I had a major a-ha moment while reading “Personality Types: An Owner’s Manual” by Lenore Thomson many years ago. In the early days of being a Myers-Briggs enthusiast, I relied heavily on stereotypes to understand how the 16 types showed up. It made me a terrible profiler, but I take comfort that it’s to be expected before fully understanding cognitive functions. Worse, I underestimated certain types. Then I read Lenore’s full explanation of the function Introverted Sensing and realized what a mistake I had been making.
The ISFJ Personality Type
To get inside the experience of an ISFJ, it’s important to understand their relationship to the world and to time.
In our car model, the Driver process is Memory, technically called Introverted Sensing.
Memory is the part of us that recognizes our relationship to time and how it impacts us. We take in sensory information and then ruminate on it, integrating the things that have particular meaning to us as individuals.
The process doesn’t judge those things directly – Memory is a perceiving (or information gathering) process. What gets integrate
d within an ISFJ can be pleasant or horrifying, but it’s all part of how we become who we are, and it impresses upon most ISFJs the importance of creating as many rewarding experiences as possible.
This is why many ISFJs go into early childhood education or volunteer their time to help out children in need. Even a single act of kindness can be a game changer, as many abused Memory users know. When reading Lenore’s book on cognitive functions so many years ago, the uniqueness of the Memory (Introverted Sensing) process finally clicked for me. There are infinite combinations of experiences an individual can have, as well as an infinite number of ways we can interpret those experiences. Many ISFJs are unassuming people, unwilling to push their reality onto others. They are generally patient, taking the philosophical outlook that people have a right to see and understand things in their own time.
ISFJ’s and Harmony
ISFJs marry their Driver with the Co-Pilot process Harmony, also known as Extraverted Feeling. Harmony is the part of us that recognizes when others are in need and works to meet those needs. While the ISFJ may be infinitely patient when it comes to their own treatment, they’re fiercely protective of the people they love. Each ISFJ has a line drawn in the sand of what they’ll tolerate, and if that line is crossed a dragon can be awoken.
The challenge, as with all types, is exercising the Co-Pilot process to develop it fully. We’ve written about developing Harmony for INFJs, and much of the advice applies to ISFJs. Healthy personal boundaries and the ability to resolve conflicts (as opposed to simply avoiding them) are important for growth.
Getting Into a Loop
But this can be a tough sell to ISFJs. If a bad experience (like a fight) stays inside the Memory process playing over and over, it’s easy to see why avoiding conflict seems like the safer bet. ISFJs (like all types) retreat to their 10 Yr Old process for support. Accuracy (technically called Introverted Thinking) provides two primary strategies. Also known as the tertiary process, the 10 Yr Old is often used to defend the Driver, in this case Memory. To shield the Memory process from hurtful situations, Accuracy will get nit-picky, judgmental and aloof. Accuracy allows the ISFJ a place to become judgmental of others, finding peace in the idea that they’re not the ones being disapproved of, they’re the ones doing the disapproving. More frequently, it encourages the ISFJ to become a perfectionist, avoiding reproach by being above it.
My paternal grandmother was an ISFJ. She wasn’t the best example of the type, but she was an excellent example of how the 10 Yr old tertiary process can truly take over an ISFJ in perfectionism. She literally had plastic covering all of her furniture, and while that was to some extent generational (she died in 1995 well into her 80’s), the same need to keep everything perfect permeated every area of her life. Her need for perfectionism made her overly critical of all her children and grandchildren, and she died quite lonely.
The most developed ISFJs see the need to step back from perfectionism. The foundational desire is to create good experiences for themselves and others. Coupling this desire with mature Harmony means letting your hair down a little. Everyone’s having a good time, it’s okay if a little wine spills on the carpet. Or, the kids are pursuing their delight, a few crumbs here and there is to be expected. Human need trumps the idealism of a ‘perfect’ experience, and the environment such ISFJs create is relaxing, a panacea.
Becoming more relaxed and less perfectionistic also means integrating the 3 Yr old process (also known as the ‘inferior’) in a healthy way. Exploration (or, “Extraverted Intuition”) is both a cross and a support for ISFJs, as the inferior process is for all types.
Exploration at its best is insanely curious, and so accustomed to novelty it feels comfortable in almost any situation. It plays with its environment – pushing buttons and pulling levers – to prompt new emergent patterns. “What if” is the name of Exploration’s game.
As a 3 Yr Old inferior process this can be a source of delight for ISFJs. Travel, meeting new people, trying new foods – if an ISFJ lets themselves integrate this part of their personality it can open up all sorts of pleasant experiences. Our good friend Scott – one of our favorite ISFJs – joined an improv group to compensate for his 3 Yr old process and found himself a new home. “I wasn’t as quick as other people, and I figured improv would help with my response time. Now I do it every weekend and teach improv to other people.” If the ISFJ hasn’t had enough experience gathering new experiences, however, the Exploration “What if” question can turn pretty dark. I think of the recent Disney short “Inner Workings,” where each imagined scenario of risk taking led to the main character’s untimely demise. If an ISFJ’s imagination sees catastrophe around every corner, there is less openness to new people, ideas and experiences, and they can (as in the Disney short) find themselves willingly walking into their own coffin without having experienced any of life.
When self-protection becomes the name of the game, it’s easy to see how all units in the system collaborate to avoid harm, and that includes amping up the Accuracy process to become overly critical. This doesn’t mean letting Exploration in control of the car. It is, after all, a toddler in our illustration. And an ISFJ spending too much time in their 3 Yr old inferior process will find themselves exhausted and out of integrity with who they are. But a little goes a long way, and spending some time to open themselves up to the novel greatly improves their overall health.
As an IxxJ in the Myers-Briggs system, there can be a desire to avoid being vulnerable.
Any perceiving process that is introverted (as in, Introverted Sensing) can make the user feel like a sitting duck. Much like the Perspectives process (Introverted Intuition), once something gets in it becomes very difficult to get it out, and all IxxJs reflexively protect themselves from anyone or anything that can become a bull in a china shop (as I mentioned in the INTJ article).
But when an ISFJ exercises and develops their Harmony process they find themselves better and better at managing healthy relationships.
A dose of Accuracy in service to Harmony gives them the ability to vet people and not let ‘just anyone’ in, but in service to Harmony it won’t be unduly critical or impossible to please (as it can become when Harmony is serving Accuracy).
The most open hearted and beloved people of all time have been ISFJs.
I can’t help but think of Mr. Rogers in my youth, a man who let children know it was okay to cry, to be mad, to be themselves all while knowing (KNOWING) they were special. I can’t think of the man without getting a little choked up.
There is a delightful apocryphal story that exemplifies the impact Mr. Rogers had on people. It goes like this: “According to a TV Guide piece on him, Fred Rogers drove a plain old Impala for years. One day, however, the car was stolen from the street near the TV station. When Rogers filed a police report, the story was picked up by every newspaper, radio and media outlet around town.
Amazingly, within 48 hours the car was left in the exact spot where it was taken from, with an apology on the dashboard. It read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”
ISFJs make up about 15% of the population, and I’ve often thought, “Thank god.” When an ISFJ is at their best, they’re hard to beat out for their stoicism, kindness, patience and philosophical nature.
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