To the outside world, INFJ personality types are usually seen as one of the most warm and caring types. Even if the INFJ in question is very introverted, we will most often still display a very compassionate and accepting nature. We are known for being able to see all sides of a situation—and many times, all aspects of a person—and so we tend to be great mediators, and experts when it comes to human nature.
INFJs also usually know this about themselves—even if they aren’t familiar with the MBTI personality system and they have no idea what type they are. An INFJ doesn’t need to know their exact personality classification to have picked up on the fact that they can understand people at a deeper level than most others can. The warm, caring side of the INFJ is no mystery to the INFJ who is experiencing it. To us, it’s just how we are.
However, there is another side to the INFJ that is much more confusing, to INFJs themselves, and to others.
Some people call this the “dark side” of the INFJ, and while that may be somewhat accurate, what I’m talking about here is not an ongoing pattern of personality dysfunction. Instead, I’m focusing on something that happens during certain incidents with other people. It’s a vicious lashing out that lasts only seconds, but has the power to create damage that lasts for years, or results in the relationship ending forever.
This lashing out can occur in INFJs who are in the grip, have lost control to their shadow side, or are relatively healthy and have just been pushed to their limits, and then pushed over the edge. Whenever it happens, the other party involved is always shocked, and sometimes completely psychologically devastated. Afterward, the INFJ almost always feels horribly guilty and ashamed. They can’t believe they said those things or acted that way. What in the world came over them? What caused them to lose control like that?
This is something that almost every INFJ has experienced at some point during their life. I call it the “rabbit turning into the cobra,” and every INFJ has the potential for this phenomenon to occur if they are pushed far enough. It happens when an INFJ is driven into a psychological corner by someone else. The INFJ feels either:
Manipulated to an extreme degree
This usually happens in relationships where the INFJ has been putting up with bad behavior from the other person for a long time. It often happens in romantic relationships in which the INFJ has partnered with a narcissist or someone who is suffering from another extreme personality disorder, and the INFJ has come to a point where they’ve felt exploited and taken advantage of for a long time. It might happen in the workplace, if the INFJ feels that they’ve been dealing with long-term lies and corruption and they’ve hit the wall and can’t take it anymore.
It’s important to know that the INFJ “rabbit turning into the cobra” phenomenon is different than the INFJ door slam. The INFJ door slam also usually occurs under the circumstances outlined above, but it’s much less confrontational in nature. In an INFJ door slam, the INFJ cuts the person out of their life completely. They go strictly no-contact, without letting the other person know what’s going on. They simply stop returning calls, avoid that person as much as they can, and pretty much act as if the person never existed and never played a role in their life. The person on the other end of the INFJ door slam often feels hurt, and also very confused. They’re left on their own to figure out what happened between them and the INFJ, and they may never get true closure on the situation.
The “rabbit turning into the cobra” is different, very different. In this situation the INFJ lets the other person know exactly what is going on. In fact, they are so honest that it’s like they’re taking a slash-and-burn approach to the other person’s psyche. As I mentioned, the INFJ in question usually feels like they’ve been the victim of this person’s manipulation or abuse for a long period of time. During that long period of time the INFJ has been doing what they normally do with people, which is deeply observing all facets of the person, their desires, motivations, tendencies, and fears. The INFJ stores all this information in a mental vault, because INFJs keep detailed records on the psychology of every person who is close to them, whether that’s romantically close in an intimate relationship, or close in physical proximity in a workplace. If someone is regularly in an INFJ’s space, it’s guaranteed the INFJ has created a mental file on that person that they regularly update as new information becomes available.
In order for the INFJ to reach the rabbit turning into the cobra breaking point though, they must be pushed, and they must be pushed to their limit. INFJs have a great degree of self-control, and they don’t usually let themselves express negative emotions to the outside world. So, in order for this particular situation to happen, the INFJ must be pushed to the breaking point. The person who is pushing them backs them into a psychological corner from which there is no escape. They either make the INFJ feel trapped in a life situation that is intolerable, or they lay one final straw on the camel’s back and trigger the deep well of rage that has been simmering in the INFJ for quite some time.
When this happens, the INFJ first evaluates the situation to make sure there is no other choice. And this is important to note, because it happens so quickly, and when most INFJs are going back in their own mind over the events that occurred, they usually miss this part and they blame themselves for “losing control.” The truth is that the INFJ never lost control. There was a millisecond of calculation that happened at the very beginning of the event as it began to occur and during this millisecond the INFJ actually did look around at the situation to make sure that—just as they thought—all psychological exits were blocked. Once this is determined, the INFJ realizes they have no other choice, and that’s when they turn into the cobra.
