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.

Integrating the Inferior Function

The last strategy for dealing with the inferior function is working to better understand and integrate it. This involves learning about our inferior function and our historical patterns of inferior-related behavior, including the ways we have coped with or crutched it. As we explore our inferior, we come to see the myriad ways it has infiltrated our thoughts, decisions, and identity. We can also learn of its relationship to some of our most prominent fears and desires, including our desire to vigilantly defend and protect our own ego. In general, individuals with the biggest egos are the most inwardly divided. The greater the polarization between the dominant and inferior, the greater the egocentrism and ego-defensiveness. Many people are addicted to the adrenaline rush associated with this highly polarized inner world (which, of course, often begets outer conflicts as well). The basic dilemma then, can be boiled down to this: Do I want to continue with an intense, bipolar existence, one of extreme highs and extreme lows, or do I want a more consistent sense of peace and wholeness in my life?

Those who opt to work toward peace and wholeness invariably encounter difficult questions and painful decisions regarding their identity, purpose, and course in life. This process requires a loosening one’s attachment to one’s historical identity and a concurrent opening to alternatives. This can be a scary process, as the hitherto steady, even if ultimately unhealthy, platform of the ego is subjected to scrutiny and deconstruction. The ultimate goal of this process to determine what parts of the ego are healthy and worth keeping, and which are unhealthy by-products of the long-standing war between the dominant and inferior function.

One of the scariest aspects of integrating the inferior is fearing that one will no longer have an identity or will lose all sense of drive and ambition. After all, a strong sense of drive, ambition, and identity seem at least partly related to the tension between the dominant and inferior function. But reconciling the dominant and inferior does not require that we become passive or inert. Rather, it demands a great deal of courage and a commensurate concern for integrity. More than anything, individuation might be understood as a moral journey. Self-actualizing individuals may not always enjoy much as far as fame, wealth, or recognition; these represent concerns of the ego. Instead, their reward is largely one of personal or intrinsic satisfaction. In sum, individuation still involves a sense of change and movement, but rather than involving a defense or inflation of the ego, it focuses on moral/psychospiritual development.

It is also worth noting that integrating the inferior function does not require a forsaking of one’s historical passions and interests. Personal growth does not demand, for instance, that an INFJ morph into an ESTP. A highly-developed INFJ will still be an INFJ; one’s essential type is immutable. Even as the inferior is granted a stronger voice in the congress of consciousness, it will never overtake the dominant function as the president. In fact, the process of individuation may actually lead to a more effective use of the dominant function, since it is not as susceptible to manipulation by the inferior, whose nature and motives have been exposed through the light of consciousness. As I’ve written elsewhere, wise decision-making typically involves granting greater decision-making power to our dominant and auxiliary functions, which represent our most effective tools for navigating the world.

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See also:

Integrating the Inferior Function

Dominant-Inferior Dynamics: Healthy vs. Unhealthy

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