By Dr. A.J. Drenth
The INFP personality type is creative, quirky, humane, and individualistic. Like the INFJ, INFPs want to understand who they are and their purpose in the world. Curious and restless, they enjoy entertaining new ideas and possibilities. They are rarely content with “what is,” preferring instead to focus their sights on “what could be.” This, combined with their strong idealism, can engender a sort of “grass is greener” mentality.
INFPs are among the most open-minded (and open-hearted) of the personality types. While not to quite the same extent as the ENFP, they bring an experimental attitude to life as they explore a variety of ideas, lifestyles, and experiences. In each new experience, INFPs see an opportunity to not only learn about the world, but about themselves and their life’s purpose.
Their curiosity about the world, including its potential role in clarifying their identity, can inspire INFPs to travel or adopt a peripatetic lifestyle. They may, for instance, choose to explore other cultures, live out of a vehicle, or take to the woods. As long as these sorts of explorations feel stimulating and life-giving, INFPs will continue to explore them, even amid pressures to embrace a more conventional path.
Jon Krakauer’s captivating book, later turned movie, Into the Wild, details the life one such INFP seeker, Chris McCandless. McCandless was academically gifted and a recent college graduate. While others assumed he would forge a path of worldly success, McCandless had others aspirations. Something seemed to be missing from his life and from the conventional lives of those around him, that he felt he needed to pursue and understand. So instead of heading off to college, he sold most of his possessions and embarked on a life of exploration, culminating in a journey deep into the Alaskan wilderness.
Perhaps even more familiar is the account of another INFP, Henry David Thoreau, which we find in his classic work, Walden. Like McCandless, Thoreau was unimpressed by conventional life and dreamed of something more: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life… and not, when it came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Like Thoreau and McCandless, INFPs seek a life of passion and intensity. They want to know what it means to be fully alive and how they might cultivate a rich and abundant life. They gravitate toward experiences that arouse or intensify feelings of passion, inspiration, or meaning. They may turn to relationships, novels, poetry, music, travel, or activism to achieve their desired level of intensity. In my post on INFP relationships, I explore how INFPs can quickly feel restless and dissatisfied when the passion or intrigue wanes.
INFPs’ seeking impetus is informed and perpetuated by their critical observations of society and culture. They often see themselves as characteristically different from, or at odds with, their surrounding culture, sometimes feeling like outsiders or misfits. They can be wary of “conventional wisdom” and societal prescriptions, preferring instead to forge their own unique path.
Amassing wealth or material goods is rarely high on INFPs’ priority list. Money is valued only to the extent that it furnishes the time and freedom to explore their deepest passions. Considering the relative unimportance of material niceties to INFPs, the idea of performing uninspiring work for the sake of a paycheck is invariably off-putting to them. Consequently, they, not unlike INTPs, often adopt a minimalist lifestyle, hoping this will translate into less time spent performing uninteresting work.
As INFPs proceed in their search for self, they eventually stumble onto something that deeply moves or inspires them. They may even feel they’ve finally found what they have been looking for. But more often than not, their enthusiasm is short-lived, once the novelty of their new discovery has worn off. Over time, this can become frustrating or demoralizing for INFPs, since they so desperately want to find themselves. They don’t want to remain seekers forever. They want know to know their mission in life. They want their seeking efforts to culminate in a sense of conviction and direction for their lives.
With that said, it would be wrong to pretend that INFPs don’t also find the seeker’s journey deeply meaningful and enjoyable. Whether they admit it or not, their seeking is at least as much about the journey as it is the destination. But it is also true that they wouldn’t be seeking, at least not with such vigor and zeal, without an anticipated payoff. Hence, they may resist notions like “just relax and enjoy the journey” because the imagined destination, that ever-elusive Holy Grail, imbues their actions with greater meaning, urgency, and intensity.
As explained in our INFP careers post, INFPs can be drawn to all sorts of creative endeavors—film, photography, poetry, music, theater, fiction writing, the fine arts, and so on. Others may opt for careers that inspire their inferior function, Extraverted Thinking (Te), such as science, computers, engineering, law, economics, etc. Regardless of how they start their career journey, many will continue to function as seekers for years, even decades. They often find themselves most inspired when working on their own personal projects, which allow them to pursue their own interests with full freedom and authenticity. Many will dabble in freelancing while dreaming of the time when they can cut ties with their day job and pursue their passion on a full-time basis.
INFP Personality Type Development & Functional Stack
Each personality type prefers to use four of the eight functions first described by Jung. These four functions comprise its “functional stack.” The relative strength of preference for these four functions is expressed in the following manner: dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, and inferior. INFPs’ first preference is Fi, followed by Ne, Si, and Te respectively. This is depicted in the arrangement of their functional stack:
While we will soon discuss each of the above functions in greater depth, for now, we will turn our attention to another feature of INFPs’ personality—their type development. As is true for all types, INFPs’ type development consists of three phases. These phases roughly correspond to the ordering of the functional stack, with Fi being the first function to blossom, Ne the second, on so on. But as we will see, the inferior function is sort of a special case, commanding INFPs’ attention at an earlier phase than might otherwise be expected.
Phase I (Childhood)
Phase I is characterized by the exploration and development of INFPs’ dominant function, Introverted Feeling (Fi). Even as children, INFPs are often “highly sensitive persons” (HSPs). Sensitive to their own feelings, as well as those of others, they feel unsettled and anxious in conflictual situations. This may prompt them to seek refuge in time alone, finding comfort in solitary activities such as daydreaming, reading, drawing, listening to music, etc. Hence, young INFPs come to enjoy exploring their own interests, free from external disruptions. In time, they develop a unique sense of self through exploring their feelings (Fi) and imagination (Ne).
Phase II (Adolescence-30s)
Phase II involves additional development of their auxiliary function (Ne), as well as heightened polarity and conflict between their dominant Fi and their inferior function, Extraverted Thinking (Te).
While INFPs do function as seekers as children, in the sense of exploring the world through their feelings and imagination, their seeking tendencies (Ne) grow more intense and explicit as they approach adulthood. This is prompted, at least to some extent, by concerns about adulthood, which cause them to think more seriously about the trajectory of their lives.
Ne is INFPs’ preferred extraverted function and one of the primary tools they use to explore the outside world. These explorations may include things like dabbling in countercultures, experimenting with drugs, starting their own band, travelling overseas, joining the Peace Corps, etc. Through these experiences, they hope to get a better sense of who they are and where they might fit into the world. Through this process of world exploration (which is equally, if not more, about self-exploration) many INFPs will either modify or part ways with the religious and political views they were raised with.
The liberal and explorative ways of Ne are checked and countered by INFPs’ tertiary Si and inferior Te, which urge them to “be responsible” and follow a more traditional path. INFPs who heed this prompting will function more conventionally (e.g., finish their degree, get a job, get married, etc.) and may look less like seekers. They may, however, be more disposed to a mid-life identity crisis if they conclude that the path they chose was not authentically their own.
Perhaps most commonly, Phase II INFPs feel themselves bouncing between unconventional (Fi-Ne) and conventional (Si-Te) paths as they try to discern what works best for them. While other types must also find a way of reconciling opposing forces within themselves, INFPs (along with INTPs) tend to be most aware that they are on a journey of self-discovery and self-development.
Phase III (30s, 40s, & Beyond)
Phase III represents the well-integrated personality. According to Elaine Schallock, integration occurs when the functional stack is consistently used in a “top-down” fashion. By this she means that the functions are best prioritized and utilized in a dominant-auxiliary-tertiary-inferior sequence. If used consistently over time, she suggests the top-down approach will naturally result in greater development and integration of all the functions. In Schallock’s view, “jumping the stack”—trying to appease or satisfy the inferior function directly or through various short-cuts—is rarely a reliable or sustainable means to integration.
The first and probably most important step for INFPs seeking integration is learning how to effectively and routinely transition into Ne perceiving. To understand why this is so critical, we must remember that Fi is not only an introverted function, but also a judging function (all the T and F functions are judging functions). Therefore, counterbalancing Fi requires both extraversion and perceiving. And this is precisely what Ne as an extraverted perceiving function can do for INFPs (refer to our eBook, The 16 Personality Types, for more on this).
Phase III INFPs develop a clearer sense of who they are and how to live authentically and effectively. This allows them to feel more safe, secure, and grounded in themselves as well as, if by some act of magic, in the world.
INFPs’ Dominant Function: Introverted Feeling (Fi)
INFPs are deeply aware of and in touch with their inner landscape. Their dominant Fi is inwardly focused and adept at evaluating and handling their personal tastes, values, and emotions. Because Fi is introverted in direction, INFPs process their emotions and experiences on a largely independent basis. With each new feeling, experience, or idea they evaluate, their sense of self becomes a little clearer. This was nicely enumerated by one of our blog readers:
My inner values and feelings (Fi) are like a building, a structure of affections that inform my worldview. This involves an inner love for certain things, and an inner repulsion for other things. My values and feelings form “blocks” of varying hardness, depending on how strongly I feel about them; the stronger ones are more resilient…I constantly discover more about the structure as I go, and what I should change to make it better. For example, I didn’t have to factually discern a respect for human dignity; I simply found myself in situations where people did not respect human dignity, and it made me angry — I found out that I hate bullying.
By reflecting on the experiences of life, whether gleaned from fiction or real life, INFPs come to better understand themselves. Despite this journey toward deeper understanding, INFPs often feel that their self-understanding remains incomplete. They may still feel they don’t know themselves well enough to wholeheartedly commit to a certain path in life. And they feel it is only through a more complete or definite self-understanding that they will be capable of acting with full authenticity and conviction.
In addition to its role in shaping INFPs’ self-understanding and identity, Fi can develop deep attachments and loyalties to certain externalities. INFPs are particularly prone to empathize with and develop attachments to those unable to help or care for themselves—animals, children, the less fortunate, victims of injustice, etc. They can often be found caring for the elderly, sick, disabled, and disenfranchised. Animal lovers to the core, they shower their pets with affection while also showing deep concern for strays. If sufficiently moved or inspired, INFPs may also take up a niche cause, such as garnering research funding for a rare disease affecting a loved one. Finally, many INFPs want (or will eventually want) their own children. Children can serve as a reliable and rewarding lifelong investment for INFPs’ love and attention.
Due to the introverted nature of Fi, INFPs’ status as feelers is not always evident from without. When immersed in Fi, they can seem a bit cool, aloof, or indifferent. Jung, rarely one to mince words in his type descriptions, described the introverted feeler (i.e., IFPs) in the following way:
They are mostly silent, inaccessible, hard to understand; often they hide behind a childish or banal mask, and their temperament is inclined to melancholy…Their outward demeanor is harmonious, inconspicuous…with no desire to affect others, to impress, influence or change them in any way. If this is more pronounced, it arouses suspicion of indifference and coldness…Although there is a constant readiness for peaceful and harmonious co-existence, strangers are shown no touch of amiability, no gleam of responsive warmth…It might seem on a superficial view that they have no feelings at all. -Psych. Types (Para. 640-641)
Of course, this sort of outer presentation belies what we know about INFPs’ inner world, which is abundant with life and feeling. It is also true that many INFPs compensate for their lack of extraverted feeling by invoking their auxiliary Ne. When wielding Ne, INFPs are more outwardly open, receptive, quirky, and engaging.
INFPs’ Auxiliary Function: Extraverted Intuition (Ne)
Ne demands novelty. It craves new ideas, connections, and possibilities. It seeks to understand the world (and the self) through the lens of ideas. It therefore comes as no surprise that Ne plays a prominent role in INFPs’ search for self.
Among Ne’s manifold talents is its knack for sniffing out intriguing possibilities. As we’ve seen, INFPs commonly assume the role of wanderer or seeker. Rarely do they know exactly what they are seeking, which is largely why operating in Ne mode can be exhilarating. Ne can be associated with a sense of blind anticipation and expectation, of not knowing who or what will manifest next in one’s life journey. INFPs relish the sense of adventure, expectancy, and wonderment conferred by Ne. This is one reason they enjoy traveling. The idea of exploring nature or different cultures feels rife with possibilities. A serendipitous encounter with a kindred spirit, the discovery of a life-changing book, finding inspiration through ancient art and architecture, such are the anticipated rewards of following Ne.
