Role vs Identity




I think that INFPs are the worst at confusing Role and Identity because that idealistic Extroverted Intuitive (Ne) mental function wants our roles to be our identity. Everyone plays many roles in their life, but we only have one core identity.

In my daily life, I have several roles: father, husband, employee, blogger, friend, etc. Each of those roles requires a certain set of behaviors to be successful in that role. Also, those roles are transient. I haven’t always been a father and sometime in the future, my role as a son will pass away with my parents.

Our Identity or a better term, our Self, is not so fleeting. Our Self is an amalgam of our values and beliefs. Our roles are external manifestations of those values and beliefs.

Some have chosen to make their primary role their identity. Ask any random person the question, “what do you do?” and more than likely the answer will be their role as a income earner, i.e. I’m a maintenance engineer or I own my own business. The danger in closely identifying your Identity/Self with your roles is that roles can be taken away. Your role as an athlete might be arbitrarily taken away by a drunk driver. Your role as a employee might be downsized because of the economy. Your role as a spouse can end with divorce. If we make our Roles our Identity, when those roles are suddenly taken away, we end up “losing ourselves”.

Conflating Roles with Identity becomes a bigger issue for INFPs because our Ne mental function projects our ideal/future roles into our Identity. However, some roles are not readily available. Not everyone can be a bestselling author or an international man/woman of mystery. So what happens when that role we’ve so long identified with doesn’t come to fruition? We end up feeling like failures.

Our roles are not our identity, and more importantly failure in a role is not failure of Self. Sometimes, I’m not a great dad. Other days, I can’t seem to solve a problem at work and I fail as an employee. Just because we fail in a role, doesn’t mean we are a failure as a person. How can a person fail at being who they are? We only fail at achieving results in roles.

As we go from role to role in our daily life, we find that we have more success with some roles than others. Some roles seem easier to play than others. Why is this?

Each role requires certain behaviors, some of which aren’t suited for our INFP mental functions. To be a successful employee for most jobs, we can’t show up anytime we want. INFPs will show up on time if they have to. INFPs can and will do many things against type if that role requires it and if success in that role is important to them.

Sometimes certain objectives feel like two steps forward and one step back because the role forces us into our underdeveloped mental functions. Our natural tendencies emerge to sabotage the behaviors required for success. For example, say you want to write book and the inferior Extroverted Thinking (Te) mental function gets us to sit down to write every day. If the Te function is underdeveloped that daily routine feels constricting so our Extroverted Intuition (Ne) function starts daydreaming about more exciting things we could be doing. At other times, a role seems easy because behaviors for success align with our values so our dominant Introverted Feeling (Fi) mental functions pushes us forward.

I think Role-Identity confusion is the main source of varying results when a person retakes the MBTI online variants multiple times. Most of these online variants are self-administered and don’t take into account that people will answer according to which ever role is dominant at the time. I think that’s why so many people seem to hover between preferences and cannot figure out if they’re J or P, or F or T.

Take for example question 69 of the Keirsey temperament sorter. Do you prefer the (a) planned event (b) unplanned event?

For myself, in the role of the father, I prefer the planned event. My unplanned events with my young children, usually ends with bored kids getting into mischief. In my role as a friend, I prefer the unplanned event. I’d rather go over to a friend’s place and hangout. This is where self-directed, forced questions assessments fail because some questions leave test-takers scratching their head thinking, “well I do both.”

The inevitable online advice on these questions is “Which do you prefer more?” in regards to planned/unplanned events. What I hear is: which do you prefer to be more successful at, your role as father or your role as friend? The results end up being skewed unless the test-taker separates their Role from their Identity.  You have to answer as if you had no roles.

As INFP, we want our results to reflect our Ideal Self, to reassure us that we are more than the behaviors we’ve had to adopt for certain roles. Unfortunately, that’s not what the purpose of the MBTI. It doesn’t tell us who we are. It shows us a preference on how we do things. Learning the strength and weakness of how we use our mental functions help us improve our success at our roles. More importantly, those mental functions can give us a deeper understanding of how we came to chose those roles. It’s the reasons why we chose our roles that helps us clarify our Identity.

The Myers-Briggs assessment isn’t our story. It’s a pen we can use to write our story.


Revised: June 10, 2018

Reasoning: I changed references of “preferences” to specific mental functions. I re-wrote the last 2 paragraphs to focus on how the Type Theory can be used to help us with our roles and identity.

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11 Responses to “Role vs Identity”

  1. kgill

    Apr 16, 2009

    11:23 pm

    This is my first visit to your blog. You have very accurately described the prominent conflict in my life; that between role and identity. The desire to be “true” collides head-on with the necessity of making a living or pulling everyone together to complete some large household task. I think that ongoing reinforcement of the difference between role and identity can be a source of strength, confidence and motivation for a struggling INFP. Thanks for the insight.


  2. Ann

    Jan 2, 2010

    12:23 pm

    Re: Role vs. Identity. INFP’s are so prone to feeling they are never enough, somehow. It’s good to have a point of view that values the core person, whether or not their current endeavors are seeming to be a success or failure.

    Thanks for this post.

    Several years ago, reading Keirsey’s “Please Understand Me II” (revised version), was a revelation. The discussions about the intrinsic motivations of differing archetypes was so helpful. The descriptions of the archetypes of various psychology theorists was fascinating. (maybe Maslow’s Heirarchy isn’t the deepest priority of, say, an ISTJ) The various psychologist’s descriptions of “mental health” were skewed by their type’s primary values and world view. Granted, Keirsey had to assign/assume their types, but I found the insights to be amazing.

    A fully realized ESFP is quite different from a fully realized INTJ, etc. In another part of the book, the insights into what types might find easier or more of a challenge in compatibility with each other was very helpful.


