On Loving What You're Bad At
Updated: Jul 24, 2023
Your Super Power and the Secret Door to Your Unconscious
We all have stuff that we're good at and stuff that we're bad at. Typically we lean into what we're good at and to avoid what we're bad at. While this is a natural tendency, over time it can make us pretty lopsided. While it's deeply satisfying to continue to improve upon our best traits, things can go amiss if we don't pay attention to our lesser ones too. For Carl Jung, these traits are less about "good" and "bad" than they are about the "superior" and "inferior" ways in which we prefer to function. This is an important distinction because it lets go of the judgement about good and bad; inferior is not "bad" - it's just that we feel less at home when we're required to rely on our inferior functions.
Even with the best will in the world our inferior traits will never become as good as our superior ones - but developing our inferior capacities pays dividends far beyond just getting better at stuff. When we lean on our superior functions we tend to feel skilled and confident, while having to engage in our inferior ones can dissolve our confidence and make us feel de-skilled. Think of it as the psychological version writing with your dominant or less dominant hand.
Introversion and Extraversion
For Jung, the way we function has to do with what is most psychologically developed within us. He's not talking about specific skills like whether you're more proficient at words or numbers (though this matters too), but your preferred way of perceiving and being in the world including the way you organise your experience.
In short, our superior functions are those that are most developed and that we are most conscious of, while our inferior ones are less developed and therefore closer to the unconscious. The way we function is subsidiary to our "attitude" or "personality orientation. Most readers will be familiar with the two main Jungian orientations: introversion and extraversion. These attitudes will deeply influence how each of us engage in the functions that sit underneath them. You can think of attitude or orientation as a higher category under which the functions sit.
It's really important to keep in mind (and this is the whole point of this article!) that we are comprised of all orientations and all functions, we just tend to have preferences for some over the others. To consider yourself as "an introvert" or "an extravert" is just wrong - it's more about a preference for each attitude, and even that is dependent on context. Check out my TikTok for a summary of this and other concepts:
Contrary to popular understanding, introversion and extraversion is not about being shy or being gregarious, though it's likely to affect these personality traits, rather they are about your preferred relationship to the world and where you get your energy from.
Extraverts are oriented to events in the outer world of events, people, and activities. They tend to get energy from, and give energy to, the world outside themselves.
Introverts are more inwardly oriented, getting energy from their thoughts, feelings and ideas: this is where they tend to get and give most of their energy.
How introverted and extraverted you may be in any given moment is dependent a lot on context. For example, I tend to lean introverted at parties, preferring to speak to one person at a time on a deep level instead of being a social butterfly. However, when I am teaching or speaking, I lean very extravert and love to be stimulated by a room full of people.
Superior (Super Power) and Inferior (Secret Door) Functioning
Sitting under this general attitude we have our preferred ways of functioning in the world. Here it starts to get kind of complicated, but I'll do my best to keep it simple. For Jung there are four main functions that we all draw upon to get information about the world around us and then organise that information - the names of them can be quite misleading, so I will define them here:
Sensation: Using of the five senses to obtain information about the world around us.
Thinking: Using logical analysis and rational thought telling us what's happening.
Feeling: Using emotions, feelings, and values to understand the world around us.
Intuition: Using patterns to draw meaning out of the world, finding the "gestalt" from the pieces.
Hopefully you can see why we need all of these ways of perceiving the world in order to function properly - too much reliance on any one of them can leave blindspots in the way your perceive the world - and the larger those blind spots are - the more you can miss. By looking at these you can probably get a pretty good idea what you're good at and what you are less good at. If you've ever taken an MBTI personality test, it is based on this theory, but developed a bit more.
When we are in working from our favourite attitude and most superior functions, we are like super heroes. We feel like we are in flow and that we can accomplish anything. This is why we tend to lean into those superior qualities - we feel competent, we feel good! Sometimes, however, we are forced to lean into our inferior ones, and when that happens, it has the opposite effect on us - we feel incompetent, deskilled, and out of sorts.
