We all have two selves. Our conscious self, roughly comprised of our dominant and auxiliary functions, is our “best self.” It contains our unique strengths and provides a sustainable sense of satisfaction when we use and develop those strengths. Our other self, sometimes called the “lost,” “forgotten,” or unconscious self, is roughly comprised of our tertiary and inferior functions. Being less consciously accessible, it is more childlike and undeveloped than our conscious self. But this does not make it any less important, since reconciling and integrating these two selves is critical to finding peace, wholeness, and satisfaction. Unfortunately, the process of reconciliation is rarely easy. Because both selves want full control and are reluctant to compromise, what results is a sort of intrapsychic tug-of-war.
“Healthy” psychological functioning, according to Elaine Schallock, involves starting from the top of the function stack (i.e., with the dominant function) and proceeding downward. In other words, we allow our best developed function to lead the way. Less healthy functioning, which Schallock describes as “jumping the stack,” involves leading with the goals or desires of the inferior function.
Unfortunately, discerning between top-down functioning and “stack-jumping” can be quite tricky. The notion of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” aptly describes the insidious ways of the inferior function. The inferior can easily masquerade as the dominant, making it difficult to distinguish up from down, healthy from unhealthy. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this allows the inferior function to insidiously exert great influence on our career and relational decisions. In this post, however, I wanted to explore the influence of the inferior function in everyday life, particularly its role in “grip experiences,” which are characterized by obsessive, compulsive, addictive, and perfectionistic behaviors. My hope is that by increasing awareness of the signs and symptoms of grip experiences, as well the common lies and temptations proffered by our inferior, that we can learn to distinguish up from down, healthy from unhealthy functioning.
No personality type is immune to the temptations of the inferior function. Since it in many ways represents the key to our psychological wholeness, we naturally want to “get to it” as quickly as possible. This is why Schallock calls it “jumping the stack,” involving rash attempts to obtain wholeness by indulging the inferior. Since we all seek wholeness and have all jumped our stack to get there, we are in fact all “sinners.”
We also use the term “grip experience” because it can be incredibly difficult to escape the hold of the inferior function. This is partly due to the fact that it feels good, at least for a while. Grip experiences often masquerade as “flow experiences,” in which we feel focused and engaged. The difference is that in healthy flow experiences we remain open to interruptions, diversions, and deviations. Since our best self is still at the helm, we can walk away from what we are doing and enjoy something else for a while. We are not locked into a single activity or mode of functioning. We remain psychologically supple and flexible.
Grip experiences, by contrast, are like a trap. Like an addictive drug, they give us a high that keeps us coming back for more until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we find ourselves acting obsessively, compulsively, and/or perfectionistically. In the grip we develop tunnel vision, lose our sense of humor, and have trouble attending to other responsibilities. We also unwittingly provoke the inferior functions of those around us, tempting them to follow our plight. Yes, it appears that grip experiences are contagious. Fortunately, so are healthy behaviors.
Another characteristic of grip experiences is becoming locked exclusively into our dominant and inferior functions, while skipping over the auxiliary and tertiary functions altogether. An INFJ, for instance, who is locked into perfectly painting (Se) an envisioned image (Ni), may be suddenly unwilling to help others (Fe). Or, an INTP may become so obsessed with producing work (Ti) that will bring him notoriety (Fe) that he closes himself off to exploring new ideas or possibilities (Ne). Or, INFPs may becomes so focused on being responsible (Te) that they fail to develop or regularly employ their Ne creativity. They may flit from here to there, accomplishing one task after another, and priding themselves in how responsible they are. And because responsibility is culturally endorsed as a positive virtue, they often fail to realize that their obsession with responsibility is actually unhealthy and, dare I say, “sinful.” INFPs who are in the grip lose their open-mindedness (Ne) and compassion (Fi), expecting others to fall in line and be as responsible as they are (Te). Something very similar can happen with ENPs when they jump their stack and become controlled by their inferior Si’s sense of duty. When in the grip, NFPs end up resembling an unhealthy version of an STJ. This is why developing and utilizing the auxiliary function is so important, serving to prevent or mitigate such dominant-inferior “stack jumping.”
As illustrated above, each personality type has its own set of temptations that can lead to grip experiences. The following list describes some common “lies” or “temptations” of the inferior function:
The temptations or traps of one personality type may be entirely innocuous and healthy for another type. Healthy functioning for an ISTJ, for instance, does include focusing on being responsible, rule-conscious (Te), and dutiful (Si). But as we’ve seen, focusing on these things cannot be considered healthy for NFPs. With this in mind, each type must take the steps necessary to avoid falling prey to its own set of temptations. The first step is simply becoming more aware of these lies and temptations, as well as the warning signs of falling into the grip. Carefully choosing our career and hobbies, as well as attending to how we are working or playing, is also important.
Learn more about type theory and inferior function issues in our books: