(WHAT'S NEW: 10/23/15--I've been away for a good bit grappling with new challenges and the next stage of life struggles. But I'm coming back with a new article, and a new idea! It's about the INTP drive for creation and achievement. Along with the new article, I'd like to create a page dedicated to INTPs supporting other INTPs in business. If you need a product or service, why not go to another INTP?? You know will get a person who understands your approach to the world!)
I'll admit it. I like being an INTP very much. It's a state of being that puts some nice tools in your hands. However, it also brings some potent blind spots and traps. And usually, the dangers you can't see tend to be the ones that cause you the most grief. It's like getting hit by Wonder Woman's invisible jet plane. As you're lying mangled on the ground, all you can see are clear skies overhead.
Today I'm going to focus on overload. It's a very insidious INTP trap, because the path to overload covers the same ground as our most loved and valued INTP analytical functions. As a result, the more you try to solve that unhappiness with the tools at your disposal, the deeper you dig yourself. As is often the case in life, our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness.
Let's say you're a proto-human walking from your cave for the first time. The world is fresh and wide-open. You feel this interesting sensation on your skin that bright, summer day. Today, in English, we would call the sensation "heat." Another morning, you walk out of your cave, and you feel a different sensation. The sky is cloudy with a stiff wind. We would call that one "cold." These two sensations perplex you. What makes you feel these differences? Is some kind of unseen spirit possessing your body? Was it something you ate? Your mind flips into analysis mode.
You note that the big shining orb in the sky makes an even stronger sensation on your skin when it hits you. When you step into the shade, the feeling lingers in your skin a bit, then goes away. Interesting. Maybe the soil and trees and rocks absorb something from the orb and release it back into the air. Maybe the orb causes heat.
But wait. Over time, you notice the effect of seasons. Each day doesn't heat and cool the same way. Sometimes it's hot even at night. Sometimes it's cold with a bright sun. The conundrum deepens. After climate, you study air currents, ocean temperature, global water currents, the orbit of the Earth, solar flares, the ozone layer. On and on and on and on. Every new discovery factors in and opens new possibilities. But as you delve and find more and more questions to answer, you eventually begin to approach an overall limit of energy. The observations and hypotheses mount. The complexity of the problem starts to breed a sort of paralysis or surrender. We begin to label the overall conundrum as not reasonably solvable. It's like staring over a chasm at an ice cream stand. As much as we want a banana split, we believe we've amassed sufficient information to determine that realistically we just can't get there. For an INTP, everything has the ability to spiral into an overload situation. But there is one area that seems to be a quagmire more than any other. My first article focused on it--interpersonal relationships and isolation.
If you feel isolated, I bet that you can regurgitate the huge amount of information and analysis you've amassed on the subject. You could tell me about the friction in your childhood. How your parents didn't seem to get you. How when you said this, they heard that. You could give me your theories. Your observed truths. The way your relationship with your college roommate started with great promise, but cooled and ended up with you being increasingly alienated. You've deconstructed your interactions. Theorized about what kind of person you need to find and where you might find them. You can tell me how many times you were hopeful that you found one, but then a progression of events proved that you were mistaken.
All of this information builds into an ever-growing conceptualization of the problem. Why does it grow? Because we want to solve problems exactly and fully, and nothing else will suffice. As we apply each potential solution and step back to observe the result, we'll take each point of failure as a new challenge to be analyzed. It's our rational optimism at work. A solution must exist, we just have to try harder.
The trap of INTP is that your thorough and unflinching approach to solving problems inherently increases their size. Size, in turn, begins to empirically prove that the solution may be impossible or beyond your abilities. So what do you do? You try HARDER. The complexity of the problem grows. HARDER YET. Bigger. The building overload spawns negative emotions. Fatigue, frustration, and disappointment mount, finally fermenting into despair.
Nowhere do INTPs seem to fall victim to overload more profoundly than in interpersonal relationships. The most likely reason is that relationships involve a great deal of tricky emotional content. You have your own emotions to contend with (even if you're convinced that you don't have any), as well as the other person's. Since INTPs would rather suppress emotions than embrace them (which actually is an emotion-driven decision), we have a need for skills that we aren't terribly eager to master. But let's tackle the problem of interpersonal relationships in the most logical place. Us. Since our own emotions ultimately control whether we have the experience of enjoying life or being tortured by it, our own emotions are the place to start.
What I'm proposing is really very simple. However, it's foreign to usual INTP thinking. If overload is created by being exacting and looking too big, then happiness can achieved by being less exacting and going small. But here's the catch. Small means pieces, not grand solutions. Discrete little victories. Each one might not amount to much, but if you walk around collecting pebbles, you will eventually have a sack of pebbles as heavy as a boulder.
So, how do we narrow our focus in interpersonal relationships? Let's say you know someone who you've spent time with, and although you once hoped that this person would be a kindred spirit, you've determined that it's never going to happen. You've observed too much incongruity. The person let you down too many times. But now you have an opportunity to have a cup of coffee with this person. Your rational brain says, "why bother? I've already established that this person isn't a kindred spirit. I'm just going to be further disappointed. I'm going to come away feeling worse than if I didn't spend time with them at all." That is overload talking. Perhaps there is some part of this person that you enjoy. Maybe over coffee, you'll end up joking around. Maybe there is something that the two of you can commiserate on. If you just look at the joking or the commiserating, you can enjoy being with this person for a short time. You feel a slice of happiness, because in that moment, you are feeling good.
I submit to you that feeling bad is bad, and feeling good is good. Even though the cup of coffee does not solve the problem of your place in the world, you can feel happy for that half hour in the coffee shop. And that is meaningful. That is good. Did you solve the problem? No. Did you determine that this person is actually a kindred spirit after all? No. It's an imperfect solution. A partial solution. But remember that bag of pebbles. I'm trying to get you working on that sack of pebbles.
Be mindful of where you have opportunities to experience small moments of happiness. When you go collect one, make yourself step back from the exacting, rational machinations of your brain. Be more aware of your emotional state. Fight the urge to leap to negative emotions if little setbacks happen during the experience. Collect more and more of these moments with the goal of building some stability and future predictability. Establish which friends you can call upon for what. By having options for small victories, you have a means to achieve more happiness.
What I've just described will certainly seem like a no-brainer to other personality types. But to INTPs, it's not natural. It's an effort. And let me be clear. It's NOT the answer to our isolation. As an INTP, I'm still convinced that we are, in fact, isolated. However, even though it's not solving the problem, what it does achieve is some much needed training, experience, and success for our emotional side. Emotions are much more subject to our control than we realize. They are not simply the result of a situation. We have a huge amount of opportunity to make choices regarding how we feel. But in order to do it, we have to stop making the mistake in interpreting emotions as an indication of truth.
All personality types misinterpret the message of emotions. That's just part of being human. For example, if you are afraid in a dark room because there might be someone hiding in your closet, that does not mean that someone IS hiding in the closet. But that's not what our brains tell us in the moment, right? It feels like there COULD be someone in the closet because we are afraid. The emotion is interpreted as an important indicator of possible fact. Just like our five sensory emotions. If you feel radiant heat, you don't touch the stove. If you feel scared, there must be something scary out there. Emotion shapes our sense of reality.
The same can happen with isolation. Are we feeling down because we are isolated (reality indicating), or are we feeling down first and incorrectly assuming that isolation must be the objective reason (reality creating)? I believe that the latter is happening a great deal. Isolation is partly true and partly false as a result of emotions that have become mired in overload. If we can unwind the false part, we can strike a much better emotional balance. Maybe we are less isolated than we think. Maybe there is much more that we deserve to be happy about.
In the end, a solution to the grand problem may still exist. There's always hope. And without overload and the weight of spiraling failure, that hope can breathe and be healthy. In the meantime, though, collect those pebbles. You'll feel much better in the end.