  3. Vexing

    May 5, 2010

    3:19 am

    My girlfriend wrote about “losing herself” recently. To me, the whole idea of “losing oneself” is an alien one, to say the least. I always wondered what it meant because to me what you wrote about roles versus identity was obvious. Perhaps that’s the sort of thing she is experiencing? I’ll have to ask her about that sometime soon.

    I also find myself saying “Um, I do both” whenever I take those tests. As for adopting behaviors to garner success in a role, I find that I adopted more extroverted behavior (ISTJ here) in order to do well at my former job as a tech support person at a university. In doing so, I’ve never felt that I was “losing myself” because I knew that what I had to do during those periods of time was necessary, like what you’re saying.

    I think being able to detach the self from a particular role is something more people need to learn how to do. I think of it in the sense of “I am all these things, but these are parts of me.”


    ockhamdesign Reply:

    I find that INFPs pick one particular Role as a basis for self-esteem which is like placing all your eggs in one basket. That Role could be Artist, Writer, Friend, etc. Eventually, life happens and things don’t go our way and our esteem crack on the floor like so many broken eggs. I know at one time I was heavily invested in my Role as Writer. Any other Role life required like Employee felt like I not being myself. However like you said we are all our Roles, not just the ones we like.


  4. Vexing

    May 14, 2010

    4:24 pm

    I think I’m beginning to understand what it means to “lose yourself”. After reading this again, as well as taking into account a bunch of things that happened over the past week, I realized that sometimes I take my role of “Boyfriend” on as the whole of my identity.

    When I’m not doing well in that role, I feel like I’m a failure and I was a terrible human being, thus forgetting that “Boyfriend” is not the entirety of my being.

    It’s always good to have a different perspective on things.


  5. Amanda

    Jun 13, 2010

    9:51 am

    Reflecting on losing self…I am a teacher, which in some ways requires me to go against what is naturally comfortable for me, not the least of which is extroverting myself. I am impatiently waiting for summer vacation to begin so I can be my own easy “true self” without the expectations expected of me in my job. Turns out I’ve been asked to teach in various part-time capacities during break, which is such an annoying thought!.. except that I am grateful for the chance to make some money, and really I won’t have to put myself out THAT much, so of course I’m not gonna whine, I’m just gonna do it.WHAT I”VE REALIZED about myself through all of this is my expectation that–in order to “come back to myself “(which I’ve partially “lost” during the school year)– I believe I need time alone with no expectations so I can remember myself and find balance. THE FALLACY with this, for me, is that I’m thinking I need months for this when actually a day or a weekend where I accept, appreciate, and bask totally in my own rhythm is usually plenty. MY life CHALLENGE here is to allow myself to relax enough into who I am so that the expectation of ROLE won’t cause me to feel I must morph into someone different from what is my nature. I can get so tense while concentrating so hard on doing my job well. So I kinda suck at paperwork but creative communication with kids is an awesome gift I bring to my job. With a little self appreciation, maybe role/identity can balance out on its own.


    Amanda Reply:

    Ha ha ha,.. I was going to respond to this with a wow! I totally relate..I could’ve
    Written this post myself. Well apparently I did write it 3 1/2 years ago. That sure
    Tickles me. I’m more at peace with role vs true self now. My mantra this year is
    …it’s not personal..go with the flow. I’m beginning to realize that most of my co
    Workers are struggling with what it means to do their jobs (roles) well.
    I know that their acting out has little or nothing to do with me. Just role
    Bumping up against role. It’s more helpful for me to remember that, give a
    Sigh or a giggle..and continue to try to be my best best I can.


  6. Michele

    Nov 10, 2013

    8:04 am

    I really identify with this post. I first took the MBTI test many years ago, and was typed as INTP. Any time I took the test subsequently, I came out the same. It was only recently that I read something online that tipped me off that quite possibly, I was mistyped. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for INFPs to mistype as INTPs, particularly if they are clever. So I read type descriptions for INFP, and honestly, it was like a punch in the stomach. It felt like the people writing the descriptions had been stalking me personally, and writing it all down. I guess any time I took the MBTI test, I was answering from the perspective of the person I was trying really hard to be, not who I really was.


  7. Nicky

    May 11, 2014

    12:58 am

    Hi there, I have a question about Ideal Self, I see that you have mentioned it in many of your blogs. I guess I am confused what my Ideal Self is and whether what I deem to be ‘me’ is authentic to who I actually am, or is my Ideal Self just someone I wish or tricked myself to thinking I am. As an INFP, authenticity of self is so important to me. I often question what is ‘me’ and what isn’t- that I rely heavily on my feelings, and tastes, but since my feelings aren’t stable, so becomes my identity. I just would love to be at peace, know who I am and being true to myself.


    Corin Reply:

    Have you ever done something then later that day, you tell yourself you should have done it differently better. That person that would have done it better is your ideal self.

    So how do you know when you’re getting close to being that person. It’s when you look back on something you did later that day and say, yeah I could have done that better but what I did makes me who I am now.


  8. John W

    Oct 30, 2016

    6:05 am

    I wonder if this means that for MBTI tests, and some others to work properly, we need to try to imagine ourselves in the simplest ‘role’ possible, with few extrinsic pressures or expectations? Like living alone or on a desert island or something? Almost with no role other than trying to stay alive.

    Then try to see how the resulting type can be adapted to fit different situations/roles?

    It’s a tricky one. In my case, INFP seems to come up the most but I have had a couple of different results with other online tests, with E, J, S and T coming up.

    I know that if i had some corporatey, IT type stuff to do i might hate having to get started on on it and might procrastinate by planning and making lists etc., But if i was doing something fun like writing and illustrating comics i’d be more keen to just dive in.


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