Personality enthusiasts typically see the dominant function as the most obvious or salient of a type’s functions. It’s considered a type’s signature tool, one that’s wielded with remarkable ease and proficiency—much like a dominant hand.
In many respects, such analogies are on target. Indeed if they weren’t, type theory might find itself in deep water. That said, the dominant function isn’t always as obvious or easy to identify as it’s sometimes made out to be.
Although there are presumed to be physical cues such as eye movements associated with every function, extraverted functions are generally easier to identify from without. Thus, functions like Extraverted Feeling (Fe) or Extraverted Intuition (Ne) are often readily identified by type practitioners.
But even if extraverted functions are evident to outside observers, this doesn’t ensure their salience to the person using them. Moreover, introverts (all of whom utilize an introverted dominant function) commonly struggle to identify their primary function.
Simply put, “knowing our own minds” is rarely as easy it sounds. And there are myriad possible reasons for this difficulty. In this post, we will explore why identifying the dominant function often proves harder than we anticipate.
Function – Interest Mismatches
Type devotees commonly assume that their preferred function (e.g., Ne) coheres with, and plays a prominent role in, their primary interest areas (e.g., art). For instance, it’s often assumed that:
- Thinking functions (Ti & Te) are predominant in math, science, or tech interests.
- Feeling functions (Fi & Fe) are predominant in social, emotional or artistic interests.
- Sensing functions (Si & Se) are predominant in practical or routine matters, such as housework or administrative tasks.
- Intuition functions (Ni & Ne) are predominant when creativity or insight is required, such as in art or innovation.
While it’s true that these functions are apt to play some role in these activities, they needn’t always be primary. For instance, while thinking (T) is often associated with philosophizing, philosophy has attracted no small number of feeling (F) types. In fact, a number of famous philosophers were feeling types. Similarly, thinkers may find themselves drawn to characteristically F interests, such as music or psychology.
Now—and this is a key point—we shouldn’t assume that feelers pursuing T interests are necessarily, in the manner of thinking types, relying on a T function. Generally speaking, it can be exhausting to utilize an inferior function for extended periods of time. So what typically happens is we find a way of re-purposing our dominant function for activities that might otherwise call for the use of a different function.
For example, we might find thinkers re-purposing their T to navigate relationships, or N types (God love ’em) attempting to intuit their way through their tax forms. In other words, we often take our chances with our dominant function and hope for the best.
But the crazy thing is we’re often blind to the degree to which we lean on our dominant function, especially when our primary interests aren’t overtly aligned with it. It seems we’re less attuned to the cognitive process itself than we are to whatever it is that we’re focusing on. We thus end up deducing our dominant function based on our interests (e.g., “I love music, so I must be a feeler.”), rather than observing it firsthand. In some cases, this method is useful and accurate. In others, it may yield a faulty reading of our dominant function.
Actual vs. Ideal Self
In order to accurately understand our subjective experience with respect to our functions, we must recognize the existence of two concurrent selves—the actual self and the ideal self—which are constantly in tension with one another.
Our actual self is who we objectively are, including the real nature and workings of our personality type. Our ideal self, by contrast, is the person we want to become, including any fantasies or idealizations associated with our non-dominant functions.
Typically, we have a fairly realistic (i.e., non-idealized) view of our dominant function, even if we haven’t yet identified it as our dominant function. Because we routinely engage it, the psyche needn’t dress it up in fantasies to get us to pay attention to it.
Over time, however, the psyche wants us to start moving away from the dominant function in order to explore and develop other functions. And because the non-dominant functions are less familiar, they have a more idealized or mythological character, similar to the way children might envision or idealize adulthood. Again, these idealized functions are part of the ideal self, which serves as a powerful engine for motivation and change over the lifespan.
When we’re actively pursuing the ideal self, there’s a sense in which we’re compelled to disidentify with our actual / historical self in order to open the door to a new way of being. Even if we have a good sense of our personal strengths, our desire for change makes us willing, at least temporarily, to distance ourselves from them. It’s similar to a child who’s first learning to walk. She has to regularly experiment with letting go of the furniture, even risking potential injury, to become something different—a new type of person. This requires disidentifying with, or forgetting about, being a non-walker and envisioning herself as a walker.
As seen in our toddler example, the actual self is pulled along by, and gradually moving toward, our ideal self. Carl Jung referred to this process as individuation. And as we individuate—developing and integrating our non-dominant functions—we become less beholden to and defined by the dominant function.
To establish these new growth pathways, many of us choose hobbies or careers associated with one or more of our non-dominant functions. As discussed in my post, Two Paths to Type Development, this commonly involves the auxiliary and/or inferior function. Both of these functions exhibit the opposite E-I attitude of the dominant function and therefore represent intriguing opportunities for personal growth and investment.
I’ve observed a number of ENFPs, for instance, who have chosen careers with a strong Introverted Feeling (i.e., ENFPs’ auxiliary function) focus. An ENFP friend of mine is probably the wittiest person I know and could probably have made it in the entertainment business. Despite what by all appearances is profound creative (Ne) talent, he instead opted to pursue a nursing (Fi) career. It’s not clear to me whether he failed to appreciate his creative gifts (i.e., his dominant Ne function) or whether the call of his auxiliary function was simply too compelling to ignore.
Granted, not everyone forsakes the dominant function to pursue the dreams and potentials of the ideal self. But it happens far more often than we realize. As was the case with my ENFP friend, when the ideal self comes calling, we typically listen.
There’s no shortage of things that can distract or mislead us when it comes to identifying our type and our dominant function. Salient among these is the fact that the psyche is a dynamic organism. Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, it compels us to change, which can make the pursuit of firm self-knowledge seem like a wild goose chase.
Fortunately, type theory can help us make sense of the sorts of changes we seek and undergo, providing a general roadmap for where we are headed, including which functions are on the horizon for our type development.