Is it time to consider the lily?

My latest piece at MercatorNet is part 2 of my parenting tips from a low-energy father. Therein I advise we draw on providence and find ways to be happy, for the benefit of ourselves and our children:

Parenting doesn’t end at getting things done. Parents aren’t machines. We model not only our behaviours and skills to our children, but our entire worldview and the moods and personality traits that accompany it.

We can, in a sense, “do everything right” but still inhabit a joyless existence, and our children are powerfully susceptible to the long-term influence of our attitude to life.

That’s why good communication is not enough, and why – for my own sake, and for the sake of my children – I set out learning how to change how I feel.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/is-it-time-to-consider-the-lily/21652

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Parenting advice from a low-energy father

In my latest at article at MercatorNet I share the merits of assertive communication in raising kids:

instead of using aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviours to coerce others into doing what you want, you can learn to literally assert your needs and wants, thoughts and feelings to others, with the implication that merely communicating your own inner world is the first and most important step in interacting with others.

In other words, relationships are ideally not power struggles of passive or outright coercion, manipulation and resentment. How novel!

Learning to communicate well is important because other people don’t necessarily understand what we want, think, or feel (even though it’s obvious, right?), and many of us are blinded to good communication by an expectation of conflict in our relationships.

But in an ideal world we could all learn to be open and clear about what we want, think, and feel, and let others decide how they think, feel, and want in response to that.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/3-parenting-tips-from-a-low-energy-father/21616

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.

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.

Law of attraction vs principle of reflection

I first came across the law of attraction years ago, during the hype around ‘The Secret’ book and movie.

It had some appeal, since I’ve always felt there was more to life and reality than our conventional experience. I’d studied philosophy, delved into mysticism, metaphysics, and psychology, and while much ‘New Age’ stuff is dubious, there’s a clear extension of themes and efforts from religious and spiritual traditions into the supposedly new realm of New Age material.

A few years back, while feeling far more cynical, I looked into the history of the New Age movement and found that much of it could be traced back to the New Thought movement, which in turn was a kind of esoteric re-working of Christianity. New Thought emerged from the same roots as Christian Science.

What bothered me initially about the law of attraction was that it didn’t seem to work, and I ended up quite skeptical of it.

But then a few years ago I began to notice something unusual in my life. I’d spent a lot of time introspecting and had become aware of certain patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour in me.

Those patterns were quite familiar, but what changed is that I came to realise the more important events and interactions in my life were following the same patterns.

That in itself is not necessarily mysterious. What was mysterious was that when I recognised what was going on – that my experience of life was reflecting these inner patterns of thought and feeling – everything shifted.

Although it seemed that my external experience was making me feel anxious or sad or angry or frustrated, the truth was that I already had within me that pattern or dynamic of negative feeling, and I was somehow recreating it in my external experience.

I came to think of this not as “attraction” but as “reflection”, but the point is probably moot.

More recently I’ve discovered that the better exponents of the “law of attraction” are actually focused on the quality of our feelings moreso than the promise of getting rich and having the life you want.

Or more to the point, they argue that having the life you want is first and foremost about being happy, not about feeling dependent on external experiences to overcome your negative emotional set-point.

With a “trigger warning” for those averse to New Age/New Thought material, what I’ve found the most helpful is the writing of a woman named Esther Hicks. As far as New Age contexts go, Hicks is unapologetically far out there. But I have to admit that once I got past the cringe, I’ve found the underlying message to be extremely helpful.

The message, in essence, is to feel better. Feeling better is achieved by focusing on things that feel good instead of things that feel bad.

As someone who has spent most of his life feeling bad, I find this message breathtaking in its scope and significance. If you’ve followed my posts on introverted Feeling in the Myers-Briggs system, this approach is perhaps the ultimate Fi-dominant attitude to life.

If you’ve followed my posts on the idealism of the melancholic temperament, you’ll find that this approach to life fully embraces the melancholic genius, by depreciating “reality” in favour of the meaning and ideals that we yearn for.

Who would have thought that you could find happiness by focusing on the things that make you happy?

But whereas this might sound like willful ignorance or blindness to life’s problems, the knowledge that life reflects your own internal dynamic means that finding happiness is also the most effective way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.

I’ve seen in my own life that recurring negative patterns of experience are inescapable. We keep recreating them, because they reflect an unexamined and uncontested internal dynamic.

As I explored in my previous post: you could say of any persistently negative, recurring situation or feeling that even though you don’t like it or enjoy it, you do want it. It is the outcome or net product of one or more forgotten or unexamined desires within you.

If you feel bad all the time, there is part of you that either wants to feel bad, or needs you to feel bad as a means of achieving something else that you want. Maybe you value your identity as a martyr or victim? You can’t have that identity without feeling martyred or victimised.

Maybe you like to feel that you’re part of a special minority who alone know the truth? You can’t have that unless you’re surrounded by an ignorant majority that reject your truth.

These thoughts might make you feel good, but only in the context of feeling bad. To feel unconditionally good is therefore impossible unless you give up these aspects of your identity.

My focus on feeling good has already shown me myriad ways in which I instead choose to feel bad. One of the most insidious is that I identify myself with a kind of inward struggle. Identifying with struggle is implicitly endless….if I see myself as one who finds answers or overcomes obstacles, I’ll spend the rest of my life finding questions I need to answer and obstacles I need to overcome.

The real answer is very simple. Just feel good.

For me that currently seems to involve equal parts letting go of negative thoughts and briefly analysing negative thoughts. Some seem to require a bit of patience and untangling, but I think it’s increasingly just a matter of letting go.

When I feel bad, do I really need to know why I feel bad? It’s far more important to know how to feel good.

