As a child and teenager I wasn’t obviously good at anything. But I enjoyed reading and occasionally I had good insights or creative solutions to problems that arose within the home.
So at some point I was marked out as “intelligent” by my parents and some teachers, and that became part of my self-perception.
By High School I had internalised the message that I was intelligent but lazy, and needed to apply myself more.
But even then I knew that my intellect was somehow different to others who excelled at maths and physics. They seemed a lot more hard-headed and mentally quick.
My intelligence felt weird, with idiosyncratic peaks and troughs of ability.
Being a problem-solver
I studied philosophy at university – the ultimate generalist discipline – and my subsequent work in bioethics cemented my self-image as someone good at solving problems or “making sense” of complicated or confusing issues.
Along the way I cultivated all kinds of interesting and unusual topics, because I believed that my greatest attribute and value as a person lay in my thoughts and ideas: the way my mind worked.
Thinking too much
Yet all this time I’ve been a compulsive thinker. I think constantly, composing thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects day in, day out.
With strangers and acquaintances I’m reserved and reticent to speak, but with close friends and family I talk almost incessantly.
For me, this way of speaking is a learned behaviour. I taught myself to verbalise my incessant thinking process, and for many years my personality was comprised mostly of my “interesting topics” thought out-loud to others.
INFPs aren’t Thinkers
I remember visiting China years ago and being unable to communicate with all the new people I met. I felt terrible, like a non-person, because all my value was tied up in the content of my “interesting” thoughts and ideas.
In recent years I’ve come to accept that INFPs aren’t really “Thinkers” after all. I might be good with words and have some creative ideas…my whole outlook on life might be intriguing and different, but this is quite different from the standard model and expectations of an intellectual or a Thinker.
This wouldn’t really matter, except that I took to heart these expectations and in my own way I tried to push my intellect to the fore.
Do I think constantly because I enjoy it, or because I believe it’s my greatest value and best quality?
Honestly it’s the latter. If I stop thinking…I start to feel like a nobody. If I don’t communicate my thoughts, I start to feel very very ordinary.
But the irony is that the people closest to me don’t really value me for my ideas; they’re more likely to be annoyed by my incessant sharing of my thoughts.
And when people do find value in what I’ve written it feels completely normal and straightforward, and I feel happy for them.
In other words, I’ve greatly outlived the usefulness and gratification that once came from being told “You have great ideas!” or the sense of identity that came from being told I was intelligent and should apply myself.
A more authentic self
I would like to put away my thinking, problem-solving, and interesting-idea hats. I’m tired of wearing them, and I don’t need them anyway.
I never used to talk that much, back when I was happiest. And my friends never looked to me for ideas or points-of-view.
And even when good ideas come and they are appreciated, it’s easy and cannot be forced. Like the augur reading omens or the seer having visions, it’s just there. Not a process but a perception.
So don’t be lured into the thinking trap, fellow INFPs. Our value doesn’t lie in trying to imitate our INTP cousins. Whatever insights we have are eclectic and unpredictable, not the careful analysis of introverted Thinking, but the broad strokes of introverted Feeling.
It’s like the difference between a surgeon and a shaman, but no one will offer you a career pathway to being a shaman.
What do we look like when we stop trying to imitate other temperaments? That’s the question we can only answer for ourselves, not by thinking, but by allowing it to happen.
In hindsight, the ideas and subjects I gravitated towards weren’t “interesting” to me, but meaningful, and it’s this strong but ineffable sense of meaning that lies at the heart of the INFPs authentic self.