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.
Learn More in Our Books:
My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions
The 16 Personality Types: Profiles, Theory & Type Development
2 Paths to Type Development: Auxiliary vs. Inferior Function
Dominant – Inferior Function Dynamics: Healthy vs. Unhealthy
Thx for this. Important topic. It’d be great to have a dozen examples, so I may start collecting some.
A.J. Drenth says
You’re welcome Josh. Glad you enjoyed the post.
Loved your article! It makes so much sense for general population. My path was somehow the other way around: I was forced by the wrong family and wrong country – both with dominant and despotic (communist) ES typology- to develop these sets of skills so strange and foreign to me. I had already the back seats driving before I knew who the driver really was. It took me 40 years to have the slightest idea about my true self. When truly alienated to become someone else, the chase for the true self was even more meaningful. I shut down the back seats now, they’re too overpowering! I focus only on the driver and the co-pilot and I really enjoy the ride!
A.J. Drenth says
Thanks so much Daniela for your sharing your comment and experiences.
Lol yes I had to identify my type by a lot of different pieces because I tested wrong (not knowing myself well or how to respond to the questions) and I couldn’t identify too well with any of the functions for sure. I knew I had Fe/Ti, but I still entertained the possibility of being an INFP at one point. I knew I was an introvert and an N but I thought it made me an INFJ initially because of my interest in human nature and fiction. I also figured I must be wildly different from my mother and my brother who are both quite obviously ENTPs. Someone pointed out that I don’t talk like an Ni user and when I considered that, it was pretty true, so that left only INTP. Which is a very INTP way to discover one’s type, if you ask me.
Keith B says
Good article. I’ve been struggling to figure out what “type” I am. I seem to be testing either as borderline INFP or INTP. Your test calls me INxP. Other tests place me around 50/50, usually leaning to INFP.
I’ve read your 16 personalities book and think the INTP description sounds much more like me than the INFP profile, and yet I keep testing borderline. I read your statements which say that INFP’s can be drawn to engineering by their inferior Fe (I’m an engineering manager btw) and could be dissatisfied. The fact that I test borderline makes me think maybe I am INFP and chose the wrong path somewhere along the line. Not that I necessarily want to change career paths at this point in my life, but it makes you think, what if… As it stands, I get much more satisfaction out of my hobbies vs my job. I can continue this path but it’s a bit unsettling to think this will be my existence for the next 25 years till retirement.
The statements you’ve provided in this article about the “actual” vs “ideal” self seems plausible. From childhood into adulthood out of college, my favorite subjects were math and science, and I highly excelled in them (math was a cakewalk for me). Computer/ hardware engineering was actually my dream job (I love computers, programming, hardware design, game theory), but sadly I graduated during the dot com bust and had to shelve those ideas and go into oil and gas to make money (didn’t help that I’m very introverted and horrible with interviews). Anyway, this makes me think my “Actual/ historic” self is INTP based on my skills and interested from my years 1 – 30.
Now, for the last 10 years, I married my lovely wife who is an INFJ and we have 2 kids together. She is obviously my main source of conversations, her intuitive prowess in the Fe realm. I find her outgoingness for others lovely and it’s one of the main things that attracted me to her. I find her technical ineptitude sometimes frustrating though :) Since marrying her I’ve found myself participating more in artistic hobbies. I’ve taken up photography, gardening, tried my hand at drawing (I’m not very good at it), want to try creative writing, and greater interests in exploring the outdoors (kayak fishing and hunting, this could just be Ne/ Si taking the drivers seat). Obviously it’s impossible to do a diagnosis over the internet, but perhaps my “ideal” self per this article is being influenced by her; thus the confusion in my MBTI type? It’s too bad I only found out about MBTI 8 years ago so I have no before/ after for comparison!