As an INFJ, one of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, I imagine myself as the yin and yang of the introvert world: Introverted and iNtrospective capture how I need time alone to recharge and to ponder big ideas. Feeling and Judging mean I prioritize people and emotions, and prefer structure and order. The I and N are introverted traits that pull me toward solitude, and the F and J are extroverted qualities that pull me into the world.
Add in the emotional permeability of a highly sensitive person (HSP), and you end up with quite the tossed soul-salad.
Like for many INFJs and HSPs, the veil between myself and the rest of the world is very thin. Inside and outside mix and mingle like too many dogs at the dog park. Where others’ emotions end and mine begin seem to blur in the chaos of flying fur and bickering barks.
For INFJs, having a wide-open heart and a foot in both worlds is a delicate tightrope walk through vulnerability. Our permeability makes us adept at detecting and supporting the emotional needs of others. But, turned inward, this gaze and an inclination toward overthinking can lead us down a path of self-criticism and shame.
The tendency to take things too personally, a deep need to self-protect, and a habit of over-analyzing can add up to a vulnerability shame-game. Freeing ourselves from it means embracing and safely expressing our vulnerability.
The Key to Turning Vulnerability Into Strength
For INFJs, the answer can be found in two of our letters: the F and J. Although much has been said elsewhere about the first two preferences (I and N, our inward-facing qualities), it is the second two qualities (our outward-facing ones) that hold the key to turning vulnerability into strength.
The F refers to how we make decisions. In this context, “Feeling” involves a desire for harmony and a sensitivity to how our decisions will affect the people involved. These decisions are dependent on and filtered through our feelings, instincts, and personal experiences rather than through external facts and measures.
The J for “Judging” is not about being judgemental but instead refers to how INFJs prefer to deal with the outer world. Although inside we might be flexible and open to new ideas, outwardly we like to have things decided. INFJs prefer planning and structure and feel peace when things are orderly and organized.
The F and J, the need for connection and control, mean INFJs want to both dive deep and set the script. However, when we feel overexposed or can’t control the narrative, our self-protection goes into overdrive, preventing us from being vulnerable in a healthy way. Emotional permeability makes vulnerability our ultimate risk — and reward.
4 Psychological Concepts to Cultivate Vulnerability
Here are four psychological concepts that, once understood, will help you cultivate healthy vulnerability. Now that I recognize them, I know that I am safer than I think and can be braver than I feel.
1. The Spotlight Effect
With our outward-looking F and J qualities, INFJs have an eye to the world around us, and are aware of our place within it. And sometimes it can feel like everyone else is keeping track of what we say, how we look, and what we do. INFJs already have a tendency to take things personally. Throw in the social daggers of scrutiny and criticism, and it can feel like we are under society’s surgical knife.
But the truth is, people are too preoccupied with the arrangement of their own social mask to give much more than a passing thought to anyone else’s. Psychologists call this “the spotlight effect.” This is a logical fallacy (an error in reasoning) wherein we feel that people notice every aspect of our actions and appearance. It articulates how, because we have direct access to our (and only our) own mind, we are the star of a one-person show.
People don’t think about you as much as you think they do, so don’t be so hard on yourself, dear INFJ. Step confidently onto the stage of your life. This play has many acts, and you’ve already earned the lead. With everyone else invested in their own performance, you are free to stumble — and to pick yourself right back up again.
2. The Illusion of Transparency
While the spotlight effect acknowledges our social mask, the illusion of transparency addresses our psychological shadows. This cognitive bias causes us to overestimate how much our thoughts and emotions are detectable by others. Highly capable of recognizing the moods and emotions of others, INFJs and HSPs are acutely familiar with the risk of emotional exposure. This awareness can make us prone to overestimating the degree of public access to our private psychological landscape.
Each of us, introverts and extroverts alike, has a front row seat to our own thoughts, feelings, mistakes, desires, and judgements, all of which can be dark or messy or embarrassing. Overestimating what we think others can detect of this emotional jumble can lead to feelings of shame.
But we are not psychologically naked, emotionally bare for all to see. We choose how much we want to share, and with whom we want to share it.
3. The “Eye”NFJ Mirror
Deeply empathetic, INFJs are often emotional mirrors for family, friends, and even strangers. People confide in us, trusting us to reflect back their frustrations, hopes, and hurts. But we don’t just serve as a mirror for others. INFJs, like all humans, also reflect back onto ourselves in sometimes confusing ways.
As a child, reading alone in my room, I often sensed someone watching me. Disembodied eyes could see the book I was poring over, the way I was sitting, even the thoughts I was thinking. As a teenager, I sensed a roving video camera, about two feet off my body, circling me, filming me, recording and judging my every thought, word, and action. Even now, as an adult, I still occasionally feel that companion camera keeping tabs on me.
I now understand that I am not, in fact, crazy, but have experienced a very odd sensation that introverts might be particularly vulnerable to. When we (introverts and extroverts alike) witness someone else performing an action, brain cells called mirror neurons fire as if we ourselves were performing the same action. INFJs and HSPs might be particularly sensitive to the empathy triggered by this response. This phenomenon sheds light on our acute emotional permeability and also explains one reason we feel watched, even when alone.
Researchers suggest that this sensation of being watched is actually a trick of the brain, and is caused by a psychological confusion where the mind mirrors the body’s behavior. Differentiation between ourselves and others gets mixed up, and we misperceive our own actions.
INFJs, already prone to blurred lines between self and other, might experience this self-mirroring when we turn our empathic gaze inward. It is likely an unconscious and self-protective attempt to connect with, understand, and control ourselves. We become the watcher and the watched in order to self-monitor our behavior.
By trying to see ourselves, we are trying to know ourselves. And that, right there, is a tremendous source of strength through vulnerability.
4. The Vulnerability Role Model
Sometimes we are called to scrap the mask and shine a light onto our emotional shadows. As a deeply self-protective introvert who also longs to connect with others, I am inspired by those who shed their shell and inspire through authenticity. When I need a shot of courage, I turn to role models — in this case, people who have managed to flip the shame switch.
The gutsiest woman I know is my friend Gillian. Years ago, she struggled with an eating disorder, typically a very private and shame-filled battle. Part of her healing involved first claiming the illness as hers and then moving into and through the pain of recovery.
Her vulnerability became her strength and was a launching pad for her journey of health and wellness. She speaks openly about it in her book, The Elephant in the Gym, and reminds us that, when we let in even the tiniest bit of light, the darkest of days begin to brighten. She embraced her vulnerability and turned it into a source of inspiration for thousands of women, including me.
At times my desire to help others feels like a sacred calling, but I haven’t always been able to balance connection with self-protection. Ultimately, each of us needs to carefully consider what to share and what to save.
Partly private, partly social, INFJs walk me/we balance beam. So take a deep breath, lean into your vulnerability, and bring a little of what makes you out into the world.