Sunday, July 27, 2008


If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs system of personality typologies, then those letters in the title will look familiar. Last night we had a blow up leading ultimately to me having something of a break down in the wee hours, followed by the worst raw rage I've felt in a long time. This morning I got up, drank a glass of milk, mowed the lawn like it was a martial art (I wielded the mower like a weapon, and I have one of the heaviest mowers I could purchase - in our 90 degree heat, I think I was going for heat stroke or heart attack), went to get more gas in the big 5 gallon gas can and practically dared the men around me in the filling station or in nearby cars to cross me, so I could pull them out of their driver's side doors while I cursed them roundly, and then I could get the beating of my life, since I don't fight, and nearly all the guys I saw were significantly younger and bigger than I (this seems to be happening more and more often, lately...). No one took my right of way or tailgated me, though, and by the time I got home I was snarling like an animal I was so beside myself, with no outlet.

And what the hell was all this about? It was about the moves I make to do my day job, vs. the way I really am and need to be at home. I'm an INFP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving). For those of you who don't speak Myers- Briggs, this means I'm an introvert who tends to look for the deeper meaning and bigger picture. I tend to be motivated more by feelings than reason, and I prefer to leave things open ended, rather than have to choose one path while discarding others. I need everyone to be OK. INFP is one of the rarest typologies, particularly among men (some of whom will actually test as something else because this typology is so touchy-feely that our society trains boys out of it). They tend to be very hard on themselves. What this means in practice, for me, is that I prefer to observe people (rather than get involved), I need a lot of quiet time to dream, I will rationalize decisions, but I am usually deciding based on emotions (mine or what I perceive to be the emotions of others) and I hate making decisions that are final. I have a loud and very articulate inner censor, who is an artist at making me feel stupid or inept. Since modern Western life is not generally tolerant of my personal style, I have developed a whole series of coping mechanisms, which include a powerful shadow self, which I use regularly at work.

What's a shadow self? INFP's are one of the types that will, under stress, flip their letters for the opposites, or the shadow, of their real typology. The ESTJ, (Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) is one of the most driving personality types, the sort that end up in command, and can tell everyone else what to do, how to do it, why they should do it, and (in some cases, with enough charisma) can make them like it. These are CEOs, generals, entrepreneurs, bulldozers. This is who I often become at work, getting things done, making decisions, not suffering fools lightly, persuading everyone all the time. Push, push, push. I tackle my tasks with no breaks, no mercy, no prisoners.

Or this is who I try to be, to cope with the pressure of my complex and directive job. The job is what I do for a living sufficient to support the five of us. Some days I revel in the pace, and the intricacy - I'm pretty good at it. Other days I dread even waking up. And it's about impossible to go back after vacations and long weekends. At work I spend significant time in ESTJ, to get things done, while still listening to my INFP senses, in order to say and do what will persuade or soothe as needed. I use one for drive, the other for navigation and charm. It's exhausting.

Lately there has been a lot more stress, due to lots of change. Most of the change is good, the sort of thing that has needed doing for a while, and I am pleased to see it happening. Hell, some of it makes we want to dance. But it's all hard for me because of my real nature - which is not pushing, would prefer to never again speak on a telephone (I detest my Blackberry), does not like to be in the center of attention, and hates to make decisions.

So after recent weeks of travel, work, family visits, and other things which put me repeatedly in my ESTJ shadow, I got stuck there, and then my time at home was spent with my ESTJ imitation trying to do an INFP imitation for my wife and kids. (Bugs Bunny, "Now I will do my imitation of Ricky, impersonating Harry, impersonating Elvis.") It's not a success. When my family sends signals that I am not really engaged, or pushing everyone around, I can't hear that because it's not something I want to know. If I fake it long enough, and can't leave my ESTJ fortification, there will be a showdown, and then I will collapse in a rush of anguish, anger, and melodrama, including a death wish, because I am so disgusted with this typology that wants to please everyone all the time so they will all "be OK," fears the bad feelings or opinions of others, and (in my case) plays chameleon so well that I can't even tell I've changed my color to ESTJ.

