By Tiffani Warren
So the reason you have four main function preferences is because each function can only be introverted or extroverted, but neither at the same time. I find Ne/Ni the best example of this – Ne focuses on seeing all of the possibilities and theories and meanings, and Ni focuses on finding the one, most likely possibility and the one, most correct theory or meaning. You cannot try to come up with as many ideas as possible, and also at the same time try to narrow them down to the one correct idea. So in that way they are opposing functions.
Your four “main” functions – dominant through inferior – describe your natural or preferred orientation toward life.
I’ll use myself as an example when describing these (ENFJ). Please forgive me in advance for the length & imprecise nature of these explanations – these are my impressions and mental shortcuts and shouldn’t be taken as definitive answers.
- Dominant (Hero) – this is your strongest function, the one that most defines your cognitive processes and how you interact with the world. It is so powerful that it can be hard to see it objectively – it’s like a fish trying to evaluate the water it’s swimming in. It is almost impossible to ignore. For example, my dominant function is Fe. If someone else is in the room with me, and they are unhappy, or if my actions or words are in conflict with the mood or values of the social group/society I’m living in, I feel an extremely strong dissonance that makes it almost impossible to focus on anything else. An Fe dom feels most content and successful when they are in balance with the mood and values of society at large. I think of this one as almost your main “purpose” or goal in life, speaking solely in terms of psychological comfort and health.
- Auxiliary (Parent) – this is also a strong function that you value, and which you use easily as a tool. In some ways it is easier to use than your dominant function because you do have the ability to ignore it or “shut it off” temporarily, so you feel more of a sense of control over it. It’s often useful for understanding or making use of your dominant function. So for me, my auxiliary function is Ni. Having a sense of what things mean, what is likely to happen, and so on. This is most powerful when used in conjunction with my dominant Fe – so trying to figure out what’s really going on with the people around me, or what different people mean to each other, or what value or decision will have the best impact on society as a whole, and so on. Someone who was dom Ni aux Fe, on the other hand, can’t help but constantly be trying to figure things out and make predictions, and they often use their understanding of society and relationships in order to develop their theories. So for them, the understanding (Ni) is the goal and the relationships/values (Fe) are the tool to help them achieve it. So I think of auxiliary functions as your most powerful tool.
- Tertiary (Child) – this is the other “tool” you have in your toolbox, and it’s the one people tend to use when seeking or being immersed in novel or low-pressure situations. It’s something that you don’t often reach for or seek out, but that you still value and find pleasurable to use, and that brings balance to your auxiliary function. It comes out the most in terms of fun or play, so some theories refer to it as the “child” function. For me, Se is my tertiary function, and I enjoy ‘play’ related to Se – aesthetic experiences, looking for clues or novel stimuli in the environment, playing with colors and smells and sounds and details and so on. I think of it as the toyfunction, although of course it can also be useful as a tool in many situations.
- Inferior (Aspirational) – this is the function you use as a counterbalance to your dominant function. It is useful in scenarios where your dominant function is not, but immature or unhealthy people often treat it as a threat because it represents a divergence from the normal way they see, interpret, or interact with the world. That said, in people who are healthy and open-minded, it can be essential balancing agent. Think of it as your dominant function being similar to your dominant hand, but your non-dominant hand can also be strong and can be necessary to achieving your goals. You wouldn’t try to do things only with your non-dominant hand, but at the same time someone would be handicapped if they had it tied behind their back and were unable or unwilling to use it at all when their dominant hand was occupied or not strong enough on its own. My inferior function is Ti, which is useful in situations where people are not involved, where people’s desires or values are in conflict, or where people’s short-term and long-term needs/desires contradict. For example, I’d need to use Ti if my car breaks down and there’s no cell service, or when two good friends are fighting and I have to choose a side, or when my child is angry at me because I won’t let them have the candy they want. If I only cared about other people’s feelings and what other people thought was good or right, I would be pulled in all kinds of directions and I would not feel any sense of agency or self-direction in my life. Ti allows me to refine and balance my Fe goals. Using your inferior function well can be very gratifying and affirming because it represents a sense of balance and mastery of your life. For this reason I think of the inferior function as a talisman function – something that you don’t necessarily understand that well, but that you always keep in your pocket to get you out of a jam when you need it most.
Alright, so for the next four functions, I’m going to use swordfighting as a metaphor. Quickly, to recap the first four:
- A dominant “swordfighting” function would be someone who is in the midst of battle, whose main goal in life is to fight their way out of it.
- An auxiliary “swordfighting” function would be someone who is aiming to rescue the princess in the castle, for whom swordfighting is a useful tool to help them reach their goal.
- A tertiary “swordfighting” function would be someone who is an office worker by day, but swordfights in their free time as a fun challenge.
- An inferior “swordfighting” function would be a rogue who spends their life sneaking past guards and watchmen, but who is very grateful to be able to pull out their sword and fight should they actually be noticed.
Okay, so with this in mind, what are the four remaining functions to our swordsman? Essentially, it means using the same skill but in the opposite direction. So instead of landing your blow on your opponent, you are purposefully trying to miss. Instead of dodging your opponent’s attacks, you are attempting to step into them. In many ways, this feels unnatural and useless, so it is something you try to avoid doing – HOWEVER, there are instances and times where being able to do these things can be valuable.
