By Dr. A.J. Drenth
In contrast to the INFJ, the ISFJ is among the more commonly encountered personality types, thought to comprise upwards of 8% of the general population.
To understand ISFJs, we must first consider their dominant function, Introverted Sensing (Si), which compels them to preserve and protect past ways of doing things. This is why David Keirsey has dubbed them “guardians.” Like other SJ types, they grow attached to the routine, familiar, and expected. The more often they do something in a particular way (e.g., eat a certain type of meal for lunch), the harder it is for them to break out of that pattern. The same can be said of their beliefs and worldview. As adults, ISFJs often persist in the beliefs and worldview of their childhood. In sum, they can be seen to rely heavily on past precedent, both behaviorally and ideationally.
While sometimes viewed as stubborn or nitpicky, ISFJs are actually more easygoing than they are often given credit for. Since their dominant function (Si) is a Perceiving function, they are naturally inclined to assume a receptive rather than a controlling role. Unfortunately, this often goes unnoticed by the casual onlooker, since Si is introverted in direction. Especially in their free time, ISFJs know how to be leisurely, something the ESFJ can have a harder time with.
In sharing the identical set of psychological functions, ISFJs resemble ESFJs. One difference is ESFJs tend to be more warm and engaging upfront, while ISFJs can be a bit more reserved and take longer to warm-up. These two types also differ with respect to inferior function issues, with ISFJs wrestling with Ne and ESFJs with Ti.
ISFJs also resemble the ISTJ, since they share the same dominant and inferior function. However, their auxiliary functions do confer significant differences. ISFJs use Extraverted Feeling (Fe) as their auxiliary function, which grants them a greater measure of social intelligence. While ISTJs may lack some degree of social grace, their auxiliary Te contributes stronger powers of logical and tactical intelligence. ISFJs’ Fe may also contribute an added measure of open-mindedness, at least outwardly. However, this may be more a matter of ISFJs’ concern for interpersonal harmony than a true difference in openness.
Although differing by only one “preference” (i.e., J-P), ISFJs actually share zero functions with the ISFP. ISFPs, who use Se instead of Si, are less concerned with past precedent than ISFJs are. And because of their Fi, ISFPs are more individualistic and less objective in their judging process. Their Se also confers a greater interest in sensory and material novelty. Moreover, ISFPs are inclined toward “hands-on” or what is described as “Realistic” work on the Holland career inventory. ISFJ career-seekers, by contrast, are typically less interested in getting their hands dirty. They are more apt to pursue “Conventional” than Realistic careers. While both ISFJs and ISFPs may take up “Social” sorts of work, ISFJs gravitate toward more abstract occupations, such as teaching, whereas ISFPs, prefer more hands-on careers, such as nursing. ISFJs also make effective managers of people, balancing care and concern with organizational know-how.
All in all, ISFJs are among the most loyal, dutiful, and responsible of all types. They are admired for their devotion and steadfastness. They make loyal friends and companions, especially for those with similar values and lifestyles.
ISFJ Personality Development & “Functional Stack”
Each personality type prefers to use four of the eight functions first described by Jung. These four functions comprise a type’s “functional stack.” The relative strength of preference for these four functions is expressed in the following manner: dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, and inferior. ISFJs’ first preference is Si, followed by Fe, Ti and Ne respectively. This is depicted in the arrangement of their functional stack:
While we will soon discuss each of the above functions in greater depth, for now, we will turn to another feature of ISFJs’ personality—their type development. As is true for all types, ISFJs’ type development consists of three general phases. These phases roughly correspond to the ordering of the functional stack, with Si being the first function to blossom, Fe the second, on so on. But as we will see, the inferior function is sort of a special case, summoning ISFJs’ attention at an earlier phase than might otherwise be expected.
Phase I (Childhood-20s)
Phase I is characterized by the development and rise to power of ISFJs’ dominant function, Introverted Sensing (Si). ISFJs use their Si to absorb, integrate, and reflect on acquired information and personal experiences. Since Si corresponds with memory and recall, ISFJs can amass a great deal of information in Phase I.
Phase I ISFJs may also show some development of their auxiliary function, Extraverted Feeling (Fe), which can serve as a helpful extraverted tool for navigating and managing the outside world.
Phase II (Late Teens-30s)
While the inferior function is not entirely dormant or inert in Phase I, the epic tug-of-war between the dominant and inferior does not come to the fore until Phase II. Once ISFJs’ dominant Si reaches a certain threshold of strength and dominance, their inferior function, Extraverted Intuition (Ne), begins to assert itself and play a more prominent role. This can be somewhat confusing since Ne is not next in line in ISFJs’ functional stack, but can be understood as deriving from its bipolar relationship with their dominant Si.
Phase II ISFJs also show increasing use and development of their Fe, allowing them to form and express judgments. They may even begin to tap into their tertiary function, Introverted Thinking (Ti), which serves to cross-check and refine their Fe judgments.
Phase III (30s, 40s, & Beyond)
If all goes well and they are fortunate enough to enter Phase III, ISFJs become increasingly aware of the insidious ways of their inferior Ne. As they become more aware of their inferior and learn to function more healthily as ISFJs, they experience greater balance between their Si and Ne, as well as an increasing sense of peace and wholeness.
ISFJs’ Dominant Function: Introverted Sensing (Si)
ISFJs use Introverted Sensing (Si) as their dominant function. Si is the function that undergirds ISFJs’ propensity to function as guardians and conservators of tradition. The longer they are immersed in particular set of circumstances, the more difficult it can be for them to open themselves to alternatives. Because Si is a Perceiving function, ISFJs are less inclined to function as frontline activists for their beliefs than ESJs, whose dominant function is a Judging function. Instead, ISFJs prefer to spend time reflecting on the past or their cherished traditions. Many enjoy attending religious services or studying religious texts, activities that strengthen and bolster their Si beliefs.
One of the most commonly overlooked features of Si is its role in bodily sensation. Namely, Si monitors internal bodily affairs, ensuring that physical needs are optimally satisfied. Being an introverted function, Si is more intensive than Se is, which can make ISFJs more sensitive to a variety of sensory stimuli such as lighting, room temperature, noise levels, sleeping surfaces, etc. They can also be sensitive to strong flavors and unfamiliar textures, which is why they commonly prefer what Se types might consider a bland, simple, or routinized diet.
The bodily role of Si can also influence ISFJs’ health. It may, for instance, allow them to be more attuned to when they are full, thereby preventing overeating. On the other hand, it could play a role in health problems, such as hypochondriasis, in which normal sensations become amplified and interpreted as signs of illness.
We can also compare Si with its intuitive cousin, Ni. As Perceiving functions, both can be viewed as functioning rather passively. Both can also be associated with a strong sense of conviction, which is why SJs and NJs alike can seem outwardly stubborn, opinionated, or closed-minded. The primary difference between these two functions is that Ni is a synthesizing function, producing its own impressions and interpretations. Si, by contrast, does not perceive a different reality behind sense data, but compares present experiences to past ones. For Ni, each experience is approached as new and interpreted on its own terms, whereas for Si, the past is granted a more prominent role.
While it can be easy for some types to criticize ISFJs for their conservative ways, we should not overlook their value and purpose. In addition to helping and teaching others (Fe), ISFJs help remind us of where we’ve been (Si) in order to prevent us from repeating our past mistakes. Si serves as a necessary cultural counterbalance to Se, reminding us that material resources are not unlimited and should be managed with care and wisdom.
ISFJs’ Auxiliary Function: Extraverted Feeling (Fe)
ISFJs use Extraverted Feeling (Fe) as their auxiliary function. As the most interpersonal of all the functions, Fe is attuned to surveying and improving interpersonal feelings and morale. Like INFJs, ISFJs work to cultivate “good feelings” in the interpersonal environment. For the sake of surveying others’ feelings, Fe helps ISFJs read emotional expressions and body language.
Interestingly, ISFJs may have a more difficult time with perceiving their own emotions than they do those of others. This is due to the fact that their Feeling function is directed outwardly (i.e., extraverted) rather than inwardly. Unlike ISFPs, whose Feeling function is introverted (Fi), ISFJs are less equipped to independently manage their emotions. Hence, when ISFJs find themselves in emotionally taxing circumstances, they often turn to others for support.
Fe also entails an extraversion of judgment. ISFJs utilize their Fe to express their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and grievances. Assuming they have not been severely censored in their upbringing, ISFJs are generally happy to share their feelings and perspectives.
ISFJs’ Fe can present differently among strangers than it does with their intimates. In larger groups, they may seem characteristically “positive” in their expressions, as part of their attempt to cultivate good feelings. In the company of close confidants, however, they may be more open and direct with their concerns and grievances. In fact, self-expression a la their Fe is critical to their psychological and physical health and well-being. Even if doing so does not provide immediate solutions to the problem at hand, they tend to feel better once they have expressed their feelings, whether through words or tears. This is important for the mates or friends of ISFJs to recognize. While not necessarily looking for others to solve their problems, ISFJs value emotional support, empathy, and reassurance.
ISFJs’ Tertiary Function: Introverted Thinking (Ti)
ISFJs use Introverted Thinking (Ti) as their tertiary function. Its role is to further refine their Fe judgments. It adds an element of logic that is less apparent in the early phases of their type development. Less developed ISFJs may draw very little from their Ti. Since their Si-Fe pairing provides them with strong convictions about truth, taking an additional step to Ti may seem unnecessary. With time and maturity, however, ISFJs can grow more comfortable with their Ti and appreciate its inherent value. Ti can help ISFJs think more critically and analytically, serving as an aid and check to their Si-Fe process.
ISFJs’ Inferior Function: Extraverted Intuition (Ne)
As is true of other types, ISFJs can be blinded to the degree to which their inferior function impacts their decisions and behavior. Without sufficient awareness and integration of their inferior, ISFJs will be prone to unwise decision-making in their lifestyle, careers, and relationships. Therefore, it behooves ISFJs to understand the ways their inferior function, Extraverted Intuition (Ne), manifests in their personality.
Ne is concerned with connecting ideas, brainstorming new theories, and conceiving options and possibilities. Prone to seeing connections and associations everywhere, it is an unpredictable and highly divergent function. This is why ENPs are often viewed as quirky, absent-minded creatives. While it is true that ISFJs can be routine and conservative, there are numerous ways in which Ne may manifest in their personality.
One way ISFJs may employ their Ne is finding creative ways to teach or engage with children. Since Ne might be construed as a rather “playful” function, there is part of the ISFJ that is childlike, that wants to play and let loose.
ISFJs may also employ their Ne through hobbies such as reading or word games. Many ISFJs enjoy working crosswords or other sorts of word puzzles. Such activities allow them to exercise their Si recall, while also making connections and associations (Ne). Many ISFJs also enjoy a variety of arts and crafts that allow for creative engagement of their Ne.
A less healthy means of engaging their Ne is gossip. By proffering speculations about people or events, ISFJs can obtain a quick ego boost for their Ne. ISFJs may also enjoy speculating about various religious or political topics.
Stock trading is yet another way ISFJs may engage their Ne. Since reading and analyzing market trends might be construed as an Ne-Ti endeavor, ISFJs who can successfully navigate the complexities of the market not only anticipate a financial reward, but a psychological kickback for their inferior function.
Like other types seeking to integrate their inferior function, ISFJs must learn that integration does not occur through direct use or development of their Ne. Instead, they are wise to allow their Ne to remain rather unconscious, functioning passively in the background. This allows them to focus their time and energy on what they do best (Si and Fe), trusting that integration will occur naturally as they consistently and authentically function as ISFJs.
For a more extensive look at each of the ISFJ’s personality preferences and functions, be sure to explore my eBook, My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions:
Abraham Lincoln, James Comey
Note: This ISFJ profile may also resonate with Enneagram Sixes (6w5, 6w7), Ones (1w9, 1w2), or Twos (2w1, 2w3).