How does Fi work (in an INFP/Melancholic)?

Fi is a subjective evaluation or judgement of things that creates an ideal form of the object, according to subjective feeling.

Huh?

Bear with me.

Introverted Feeling (Fi) is a judging function in the Jungian/MBTI system.

For INFP/melancholics Fi is the dominant function.

It’s weird. Really weird and hard to communicate.

So how does it work?

I’ve previously described Fi as like a continuous, internal movie soundtrack. But that’s really just a side-effect of having Fi.

How Fi actually works is as follows:

Ever since I was a kid I loved swords.

This love of swords evokes in me a strong feeling about swords, a feeling that is informed by everything I’ve ever read, seen, imagined or thought about swords.

At some point my feeling function created a kind of platonic ideal of a sword…not so much the look or context or dimensions or material properties of the sword, but the feeling of the sword in its ideal form.

A sword is ideal to the extent that it conforms to this feeling, which is separate from, but related to, the specific qualities and context that comprise it.

It’s as if I took all my experiences of actual swords and extrapolated from them to the existence of a hypothetical sword that exists only in my feelings.

That’s why Jung wrote that Fi:

“is continually seeking an image which has no existence in reality, but which it has seen in a kind of vision. It glides unheedingly over all objects that do not fit with its aim. It strives after inner intensity, for which the objects serve at most as stimulus.”

The “vision” is the ideal feeling-form of the object.

Fi-users are empowered to judge things according to these feeling-forms. We look at real instances of swords and use our ideal feeling-form to decide if it is a “good” sword or not.

Accordingly, when we see things like the Sword of Gryffindor in the Harry Potter movies, my Fi reacts negatively.

Further elaboration might objectively vindicate or subjectively justify that strong inner response, but the domain of Fi is really either to “glide unheedingly over” things that don’t match the Fi image, or sigh unhappily at the wrong execution of an ideal.

And to be honest it’s not easy to explain what exactly is wrong with the sword. It’s a feeling, and would require research (justification and explanation) to communicate to someone else.

Once we delve into justification we’re no longer in Fi mode, and are liable to get sidetracked. There are always valid arguments that can be made to justify alternative points of view.

An INFP is more likely to just step out of the debate.

When Fi isn’t working

Now that I understand Fi much better, I can see that there are aspects of my life where I haven’t really been using Fi at all.

Not using Fi is a worrying sign for a Fi-dom.

It means I’m operating blindly in these areas, trying to utilise less powerful functions to solve my problems.

For example, I’ve struggled with physical posture for years. I’ve been physically stiff since I was a teenager, and have spent years working at stretching and building various muscles and joints, trying to find a stronger, more relaxed, and pain-free mode of movement.

What I’m lacking is a Fi feeling to guide me – not necessarily a feeling about posture, but perhaps a feeling about the activity I’m engaged in. Properly engaging my dominant function would smooth out the resistance that results in stiffness and tension.

Instead, I’ve tried to fill in the gaps using introverted Sensing (Si) and extroverted Thinking (Te) approaches. I’ve studied anatomy, I’ve looked at functional exercises, psychological approaches, mind-body systems…

None of them provided a long-term solution, because I was already undermining my greatest strength, and then using these weaker functions to try to compensate.

Staring out into empty space

I think what actually panics me is the emptiness where I ought to have a feeling-form to guide me.  It’s as if I’ve suffered temporary blindness or hearing loss and have to scramble to depend on other senses to fill in the gaps, while acutely aware of my vulnerability.

Many times I’ve found myself realising I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ve learned to resort to Si and Te to make sense of the situation. My Te approach is to analyse tasks or circumstances according to goals and outcomes. Eg. “What is the purpose of this? What are we trying to achieve, and what is the best/most efficient way to achieve it?”

But this takes a great deal of energy, is less refined (since it’s my inferior function) and further compounds the absence of Fi guidance.

Finding Fi

I think the solution is to begin looking for positive feelings within these activities where Fi is lacking. Look for aspects that feel good.

It also helps to let go of pre-existing beliefs or ideas from other sources that tell you how you ought to feel, or what you ought to be doing.

Think of it as going back to a clean slate, and then allowing feeling to re-emerge uninhibited.

