By A.J. Drenth
In our last couple posts, we explored key life roles for both the INFJ and INFP personality types. There we discussed how the particular life role an individual adopts can be largely understood in terms of which functions (e.g., Fi, Ne, etc.) are routinely being emphasized / utilized. This can take us a long way in understanding how and why individuals of the same personality type may exhibit marked differences in attitude or behavior. This knowledge can also prove helpful for those working to discern their true personality type.
Here we will apply these insights in a slightly different fashion. Namely, we will explore how the way we employ our type’s functions may vary across the lifespan, contributing to perceptible shifts in personality, as well as periodic “identity crises.”
Before diving in, however, I would like to point out that personality shifts are not, in our view, reflective of changes in personality type. Believing oneself to have become “more extraverted,” for example, should not be taken to mean that, by some act of magic, one is no longer an introvert. Personality shifts do not stem from a change in type, but rather from a sort of shuffling or reprioritization of the typological functions. In short, we are largely stuck with the same four functions we were born with, but there is leeway in how we choose to utilize, balance, and prioritize them.
Personality Shifts: Large & Small
When we think about personality changes, we often think in terms of dramatic shifts over long periods of time (e.g., “I used to be really shy, but now I’m not.). But in reality our personality is constantly shifting in subtler ways, even over the course of a day. If you look carefully at your own daily habits, for instance, you may observe that the things you like doing early in the day are not always the same things you enjoy doing in the evening. In our book, My True Type, we suggest that most individuals aim to satisfy the needs of their dominant and auxiliary functions earlier in the day and, if they manage to do so successfully, are more open to engaging their tertiary and inferior functions thereafter. On this theory, intuitive (N) types are usually not the ones hitting the gym (S) first thing in the morning. Simply put, this theory sees type as a sort of natural blueprint for our behavior, even on a “micro” or day-to-day level.
With that said, we also know that the inferior function, in particular, can lure us to deviate from the “expected” patterns of behavior outlined in our typological blueprint. As discussed in our post, Two Paths to Type Development, instead of taking the predicted dominant to auxiliary path, we end up leapfrogging between the dominant and inferior. This leapfrogging can engender a pronounced sense of bipolarity, as the dominant and inferior functions entail diametrically different modes of operating. It is therefore not difficult to imagine how these sorts of pendulum swings might contribute to identity crises.
As with other personality shifts, this dominant-inferior toggling can occur on both the micro and macro levels. On the micro level, for instance, we might imagine an INTP—tired of being in her own head (Ti) all day—saddling up at the local bar for some casual social interaction (Fe). What is more interesting and arguably more important, however, is how these dominant-inferior function dynamics play out over longer stretches of time, including how they influence major life decisions, such as those pertaining to our careers and relationships. This is also where salient divergences in life / vocational paths among those of the same personality type are most readily observed.
Which Function Will Lead the Way?
As we approach adulthood and start taking questions about our life path seriously, we are in many respects forced to develop a theory about who we are, and to do so based on limited self-knowledge. And while we try to make informed guesses about who we are and what we should do with our lives, for most young adults, they are largely just that—guesses. Indeed, this is why we have objective models, including personality taxonomies, that can serve as starting points for self-understanding. Without a sense of where we fall on the spectrum of human personality, moving forward with any degree of conviction seems impossible, akin to making decisions on a dice roll.
The Inferior Function
Even knowing our personality type doesn’t guarantee a smooth and seamless life path, however. For many of us, the ideals surrounding the inferior function are too irresistible to pass up, prompting us to make life decisions that later require remediation: the F type who earns a degree in math or computer science (T), but finding herself dissatisfied, eventually follows her heart and pursues a nursing career; the T type who becomes a therapist, but finding it too emotionally taxing, sets his sights on becoming an engineer. The prevalence of these sorts of accounts never ceases to amaze me.
In the aftermath of these inferior function mishaps, we often encounter regretful 25 and 30 year-olds wondering how they managed to make such wrongheaded decisions. Many experience a serious crisis of identity that, despite occurring rather early in life, bears a striking a resemblance to the proverbial “mid-life crisis.”
