Out of Our Depth: Editors’ Corner
, January 22, 2019
I see myself as being a relatively mature person—as having developed awareness of and reasonable facility in using several differentiated function-attitudes and having integrated them fairly well with my preferred dominant/auxiliary toolkit. But most of us believe we’re psychologically grown up, and none of us are as much so as we’d like to think. We all operate primarily in our dominant/ auxiliary default mode, and in stressful situations, our initial automatic response is to revert to caricatures of our typologies. This means that my choices are based primarily on the logical analysis of my extraverted thinking (Te) auxiliary, and although the information that feeds into those decisions includes many worthwhile intuitive insights (introverted intuition [Ni] dominant), it is often woefully short on situational awareness (extraverted sensation [Se] inferior) and almost never takes past experience into account in helpful ways (introverted sensation [Si] in the eighth position). Most importantly to this story, my tertiary introverted feeling (Fi), though quite active and influential, is predictably childish in that it’s unreliable, and I tend to distrust the emotional antennae of my extraverted feeling (Fe). I often overlook cues about people’s emotional states unless I remind myself to focus on them and, therefore, may pursue my logical course blissfully unaware of its emotional impact on others or whether they even want to hear my extraverted analysis.
I find that regularly practicing a technique for paying conscious attention to the unconscious is a powerful aid in fostering psychological development, so I work with my dreams, a practice I’ve followed for many years. My approach is not particularly sophisticated, and it certainly isn’t about interpretation. I simply record as much as I can of my dreams, then later examine them from as many angles as possible to try to understand the messages coming from that vast, albeit cryptic, resource. Understanding the typological landscape of my unconscious side has often been an invaluable tool in this work, and this was certainly the case in the following example. My analysis was informative. But the crucial difference that knowing about depth typology made wasn’t how I was able to intellectually understand what was going on; it was simply that it opened me up to the possibility that the reality of the situation included more than my conscious ego could grasp.
Around 2001, I began collaborating with a partner on a major project. I put virtually all other professional and personal activities aside in order to focus on this work; I felt it was that important. After about three years, the work was around 90% complete, needing only the final polishing, but my relationship with my partner had hit a serious snag. We disagreed on one important detail, and there was no work-around and no middle ground; it had to be either her way or mine. We both dug in our heels, and we could not proceed on other aspects of the project because we weren’t even able to talk about them. Over the course of the following months, I made several attempts to resolve the impasse. I laid out the indisputable logic of my position but got no response. I enumerated the basic facts of the situation, but her facts were very different, and there was no way to verify either set. To me, we obviously needed to have a live conversation by phone as opposed to emails. If we could only make that real-time connection, then surely we’d sort things out. But my efforts were met with silence. After putting so much work into the project, I couldn’t just give up on it, but my repeated email attempts, each laying out a more nuanced logical argument, elicited no response. Then one night I had a vivid dream:
The setting was an old European castle. A woman and girl, mother and daughter, were several meters ahead of me, and I was trying to talk with them—to tell them that I wanted to be their friend. But both kept fleeing from me, running down through ever-lower levels of the castle—including a dungeon and a 19th century laboratory. At some point, as we went deeper underground, I began experiencing the scene from their perspective. I felt their terror at being chased by this scary, intimidating man! It overrode everything, leaving absolutely no room for anything else.
In my waking life, I’ve very rarely consciously experienced emotions as strongly as I experienced the raw fear channeled by those dream figures. I woke up knowing that for the first time, I had actually visited the Feeling place of my INFJ project partner. While I had intellectually understood where she was coming from, only now did I really get it. Though I couldn’t know exactly how she was feeling, I could now somehow relate authentically to those emotional energies in general. I could empathize. The terror I felt in the dream was undoubtedly an exaggerated version of her reality. I suspect that the dream presented such an extreme version of the emotional situation because I had failed to pay attention to less dramatic hints. The unconscious is persistent. Like water seeking to level itself, the psyche pursues balance with unwavering resolve. If one continues with lopsided thinking and behavior, the unconscious keeps working to compensate. The longer and harder the ego resists, the more dramatic the breakthrough will be. In this case, it was like the bursting of an emotional dam.
By pushing an extraverted thinking conversation, I had unintentionally created an uneven playing field. I doubt that my partner understood this intellectually any more clearly than I did. But her extraverted feeling (Fe) parent read the emotional energies of the situation as those of a conflict—of threat—and her introverted feeling’s (Fi) assessment chose flight, or perhaps freeze, as a better defensive strategy than fight. She could not compete with me in the Te mode that I (and our culture) insisted upon, so my well-meant out-reaching felt like attacks to her, and my peace offering of objective discussion was like a Viking’s looming battle-axe. Rather than take part in a Te confrontation that she couldn’t win, she had changed the rules. By retreating to a place that felt safer to her, she had initiated an introverted feeling battle of attrition.
Pondering the dream further, I speculated that she had probably been represented by two people because it was both her parental extraverted feeling that was engaged in our fight and her far less mature and, therefore, far more scared, introverted feeling. In my dream experience, I saw myself from her perspective, felt the emotional reaction, and was able to truly empathize with both the frightened child and the protective parent in her. Then I knew what I had to do: I had to let it go and stop chasing her. I came to accept that our project would probably never come to fruition, and I moved on.But ironically—or perhaps predictably—without my Te battle-axe prompting the visceral defensive response, my partner was able to process things in her own way and in her own time. About a year and a half later, she reached out to me, and we completed our project rather quickly.
The experience taught me lessons that went far beyond the specific situation that triggered it. It was clearly a significant step for me in differentiating my Feeling function. I was suddenly considerably more sensitive to emotional undertones, both others’ and my own. I still tend to set those emotional cues aside lest they interfere with my objective analysis, but now I’m aware of the shortcomings of such a pure-Te approach, and I routinely remind myself to consider the emotional feel of an issue. When I do, I’m much more able to discern those energies. The dream also served as a vivid reminder of the difference between understanding from a conscious ego perspective and actually experiencing our unconscious function-attitudes on their own terms and with all their archetypal baggage. I became a little more humble and better at putting myself into the mindsets of other types. Within limits that vary from type to type, I’m able to empathize more than ever before. The experience gave me a lasting appreciation for the incredible wisdom that we all carry unconsciously and for the amazing power that can be tapped if we simply pay attention.
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