I like to think about superior functioning as your super power. It's where you feel most at home, it's where you rock. Because it is so deeply linked to how your perceive the world you inhabit, it has the power to make you feel at home in your body and in your context. When it's really on fire, you can feel like a super hero. That's because our super power function is, according to Jung, "always an expression of the conscious personality, of its aims, will, and general performance." In that function, we really feel at home.
Why we should appreciate our inferior functioning may be less obvious; why should you be loving what you're bad at? Jung explained that our inferior functions are "closer to the unconscious." Rather than feeling like we're at home, we feel like something is happening to us, rather than that we are choosing it. He quite dramatically notes that our inferior function is "the dark side" of our personality.
Because it is unpracticed, it feels alien to us when we are forced to engage with it: "The essence of the inferior function is autonomy: it is independent, it attacks, it fascinates and so spins us about that we are no longer masters of ourselves and can no longer rightly distinguish between ourselves and others" (CW* 7). Sounds pretty scary, right? Well, it can be if it remains unrecognised and repressed, when this happens, it gets stuck in our "shadow" - and anything that gets stuck there is liable to sneak up on us and reek havoc when it can.
"... it is necessary for the development of character that we should allow the other side, the inferior function, to find expression,. We cannot in the long run allow one part of our personality to be cared for symbiotically by another; for the moment when we might have need of the other function may come at any time and find us unprepared." (CW 7).
Developing our inferior function isn't only a sensible thing to do so we become more well rounded or to logically have a Plan B when we can't draw on our superior one. Developing the inferior function helps us to gain access to our shadow; it throws light into our unconscious; and it helps us to grow more securely into our greatest potential. It also helps us to better understand and relate to those who have functions that differ from ours, thereby making us more compassionate human beings.
Couples and Teams
As it happens we tend to find ways to deal with our inferior functioning quite unconsciously. For example, many of us find partners that compliment our functioning; in a sense we outsource some of that functioning to them. While this might strike some kind of balance, if both partners don't also develop those inferior capacities it can be a recipe for disaster later. The same thing happens in the workplace. Great teams are comprised of functions that compliment each other. However, they shouldn't be altogether compartmentalised as that can damage interpersonal relations and miss opportunities for synergies.
Loving What You're Bad At: A Guide
While you should definitely surround yourself with others who have different typologies from you, try and do so while developing your own inferior ones!
Here are some suggestions:
Self-awareness is key: Look inside, you know yourself pretty well, so you probably have a pretty good idea of what needs developing. Identify those traits you want to develop and set an intention to do so. Getting a good therapist is a good start if you want to go at it seriously.
Get feedback: Though you'll have a pretty good idea yourself, the nature of inferior functions is that they tend to hide from you. So reach out to trusted others at home or at work and get a second-hand evaluation of the areas you may need to be looking at. The aim is to get this information from trusted and caring others, so it should be done with sensitivity and compassion.
Don't avoid situations that require your inferior functioning: Avoidance is our favourite way of letting inferior functions languish. Subject yourself to uncomfortable experiences that will develop that function and strengthen it. Just like working out weaker muscles at the gym, you don't want to go full throttle all at once, but start a little at a time to build in the skills.
Allow yourself to feel de-skilled: I'm a words-guy so I recently joined a life drawing class. This was really challenging for me and I was not happy with the results. However, it's not really about results, it's about confronting that discomfort and opening that door to your less developed, more unconscious parts of yourself.
Hang with others who are superior where you are inferior: Let them be guides to you, learn from them. Try to see the world through their eyes. Challenge yourself.
Play: Building your inferior capacities is challenging but it can be fun. See it as an opportunity to grow. The great irony is that while in your inferior function you may not feel yourself your are in fact growing more and more into yourself each time - expanding yourself - individuating.
"Individuation is an expression . . . by which every living thing becomes what it was destined to become from the beginning" (CW 11).
*CW - Collected Works of C.G. Jung