What Role Does The Tertiary Function Play In Myers-Briggs® Personality Types?

When we talk about psychological functions in Myers-Briggs® types, the tertiary function often gets over looked. Usually, we talk about the two that we use most often or about the inferior function that usually shows up under stress. These three functions are hugely important. Our dominant and co-pilot processes need to work together for us to have healthy, balanced personalities. And we need to understand the inferior function so we’re better equipped to recognize and deal with how we react to stressful situations. But the tertiary function is also important.

To learn more about how your inferior function works, check out my article “What Does Each Myers-Briggs® Type Look Like When They Get Stressed-Out?” And if you need a refresher on cognitive functions, or if this part of Myers-Briggs® is new to you, read “The Simplest Guide to Myers-Briggs® Functions Ever

The tertiary function is also called the “relief function.” In Personality Hacker’s car model (affiliate link), they call it the 10-year-old because that’s the level of maturity this function typically has. Psychologist John Beebe named it the “Eternal Child” after one of Carl Jung’s archetypes. Though we don’t talk about this function nearly as much as some of the others, it’s also a key part of our personality. Understanding the tertiary function, and how it relates to the other functions, can really help us understand ourselves.

Growth And The Functions

In terms of typology, personal growth happens when we’re using both our introverted and our extroverted sides, as well as our judging and perceiving sides. Working to find a balance between our dominant and co-pilot processes leads to growth and change because we’re exercising all these aspects of our personality.

“In order to be a well-rounded person, we need to be able to do four things successfully:

1. We need to be able to get in touch with our ‘inner world’.
2. We need to be able to get ‘outer world’ feedback.


3. We need a way to take in new information.
4. We need a way to evaluate that information and make decisions.

If we’re missing any of those four things, we end up being lopsided.” (Antonia Dodge, “Why Is the “Co-Pilot” Process Vital for Growth?“)

It’s our extroverted side that lets us get feedback from the outer world, our introverted side that gets us in touch with the inner world, our perceiving side that lets us take in new information, and our judging side that gives us a way to evaluate feedback. Between our dominant and co-pilot processes, we’ve got all four covered. Most of us use our dominant function comfortably. It’s our favorite one. The co-pilot is less comfortable, but it’s essential for personal growth and for realizing our true potential. That’s one of the things Personality Hacker focuses on in their type development programs.

What Role Does The Tertiary Function Play In Myers-Briggs® Personality Types?| LikeAnAnchor.com
Photo credit: MabelAmber via Pixabay

The Tertiary Function and Loops

The thing is, personal growth isn’t easy for any of us. There’s usually a part of us that would rather just stay with what feels comfortable. Part of what feels comfortable for each of us is tied-in with our dominant function. Because the tertiary function has the same orientation (Introverted/Extroverted) as your dominant function, there’s a temptation to just skip-over our co-pilot and stay in our preferred mode of operating.

When we bypass our co-pilot and start using the tertiary process instead, we get into what is often called a “Dominant-Tertiary Loop” or just the “loop.” This isn’t considered a healthy way to live because it means something in our personalities is unbalanced. Since your tertiary function is the opposite of your co-pilot (Feeling/Thinking or Sensing/Intuition) it fills a similar role, but it’s too immature to rely on in place of your co-pilot.

“The tertiary function, remember, is hardly developed at all. It’s been along for the ride, coasting on our dominant energies. We have’t applied it to our actual situation or tested its limits. If we’re coming to a psychological standstill, it will frantically advise us to do whatever we have to do to get rid of the problem. But it will also shape our understanding of the problem in a distorted and defensive way.

In fact, when it substitutes for our secondary function, the tertiary function will tell us exactly what we want to hear: that the conflict we’re experiencing is not our fault, and that we’re absolutely justified in our defensive strategies.” (Lenore Thomson, Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual, p.98)

Some people teach that the Dominant-Tertiary Loop leads to personality disorders. While there may be some connection, I feel this approach is far too simplistic and I have not found any good research to back up this claim. We can slip into a loop pattern without developing a disorder, and mental illnesses are not tied to any particular personality type. A loop can even be part of a normal reaction to stress or to avoiding discomfort. It’s not something to rely on all the time, but going to your tertiary side doesn’t have to be unhealthy.

Healthy Tertiary Uses

When we’re more healthy and balanced, the tertiary function fills a “relief role.” It’s something we start to develop more as we grow older. Eventually, we can learn to use it to support our co-pilot (also called the auxiliary function) and we also use it when we’re relaxing.

“We generally use the tertiary function to be playful, creative, explore, and recharge. It backs up and supports our auxiliary function and often works in tandem with it, especially as we get closer to our 20’s and 30’s. Often in adulthood we find ourselves drawn to activities that utilize this function; using it feels good, feels natural, and is usually relaxing or refreshing.” (Susan Storm, “How Each Myers-Briggs® Type Uses Their Tertiary Function“)

In her book Tranquility by Type, Susan Storm points out that exercising your tertiary function often functions as a form of stress relief. While getting stuck in a loop can lead to stress, using the tertiary function in a healthy way gives other overworked and stressed-out functions a break. For example, if you’re a type with tertiary Introverted Thinking (like INFJs and ISFJs), some light problem solving (like a Sudoku puzzle) can be a good way to use your tertiary function to break stressful patterns of thinking.

Personal growth within our personality type happens as we find balance between all four of our psychological functions. Our dominant and co-pilot  are most important, but we also need to integrate our tertiary and inferior functions in their proper place. We might not talk about the tertiary function all that much, but it is vital for understanding personal growth and type development.

What Role Does The Tertiary Function Play In Myers-Briggs® Personality Types?| LikeAnAnchor.com
Photo credit: SplitShire via Pixabay

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Featured image credit: danielsampaioneto via Pixabay

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