Misunderstood: How Shame and Self-Doubt Cripple INFP Writers

Violet DancerAlmost all of my clients are either INFP or INFJ writers. Each group has its own strong pattern of strengths and obstacles in writing. Each type has its own particular brand of stress that can paralyze the writing process. Through my work with INFPs, I’ve observed three major stressors that shut them down and freeze the creative muscle.

Criticism and Conflict
When I say “criticism” I mean harsh criticism. Just like any other writer, INFPs tend to do well with thoughtful, compassionate feedback on their work. But when the critique is condescending, dismissive, or controlling, the INFP is stung to the core. This type of criticism affects the INFP through the physical body first. They may notice their throat tightening up, their breathing become shallow, and their stomach start to clench or burn. Or they might go numb on the outside while their insides frantically attempt to do damage control and pull in all of their loving feelers from the outside world back into their protective shell as quickly as possible.

Conflict over their writing, or conflict within a writing group, affects the INFP in the same way. This is due to their primary function of Introverted Feeling. INFPs feel deeply, and they feel all of it. They are extraordinarily adept at navigating the emotional realm. They use emotion as a compass, an information desk, a toolbox, and a two-way radio. When others urge them to “grow a thick skin” or “brush it off” it’s akin to telling them to cut off both of their arms because that will probably make things easier for them. Not only can the INFP not do this, they shouldn’t. Plunging into the emotional ocean is what they do best, and I would argue that they can actually do it better than any other type.

Hostile criticism and conflict rip into the inner balance of the INFP and send them spinning. Added to this is a heavy dose of confusion. As a rule, the INFP doesn’t treat people insensitively unless they’re in the grip of their shadow, which only happens when the INFP is psychologically damaged, severely stressed, or ill. So when they receive insensitive treatment from others they’re at a loss to understand why. After the pain has worn off, they quickly go into investigation mode to discover the reasons behind the person’s cruel words. This leads to more energy leakage. Now, instead of spending their precious attention on their creativity, the INFP is diverting their resources to focus on another’s emotional wound. As they play the situation over and over again in their head, trying to see it from all angles, self-doubt creeps in and grows like black mold over everything they felt sure of before.

Clashing Ideals
The INFP uses their primary function of Introverted Feeling to live life through relationships and emotion. They back it up with their auxiliary function, Extraverted Intuition, which is constantly pulling in information to form patterns, sequences, and predictions about the outside world. As a result, the INFP has an incredibly sharp eye for the way people relate to each other and themselves. They see the mask, the dance, and the whole play in motion. They understand human harmony on a very deep level. And they devote staggering amounts of time to thinking about what would make the world a better place. When they have to work with individuals who are primarily driven by self-gain, greed, envy, or arrogance they can’t help but see how this keeps people small and stunts the growth of society overall.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that celebrates and amplifies self-gain, greed, envy and arrogance, so the INFP may frequently run up against those who mock their ideals of love, justice, beauty, and truth. When an INFP feels that their audience can’t possibly understand where they’re coming from, and would choose instead to uphold values that the INFP finds repugnant, they will most likely shut down and refuse to engage any further. This is helpful in the moment when the INFP needs to move away from the situation to preserve their inner balance. But much of the time an INFP will refuse to engage anymore on that subject or in that area, period. For instance, they might quit the writing group altogether or stop work on the philosophy manifesto they’ve been writing for the past year.

Because INFPs feel so strongly about their ideals and values, they might also be drawn into heated arguments about their writing before they know what’s happening. INFPs need time to choose their words, and they think carefully about the way they express themselves. Debating values with a fast-talking thinker type can leave them feeling drained, trampled, and powerless. An INFP’s value system is always the driving force behind their creativity. If it is steamrolled their creative flame wilts. As they examine the stark contrast between their ideals and the ideals of the mainstream, the INFP may fall prey to self-doubt again.

Forced to Work against Their Natural Flow
INFPs are idea machines. Their intuitive antenna picks up images, feelings, hints and implications from the simplest interaction. Their passion is ignited by diving deep into the exploration of an emotion or intuition through writing. Because the INFP is always concerned with depth over anything else, they find it hard to outline and nearly impossible to work according to rigid, structured, chronological order. They want to go down, down, down into the rabbit hole or up through the swirling constellations of stars. Moving methodically ahead in one straight line bores them to tears.

Most INFPs were trained in school or by their parents that logical organized structure is always the best way to get things done. Authority and the institutions in our culture tend to train everyone on this because our culture is obsessed with getting things done. If you’re good at checklists, to-do lists, bullet points, and schedules, you’re going to do very well in our society. However, the INFP doesn’t excel at any of these things. Their brains just don’t work like that. Instead, the mind of an INFP is like a popcorn machine, with each idea being a different piece of popcorn. And there is just no way anyone can make a popcorn machine pop in an orderly manner. You either have an explosion of hot, delicious, buttery popcorn or the machine is at rest. And that’s how an INFP’s creativity works.

Because INFPs learn at an early age that the way they think, process, create, and organize their world isn’t the preferred way of doing things by the mainstream population, many INFPs internalize a sense of shame around this. They try to force themselves to work on schedule, or “get organized” and get things done, and the shame is only compounded when these tactics ultimately don’t work. This can lead to the INFP feeling worse and worse about themselves and their work methods until writing becomes nothing but a dreaded chore, and then is finally dropped completely.

What Do INFPs Need to Be Successful Writers?
The INFP writer must have time to themselves to think, process, and recharge. They need a supportive circle of friends (a circle might only be one or two people for an INFP) who they feel comfortable sharing their writing with and who encourage their writing talent. It’s important that they feel understood by the people they choose to share their work with, and that these people share their value system and the ideals of love, justice, beauty and truth. It’s also helpful if their writer friends give them time to speak and don’t talk over them or habitually interrupt.

Every INFP I ever worked with came to me brimming with natural writing talent. These folks are so creative, so innovative and brilliant, that I’m always surprised to see the lack of self-awareness they have around their abilities. Perhaps most importantly, for INFP writers to succeed they need the self-knowledge that the way they do things IS the right way for them. They need to know that they’re right where they need to be on their highly unique INFP life path.

And if you’re interested in learning more about INFJ and INFP writers and how we work check out my book:

The INFJ Writer

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11 Comments

  • Reply Misunderstood: How Shame and Self-Doubt Cripple INFP Writers | Creations in Poetry & Words 7 October, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    […] I don’t usually post things like this or share much but I thought it was absolutely brilliant!Source: Misunderstood: How Shame and Self-Doubt Cripple INFP Writers […]

  • Reply JHolmes, author 7 October, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Great post, Lauren. You’ve answered some of the questions I have about myself and why some things bother me while others don’t. I still haven’t figured out if I’m INFJ or INFP, and, of course I’m so borderline that the Myers-Briggs results can change depending on the day. Still, great insight. Thanks!

  • Reply Brenda Knowles 7 October, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    “It’s important that they feel understood by the people they choose to share their writing with…” That’s why I love working with you Ms. Lauren. I feel so validated after reading this. Thank you!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 8 October, 2015 at 9:13 am

      You are so very welcome 🙂 I do believe INFPs will play a very important role in this planet’s future. Getting us back on track to heal the environment, human relationships, and our own personal wounds. The more INFPs out there who feel validated, the better it is for all of us!

  • Reply Brian C. E. Buhl 7 October, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Thanks for posting this. As I was reading this, I kept thinking, “This sounds a lot like my daughter.”

    When she got home from school today, I asked her if she’d ever taken the Myers-Briggs, and she said she did, and that she was INFP.

    It makes things so much clearer now. After reading this post, as well as some other articles on INFP, I feel better equipped to communicate with my daughter more effectively. Maybe I’ll even be able to help encourage her writing. I think she loves that creative outlet, but she’s stopped doing it, and I think it makes us both a little sad.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 8 October, 2015 at 9:10 am

      Oh that’s awesome! I wrote this article because I have so many INFPs in my life and I find them fascinating. I have six INFP clients, and there are four INFPs in my writing group. I also just discovered that two of my close friends from childhood are INFP. I think they’re one of the most beautiful, and most misunderstood, personality types.

  • Reply Thanasis Karavasilis 8 October, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Great article, Lauren.

    I am almost >90% on each letter of the INFP category and i can relate to almost everything you wrote here.
    Self-doubt, perfectionism, lack of organization, living in a world that promotes sociopathic behavior; sometimes it is just too much.

    Yet, where there is hope there is a way. And since the universe is indifferent to any dreams we may have, we must be the driving force behind our wants. Even if that “publish” button seems a little too scary.

  • Reply Catherine North 9 October, 2015 at 1:57 am

    You have such great insight into people, Lauren. I am so grateful for your understanding and your constant support and encouragement of my writing.

    I’m an INFP and have been told since childhood that I was too thin-skinned, sensitive and afraid of criticism, and that this was a failing and a weakness to be corrected. Since working with you, I’ve realised how much I value and benefit from feedback, when it’s given in a way that doesn’t crush my spirit.

    I especially related to what you said about INFP values often being outside of the mainstream. I think it explains why we can struggle to conform or fit into schools, workplaces and other social groups.

    You are doing amazing work here!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2015 at 10:30 am

      Thank you Catherine! Your novels featuring an INFP protagonist have gone a LONG way toward my understanding of the INFP mind and spirit.

  • Reply Al Hudgins 9 October, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Lauren, you’ve written a thoughtful piece that moves beautifully towards its conclusion in a way that is, to my cynical eyes, almost perfect. You are a compelling advocate for the INFPs you know, and for those of us sporting other Myers-Briggs letters, these are helpful reminders to keep in mind. Thank you for this particular labor of love.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 9 October, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Wow, thanks so much Al! You made my day with these kind words 🙂

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