The INFJ Drive for Self-Preservation
Living as an INFJ often feels like being a walking, talking set of contradictions. For example, I am both a people person and a hermit. Led by intuition and emotion, but with a scrutinizing intellect. Lover of organization and structure, but somehow find true organization just outside my grasp!
As an INFJ and therapist to INFJs, there is one contradiction that I consistently see causing us deep pain and confusion, and it goes something like this:
When it comes to those we care about, our normal mode is nurture, nurture, nurture. It’s automatic, reflexive, and sometimes seems to happen even when we are specifically trying not to get sucked in.
We can function this way for a while. Then, somewhere along the line a switch gets flipped— and suddenly the emotional toll of constantly meeting others’ needs hits us like a ton of bricks.
At this point, all we want to do is disconnect from others and find solitude where we can start to feel like ourselves again. From the outside, this switch looks abrupt and random. On the inside, it’s been building for a while, and it feels like we are fighting for our emotional survival.
It’s as though we are either living “out there,” disconnected from ourselves and strongly plugged in to those around us… or we are dwelling within, phones on silent while we direct our energy inward toward making sense of our own experiences.
We ping-pong from outer living to inner living, finding it painfully difficult to connect with others and with ourselves at the same time.
The drive to connect outward
According to the Myers-Briggs, “Harmony” (or Extraverted Feeling) is our second strongest personality quality, or our “Copilot.”
Our drive for Harmony means that our finger rests more on the pulse of what others are feeling than on what we feel. We “read the room” automatically, and unconsciously become who we sense others need and want us to be.
It’s a gift that goes far toward establishing (or restoring!) connection and good feeling within our relationships.
And, at first, the experience of outward connection feels sublime… we’re swimming in a current of empathy giving and intimate emotional connection that feels natural and profoundly meaningful.
For this reason, INFJs are sometimes mistaken for Extraverts among those who do not know us well, but experience our wholehearted style of relating to others.
However, since Harmony is our “Copilot” function – not our deepest and most innate way of moving through the world (more on that below!) – eventually it takes its toll. We feel worn thin as others begin to take for granted our unwavering support.
The precedent we’ve set of generous emotional giving can create an assumption in others that we don’t need the same in return.
We may suddenly awake to the reality that our relationships are functioning in a one-sided way— that we are not seen, known, or supported by the people we witness and care for.
At this point, we often feel a mild (or not so mild) panic that if we express our needs and reach for understanding, we will discover that we were only valued for what we could give. We are afraid that if we bring our needs to others, we will wind up rejected and alone.
So we grit our teeth and bear it until we can no longer function, at which point an explosion (or implosion) is coming that actually can negatively impact our relationships.
The Break— and Drive to Connect Inward
These times of intense loneliness and pain within relationships drive us to make a sharp u-turn away from directing our empathy and support outward.
We plunge deep into our own interior life of thoughts, feelings and experience. The intensity of this change of direction usually matches the degree to which we’ve been worn down by others’ needs, and are starving to meet our own.
It usually does not feel like an option to remain connected to others during this time, since being around others triggers our drive for Harmony involuntarily. So, this abrupt change is usually confusing and hurtful to those around us, especially for those who have come to rely on our outward-directed care.
But the drive to disengage outwardly is not just a movement away from others— it’s a vital movement toward self-connection, the foundation of our balance as INFJs.
We do this by using our strongest personality quality, our primary way of navigating the world: “Perspectives” (Introverted Intuition). Through our perspective-driven intuition, we “take the elevator down” inside— past the ground floor of external relationships, into the heart of our own inner life.
With this inward-directed Intuition, we explore and process our thoughts and feelings. We trace out patterns inside, and slowly piece together the intensely-felt elements of our experience into something coherent and whole.
We find and knit together all the feelings we’d lost touch with— shaping ourselves back into independent human identities after operating as a vessel for others. In effect, we are re-learning and reconstituting ourselves.
When I spend too long in the realm of outer connection, I am not “put back into order” internally until I have taken the elevator down to do the work of reconnecting with myself in this way. Inward exploration helps me stitch myself back together, so that I know my own mind and feelings.
This is where the creative life of INFJs often yields its bounty. What appears to others as hermitage and withdrawal is, in fact, a visionary, transcendent time of actively gleaning new insight and wisdom from inner exploration. We go down into the storied “Underworld,” and bring back a renewed understanding of the great themes of life which are at play in every heart.
However, our lives are not often set up to give us the time we need to reconnect with ourselves. For example, many INFJs report never feeling lonely— their attention is so frequently demanded by family, work, or social relationships that they are always operating at a deficit of internal connection.
And yet, if we have the space to really take our time connecting internally, there will usually come a point when our drive to connect outwardly resurfaces. And on it goes— connecting with others until depletion calls us within, then taking the elevator down until we yearn for connection without.
