Your Personality Type Under Stress
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Piccin
The Myers-Briggs model of personality teaches us that we have four “core” mental functions: Two “perceiving” functions for taking in information (Sensing and Intuition), and two “judging” functions for making decisions (Thinking and Feeling). We all use all of these functions at various times, depending on the circumstances, but we each have a preferred perceiving function and a preferred judging function. These two preferred functions are reflected in the middle two letters of the personality type code. For example, if your type code is ENFJ, then your preferred functions are Intuition (N) and Feeling (F). Note that Intuition is represented by N, not I, since I is reserved for Introversion—an important concept in the Myers-Briggs world, but not one of the core functions.
Even within these two preferred functions, you play favorites. One of these preferred functions is your “dominant” function, which is the driving force of your personality. This is the function you are most comfortable with, probably since early childhood. It is your best-developed function, and the one you use with the most ease and the least effort.
For a discussion of how we identify the dominant function for each personality type, see Your Dominant Function, and Why it Matters. What’s important to know here is that we each have a dominant function, and that dominant function is directed either inwardly or outwardly, depending on whether we have a general preference for Introversion or Extraversion.
Since our dominant function is the one we trust the most, it’s the one we turn to when we’re under stress and feeling vulnerable. The traits that serve us so reliably under normal circumstances become exaggerated and potentially counterproductive when we’re stressed.
For example, if your type code is ENFJ, then your dominant function is Extraverted Feeling. You are most comfortable and most fulfilled when you are interacting with people, caring for them, and ensuring their needs are met. Under stress, this need becomes intensified, and your actions and decisions may be driven by emotional responses without regard for logic and reason.
Refer to the table below to determine your dominant function, and how that function may express itself when you are under stress.
But wait, we’re not done yet. Remember that of the four core functions, there are two that you prefer, and those two letters appear in your personality type code. The other two “nonpreferred” functions are your least developed functions, and most of the time they lurk in your unconscious. You can use them, but you don’t like to, and you’re not very good at it. It’s like signing your name with the wrong hand. Sure, you can do it, but it’s not comfortable and the result is not pretty.
Of these two nonpreferred functions, one is your “inferior” function—your least favorite function. This is actually the opposite of your dominant function. Under extreme stress, your inferior function can erupt into your consciousness, resulting in uncharacteristic and unproductive behavior. Myers-Briggs practitioners call this being “in the grip,” a phrase borrowed from the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose theories of personality inspired the original Myers-Briggs assessment back in the 1940’s.
For example, if your type code is ENFJ and your dominant function is Extraverted Feeling, then your inferior function is Introverted Thinking. When you’re at your best, you actively project warmth and sensitivity to those around you. But when you’re in the grip, Introverted Thinking takes over and you become withdrawn and analytical, preoccupied with cold, hard facts and oblivious to the impact of your decisions on the people around you. “I don’t know what came over me” or “I wasn’t myself” are typical reflections from people in this state. When we are greatly stressed, we act in uncharacteristic and unfamiliar ways, because those aspects of our personality with which we feel least comfortable and least competent are asserting themselves.
One of the benefits of knowing your personality type code is that the better you know yourself, the more familiar you will be with your typical stress reactions, and the better equipped you will be to manage them. Equally important is understanding the personality types of the people closest to you, and knowing how their stress reactions differ from yours. For example, if you know your partner’s personality type will cause them to withdraw when they are under stress, then you will be less likely to take it personally or get frustrated when it happens, and you will be better able to support them. That’s the real power of the Myers-Briggs model—it helps us understand how we are different from each other in healthy, productive ways, and it brings us a step closer to embracing those differences with appreciation and respect.
Header photo by Thomas Piccin. View of Cape Town, Signal Hill, Table Bay, and Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain, South Africa.