My deeper trouble is that I often feel my type is not male enough - too passive, and too willing to give in to the feelings and wishes of others. No backbone. I'm so concerned with pleasing everyone that I get into Twister-like knots, and all of this feels cowardly, rather than sympathetic, because I don't do it by willed decision, but on automatic. And my internal censor is a master at driving all of the points above. This can make me grumpy and reclusive, as the feelings of everyone else feel like loud static in my ears all the time.

Actually all of this is exaggerated, of course, by the strong emotions I experienced over the last 24 hours. I'm not driven totally by my typology - no one is - and I make extremely good use of it in my job, which is one that requires a lot of diplomacy, compromise, and understanding the needs and opinions of others, in addition to fact finding, rational decision making, and directing. I just get way out of kilter sometimes.

I can actually recall the first time I actually flipped the INFP for the ESTJ for an extended project. By an amazing chance today I found a photo (which I had totally forgotten) of myself making a presentation (in 1977 - imagine how we all looked with our long hair) to the principal and school board for our high school. Our 10th grade Social Studies teacher had convinced me (actually he used a lot of emotional tactics to bully me) to join, and then lead, a student landscaping committee; our new high school had no plantings around it at all. I lead the committee, I did the horticultural research, and I designed the plan. I had to persuade the principal and local school board to let us go forward with fund raising, volunteer plantings, etc. The photo brings back to me the fear and rush of adrenalin I felt doing that presentation, and the amazed feelings I had when I not only didn't wet my pants, but actually did a good job with the speaking, handled a series of questions and objections, and got laughs and positive comments from the adults and my classmates alike. The project was carried unanimously. I loved and feared what had just happened to me - that I could turn on this other way of doing things. It simply happened.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

By this afternoon I just have the usual residual migraine, I no longer wish I were dead, and the rage passed by the time I made eggs (oldest son brought home free range eggs from a local farmers market - beautiful and delicious) for elevenses. What makes me weary is the knowledge that I will get lost again soon, unable to even know I crossed the line and I'm stuck in the ESTJ shadow again. It's almost like having a split personality, how little control I have when I'm there. Then I can't even imagine I have this other way of being - this quiet, dreamy way.

And on top of the family pain, painting doesn't work in ESTJ mode. That's how I get blocked. That's when I start monitoring how good it is, or considering how it would be received at a gallery, or how it should be priced, instead of painting what I want, and loving it. (Actually the INFP inner censor is just as much the enemy of painting.)

My comfort, in all this, is that my family patiently helps me through these episodes, I have made significant progress in undermining the "automatic" switches through understanding of the typologies and my motivations, and I am coming more to a peaceful acceptance of my "INFPness," as we sometimes call it, to the laughter or groans of our teenagers.


For a more light hearted view of Myers-Briggs, try the "Brutally Honest Personality Test." There the INFP is called "Pollyanna," something I've been called before... Somehow I have to make everything seem OK for everyone (and ESTJ says, "You will all agree, dammit!"). Imagine my long-suffering wife, telling me some trouble of hers, to which she merely wants me to listen, and I have to reply with the bright side, so she can now be OK. That's so typical of me - and it's the shallow side of Pollyanna and the "Glad Game," which I only just read about here.

AND - a caution. Myers-Briggs evaluation is actually a carefully practiced and nuanced psychological tool. I am playing "fast and loose" with it here. I find it amazingly helpful to understand some previously confusing internal landscapes, though, even while using it in my imprecise and typically INFP way.

>>>> Appendix de Grenouille #11 <<<<
Grenouille says I should have had it examined long ago. "Think of all the trouble that might have saved."

Grenouille is an ENFJ, with savoir faire. He has leanings towards ENTP (though even there he is unfailingly charming).


DCup said...

I think that for people like you, the workplace can be very trying. I know that I share some of those letters with you, but in my last job, I really needed to be just like your shadow self.

It wore me out.

Now that I've switched roles, I feel better. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that I'm not having to suppress so much of my real self in order to do my job.

This is my long-winded way of saying I know how you feel. And I hate it that society doesn't allow for men to have all those personality traits that you have. It's a tough world and it's a shame that letting down your guard so that you can be yourself can be a "dangerous" thing to do.

