I am approaching 50 years old, and I find myself experiencing a significant transformation. I thought the transition I made at 40 was big, but this one is much bigger… and way more painful. If you know anything about Chiron Returns, you know that this is a pretty standard experience as someone approaches the half a century mark. (And if you think Astrology is BS, feel free to ignore this paragraph. The rest of the article doesn’t deal with Astrology.)
To help me through the toughest year of my adult life, I decided to hire a therapist. Somehow, I lucked out and ended up with an INFP as my therapist. Nora is a few years older than me, so she has experienced some of the transitions I am currently going through.
What INFJs Can Learn From INFPs
As an INFJ, why do I say that an INFP therapist is exactly what I need right now? Because INFP’s Primary cognitive function is Introverted Feeling or “Authenticity.” So, they’re more capable of identifying what they’re feeling than I am.
I can tell you what I am thinking all day long because my tertiary function is Introverted Thinking. Still, I struggle with subjective EQ (Emotional Intelligence) because my primary feeling function is extraverted (Extraverted Feeling or “Harmony”).
An INFP whose dominant cognitive function is Introverted Feeling will have a better grasp on all the nuances of emotional expression because they can identify a world of emotion within themselves. That’s why so many artists are INFPs. They recognize that the more personal an emotion, the more universal it is, and they find beautiful ways to express the human experience. INFPs are continually checking in with what “feels” right because Introverted Feeling is their primary decision-maker. Try forcing an INFP to do something contrary to their inner conviction. It isn’t easy! It’s like they have this internal temperature gauge. When their emotions are in alignment, they are all in and unstoppable. If their inner chorus is not in alignment, they are immovable.
Nora is the one who helped me realize I struggle to discern between thoughts and feelings. I’m not sure why that surprised me, but it did. I’m a Feeler, but I’ve spent a large portion of my life avoiding my feelings and living comfortably in the emotionally disconnected part of my cognitive function stack – Introverted Thinking or “Accuracy.” I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I used to mistype as an INTP, which is pretty common for INFJs who over-identify with their tertiary function of Accuracy.
As an INFJ, my Thinking and Feeling functions are in the Copilot and 10 yr old positions of my Car Model, so these functions are going to be more conscious to the INFJ and tend to blend together more than the Driver and Inferior functions. INFPs Driver is their Feeling function. They know it as well as INFJs know Introverted Intuition (the Driver for INFJs). INFPs have spent so much time with their inner emotional experience they appear masterful compared to my bumbling attempts to understand what is going on for me.
My appointments with Nora all have a similar theme. I tell her something, she asks me how it made me feel, I tell her a thought, she asks me again how it made me feel, I keep telling her thoughts, and this goes on until one of us comes up with the right word. When I try to force myself to name a feeling, it’s like I am looking at the containment structure of a nuclear reactor. I have all the emotions secured under a sealed dome with an exhaust that leaks only guilt. I have many mechanisms in place to avoid a meltdown (i.e. emotional overwhelm).
Emotional Intelligence and the INFJ
Introverted Thinking is an INFJs number one defense mechanism against feelings we can’t control. When emotions start bubbling up (like an overheating reactor), panic starts to take hold. I get the sensation of being punched in the chest. So, my habit is to go to that inner thinking place that deconstructs data without the “burden” of emotion.
For instance, when I found out my 23-year-old nephew had committed suicide, I felt a gaping hole in my chest that you could drive a truck through. Every time I imagined him as an adorable toddler, a tiny baby, or a laughing teen, the pain would sear through me, and I would drop to my knees and sob. It was too much in those early days, so I took refuge in Introverted Thinking and started collecting data. Why did he do it? What was going on in his life? What happened on the day of his death? What happened in the days leading up to it? Who could I talk to and gather more data? The objective collection of data provided me enough distance from the pain to let my mind and heart get used to the fact that an important part of my future was gone – and there was nothing I could do about it.
Does that mean INFJs have no EQ? No, we are still Feelers and we have mastered the art of understanding other’s emotional experiences and regulating the emotions of those around us. We are magicians when it comes to navigating another’s emotions. It’s our own we struggle with.
Extraverted Feeling is not a subjective feeling function. It is extraverted, so it is more objective. It takes in outside world feedback and determines the best course of action based upon the needs of everyone else. So, FJs (ISFJs, ESFJs, INFJs, ENFJs all use Extraverted Feeling as a dominant or auxiliary cognitive function) may experience an emotion, but if they realize it will cause conflict, they may suppress their emotion in preference for others. This, of course, isn’t an ideal situation and explains much of the resentment and anger FJs feel. If nobody ever teaches an FJ to honor their feelings, they will learn at an obscenely young age to bury their emotions and only feel what everyone tells them to feel. In fact, they can get really good at reading other people’s emotions in an effort to mirror the audience’s approved emotion and not appear socially inept. Occasionally, their spidey sense fails, and they express the wrong emotion or take on a fight that is not theirs to get someone else’s emotional needs met. (INFPs do this but only after they have found the will to fight aligns with their idea of justice. INFJs can willingly take on a battle they don’t fully understand or care about if it will make someone else happy.)
Most FJs will insist that they are getting their emotional needs met by maintaining emotional harmony with the rest of the world, but this is smoke in mirrors. In reality, they often feel bitterly angry, resentful, and judgmental over the burden it is placing on them. And if they never allow themselves to feel what they want to feel, you may see their bodies break down and manifest as auto-immune disorders such as Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue. (This is a theory of mine based upon observation as a therapist. I have no references to back it up, although many of the professionals I have mentioned it to agree with me.)
Objective EQ vs. Subjective EQ
So, at the age of 47, I have come to realize that the only emotions I experience are the ones my mind tells me to have based upon the expectations of the people in my life… and guilt – because that’s what keeps me in this cycle. A year ago, I would have insisted I had EQ based solely on the fact that I’m a Feeler. But in reality, I’ve never experienced an emotion that I didn’t pass through a ton of filters:
- Is this emotion okay to have?
- Who will be hurt by this emotion?
- What are the long term consequences of this emotion?
- Will this emotion create conflict?
- Is it worth the hassle?
Very few subjective emotions can meet all those criteria, so the emotion goes unexpressed. Buried alive. For the INFPs reading this article, who are asking, “How the hell do you bury an emotion?” I will explain it. I convince myself I’m not experiencing the emotion. I have received the consistent message that my feelings can’t be trusted because when I allow them to take over, the world reacts negatively. In the world of Extraverted Feeling, majority rules. So, if the people in my life insist my emotions are inappropriate or triggering, I will get the message that my emotional gauge is broken. This doesn’t mean that every emotion every FJ has ever experienced has brought negative feedback. But when your primary decision maker is Harmony, it only takes a few negative reactions from the world to get the message that anyone who rocks the boat is likely to be ejected from the boat.
Alienation is terrifying. Assimilation is safe.
INFPs have this amazing ability to stay true to themselves in spite of widespread social pressure – usually from FJs. I used to think it was vanity that made the INFP stand firm, and it would drive me insane when I was attempting to get everyone’s needs met, and an FP was standing firm as the lone outlier. But a piece of me envies their ability to resist peer pressure on behalf of their integrity. In reality, if we could combine an INFP with their subjective EQ and an INFJ with their objective EQ, you would have super EQ! The individual and the outer world would be getting their needs met in the proper order.
Getting In Touch With Your Inner Truth
When my therapist asks me to identify an emotion I felt or am feeling, I struggle to differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Occasionally, she will say, “It sounds like you are feeling [fill in the blank].” But now that she realizes subjective emotions are my Achilles heel, she won’t fill in the blank anymore. My homework is to set an alarm and check-in with myself throughout the day to determine what emotion I am feeling. Since I don’t have the words, I bought myself a Feel Wheel from Amazon. I admit I feel foolish using a tool that we prescribe for Thinkers. Still, I believe my inability to identify my authentic feelings has resulted in a life that is out of alignment with what I want.
Like many INFs, I had a painful childhood. I started shutting down emotions when I was just a kid because they had become a liability. Thirty-five years later, I am 80% robot. I have a mountain of desires I have denied myself in preference for the needs of others. Each decade that passes feels like it’s one more decade wasted. (That said, we have had quite a few INFJs write in saying they’re 70+ years old and so grateful to know these things about themselves, even at the twilight of their lives. It’s never too late to take charge of your life and start asking for what you want.)
What happens when you realize that your life is based upon emotions you have only the barest comprehension of? Love can be mistaken for a lot of things: loyalty, affection, friendship, obligation, pity. At some point, you look yourself in the mirror and realize that there is a part of you that you have consistently dishonored. This part of you is usually a small child who had dreams and visions of a future that bears no resemblance to your present. Sometimes this is a good thing. Being an astronaut is frightfully inconvenient and hard to achieve. But if the childhood version of your future is someone with confidence and self-love who stands tall and is admired by others, that’s not so hard to attain. In fact, I would say it is absolutely imperative.