And typically, actually feeling good helps you transcend the problem, making it all clearer in hindsight than you could ever make it by dwelling on the negative part of your experience.

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.

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.

A brief history of temperament

The four temperaments theory is the oldest and most consistently utilised theory of personality in the Western world.

Its origins lie at least as far back as the 5th Century BC when Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, described human health and composition in terms of four humours or bodily fluids: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile.

The four temperaments were further developed and codified by Galen, personal physician to Roman Emperors in the 2nd Century AD. Galenic medicine remained the authoritative medical paradigm in Europe until the 18th Century, and his texts were still studied as late as the 19th Century.

But even as Galen’s theories about the human body were slowly discarded, his observations of the human mind continued to fascinate philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists even to the present day.

What underlies temperament?

Various theorists have attempted to define the temperaments in terms of more basic physical elements.

Galen described them in terms of heat and cold on the one hand, and moistness and dryness on the other. The Choleric is hot and dry while the Melancholic is cold and dry. Sanguines are hot and moist, while Phlegmatics are cold and moist.

But with the advances of medicine people have sought to describe the temperaments in ever more up-to-date terms, corresponding to changes in medical or psychological paradigms.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant described the temperaments in terms of either feeling or activity that was short-lasting or long-lasting.  A Choleric is characterised by long-lasting activity while a Melancholic has long-lasting feelings. Sanguines have short-lasting feelings and Phlegmatics have short-lasting activity.

A generation later the German “father of psychology” Wilhelm Wundt described the temperaments in terms of either strong or weak emotion and slow or rapid change. Cholerics have strong emotion and rapid change, while Melancholics have strong emotion and slow change. Sanguines have weak emotion and rapid change, and Phlegmatics have weak emotion and slow change.

Another 19th Century German, the physiologist Jakob Henle, suggested that the temperaments might arise from the inherent activity or tonus of the nervous system.

Henle described each temperament in terms of the speed and the duration of reactions within the nervous system. Cholerics have quick reactions of a long duration while Melancholics have slow reactions of a long duration. Sanguines have quick reactions of short duration, and Phlegmatics have slow reactions of short duration.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also studied the nervous system and he too drew on the ancient four temperaments to frame his theories.

For Pavlov the Choleric has a strong but unbalanced nervous system while the Melancholic has a weak nervous system. Both the Sanguine and the Phlegmatic are strong and balanced but the former is fast while the latter is slow. Though his studies focused on dogs, Pavlov applied his observations to humans also:

The melancholic temperament is evidently an inhibitory type of nervous system. To the melancholic, every event of life becomes an inhibitory agent; he believes in nothing, hopes for nothing, in everything he sees only the dark side, and from everything he expects only grievances.

The choleric is the pugnacious type, passionate, easily and quickly irritated. But in the golden middle group stand the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments, well equilibrated and therefore healthy, stable…

The phlegmatic is self-contained and quiet, – a persistent and steadfast toiler in life. The sanguine is energetic and very productive, but only when his work is interesting, i.e., if there is a constant stimulus. When he has not such a task he becomes bored and slothful.

The psychologists

While the physiologists were studying nervous systems and linking their findings to the four temperaments theory, the new field of psychoanalysis founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud approached the same questions of personality and temperament from a more psychological, clinically-oriented perspective.

Freud’s collaborator and contemporary Alfred Adler developed a personality theory that mirrored the four temperaments system.

Adler described each type or temperament in terms of high or low energy and high or low social interest. Adler’s Choleric equivalent has high energy and low social interest while his Melancholic equivalent has low energy and low social interest. Sanguines have high energy and high social interest, while Phlegmatics have low energy with high social interest.

Other psychoanalysts broke away from the four temperament model as they delved deeper into their own theories and observations. Carl Jung, for example, described a more complex range of cognitive functions and mental predispositions that were later codified into the famous Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most popular personality theory in operation today.

Yet the four temperament model was not entirely forgotten. It was retained primarily in the work of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who described the four temperaments in terms of extroversion and neuroticism. Extroversion refers to how outwardly oriented a person is, while neuroticism is defined as a tendency to worry, anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and jealousy.

In Eysenck’s model the Choleric has high extroversion and high neuroticism while the Melancholic has low extroversion and high neuroticism. The Sanguine has high extroversion and low neuroticism, while the Phlegmatic has low extroversion and low neuroticism.

Temperament today

Modern trends in psychology and medicine make researchers wary of trying to match their research to pre-existing ideas and concepts like the four temperaments.

Contemporary psychology does draw on the concept of temperament, but it avoids the original four in favour of a research-driven approach. Psychologist Jerome Kagan is one example of an influential researcher on temperament, demonstrating throughout his career that key biological/behavioural traits in infants persist throughout adult life.

Kagan’s work focused on high and low reactive children, and he acknowledges that there are many other ‘temperaments’ or aspects of temperament yet to be studied.

Conclusion

For a lay person like me, learning about these different theories and approaches to the four temperaments adds to the sense that there’s a central phenomenon behind the archetypal four, and help us clarify exactly what the differences between them are.

As Kant wrote:

In this way the ancient forms can be preserved, and only receive a meaning better suited to the spirit of this doctrine of temperaments.

I still believe that Henle’s two-factor model of excitability versus duration of impression is the most fundamental, yet it helps me to have the others available too.

How better to explain a melancholic than “low energy, low social interest”? That’s me in a nutshell.

Other theories may seem more or less apt, but at the very least they show how different people have perceived the temperaments. We can also see where they have gotten it wrong, describing temperaments in ways that don’t at all accord with our experience, or letting their own temperament blind them to the true nature of the others.