Confessions of an Unhealthy ISTJ

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on June 24, 2022

ISTJs have an inner willpower that other personalities can only dream about. We stare down a situation and take notes, willing to remain aloof until we can arrive at a solid conclusion. The right conclusion. And if this keen observer forgets that she is being observed, well, things get messy.

And you know how we feel about messy.

ISTJs are unhealthy when our best characteristics turn a corner to the dark side. 

Healthy or unhealthy?

Is it perseverance or stubbornness? Are we calm or cold? Is our behavior loyal or stalker-worthy? Am I knowledgeable or a know-it-all? Honest or tactless? Mentoring or controlling? Objective or close-minded? Are we private or loners? Detail oriented or nit-picky? Natural born leaders or bossy micro-managers? Decisive or judgmental? Focused or dismissive?

Sound familiar? This is the song of my people. Sometimes, we can’t win. Okay. A lot of the time we can’t win because we are truly not going to pay attention to what we look or sound like when there’s a job to do. It doesn’t even register on our radar until someone takes a strong detour around us and we’re standing alone at the water cooler, an outsider in our own office.

But I digress.

Healthy or unhealthy? Virtue or vice? As much as I’d love to say that it’s in the eye of the beholder, the following cues might signal that it’s time to pull back and reevaluate our physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s not always them. Sometimes it’s us.

Overachievers anonymous

ISTJs have healthy reserves of commitment and practical smarts. We are eager to contribute these qualities to our jobs, relationships, and innocent bystanders. A healthy ISTJ knows the balance between being helpful and being intrusive. 

This is not me.

If someone asks me for something, I move mountains in a Herculean effort to make good on it. If you ask me to help you with a decision, I will analyze every tiny detail with you. If you ask me for a budget report, I will include a dozen spreadsheets of relevant information. When  someone needs directions, I’ll draw a map or maybe just take them myself. Shall we start a family? Five kids sounds about right. I don’t go halfway. I toss on my superhero cape and get to it. The more I know, the more I want to apply it. But why would this be unhealthy?

A peek behind the curtain

Like most ISTJs, I try to supply extra, in case my normal is not good enough. The driving force behind this unhealthy practice is perfectionism, a form of control that we use as a personal defense. ISTJs hate feeling at risk, insecure, or looking incompetent, and supplying ‘extra’ is our safety measure.

Another driving force is the worry that the problem or question may rise again. We love to fix things in a way that they stay fixed. Answering the same question over and over again or repeatedly reinventing the wheel is torture. To avoid this, if oil is the answer, then we supply a gallon where only a drop might do.

Warning signs of an unhealthy mindset

What is the warning flag of this unhealthy mindset? It’s the moment you decide that you and only you can do the job; that you can do it best, fast, or right. When you take over instead of assisting; when confidence shifts into arrogance; when a task that could have taken ten minutes turns into hours of application.

Physical signs of an unhealthy ISTJ include the impulse to nag, brag or complain, or become cynical, passive aggressive, confrontational, or angsty. You’ll have headaches, IBS, nausea, or anxiety.

You are holding on too tight. A healthy ISTJ can relax and take a step back. For health’s sake, our normal has to be good enough.

We can take it. But why?

I’ve been known to toss so many balls into the air that they splat on top of my head. I’ve been known to run full force into brick walls and then turn right around and do it again. You will seldom hear me admit to a mistake or apologize because to us, mistakes are part of our learning curve and, as such, they mean no more than successes do. Both are dialed down in favor of a job well done.

However, if the job well done is at the expense of our health, it isn't worth it.

And if the job is not well done? Unhealthy ISTJs run the risk of spiraling into depression if things don’t go the way we planned them. Ask an ISTJ who is used to only getting “A” grades in school what that first “F” felt like. Ask an accountant what it felt like to miss a figure and run the entire company budget off kilter. Ask the ISTJ mom whose child ran away from home how she felt about it. Or the policeman about when his first hostage negotiation fell through.

We will endure a lot physically, ascend to any levels of workaholic perfectionism, in order to avoid what we see as a frightening psychological after effect.

Raising the bar ridiculously high 

Integrally connected to this behavior is that our bar is raised ridiculously high for ourselves and we have real problems with forgiveness. ISTJs can become judge and jury, and enforce the penalty on others because we are so quick to do it to ourselves. Engineers and editors used to wielding the red pen at work have to struggle to put it down at home. We are wired to find the problems, see the gaps, and bring order out of chaos. When this crosses over to unhealthy, it looks like ruined friendships, resentful children, broken marriages, and lost jobs.

