Quiet but passionate, wise but childlike, creative but caring, these gentle, intuitive people are highly complex and often misunderstood individuals. But are we describing INFJs or HSPs? Or are they the same thing? Many of the characteristics of Myers and Briggs' INFJ personality type can also describe a highly sensitive person (HSP). Whether you are an INFJ, an HSP or both, it’s important to understand who you are and what you need to be happy.
What is an INFJ?
If you've taken a personality test, you may already know that INFJs are the Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling and Judging personality type. They are gentle, caring and creative people who are highly attuned and sensitive to people’s feelings. Their deep sense of intuition and insight means they are able to understand people and situations instinctively. While they are often found in caring roles, and helping people whenever they can, they dislike conflict and violence and will go out of their way to avoid it. Conflict and stress takes a toll on INFJs, and they can experience health problems as a result.
INFJs aren’t interested in group activities, small talk or superficial relationships. They want and need deep and meaningful connections with a select few people with whom they can talk about ideas and relate to on an emotional and even spiritual level. Despite their caring nature and natural empathy, the INFJ’s focus is internal, and they are driven by the world of ideas, meanings and possibilities, as well as a lifelong search for personal growth, identity and authenticity.
What Is an HSP?
Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person in 1991 when she discovered that many people, like herself, had a more sensitive nervous system. And the condition is more common than you might think – approximately 20% of the population are highly sensitive. Researchers have identified high sensitivity in many animal species as well, including dogs, cats and horses.
HSPs are often mislabelled and misunderstood as introverted, shy, insecure, fearful, and socially anxious, but high sensitivity is none of these. It’s an innate trait that some individuals are born with, like blue eyes or brown hair. Aron’s research shows that an HSP’s brain actually works differently than other brains, making the person more aware of subtleties and giving them the ability to process information more deeply. Consequently, HSPs can easily feel overstimulated and overwhelmed by sights, sounds, smells, crowds, bright lights and even the emotions of people around them. They feel stressed when they have too much to do at once and cannot bear violence or injustice. They usually have a deep appreciation for art, music, animals and nature.
HSPs are also vulnerable to developing low self-esteem and can experience anxiety, depression and shyness because of the lack of acceptance of their trait. Western culture tends to value outgoing, extraverted personalities and the sensitive, thoughtful HSP can easily feel criticised, unappreciated and unaccepted.
Unlocking the Four-Letter Code
Let’s take a look at the four dimensions of an INFJ and see how they compare to HSPs:
I – Introversion. Introversion and extraversion are not about how outgoing or talkative you are, but how you get your energy. Introverts get energy and recharge by spending quiet time alone, often reading, taking nature walks, listening to music or engaging in creative activities. Extraverts are energised by socialising and participating in stimulating activities. Both INFJs and HSPs have a lot of internal energy, so they don’t need as much stimulation from the external world. They both tend to live in a world of thoughts and ideas, and too much stimulation from their environment can be stressful. According to Aron, most HSPs are Introverts, however, approximately 30% of HSPs are Extraverts, so they would be more like ENFJs.
N – Intuition. The second letter can be either an S for Sensing or an N for Intuitive. This dimension describes how you take in information. Sensing types focus on facts and concrete details in the outside world, while Intuitive types, like INFJs, learn by thinking about ideas, feelings and trusting their intuition. HSPs are also very intuitive people, preferring to navigate life with the help of their own instincts, thoughts and feelings. They tend to avoid experiences that stimulate the senses, like nightclubs, shopping malls and parties because they are overwhelming. Psychologist David Keirsey suggested the symbol of the dolphin to describe INFJs. Dolphins use a sonar system to communicate and navigate through the world. Like dolphins, INFJs use their strong sense of intuition. Similarly, HSPs’ sensitivity is like a sonar system, allowing them to be aware of and understand subtleties in their environment.
F – Feeling. The third letter is not about whether you Think, as a T, or Feel, as an F. It reveals how you make decisions. Thinking types use logic and objective analysis while feeling types base their choices on personal values and consideration for people. Feeling types can be just as logical and intelligent as thinkers, but they place a higher value on compassion than rules. This focus on people and values describes a key decision-making process for both INFJs and HSPs.
J – Judging. The fourth letter can be either P, Perceiving or J, Judging, and deals with how we run our lives. Perceiving types are flexible, open to change and can have a hard time finishing what they start. Judging means you prefer to stick to a plan, a schedule and a structure, allowing this type to be more organised and get things done. For this aspect of the personality, INFJs and HSPs may differ. Highly sensitive people can be organised, methodical and seek closure, but they can also be less structured and more interested in starting a project than finishing it. In this respect, they can be more like an INFP. But there’s a key difference. INFJs, more than INFPs, are known for being determined and passionate about their work and pursuing their goals with the intensity of their convictions – qualities that are also key characteristics of the creative, sensitive HSP.
Coping in the World
So what does this mean for the INFJ and HSP? The combination of the four INFJ traits translates into a person who is focused on ideas and possibilities, and often struggles with the mundane tasks, details and practicalities of life. Like HSPs, INFJs have specific needs, challenges and coping methods, some of which are addressed below.
1. Peace and quiet
Both INFJs and HSPs need a lot of quiet time to recharge their energy. They both find outside stimuli such as noise, activity, lights and people not only distracting, but stressful and at times exhausting. This is because the INFJ’s strength is internal and they are highly sensitive to the outside world. Of course, only negative stimulation overwhelms them. Both INFJs and HSPs thrive when exposed to gentle stimuli like beautiful music, art, a calm atmosphere, a walk in nature and the time to think.
2. Compassion and empathy
Despite feeling overwhelmed by noise, crowds, people and their demands, both INFJs and HSPs feel a deep-rooted desire to help others, not to look good, but because they want to make the world a better place. They don’t want to rescue people as much as inspire and motivate them to help themselves. This personality type can not only understand other people intuitively, but they can often feel their emotions as well. The strong feeling function in INFJs creates a gift for empathy and compassion, a trait shared by HSPs. Unfortunately, they are also vulnerable to becoming people pleasers and victimised by selfish and demanding individuals who take advantage of their caring nature.
3. Authentic relationships
INFJs and HSPs are intelligent, insightful and thoughtful individuals who value deep, meaningful, and genuine connections with people. INFJs and HSPs have uncanny insight into people and situations. They have little time for superficial relationships or small talk, and often see through sales tactics, deception and facades. They love in-depth, mentally stimulating conversations and one-on-one discussions. But that doesn’t mean HSPs and INFJs are missing all the fun. Research suggests that when it comes to happiness and well-being, quality conversations matter more than quantity.
4. A meaningful career
Unlike most people, INFJs and HSPs need more than a steady job and a paycheck. They need a career with a purpose. Despite their quiet, gentle, and sensitive natures, INFJs/HSPs are passionate about their values and beliefs. They are not motivated by money, fame or personal glory, but by making a difference and standing up for those in need. Consequently, many INFJs and HSPs seek careers in the healing professions such as healthcare or counselling. Their sensitive, creative natures also provide them with a talent for language, writing, speaking and communicating and they may seek careers in teaching, publishing or the arts.
The sensitivity, empathy, insight and heightened sense of awareness of INFJs and HSPs mean they are naturally creative people. A study at Northwestern University shows a clear link between a person’s inability to filter out external stimulation and their creativity — and we know that INFJs and HSPs are sensitive to their environments. Creativity helps the INFJ/HSP express their emotions, solve problems, and release the pent-up energy they’ve absorbed from their external world. In his book, The Neuroscience of Personality, Professor Dario Nardi explains that INFJs need time away from external stimulation to get into the relaxed mental state where they can create connections and engage in the introspective process in which they excel. When INFJs are free to express themselves and explore the possibilities they see so vividly in their imaginations, they flourish.
Ultimately, we cannot say for certain whether all INFJs are HSPs, but it seems they probably are. Most HSPs are either INFJs or INFPs — the ones that don't tend to be ENFJs or ENFPs. Whether you’re one or both, it’s important to know what stresses you, what overstimulates you and what makes you feel calm, relaxed and happy. With their caring, compassionate nature, deep desire to help and tendency to feel overwhelmed, it’s essential that INFJs and HSPs take care of themselves first.