In many ways, the inferior function represents our “lost” or “repressed” self. As the polar opposite of the dominant function, it also symbolizes our “unlived life,” the path not taken when we chose the way of the dominant. The proverbial “midlife crisis” invariably involves confrontation with the inferior function, as we attempt to reconcile our historical path (i.e., the dominant function) with new modes of living and being (i.e., the inferior).
We can think of the dominant function as our “reality” function—our default tool for navigating daily affairs and challenges. The inferior, by contrast, is in many respects an idealized or unrealized function. Rather than dealing with “what is,” it prompts us to imagine what “could be,” beckoning us toward new ways of being. Many of our most romantic or grandiose ideals are rooted in the inferior function.
This has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, inferior function ideals can be a powerful source of energy, meaning, and motivation, propelling us toward further growth and development. But when our attempts at actualization fall short (as they often do), such ideals can engender great frustration and disappointment.
What We Can Learn from Lottery Winners
You may already be familiar with the rather ironic fact that lottery winners, after a fairly short period of time, turn out to be no happier than they were beforehand. If this doesn’t reveal something important about human psychology, I’m not sure what does. At minimum, it shows how powerful ideals (i.e., getting rich), even when realized, often prove far less satisfying than we anticipate. But why?
In my view, it’s not that money (or other rewards) can’t make us happier, but the manner in which it’s obtained matters. Namely, we tend to experience greater satisfaction from rewards associated with active investment than those which luckily fall into our laps. Our theories of causation—our understanding of the events that gave rise to a particular reward (especially our perceived role in the process)—dramatically affect how we experience it. A windfall of income after years of hard work will surely be more rewarding, psychologically, than a winning lottery ticket. The former confers a sense of self-efficacy and effectiveness, while the latter is virtually unrelated to who we are or are striving to become.
Despite these psychological realities, when it comes to the inferior function, many of us prefer to play the veritable lottery than take the more gradual path of devoted investment. We dream of the universe magically endowing us with all the spoils of the inferior function with little to no real effort on our part. In addition to human laziness, this stems from the fact that mastering the inferior function can seem a rather daunting and time-intensive task. So rather than embrace the challenge, we stay on the sidelines and dream about (and perhaps even feel entitled to) its attendant rewards.
By this point, you’re probably hungry for some examples of how this might play out in the various personality types. So for the remainder of this post, we’ll explore manifestations of inferior function idealism and the “lottery mindset” among the different types. While we won’t explicitly tackle growth strategies in this post, keep in mind that increasing your understanding and awareness of your inferior function propensities is a critical first step.
Inferior Thinking (T) Challenges
Thinking (T) is the inferior function of EFJ and IFP types. It can be associated with logical processing and rather loosely with non-domestic work. Hence, inferior function ideals for Feelers often involve aspirations of logical competence, proficiency in math, science or technology, or academic / career achievement.
Not long ago I was perusing a Quora thread on computer science and personality type when I was struck by a comment from a self-professed INFP. He mused that he probably should have been a writer or an artist, but his “romantic side” called him to embrace math and science as early as grade school. I found his observation extremely revealing and supportive of type theory. As a Thinking (T) dominant type (INTP), I would never think to label my math and science interests “romantic.” Since my mind is naturally inclined to evaluate everything logically, there’s nothing particularly romantic or fascinating about scientific or mathematical thinking for me. For F dominants, however, mastering logic or its STEM offshoots can resemble a sort of Holy Grail—a source of endless wonderment and fascination.
Dominant Feelers may also hold high ideals about career advancement. Since we’ve historically tended to associate both Thinking (T) and career achievement with men, there’s a sense in which career success has come to symbolize T competence. But because F types often feel torn between their careers and family life, they may find it difficult to outperform career-centric T types. They may thus adopt a lottery mindset toward their work in the form of perpetual “job hopping” (I’ve observed this tendency in INFPs in particular). If they could only land the perfect job then all their inferior function dreams could be realized. But as soon as a given job is shown to have downsides, this ideal becomes tarnished and they start to lose faith. So instead of buckling down and truly investing in their work, they resume their search for more enticing jobs—for another lottery ticket if you will. Unfortunately, this constant pursuit of “new and shiny” jobs moves them no closer to the real goal of developing greater T competence.
Inferior Feeling (F) Challenges
Feeling (F) is the inferior function of ITP and ETJ types. It’s generally associable with values, tastes, emotions, and relationships. Hence, ideals involving meaning and values, love and acceptance, and interpersonal harmony (Kumbaya anyone?) are often tied up with inferior F—all of which I’ve closely examined in my INTP book.
One of the earliest F ideals to emerge is an interest in romantic love. For all their logicality, young T dominants can be quite sensitive and responsive to ideals about love. While F dominants are feeling romantic toward math and science, T types are dreaming about love itself (not to say that F types aren’t, of course, but in a different way). The inferior function can thus be a source of great confusion and complication for students of typology, in this case, by making it hard to determine who’s really a T and who’s really an F.
Unfortunately, once T types manage to road-test some relationships, they realize that they’re neither as easy nor ideal as they initially imagined. As a relationship becomes increasingly difficult or predictable, feelings of love and infatuation can wane. Thinkers may thus find themselves in a predicament similar to what we saw with F types. While continued investment is certainly an option, “relationship hopping” can seem equally or more attractive. And just as Feelers may fail to take personal responsibility for workplace inadequacies, Thinkers may blame their partners rather than honestly examining their own role in romantic breakdowns.