Remember that Fi is subjective – it’s all about how you feel, not how others feel or what they think or what they tell you is important. Don’t try to justify good feeling to yourself or to others.

At the same time, trust that feeling good is a key component in your overall way of being. Everything will fall into place if you feel good; and if your activities feel like an endless struggle, it’s likely because you’re ignoring or haven’t yet let your Fi guide you in those activities.

Fi is mysterious after all, and in a Fi-dom it’s unconsciously linked to a whole lot of other functions and processes. Even something as simple as going for a walk can be awkward and uncomfortable if Fi isn’t active.

In fact, going for a walk when you don’t feel good and your Fi is suppressed is like going for a walk with a blindfold on. Fi is an INFP’s dominant function, and without it everything is a struggle.

Positive thinking for INFP/Melancholics

Last year in a fit of clarity I decided to finally read some positive-thinking material.

I cringed inwardly, having previously dismissed this material as over-hyped, delusional New Thought motivational rubbish (not too positive, was I?).

But I had a few experiences where it was obvious that my circumstances were reflecting my own inner state back at me, over and over again.

Relationships where the same patterns repeated endlessly no matter what I did; but the moment I changed my perspective, it was as if everything around me changed too.

(I discovered much the same dynamic in my approach to eating and diet: I thought I wanted to lose weight, but on closer examination I had complex motives and desires that were keeping me stuck.)

So I still cringe occasionally, but otherwise I’m enjoying the benefits of studying and applying the material produced by Esther Hicks, on positive thinking and the law of attraction.

Positive feeling for INFP/Melancholics

Although this material is accessible to everyone, it is perfect for INFP/Melancholics, because it focuses first and foremost on how you feel.

I’ve had half a lifetime of being told explicitly and implicitly that how I feel doesn’t matter at all. Feeling bad about objective reality is irrelevant at best and a moral failing at worst.

It seemed that introverted Feeling (Fi) and melancholic idealism were things that just wouldn’t (and couldn’t) fit into the objective world, and I’ve even argued here that we live in a world dominated by Sanguine, Choleric, and Phlegmatic values instead (that’s SP, NT, and SJ, in MBTI).

Feeling is judgement

It really sucks to feel bad all the time, and to believe on top of it that you must do your best to ignore these bad feelings, because…reality.

So how does positive thinking/law of attraction material make a difference?

For starters, it takes the judging function of introverted feeling seriously.

Your feelings are your “inner guidance system” that tells you whether or not the thoughts you are thinking right now are in alignment with your deeper desires and “inner being” (call it soul, true self, higher power, or whatever you like).

Feeling bad is therefore not a personal quirk or moral failing, it’s an indicator that you are thinking in ways that contradict your own genuine desires and your inner being.

And if you don’t heed the signals of how you feel, you will continue to experience circumstances that feel more or less exactly the same.

Turning life around

INFP/Melancholics are prone to depression and anxiety. Yet these are simply emotional indicators that we are, right now, focusing on thoughts that do not match our genuine desires, or our inner being.

Since our circumstances reflect what we are focused on, feeling bad means we are going to continue to feel bad.

It was no coincidence that having felt depressed and anxious for many years, I continued to feel depressed and anxious.

The more I tried to understand depression and anxiety, the more entrenched it became, because I continued to focus on it and look for reasons “out there”, in the world or in my own personality.

Eventually I concluded that depression and anxiety were an unavoidable outcome of someone with my temperament and personality living in “the real world”.

I became an expert at reinforcing my pessimistic view of the world, despite how bad it made me feel.

Nothing is more important than feeling good

My knowledge and experience in philosophy, religion, and all kinds of intellectual analysis were not very useful until I knew what I was looking for.

But now it’s obvious to me that we do in fact create our own reality, shape our own experience, by what we choose to focus on.

If you want to be happy, focus on things that feel genuinely good, or at least better than you currently feel, while trusting that your experience and perception will change as you begin to feel better.

This is a complete inversion of the “worldly” approach, which incidentally matches the inferior extroverted Thinking function (Te) of the INFP.

From a worldly/Te perspective, you can feel good when you accomplish your goals, and you should feel bad if you fail to achieve them.

