The healthy INFP: what migth that look like?

Coming to understand yourself is the single most important thing you get to do in your life!

…or, as Aristotle once said…

What more can I add to that? Surely, my opening statement speaks for itself. One of the best tools I have used for coming to know myself has been the Myers-Briggs personality type (MBPT) indicator, even though I spent a lot of time thinking I was INFJ and now believe I am INFP (already covered in my self-development blog yesterday – “Who I am really: Exploring the “dreamer“). I also find benefit from working with Enneagram type, in which I come up as a Nine – the Peacemaker, which reads like yet another brochure of my personality highs and lows, especially the bit about being lovers of peace and harmony (loathing conflict and stress) and making a lifetime hobby out of trying to achieve mind-body balance. Putting your Enneagram with your MBPT can be a powerful two pronged approach to self-scrutiny because it adds some sense of depth to the overall picture you are starting to form, kind-of like adding some paint to the outline you’ve put down on paper. You can quickly do your Enneagram assessment online here.

These help-mate tools can also help diagnose issues you may have had in the past, which is a rich hunting ground of ways to improve in the future. In my case, finding the INFP piece of my jigsaw enables so many other odd pieces to fall into place, topics I’ve discussed in this health-oriented space before, such as why was I living my life as though I was almost an entirely different person for parts of my early-adult life? Why did I seemingly ditch the deeply inwards-focussed, feelings-oriented, harmony-loving preferences of my first one to two decades to become this other, more extroverted and messy (messed-up!) individual? Now I realise from my reading that the INFP, more so than any other type, tends to try on different identity possibilities to see which one fits, I really get it…and I can let myself off the hook for what might otherwise seem like my “flawed” character inconsistencies. As my Extroverted Intuition (secondary function) came onboard in my late teens and early twenties, I was simply playing around with this highly-creative, experimental function to invent and reinvent myself, throwing myself into unusual situations that would (one way or another…) stretch thus grow me, over and over again. In other words, it was necessary as part of the process of self-development.

So, finding a good book about your personality type can feel like someone took down the autobiographical novel you never wrote; likewise, a good video or podcast can be like going for coffee with that one person that really, totally understands you…you know, the one you never met! The two resources I am enjoying the most right now are “The Complete INFP Survival Guide” by Heidi Priebe and Matt Sherman’s YouTube channel and podcast “Geek Psychology“, plus there are countless articles addressing all MBPTs on Psychology Junky.

Of course, I know by the age of 53 (as I am) that almost no one experiences life in quite the intense way that I do (the unique blend of functions that constitutes the INFP type makes up just 2% of the population) but to discover there is science behind the intensity of a lifetime’s experience is incredibly cathartic. Its a bit like realising that when you blend this colour with these three colours in a certain order of priority and with the stagger effect you get with the fact that some of those colours get added sooner and others much later, you can better see the rainbow-coloured being that approximates who you are and where you have been in your life. You can let go of your hang-ups, let other people off, let yourself off and get on with things…the way they are. Because, things are just what they are, this is the hand you were dealt and now you know where your strengths and relative weaknesses lie, you can work with those to become the best possible version of yourself instead of banging your head on a brick wall trying to make an indent with skills that are lower down or missing from your stack of functions.

A world full of INFPs, or any other same personality type, simply wouldn’t work and there are probably just the right number of them to keep things ticking over. Of course, being an INFP, you often feel disappointed, frustrated, irritable or angry with other people for their thoughtlessness (even if only at the subliminal level…you may not even realise how bothered you are!) and, of course, you wish the world and its ways were infused with just a little bit more heart. Yet there is peace to be found in at least understanding yourself and your own motivations more. There are also compensations to be found in the INFP’s deep and complex inner world, and in a rich creativity that comes with an extroverted, thus outward pointing, boost factor that comes from using this creativity via your Extroverted Intuition function, which can take many forms and feed into all kinds of success stories and careers if we run with it. We can still make a big difference, in our own inimitable way.

Reading about the INFP childhood, its traits, positives and pitfalls in Heidi Priebe’s book (which covers every stage of life in a lot of detail) has been monumental. I can clearly see how the way things were handled less than optimally, or not presented in the best way for supporting my gentle evolution, according to my personality type, during the years that I was being reared and processed through the schooling system, has left gaps in my sense of self where there is still this little INFP child cowering in the corners, reacting just as she must have reacted back then (or perhaps couldn’t fully react at the time for fear of drawing unwanted attention). This small, overwhelmed part of me requires my loving and aware attention now….and that self-nurturance gets to be even more targetted now that I know more about my type, as an extension of the inner child work I was already doing as an ongoing process.

Each function of your MBPT stack activates at a different phase of your life: the primary function is there at the start, the auxilary function comes online during your teens and early adulthood, the tertiary function takes up to around age 30 to develop and the inferior function starts to develop after 30 and may not really get into its swing until you are in your middle years, of course all dependent on how much self-development you are open to. Knowing about this and working with it, of course, helps.

My senses became completely overwhelmed during the exploratory Extroverted Intuition (auxiliary function) growth phase, when I put myself through a spin cycle of intense experiences. By my 30s, when Introverted Sensing (my tertiary function) came on board and turned my awareness towards “sensing”, I would likely have turned to look fondly backwards at a time when my senses felt far less overwhelmed than they currently were…and landed on the quiet, safe domestic routine that I had enjoyed as a geeky teenager living with older parents, lost in my own world, including various forms of creativity (art, books, writing, music..). To this day, those teen years spent in my bedroom stand out as the calm, contented time of my life and my INFP husband feels just the same about his old attic room, playing his records with his nose in a book. No surprise that I set about recreating that feeling and continue to do so (we both do) and the result is a high-quality, extremely calm and much prioritised domestic routine.

The thing is, I have largely stayed there, in my sensory curated domestic experience…or you could even say I have had to stay there…ever since my tertiary function jumped on board in my 30s, because that was when my health crashed and my senses became so oversensitive to the sensory world that I don’t have much alternative. Is there are link? Is this something I have in common with other INFPs, many of whom inevitably have chronic health issues?

It was this “problem” with my sensing function that first attracted me to the INFJ with its extroverted sensing function in inferior position. I thought my senses were going out into the world and picking up on too much of the detail!

Now, I see how its more a case that I have introverted (inward-looking) sensing and that it, therefore, focuses on the subjective, internal world of personal experience and compares and contrasts new experiences to past experiences and memories. If there is a whole lot of trauma lurking in some of those sensory experiences “from the past” then these are likely to get triggered every time the INFP comes into contact with them, because they take those sensations so deeply into themselves for processing. They may be seeking certain good sensations from the past for comfort and actually hitting upon far more challenging ones from other experiences, causing interfence, like a sort of sensory static on the line. Of course, all senses relate to the body, where the five senses reside, but when the fixation is on the internal body sensation “this is happening inside of me” more so than “this external thing feels cold/sharp/whatever” (which allows you to disassociate or remove yourself from the cause) it makes it doubly personal, invasive and fear-inducing.

These realisations about my sensory function shed huge insight on the progression of my chronic health conditions, which hinge on this oversensitivity factor, whereby a cacophony of pain sensations frequently arise inside my nervous system, provoked by certain everyday stimuli yet feeling completely out of proportion to the actual exposure. I have tried all kinds of approaches to healing from this, including that I have neutralised the emotional content of any traumas themselves (yet the nerves in my body seem not to have receive the memo and are still lagging far behind…). I am now quietly optimistic that having insight into my INFP personality type may open up a new potential to explore ways I can reinforce more of the comfort sensations that have happy associations (I have always tended to collect such things…) and use those to over-ride and neutralise those that still feel so negatively loaded. Its work in progress and began even before I realised I was an INFP but now I realise why it really might work, if only I redouble my efforts and apply them in a more targeted way, like a therapeutic dose of positive sensations when needed.

It seems, all INFPs benefit from this sensorily curated approach to life sooner or later, whether or not they have any issues with their health, but when “the quiet life” feels enforced by outside experiences (as in, finding the outside world too much or even too painful to take part in) this inevitably raises questions about experiences that might have got stuck along the INFPs developmental route to mature adulthood. If scars exist then it can be asked whether the sensory overwhelm can be reversed or softened via a more proactive psychological approach, specifically addressing the kinds of experiences that may have particularly provoked the INFP’s sensibilities along the way. For instance, I know that many of my sensory triggers arose when I was trying on personality profiles that “weren’t really me” in my younger adult life and I wonder if making peace with that era, via the new understanding that “I did nothing wrong”, I was just being experimental as is typical INFP, will help me to recover myself.

There’s also the phenomenon of “grip stress” which I have written about before from the context of INFJ types (INFJ grip stress sheds light on chronic pain). This is where the individual is under so much stress that they become the hostage of their underdeveloped inferior function. With INFJ, this inferior function is Extroverted Sensing but with INFP it is Extroverted Thinking. Though I was off-track with the INFJ theory for myself, I wasn’t that far away from what happened to me during such times because INFP grip stress can also look fairly messy and feel like an out-of-control downward spiral, especially to a personality type that prides itself on its personal integrity and love of keeping the peace. For the INFP, grip stress looks a lot like becoming suddenly closed-minded, severely critical of self or others, overly rigid and structured and a little bit of a control freak. These “grip” episodes are when you aren’t behaving strictly “like yourself” (a sort of alter-ego) but, depending on how much stress is going on, they can start to occur with alarming regularity if not recognised for what they are at the time. For me, this was the beginning of the wake-up era as “not liking myself” and feeling ashamed, many times over, became a catalyst for self-development and positive change during my early 30s.