My experience as a Thinking dominant suggests that the only way to be reliably happy and successful in relationships involves being more proactive and investment-minded. Like so much of what’s good in life, love hinges largely on intentionality—on what we’re putting into it. In many ways, it’s less about what we’re getting from our partner (i.e., entitlement / idealizing mindset) and more about the attitude we’re bringing to the relationship (i.e., investment mindset).
That said, it’s difficult to know, on a deep and convincing level, the benefit of relational investment without actually experiencing it. And for T dominants, this requires a step of faith that can be hard to make. It’s like asking job hoppers to trust that sticking with their current job, however flawed, will bring more rewards simply by virtue of their decision to do so.
Thinkers who find their way to an authentic place of commitment learn that love is surprisingly renewable and sustainable. Not because the universe has blessed them with a flawless partner (although a great partner certainly helps), but because consistent investment increases the likelihood of experiencing love in its most enduring and rewarding form.
Inferior Intuition (N) Challenges
Intuition (N) serves as the inferior function for ISJ and ESP types. It’s generally associated with ideas, insights, and abstract meaning / understanding. N dominants therefore tend to be viewed as insightful, creative, verbal, and theoretical.
S dominants, by contrast, are more attuned to practical and concrete matters. Known for their common sense, they excel at handling the practical tasks and details of everyday life. They generally don’t overthink things, but jump into action and get things done.
Their characteristic pragmatism notwithstanding, like other types, dominant Sensors can’t ignore their inferior function altogether. They instinctively understand that their lives would be incomplete without it. But what does this look like? What is the nature of inferior N? How does it pertain to the lottery mentality?
A common concern of Sensing types pertains to the role of N in facilitating an overarching religious or meaningful understanding of life. Although happy to tackle the nitty-gritty of everyday life, they also want a belief system for understanding and interpreting life—its purpose, goals and struggles. And while they don’t want to get too bogged down in theory or abstractions, they want to establish and maintain a sort of “N safety net,” if you will.
Toward this end, many turn to religion or politics (or occasionally to New Age philosophies) for N guidance and insight. They may attend weekly religious services as a means of fortifying their N understanding. This isn’t unlike T types joining social clubs or fraternities to prop up their inferior F. Indeed, every inferior function seems to require some measure of external support or “training wheels,” especially early in its development.
Ideally, these training wheels prove less necessary as the inferior function becomes more developed and robust. For S types, growth might come in the form of increased openness to, or capacity for, creative and abstract thought. Practically speaking, this might mean disagreeing, at times, with one’s minister or political party. In other words, their N will become more autonomous and capable, although not in a conspiratorial or delusional way (as S dominants can sometimes fall prey to).
The lottery mindset, for S dominants, presumes that N development is too daunting a task, making passive ingestion of the “right answers”—through tradition, authority, or otherwise—seems preferable. It might also include the use of motivated reasoning or flimsy evidence to dismiss scientific findings perceived as contradictory or inconvenient for their current worldview. In the same way that Intuitives can be lazy with concrete tasks and duties, Sensors can be prone to intellectual laziness (e.g., “I’ll let my favorite pundit decide what is true and tell me what to think about things”).
Like the other inferior functions, N development is possible for S types who approach it with an investment mindset. This might involve practicing techniques like “steelmanning,” where an effort is made to summarize and even strengthen an opposing argument. It might also entail spending more time honestly reflecting on life experiences that are ambiguous or don’t neatly cohere with one’s historical beliefs. Listening and working to understand others’ life experiences without pat responses may also prove helpful.
Inferior Sensing (S) Challenges
Sensing (S) is the inferior function for INJ and ENP types. It can generally be associated with concrete experiences and material provisions. Notorious for having their “head in the clouds,” Intuitives may fail to effectively attend to or handle concrete details. As discussed in my post on procrastination and personality type, they may exhibit a distaste for practical tasks and ignore them as long as possible.
Of course, living with inferior S is not without its downsides. As discussed in my post, The Path of Intuitive Types, physical provisions (S) are the foundation of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” Having inferior S may thus trigger deep-seated survival fears regarding physical pain, illness, or deprivation. And because money is a primary safeguard against S deprivation, not to mention a universal symbol of S success, Intuitives can’t (as much as they might like to) deny its relevance. INFJs and INTJs in particular may feel that their signature strength—insight—isn’t readily recognized and rewarded (e.g., monetized) in S-centric culture, further exacerbating their primal fears. Even if concrete work is relatively plentiful, who’s hiring for insight?
To be sure, the inferior function is shrouded in fear and uncertainty. But it’s also perceived, psychologically, as a symbol of promise and wonderment. For N dominants, idealized S can assume a number of forms. Particularly common are ideals of S wealth and luxury. Not only can they temporarily assuage survival fears, but also incorporate Intuitives’ desire for beauty and order—a sort of physical utopia. But once again, this hinges on having money, and INJs typically aren’t business tycoons. Hence, the lottery mentality can easily creep in, be it through “get rich quick” fantasies, envying others’ wealth, dreaming about marrying rich, etc.
ENPs can also struggle to transition from ideation (N) to consistent and effective action (S). Although they’re more apt to start an enterprise than INJs, seeing it all the way through to completion is an entirely different matter. For both ENPs and INJs alike, there’s usually a lot more ideating than consistent action or follow-through. My INFJ sidekick Elaine jokingly, but not unaptly, refers to Intuitives’ reluctance to act as “N laziness.”
A key for N dominants involves finding ways to routinely incorporate their auxiliary and tertiary functions, which can help these types move into action and be more effective. As discussed in my post, Two Paths to Type Development, developing the middle functions of the function stack is a useful way of “bridging” the dominant and inferior functions. ENFPs and ENTPs can find additional insight and guidance in our online course course—Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP:
Learn more about the functions, type development, and the inferior function in our books: