By Michael Pierce
While the SFP types are seen as happy-go-lucky hedonists, the SFJ types seem to be pigeonholed as traditional mother figures. With this in mind, the ISFJ has a peculiar stereotype in the Jungian community. Keirsey called them the “Protectors,” Personality Page calls them the “Nurturers,” and I’ve also seen the nickname “Defender” used.
While the ISFJ stereotype always admits this nurturing nature and is sometimes used to imply weakness or passivity, these traits are considered redeemed by the ISFJ’s other qualities. People very rarely seek to outright deride the ISFJ; if they express frustration with SJs, as is fashionable with some groups, the ISFJ is not the type directly under attack; it’s usually the ESFJ.
The stereotype for the ISFJ is of a relatively quiet, reserved, unassuming, but very strong-hearted and loyal, responsible, protective figure. Their disinterest in typology is more politely excused with the genuine assumption that the ISFJ does possess valuable, concrete knowledge. The ISFJ seems to be considered wise in a peculiar way. Their silence is mysterious, and their kindness and concern for others very comforting, though they aren’t normally given to bouts of laughter or meaningless smiles. They represent a strong but sensitive spirit or a stern but loving mother figure. In many ways, they are perceived as a concrete, unphilosophical but wise, rustic kind of INFJ. But as always, the stereotype does not do justice to the full functional nuance of the type.
So let’s break down what constitutes the ISFJ functionally.
ISFJs are a Judging type, meaning that they prefer extroverted judging and introverted perceiving. This means that they base their judgment criteria on objective, outside information, while simply observing and drinking in their subjective information and experiences. You could say that they are more aggressive towards the outside world and more receptive towards their inner experience.
Their preferred way of doing this is through extroverted feeling and introverted sensation. Extroverted feeling is accommodating – it adapts to objectively understood values, aligning itself with whatever is appropriate, harmonizing or desirable for a given situation. Meanwhile, introverted sensation perceives reality as it is, but invests its perceptions with subjectivity and recalls these subjective memories in similar situations. It is recording, or if you like – cataloguing or recalling.
ISFJs are also very similar to the ESFJ; both prefer Fe and Si. The ISFJ, however, prefers Si more than Fe. Nevertheless, they are in some sense the same type, or at least sister types. I personally like to call SFJ types the “Guardians,” because they thoroughly examine reality and compare it with all the past experiences they’ve collected in their database, and then decide how best to harmonize with or provide for or protect a situation. Of course, “Guardian” is merely a nickname to help me remember the SFJ nature, and does not mean SFJs are necessarily interested in guardianship as we normally think of it.
The ISFJ, then, is a “Guardian” for whom their subjective perceptions of reality hold more importance than accommodating outside occurrences. They are primarily concerned with recording and exploring information gleaned from reality.
The word I like to use for the ISFJ is “dedication.” To fully understand my meaning for this term, it is important to better understand one of the more misunderstood functions, Si. As I’ve mentioned before, the introverted functions are focused on the subject, meaning that Si, rather than observing the actual object itself as Se does, observes the effect that the object makes in the subject. I’ve likened this idea to a wet clay sculpture being impressed by various objects. Another image to help describe this, especially in the ISFJ’s case, was offered by Carl Jung’s wife, Emma Jung, who described Si as a sensitive, photographic plate that is emblazoned with impressions of objects that the Si type needs time to assimilate. For instance, if someone new walks into the room, the ISFJ will be filled with impressions that the person inspires within them, and which they must develop and sort through to form a curiously penetrating image of the person in relation to their past experiences.
Another image I personally like to use is of a spider’s web: Should a fly hit the web, the spider feels the particular vibrations caused by the impact, and by experience can determine the species, size, flight speed, and trajectory, or at least know where this fly fits in comparison to other flies. It is in this way that Si becomes very meticulous and sensitive to detail, just as any spider is sensitive to the slightest change in vibration along their web. It also reinforces their tendency towards preparation and the safety of routine, because their understanding of impressions is based on past experience, making the unknown future especially mysterious.
In the case of the ISFJ, this sensitivity is the main cause of their stereotypical quietude and reservation. The ISFJ is very much an observer who needs time to fully process their impressions of the world. But when this processing is done, the ISFJ can achieve very insightful pictures of reality, picking up on little things that others fail to notice, and putting together a unique picture of people, concepts, or things.
Another fundamental part of their personality is related to the word “dedication.” The two function axes manifesting in the ISFJ are Si/Ne, which is meticulous, multifaceted, and detailed, and Fe/Ti, which seeks to appeal to a higher standard than itself, whether objective sentiment or subjective logic. So, what happens when you combine a thorough, detailed nature with a morality based on holding to a higher standard? You get thorough dutifulness, or as I prefer to say, “Dedication.”
One of the things most distinguishing about ISFJs is their interest in diligently doing the mundane: Unassuming, small acts designed to strengthen others. For instance, George Marshall ensuring that the troops in WWII were supplied with candy, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white person, or Mother Teresa’s advice that, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do.” Their psychological preferences direct their minds in this way: To demonstrate their dedication to others through diligent service, and because of the practical sensitivity of Si, this service always seems to have a charming simplicity and smallness to it that warms the recipient’s heart. Not because the act itself was extraordinary, but because it testifies to the ISFJ’s love for them.
Another point that should be explored here is the ISFJ’s sense of diligence or dutifulness. For the ISTJ, who has a Te/Fi axis, this sense of duty originates within the individual, a burning fire or personal loyalty, a part of the ISTJ’s identity that they must strive to affirm. For the ISFJ, however, who has an Fe/Ti axis, the sense of duty is a higher principle outside of the individual which they feel they must conform to or grab ahold of so as not to be blown away by the storm of life. So while the ISTJ appears more individualistic, fulfilling routines or responsibilities because of an ingrown loyalty, the ISFJ appears more harmonizing, fulfilling responsibilities because their truth and worth have been confirmed for the ISFJ. The ISTJ has an inner sense of duty, while the ISFJ has an outer sense of duty, often directed towards the welfare of others.
ISFJs review their impressions of reality and develop concrete solutions. They carry out these solutions diligently, thoroughly, in other words; with dedication and concern for the community’s interest. When the ISFJ endeavors to do something, they will do it properly, with a powerful dedication to the high standards by which they abide.
This brings up another point about ISFJs: Their perceived obligations to high standards makes them characteristically proper, having a definite sense of decency, of right and wrong, which, when violated, can greatly frustrate or offend the ISFJ. Not in a petty or weak way, but a morally indignant way, arousing, as Rosa Parks stated it, “annoyance.” They stand by what they know is right and can get extraordinarily stubborn and even vehement towards disregard for this standard.
The point here is not that the ISFJ is a conformist, but rather that they are extraordinarily sensitive to the generally accepted value of things, and thus able to navigate the world with this value system clearly in mind. They most certainly have and exercise personal choice and opinion that may differ from other people (and from ISFJ to ISFJ).
One thing that most ISFJs have in common, however, is their dedication. This dedication seeks as much as possible to be perfect in its actions. It is very possible for the ISFJ to wear themselves out because of their relentless thoroughness, driven by a need to conform to the outside standard. As I’ve mentioned before, sensation actually sees more than intuition does, and for this reason takes longer but is ultimately more accurate. Keeping the underlying machinery running and in proper order takes meticulousness, patience, discipline, and dedication – qualities that cannot always be attained by simply glancing at a problem – oftentimes deep, personal experience is required.
The ISFJ’s overwhelming preference for Si subsequently means that ISFJs repress their Ne. As explained before, the ISFJ’s sensitivity to impressions from their environment contributes to their dedication and thoroughness, often bordering on perfectionism, as well as a sense of the proper way forward based on past experience. A way to sum up this part of the ISFJ’s attitude is a caution towards the future and the unknown. The INFJ’s Ni is focused on possibilities, and therefore is more comfortable with the oncoming future, having projected into it plenty of times before. But the ISFJ’s Si is focused on actuality, on what’s already known, and has no reason to trust such projections into the future. It is something dangerous one must prepare for. This attitude is so strong in the ISFJ that they are often uncomfortable breaking out of their routine and innovating new methods of doing things, or, if they try to do it, are rather rigid at it. Like all inferior functions, the ISFJ finds their Ne tiring and difficult to control. Often, they try to keep their Ne out of consciousness, never letting loose and trying things in new ways, because they have learned that, when attempting to set out into the intuitive mode of cognition, they may incorrectly associate objects to make a connection that ultimately falls flat.
So, in summary, the ISFJ is dedicated, combining a sensitivity to detailed impressions of the world with an Fe/Ti concern for humanity and sense of a higher standard and duty. They take notice of people’s concrete situations and are known for diligently taking care of the mundane for others. They have a distinguishing sense of propriety, and a severity and stubbornness towards violations of it. Their inferior function is Ne and therefore they may sometimes have trouble venturing into the unknown realms of innovation, either refusing to do so at all or stumbling through it.
Thanks for reading, and for all the ISFJs out there: Thank you for your concern and diligence in nurturing us, even in the smallest details.
Watch this piece as a video here.