Steve Emery said...

DCup - thank you for your words and your understanding (and for your comment on your blog that indicates that you spent considerable time on this post of mine). I'm glad you've found a good spot in your new job - it sounds like you got a good boss, too. Someday I may have the good fortune to get into a job that uses my talents as well as my current one does, but without so much limelight and stress for me. We'll see.

Hopefully August will be a better month for all of us. Quieter here and at work - some money coming your way with the first paychecks...

Liberality said...

I am really uncomfortable around people, men or women, who are pushy and bossy--that "E" part as I know I am that "I" part. I took this test a long time ago and I can't remember what letters I got except that it was not a common combination and it started with an I. I like working in the library because I can work with small groups and I do just fine or I'm fine working one on one with a patron--but ask me to run a big group or do some big group presentation and oh boy! I am not a happy camper then. Good luck with all that switching back and forth.

Pagan Sphinx said...

I'm INFP too. When I turn on the ESTJ, everyone hates me. I can't be a nice person when I'm in charge of too many things. That's why I am a lousy manager of people - I get the work done well and efficiently and everything runs like clockwork but no one can stand me. But I said that already. :-)

I hope it helped that you were able to air your concerns through your post. I really identified with what you had to say. I have mini breakdowns all the time...

Peace & Love,

Steve Emery said...

Pagan - It did seem to help to get it off my chest in such a public way. One of my weaknesses is a desire to always show my best side only - blogging is one way I'm working against that tendency. A little. I'm also doing some best side posing, I realize...

Somehow I'm not surprised you're an INFP, also. Something about your choices of topics and what you write seemed familiar to me. And when I'm in my worst ESTJ I also get comments like, "I thought you were a nice guy," and "I hardly know you anymore - and I'm not sure I want to..." So what brings out your ESTJ?

Pagan Sphinx said...

What brings out my ESTJ? Being totally in charge. That's why my current job is working for me better than my last. I work as part of a teaching team now, where we make decisions based on (more or less) the concensus of the team. It's chaos most of the time but it doesn't make me turn ugly.

In my former job I was the teaching supervisor and I had several staff members whose work I was responsible for. I am a perfectionist when put in charge of a project and I ruled with an iron hand. My expectations for others were way too high. At that time I thought I was doing them a great favor by having high expectations - I thought they would read it that I thought they had the potential to meet those expectations. They didn't look at it that way.

I do have to give myself a break by stating that my staff was young, inexperienced and touchy. In other words, they were a handful. But I went about it in a way that made people fear me. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I, feared?

Unlike you, I had difficulty switching typologies to fit the needs of the job. I tried to find my real self in there and thought I was revealing it but others didn't see it. The ESTJ took me over...

Steve Emery said...

Wow, Pagan. Thanks for sharing that - it gives me a glimpse more into how this works. And I really want to deconstruct this - so it doesn't control me quite so blindly.

I think I still see your INFP in the midst of that ESTJdom - that perfectionism - the high standards (for yourself AND everyone else). Normally we just beat the mental crap out of ourselves and let others off the hook - but not when in ESTJ mode. And I definitely get the "we are all on the line together and no one else will do a good enough job - GIVE it to ME!" thing. I spent part of today doing someone else's job because he's new and wouldn't do it well enough to suit me and the end result is my responsibility. I'm telling myself I'm doing this once for him so he can see how it's SUPPOSED to be done - and he can do it that way from now on. I'm not betting on whether I can let him run with it next time or not... Actually he's something of a perfectionist, too - so this might all work fine.

You know, those young educators you "ruled with an iron hand" may look back at the experience with you as formative, and maybe providing some insight into discipline they will be grateful for in some future situation. I've been the recipient of some of that - thankful years later that a difficult job, or an uncompromising boss, gave me skills that enabled me to handle something tough with relative ease.

And then again - maybe not...

DCup said...

Steve - Your description of what happened today for you at work is exactly why I didn't thrive as an executive director with people working for me. I have such a hard time letting them do their jobs - especially if I know I can do their job. Now, if it's book-keeping, I leave them alone because I know that's not something I'm good at.