“That can’t be right.”
I had just completed an Online Myers-Briggs inventory, and the result initially registered as disbelief. I was an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiver (INFP) and I didn’t want to identify with the references to deep sensitivities, daydreaming, and the arts. The individual described was intensely interested in things like feelings, bringing healing to the world, and was idealistic as a rule. To my disdain, the result was replete with pictures of carefree young women and men dancing in the middle of Woodstock-like settings.
“That is NOT me.”
In a sense it wasn’t me or, at the very least, it wasn’t a me I wanted to acknowledge. I had spent the last several years trying to become sensible, strategic, and facts-driven. Though I’d had some success, the success never came with the sense that I was living authentically. Eventually, a bout of significant anxiety led me to explore why I felt so out of sync. That’s when I discovered the four letters that would change my life…INFP.
If you’re an INFP, you may be able to identify with some of what I’ve written. Many INFP’s, especially males in my experience, initially resist embracing their type. The reasons may be numerous, but at the heart of the resistance is the sense that INFPs are soft, meek, and incapable of action. In a results oriented world, it’s difficult to embrace the sometimes overwhelmingly emotional core that characterizes our type. As such, we often end up betraying our personality by trying to become what we are not.
My quest to change type culminated on the day I entered training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. I was two years out of high school, and I felt that I was somehow incomplete; that I needed to develop a “get it done” mindset that I did not already possess. The military seemed like a natural option. I grew up the son of a career military officer, and my dad was my hero. A true ENTJ, he woke up each morning wearing a flight suit, ready to take on whatever threats may come our nation’s way, and he was literally the finger on the bomb-dropping trigger. His world was data, hard decisions, and tough mindedness.
My world was considerably less concrete. When I made decisions, they were open-ended, and I couldn’t help but take in more data. I was surrounded by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) types. I daydreamed about starring for the Los Angeles Dodgers, saving the damsel in distress, and being the lead actor in a never-ending series of dramatic and romantic roles.
Unfortunately, my fantasies didn’t seem practical. I barely graduated high school and when asked why I wouldn’t assert myself, the answer was usually something equivalent to, “Because I have better things to do with my time.”
Perhaps I could have been doing great things, but I wasn’t doing many of the things of which I daydreamed. I did play baseball, but I was more in love with the fantasy of baseball than the reality. I wanted Field of Dreams, not hours of endless grinding practices, calloused hands, and competition. I dreamed about being the lead actor in the latest Romantic Comedy, but I was too terrified to take the chance of putting myself in front of people artistically. I wanted to write love songs but didn’t want to interact with people to learn the craft. I noticed that what I was doing with my time was imagining all the things I could be doing without putting my dreams to action.
Fantasy To Reality
Fast forward to age 41, and I have happily embraced being an INFP. I’ve enjoyed experiences that prove life as an INFP can be imminently action-oriented, results producing, and fulfilling.
If you’re familiar with the Personality Hacker Car Model, you may have already recognized that in younger years I was quite naturally living out of the INFP Driver process, “Authenticity.” Referred to as Introverted Feeling (Fi) in Myers-Briggs terminology, people who lead with Authenticity experience the world through deep emotional conviction, and we enjoy internally focused worlds that are consistent with our value system. We experience our inner fantasies with intensity and clarity, even as we don’t necessarily project those realities to the external world.
As any undeveloped INFP will admit, however, a world of inner fantasies with no outer accomplishments begins to feel empty. As an Air Force chaplain, I counsel INFPs more than any other type, and I have found two patterns that are consistent with both my personal experiences and the experiences of other INFPs.
First, most of the unhealthy INFPs I counsel have not tapped into their extraverted growth function; a function referred to in the Personality Hacker model as “Exploration.” Exploration, or Extraverted Intuition (Ne), is the Co-Pilot that allows a healthy INFP to bring Authenticity into the outer world. It leads to the exploration of possibilities in any and every setting. It plays in the surrounding environment. Authenticity experiments take chances on new experiences and, for INFPs specifically, can be a great source of fun for social experimentation!
Stated simply, Exploration is how Authenticity meets the outer world. Sadly, when Exploration is not married to Authenticity, the Introverted Feeling that we associate with our personality becomes a source of pain rather than peace and happiness. If internal convictions and visions are never shared with other people, life becomes lonely. I believe many INFPs have had experiences at early ages that led to a lifelong repression of the Exploration function. A friend once conveyed that as a child he would daydream about being in the shows he would watch and that he did poorly in school because his fantasy world was so much more interesting than the classroom.
“What was the result?” I asked.
“I was put on medication for Attention Deficit Disorder.”
INFPs, it’s possible that you carry inner wounds from childhood as a result of the world rejecting what comes so naturally to you. You stopped exploring and sharing your inner world because every time you would try, it would be derided as daydreaming, fantastic, and not based in reality.
Even so, you will be healthiest and happiest bringing Authenticity to the world through Exploration, not by living as a caricature of someone else’s type or expectations. You must be the one who shows the world all the beauty that is inside while accepting that some may not appreciate your openness.
The Difficult Alternative
If you decide not to exercise your Exploration process, there is an ugly habit of which I’ve seen scores of INFP’s succumb, which is how I found myself at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. If you go to the INFP Car Model, you’ll note an Extraverted Three Year Old in the backseat called “Effectiveness.” In simple terms, Effectiveness knows how to get stuff done. People who have Effectiveness as a Driver or Co-Pilot are masters at identifying objectives and accomplishing goals. They deal with facts, data, and concrete realities.
I believe many INFPs feel an unconscious pressure to develop Effectiveness because it is so practical. When you don’t have confidence in your internal visions, and when other people perhaps call your fantasies into question, there might be just enough of a pull toward the “practical” that you seek a career that is purely data and results- oriented. In psychological theory, this is a misguided attempt to find wholeness in a process that you will never be able to develop maturely. Trying to force Effectiveness for an INFP is like giving that 3 Year Old the wheel to your personality car and expecting it to behave maturely. The 3 Year Old will drive poorly, and it will also become exhausted because, well, it’s a 3-Year-Old.
Note, however, that there are two extraverted functions in the INFP Car Model! Very often, INFP’s choose the immature 3-Year-Old process instead of the healthier Co-Pilot, Exploration. Both are extraverted processes, but many INFP’s never test Exploration because they don’t think it can be practical. When an INFP has given up on, or never tested Exploration, her natural tendency will be to find a practical action that gets something, anything, done. Enter the screaming 3 Year Old in the backseat. If you’ve given up on your dreams, or never even attempted to live out your dreams, that 3 Year Old will eventually want you to “do what works,” even if it doesn’t work for you.
I’ve spoken with too many exhausted INFPs to reach any other conclusion; an INFP will never be happy living out of Effectiveness. Exploration is where growth is at for the INFP, and it’s where you will find your happiness.
Practical Exploration Development Steps
When I first decided to develop Exploration, I had some difficulty knowing what to do. Some of what I recommend may seem overwhelming at first, but let this serve as a means for brainstorming ways you can show up in the world:
- Pursue low-threat social settings. I’m writing this article from the veranda of my favorite coffee shop in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The view is breathtaking. I see high-desert vistas and cacti. I have also spoken with three friends and enjoyed short conversations with two people I didn’t know before today. I even spoke with someone about this article, which led to insights that I hadn’t previously possessed. Interestingly, though, when I woke up this morning I had to force myself to leave the house.
Going back to the Car Model, when Authenticity marries itself to our 10-Year-Old Process, “Memory,” we may become reclusive, and perhaps even a bit maudlin. Referred to as Introverted Sensing in Myers-Briggs, Memory for INFP’s shows up as happy memories at best, and angst at worst. Because Authenticity is an introverted process, our temptation is to remain in Introversion and go straight to Memory.
Despite the temptation to jump to Memory, we will always be at our best in Exploration. Memory isn’t bad, but it becomes bad if it’s your default. A good rule of thumb… Make sure you are living in Exploration at least 50-percent of the time. Get out, experience new things, meet new people. This doesn’t mean you have to become a social animal, but put yourself in settings that will expand your horizons.
- Experiment with your surroundings. When I first started exploring the external world, a thought occurred to me that our more extraverted and sensory-minded friends probably just naturally understand: We have the ability to create the reality we want through words, phrases, colors, and even where we place ourselves among other people. I started asking questions like, “How might people respond to me differently if I wear a red shirt rather than my typical gray?” On another occasion, I overheard people talking about a 12-step recovery program and asked, “How could I offer insight that may be of help in their conversation?” Another time I met a biker and asked what it’s like to be him.
These experiences gave me a perspective I didn’t previously have, and they have collectively allowed me to become much more well-rounded in my observations about life and the world around me. Did wearing the red shirt change anything? I don’t know, but it was a fun experiment that got me into my surroundings and led to interactions that I would never have had otherwise. Have fun, play, experiment, and ask questions. The world is fun if you’ll explore!
- Find a way to make your inner world reality. This was the most difficult step for me. As mentioned earlier in the article, I had often imagined myself in various acting roles, but I had never thrown myself into any real acting role. That changed one day, and not by choice.When I was in Officer Training School for the Air Force, my commander took me aside and said, “Lt Roe, I need you to be a little zanier at hall call this week.” Hall call was an end of week ceremony where awards were given out. Think of it as the military version of a pep rally.
I was literally shaking before going “on.” I had received an alter-ego, “Death Roe,” and I sensed that I was going to fail miserably. Then an amazing thing happened. I got into character. At the time, it felt like I shut off Adam, and simply became Death Roe. In truth, though, Death Roe was in some small part a culmination of all that had remained hidden. By the last hall call, I walked out with a boa, cane, and fedora, led my squadron in song and chant and then performed a mic drop in front of a competing squadron.
I share this story to illustrate the power of Exploration for an INFP. My squadron commander saw the actor in me, and he forced me into a role that was extremely uncomfortable but rewarding both personally, and in my career! Since then I have acted in Vacation Bible School roles, and I am making plans to begin acting lessons. I’ve never been a lead, and I’ll probably never be in Hollywood, but I am learning to share what’s inside with the rest of the world. Every time I act it’s a little scary because the world is seeing a part of me that I’m most comfortable keeping hidden. There’s no joy in hiding, though; not for me, and not for you.
After spending time with my personality type, I now believe that there is a tremendous strength and productive possibility within the INFP type. We are people who value ethics, aesthetic beauty, purpose, and deep meaning. Part of the strength of the INFP type, in my opinion, is our conviction of that the world could be. There is a bravery implied in such pursuits, though, and the INFP will only be happy if she is exploring ways to bring those internal convictions and visions to the external world.
I wonder, who gets to tell you what’s “real” and “practical?” While the world of data is most assuredly real, so are the visions, the feelings, and the inner worlds that the INFP naturally experiences through Authenticity. As an INFP, you bring a gift to the world. Develop your Exploration, and the world will benefit as you share creativity, sincerity, and an amazing depth of emotion that truly makes the world more beautiful and compassionate.