I used to have a purely theoretical understanding of the ISFP personality type. I probably knew a few growing up, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to recognize them. Then I met Joel and found myself surrounded by them. His father, sister-in-law and ex-wife are all ISFPs, as is much of his extended family. A Witt family reunion is essentially an ISFP reunion. My understanding went from theoretical to very, very practical. There is nothing simple about ISFPs. And the complexity of the type is augmented by their push-pull relationship with society. An ISFP’s motivations and idiosyncrasies are difficult to understand without acknowledging the daily feedback they get from the world and how their natural wiring encourages them to respond.
Keeping that in mind, let’s talk about the ISFP.
The ISFP Personality Type
To get inside the experience of an ISFP, it’s important to acknowledge how they enter the world and how the world responds back.
Authenticity is the part of us that asks, “Does this feel right to me?” It’s concerned with core values, identity, and conviction. As an ISFP’s decision-making process (technically called the judging function), it can be both beautiful and challenging. Authenticity is the mental process most in tune with how we’re feeling at any given moment. It taps into something that is unique and at the same time familiar to everyone. The phrase “the more personal an experience, the more universal” is a very Authenticity phrase.
The challenge is that we’re not made up of just one feeling at any given moment. There are many parts inside of us, each with a different motivation, desire and/or fear. Identifying what’s in alignment with the majority of those parts can be time-consuming.
In a world that values decisiveness, an Authenticity user can feel like there’s something broken with their decision-making process. Why is everyone else so certain when I’m so often wracked with doubt? Often the Authenticity process doesn’t know what it wants until after the decision has been made, which only compounds the problem. Now an ISFP runs the risk of looking fickle to other people. Without data or metrics to back up their choices, it’s an almost impossible task to explain themselves to others.
In our very Thinker Judger society, there’s a general sentiment that “just because you feel strongly about something doesn’t mean you’re right,” but to an ISFP feeling strongly is their metric. To be socially marginalized for their natural wiring is painful, especially when they experienced each emotion so consciously. It doesn’t take long before a general strategy of avoiding those feelings emerges.
The most common strategy for an ISFP is to double down on individuality. If the world tells them they can’t compete, then they won’t. They’ll differentiate. No one can be a better version of themselves than they can, and often differentiation becomes one of the highest ideals. This is seen in artistic dress, a performance nature, or simply disavowing any need to follow other people’s templates. “I’ll do it my way.”
ISFPs and Sensing
The Co-Pilot process is Sensation, which is technically called Extraverted Sensing.
Sensation is the heightened awareness a person has of the moment and their place in that moment. Being fully present means accepting things as they are, not as you would like them to be. “It is what it is” may be a favorite quote of the Sensation process.
For other types – those that don’t use Sensation as a strength – it can be difficult to understand the interconnectedness between ‘now’ and the body. The easiest way to illustrate the relationship is to embody what it feels like when your life is in real danger. Time may slow down; you may become super conscious of your own breathing or the blood pumping in your veins. Every fiber of your being is on high alert in anticipation of having to fight for your life.
The more present an individual is to the moment, the more present they are to their body. Instead of experiencing this connection only when in danger, however, Sensation is tapped into this at all times. The byproduct of this body awareness is twofold. First, there’s a true mastery of the body, itself. And second, very little escapes the attention of the Sensation process. Reading body language may be a super power of ISFPs, as it is with all Sensation users. Subtle details that others miss are so obvious to the ISFP that it seems other people are hopelessly obtuse. The challenge isn’t in seeing the signals, the challenge is in interpreting what they mean.
The 10 Yr Old process for ISFPs is Perspectives, or what is technically known as Introverted Intuition. For types that have Perspectives in the front seat of their car, interpreting what’s going on for other people is a great strength. While they may not always be right, they’re right often enough to trust the process. They also understand its limitations and have an instinct for when they may be off. As a 10 Yr Old process, Perspectives is in the ISFP’s conscious awareness but not developed enough to be a reliable tool. All types have a tendency to utilize their 10 Yr Old process inappropriately. It’s the same attitude as the Driver process (either Introverted or Extraverted).
Getting Into a Loop
Skipping the Co-Pilot’s wisdom and merely using the Driver and 10 Yr Old is called getting into a ‘loop’, creating a feedback echo chamber where literally anything can be rationalized. In the case of an ISFP, both the Driver and the 10 Yr Old process are introverted (Introverted Feeling and Introverted Intuition, respectively), which means the ‘loop’ blocks out information from the outside world that Extraverted Sensing, or Sensation, would otherwise be picking up.