The inferior function tends not to jump properly on board, thus develop in more positive ways, until a person reaches their middle years as I mentioned (so, I realise, I can let myself off the hook for some of those early-days “grip” moments, especially given the intense stress I was under). Seeing that my inferior function is Extroverted Thinking, a function I have baulked at using for much of my life (never a big fan of rigid structure, timetables, protocol or rules!) I know where I now need to do some work. This helps to reinforce many improvements I have made over the last year, as I came to realise that a degree of structure is not only necessary (even for me, the arty one!) but will help in all aspects of my life, from health stability to realising my creative goals. Just as I have put forwards various suggestions lately, such as instigating a positive morning routine, taking regular breaks, daily meditation, getting into healthier eating habits, prioritising movement, logging your health patterns or winding down for a powerful night’s sleep, I see how I could continue to benefit from giving this executive function of mine more legroom under the table as part of my ever-maturing process of thriving in my INFP life. I can use if for my health in so many ways, including that I can actively structure my days for more exposure to positive sensations versus those that trigger me. Already this year, I am starting to use more structures to write, paint, create and self-advocate far better than when I was more ad hoc about these things and I am ready to take them further now with the reminder that structre is here in my life to help and support me (not to take over)!

One of the most potent, tangible, gifts of realising I am in fact an INFP has been the feeling of “coming home” and reclaiming my rightful “type” as the dreamer. As the presumed INFJ, I think I tended to discount my dreaming quality as some sort of symptom of my poor health or fatigue, a lack of focus or direction, perhaps even laziness or a consequence of my artistic personality. Claimed as a top gift, a sort of super-power, I can feel my entire nervous system undergoing a shift. At times when I’m not focusing on this latest fixation, reading and writing about being an INFP like its my new passion (can you tell?), I’m not sure if I’m imagining it but, I keep feeling like I’m falling into a sort of swoon of dreaminess, my mind going blank, like falling into a deep well backwards. Its also like I am giving myself permission, at long last, to stop thinking all the time and the uncharacteristic quiet in my mind is almost deafening…sometimes sending me into a spiral of panic as though my brain is failing me…but, really, I suspect there is just a major reset going on. Decades of thinking I had to overthink to survive, to fulfil my purpose as “me”, or using thinking as my geeky hideaway from an overstimulating world where I was expected to reach out and bridge the gap for anyone else in the world that was struggling (which sometimes got to feeling so much to take on that I would withdraw to the sactuary of my head), I finally realise that I’m off the hook. Feeling and intuiting really are my natural defaults and don’t have to vie for position any longer. I guess you could say I have changed my mind.

Its work in progress but halting my least necessary thoughts, asking them to move aside a little and then allowing my feelings to take up more space, as they really should if I am working to my strengths (learning your MBPT is all about learning how to work with your strengths and know which functions are always going to be your weaker spots, thus best left to someone else!) is a start. Suppressed feelings have often felt like one of the core issues of my life and now I know why…so, its time to allow them to come to the surface and to express them (which uses up my top two functions) and then to carve a healthier relationship with my senses whilst putting into practice any structures, routines or systems that feel like they will help me to thrive and stay in more balance (so, tertiary and inferior functions jump on board). The result of this collaboration would be to feel freer and less burdened by unnecssary concerns or preoccupations, which is a start in the right direction and I look forward to it coming into shape.

This potentially connects back with my Enneagram Nine in its healthiest version, where we nines stop believing our voice and feelings are not welcome. We connect with ourselves authentically and hold space for others to do likewise, inspiring and encouraging along the way….all things I hope and intend to do through my continued sharing and in my life.

2 thoughts on “The healthy INFP: what migth that look like?

  1. I’m an Enneagram 9, too, if I remember correctly. Like you, I have an INFP domestic partner. It can create a lovely, imagination, nurturing home…. And also exponentially exacerbate the challenges caused by our shared limitations! We’ve had to spend some time figuring out how to manage doing what needs to be done when we share the same challenges!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we are both very good at “mañana” especially at the weekends when we would rather hunker down, listen to good music, chat for hours, eat good food and tip our chairs back in the garden or sink into a sofa rather than do housework and repairs. Neither of us is any good at persuading us both that we need to get out and see more people as we just don’t seem to need that, we are so content and self-contained. Thank goodness for crafts and musical instruments (he practices his guitar while I paint, sew or play whistle). I personally think a relationship where there is no serious friction is great though as its so calm and, as you say, nurturing and it saves a whole lot of wasted energy being in constant friction with each other to put into all the other things we’re into, self-development included (we both work at that).

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