Welcome to the first of what will hopefully become a series of articles wrestling with the nature of INTP-dom. (I could say INTP-ness, but that sounds somehow naughty.) When I read conversations posted among INTPs, I notice a curious and common undercurrent. Sometimes it's the outright subject of the conversation, and sometimes it hovers just beneath. It's an undercurrent of feeling disconnected, different, and isolated from others.
I've also noticed that analyzing and understanding the source of this particular problem seems to be elusive for INTPs. Although we define ourselves by our ability to apply logic and structure to understand and navigate the world, this problem seems to hide just beyond our perception. Every time we get close to grasping it, it slips through our fingers. In fact, we have a hard time even successfully defining the boundaries of the problem, much less discovering the ultimate solution.
Never one to shy away from the hard topics, I'm going to begin my INTP series with an exploration of this conundrum. How does our INTP nature react with the personalities of others in a way that leads us to feel this odd, hard-to-define isolation?
First of all, you'll notice I said feel. As we know, the entire subject of feelings is a squirrely topic for INTPs. The introverted feeling cognitive function is in the shadow position for us. That's the ability to build a clear, persistent sense of who we are as people based on how we feel about ourselves. We are driven by thinking rather than feeling. For example, if our understanding of the world leads us to the conclusion that we are an X kind of person, then that means we're an X kind of person. Our feelings will then follow that decision. If later, we gain evidence that we are a Y kind of person, then we are a Y kind of person, and our feelings will follow again. It's that easy to change our self-identity. We don't have the natural ability to "just know" the kind of person we are. We look for evidence of who we are, then make a decision based our on analysis. This process can be dangerous, however, if jarring, paradigm-changing evidence hits us too often. Our lives can be turned upside down by it. There certainly can be value in having a strong emotional anchor to us through storms and rough water. As INTPs, we can get blown onto the rocks.
Because our own emotions are suspect and we minimize their importance, we fail to understand the importance, influence, and changeability of emotions in others. Our extroverting feeling function is in the inferior position, so it develops last. Basically, when we're young, our rationality bullies our emotions into a tightly controlled box, and when they erupt, they're frightening, exaggerated, and uncontrolled. As we age, however, we can build up our feeling skills. It's a painful, uncomfortable process, but slowly we can learn from mistakes and observations about ourselves and others. After years of struggling yet maintaining a fierce effort to analyze and understand, I now feel that at the age of 41, I can offer some potential insights into where we fit in the social landscape. These are kinds of insights I would have liked to have available to me when I was a young INTP.
The Hardest Feeling for Anyone to Quantify: Feeling "Normal"
The most difficult kind of self-awareness is understanding exactly what constitutes "normal" in our daily existence. For example, you don't really think about the many nuances of breathing. It just comes naturally most of the time. You only become aware of breathing when it is not normal. That's when stronger feelings are evoked, and you have a biologically-programmed reason to remember. For example, you remember being short of breath, you remember choking, but you don't remember the last five minutes of breathing right now.
Biologically, we remember the horrible things the most, the great things second, and the "normal" things least of all. Actually, it's an effective method of survival. First rule: don't get hurt or killed. Second rule: get the good stuff and enjoy it. Third Rule: do all the boring stuff in between. The challenge is digging out of the mental complacency of normal to make sharp observations. It's easy to see the friction points. It's hard to deconstruct the nuances of each step when you're flying on autopilot.
"Breathing" for an INTP
When an INTP wakes up to a new day and walks out the front door, what is the INTP revved up to do? What's our "thing?" What do we do like breathing?
Some personality types are honed, practiced, and pumped up to enforce the RULES. They're the Guardians. Some are eager to see what the day brings and find opportunities to have a GREAT TIME. They're the Artisans. Some are primed to reach out with their hearts and find MEANING IN THE WORLD. They're the Idealists. INTPs, on the other hand, are one of the Rational types. INTPs are primed, practiced, and ready to identify, analyze, understand, and then predict the workings of the world.