Ne can function either expressively or receptively. The verbal expression of Ne amounts to something like “brainstorming aloud.” When speaking, INFPs may at times struggle to make their point, as Ne bounces from one idea or association to the next. Even ideas that seem inwardly cogent to the INFP may scatter when expressed, like a ray of light passing through a prism.
On a more positive note, INFPs often capitalize on the divergent and diversifying effects of Ne through inspired works of art or innovation. Whether they realize or not, INFPs are among the most profoundly creative of all types.
When operating receptively, Ne prompts INFPs to gather information. It scans for new patterns, associations, and possibilities. INFPs commonly exercise this side of their Ne through activities such as reading, research, entertainment, and conversation with others.
In engaging with others, INFPs enjoy asking probing questions. They find it interesting to explore the unique qualities of every individual, as well as the life story that explains or gives context to those characteristics. Hence, INFPs are typically viewed as good listeners as well as facilitators of conversation. Others sense and appreciate that the INFP is authentically interested in understanding them for who they are as individuals, and that they are doing so in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way.
Like INTPs, INFPs have a love-hate relationship with their Ne. They relish the sense of wonder, curiosity, and anticipation it instills, as well as its creativity and openness. Without their Ne, they would not be the seekers and creatives that they are. But living with Ne is not without its challenges. For one, it can make it difficult for INFPs to arrive at firm conclusions or make important life decisions. It often seems that at the very moment they feel confident about a given conclusion or decision, Ne finds a way to inject doubt and uncertainty. This can be frustrating for INFPs who feel they are working so hard to find their rightful place in the world. At times, Ne may even cause them to worry that they have made no real progress toward anything substantial, or worse, that they may never find what they are looking for.
INFPs’ Tertiary Function: Introverted Sensing (Si)
Introverted Sensing (Si) is a conservative function. It engenders a concern and respect for the past—for what is routine, familiar, or traditional.
While INFPs may appreciate some amount of routine in their lives, such as devoting a certain time of day to creative work, they are less inclined to wholeheartedly embrace traditions or conventions in the manner of SJ types. For INFPs, a full embrace of tradition can only emerge authentically after they explore it (and its alternatives) through the lens of Fi and Ne. So even when a given tradition manages to pass muster, it is only after INFPs have personalized it and made it their own, interpreting it in a way that resonates with their deepest values.
The influence of Si may also be reflected in INFPs’ attitudes toward money and material goods. INFPs are often minimalists with respect to possessions. Many opt for rather simple living arrangements so they can devote more time and energy to pursuing their true passions. This tendency toward material minimalism is often discernible in their style of dress and artistic preferences. Namely, their approach often entails the creative reuse or recombination (Ne) of pre-existing resources (Si) to fashion something new. In this spirit, many INFPs supply their wardrobes, homes, and art rooms with items from thrift shops, antique stores, or garage sales.
An oft overlooked feature of Si is its role in the perception of internal bodily sensations—the body as felt and experienced from within. Si can be associated with the raw and basic sense of “being” that exists apart from thought or outward stimuli. Historically, Eastern philosophical and religious traditions have led the way in exploring this domain of human experience through practices such as yoga, Tai-Chi, or meditation. Because of INFPs’ openness to new experiences (Ne), as well as their desire to explore the mind-body connection and enhance their sense of well-being, many are drawn to these sorts of holistic practices (especially yoga).
Finally, what may be the most important benefit of Si for INFPs is its role in consolidating and recalling past experiences and life lessons. It can therefore keep INFPs from repeating past mistakes and help them clarify their future direction. Exploring evidence from the past can instill greater confidence in who they are and what they care about, aiding the consolidation and crystallization of their self-concept.
INFPs’ Inferior Function: Extraverted Thinking (Te)
Because the inferior function operates on a largely unconscious level, all types struggle to understand and develop it. This function represents a strange and unfamiliar land, one that is difficult to consistently access, which is why it is sometimes called the “lost” or “missing” function. It is often symbolized in dreams as something deep underground, undersea, or in a dark forest.