Loops generally happen in service of the Driver. If an ISFP is protecting their Authenticity process – if something is hitting them wrong or threatening their identity – they will stop taking in vital “it is what it is” information and instead jump to childlike interpretation. Already on the defensive, the most important asset to protect is the ego. Given enough time and incentive, an ISFP can spin truly impressive stories that have no basis in reality. Once the Sensation process is in service to Perspectives (and not the other way around), its mission is now to find every piece of data in the outside world to validate Perspective’s interpretation. Since a lot is on the line for Authenticity (such as one’s very identity and ego), the Introverted Feeling process will then kick into conviction, and you can pry their interpretation of reality from their cold, dead fingers.
When an ISFP does the work of staying in and honing their Sensation process, however, it could be easily said that there is no greater artistic genius possible than in this type. Almost all Sensation users (Sensor Perceivers in the Myers-Briggs system) have an element of performance in them, though for slightly different reasons. For an ISFP, performance can be a way of expressing personal truths otherwise impossible to communicate. Not all ISFPs are artists in the traditional sense, but I have yet to meet a healthy version of the type that doesn’t turn whatever they’re doing into some form of art.
When the Perspectives process is in service to Sensation – when all the information about reality is fully acknowledged and welcomed without bias – ISFPs can be a source of extraordinary insight and wisdom into people’s motivations.
My father-in-law, an ISFP who has been in youth ministry the majority of his life, has an insight into teenagers that is second to none. He couples it with infinite patience and love and has run a successful youth camp for nearly forty years.
A key challenge for ISFPs is their 3 Yr Old process, Effectiveness (also known as Extraverted Thinking). A decisive process known for getting things done, Effectiveness can be a source of pain and self-doubt for ISFPs. But it can also be used as a source of aspiration, a desire to make huge things happen. Some of the most ambitious creatives of all time have been ISFPs, selling out stadiums, winning Olympic gold medals, and influencing the way we see beauty and art. There’s something to be said for idealism. Being blind to the real ROI or cost of a venture means being willing to take on something important, but ‘unrealistic,’ and the most successful ISFPs make up the difference with sheer tenacity and an extraordinary work ethic.
It’s not a painless process. Again, using Authenticity as a Driver means feeling the full consequences of every defeat. But it also means feeling the full effects of every success. The more seasoned the ISFP – the more they accept that ‘it is what it is’ – the less bipolar the experiences feel. As mentioned in the INFP article, validation can become a fixation for people using Authenticity. The process doesn’t rely on anything that can be pointed to (data, metrics, or even human need). It can feel really lonely, judged and marginalized. Society rarely rewards an individual’s emotional experience, but they do admire conviction. Sometimes an ISFP will use conviction as a way to glean validation. As they grow into their Sensation process, however, they recognize that the world is a fickle source of validation. Validation can only truly happen from within, which creates an interesting push/pull balance of needing to frequently check in with the world and see it for what it is while at the same time resting into a self-validating relationship with oneself.
Responsive vs. Reactionary
The distinction is between being responsive vs. reactionary. If the world reflects something to the ISFP which triggers resistance, that’s the time to pay the most attention. Once the information has been fully integrated into the ISFP’s inner terrain, that’s when they can respond – either with an informed “I’ve changed my mind to align with this new information” or “After much consideration, I still take the position I took before.”
Balancing all of these processes is the key to happiness for an ISFP. It’s not easy – much of the experience is hard inner work. In exhaustion, an ISFP can simply say “screw it,” cement a 10 Commandments-like value set and shut off having to think about it again. And while being fully in touch with one’s core values is essential for this type, being unwilling to reevaluate them from time to time stagnates their experience. Eventually, the world passes them by, and they can become embittered that their world is being taken away from them. “I didn’t change, you changed!” is the sentiment, not recognizing that all things change over time. On the flip side, the more adaptable an ISFP stays – the more willing they are to engage with the world around them and their Sensation process – the more flexible they become while reserving their intensity for their artistic expression.
Whatever overwhelms them can be alchemized into art, and everything else can be seen philosophically. C’est le vie – Such is life.
“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
― Eckhart Tolle