When an INFJ turns into the cobra, things get ugly, fast. First, we pull up our mental file on the person. Within a split second, we locate the weapon we want to use. We choose one (or more) of the deepest, darkest truths attached to the person, we clarify it to be the most simple and cutting it can possibly be, then we bring it out into the light and slice into them with it. We always choose something that is a) completely true b) one of the person’s weakest points and c) something that they cannot accept about themselves without psychologically crumbling.
What’s really happened here is that we felt backed into a psychological corner, and so we returned the favor. We backed the person into their own psychological corner in order to escape the one they put us in, in the first place. However, when most people drive others into psychological corners, it’s like starting a small fire. Most people do not keep mental files that contain every minute detail of what makes up each person in their life, and so their attempts at getting people into psychological corners usually amount to different forms of bullying.
When the INFJ rabbit turns into the cobra, we are not engaging in bullying behavior, we are doing something entirely different, and actually much more damaging. We are setting off a bomb in the other person’s psyche, and even if they can’t process what’s happening in the moment, pieces of shrapnel slice deep into the landscape of their inner world and remain there, often for years to come.
Sometimes this is actually just what the person needs. There are certain situations in which the INFJ delivers the blow that cracks the whole foundation of the other person’s false identity, or corrupt manipulations. I’ve turned into a cobra a few times during my life (most often during my drinking days) and been shocked in later years to run into a person on which I launched a cobra attack and had them thank me. One guy told me that I “turned his life around” because I was so straightforward with him about the fact that he was a compulsive liar. This didn’t change the fact that I still felt awful about what I had done. I’m glad that it all worked out for him, but to this day, I still cringe when I think about that incident between us.
So, even though a cobra attack can sometimes shift the person into a different, more positive direction in their lives, most of the time it doesn’t. Most of the time it only results in the person who was cobra attacked feeling deeply wounded and like the INFJ went all scorched earth on them for very little reason. And the INFJ almost never feels better after a cobra attack either. We feel full of shame and guilt, and we tend to judge ourselves for being a horrible person and losing control.
I cannot emphasize how important it is for INFJs who have experienced this to forgive themselves. Please remember that you did not cobra attack someone lightly, or on a whim. You are not an abusive narcissist who gets their kicks from hurting other people. This happened because you truly were pushed to your limits, and there were many warning signs to the other person before it happened that they completely ignored. No INFJ turns cobra out of nowhere. As I said, there’s always that millisecond where we check all the psychological exits to make sure they really are blocked, and it is only then that we launch our attack. A cobra attack from an INFJ is always a matter of survival, and if we felt there was any other choice, believe me, we would make it.
If you find yourself always getting into cobra attack type of arguments with the same person, then that’s definitely a big fat red flag that you’re in a toxic relationship with them. I was in a long-term abusive relationship in my late teen years with a boyfriend who was a deeply troubled individual and I cobra attacked him all the time. It happened so often that it just felt like normal bickering to me, I didn’t even realize how dysfunctional our dynamic was, but every time we got into a fight I fought dirty—which is what a cobra attack really is. And I always used the deepest, darkest piece I could find at the moment about him. It wasn’t until years later—and lots of inner healing work—that I understood what was going on in that situation. I had no boundaries, and so he was always manipulating and trapping me, and he had no way to cobra attack me in return, so that was the weapon I was always using on him.
For the most part, INFJ cobra attacks happen rarely. But they do happen. The best thing you can do after delivering one of your own is to remove yourself from any interaction with that person and make sure you are in a safe, protected space. Then unpack what happened. What kind of psychological corner did they drive you into? What were you feeling? Why did you feel the need to cobra attack? And most importantly, how do you want to move forward with that person’s role in your life?
After you’ve answered those questions, it’s time to work on forgiving yourself. Remember, no INFJ ever wants to cobra attack. It is always a survival mechanism. You are not a bad person. The other party just blocked your exits and you did the best you could in that moment.
Lastly, thank the cobra inside of you for trying to keep you safe. The cobra is a gift, even if it feels very difficult to handle, and the cobra will always be there, coiled inside you, ready to remind you that you are not always a rabbit.
Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer, The INFJ Revolution, and the creator of Energy and Intuition for INFJs, an online course for INFJs on intuition, relationships, creativity, and more. She is also currently offering a free copy of her book Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers to anyone who signs up for her newsletter. SIGN UP HERE to get your free copy.