By Michael Pierce
David Keirsey called them the “Composers,” and PersonalityPage calls them the “Artists.” The stereotype in the Jungian community is ultimately unflattering: The ISFP is often seen as a nearsighted, quieter, meeker, more easily satisfied, simple-minded, and more sensual INFP. They are thought of as sensitive spirits living in a dream world, lying beneath a willow tree on the banks of a sparkling river strumming a ukulele and humming some tune while a butterfly alights on the end of the instrument and little adorable forest animals gather around them to hear.
This stereotype implies that ISFP preferences make an individual fragile and sensitive, which is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, it implies that the ISFP is basically a simpler version of the INFP, which is like saying that the INTP is just an ISTP with more layers, rather than a very distinct personality with distinct advantages and disadvantages. The ISFP, like the ISTP, has an Se/Ni axis, which stands in direct contrast to the Ne/Si axis of the INFP.
As always, let’s break down what constitutes the ISFP functionally.
They are a Perceiving type, meaning that they prefer extroverted perceiving and introverted judging. This means that they base their judgment criteria on subjective, inner information, while simply observing and drinking in objective information and experiences. You could say that they are more receptive towards the outside world and more aggressive towards their inner experience.
Their preferred way of doing this is through extroverted sensation and introverted feeling. Extroverted sensation is photographic: It has the most direct relationship with objects of all the functions, giving them the clearest and most realistic perspective. Introverted feeling is individualistic: It has deep, personal passions and convictions that it holds to despite outside opposition, and it greatly values the right to individual freedom of expression and being true to oneself.
Third, ISFPs are very similar to the ESFP: Both prefer Se and Fi. The ISFP, however, prefers Fi more than Se. Nevertheless, they are in some sense the same type, or at least sister types. I personally like to call SFP types the “Aesthetes,” because they combine a sharp and vivid perception of the world with isolated and passionate subjective values, thus giving them a highly developed and individual appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of existence. Of course, “Aesthete” is simply a nickname to help me remember the SFP nature, and it is not meant to imply that all SFPs are natural artists or musicians, or even that they appreciate what you yourself may call art.
The ISFP, then, is an “aesthete” for whom their individual values and desires are more interesting and important than their objective observations. They are primarily concerned with developing, discovering and expressing their innermost feelings and values.
The word I like to use to describe the ISFP is “expression.” To explain this, I will need to describe the differences between the INFP’s Ne/Si axis and the ISFP’s Se/Ni axis: Ne looks at objects through a blurred lens for the purpose of imaginative association and pattern seeking. It doesn’t look at the object itself, but at what it could be or might be related to. In other words, Ne has an indirect relationship with objects. The opposite motion to this is Si, which has a direct relationship with impressions of objects, or the subject, giving it a strong and thorough subjective memory.
Conversely, the ISFP has a direct and clear relationship with objects, but in exchange has an indirect, associative, blurred relationship with their impressions of objects. Thus, while the INFP’s Fi dream world is clearer, more easily navigated, more tangible and solid to the touch, the ISFP’s Fi dream world is perceived through a blurred, imaginative lens, making it smoky, more intangible, and flighty; shrouded in mist, full of strange illusions and apparitions that appear for a moment and then turn back into smoke. The ISFP thus has an even more difficult time expressing the things they’ve seen in this realm than the INFP, and for this reason I use the word “expression,” because this is both the goal and potential talent of the ISFP; to creatively surmount this challenge and give real life and voice to their internal visions.
This is part of the reason why the ISFP is known for being quiet, because not only do they love to explore this dream world, but they have a difficult time describing their values and visions to other people. Words therefore become scarce, somewhat like the ISTP. The INFP is more often known for having an excellent way with words (though paradoxically, they may often experience their way with words as insufficient to describe the sentiments that they hold inside – ed.), and thus INFPs tend to have less of a problem using language to describe their ideas and develop meticulous and detailed descriptions of these realms where their values are exemplified. Once again, this is made possible because the INFP has a direct relationship with their inner world, so to express it purely is not as difficult. The ISFP, however, because of their indirect relationship with their inner world, must be similarly indirect when describing it. But describe it they must, for the whole purpose of Fi is to somehow exemplify and, as I said before, give life to their inner values, to more fully express them, and thus to become more like themselves, more authentically themselves without any external contaminants or concessions. They want to fully march to the beat of their own drum, so they must find a way to play the music and rhythm that they hear.
One way the ISFP very often does this is simply the way that they live. The INFP, too, along with expression through language, is interested in how to live in such a way as to express their values, but this is uniquely done by the ISFP, who seems to become the example of their own style, in their actions, in their clothes, in their interactions and even just the way they walk. There is a sense of unique but unobtrusive style to them.
This is another important aspect of Fi; it is not interested in changing things around it. It is focused on exemplifying its own values. What is outside of it (objective sentiments) are not its business and should not be its business. The ISFP and INFP do not want to interfere with anyone else’s expression of values; their only concern is how they themselves behave in response to them. But while INFPs have an easier time expressing their values with language, reasoning, or even stories, and therefore appear more like a champion of their values, louder and more outspoken, the ISFP finds language inadequate to express themselves, and thus appears much more unassuming in their expression, because they don’t directly express their values, but rather indirectly express them through their style of life, or their art, or other means. They seem like a leaf on the wind, a traveling minstrel or drifter of some sort, going very much their own way in life, preferring not to lead or command but simply to be themselves and go wherever they will, never imposing themselves on the world, but rather expressing themselves in ways that complement or properly adapt to their surroundings while still retaining their individuality.
To clarify, this adaptation is not an expression of Fe, but rather Se. The INFP has a more indirect relationship with the world, but the ISFP has a direct relationship, and therefore is more adept at complementing the objects around them. This is not to say that ISFPs are compromising their values to harmonize with those around them, but that they are expressing their values in such a way that they contribute to the direct aesthetic appeal of their surroundings, which is much less a concern or even talent for the INFP. As Hilary Clinton said about Jacqueline Onassis, “Unpretentious elegance characterized everything she did.”
Another example would be Thich Nhat Hanh, who said concerning the Vietnam war, “we young Buddhists … did not take a side even though the whole world took sides … we tried to tell people of our perception of the situation … We wanted to stop the fighting, but the bombs were so loud.” Thich Nhat Hanh attempted to express his concerns in a calm, unpretentious, unobtrusive manner, not because he was scared in the least, but because if people were unwilling to quiet down to listen to him, then it would be of no use to shout any louder to get them to hear.
Several more important characteristics of the ISFP can be found by comparing them with the ISTP: The primary difference between them is that while the ISTP primarily considers the world in terms of its cold properties, or rather, the properties of their impressions of the world, the ISFP primarily considers the world in terms of its value, or the value of the ISFP’s impressions of the world. Thus the ISTP forms a logical, systematic, level conception of reality, while the ISFP forms a valuated and therefore hierarchical conception of reality, with some things being simply better or more important than others, for instance, art, or styles of art, principles, people whom the ISFP enjoys specifically, and so on.
However, the ISTP and ISFP both share an Se/Ni axis, which has a direct relationship with objects and an indirect relationship with their subject, giving them a zeroed-in perspective and a very vivid, photographic and focused picture of reality, which is then examined through a blurry lens to see what other past impressions it can be associated with. This means they invest a lot of energy and thought into one area, which is usually whatever area provides the most output here and now.
So, while the INFP is more broad and multifaceted, the ISFP is zeroed-in and singular. The ISFP is particularly interested in the here and now, and whatever intuitive ideas and visions are obtained in the here and now. As such, the ISFP’s expression is in the here and now. For instance, Frank Ocean explained that his aim in songwriting was “to make something that represents where I am at that time” and “to make a photograph out of something you can never see.” Bob Dylan said concerning his songs: “I just write them. There isn’t any big message,” and Paul McCartney explained: “How I wrote depended on my mood.” The INFP tends to create an intentional continuity in their works and expression, because of Ne’s broader, more sweeping motion and Si’s memory and recording – for example, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. However, the ISFP is not concerned with overarching continuity, but with intensity, with getting the most out of what is here right now. A compilation of an ISFP’s art would contain various disparate works that each represent very individual, immediate, unrelated feelings, meanings and ideas, but which have an overall style to them. Conversely, the INFP’s compilation would likely have more variation in style, but contain definite threads of meaning throughout the whole of them.
Furthermore, the ISFP often has trouble talking about their art or forms of expression, because the form of expression itself is the best expression they can make. As Frank Ocean said, “I’m trying to make a photograph out of something you can never see.” This is another aspect of the ISFP’s Ni. The ISFP talks through their art, and not abouttheir art. Their art, as I’ve mentioned before, can be actual art, or even just the way they live or how they move their body, or even just their very presence in some cases. But the INFP is much more likely to talk about their art and explain the patterns behind it, because their focus is not the expression itself, or the art itself, but the overarching ideas behind the art. But for the ISFP, and often for Ni/Se types in general, the art is the overarching idea expressed in the best form the ISFP can manage. The INFP uses art to better communicate their ideas, but the ISFP speaks art as their first language. As David Gilmour said about Roger Walters, “I thought [his] songs were very wordy … the music [that he wrote] became a mere vehicle for lyrics, and not a very inspiring one.”
Finally, the ISFP, like the INFP, represses their Te function. One obvious effect of this is that the ISFP does not want to lead others or take control of things, but rather wants to leave their surroundings unaffected while they express their own values in such a way that it enhances the aesthetic around them. While this can be an advantage, one could easily argue that, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh’s time would have been better spent actively doing something to stop the bombs, rather than just quietly protesting. This is similar to the INFP’s difficulty in going about clear, logical goals to accomplish their Fi desires.
Another effect is that the ISFP’s repression of Te also represses their inductive reasoning, meaning, as CelebrityTypes has put it, that “they sometimes fail to draw logical conclusions about their situation and act on them.”
So, in summary, the ISFP is occupied with self-expression of their Fi values, something made difficult by their indirect perception of their own subject through Ni, but overcome through creative outlets, from art to body language to simply how they live. Their Fi discourages them from trying to change or affect their surroundings, and their Se helps them express themselves with an unassuming, complementary elegance. However, they repress Te, which can make it difficult for them to form and accomplish specific goals, and can cloud their inductive reasoning.
Thanks for reading, and for all the ISFPs out there, thank you for the beauty you bring into the world through your devoted self-expression.
Watch this piece as a video here.