- Fifth (Opposing) – this is a very hard function to use, that people are often resistant to using or can view in a negative light, but one that you are fairly good at using when needed. The reason it’s so hard is because of the “fish in water” scenario mentioned in the dominant function explanation – using the opposing function means using a function you are very adept at in the opposite way from what you’re used to. A lot of descriptions will phrase this in negative terms, as something that is only used for stubbornness or possibly self-destructive behavior – for our swordsman, letting his enemies strike him as a way to self-harm – but I like to focus on the positive and useful results of each function. In our swordfighting scenario, imagine a dominant swordfighter who finds himself in the midst of battle – with his child. His goal is to win the fight, and yet winning would mean an unacceptable sacrifice (killing his child). So he changes tactics – steps into every attack, misses every swing – in an effort to alter the scenario as a whole (perhaps the child will stop attacking when he realizes he’s no longer in danger). Let’s use me as a real-life example. Normally I’m most concerned with the well-being of people around me or my societal goals at large (Fe). When that is not useful, I default to Ti (what is logical to me?). However, there are situations where there is no real logical answer, and yet I am for whatever reason unwilling to modify myself to meet my Fe goals. Perhaps I’m living with an abusive parent who constantly insists that I do things the way they want me to. They are yelling at me to paint my walls yellow, say. Fe tells me to paint my walls yellow and avoid the negativity, but Ti knows that whether I paint them yellow or not, it won’t really make the parent happy because they’ll find something else to be upset about. So in this situation, what do I do? Pushed to my limit, I step into the discomfort of disobeying my Fe, and do whatever I really want to (Fi). In a fit of passion, I lock eyes with the parent and pour the paint on the floor. I don’t want the walls yellow, so now they won’t be yellow. It’s dangerous – who knows what will happen next? – but it’s the only way to break the pattern. For this reason, I view the fifth function as our escape hatch – a way to abandon ship if our normal goals because untenable or unacceptable for whatever reason.
- Sixth (Senex) – this function is quite easy to use, but is generally seen as useless or not very important in most situations. Being the opposite of the auxiliary function, it is essentially using your “tool” for the opposite of the purpose intended. In the swordfighting scenario, I would liken this to a skilled swordsman teaching his little girl how to fight, and allowing the child to hit him in order to build her confidence. Winning “the battle” is not his goal in life, saving the princess is. That said, he’s skilled enough in swordfighting as a tool to be able to use it “inversely” for other purposes – in this case, to teach his daughter how to fight (perhaps to use her abilities alongside his as an even more effective tool to save the princess). As a real life example, my sixth function is Ne. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of multiple possibilities for things – I usually try to figure out the one right answer – but if someone needs help coming up with ideas for a poster, or if I need to come up with multiple activities for different types of students, or if my fiance is panicking about what might happen at his meeting tomorrow, I can throw out a bunch of possibilities (without choosing my favorite) in an effort to let them pick and choose what works for them. From my experience, this function is used most often in service to others, and for that reason I call it a gift function. Like all functions, it can also be used in a negative way, and that is what most descriptions focus on, calling it the “witch” or “critical parent” function, but I find my attention drawn toward positive uses and so will leave it there.
- Seventh (Trickster) – so having just said I try to stay positive, this is one I have a hard time spinning in a positive way. Essentially this is a function that you have difficulty using, that often misleads you, and that you find to be pretty burdensome. In our swordfighting scenario, it’s the office worker who usually uses swordfighting as a way to blow off steam, but today their instructor is making them be the test dummy for some new students. They can do it, but they don’t really want to, and both their lack of effort and lack of skill can cause them to make mistakes when doing it. Generally this is the function that people are most likely to want other people to handle for them. For me, my seventh function is Si, which I hate – I hate thinking about my past experiences, I get mixed up a lot on what happened and what I’ve said and done before, and I’m more than happy to let my ISFJ fiance take the reins on handling little daily tasks, remembering necessary but boring procedures, and providing proof or counter-evidence for my theories so I don’t have to bother with it (we make a good team in that way). I call this the work function.
- Eighth (Demonstrative) – the demonstrative function is almost not even a whole function a person can use, but rather the image or impression of that function. It’s one that you are forced to approximate or feign in order to fit into society appropriately. Basically, you don’t really use it, you just pretend to when you have to. In the swordfighting scenario, why would the rogue ever just let an enemy hit them? The only reason is if they were feinting in one direction to finally make the lethal hit on the enemy when they least expected it – so in essence, they’re still using their inferior function (swordfighting) and just pretending that it’s being used in the opposite direction (anti-swordfighting). As an ENFJ, trying to analyze what is objectively logical, what makes sense to other people, or doing things in a way that is objectively efficient and correct to everyone (Te) is really an exercise in futility. It’s just not going to happen; I have no idea what other people consider to be reasonable or efficient or logical, and even if they tell me I often don’t care or don’t believe that they know what they’re talking about lol. When I need to (in order to get people to trust me, or in order to get something done) I can kind of pretend to be efficient and high-powered, but I often find myself distracted and wandering off to some other task before the thing I’m working on is done. I call this one the mask function – useful mainly in terms of appearing to be an Actual Human Being(TM).
So there’s my current understanding of all eight function attitudes working in one person! It’s personalized and different from some of what you’ll find online, and I’m still tweaking it, but hopefully giving you my perspective will help you on the way to finding your own :)