Why do these crises happen so early on? Because leading with the inferior function often proves exhausting and difficult to sustain over the long haul. Once this is made evident and is contrasted with the ease and sustainability of the dominant function, it becomes clear to us that something needs to change. While rectifying past mistakes and wrong turns often takes far longer than we’d prefer, sort of like untangling last year’s Christmas lights, the fact that it needs to happen seems indisputable. We know it’s going to require a lot of work, but we are eager to chart a more optimal path going forward.
The Dominant Function
Have you ever encountered someone with your same personality type and wondered how the two of you could be so different? Assuming you’ve both been correctly typed, there’s a good chance that you’re emphasizing different functions in your type’s functional stack.
Imagine, for instance, two INTJs. Our first INTJ, enamored with her inferior function, Extraverted Sensing (Se), is a self-professed connoisseur of fine cuisine. In her view, little is more magical than a perfectly crafted meal, paired with just the right bottle of wine. One day, while reminiscing about her love of fine food, she is struck by the idea of becoming a chef. What could be better, she concludes, than a life of infinite gastronomic delights and possibilities!
INTJ numero dos: Stereotypical “mastermind.” Loves science and technology, with a dash of psychology, politics, and sci-fi. Currently double-majoring in physics and computer engineering. Specializes in correcting people when they get their facts wrong.
Type theory, at least on our interpretation, predicts that our INTJ culinarian, however passionate she may be, is apt to have a tougher road ahead because she’s being led by her inferior function. Granted, we can certainly imagine more outlandish career choices for an INTJ, such as working in a daycare center, which would grossly understimulate her top functions (Ni & Te) and overtax her lower ones (Fi & Se). At least our INTJ chef has chosen a career focused on “things” (i.e., food) rather than people, which we would expect from a T type (especially an introverted one). Nonetheless, functioning as a chef typically involves a great deal of time-sensitive, Se action and execution, which could well prove exhausting for our well-intentioned INTJ.
While not knowing all the details about our second INTJ (i.e., the braniac), we can at least acknowledge that he intends to build his career around his dominant (Ni) and auxiliary (Te) functions, which, in theory, should pave the way for a sustainable and rewarding work life. But the fact that he’s selected a more suitable career path doesn’t mean he’s off the hook, as he too has a tertiary (Fi) and inferior (Se) function that require care and attention. Consider what might happen, for instance, after he has put in 25 years at a technology company, earned enough money to retire, and finds himself unmarried? Perhaps he will start feeling a bit lonely or empty, concerned that something vital is missing from his life. In his book, Jung’s Four and Some Philosophers, Thomas King suggests that this “missing element” is often the inferior function:
The time comes…when the individual feels life is empty; something is missing. The original sense of purpose is gone and one is dispirited and confused. At this point the individual feels called to make a difficult search for the rejected (i.e., inferior) function.
While our INTJ may generally be pleased with his dominant function accomplishments, he now feels compelled to explore new aspects of life and himself, namely, those pertaining to his tertiary Fi and inferior Se functions. Consequently, it appears that our two INTJs, despite their rather disparate career paths, may ultimately end up in a rather similar place, with the main difference being the time of life they chose to emphasize their top versus bottom functions.
It’s easy to lament some of our past life decisions, perhaps adopting an “If I had only…” mindset. Occasionally this may be warranted, but in many cases it’s not. The truth is that, even when we chase after the inferior function, we are responding to a true psychological need. Moreover, attempts to completely ignore the inferior function are rarely successful, as this only introduces greater psychological imbalance.
The real question then, does not involve making an either-or choice between the dominant and inferior function, but instead entails finding the right proportion of each and learning how to effectively harmonize them. Furthermore, what proves to be “right and effective” can vary, subject to change according to time and circumstance. Although we generally advise developing and leading with your dominant function early in life, the lower functions are apt to play more prominent roles as your life unfolds.
If you’re an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP looking to better understand yourself and your path in life, be sure to explore our online course, Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP: