MBTI and psychogenic illness

I’ve been talking about the Myers-Briggs stuff lately, and the problem of suppressing one’s dominant function in favour of tertiary and inferior functions.

To recap, the INFP functional stack is introverted Feeling (Fi), extroverted Intuition (Ne), intr. Sensing (Si) and extr. Thinking (Te).

In temperament terms, the FiNe combo is Melancholic. The SiTe combo is Phlegmatic. Therefore I’m Melancholic-Phlegmatic.

My Phlegmatic side is all about drawing on past experience and following the rules. So when I ignore my Fi or my Melancholic idealism, I end up just trying to “fit in” to my own detriment.

But what happens if ignore not only my Melancholic idealism, but also my Phlegmatic past experience and rules?

The result would be suppressing both Fi and Si, and relying on Ne and Te.

An NT combo is what we would describe as Choleric. Ambitious, goal-oriented, astute. But you might notice something a bit awry in a NeTe combo.

They’re both extroverted.

The theory I’m relying on is that the perceiving (N and S) functions and the judging (F and T) always go together in complementary pairs.

That is, we need to combine a perceiving function with a judging function…but we also need to combine an introverted function with an extroverted function.

So when I tried in the past to ignore past experience and aim for something totally new, yet still without engaging my ideals, I inadvertently suppressed both my Fi and my Si.

I ended up trying to function out of Ne and Te, and the end result was really really weird.

First, I felt totally calm. My mood was great. It was like I just couldn’t feel anything.

I couldn’t feel anything because I was operating in a purely extroverted mode. I was thinking “life is all about achieving outcomes”, I was pushing myself to write without ceasing, and I was ignoring all the spiritual and philosophical ideals that had held such meaning for me.

This was all new to me, which is why Si had no role to play.

It makes a weird kind of sense to me that my body would start to rebel – that the completely suppressed Fi would emerge in the form of severe inflammation and physical pain.

…and it also makes sense that the “cure” for my illness began by allowing myself to feel terrible about a life without ideals.

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What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.