When first encountering personality typology, we’re eager to understand the key strengths and characteristics of the 16 types, especially of our own type. This helps us feel understood and validated, often in a surprisingly profound way. We’re then advised to embrace and live out our typological strengths—to “be who we are”—and, presumably, all will be well.
To be sure, the “be true yourself” mantra is instructive and worth holding onto. I would caution against stopping there, however, as it’s only one part of becoming our best self.
As discussed in my post, Two Paths to Type Development, it’s also important to develop our type’s non-dominant functions (e.g., auxiliary function). But even then, we may not feel as happy or successful as we’d hoped. So what else is there? What are we missing?
In many cases, we manage to do a decent job developing different parts of our personality, such as our type’s four functions. However, we may not fully understand when it’s appropriate to apply them or how to integrate them. It’s not unlike an aspiring musician who’s learned the basics of her instrument but hasn’t discovered how to effectively synchronize with other musicians. While she’s undoubtedly progressed in her craft, she still lacks some measure of musical skill, nuance, and understanding.
The same is true when it comes to our type’s functions. An INFP, for instance, may be an amazing and caring mother, but find herself struggling at work or in her marriage. She may have a well-developed dominant function, Introverted Feeling (Fi), but has yet to master or integrate parts of her personality that could help her excel in these other aspects of life.
The Transcendent Function
Most Personality Junkie readers have some level of familiarity with the eight cognitive functions, or at least the four functions of their own type. But many haven’t learned about or reaped the full benefits of another function described by Jung—the transcendent function.
The word “transcendent” indicates something that is “beyond” or “above.” So I like to think of the transcendent function as hovering above the other functions:
The purpose of the transcendent function, in a nutshell, is to furnish wisdom and awareness. It helps us discern when it’s appropriate to use (or not use) a given function in a particular circumstance. Most would agree that when a child needs emotional support, for instance, that a Feeling (F) function is probably the best tool for the job. However, Feeling would be of little use in others situations, such as changing a flat tire, which is better handled by other functions.
Selecting the appropriate function for a given situation is clearly of great importance. But this only scratches the surface of how the transcendent function can help us live happier and healthier lives.
Keeping Things in Perspective
You’ve probably heard the notion that “too much of a good thing” isn’t always so good. This includes exclusive use of our dominant function (or any singular function for that matter). Once we’ve discovered the joy and potency of the dominant function in action, it’s tempting to give it free and unfettered reign. If it’s still going strong after 8 hours, why not tack on a few more?
While we all know that this can be a recipe for burnout, many of us do it anyway. Why? Because once we get lured into something, especially something that feels good (at least initially), it’s easy to lose perspective. And once we’ve lost perspective, we tend to see things in a narrow or short-sighted way. Going back to our musician example, it’s like being focused on our own performance but failing to hear and synchronize with our fellow band members. For IT types, this might mean getting absorbed in a personal project where all contact is lost with the outside world, perhaps even ignoring one’s own physical needs. While such an endeavor may at first feel authentic and rewarding, there comes a time when continuing to hammer away at it becomes counterproductive and unhealthy.
We need the transcendent function to help us avoid these sorts of pitfalls. Because it sits above our other functions, it can keep an eye on the larger picture—on concerns that extend beyond the limited scope of a particular function.
Just as important, it can help keep our ego in check. The ego often suffers from a “God complex,” believing it can do no wrong and always knows best. Consequently, it’s not terribly open to outside beliefs or opinions, especially to those which diverge from its own. And while the ego certainly has its place (indeed, some people need to strengthen their ego), it invariably offers a limited perspective. It can also be rather defensive. In some cases, this may be necessary for the sake self-defense or self-preservation. But defensiveness can also keep a lot of good things out—opportunities to learn, grow, or be of service to others.
Getting caught up in the ego is similar to being “in the grip” of a single function. Not only does our perspective narrow, like a horse wearing blinders, but we become inflexible and lose our sense of humor. The transcendent function can help us avoid this state, prompting us to let go and regain perspective.
Jung understood this quite clearly. In his view, maintaining psychological health requires periodically detaching or withdrawing energy from: a given function, from a pair of conflicting functions (e.g., the dominant and inferior), or from an over-zealous ego. The basic idea is to consciously distance ourselves from whatever rut we’re in for the sake of gaining a healthier perspective and a chance for a fresh start.
Jung also emphasized the role of mediating symbols in this process. He espoused that the energy we withdraw from a function or from the ego sinks back into the subconscious where it can be used to manufacture symbols that help integrate conflicting desires or functions. While I don’t disagree with this explanation, I think detaching from a function and attuning to the transcendent function is also useful in a more basic sense, namely, it keeps us from being pawns of our knee-jerk ego reactions. It opens up space for reflection where we can evaluate our reactions and seek wisdom regarding the best course of action.
Protests from the Ego
When we’re feeling distressed, frustrated, or otherwise unhappy, there’s usually a quiet inner voice nudging us toward a wise course of action. Unfortunately, the ego is rarely keen to cede control and can be hostile to any form of aid or input outside itself. Again, it believes it always knows best and can rescue itself if and when it’s necessary. Unfortunately, this often turns out to be untrue. Rather than rescuing and renewing us, it frequently brings more pain and destruction. So what we really need in these instances is something outside the ego to carry out the rescue mission.
That said, the ego can be quite cunning and often manages to convince us otherwise. We thus end up renouncing what is ultimately in our best interest. The ego’s propensity for hubris and self-deception forms the psychological backdrop for religious conceptions of sinister serpents and devils.
One of the ego’s favorite tactics—one which seems particularly prevalent and effective in modern life—is convincing us that stepping back from heated emotions, even those that are downright toxic, is “inauthentic” and ergo a bad thing. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, failing to critically evaluate our emotions is like offering an alcoholic another drink simply because he “feels like” having one. The fact that an emotion (or thought) happens to be salient in consciousness doesn’t mean we should categorically endorse it as valid or worth embracing.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am, in fact, a proponent of emotional and personal authenticity. But I’m also a proponent of the transcendent function or “higher Self” which, in some cases, may have a different view of things. Jungians sometimes refer to the relationship between these two psychological entities as the “Ego-Self Axis.” While conflict between the ego and the (higher) Self invariably introduces cognitive dissonance, it’s an unavoidable part of maintaining psychological health and balance.
The degree to which our transcendent functions agree and converge on a collective level can be seen as constituting objective wisdom. Once canonized and institutionalized, we’ve historically called it religion. While the founders of the great religions experienced and understood transcendent functioning first-hand, it’s unfortunate that many of their followers have had only a superficial understanding of what they were trying to convey.
To learn more about psychospiritual development and its relationship to personality, be sure to explore our books: