Living With INFJ Guilt And Overcoming Cycles of Shame

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INFJ personality types* often live with ridiculous amounts of guilt. We feel guilty about things we did and didn’t say or do. We feel guilty about how the people around us feel and how they react to us, about our own short comings, and even about our successes.

Everyone experiences a certain amount of guilt. But it does seem like one of the more common struggles for INFJs. Most people attribute this propensity for guilt to INFJ perfectionism, saying that if we fail to make something “perfect” we’ll feel guilty about it. But it’s a bit more complex than that (a fact which, I’m sure, will surprise no one familiar with INFJs).

Living With INFJ Guilt And Overcoming Cycles of Shame | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: “Incognito” by nasrul ekram, CC BY via Flickr

Why do INFJs feel guilty?

The INFJ mind is very good at coming up with reasons we should feel guilty. Our Introverted Intuition seeks out patterns in our own behavior. Our Extroverted Feeling picks up on how we make others feel and evaluates our actions in light of how people “should” be. Our Introverted Thinking is quite happy to analyze our faults to death. And that pesky Extroverted Sensing adds even more guilt by whispering that all this shouldn’t matter and we could just go have fun.

All these mental processes come together to help make INFJs prone to guilty feelings. INFJs tend to believe that if something in their lives or with the people around them doesn’t feel right, then it’s the INFJ’s fault. I know that seems pretty vague, but it’s intended to. INFJ guilt covers a lot of territory. For example:

  • I didn’t complete this project as quickly or as thoroughly as I wanted, therefore it’s a failure.
  • I was having a good time at the party but as soon as I left I realized I’d been acting like someone other than myself. Now I feel dirty and inauthentic
  • I could forgive someone else for doing this, but I expected more of myself
  • My strengths make me stand-out from other people, so I have to hide them
  • I stayed silent when I wanted to disagree with someone, therefore I’m a coward
  • I couldn’t possibly make both people happy so I had to pick just one (or neither). I should have been more flexible or inventive
  • Someone around me did something that’s wrong and I feel guilty for them
  • That awkward conversation from 5, 10, 15 years ago still haunts me and now it’s too late to fix things
  • I did something I feel is wrong and need to confess, even if it didn’t hurt anyone and they don’t care
  • My words hurt someone else, therefore I’ve failed as a friend

In a typical, healthy INFJ a few thoughts like these might show up occasionally or they’ll be in the background of our minds. But when we’re stressed, depressed, scared, tired, or for some other reason thrown into a guilty spiral, these kind of thoughts just loop in circles.

Is it guilt or shame?

Have you ever listened to a TED talk by Brené Brown? I love listening to her so much. I think it’s because she seems so “real” in a way that resonates with me on some deep level. In her talk “Listening to Shame,” she points out that guilt and shame are two different things. ”

Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” … Gilt: “I’m sorry I made a mistake.” Shame: “I’m sorry I am a mistake.” — Brené Brown

All human beings have at least a little shame unless they’re incapable of empathy and compassion (which is not a problem for INFJs — we tend to have an abundance of both). Shame usually beats you up with two thoughts: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” And it’s highly correlated to things like addiction, violence, and mental disorders.

But guilt is inversely correlated to those things. Brené Brown says that while guilt is uncomfortable, it’s “incredibly adaptive” because “the ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be” helps us grow. So one of the questions we INFJs need to ask ourselves is whether we’re dealing with guilt, shame, or both.

If we’re feeling shame then it’s partly a sign of being human (congratulations! you’re not actually an alien). But it’s also not going to be very helpful if you stay there in those feelings. It’s the thing that holds you back from talking to someone becasue you’re sure they don’t want to hear from you anyway. It’s what talks you out of starting that new creative project because it’ll only fail and who are you to think you can do a good job.

Guilt can also trap you if you let it. And I suspect in INFJs, feelings of guilt often go hand-in-hand with shame. But guilt has greater potential for pushing us to take action. And when we recognize that we can use the ways we fall short as stepping-stones to get where we want to be, then we can start to move out of our cycles of guilt and shame.

Living With INFJ Guilt And Overcoming Cycles of Shame | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: “hiding all away” by Gabi Agu, CC BY via Flickr

So what can we do about it?

To deal with shame, you need empathy and a willingness to be vulnerable. INFJs tend to be very good about showing empathy to those who are vulnerable with us. But we’ve learned not to show our own vulnerability to others becasue we don’t expect empathy in return. The scary thing is that no matter how badly you were hurt the last time you were vulnerable, you’re unlikely to heal until you find a way to start opening up again and let other people’s empathy into you life. I know it’s risky. But I also know how incredible it feels when you finally find someone who’s safe so please don’t give up on looking for that.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead*

For guilt, part of what INFJs need to realize is that our failures (or perceived failures) aren’t the end of the world. Seriously. You can’t go back and fix things in the past but the world is still spinning and you can learn from your failures so you do better next time. I’ll be honest, I’m not very good at this yet. At least not when it affects other people. I can make a mistake in private and be fine. But when other people get involved I want to panic, hide, and try to minimize potential damage by not doing anything (even though that’s often the most damaging thing to do).

Try to figure out why you feel guilty about something. Get at the roots of your guilt so you know what you’re really dealing with. For example, if you feel guilty about not expressing yourself clearly in a conversation it might be because you think it’s wrong to hide your true feelings on important subjects. Or if you feel guilty about being better at something than other people are, it might be because you think making other people feel less than you hurts them.

Once you have an idea about why you feel guilty, you can do what Brené Brown talked about. Hold the thing you did up against who you want to be. Going back to our examples, you might figure out that you want to be the sort of person who is comfortable speaking out on important issues. Or maybe you want to find a way to use your gifts confidently while also building up the people around you.

Now that you’ve started to clarify who you want to be, it’s time to figure out what you need to do to get there and then do it. And while you’re doing that, give yourself permission to not get it right the first time. Don’t let this exercise become a new source of guilt. If you can’t figure out exactly why you feel guilty or make the changes you want to see immediately, that’s okay. The fact that you’re trying really does matter. And it is going to help you start breaking out of those cycles of INFJ guilt and shame.

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