FYI Anyone who explored this link earlier in the week would have landed on a very different post, for reasons explained over on my other blog in a post entitled When Paradigms Rub Shoulders. Blogging is a powerful healing-modality and recognising the need to reframe what I did in that first post was a massive healing in itself. Read both posts together for the most complete picture.
Getting to know your own personality type can be such an insightful window into your particular emotional reactions to various situations, whatever your “type”. As I have talked about before, I am am INFJ on the Myers-Briggs scale which makes me that rarest of the rare end of the personality range (at about 1 per cent of the population) and the most sensitive by far. INFJs thrive best in quiet, stable environments and, because they prioritise the harmony and wellbeing of those around them far more than their own wellbeing, they do better where there is a bare minimum of complicated family politics or disruption to worry about at an early age. This begs the question, of course, how much did my (some would say over)reaction to certain childhood circumstances relate to my personality type and I would say “completely”.
As is the case in most families, my much-older siblings and I displayed quite diverse personalities but one was especially different to me. Our house was already small, crowded, noisy and sometimes a little chaotic, especially when he exerted his influence, being the rebel of the pack. On top of this, as the youngest by far, I was targeted to quite a high degree, both physically when we were younger and then by a particular tone he used to cut my confidence down long afterwards and I felt exposed to this more when my other two siblings left home, about the time I started school. I remember feeling especially stressed when he was around and, because of the reactions of rage or worry that he provoked in my parents, especially my father who already had hypertension and a track record of heart attacks (a topic I was well aware of and which already frightened me), I picked up on all this and it became like a heavy cloud over my experience of those years. My father having another serious heart attack, during a time when my now much lowered self-confidence led to me being bullied at school, and which led to money worries for my parents (for me, a tangible air of tension I registered but didn’t fully understand), meant I was under stress from all sides.
How some personality types notice stress more than others
If this sounds like I was extremly highly-strung, then I refer you to the degree to which INFJs are natural empaths, sometimes to a very high degree, due to their Extroverted Feeling (Fe) trait. They feel, and tend to prioritise, the minute experiences of all those around them, including the unspoken realm of fears, emotions and undercurrents.
I remember clearly how I worried about all of these family goings on such a lot; about both my brother and both my parents, about “what would happen” when he slammed out of the house yet again. I picked up on my mother’s sadness, my father’s feelings of ineptitude and disappointment, my brother’s little-boy-lost sadness that gained expression through rebellion. I felt for him as much as I felt for them and I put it upon myself to somehow solve it all which, of course, I couldn’t and so I just worried a great deal. He also brought to my attention subject matters that should not have been under the nose of anyone so very young, being an activist for nuclear disarmament thus graphic descriptions of what a nuclear holocaust would entail were a favourite topic he used to provoke my parents within my hearing. When he got into trouble with the law, nobody knew better than me what it put my parents through. My anxiety carried with me to school, where I became timid and was bullied for many years, so there was really no escaping the stress. I remember having a very low threshold for surprises of any kind, good or bad, and this stayed with me all my life, rising more visibly to the surface again when stress caused my health to crash, a decade and a half ago, when a simple “boo” from a child or a dropped toy down the stairs could have me crashed on the sofa for a day.
When I was growing up, our house was also very “shouty” as everyone struggled to be heard plus my father was deaf so the television, which was on most of the time, had to be loud for him to hear it. I had my own room for a short spell, holidays excluded, when my sister went away to college, which was when I coped rather better, but then it was taken away abruply when she returned home for long spell just after I started secondary school and craved my independence the most. The easiest, happiest, years by far were when I had my room to escape to and my parents to myself, in the mid to late teenage phase.
What I describe is all par for the course of varied and often turbulent family life, you could say, but not everyone is affected the same by these kinds of stress. The legacy for some personality types is longer lasting by far.
Especially when we are children, the effect of this kind of stress, especially when it feels relentless from all angles, cannot be over-exaggerated since the behaviours of those we live with can alter the very functioning of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). Those affected have been observed to become “high reactors”, with a low HPA stress reaction threshold, and these
“relive their traumatic experience as if it is happening now. The sights, sounds, smells and fears fail to be incorporated into the memory in the normal way. I’ve proposed that that are retained as a self-contained “stone” that is thrown up into consciousness by the currents and eddies of the bodymind”. (Michael A Jawer – The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Brain, the Body, and the Sixth Sense.)
He goes on:
“The traumatic memory thus exists on its own, unincorporated into the rest of the individual’s recollection of that time, that slice of life. When such an obstruction is pushed to the surface, the person’s highly activated HPA system ensures that the reexperience is as vivid and as frightening as the event truly was”.
Following stress, our bodies are meant to reset their responses once the perceived threat has passed by. We expend our pent-up feelings through pacing, venting or whatever it takes to let go of the surplus of energy our nervous system has generated ready to deal with a surprise or a crisis (although I perceive a shortfall in this regard as I became so afraid of venting any kind of high-emotion at both home and at school that I supressed this natural coping mechanism) and then, supposedly, we move on. What may not get reset, however, especially if stress is perceived to be all around at a formative stage in a person’s life, is the HPA axis. The feelings that arise under stress, especially if repeated or prolonged and extending to the kind of stress generated by worries, guilt and other preoccupations, now go underground to be stored deep in the body, perhaps even mirrored neurologically. Reading into this has shed so much light on my many years of quite inexplicable body and neurological pain in my case.
In other words, we store up sensory data as a package, with emotions attached, so that years later we can be provoked into the same reactions, from just one of these triggers or, if several of them happen to coincide at once, we can be overwhelmed by intense feelings from a long time ago, with no obvious reason why. I have this to a very high degree; I also have synaesthesia, where different sensory sources cross-reference and interchange with each other, which I feel is related. My other pet theory is that INFJs are particularly prone since they “go out there” looking for their emotional cues from their environment more so than finding them from self-focus within. In fact, we are dominantly concerned with how other people are doing, more than being so concerned for ourselves and we make ourselves responsible for fixing what seems broken, never truly settling down until there is balance or wholesale harmony in our environment (which is virtually never).
So, no longer “just” an emotional wound (which some people are so quick to dismiss), these early life experiences are now hard-wired into our very biology “for the rest of our life” (or so we are told). This profoundly impacts the way we handle stress from that time onwards, altering the way that cortisol is released and reabsorbed and how other hormones behave in the orchestration of all aspects of everyday health, even affecting the degree of sensitivity of the entire nervous system to everyday outside stimuli (in other words, we start to feel so much more than other people; which I shared in my post Mirror Mirror about mirror touch synesthesia, which means I feel other’s pain “as though” it is happening to me). The reason I believe I have reached such an extreme of “feeling too much” over the course of a lifetime is because of my personality trait, confronted as it has been with the bewildering task of making sense of the particular world paradigm, made up of relentlessly stressful situations, that I have been exposed to.
If this doesn’t affect every personality type to the same degree then it is because the INFJ makes a particular mission of “solving it”. Years after I prioritised making my home circumstances a domain of peace and loving harmony, I continue to experience the bodily reactions of high stress; yes, even when my mind is as zen as can be…and this is what most baffles people. Its as though I can’t unhook my neurology from the broadest possible awareness of an “outside world” I hooked myself to when I was a child and set my reaction benchmarks very low indeed.
Relentless searching for harmony
Because when that high reactive person is an INFJ, which means their Introverted Intuition (Ni) and Introverted Thinking (Ti) traits are determined to reconcile everything into a great big picture where everything is perfectly orchestrated together, yet their world seems to deny this because everything they experience feels very far from reconciled or harmonious, they are forced to search outside of themselves, further and wider all the time, in hope of finding that harmonious evidence “out there” somewhere. It’s as though their inside and outside worlds don’t match and yet they have to force them together somehow, by finding the appropriate evidence using their extroverted (secondary) skill set; yet, so far, this is eluding them, in fact they only seem to gather more evidence of the contrary.
So, they put so much focus on developing their extroverted traits, though this is counter-impulsive to their introverted preference, because they want to gather more and more data in the never-ending hope of the picture of life coming together in a way that feels better, and which makes more sense to them, than what they currently know from experience.
Thus, as in my case, I sent out my extroverted traits on a lifelong recognisance mission to bring back as much feeling and sensory information as possible to support my introverted intuitive and thinking belief in a harmonious world. Over and over again, I sent these traits out on this mission, gathering data, widening the net. So, my extroverted feeling (Fe) trait learned to feel everything and everyone, plus all their emotions, their fears and foibles and my Extroverted Sensing (Si) trait learned to pick up on, and pay attention to, all the minutae of all kinds of sensory data, seen or otherwise (such as geomagnetic variables, radiation levels, EMFs, solar flares, changes in air pressure and many other anomolous things). No wonder high reacting INFJs like me become utterly overwhelmed!
As I isolated about myself recently (see my post E-motion), this “rewiring” of my HPA due to childhood stress and the peculiarity of some of my emotional attachments at that time, felt like the very foundation of all the many years of chronic health issues that I have had. Had life been less stressful, perhaps I would have honed in my Fe and Si traits to something like the normal range of experience; but I just kept on searching and searching for reconciliation out of the mess that life seemed to be made up of, as a mission of sorts.
When it feels like the wrong nest
We can’t help our personality type, especially as children, since we are born with it. Yet if we land in the ideal environment for our type, we may not be so prone to ingraining the shadow reactions of that type as we are when we are provoked by the very antithesis of what makes us feel most safe and supported according to our type.
Thus profoundly sensitive types can spend their formative years living with the very opposite behaviour traits to what they find most tolerable, often in a very small living space with other personality triggers (overcrowding and very little privacy, shouting and erratic behaviour, loud television and music day and night etc.) as happened in my case. There’s nothing wrong with us; it’s just that we feel as though we landed in the wrong nest.
Because we were children when this happened, our HPA axis (as above) can remain hardwired to cope with these very high stress levels, even many years later; something which is remarkably similar to having post-traumatic stress disorder because our bodies don’t know how to recalibrate to less stressful circumstances, long after the event.
The ultimate irony leads us home
Having a family member tell you to seek stress counselling or get your life together, acting as though there’s anything you haven’t already tried when, in fact, you have spent years exploring every avenue, or as though it is all in your head, even to do with current stress triggers that simply don’t exist, is not particularly helpful. It can come as a body blow when what you actually have is a collection of very real physical symptoms, such as severe muscle and neurological pain, autoimmunities and chronic fatigue etc, years after any trigger events occured (which could have been when they were actually in your life, significantly contributing to that stress load). Not “being understood”, “taken seriously” or “heard” then becomes a trigger in its own right; and is a very common frustration for those with fibromyalgia and similar illnesses. As one article on the topic describes:
“When you are diagnosed with a condition that has such an extreme effect on every aspect of your life it can be the last straw when a group of people that you simply cannot walk away from decides that they do not believe either in your diagnosis or your condition.” From How to deal with people who don’t believe in fibromyalgia, Mikal Smith.
The well-known Mayo Clinic also reports:
“The top misconception is that people think fibromyalgia isn’t a real medical problem or that it is “all in your head.” There’s a lot that’s unknown about fibromyalgia, but researchers have learned more about it in just the past few years. In people who have fibromyalgia, the brain and spinal cord process pain signals differently. As a result, they react more strongly to touch and pressure, with a heightened sensitivity to pain. It is a real physiological and neurochemical problem.”
“Not being believed” or “listened to”, perhaps even patronised when making a plea for understanding is a genuine cause of trauma for most people and so to receive this additional blow, on top of any pre-existing hurts relating to a certain family dynamic that contributed to your original stress, can be the final blow. It adds just one more trigger feeling into the wide ocean of feelings we are already calling home to ourselves and we can over-think the “small” matter of what someone else thinks of us, whether they believe us or take us seriously, to the nth degree, as I was reminded of just the other day.
However, awareness that I was doing this was my way out and enabled me to gain a whole different angle in pretty quick time, as per my post When paradigms rub shoulders. This is where the INFJ comes into their own since we are determined, even ruthless, when it comes to standing up to ourselves and the right provocation can rocket-launch us into a new paradigm at just the right moment.
Personality as super-power
I suspect that working with personality type in this way can provide some of the very keys to recovery since it enables us to appreciate subtle emotional triggers that, possibly, don’t affect anyone else in our family unit; because we often have such different traits to our siblings. It also helps to explain how one sibling will fail to grasp how bothered by a certain behaviour another sibling really is; a misunderstanding that can perpetuate for the whole of your lives, further confused by the popular misconception that you “should” be more similar because of shared genes and the same upbringing.
Realising that a fundamental difference in personality means they have no idea how they affect us can be key to taking the sting out of so many hurts (and if they can’t reciprocate with better understanding of our personality type then that is their loss).
The personality trait angle brings in a third possibility, over genes and upbringing, which is, as yet, largely overlooked, to our detriment since I feel it is a clue to our individual “spirit” purpose for being here in this lifetime. I like to think of personality as the vehicle our spirit chose for this life journey; thus it has all the exact features we would expect from such a car, right down to the finest details. If it stills feels like we are wobbling all over the road then perhaps its because we haven’t quite got used to driving it yet but there’s still time. We perfect our familiarity with each of the four traits in our Myers-Briggs “stack” one by one, over the course of a lifetime, thus we only start to get a handle on our fourth thus weakest trait (in an INFJs case, Extroverted Sensing) when we get to our middle years and beyond. This trait has been the most challenging for me over the last three or so years so I can only assume I am getting stuck-in to learning the ropes and its still work in progress but I’m getting there.
It is my view that the hard “pebble” of pain that we carry from some trauma that went underground long ago can be transformed into a veritable diamond when we polish off our unique traits and regard them from outside the box of the current paradigm; which assumes that we are broken by circumstance or the product of chance whereas I would say everything is perfect in ways we have yet to perceive. The INFJ is right at the front of the queue of those eager to perceive the bigger picture’s innate harmony; thus we are the natural born paradigm-shifters of any era and particulalrly well suited to this one!
My Introverted intuition (Ni) and Introverted thinking (Ti) traits are the very ones that have led me on what feels like a life-long search for a new paradigm that would , eventually, transform my experience of this one, for more of which I refer you to the related blog “When Paradigms Rub Shoulders” once again. The crystallisation process, which is the physical paradigmn leap refered to in that post as a result of merging spiritual with physical, is all about gaining a more complete picture…from within the so-called physical limitations of the present one. The limiting factor, when it is our health that is at stake, is the human body itself so, when we crystallise, we transform health in ways that are beyond the explanation capability of the current paradigm. We far exceed anything that current science thinks of as possible, which is what a paradigm shift is (like realising the world was not flat or that the earth was not the centre of the solar system, to give two obvious examples). That leap happens when we take it beyond the hypothetical to the point where it actually is our reality and I believe this is possible within my lifetime, for which I am prepared to be one of many guineapigs (and I imagine there are many more INFJs in their number).
Does this mean an over-reactive HPA axis can be reversed or otherwise transformed into a positive trait? This is the working theory of my own recovery plan. When we bring spirit into body to gain that broader perspective, as us in the physical sense, we rebalance all our traits and though I can see how our personality trait is a fixed part of our blueprint, I can also glean how bringing our stack of qualities into a semblance of balance with their opposite factor (such as, working towards Introverted feeling (Fi) if Extroverted feeling (Fe) is our norm) is a powerful modality to work with as you support the crystallisation process into the new paradigm. I have been playing with this for some time now and am finding the results most intriguing; and it certainly tugs me back from the edge of more extreme reactions to feeling or sensory triggers.
There is scope for so much more research here. For my own part, I have found getting to know my own personality type really well to be one of the most potent methods for shedding light on why I was just so impacted by events of many decades ago and why they felt like the bedrock of how I have tended to respond to the world ever since. Yet we are never too old to shed new light on an old picture. In the meantime, getting to know how INFJs cope with being children is so important for other family members so I will include some quotes and references that I wish my family had had access to when I was growing up
From The Struggles of Being an INFJ Child (Susan Storm on Psychology Junkie):
“I was extremely aware of how everyone in my family was doing, and if I sensed that something was ‘off’ even just a little bit I would lie awake at night trying to pinpoint what it was. Sometimes I would come up with terrible conclusions and ideas about what was wrong with a certain family member.”
“INFJs are extremely in tune to the emotional environment, and they keep a constant eye on how everyone is feeling. They tend to pick up on and absorb the emotions around them because of their auxiliary Fe (Extraverted Feeling). Something to keep in mind is that INFJ children haven’t quite mastered Fe yet – and the combination of strong intuition and often hypersensitive emotional awareness can make them get carried away with their imaginations and feelings. If they sense something is wrong in the emotional climate, they may imagine all kinds of terrible and horrific reasons for what is wrong.”
“Because INFJs have inferior Se (Extraverted Sensing) they can become easily overwhelmed with an excess of sensory stimulation. Being Ni-dominant types, they prefer the world of their mind and quiet places they can access their thoughts easily. As children if they are frequently in an environment of noise, interruptions, little privacy, etc,..they can become highly stressed. Things like a TV that is always on, frequent loud music, or even sharing a room with noisy brothers and sisters can be especially difficult for the INFJ.”
“Harmony in all of their relationships is a high priority for INFJs.” (Quoted in the same article from Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger.)
“While INFJs may be seen as withdrawn or even secretive, the truth is that they care quite a bit about what others think of them–sometimes too much. They take criticism very personally, and may be unintentionally hurt by others. When this happens, an INFJ may hold their hurt inside and let it stew, never really expressing how they feel. Instead of confronting the person who hurt them, they may take the less painful route and simply avoid the other person or even cut them off entirely.” (Quoted in the same article from Oddly Developed Types.)
“They are naturally very private children, but at the same time, they strongly desire to be liked.”
Lastly this quote from What’s It’s Like To Be An INFJ, In Other Words, A Living Paradox nails why, sometimes, we just have to walk away from a relationship or give it some space (a classic “crystal” trait and one I have enacted many times):
“INFJs are natural targets for toxic predators like malignant narcissists, who assume these sensitive types will succumb to their bullying behaviours. INFJs make up a large portion of survivor commnities that are healing from violation like narcissistic abuse.
Yet what predators forget is that INFJS appear to be lambs, but they’re really lions. They are extremely compassionate but they will defend themselves and others fiercely if they feel their rights are being violated. If you’ve read anything about an INFJ, you’ve probably heard of the infamous “INFJ Door Slam.” This is what happens when these normally warm, gentle individuals meet with someone who causes them to ‘flip their switch’ so to speak.
The INFJ door slam is not a malignant trait; it’s a protective measure taken against chronic bullying and injustice. It often occurs after numerous transgressions have already taken place (for example, when an INFJ meets someone who consistently talks down to them and treats them with contempt). In this type of scenario, the INFJ finally recognizes his or her worth and boundaries. They face emotional overwhelm and they need to retreat – stat. In a flash, you see them depart and probably never hear from them again. Or, if they’re in the mood, they’ll serve you with an epic manifesto of your wrongdoings before leaving forever (after all, they do tend to be excellent communicators!).” (From What’s It’s Like To Be An INFJ, In Other Words, A Living Paradox, Shahida Arabi)
See my Highly Sensitive Resources page above for more useful links relating to personality type.