But notice that as an INFP, this is my negative perception of “how the world works”. In other words, my negative view of the world is that it operates according to my inferior function, that people are only interested in accomplishments, achievements, and utility.

Suspicious!

Question your negative beliefs

Does the world really revolve around utility and accomplishments?

Does every single person on earth value achievement and efficiency above all else?

Is the whole world ruled by ruthless market forces?

No.

But in thinking this way, I sought out experiences that confirmed my thoughts, and I ignored or downplayed evidence to the contrary.

Playing the game of “Yes, but…”

Have you ever noticed what happens when you try to cheer up an unhappy person, or when someone happy tries to cheer you up?

You both play the “Yes, but…” game; only you play it in different ways.

The positive person says “Yes, your situation has some difficulties, but there are positives to it as well…”

I acknowledge how you feel, but there are ways for you to feel better.

The negative person says “Yes, there are some things in life that seem okay, but there are negatives to it that you mustn’t ignore!”

If you’re intent on playing the game negatively, nothing and nobody can stop you. There’s no limit to the negative aspects you can discover in life if you really try. You can find, or create, down-sides to everything!

And for the same reasons, you can find, or create, a positive side to everything too. Even the very worst experiences strengthen your desire for something better.

One step at a time

I have to give full credit to Esther Hicks’ material for helping me change how I feel. It’s not just the basic principles, but also finer points like knowing that we can’t make a sustainable jump in feeling from “horrifically depressed” to “overwhelming joy”.

It can’t be done, and the desire to make these kind of leaps is in fact a form of self-sabotage.

But starting out with the intention to “feel better”, and taking small steps in feeling “less bad” is the way to slow down the negative habits of thought we’ve been practicing for decades, and make lasting improvements in our thoughts, our mood, and our whole experience of life.

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.

Turning J and P on their heads

I’ve gone into a lot of depth in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, albeit haphazardly as befits a P-type, right?

But lately I’ve been looking at the simpler measure of the P and the J, and what that means for how we ideally function in the world.

I’m an INFP, who has ended up sharpening his J approach to life in order to “get s*** done!”, because if I stay in P mode I’m afraid life will just blend into some kind of seamless, mysterious whole without my understanding or control.

Actually that sounds kinda nice.

My wife is a genuine J type, yet somehow we’ve ended up inverted. I’m usually in control, deciding what we’ll do and when we’ll do it, while she’s been seemingly content to follow my lead and see what happens.

Which has worked. But it’s been a lot of work, with each of us using our weaker functions to get through life.

Embrace your P-ness

Logically the answer is to revert to our genuine types. That means I should relax, accept that I’m intrinsically disorganized by worldly standards, and let my wife take up some of the slack.

Become the feckless hippie my MBTI results suggest I ought to be, (or more flattering but therefore less therapeutic, the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog…thanks INTJ!)

But it’s really hard to go against years of training and conditioning.

It’s really hard to stop J-ing, to just let go and not even write blog posts summing up the awesome insights that come to me.

And perhaps that’s because the simple P-J message is a little too simple after all.

It’s meant to tell us which of our functions is extroverted – the perceiving one, or the judging one.

But if you’re an introvert, your extroverted function will be auxiliary, subordinate to and weaker than your dominant.

So I may be a P-type, but since my dominant function is a judging function, I’m not the most P that a P could be.

Likewise, my wife is a J-type, but her dominant is a perceiving function, so she’s not the most J kind of J either.

As one site puts it:

IP types have a dominant introverted judging function, which will make them seem more like judgers (J types) than other P types.

And for IJ types vice-versa.

Typical of an INFP (apparently), these kinds of renovations of my theoretical model come easily and frequently, but they don’t change the underlying “feel” I have for what is important.

When I act or think like a J-type, I might be relying too much on my inferior Te (extroverted Thinking) function, as I previously thought, but another way of looking at the whole situation is that I have unhealthy Fi (introverted Feeling) pushing me to accomplish things.

When too many possibilities proliferate, I get tired and want to put away my MBTI toys because I sense that achieving perfect understanding will not yield proportional benefits to me.

Yet this in turn reflects an aspect of my inferior Te – taking single variables and enlarging them until they seem to account for everything. Yes! That’s the one-single mistake I make! (ironic laughter).

