When Success Feels Like Failure

Perfectionism takes a toll on the psyche.

I remember, in kindergarten, the first time one of my worksheets was marked wrong. We were learning to write by tracing over numbers, the same number repeatedly, before moving on to the next. I got caught up in the rhythm and missed a transition, writing one too many sevens when I should have written an eight.

I was so ashamed, that on the walk from the bus stop to my house, I balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it into a ditch, hoping my parents would never find out I had made a mistake.

I was four years old.

My entire life, perfection has been the only standard that mattered. Excellence was a low bar to me. It never felt like success.

Graduating first in my high school class didn’t seem like success. It’s what was expected of me. Graduating second would have seemed a shocking failure.

I never aspired to become class valedictorian. During my thirteen years of public education, I was a good student without much effort. And that easy success inured me to any sense of accomplishment.

And so it continues today.

In true INFJ fashion, I create visions in my mind of how things could be. But execution never lives up to imagination. How could it? So instead of seeing the things I did well, I’m mortified by the things that fell short, even if no one else can tell the difference. After all, they didn’t see what was in my imagination. They don’t know how much better it was supposed to be.

The one place where I feel a true sense of virtuosity is in my writing. Through the magic of editing, I can craft a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter until every word is perfect. Or at least, until it feels perfect to me. That’s the gift that creative writing gives me.

In a blog post on Writers and Doubt, author James Scott Bell suggests that doubt is inevitable in any novelist worth reading. But creative writing is the one place where I never feel doubt. If the manuscript is flawed, I can fix it. If I don’t know how, I can learn.

I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than I have on my novel in progress, now nearly complete after an eight-year-journey. And no effort has been so rewarding. I know the novel will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Novels aren’t about perfection. They’re about humanity—our common struggles, failures, contradictions, self-sabotage, and rare brilliant moments when we grasp the longed-for and near-impossible prize.

I was born to write. That’s the positive part of my INFJ personality. The negative is that when I’m speaking with people, I feel barely competent to string words into sentences. And afterward, I obsess over all the things I could have done better. I keep trying to edit my life.

The four-year-old inside me still wants me to be perfect. But the great God-force inside me asks only that I share my gifts with the world. And if I’m grateful for those gifts, I must also be grateful for my limitations. They’re two sides of the same coin.

So when the doubts of my life feel overwhelming, I retreat to the one place where I always feel sure. The one place where struggle is the best teacher and failure the source of deep insight. The one place where I can get it right the fourteenth time instead of the first, and no one will ever know the difference.

I write.

It’s Not Me, It’s You: When Conflict Is Unavoidable

All of us are faced with conflict in our personal and professional lives. INFJs like me are naturally diplomatic, and they tend to develop good conflict resolution skills. They can often see conflict coming, and will try to head it off. Sometimes, though, conflict is unavoidable. Because some people, as my husband would say, are idiots (bless their hearts).

INFJs look for the good in people. We want to help them reach their potential. When we suspect that someone might be going off track, we want to step in and help. And when other people fail, we ask ourselves, “What could I have done differently to prevent that from happening?”

But sometimes people fail because they’re incompetent, or because they’re not very bright, or because they’re too proud to ask for help. And I can’t do anything about that.

Feeling types don’t like to admit to themselves that people—especially people they like—aren’t up to the task. It’s somehow easier for us to say, “I’m cranky and impatient. I’m not providing the necessary guidance.”

But I’ve come to realize that sometimes, I am not the problem. If you’re a feeling type, here are some signs that the other person may be at fault for the conflict:

  • They don’t ask for help when they need it. Feeling types may be sensitive to people’s needs, but we’re not clairvoyant.
  • They get upset if you communicate in a business-like rather than a friendly way. Sometimes the Thinking part of your personality may emerge. That’s OK. You can’t be expected to coddle people all the time. If they don’t develop a thicker skin, then life will inevitably leave them bruised.
  • They do stupid things. I can’t define what that means, but you’ll know it when you see it. You can’t anticipate every stupid thing a person might do, and then tell them in advance not to do it. It’s up to them to make a practice of not doing stupid things, so that their lives go more smoothly.

Feeling types want the world to be a harmonious place. When conflict erupts, it upsets our sense of balance. We may even question our own competence. But all we can do is our best. If another person doesn’t do the same, then we are not responsible for the consequences.

Related posts:

Temperament and Leadership: One NF’s View
The INFJ Personality and the Search for the Perfect Relationship
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.
Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.
The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello‘s hero must display extraverted, sensing, judging energy, while Hamlet‘s hero must display introverted, intuitive, perceiving energy.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over. Isabel Myers defined the “shadow” as the inferior function. It is the least developed, and the one least likely to be used in a rational and mature manner—even in the best of times. When someone is under stress, and the inferior function takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication

The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.

But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?

So, too, in spoken communication, Continue reading “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication”

Yesterday and Today: Introverted vs. Extraverted Sensing

Child stopping to smell the rosesWriters often get lost in their heads. If they didn’t, they might never get any work done. But for those with a preference for introversion and intuition, it can be difficult to reconnect with the real world. I suspect that writers in general, and IN types in particular, suffer from chronic sensory deprivation. We have to make an effort to interrupt our writing and indulge our senses.

To stay grounded, I keep crayons near my computer so I can play with color combinations. I have a pack of gum on my desk for calorie-free flavor. I burn scented candles and listen to music. These little things offer me a much-needed reality break.

INFJs like me extravert their sensing function. Extraverted sensing experiences the world in all its vibrancy. It sifts through sensory data and identifies what is most relevant and most critical in the current situation. It seizes opportunities as they present themselves. It troubleshoots and seeks a tactical advantage. It wants immediate gratification.

By contrast, introverted sensing relates the present situation Continue reading “Yesterday and Today: Introverted vs. Extraverted Sensing”

Dreamcatchers: Introverted vs. Extraverted Intuition

Japanese fan unfoldedThe protagonist in my novel-in-progress is an ENFP. With her dominant extraverted intuition, she’s constantly looking for new possibilities. A defense lawyer, she’s driven by a desire to help her clients make a better life. Her concept of reality is fluid: she moves effortlessly between what is and what could be. She can entertain contradictory ideas at the same time. She  envisions many different ways in which a scenario could play out. Before she makes a decision, she consults her family and friends to winnow her ideas.

In some ways, my protagonist is my alter ego. I’m an INFJ, so my dominant function is introverted intuition. Introverted intuition is also fueled by possibility. But unlike extraverted intuition, it seeks to build a unified internal vision, then make that vision a reality. I understand the world by looking for connections, by taking seemingly disparate ideas and combining them. I’m excited by those “aha” moments when I find the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle and the picture becomes clear. I zealously pursue my new understanding and seek to incorporate it into my life. Like ENFPs, I also see reality as fluid, but I limit myself to adopting one version of it. I find too many choices to be immobilizing. I generally make decisions on my own, or I may consult one other person if I’m really struggling.

To my mind, extraverted intuition is like opening a Japanese fan, and introverted intuition is like closing it. Introverted intuition looks at all the possibilities and homes in on the one likely to produce the best outcome. Extraverted intuition starts with a single point then fans out, pulling ideas from all directions.

All types use intuition, including those who prefer sensing. Types with an NJ or SP preference have introverted intuition, while those with an NP or SJ preference use extraverted intuition. When intuition is not in the dominant position, it plays a supporting role, bringing a new perspective to old ideas.

Related Articles

Straight from the Heart: Introverted vs. Extraverted Feeling

Like many people with a preference for intuition and thinking, my husband doesn’t quite grasp the concept of greeting cards. They’re just pieces of paper with other people’s sentiments printed on them, right? Logically, I see his point. But with my preference for intuition and feeling, I place a lot of value on the symbolism of greeting cards (and on the symbolism of not giving a loved one a greeting card for a special occasion).

Given my INFJ preference, I communicate with the world through extraverted feeling, which focuses on building and maintaining relationships and social networks. I love giving greeting cards, and I especially enjoy blank cards that allow me to write my own message rather than adding my signature to someone else’s. When I receive greeting cards, I read them eagerly. But after a few days, I throw them out. The emotion has been expressed and received, so the card has served its purpose.