To err is human. As much as ISTJs fight this, in order to be healthy we must be able to embrace the messy, human, and fragile parts of ourselves and others. For us, stopping to smell the roses isn’t enough. We’re already thinking about whipping out the pruning shears. Unhealthy ISTJs who can’t find their way to gentleness will make progress with a good therapist and tools to help them practice a new pattern of discernment. 

This is finally a job that you and only you can do.

More signs of an unhealthy mindset

Other signs of an unhealthy ISTJ include the impulse to bark at others or the opposite: becoming silent and withdrawn. You’ll be exhausted, running on caffeine, lose intimacy with loved ones, and not get enough healthy food or sleep.

You are moving too fast. A healthy ISTJ can slow down and take a break, preferably on a hot beach with good friends and no internet. For health’s sake, our fear of failure can be tempered by a healthy acceptance of the hot mess that we humans are.

The test

ISTJs welcome a good test. The difference between a healthy ISTJ and an unhealthy ISTJ is not just a matter of perspective but in a physical manifestation of how you approach your day.

An unhealthy ISTJ will ignore the warning body signals. A healthy ISTJ pays attention to them and respects them. 

If I’m hungry, tired, or tense, I stop working and take care of my body. An unhealthy ISTJ will take on too much at once. A healthy ISTJ knows how to delegate, appreciate, and simplify. If I’m overwhelmed, I say “no” to more tasks and cut back on the “to do” list.

An unhealthy ISTJ will be reactive, defensive, depressed, resentful, or cruel without even noticing that she is the hot mess she was trying to avoid. A healthy ISTJ isn’t afraid of being uncomfortable or unsure.

Do we like it? Nope. But we can sit there and acknowledge it with grace.

It has taken me over fifty years to realize that I am enough. That I can ask for help. That I will never have all the answers. That being a messy, squishy, empathetic, and imperfect person who can laugh at herself is a priceless gift. I embrace the song of my people. Sometimes, it is the cry of a warrior. And other times, it’s the love in a lullaby.

Jolie Tunnell

Jolie Tunnell is an author, freelance writer and blogger with a background in administration and education. Raising a Variety Pack of kids with her husband, she serves up hard-won wisdom with humor, compassion and insight. Jolie is an ISTJ and lives in San Diego, California where she writes historical mysteries. Visit her at

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


Kathryn M (not verified) says...

Hi. Are there any ISTJ groups or meetups or get togethers here in San Diego you might know of?  

Jolie Tunnell says...

I don't know of any Overachievers Anonymous groups but there must be a lot of recovering perfectionists out there. If you find something that helps, please share it here! My self care routine includes making tea (a forced five minute reality check), cat cuddles, and walks by the lake. For me, regular relaxation has to be daily or things build up fast.

INFJ friend (not verified) says...

My work friend lets me know his pain points at work, and as a sensitive INFJ, sometimes it's hard to handle. But I know he is trusting me by sharing his work (and personal) woes, and so I don't take that trust lightly. I wish I knew how to better support him as I know he gives his all in everything he does, jsut like I do. 

Jolie Tunnell says...

I don't know whether your work friend is an ISTJ or not, but for us, just being heard is hugely supportive. If you both keep healthy and professional boundaries (not sure personal woes come under that umbrella) the ISTJ will appreciate your hard work as support enough.

Infp wife (not verified) says...

Trying to better understand my Istj husband and you nailed it. As an Infp you can imagine how I've struggled with his 'unhealthy' side especially since he began full-time work from home 3yrs ago. I homeschool and have a toddler. I used to love being a sahm but it hasn't felt like home for a long time. It's stress central for us and my hubby just can't see it. 

We've always had issues but not having a break from eachother is becoming to much for my sensitive soul to bare. 

At least your post has shed some light on the unhealthy Istj so I can see it's not in my head! I can also have more insight as to how it is being an Istj and what that internal struggle actually looks like. No wonder he has anxiety! 

Thank you!

Jolie Tunnell says...

As an ISTJ who is also three years into a full-time author job at home, I can say it's a good time to call a family meeting for some renegotiation of the boundaries. As in: create them and stick to them. I was a sahm, too. The hardest part of both jobs is that you never actually leave them. They feel around-the-clock and an ISTJ is working even when she's not. Remind him that relationships are also part of the day job and start blocking off the calendar for "you" time and "us" time. No work allowed. Guard this new space like a dragon and make this balance beautiful, as only an INFP can.

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