The good news is that for an introverted Feeler the actual thoughts don’t need to be nailed down. Despite my past attempts to find all the answers to everything and be right all the time, I don’t really need to know anything, so long as I know how I feel.

Sin and Feeling

One of the things that bothered me about the typical definition of sin in Christianity is the focus on actions and eternal law.

“Law” is a metaphor. God doesn’t have laws any more than our legal system has a “spirit”.

But it’s a strong metaphor because what we call “law” stands like a guide and a container for our actions and choices.

Perhaps you could say that human law, justice, judgement and punishment are a reflection of this divine thing that is properly nameless and wordless but must be translated into human terms if we are to talk about it.

Sin as action

Sometimes we do things that we know (or come to learn) are wrong, and we struggle with our own conscience over them. In fact moral theology has many caveats to this basic dynamic that include the formation or malformation of the conscience, the broader context of culpability, and so on.

A good judge takes into account all kinds of extenuating and aggravating circumstances.

But sin itself never really spoke to me in this context of action and law and judgement.

Sin as state

I’ve been thinking about it lately because someone asked me a question regarding sin, confession, and the problem of psychogenic illness and temperament.

I suspect the problem is that long-term anxiety and depression, and the temperament that predisposes me to these states, deny me any clear sense of the path before me, or that the root cause of my problems is ultimately my own transgressive actions.

If you can see the path, then yes you will know when you’ve deviated from it.

But if you can’t see the path, then being told that your actions are the root cause of your suffering is about as helpful as being blamed for being lost in a fog.

That’s not to say that I lack a sense of actions that are transgressive or immoral. Rather, the root cause of my suffering in life was not obviously related to any particular action or disposition.

It’s as if everyone was saying “just stay on the path and you’ll be fine. And even if you step off the path, you can return because God is forgiving”. Meanwhile I’m nodding politely while wondering where this path is exactly.

Finding the path

I think my temperament, and my Feeling function in particular, conceives of the world in a different way.

That’s probably why I was drawn to Eastern religions in my youth. Dharma is basically the same as Eternal Law, and the Dao is basically the way, but each has a richer, more substantial context in relation to the divine. Not that Christianity is really any different, it’s just a question of emphasis:

Do you emphasise God as judge and divine legislator? Or do you emphasise God as the path, the “way” itself, the outer boundaries of which are roughly marked with moral warnings?

Before I learned any Christian philosophy or theology, it seemed obvious to me that the moral law was the outermost perimeter of a deeper spiritual reality. Clinging to the moral law was like going to a beautiful mansion in the hills, and then stopping just inside the fence.

Yes, if you want to live in God’s house you can’t go outside the fence, but why on earth would you? Do you sit comfortably in a friend’s living room, loving their company, yet continually fretting that you might any moment fall off the edge of their property?

Private prayer

I think a lot of this goes unsaid in people’s personal relationship with God. People yearn to feel connected to God somehow, and that’s what is really important.

And some types or temperaments are completely fine with the idea that their actions help or hinder this relationship, and that confession or asking for and receiving forgiveness is the best way to remedy that relationship.

For these people, it makes sense to promote concepts of sinful action, eternal law, and forgiveness as the core dynamic of God’s interaction with the world.

But if you’re lost and living in a fog, it might be due to a number of factors that don’t necessarily fall under the standard definition of sin.

It might be the result of other people’s sins. Or it could be a kind of sin that isn’t commonly known or understood.

From a melancholic/introverted-Feeling perspective, there’s not much point trying to confess a Feeling. Yet this strong Feeling function so overshadows everything else that it not only blots out our sense of the divine, not to mention happiness, but it also obscures our own role in giving rise to this obstacle.

That’s what gave me this intense thirst for understanding. The hope of understanding my condition brought knowledge, insight, wisdom, to the fore rather than moral uprightness, sin, or forgiveness.

A person lost in a fog doesn’t need forgiveness, they need clarity. They need to know the lay of the land so they can stop falling into holes. They need a light, and in that light they can find the path.

Why INFP = Melancholic-Phlegmatic

Keirsey is the go-to guy for linking the four temperaments to the MBTI, and while his views apparently shifted in the course of his career, this table seems right to me.

Phlegmatic = Keirsey’s Guardians = SJ

Sanguine = Artisans = SP

Melancholic = Idealist = NF

Choleric = Rational = NT

I was already pretty sure I was an INFP based on tests and self-typing, and it didn’t take long to conclude I was melancholic-phlegmatic either.

Why would an INFP be melancholic-phlegmatic?

Look at the functional stack: FiNeSiTe

That means my two strongest functions are introverted Feeling and extroverted Intuition, making me melancholic.

My two weaker functions are introverted Sensing – which is what defines a phlegmatic in Keirsey’s arrangement – and extroverted Thinking.

So if I use all my functions in their order of strength, I’ll be foremost melancholic (NF) and with a secondary phlegmatic (Si) temperament.

But in my case I also seem to have put a bit of extra emphasis on my inferior function Te. I’ve gone through phases of being very Te oriented, in terms of setting myself goals, seeking to be efficient, driven, and effective.

When push forward with Te, I go into uncharted territory where my Si isn’t especially helpful. That leaves me forming a weird combination of Ne and Te, a kind of makeshift choleric influence.

It also seems to trigger bouts of stress-related illness, suggesting an imbalance from all that extroversion.

But all of this taken together is why I would describe myself in temperament terms as a melancholic-phlegmatic with a bit of choleric thrown in.

When I compare myself to other melancholic-phlegmatics, they seem to lack my awesome yet debilitating penchant for intense thinking, and my bootstrapping attitude to getting s*** done…within my otherwise very melancholic-phlegmatic parameters.

They don’t seem to know how to push themselves in that turn-yourself-inside-out way I’ve grown to love.

I wouldn’t recommend doing what I’ve done, but it’s nice to know where the differences lie.

introverted Feeling

Introverted Feeling is a really weird function.

It’s the dominant function of INFP and ISFP; it’s also the auxiliary function of ENFP and ESFP.

I’ve read and listened to lots of descriptions of introverted Feeling (Fi), but hardly any of them feel right to me.

To me, Fi is like an inner landscape of a strange world with diverse terrain. The things that happen in the real world are mirrored in this inner landscape.

So when something happens that you don’t like, it feels as if the inner landscape has become a kind of dark, arid, and rocky mountainside where you’re struggling to find your footing.

When something arduous and oppressive happens, it feels like you’re mired in a horrible swamp, up to your waist in thick mud.

When something unexpected and wonderful happens, it feels like you’re suddenly in a beautiful mountain valley on a warm spring day.

These changes in feeling can be rapid and intense, and they can occur without you even leaving your room.

In an ideal world, a healthy Fi dominant person would use this inner landscape to navigate the real world. We would make choices and seek out directions that take us to good-feeling places in our inner landscape, and avoid actions and circumstances that take us to bad-feeling places.

But as mentioned in my previous post, Fi is extremely hard to describe, especially when we’re young.

We all assume from a young age that everyone else is like us on the inside. So when people act in ways that make us feel really bad, we assume that they also feel bad, but that somehow feeling bad doesn’t matter.

At other times we are explicitly pressured to act according to external parameters that conflict with our Fi, and we are also pressured to provide non-Fi justifications or explanations for our own choices and actions.

Not only do we get cajoled into situations that feel bad, but being forced to justify and explain ourselves also feels bad, as it denies the integrity and authenticity of our introverted Feeling.

Someone calls you and says “Can you please do this for me?”…and your Fi presents you with an endless, stagnant swamp you’re being asked to cross.

But what do you say?

You can say “No”, or “I don’t want to.” But some people won’t be satisfied with that.

Can you say “Doing that for you would feel like being plunged into a foul and interminable swamp”?

I don’t think that would go over too well.

But “I don’t feel like it” sounds capricious and flippant.

So what do you do?

You look for “reasons” or excuses that explain and justify your refusal.

“I’m busy that day”, “I have things to do”, “I’m overloaded at the moment.”

It’s not that these things aren’t true, just that it’s not how your mind works.

You haven’t sat back and thought “Can I help them? No, I can’t because I have too much to do already”.

So you end up having to translate your Fi into a reason that is completely un-Filike.

Over time you develop the unpleasant feeling of being a foreigner in your own country, translating your inner world into something that others deem acceptable.

The good news

Ah, but there is some good news.

The good news is that once you understand your Fi, and the lesser functions that are undermining or inhibiting it, the path to feeling good again is relatively simple.

I’ve discovered that so long as I recognise the interference of Si (intrusive memories, adherence to customs, past experience, old habits and sensory immersion), and the interference of Te (the demand for outcomes, explanations, efficiency, and step-by-step planning), it’s possible for me to take whatever I’m currently feeling and simply change it.

I might be presently mired in a swamp or stuck on that barren, rocky slope, but if I remove the hindrances I can fly in an instant to an idyllic forest, or a sublime mountain peak.

I can go somewhere magical in that inner landscape. I can let my feeling be the substance of my conscious experience, rather than some unhappy by-product of external forces and conditions.

I can – as terrifying and counter-intuitive as it might sound – let my Fi be the guide to my choices and direction in life.

And in that capacity, it really does feel like something miraculous. It really does feel as though “feeling good” has the power to substantively change my experience of life.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Temperaments and the MBTI

Following up on the previous post where I introduced Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, how about we take a look in more detail at the implications of linking the temperaments to the Myers-Briggs system?

keirsey

We’ll stick with the Idealist type, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament.

First a brief run-down on the MBTI.

I was reintroduced to the system in my previous workplace as part of a Human Resources thing. I use the word ‘thing’ advisedly, since that particular episode defies more insightful analysis.

I fully intended to write something hateful and contemptuous about it, but found in the course of further research that I had a great deal of sympathy for the system, if not the practice of it in a corporate environment.

As with my aversion to corporate meditation, the problems lie in the self-serving, incoherent, and banal spirit that infects everything it comes into contact with, no matter how good or noble or valuable (or simply harmless) it may be.

So I spent some time digging deeper into the MBTI and came across various good resources.

The core of it lies in the cognitive functions of perceiving and judging. Perceiving comes in two forms: Sensing (S) and Intuition (N). Judging also comes in two forms: Feeling (F) and Thinking (T).

That gives four possible combinations of perceiving and judging: SF, ST, NF, and NT.

Broadly speaking, you could say that Sensing is about facts, details, and precision. Intuition is about patterns, similarities, and generalities. Feeling is about meaning, relation, and authenticity. Thinking is about reason, systems, and achieving goals.

To make matters more complex, the MBTI theory holds that these perceiving and judging functions are further divided by introversion and extroversion. That is, we use different functions to perceive interiorly as opposed to exteriorly, and likewise with judging.

If a person uses Sensing to interpret the exterior world, they will use Intuition to interpret the interior world. If a person uses Thinking to arrive at judgements about external things, they will use Feeling to reach decisions about internal ones.

In terms of notation, we can add a little i or e to the functions. So an NF person may be NiFe (introverted Intuition and extroverted Feeling) or NeFi (extroverted Intuition and introverted Feeling).

Not only are your functions introverted and extroverted, but you yourself are also more or less introverted or extroverted. In fact, introversion and extroversion of the individual (as opposed to the functions) is one of the most solidly researched and supported aspects of personality theory generally.

Why does this matter? Well, if your functions are NiFe, but you yourself are predominantly introverted (I), then your individual focus is going to be centred more on your introverted function: Ni – introverted Intuition.  That is to say that your introverted Intuition is going to figure more in your experience of life than your extroverted Feeling.

An Extroverted NiFe person will have the inverse experience. They will still have introverted Intuition, but their extroverted Feeling will be more central to their experience.

For some reason, the Myers-Briggs notation settled on four characters. So instead of writing, for example, INiFe, they write INF, and add a P or J to tell you which of the functions is extroverted.

Thus, an Introverted person who has introverted Intuition (Ni) and extroverted Feeling (Fe) will be written as INFJ, because the Judging function is extroverted. Conversely, an Introverted person who has extroverted Intuition (Ne) and introverted Feeling (Fi) will be written as INFP.

Phew! This is hard work. Writing strictly explanatory material like this is rather exhausting. A structured, detailed approach is really better suited to a Sensing type.

Anyhow, as I was saying, all NF types are classed as Idealists in Keirsey’s system, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament. But in MBTI terms, there are still notable differences between the various NF subtypes. An INFJ and an INFP may have a lot in common, but these commonalities will highlight their differences as well.

One way of thinking about these differences is in terms of temperament. There aren’t a lot of Melancholics around (half of them are hiding), but even so I know enough of them to spot consistent differences. Some Melancholics are a little, dare I say, Sanguine. Others are a little more Phlegmatic.

We might, in the typically crude style of the temperaments theory, suggest that some people are Melancholic-Sanguine and others are Melancholic-Phlegmatic. And if we look at the MBTI in Keirsey’s approach, we can see how this might work.

An INFJ has Ni and Fe as his predominant functions. But that means he also has Ti and Se as his tertiary and ‘inferior’ functions. Each of us uses all of the functions to greater or lesser degrees. What the MBTI really indicates is one’s preference or strength in the various functions. So when you see NF, you know immediately that S and T are in there somewhere.

Extroverted Sensing (Se) in Keirsey’s system signifies that a person is of the Artisan or Sanguine temperament. Whether you are an ISTP, ESTP, ISFP, or ESFP, you all have extroverted Sensing and are therefore all Sanguines.

This implies that all NFJ types are a little bit Sanguine, since they have Se as either their tertiary (for ENFJ) or inferior (for INFJ) functions.

Accordingly, all NFP types are a little bit Phlegmatic, since INFP and ENFP types have introverted Sensing (Si) as their tertiary and inferior functions respectively.

In theory then, all INFP types are Melancholic-Phlegmatic, though in practice it will depend on the individual as to how strong the relevant functions are. The functions of any given INFP will tend to be arranged as follows in order of preference: Fi, Ne, Si, Te.

But if you’ve ever done an MBTI test, you might find some unusual results. You might find, for example, that your inferior function is almost as strong as your dominant function.  In fact, before I really understood the functions I was never sure if I was INFP or INTP, because I usually scored equally high in both F and T.

As various sources suggest, the inferior function is not supposed to be so strong but can emerge under stress or duress, or even as part of a developmental stage. The idea is that this weakest function can come to hold a certain mystique, potency or promise. Discovering an underdeveloped function that is, in a sense, the other side of the coin to your dominant function can present apparent opportunities and adventure.

For me, the development of extroverted Thinking coincided with my discovery of a system of ethics and an approach to philosophy that was new, exciting, and extremely powerful.

I pursued this philosophy in a single-minded way for several years. It was pretty much all I talked about.  What I loved most about it was the clarity and certainty it provided, in stark contrast to the relativism and pluralism of the academic philosophy I had been exposed to.

And yet, the more I pursued it the more confined and restricted I felt. The sense of having all the answers at first provided wonder, but eventually the wonder collapsed in on itself. The excitement at having the tools to discover answers in time became weariness at the kinds of answers these tools could provide, or the kinds of puzzles they could solve.

In MBTI terms, I reached the limit of exploring my inferior extroverted Thinking. It no longer felt mysterious or interesting or powerful.  The answers it provided may have been as true as ever, but they were no longer satisfying.

Developing or relying on my inferior function skews the results of various tests, and can result in MBTI mis-identification. I did wonder in the past whether I was INTP or INFP…but if we revert to the temperaments theory such mis-identification becomes laughable.

An INTP is, like all NT types, a Choleric. An INFP is, like all NF types, a Melancholic. And while Melancholics and Cholerics can have a lot in common, on closer inspection there is really no mistaking the two.

Yet prior to discovering the four temperaments theory, I did see strong similarities between myself and several Cholerics I know. The similarities are real, but from a Melancholic perspective, they are not as significant as the elements that give us a different ‘feel’.

And this is, again, where the MBTI suffers compared to the temperaments theory.  By going into greater detail, offering 16 types rather than four main temperaments, by dealing in functions rather than reactions, the MBTI offers a lot more, but at greater risk of confusion and mis-identification.

In a very unMelancholic style, it turns the extremes of the four temperaments into the finely variegated 16 types. It reduces the ancient biological analogy of the humours to the interchangeable binary of the MBTI pigeon-holes, and loses something in the process.  Like the inferior function that (for me) it represents, I don’t mind delving into it on occasion, but it’s not something I can depend on wholeheartedly.