The Inferior Function

By Dr. A.J. Drenth

The inferior function is a more advanced topic in typology. This is not because it is necessarily difficult to understand, but because it requires a certain background knowledge of the functions (Typology 201) as well as the functional stack (Typology 301). Hence, I have opted to classify our studies of the inferior function as “Typology 401.”

The Nature of the Inferior Function

The inferior function represents the ultimate goal or attractor point for each personality type’s personal growth and development. It is what motivates and draws us forward, compelling us to live more authentically and to move toward greater truth and wholeness. Because it contains the keys to a new mode of existence, one that is largely distinct from that of the dominant function, it is often described and experienced as “magical.”

For instance, a dominant Thinker, such as an INTP, who suddenly experiences feelings (F) of love or infatuation may report feeling intoxicated and enraptured, as if he’s been transported to a new and beautiful world. By contrast, a dominant Feeler, such as an INFP, who regularly deals in the currency of emotions, may experience magic or bliss in moments of logical clarity (T).

The inferior function not only holds the potential for a renewed sense of life and vitality, but also for evil and destruction. This becomes especially likely when its needs and desires are repressed or ignored, prompting it to act like an attention-starved child. When ignored or neglected, the inferior becomes frustrated, angry, and rebellious. If indulged, it may crave and expect even more attention. As any parent can testify, dealing with such antics is no small challenge.

The Dominant-Inferior Function Tug-of-War

inferior function tug-of-warAs discussed in my e-book, The 16 Personality Types, the inferior function opposes the dominant and in many ways has its own agenda. Especially in Phase II of type development, the dominant-inferior relationship resembles a sort of psychological tug-of-war. As the dominant moves toward greater consciousness and is pulled tighter, the inferior shows a commensurate increase in tension as it is pushed/stretched away from consciousness. As this dominant-inferior tension increases, the two functions can seem increasingly at odds with each other. Both functions strongly desire to have their needs met, but since their objectives seem oppositional, it can feel like an either-or situation. It feels as though we can satisfy either the dominant or the inferior, but not both at once.

This strong pull from the inferior function is what causes us to act in ways that are grossly inconsistent with our personality type, deviating from who we know ourselves to be. While it is possible for the inferior to be satisfied and engaged in a healthy fashion, this is often not the case. More typically, the inferior is indulged and gratified in ways that resemble the use of a drug. In such instances, we abandon the values and objectives our top functions in order to give the inferior the high it is seeking.

A common example of an inferior-related “high” is the experience of infatuation. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the reason “opposites attract” is because both individuals have something the other wants, even if the relationship eventually proves incompatible.

The inferior can also play a role in obsessive, compulsive, or addictive behaviors. When “in the grip” of our inferior function, we feel locked into a certain mood, attitude, or behavior, one that we cannot easily escape. We can become narrow-minded, irrational, impetuous, self-indulgent, and tend to lose our sense of humor. In many ways, religious notions such as sin and the devil seem closely related to “grip experiences” with the inferior function.

When a given function is in the inferior position, rather than the dominant or auxiliary position, it tends to be more sensitive and touchy. Those who know how to “push our buttons” have usually discovered a way to offend, irritate, or threaten our inferior function. And since the inferior is rather unconscious and undeveloped, it often reponds in an all-or-nothing, childish fashion.

The temptations of the inferior function are often not overt or obvious. For instance, it would be unusual for ENFPs to be tempted by mundane Si tasks, such as paying bills or keeping records, or for INTJs to be obsessed with hard physical labor (Se). Instead, the inferior lures us through more subtle or insidious measures. Perhaps most commonly, this occurs with activities that seem to link the dominant and inferior functions. Many such links have been enumerated in the type profiles on this site.

In dealing with the fears, threats, temptations, or addictions associated with the inferior, we can choose from three basic coping strategies: depriving-indulging, crutching, and understanding-integrating.

Depriving-Indulging the Inferior Function

In Phase II of type development, individuals oscillate between depriving and indulging their inferior function. They display a sort of love-hate, all-or-nothing relationship to their inferior function. They may binge on their inferior for a while, which eventually leads them to feel guilty, dissatisfied, or burned out. They may then swing to the opposite extreme, trying to avoid their inferior-related temptations at all costs. This bipolar pattern is evident in all addictions and compulsions.

Crutching the Inferior Function

Another common strategy for dealing with the inferior involves the use of crutches that serve to appease or placate it. Examples of crutching include things like persisting in unhealthy relationships (e.g., codependency), clinging to a comforting set of beliefs, continuing in an unsatisfying job for the sake of financial security, etc. More specifically, an inferior crutch for an INFJ might involve marrying a wealthy ESTP business tycoon. While there is little hope that the INFJ will ever find a deep metaphysical bond with an ESTP, she may persist in the relationship because she will never have to worry about money or have her physical needs go unsatisfied (Se).

Such crutches may serve to quell, at least temporarily, inferior-related fears or concerns. They may even allow one to live out one’s life without a serious confrontation with one’s inferior. The degree to which a given crutch is seen as good or bad, as life-sustaining or life-usurping, will depend largely on the individual. The more idealistic types may tend to see crutching as a cop-out, as settling for mediocrity rather than courageously pursuing a better life. Other types may remain entirely oblivious to or content with their use of crutches.

(This Personality Junkie post is continued on the next page.)


  1. says

    “More than anything, individuation might be understood as a moral journey.”

    Well said! I really had no way to articulate this before. To go even further back to your tug-of-war analogy: I personally experienced this last year. As an INTJ in a stressful job that didn’t cater to my Ni Te, my inferior Se had almost completely taken over. I indulged in expensive tastes, and I went to great lengths to preserve this lifestyle (such as buying a sports car, traveling to parties, etc). My friends began to assume that this was my true nature. When my behavior began to normalize, I started to reject anything remotely related to this phase and surprised everyone yet again!

    It took a lot of deliberating before finally accepting that my corporate job was unhealthy for me. I took the leap to change careers and pursue my passion for design. My life is much more modest now, but the progress towards an intrinsic purpose is arguably more exciting overall. I still treat my Se once in awhile (and feel less guilty for it ;)

    I wish I discovered your article sooner to help make sense of this whole experience! I’ll gladly pass it on to anyone struggling in their own journey.