My husband, on the other hand, keeps the greeting cards he receives—sometimes for years. And he doesn’t stick them in a drawer somewhere. He displays them where he can see them and read them.

As an INTJ, my husband introverts his feeling function. Introverted feeling focuses on values, integrity, and appropriateness. It’s  less expressive but more sentimental than extraverted feeling. So even though my husband may not think to give greeting cards, the ones he receives are special to him.

So I try not to get upset if he doesn’t give me a card for a birthday or anniversary. The fact that he values the cards I give him tells me all I need to know.

Want to know if your feeling function is introverted or extraverted? TJs and FPs have introverted feeling, while FJs and TPs use extraverted feeling.

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What’s in a Name? Introverted vs. Extraverted Thinking

Personality type affects how we communicate, sometimes in unexpected ways. When talking about the MBTI personality types, people generally think in terms of the preferences. But everyone uses all four cognitive functions, including the nonpreferred ones. And personality type is affected by whether the function is introverted or extraverted.

My husband is an INTJ, while I’m and INFJ. He communicates with the world through extraverted thinking, while my thinking function is introverted. Here’s a typical conversation we might have on a weekend.

Hubby: Want to go with me to the hardware store?
Me: Which one?
Hubby: The blue one.
Me: You mean Lowe’s?
Hubby: I guess so.

I used to find it incredibly frustrating that he seemed to pay little attention to the names of things. After all, isn’t it possible that there’s more than one blue hardware store? How could I be sure which one he meant without knowing the name?

He, on the other hand, considers names extraneous, and often difficult to remember. Names, he says, get in the way. They create barriers between ideas. For instance, it’s clear what the relationship is between “the blue hardware store” and “the orange hardware store.” Calling them “Lowe’s” and “Home Depot” obscures that connection.

Introverted thinking is all about classifying things. It likes to give them names and put them in little boxes. Extraverted thinking is more conceptual. It looks at how things relate to one another. So while introverted thinking focuses on separating things into their unique parts, extraverted thinking focuses on organizing things into a unified whole.

Given my introverted thinking function, I can’t understand something until I put a name on it. Until I could articulate that my husband thinks in terms of “concepts,” while I think in terms of “names,” I had a devil of a time comprehending his aversion to calling things by the same words everyone else uses. Now, I can enjoy his innovative use of language—for instance, calling the wisteria bush “the hysterical bush” because it grows out of control. The name fits the concept.

Wondering whether your thinking function is introverted or extraverted? FJ and TP types have introverted thinking, while FP and TJ and types have extraverted thinking.

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Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction

In his blog post The Great Semi-Colon Debate, author James Scott Bell says that semicolons should be avoided in fiction. I agree to a point, but I wouldn’t ban them altogether. If used skillfully, semicolons can reveal character in dialogue and internal monologue.

In my own fiction writing, I associate certain punctuation marks with the speech patterns of certain personality types. These aren’t hard rules, of course. But here’s my list of punctuation marks and the personality types that go with them.

Semicolons: INPs

INFPs and INTPs communicate with the world through extraverted intuition. Intuition naturally sees all ideas as connected. But as introverts, the INPs think before they speak. This combination of tendencies leads to sentences that are long but carefully constructed; the semicolon is the best punctuation mark to communicate this quality.

Comma splices: ENPs

Continue reading “Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction”

Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough”

frustrated editorIn the field of technical communication, “good enough” documentation is becoming the norm. For me as an INFJ writer, this is a difficult concept to master. I want documentation to be as good as it can be. As an NF, I’m passionate about effective communication. As a judging type, I want to see style rules applied consistently. So when you tell me that my task as an editor is to make the document “good enough,” I go into stress mode. For an INFJ, this means the inferior sensing function surfaces. I may avoid the task by indulging in an activity that engages the senses, like getting a snack or playing Scramble on my iPod. If I try to edit, I may become obsessed with mundane details. Every sentence sounds wrong.

It used to be that working as an editor meant proofreading and ensuring consistency. It meant helping writers to better organize the material and to identify sentences that could be better written. Those things seem like a luxury now. Two technological developments have changed the role of the editor, perhaps forever:

Continue reading “Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough””