INFPs, the compassionate, idealistic, “healers” of the Myers and Briggs personality system, have many positive traits that make us great friends, employees, and colleagues. We’re good at tuning into others’ feelings and putting ourselves in their shoes. We pick up on subtle cues others miss, and we’re creative and imaginative.
All of these traits can be beneficial in both our work and our relationships. But as with most strengths, there are potential downsides. One of these is that we INFPs tend to think everything is our fault.
Maybe someone is unhappy. Or an appliance broke. Or something went wrong at work. Somehow, we think we must have caused it.
Let’s take a look at some scenarios.
You can just tell by their body language or tone of voice that your boss, co-worker, or acquaintance is upset about something. This information is useful, so you’ll know when to tread lightly, or offer help. But for INFPs, it isn’t a giant leap to go from sensing something is wrong to assuming it’s at least partly our fault.
You instantly start racking your brain. Did I say something to upset her? Was the email I sent too blunt? Should I have worn a different color shirt today, in case blue reminds her of a bad memory?
Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the picture. Since we are deeply tuned into people’s feelings, and invested in fixing what’s wrong, it comes more naturally for us than most to think we’re at fault somehow, even if we have no idea why.
The same goes if something breaks or a mistake was made on a team project. Our brains go into overdrive wondering if we are to blame. Wondering turns into worrying. Worrying turns into feeling guilty. Could it be our fault? It must be our fault.
It’s good to readily admit if we did make a mistake, but if our first instinct is to assume guilt for something we didn’t do, that can cause problems.
Here’s a hint -- if you have to think too hard about how it could be your fault, it probably isn’t.
When you’re with friends or family who know you well, they’ll probably just dismiss it as you being you -- ready to take the blame for everything from someone’s bad mood to global warming.
But if you’re with someone who doesn’t know you as well, especially at work, taking the blame isn’t always so harmless. You become an easy scapegoat. And it could tarnish your professional reputation. Besides, it’s not good for our self-esteem to take everything on our sensitive shoulders.
So what can you do? Try these six tips.
1. Focus on the facts
Although INFPs definitely think about things, and often overthink, our thoughts are tied up with our feelings and values. But this is a good time to take a lesson from the Thinker types, who put more value on data and facts.
Start by getting some objective information. What really happened? Is anyone even at fault? Did you really have anything to do with it?
For example, a co-worker is holding her shoulders tightly and her face looks tense. Did you say or do something to upset her? Had you even seen her yet today? What are some other possibilities?
Maybe it was really another run-in with that abrasive person in IT. Or she had an argument with her husband. Or she’s worried about her kids. Maybe she’s not upset at all, but in physical pain.
But how do you get the facts?
2. Wait it out
Sometimes, while you’re gathering information, it’s best to just wait and see what happens. The facts will come out on their own. Or you may not even need to know.
In the meantime, resist jumping to the conclusion that whatever is wrong is your fault, even if leaving things unresolved is uncomfortable.
Most of all, don’t verbalize your concerns or volunteer to assume blame. When our mind goes from wondering what happened to feeling sorry that it happened to ruminating on if we are somehow at fault, we tend to verbalize these feelings.
Since we’re sorry that something is wrong, we say so. But “I’m sorry” can stretch from expressing our feelings to admitting imagined guilt or blame. Even if we have no idea what happened, our response comes out as an apology.
It’s better to just wait for more information and keep our thoughts to ourselves. But what if, after letting a reasonable time pass, you really want to know more?
3. Just ask
You can ask some tactful questions where appropriate.
Try something like:
- “Is everything all right? You seem to be having a hard day. Anything I can do to help?”
- “What are your thoughts on what went wrong? How can we approach it differently to get better results next time?”
Asking questions helps you get information, find out what others are thinking, and maybe learn how you can help. But do not, I repeat, DO NOT ask, “Did I do something wrong? Is it something I said?” Just ask for information without volunteering blame.
4. Remember, it’s not all about you
INFPs are introspective thinkers. It’s not that we’re egotists, but we frame things from our own perspective. Pair that with our desire to heal people’s feelings and fix what’s wrong, and we sometimes assume we’re involved when we’re really not.
But honestly, how realistic is it that you’re the reason for someone’s negative emotions? Are you really the most likely person on the team to have made a mistake? Did that copier break just because you were the last one to touch it -- or is it more reasonable to assume it just died of old age?
I know I have this tendency. If someone seems upset or anything goes wrong, I wonder if it’s somehow my fault. If it’s about subtle things like feelings, I tune in because that’s what INFPs do.
If something breaks or doesn’t work right, I wonder if I did something, since I tend to be clumsy, and not great with mechanical things. But even I know I don’t break everything I touch. And I’m not the only one who could have upset the person I’m in the room with.
It’s often easier for me to say “I’m sorry” than to see someone unhappy or leave a situation unresolved. It’s become a mannerism, to the point that I’m almost surprised when someone takes my apology seriously. I’ve learned this -- if you say “I’m sorry,” people will usually say, “that’s okay,” but they often don’t stop and ask why you’re saying you’re sorry.
5. Don’t volunteer to be the scapegoat
It’s uncomfortable for us to see someone upset or unhappy. We also worry why something went wrong. But our desire to fix things can cause us to inappropriately assume we’re at fault, or just apologize to try to make everyone, including ourselves, feel better.
We’re more comfortable being sorry than with lingering tension.
But it’s not in our best interests to say everything we’re thinking, especially when what we’re thinking is, “It must be my fault.” Some people will be glad to let us take the blame. And we could seem insecure, or even incompetent.
Besides, it's a burden to rush to take on blame that probably isn’t ours to claim. Sometimes someone else is at fault. Sometimes no one is. Things just happen.
6. Ask yourself why you usually think it’s your fault
If you habitually blame yourself, even if you know deep down that what happened probably has nothing to do with you, it’s good to step back and ask yourself why.
A tendency to blame oneself is often attributed to low-self esteem or negative past experiences. It’s worth examining whether this could be true in your case.
However, that’s not necessarily the main cause for INFPs. We just naturally feel responsible for others’ feelings and for making things right. And we’re so tuned in to subtle cues that we may be aware of a situation that other types wouldn’t even notice. Or even imagine that something is wrong when it isn’t.
But are we really responsible for how everyone feels, or for everything going perfectly? In the article, It’s Time to Stop Taking Things Personally, Toni Bernhard calls this personalization.
She says there are two basic forms it can take.
“You take your disappointments and struggles personally.”
When life doesn’t go the way you want it to, you assume it’s because you did something wrong, or there’s something inherently lacking about you.
“You feel responsible for other people’s happiness, and for their disappointments and struggles.”
INFPs are healers after all. We want everyone to be happy and do well. But it’s just not realistic or necessary to take all of that onto ourselves. The other person probably doesn’t even want us to.
Taking a few steps back and looking at our reasons -- and questioning their validity -- can be another step to overcoming this inconvenient habit. It can help to just notice what you’re doing, then ask yourself if that response is actually appropriate.
Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions? Are you tired of always feeling like it’s your fault? Try some of these suggestions and see if you feel a sense of freedom. Blaming ourselves takes energy. And it distorts how others see us and how we see ourselves.
If you learn to stop blaming yourself, you’ll have more energy and confidence to let your unique talents shine through. What greater way could there be to make things better and truly be an asset to the people in your life?