Despite its relative unconsciousness, the psychospiritual importance of the inferior function should not be underestimated. Indeed, this function plays a surprisingly influential role in the motivations and developmental trajectory of each personality type. Its sense of novelty and mystery can make it a powerful source of energy and motivation.
For INFPs, the allure of their inferior function, Extraverted Thinking (Te), is illustrated in their frequent attraction to characteristically T careers such as math, science, law, economics, computers, accounting, engineering, and the like. The most “left-brained” of all functions, Te can be associated with structure, organization, quantification, and the ability to manage T things, such as time and finances. The concerns of Te are myriad, spanning from the laws of physics, to state and federal laws, to workplace policies and procedures, to time management, to household organization.
As an extraverted judging function, Te also serves as a tool for verbally asserting, in a measured and deliberate way, one’s opinions and judgments. Unlike Extraverted Feeling (Fe), it is unemotional in its presentation, showing little variation in intonation or physical expression. At times, the measured and rational character of Te may cause INFPs to be mistaken for thinking types.
While INFPs are often characterized as impractical and disorganized, this is not necessarily how they want to operate or see themselves. The truth is most INFPs like the idea of imposing some sort of order on their existence. They intuitively realize that external structure is to some extent necessary for them to live happy and healthy lives. INFPs who are parents, for instance, quickly discover that it is difficult to develop an optimal parent-child relationship in a chaotic household. However, because Te is not INFPs’ natural strength, they often struggle to maintain their preferred level of order and organization. Many report difficulty handling logistical details, staying on top of their finances, organizing their homes and schedules, or developing effective rules and modes of discipline for their children.
My INFP cousin, for instance, once recounted her experience of flying her cat on an airline. She recalled taking great care to ensure that her cat had everything it needed to be safe and comfortable in its carrier. Unfortunately, she failed to take note of the airline’s proof of animal vaccination requirement. In type parlance, she had used her Fi and Te to ensure the cat’s needs were met, but fell short with respect to the extraneous Si-Te details of the situation.
INFPs may also struggle to accurately assess the quantity of resources required for a given situation. I’ve observed several INFPs, for instance, who have either overestimated or underestimated the amount of food required for feeding a group of people or the number of beds needed to comfortably accommodate them. Assuming that everything will somehow work itself out, INFPs may fail to take the time to accurately plan or quantify things ahead of time. This can be frustrating for guests who feel their needs are not being met, but who are uncomfortable asking the INFP to remedy her oversights.
I have also known INFPs to be poor assessors of time. On a number of occasions, I’ve seen them underestimate the amount of time required for a given task, such as registering their car at the motor vehicle office. And because of these sorts of miscalculations, they often find themselves frantically scrambling to manage other scheduled obligations.
In short, just as NT types can appear naïve or incompetent with respect to SF matters (e.g., parenting or interpersonal relationships), so it is with INFPs in their ST affairs. Of course, this truth is rarely easy for INFPs to hear. As is true of all types, the inferior function can be a touchy or sensitive area for INFPs. This is especially true for those who feel they have worked hard to remediate their Te shortcomings, such as by reading books on parenting methods, organization strategies, money management, etc. INFPs can get really excited when learning a new Te strategy or method, perhaps even developing plans for its implementation. However, because of its dependence on their inferior function, INFPs often fail to consistently or effectively implement it, thereby lengthening their list of unactualized good intentions.
In most cases, INFPs manage to do a fair job handling a limited subset of their Te affairs. They may, for instance, maintain an organized workstation or discover ways of being more punctual. These “small wins” allow them to feel that at least part of their lives is under control. However, when faced with a multitude of Te demands—maintaining an orderly household, personal finances, remembering birthdays, workplace responsibilities, etc.—they can easily feel overwhelmed.
You can learn more about INFPs and their inferior function—including its role in their personality, careers, and relationships—in my eBook:
To learn more about INFPs’ personality preferences and functions, see my eBook:
Unsure if You’re an INFP or INFJ?
Camus, Kierkegaard, Luke Skywalker, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Beck, Pharell Williams, C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf
This INFP description may also resonate with Enneagram Threes (3w4), Fours (4w3, 4w5), or Nines (9w8, 9w1).