventually change.

Otherwise you may experience a repeated feeling of discord or insecurity as your attention drifts back to the reality around you which neither fully reflects your prior positive focus, nor can ever be the true fulfillment of your desire.

Detachment plays a similar role in mysticism. Seek first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness means that we cannot be truly satisfied by anything less than God himself. Only the divine can bring fulfillment, and like the positive-thinking material, it is understood that we will never reach the limits of satisfaction in this lifetime.

In other words, we will always be pursuing a deeper and more satisfying focus on the divine.

The second half of the saying is that all these things shall be added unto you.

“All these things” refers to our earthly needs…the aspects of reality that worry us. So we are told not to worry about them, that our Father knows all our needs, that everything will be taken care of.

The aim of both mysticism and the positive-thinking material is to learn to recognise positive focus, or focus on God, as the desired end. A mystic might say it is God we are searching for in our many and varied worldly pursuits.

As God said to Jeremiah:

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.

The exile is a spiritual one, because we attend to the passing world, conforming ourselves to its patterns as though it were the ultimate reality.

To live for sons and wealth,
For belongings and health,
O Kabir, is to be like the bird
Which during one night’s stay
Starts loving the tree.

So detachment is necessary. Not to separate us from an “evil” world, but to keep us fixed and focused on the right path. Our world will reflect this focus, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions and our reality will all change to accommodate the new mind or new spirit in us. It will be like a “new creation”.

And in that detachment you draw deeper and more fully on the divine. You’re forced to accept that real fulfillment lies in that focus, that spiritual disposition, that “positive energy”. Drawing on it more purely, where else could you go or stand or want to be?

In recognising that your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality all flow from your point of focus, you recapitulate creation itself, where all things flow from the divine. You put what is “least” right to the fore, the mysterious thing that seems smallest, weakest, empty, yet from which all existence flows.

How to “positive”

If you’ve been following recent posts: the premise of “positive thinking” material is that our feelings and experience of reality reflect or mirror the quality of our thoughts.

If our thoughts are more positive then we feel better, and our reality changes accordingly.

The conventional view of life is the opposite: reality happens first and our thoughts and feelings react to this reality.

It’s not just a different sequence, it’s also much messier.

So for the sake of a cleaner and more meaningful view of life (not to mention happier), we can observe it from the standpoint of thoughts->feelings->reality.

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

But how? And why? And also what?

What is positive?

Looking closer at the positive thinking material, we might need to adjust our schema a little.

Because it turns out that our thoughts are also a reflection, in the same stream of causation as our subsequent feelings and reality.

You don’t control your thoughts directly, rather you receive them as a by-product of your focus or attention.

That’s why you can change the verbal content of your thoughts, yet still feel the same way about them and experience the same reality subsequently.

“I feel happy” can be just empty words.

There’s a potential disconnect between the verbal or sensory content of a thought and the… the… the what?

This is where things get slightly tricky.

Prior to our thoughts it’s very indistinct as to what is happening. It’s a non-physical realm and there’s nothing sensory or even conceptual to grab hold of.

So people who talk about this stuff are left trying to stick a label on it, a label that will never be entirely appropriate.

Positive thinking material tends to use words like “energy” and “vibration”. These are metaphoric labels drawn from a folk-level understanding of contemporary physics.

Traditional religion tended to use words like “spirit”, which is another metaphor drawn from a folk-level understanding of metaphysics and biology.

In either case, the label is used to designate an invisible something that exists prior to thought, and from which thoughts, feelings, and external reality come forth.

So we could say “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the Earth” with the old psalms.

But for many people these words have negative associations and are loaded with misunderstandings, social and familial baggage.

If you study theology you find out that words like “Lord” are also metaphors. Labels like “God” are attempts to designate something that transcends our language. Indeed, there are whole branches of theology and philosophy that discuss these issues.

Yet the pattern is there. It is a call for God to “renew the face of the Earth” through his spirit. It’s a call for one intangible thing to use another intangible thing to change reality for the better.

Terms like “energy” and “vibration” have their own baggage, but much much less than the traditional terms (for now).

You can find people explaining that what we call “God” is in fact “pure positive energy” or “the highest vibration”. We are (somehow) extensions of this energy. Yet we have the capacity to choose where to put our attention.

So within us is this pure positive energy, yet most of us spend our lives focusing on things that are less positive, or of a “lower vibration”.

Our thoughts, feelings, and reality are a reflection of this point of focus, and its positivity relative to the pure positive energy in us.

That might sound terrifyingly “New Age”, though technically I think it’s “New Thought”.

But the underlying pattern is basically the same as saying that the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, or that it is Christ who lives in you, or that you are remaining in God’s love, and all the associated observations and injunctions regarding what to think about, the movement of the will in God’s love, the fruits of the spirit, and so on.

What’s gone wrong?

There’s a line from Romans I really like:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What’s gone wrong is that we have lost our connection with our source, with God, and so we live our lives conforming to the pattern of the world.

In positive thinking terms, we have turned our focus to our reality, which is an inversion of the true order.

Our reality is supposed to be the last reflection of our point of focus, the “energy” we are focusing on prior to thought. If we start focusing on our reality, then we get stuck in a kind of feedback-loop.

This is conventionally clear in instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression. When people are depressed they often lack the energy, motivation or desire to engage in activities that would otherwise make them feel a bit happier. Over time, chronic anxiety and depression can lead people to empty their lives of any sources of relief or happiness.

People’s empty or narrow lives can then contribute to their anxiety and depression, since they’ve eliminated anything that might have offered hope or reprieve.

That’s what happens generally when we conform to the pattern of this world, or wrongly treat reality as the determinant of our thoughts and feelings.

How to “positive”

For me it seems clear that I can direct my attention or point of focus to something that feels more “positive”. It’s a very small, subtle mental change.

But what I tend to do instead is focus on my experience, falling back into that feedback loop which keeps me trapped thinking the same kinds of thoughts, having the same kinds of feelings, and the same kinds of experiences.

The solution seems to be firstly to recognise that I’m doing this. Second, to remind myself of the correct order:

Focus -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Reality

And not the other way around.

Finally, when I’m reminded of this, I feel a certain kind of detachment toward my reality.

It feels like I’m taking my reality a little less seriously, a little less intently.

That’s because my focus has changed to something that is not yet reflected in my reality, but will be in time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I think that’s why there’s always an element of faith or trust required. Or perhaps just the realisation that you’re stuck in a feedback loop and would like it to change?

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

A process for personal change

I’ve been thinking recently about the process I used to lose weight, as described in my book on weight-loss.

When I first set about trying to lose weight I did so with determination but also with confidence in my ability to solve problems in my own unique way.

Losing weight was just one application of a process I’ve slowly developed and refined. Maybe it’s a process uniquely suited to my own temperament and experiences, or maybe it has broader application for others?

Recently I decided to apply the same process to the goal of feeling good.

Why feeling good?

Like trying to lose weight, I’ve tried for a long time to feel good without success.  A combination of temperament and experience has made it seem more complicated or elusive than it ought to be.

By “feeling good” I mean a consistent and persistent change in my emotional set-point. I’ve been describing it lately as a shift from a pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.

1. You can’t see the answer from where you are.

If you’ve been stuck in a persistent, negative experience for a long time, then you won’t be able to see the answer from within that experience. You have to recognise that the answer or solution will be something different and new; it will require a true change in perspective.

2. The goal itself is easy to achieve.

Goals like weight-loss and feeling good are easy to achieve. To lose weight all you need to do is eat significantly less food. To feel good all you need to do is focus on thoughts and experiences that feel good rather than those that feel bad.

Recognise the simple, practical solution to your problem, and the real culprit will rear its ugly head as you realise:

3. You don’t want to achieve your goal.

You might start with “I want to feel good, but I can’t or don’t know how.” Or “I want to lose weight, but I can’t or don’t know how.”

If you accept the simple, practical method in step 2, then this thought has to change.

Eg. “I want to feel good. I know that if I just focus on good-feeling thoughts I will feel good. But nonetheless I don’t.”

Eg. 2. “I want to lose weight. I know that if I eat significantly less food I will lose weight. Nonetheless I don’t.”

I think most people implicitly realise this conundrum, but instead of concluding “I guess I don’t really want to lose weight/feel good”, they instead conclude “I guess eating less/changing focus isn’t really the solution”.

But what is the solution? Denying the obvious solution just leads us into endless pursuit of fads or gimmicks and demoralising struggle. It’s far more valuable to accept the obvious solution, and accept that:

4. You may not like your experience, but it’s what you want.

I never liked being overweight, but as I worked through these steps I came to realise that part of me was resisting the simple solution of eating significantly less.

Why?

Because that part of me wanted to escape regularly into the immersive experience of eating.

Somehow, my mind hadn’t joined the dots between this part that wanted to eat, and the part that was unhappy with the side-effects of so much eating.

Likewise, parts of me are resisting the simple solution of focusing on thoughts that feel good. Intrusive negative thoughts are serving a purpose for some part of me. I want to focus on them, even though I don’t like the consequences.

5. A total change in perspective.

There’s a whole lot of ancillary realisations and shifts in perspective that supported and facilitated losing weight. For example, I realised early on that I couldn’t control my weight per se, I could only control my eating habits.

I realised that there was nothing “wrong” with being overweight, considering that I was overeating. Overeating makes you overweight…that’s normal. So there was no point feeling bad about being overweight when in reality I should feel bad about my dysfunctional eating habits.

Likewise, it’s normal to feel bad when you focus on negative things. It would be weird to feel good about bad things, wouldn’t it?

We fixate on our feelings as if we can change them directly. But our feelings are actually responding to our point of focus, our thoughts and our beliefs. Focusing on bad things makes you feel bad, focusing on good things makes you feel good.

So fix your focus and your feelings will take care of themselves, just as your body will find its own balance if you stop overeating compulsively.

Being overweight feels bad, but really we should feel good about being overweight. If you could overeat compulsively and remain thin, there would probably be something drastically wrong with you.

So maybe we should also feel good about feeling bad, when we focus on negative things? Isn’t that a sign that your psyche is in good working order?

The real culprit is not your feelings, it’s your point of focus. Take your bad feelings as a sign that part of you wants to focus on something negative.

And if that’s the case, then you’re already where you want to be, right? You want to be somewhere you don’t like. Maybe you haven’t thought about it like that before. Maybe you have some misconceptions about how the world works. But this perspective shows that you really are in control after all.

I wanted to overeat, even though I didn’t like the consequences. I want to focus on negative things, even though I don’t enjoy feeling bad.

Being aware

I love looking at myself from this kind of perspective. It shows that I am actually in control, even when I really don’t enjoy my experience.

It’s a little disconcerting to find that parts of us are running on auto-pilot. I liken it to a computer with programs running in the background, consuming resources, conflicting with other software.

Until we go looking, we may have forgotten we set those programs running in the first place. We might wrongly assume there’s something wrong with the computer, that it’s too old or too slow, or that it’s just not compatible with the software we want to run now, or that the new software isn’t any good.

I think that once we become aware of the programs we’re running, the things we want but have forgotten about, then our mind can start to connect the dots. We realise there’s a trade-off, or better yet a trade-up.

If you learned to overeat when you were young, it might be because eating was your only accessible means of feeling good and having control over your experience. But when you’re an adult you have much greater scope for finding happiness and meaning in life.

The trade-off might be facing some of the negative feelings you’ve been escaping from. But the trade-up is repairing your relationship with food, bringing your body into balance, and finding healthier sources of enjoyment.

Likewise, you might focus on negative things because you thought you had no choice, or you thought it was important to be “realistic” or in the midst of negative experiences that seemed beyond your control, you sought to adapt to those negative aspects and find some consolation in them.

Perhaps you found it more bearable to feel like a victim? Or to harbour thoughts of resentment and revenge? Or to feel that you were persevering against enormous odds?

These might have been consolations at the time, but now that you know you can change your point of focus there’s a possibility of trading up. You don’t have to remind yourself constantly that you’re a victim, or that you resent life, or that you are still bearing up despite great adversity.

The only caveat is that you have to do so from outside the recurring patterns of thought, otherwise you’ll turn this effort into another instance of your negative experience. You need to first recognise that you want this negative experience, even though you really don’t like it.

Myers-Briggs functions vs temperamental factors

I’ve been using the MBTI functions as a way of sharpening focus on the four temperaments.

This is because pragmatically the functions allow a finer-grained analysis of the temperaments.

For example, what’s the difference between a melancholic-phlegmatic and a melancholic-sanguine?

Both are NF types. Melancholic-phlegmatics are xNFP and melancholic-sanguines are xNFJ.

This means that melancholic-phlegmatics are using extroverted intuition (Ne) and introverted feeling (Fi), whereas melancholic-sanguines are using introverted intuition (Ni) and extroverted feeling (Fe).

So in the first instance, although both are melancholic with the combination of feeling and intuition, the NeFi combo is already a more introverted way of being than the NiFe combo. Fe is externally oriented, meaning that the melancholic-sanguine makes decisions according to their sense of how others are feeling, for the sake of group harmony.

Fe types want to connect with others and maintain good relationships, whereas Fi types are more motivated by internal coherence and authenticity.

 

In addition to the orientation of the feeling function, the third and fourth functions of either type also play a role in describing the difference in temperament.

Melancholic-phlegmatics’ third and fourth functions are extroverted thinking (Te) and introverted sensing (Si). Melancholic-sanguines’ are introverted thinking (Ti) and extroverted sensing (Se).

The significant part here is that Si and Se are the determining functions of the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments respectively. Si gives the phlegmatic their inward, mnemonic focus. Se gives sanguines their sensory, outward, experiential focus.

That’s why these two types of melancholic can be similar, yet in other ways so distinct. What makes one melancholic partly phlegmatic is the inward orientation of their Feeling function plus their introverted sensing (Si) in third or fourth place. What makes the other melancholic more sanguine is the extroversion of their Feeling, plus the extroverted sensing (Se) in their third or fourth place.

Or is it…

But the functions are just useful, finer-grained descriptions. No one knows if they are actually different cognitive functions, and so we can ask which is the underlying reality: MBTI functions, or temperamental factors?

What I mean by temperamental factors is that the four temperaments are typically described as combinations of two factors – the clearest of which (in my opinion) are excitability and duration of impression.

Given that a melancholic has low excitability with enduring impressions, but that melancholics differ by degrees, we can ask the following interesting (but not very pragmatic) question:

Are the differing degrees of melancholic due to real differences in cognitive function, or are supposed differences in cognitive function just ways of describing varying degrees of melancholy?

In other words, are Fi and Fe different things, or are they just different degrees of the same thing?

As far as I can tell, it’s quite possible that Fi is really just a less excitable form of Feeling, and Fe a more excitable one.

But going a step further, I’m not sure that Feeling and Thinking are necessarily different things either.

It’s plausible that F and T represent less excitable and more excitable forms of the same cognitive process. In effect, F is like a blurred and impressionistic version of the sharper, detail-oriented T.

I just don’t feel like it

The INFP functional stack looks like this

Dominant: introverted feeling (Fi)

Auxiliary: extroverted intuition (Ne)

Tertiary: introverted sensing (Si)

Inferior: extroverted thinking (Te)

The problem for INFPs is that society privileges Te and Si over Ne and especially Fi.

This means that focusing on effectiveness and outcomes (Te),

or on past experience and “what worked before” (Si)

is more rewarding than

seeing abstract connections between things (Ne),

or having a deep and mysterious nonverbal inner landscape that tells you what you like and don’t like (Fi).

Yeah, that last one is a bit of a mouthful and I’ll have to unpack it later if possible.

So from childhood most INFPs are taught to put their tertiary and inferior functions ahead of their dominant and auxiliary.

This is problematic because our tertiary and inferior functions are generally weaker, less developed, and require more energy to use than our dominant and auxiliary. Depending too much on your tertiary and inferior functions means you’re not working with your strengths.

For the INFP it also means we’re not being authentic. We’re living according to the imposed values of Si and Te…demands we can meet, but at an awful cost.

The cost is that we feel awful.

Our dominant function of introverted feeling doesn’t go away. It keeps telling us “this is bad…this is bad…” even while we persist in letting our tertiary and inferior functions drive us.

We end up in this unfortunate state because for most of our lives we’ve been asked to justify and explain ourselves in terms that the broader society will appreciate; yet the very nature of introverted feeling is that it’s extremely difficult to describe or communicate to others.

Sometimes the best we can say is “I don’t feel like it”, which is not considered valid by many people.

So we stretch ourselves to come up with “reasons” that actually feel (to us) like excuses. But excuses are the only language some people will listen to. And if you can be reasonable enough, you can convince these people of your position.

They might disagree, but they’ll at least acknowledge that you’re playing their game. At least you’re giving them something to disagree with.

It’s a formative experience for an INFP to be relentlessly pushed for an answer, explanation, or justification, when really we were operating on feeling the whole time.

The people pushing for “reasons” aren’t necessarily bullies, they’re likely operating from a different function. They’re assuming that the INFP has clear and concise reasons for their behaviour, reasons that are easy to articulate and communicate.

So when the INFP struggles to communicate these reasons, the interrogator doesn’t understand the apparent reluctance or resistance. From the interrogator’s point of view, the INFP must be too afraid or too embarrassed or too malicious to share their reasons.

For the INFP, the interrogator’s scrutiny itself comes across as an indictment, an implicit charge that the vague, inarticulate world of introverted feeling is faulty and inadequate. The prolonged and persistent attempts to get an INFP to explain themselves just reinforce the INFP’s sense of being incomprehensible to others.

From what I’ve seen of other INFPs, I’m guessing I’ve gone pretty far down the road of training and depending on my tertiary and inferior functions.

But these tertiary and inferior functions are crippling when they exceed their station. I’ve begun to notice the many occasions in which Si and Te states of mind or impulses surface, to detrimental effect.

In my writing, these manifest as the internal pressure to arrive at decisive conclusions, explain my points exhaustively, be unassailable in the position I take, consider all possible objections, research everything to ensure I make no mistakes, and try repeatedly to communicate my meaning as effectively as possible.

None of these are bad things to aim for. But what happens so often is that my initial burst of inspiration is crushed and suffocated by the sheer burden of these demands.

I might have a meaningful idea I feel strongly about (Fi), that draws on some abstract connections or patterns I’ve noticed (Ne), but a third of the way in I’m already wondering “who cares about this? What’s the point?” (Te), or I’ve researched the issue in question and utterly derailed my train of thought by overloading it with new data (Si), or I’ve tried to adhere too closely to conventions of genre and the light-hearted piece I started with has turned into a weighty, leaden recount (Si).

There’s nothing wrong with Si and Te, but if what really drives you is Fi and Ne, then denying those functions is going to make you feel drained, worn out and depleted.

 

 

 

 

Follow your feelings?

If you google “follow your feelings” you’ll find disparate advice.

Some people say you should follow your feelings, “listen to your heart” and so on.

Others say that this is terrible advice. You need to think clearly, reasonably, objectively, before you act.

So which is it? Are your feelings an infallible inner guide, or bound to lead you astray?

Different personality types

We can find exemplars and tragic cases to illustrate either side: people who follow their feelings…and leave a trail of destruction in their wake, or those who ignore their feelings only to end up leading hollow, empty lives.

But if we take seriously a personality theory like the MBTI, it quickly becomes clear that feeling and thinking play different roles in people’s personalities.

In the MBTI feeling and thinking are distinct cognitive functions. Those who are “good at” thinking tend to be bad at feeling and vice-versa. But throughout the course of our lives we also tend to go through a process of embracing our weaker, “inferior” function, relying on it too much, and finally coming to accept its subordinate role in our personality.

So for example, a feeling-dominant person discovers the untapped potential of their inferior thinking function and embraces it. Thinking seems mysterious and powerful, but they’re not naturally adept at it and are blind to the weaknesses and flaws in their use of it.

Eventually they will come to realise the limitations of thinking, and return to their dominant feeling function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well describe it as the discovery that they should have “followed their heart” all along. That’s because denying their feelings and pursuing their weaker thinking function was essentially a self-limiting and flawed approach to life.

By the end of this journey, the individual should be more balanced and centred, and objectively happier.

Thinking-dominant

A thinking-dominant person will go through the inverse process – embracing their inferior feeling function at some point in their early life, and pursuing it beyond its natural limits in their personality.

For the thinking-dominant person, their feeling function really will lead them astray.

Eventually they too will reach a point where the limits of feeling become clear to them, and they resolve to return to their dominant thinking function.

Someone who goes through this journey may well reject the illusory wisdom of “follow your feelings”. They will reassert the merits of their thinking function. The image they project and the narrative they recount will be at odds with the feeling-dominant person, but the general shape of the journey should be analogous.

If you put these two different personalities side-by-side they will describe the same kind of process of disintegration and reintegration, of abandoning and then rediscovering their strength, but they may nonetheless still argue with each other and vehemently disagree about the role of thinking versus feeling.

Intuition and sensing

The same process should theoretically occur for people who are either intuition-dominant or sensing-dominant according to the MBTI. This dichotomy might be described as “follow your intuition” versus “stick to the facts”.

Depending what is called your “functional stack” both dichotomies will emerge throughout your life.

For example, if your functional stack is FiNeSiTe (INFP), you’ll experience a major pull toward your inferior thinking function, and an eventual return to your dominant feeling function. But at the same time you may also experience a more muted struggle to make sense of your auxiliary intuition and your tertiary sensing functions.

By contrast, an INFJ has a different functional stack: NiFeTiSe. They’ll experience a strong pull toward their inferior sensing function, distracting from or overriding their dominant intuition. At the same time they will struggle to work out the balance between their feeling and thinking functions, though on a less dramatic level than the struggle experienced by the INFP.

Who should you listen to?

The problem is that people can make compelling cases for either side in the two dichotomies…because people generally are experiencing both sides of the struggle.

If we don’t know our own personality, we can become confused about which direction we’re meant to be headed.

A feeling-dominant person struggling in ignorance to suppress their feeling function may find encouragement in the advice of thinking-dominant people who have overcome their struggle with inferior feeling.

But that would be a mistake.

The two circumstances are quite different. Feeling-dominant people will not be led astray by their feelings. Thinking-dominant people will be.

What makes these struggles even more confusing is that stress, abuse, and suffering in early life will contribute to the embrace of the inferior function as people seek out adaptive strategies to survive difficult circumstances.

So some people will find that embracing their inferior function is the only way they know how to live. You might be a feeling-dominant personality, but if you feel terrible you aren’t exactly going to revel in the rediscovery of your dominant function.

Perhaps the best we can do is to become aware of the limitations in our inferior functions. We might enjoy using them, we might even be very good at them, but they will have serious deficiencies or blind-spots, and take significantly more energy to use than the functions that ought to come more naturally.