It's an internal, individualized, mental process. Basically, the INTP spends every day gathering information and fitting it into a sweeping, growing, and universal body of understanding of…everything. It could be cloud formations, what makes wind, traffic patterns, cooking styles, kangaroos, bad breath, brain chemistry, overgrown toenails, politics, arguments, star formation, how grass grows, or whether you need to put cream on that weird rash. The topics, however, are less important than the process itself. If we observe X situation undergoing Y action causing Z result, we remember that. If we observe it again, we remember we've seen the same evidence twice. If we observe it a third time, we may decide that we have discovered a potential Truth (that is, something we believe to be true until new information suggests that it requires modification). Each Truth becomes a predictor. If we observe X situation undergoing Y action again, then we can expect the Z result. If we are correct in predicting Z, then we really start feeling awesome. That feels right. That feels normal.
When we have amassed enough Truths to predict a lot of things, we begin to get noticed by the people around us. We begin to seem insightful, wise, and almost psychic at times. When I was young, I could often predict a person's entire point after hearing the first few words of their sentence. When I would answer their question or react to their point correctly, their jaw would drop. The prediction was the result of the sum of my knowledge of the person, my knowledge of prior conversations, what just happened that might have sparked a certain thought in their head, and the verbal cues pointing to where the conversation is about to go. Again, a successful prediction equates with understanding, and that feels good to an INTP.
This drive to amass information, form structures, and predict the world permeates everything an INTP does. To many people, what I just explained sounds exhausting at best, or pathological at worst. But if you're an INTP, I trust this process happens like breathing. You might not even be aware that you're doing it. This process is the way we make sense of the world and find our place within it. It makes us feel at ease, controlled, and calm.
The Handy-Dandy INTP Supercalifragilistic Encyclopedia
So, in a way, an INTP is handed a huge, blank encyclopedia at birth, and the INTP's life is spent filling it up. And not from beginning to end. All sorts of points will be hit in the middle, and the knowledge spreads out from there. If you're really lucky, by the end of your life, most of the empty spaces will be filled in.
Each day, the INTP walks around with this encyclopedia always at hand, always ready to record a new insight, make a revision, or use it to predict what is likely about to happen. It can also be whipped out at parties to spark interesting conversation or to twist it into humor. INTPs can be charming and charismatic, providing endless entertainment for those who love trivia, philosophy, or other off-the-wall conversation.
Did you hear that word I slipped in there INTPs?
Yeah, I said it. If you have a decently-sized encyclopedia, you probably know what I'm talking about all too well. But feeling like the entertainment can piss you off after a while. It's divisive. When you go to see a show, there's an audience and a stage, and those two groups of people don't mix. The audience just wants their laughs when they want them, then go home. It's the Nirvana effect: here we are now, entertain us.
INTPs use charm and humor and conversation as a tactics to draw people closer and to have social interaction. If you're older, you've probably learned by now that, in the end, it doesn't work. We fail to gain the closeness we're craving. Instead, we're directed to exit stage door left when the show is over.
Yet, we use our encyclopedias this way because we really don't know what else to do. It's our way of feeling out other people. Are they interested in what's going on in our heads? Are they interested in our observations and understandings? Do they have similar thoughts? Can I help them with what I've learned? Can they help me?
Humor can be a very powerful tool in reaching out. It often requires intelligence. It's an indicator. Does the other person get it? Can they follow the humor? Can they reciprocate? That's the plan, at least. But when the attempt doesn't click, that's when we're either rejected as a geek/freak, or we get hired as the entertainment. For those of you who have been the night's feature presentation, it can be cool. But another part of you says SCREW THAT. If you're going to be used and dismissed, the least they can do is pay you well for it. Am I right?
Hello? Is Anybody Out There Hearing Me?
So why do we have this recurring feeling that we're not jiving with people? Why is it hard to get close to someone? And why is it that once we do seem to get close, it tends to erode and disintegrate?
On the one hand, the reason is terribly simple. What is not simple is the subtle mental and emotional chemistry that goes on within us that results in those hard-to-navigate feelings. After all, no person makes us feel anything. We are the reason we feel something. All feelings come from within us. The other person is just the target that we are hanging our emotions onto. We can just as easily hang them on someone else.
So, let's turn back to what is normal for an INTP. That is where the problem lies. We may not even realize we're toiling away at our encyclopedias. We just do it. And like all people, we innately assume that everyone thinks and does the same things we do. Why would we believe any differently? We all follow the golden rule: if we treat others how we want to be treated, they will reciprocate. Right?
No. Unfortunately, they often don't.
They are following the golden rule also, but their version of it. They often want something fundamentally different. As you try to provide one thing, they are hoping to receive something else, and vice versa.
INTP's are well under 2% of the population. If you are INTP female, you are well under 1% of the population. Even our close rational cousins, the INTJs, feel somewhat alien when we interact with them. INTJs do not share our Perceiving function, and, therefore, they can create their mental constructs in a vacuum. They tend to think it first, then go about putting their theories into practice in the world. INTPs do it in the opposite direction. They observe and analyze the world first, then go back and create constructs based on what we observed.
I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours
Here you are, an INTP happily working away on your encyclopedia and figuring out the world. So, what do we ultimately want from other people?
You see it coming, right?
We want to share the experience of writing our encyclopedias. Want to share pages, compare notes, help others predict and avoid bad stuff and mistakes, and get others' insights so we can avoid some bad stuff ourselves (especially icky emotional badness). That way, we don't have learn everything the hard way. We can share the load in a grand community striving to understand the nature of the universe. We feel connected to people when they seem like they might have a similar encyclopedia. We feel love when the overlap seems especially potent. How do we know? When we want to talk with a person more, more, more. Then, it happens. Someone starts to care for us. They actually want to be around us and talk and share things. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Right??
Wrong again. (I know I’m being hard on you.)
At first, when this seeming compatibility happens, it feels AMAZING. We have finally found an encyclopedia co-author. It's so much more fun to tear into the world with a partner-in-crime. But wait a minute. Little clinkers start happening. Maybe they don't want to talk so much anymore. Maybe their eagerness wears off, and they are happy to put their encyclopedia on the shelf. You think, WTF? This person cares and wants to be with me, but why? What is still fueling the person's interest? Why can't we share encyclopedias anymore?
Well, you have made a mistake in your assumption and you don't know it yet. Another person will care for you for their reasons, not yours, and the two may be very, very different. Here is the source of the INTP undercurrent. It's the subtle confusion that arises when someone wants to be with us, or we want to be with them, and yet they aren't really jiving on the encyclopedia level. A rational craves a mindmate, and here's an example of what that means. You can put an insanely gorgeous woman in front of me, and, of course, I'll feel desire. For a long time, I thought I would desire her because she was beautiful, but I've learned that's not true. Everyone likes what we find beautiful, that's no secret, but it's just a start. Without realizing it on a conscious level, I would fantasize that her beauty is an indication that her mind is going to match that attractiveness. If she hasn't opened her mouth yet, the fantasy can grow. If she never opens her mouth, that fantasy can become a false truth. She can remain utterly amazing forever. However, if she does open her mouth, or I can observe her actions, something often happens. If her mind turns out to be a turn-off, the attraction will evaporate, regardless of her beauty. Honestly. The sad truth is that I don't think there's a double-bagger solution for anti-mindmates. It's not something that can be ignored. (I should note that the reverse is also true. Mind connections can spark desire regardless of a person's appearance.)
The Final Solution
Once an INTP discovers the shocking truth that other people think very differently than we do and are driven by very different motivations, the INTP then turns the overall desire to analyze and understand the world onto to the inner workings of people themselves. However, people are irrational, chaotic, and unpredictable, right? Not logical at all! Every theory we make about them seems to fall apart. Every safe path we chart through them leads to swamps and disasters. The traumas mount. And the failures. You might even decide to take your ball and go home. But it's just against human nature to enjoy isolation. You keep limping back and trying to connect again.
If you're stuck in this cycle, then I have an important insight for you.
Ready for it?
People, in fact, are entirely logical, rational, and predictable.
No, no, I'm not smoking something. The human condition is indeed extraordinarily complex and challenging to tackle, but as you well know, hard doesn't mean impossible. Hard just means hard, and what makes it the toughest for us is the element of emotion.
Here are the unnatural things that we INTPs have to learn to do in order to better understand people: (1) give adequate weight to the motivating power of emotion in other people (and ourselves) and (2) understand the roots of that emotion. We stomp down emotion and will always choose a logical answer over an emotional one. Most of the other personality types are not that way, however. Until we successfully deconstruct the power of emotion (including how it still affects us despite our efforts to kill it), we have little hope of successfully navigating emotions in others. We will not be able to understand what the actions of other people mean and how to predict them.
But that process, my friends, will need to be a topic for another day.