Despite their bipolar and oppositional relationship, the dominant and inferior function comprise a functional whole. As I’ve written elsewhere, no function can be fully understood without the contrasting light of its opposite/ complement. This led Elaine Schallock to aptly suggest that the functions not only be explored individually, but also as pairs. Because the dominant and inferior functions comprise a single function pair, we must work to understand the way they relate to and affect each other, as well as their healthy and less healthy manifestations.
Despite being largely unconscious, the inferior function can be seen as informing and influencing the dominant function. Since it has its own set of needs and desires, the inferior refuses to allow its voice to go unheard. We might imagine the inferior as projecting its contents across the sea of the subconscious, hoping that at least some of its message will be heard and heeded.
Consider the inferior function of INTJs and INFJs, Extraverted Sensing (Se), as an example. It unconsciously collects sensory information from the environment which it then projects it toward consciousness where it can synthesized and interpreted by INJs’ dominant function, Introverted Intuition (Ni). For Judging types, such as ETJs, judgments from their inferior (Fi) would be similarly ushered toward consciousness in hopes of influencing conscious decision-making.
In addition to relaying its judgments or perceptions, the inferior may also exert its influence by serving as a sort of goal or idealized endpoint for each type. As the complement to the dominant function, the inferior carries the promise of greater psychic balance and wholeness. This is why people often report experiences with their inferior as magic or ecstatic. In returning to our example of INJs, their Se might be seen as promising wholeness by way of its ability to physically embody or actualize their intuitive visions, since the actual (Se) and potential (Ni) are interdependent and inextricably linked.
Because of the interdependent and complementary nature of the dominant and inferior function, healthy psychological functioning and growth does not entail denying or expunging either the dominant or inferior function. Rather, both must be understood and granted their rightful role in the overall psychic economy. The rightful role of the inferior function involves providing some degree of motivation and information, as well as a vague sense of direction for the dominant function to start its work.
INTPs and ISTPs, for instance, are informed, motivated, and vaguely oriented by their inferior function, Extraverted Feeling (Fe). Through its distaste for interpersonal discord, for instance, their Fe may prompt them to employ their dominant function, Introverted Thinking (Ti), to better understand and provide logical answers to problems related to the human condition (Fe). The orienting role of their Fe can explain why many INTPs are more drawn psychology, philosophy, religion, etc., than they are to inorganic sciences or engineering.
“Jumping the (Functional) Stack”
Despite the importance of not neglecting the inferior, it is both possible and commonplace to give it too much say, thereby hindering healthy and effective psychological functioning. This often takes the form of trying to engage the inferior function directly, or what Elaine Schallock has coined “jumping the (functional) stack.” Jumping the stack is akin to a given personality type trying to function in a role typically assumed by its typological opposite. For instance, an INFP who jumps her stack to indulge her inferior Te might be seen as trying to function like an ETJ type. Jumping the stack eventually leads to frustration, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction; it is ultimately an unsustainable mode of psychological functioning. What follows are some examples of what jumping the stack might look like for the various types:
“From the Top Down”
A healthier mode of psychological functioning, according to Schallock, is to proceed from the dominant function (i.e., the top of the stack) downward. In doing so, we start out with our strongest function, which allows us to operate in our most natural and optimal mode of operation. In moving downward through the four functions of the stack, the inferior is satisfied in a less direct, but more wholesome and sustainable way. This top-down approach is illustrated by the following examples:
As these examples illustrate, it is possible to satisfy the inferior function without directly / intentionally employing or appeasing it. By trying to satisfy our inferior directly, we do neither ourselves nor society a favor. What seems best for both the individual and the collective is for each type to approach the inferior less directly, from the top of the stack down. This is ultimately the most sustainable mode of functioning, paving the way to wisdom and wholeness.
Learn more about type theory and inferior function issues in our book, The 16 Personality Types: Profiles, Theory & Type Development.