This past Friday I did something I’ve never done before and which provided my father with much amusement. I danced at someone’s funeral. More precisely, it was at a memorial service for a man I didn’t really know. I’d seen him at church services, but we never spoke. His wife was on our dance team, though, and she asked us to open the service by dancing to Bo Ruach Elohim.
At first, I didn’t really feel much about this man’s death beyond a rather abstract sense of sympathy for those who’d loved him. But as soon as I was surrounded by the grief of those who knew and loved him, I started to feel it as well. Layering on top of that were the emotions I imagined other people I cared about feeling. I won’t go into any details, but some of the things this man’s wife and daughter mentioned when they spoke directly touched on struggles I knew two friends were going through. And my heart ached with/for them all.
INFJs are inherently sensitive to other people’s emotions. On top of that, many describe themselves as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and/or empath. This trait, “empath,” isn’t simply a person who feels empathy. Here’s a description written by Jennifer Soldner, an empathic INFJ:
An empath is a person who feels exactly what others feel. This is not to be mistaken with sympathy, which is trying to understand what someone is going through, or even the very similar word empathy, which is actually just being familiar with what someone else is experiencing. An empath literally feels exactly what someone else feels, even if they have never experienced, nor can they relate in any way to what the other person is going through. (from The INFJ Empath Explained)
Talking about being an empath is kind of tricky. Going back to my opening story, suppose I told you that I didn’t start out having feelings of my own about this man’s death, but when I walked into a room of people grieving for him I felt grief. Someone who reads that and assumes I’m an empath would say it’s because I was picking up the other people’s energy waves and feeling their grief as if the emotion were my own. Someone who doesn’t think I’m an empath would say I’m mirroring the other people’s grief because I observe it and care about them, or that I’m projecting my ideas of what they are feeling and then responding to that.
Which one’s right? I don’t know, and that’s why I rarely describe myself as an INFJ empath. I’m not sure if what I feel is exactly what the other person is experiencing or if I’m creating feelings in myself that I assume are the same as the other person’s feelings. I also don’t share all the empath traits. For example, I don’t feel pain in my ankle when I see someone on TV trip and start limping across the screen. I don’t become ill when someone else in the room has a headache. I don’t experience psychic phenomenon like astral projection (thank God! that would freak me out so much).
Not My Emotions
While I don’t have all the classic empath traits, I do deal with emotional contagion, which is “the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others” (from What Is An Empath? Are There Empath Traits?). Many times when someone asks why I’m upset I have trouble answering because the emotion didn’t start with me — I’m struggling because my friend wrote to tell me they’re wrestling with believing that God is good, or I’m sad because my sister is grieving her favorite cat, or I’m anxious because my brother’s worried about his job interview.
This is pretty common for INFJs because our minds are wired to pick up on social patterns. We interact with the outer world using Extroverted Feeling (also called “Harmony”), which is in-tune with the emotions of other people. That’s layered on our Introverted Intuition (aka “Perspectives”), which notices patterns and seeks big-picture understanding. Together, the combination of Ni-Fe makes make INFJs (and ENFJs as well) masters of picking up on what other people are feeling. Often, this also includes why they feel the way they do and how they’ll react in different situations.
All this means that when an INFJ feels an emotion they can’t just assume it’s their emotion. We’re not naturally well equipped to handle our own feelings — we’re wired to respond to others first. This can be both a challenge and a strength. A challenge because we need to work at building space to experience and evaluate our own feelings; a strength because we can relate to people on a deep level.
Whether you’re an empath or simply an INFJ, your tendency to absorb other people’s emotions means you face some unique challenges. Every personality type has to learn how to deal with their own emotions as part of personal growth, but for us this involves separating your emotions from others before trying to understand them. I’ve read articles written by INFJs who say they can’t recall the last time they felt an emotion that originated with them. We need to give ourselves space (literally and metaphorically) and permission to explore our own feelings.
Another thing to keep in mind is that our experience of someone else’s emotion isn’t more genuine than their own experience of that feeling. It can be tempting to think that because you feel with someone you understand exactly what’s going on, but that’s not always the case. You might pick up a genuine feeling, but make an incorrect assumption about what triggered it. Or you might see a trigger and assume you know how the person is reacting, but be wrong.
INFJs are often nicknamed The Counselor. It’s important that we find balance in this role. Take the time to “counsel” yourself and work through your own emotions. Let yourself have feelings. When counseling others, really listen to them rather than just assuming you accurately guessed what they’re going through. Let them, and help them, work through their own emotions.