How To Get Back on the Right Path
So, what do you do when you realize you have strayed from the path your heart still longs for? As I wrote that last sentence, I realized something. What if we disconnect from our emotions because we have disconnected from our heart’s desire? Many of us are living a life we wouldn’t have chosen if we thought we had a choice. I often wonder what my life would have been if I had continued with my obsession with astrology when I was 12. If I had the courage to tell my parents that their choice of religion was not mine. It would have required years of fighting, which I wasn’t willing to do – but I wish I had. I wasted another 25 years in that religion and didn’t leave until my parents were dead. If that’s not the most co-dependent thing I’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is.
There is a part deep within all of us that wants what it wants. What would happen if you honored that part of you? (For some of you, that last sentence triggered a fear in you that’s not unlike a red hot brick sitting in your stomach. You are very familiar with that brick. It pops up now and then, and you find ways to distract yourself from it until it goes back into hibernation, and you once again win the battle of convincing yourself that life isn’t so bad.)
Still, the dreams are only dormant.
I believe we are here to fulfill our dreams, and our dreams tell us who we are meant to be. That hot brick sitting in your stomach, poking you now and then, will keep it up until you listen to it, or your body starts to break down. At some point, though, the pain exceeds the fear, and you must act.
I know the idea of that is terrifying, but I have a plan of action for you.
Start working on yourself – today. Don’t put it off another minute. It’s not selfish to work on yourself. Your relationships will be stronger the more you stop blaming others for your mental state and start recognizing that you are permitting everything in your life. You are in control. Especially if you’re an adult. You may have gotten the message as a child that you had to do the bidding of others, but that is no longer the case. Meditate, exercise, do whatever you need to do to start feeling good about who you are and what you need.
Start asking for what you want. If asking for what you want is such a foreign concept that you honestly have no idea what you want, start saying what you don’t want. Start listening to your gut. How do you know when your gut is saying “Yes” versus “No?” Personally, “yes” is a peaceful feeling of alignment; “no” feels like panic. Give yourself permission to change your mind.
For instance, I recently attended a health expo and signed up for a healing that promised to be incredibly powerful. I had just told my husband a couple of weeks before that I didn’t want to be married anymore after 18 years. I was going through the most painful experience of my adult life. After signing up for the healing, my gut started twisting into knots. Something in me told it was going to be too much. To back out would make me look like a total flake and mess up their signup sheet, though. Still, I had to honor that still small voice to encourage it to keep talking to me. So, I backed out, scribbled my name off their sheet, and walked away. I felt massive relief, and the knot in my stomach unraveled.
Stop telling yourself you need to do things you don’t want to do just because you are afraid of inconveniencing others. Honor yourself. It isn’t as much of an inconvenience as we usually think. And if it is, it doesn’t matter. How often have you willingly inconvenienced yourself for someone else? It’s time for some payback.
If you honor yourself and follow your heart, will you finally gain some emotional intelligence? I don’t know. I’m still in the midst of this journey. But I do feel like I am steadily correcting coarse and navigating my way back to the path my heart longs for. And checking in with my Feel Wheel every day and journaling about what I’m feeling is also helpful for learning to recognize the emotions coming up.
INFJs have a lot to learn from INFPs, and vice versa. We could overcome a lot of the misunderstandings between these two types if they just realized that the other has the key to the thing that causes the most pain. INFPs can teach INFJs to honor their subjective emotions, and INFJs can teach INFPs when it’s important to fight and when it’s okay to cave. INFPs will experience less judgment from the outside world if they realize that not everything is an identity level threat. And INFJs will experience less resentment and anger if they stop compromising their identity. These two types remind the world to honor the emotional experience of the individual and the collective. One without the other would be chaos or tyranny.
One of the biggest lessons I am learning in all this, beyond learning to listen to myself, is the need to be patient. Growth is a slow process. Pay attention to what feels right and what doesn’t feel right and trust yourself. If you’ve spent your life telling yourself your emotions are untrustworthy, it is going to take time for you to unlearn those habits. Be kind and patient with yourself and be patient with the people in your life as they learn how to interact with the emerging you. As you grow and change, you will start noticing the people in your life growing and changing, too. Or you won’t, and the gulf between you will become ever wider until there is no doubt what your next step is. One way or the other, your self-esteem will be in a better place, and you will be better able to cope with the changes you want in your life.
Go forth and claim yourself. The destination is worth it.