The Drive for Self-Preservation
According to the Enneagram (another system for identifying temperament) we each not only have a primary “type,” but also one of three instinctual drives:
Social: The drive to connect with others collectively— to orchestrate and revel in group experiences.
Sexual (or “One-to-one”): The drive to connect with one other person at a time in deep emotional, intellectual or physical communion.
Self-preservation: Though this is usually referred to as the concrete drive for physical survival, among types that are both Introverted and Intuitive it tends to manifest as the drive to connect inward, to oneself, as a means of emotional, intellectual and spiritual survival.
Everyone experiences each of the three instincts to some extent, but we usually have a preference for one, a secondary draw to another, and feel somewhat disconnected from the third.
For example, I am primarily a Self-Preserving type, followed by a desire for Sexual (One-to-one) connection. I experience the Social instinct less frequently, and when I indulge, I find it more draining than one-to-one connection.
Each INFJ has their own relationship to the three instincts— the ordering of your preferences might look quite different from mine. However, I think it likely that many of us experience Self-Preservation as our first or second instinct, though we may find it hard to disengage with others to tend to it.
Whatever the ordering of your instincts, do you begin to see the same pattern as with Harmony (Extraverted Feeling) and Perspectives (Introverted Intuition)? Whether we relate more to the Social or Sexual instinct, that outward drive for connection likely alternates with an inward need for Self-Preservation, or self-connection.
Creating a Path Between
We’ve just walked through one of the struggles at the heart of most INFJs: The need to be connected with ourselves and with others, and our difficulty doing both at the same time.
Yet, we can foster our ability to move more nimbly between the two, at less cost to ourselves and our relationships. Here are three ways to grow our capacity:
1. Create a daily practice for taking the elevator down to connect with your own feelings and needs.
INFJs often need the help of some structured practice for engaging our Intuition to regularly excavate our feelings up into our awareness. Journaling, meditation, therapy, art, or regular talks with understanding people are a few vehicles that can provide that structure.
In my therapy work with INFJs, I’ve noticed that when excavating our feelings with someone else, we usually need to start by “monologuing.”
It’s as though all our pent-up thoughts need to be aired, seen, and witnessed, before we can move into dialogue. Pouring it all out in monologue is how we piece together the fragments of our experience.
If the therapist or friend you are talking to doesn’t understand this and wants to be more conversational from the beginning, give yourself permission to explain your need to first hear yourself and be heard. (Sharing this article may also be helpful!).
2. Learn to connect with your own feelings when in the presence of others.
This is tricky, since it is not the natural direction our feeling function flows. The goal is not to stop being Harmony seekers, but simply to not leave ourselves and our own needs out of the equation.
One thing that helps me with this is taking little breaks when with others. I visit the restroom or a private spot nearby, and scan my body and feelings to see how I’m doing.
Tense? Exhausted? Overwhelmed? Eager for more connection? It’s easier to read our own feelings when away from the presence of others.
Before heading back, formulate a plan for getting what you need.
It may be as simple as letting others know that you are tired and are going to head home. Or whispering to a partner or friend that you need some support. Perhaps not returning to the same conversation you left, but instead starting a new one with someone else. You may find that first and foremost, you need to eat or rehydrate.
3. When you start feeling a pattern of depletion in a relationship, address it as early as possible.
This goes for larger patterns of giving more than we receive, as well as smaller moments in which we reach for support and come back empty handed.
Sometimes this is symptomatic of a problem in the relationship, and it’s important to follow our instincts if this is the case.
However, even in relationships that are mainly healthy and loving, it’s possible that the other person doesn’t have the same level of empathic ability that you do, and has entirely missed that you’ve just made a bid for support.
Years ago, I experienced this with the person I was seeing at the time. I remember walking through the door and saying, “I’m having a really rough day.”
We sat down, and he focused back on the television he’d been watching. I was in complete turmoil inside… I couldn’t believe that he had ignored what felt to me like an obvious reach for support. I waited hours before I brought it up, and by then I felt extremely, painfully angry.
Needless to say, it did not go well!
What if I had turned to him a minute after sitting down, and been more direct about what I needed? “Would you mind turning off the TV? I’m really struggling and I need support.”
If we can calmly ask for what we need more directly, before it has built into resentment and pain, the chances are lower that our loved one will feel criticized, and higher that they will accept the invitation to be there for us.
Learning to forge pathways between outward and inward connection is possible for INFJs. It’s an emotional muscle we build through practice, and it has the potential to change our relationships and our lives.
We already have a strength in being able to view a situation from multiple angles, empathizing with each perspective. The goal is to give our own feelings and needs a seat at the table with everyone else’s. To pause again and again, amidst all the voices who clamor for our care, to turn to our own heart and really listen.