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The Five “A’s” of Transformation: The Enneagram as a Clinical Tool

By David Daniels

We all have a categorizing brain, a virtual pattern-recognition machine, which enables us to recognize doorknobs regardless of their particular shape or a friend from the back, even if we can’t see the whole person. Recognizing patterns allows our brains, with their 100 billion neurons and thousands of connections from one neuron to another, to help us adapt and survive.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the field of psychotherapy has countless typologies, including the DSM and the Myers-Briggs 16 Types, intended to assist us in recognizing distinctive patterns of human personality. As a clinician, the typology that I’ve found most helpful in organizing my own work and understanding the most enduring lifelong patterns in my clients’ lives is the Enneagram, a system of personality types.

The Enneagram has its roots in the world’s great spiritual traditions and in Pythagorean mathematics—which suggests to me that this system fits our basic human characteristics and evolutionary requirements. We need the perspectives and talents of different types of people to help our highly intelligent and social species survive.

What gives the Enneagram its distinctive clinical utility in the consulting room is its focus on the largely unconscious core beliefs that shape people’s view of how to lead a satisfying life. According to Enneagram understandings, our underlying core beliefs shape our focus of attention (in Enneagram terms “habit of mind”) and how we direct our energy (“the driving emotion of type”). Each of the nine Enneagram types has a distinct adaptive pattern based upon and supporting a specific core belief, yet no type is deemed more or less healthy than any other type. Here are brief descriptions of the nine basic types:

Type One: The Perfectionist believes you must be good and right to assure a satisfying life in a world that demands good behavior and punishes bad behavior. Consequently, Perfectionists are conscientious, responsible, improvement-oriented, and self-controlled, but can be critical, resentful, and self-judging.

Type Two: The Giver believes you must give fully to others to assure a satisfying life in a give-to-get world. Consequently, Givers are caring, helpful, supportive, and relationship-oriented, but can be prideful, overly intrusive, and demanding.

Type Three: The Performer believes you must accomplish and succeed to assure a satisfying life in a world that rewards doing, rather than being. Consequently, Performers are industrious, fast-paced, goal-focused, and efficiency-oriented, but can be inattentive to feelings, impatient, and image-driven.

Type Four: The Romantic believes you must obtain the longed-for complete and highly idealized relationship or situation to assure a satisfying life in a world that otherwise would abandon you. Consequently, Romantics are idealistic, deeply feeling, empathetic, authentic to self, but can be dramatic, moody, and sometimes self-absorbed.

Type Five: The Observer believes you must protect yourself from intrusion to insure a satisfying life in a world that demands too much and gives too little. Consequently, Observers are self-sufficiency-seeking, nondemanding, analytic/thoughtful, and unobtrusive, but can be withholding, detached, and overly private.

Type Six: The Loyal Skeptic believes you must gain certainty and security to assure a satisfying life in a hazardous and unpredictable world you can’t trust. Consequently, Loyal Skeptics are themselves trustworthy, inquisitive, good friends, and questioning, but can be overly doubtful, accusatory and fearful.

Type Seven: The Epicure believes you must keep things positive and open to assure a satisfying life and escape from a world that causes pain and imposes limitation. Consequently, Epicures are optimistic, upbeat, pleasure and possibility seeking, and adventurous, but can be pain-avoidant, uncommitted, and self-serving.

Type Eight: The Protector believes you must be strong and powerful to assure a satisfying life in a tough and unjust world in which the powerful will take advantage of you. Consequently, Protectors are justice-seeking, direct, strong, and action-oriented, but can be overly impactful, excessive, and impulsive.

Type Nine: The Mediator believes you must blend in with others and “go along to get along” to assure a satisfying life in a world that makes you unimportant or requires you to blend in. Consequently, Mediators are harmony-seeking, comfortable, and steady, but can be self-forgetting, conflict-avoidant, and stubborn.

In addition to focusing on the nine types of core belief patterns, the Enneagram system works with all three centers of intelligence—head, heart, and body—and the three basic aversive emotions associated with these centers of intelligence—fear, distress, and anger. We all have some of each type in us, but it’s important to determine a client’s core type because, as the following case illustrates, it gives us leverage with which to support the work of personal transformation.

Finding a Voice

In her first session with me, Marie, a 38-year-old attorney who’d recently gotten divorced, explained the reason she’d come to see me. “Through my entire life, I haven’t felt like I have a voice,” she said, trying to explain the sense of intense anxiety and worry that had brought her to treatment. “I’ve completely surrendered to what other people expected of me, or I’ve gone over to the other side with reactivity and anger. I don’t want to live like that anymore.” Marie was particularly concerned that her lifelong pattern of oscillating between a willingness to please and anger was occurring again in a new love relationship.

She’d grown up with a dominating but caring father, a law-enforcement investigator, who constantly worried about her safety. “I struggled to keep him calm and didn’t want to stick out,” she recalled. “If I opposed him, he’d be hurt, wounded, angry, and see me as betraying him. To keep him from yelling—raging—I couldn’t have a voice. My mother was like an angel, taking care of him and everybody else, never saying anything about her needs. I felt I had to protect her by not speaking up and causing conflict.”

Marie had first discovered the Enneagram through a friend. She’d come to see me because she knew I practiced this method of therapy. She’d determined that the Enneagram Type Nine, The Mediator or Peacemaker, best fit the way she functioned in the world. This is an observation that I confirmed through an initial inquiry process about her behavior patterns and energy, key themes, and focus of attention. Mediators believe that the best way to gain love from others is to forget their own priorities and desires, choosing instead “to go along to get along.” They can become so outer-referenced that they bend over backward to accommodate the claims that others make upon them.

What typically happens with this type is that, beneath the veneer of adaptability, anger festers inside when they don’t feel honored or treated as important. Over time, their core dilemma of wanting to have a voice, yet suppressing it to avoid rejection, can manifest as stubbornness, resistance, passive-aggressiveness, and not speaking up until unwanted anger erupts. The specific development keys for Type Nines include learning to pay attention to their own self and needs, determining their own priorities and taking action on them, and especially discovering not only what they’re against, but what they’re for.

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2 comments

  • Comment Link Saturday, 03 March 2012 13:41 posted by Davis McGlathery

    As a layperson, I relate much more strongly to the Enneagram approach of Mr. Daniels, than to that of Mr. Andreas. How can we change our behavior without being aware of what prompts it? To understand what makes us upset, so much so that we do or say something we don't mean to, is necessary so that we can respond in a healthier way. What a useful tool, to understand and accept basic aspects of our nature and to then be better able to adapt to what comes our way. We all deserve this empowering tool.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 29 November 2011 11:25 posted by Sarah Keely

    Steve says the "key question is "Awareness of what?" The answer the Enneagram provides is awareness of a primary defensive strategy which interferes with the person's life.
    The complexity of the Enneagram is difficult to capture in a short article like this one. I find it a more accurate system for understanding personality than any other I've encountered. Its complexity allows me to guide clients in shifting their internal dialogs, thereby opening possibilities for new experiences and changed behavior. With the accuracy afforded to me by my study of the Enneagram, I am able to predict the likely responses of any client to my interventions and to their own experience of change, based on their type. Lots of people are "co-dependent," but they're not all co-dependent in the same way or for the same reasons. The Enneagram provides a startlingly clear and consistent system for distinguishing the way in which co-dependence works for people of different types. That distinction is far from academic or merely interesting; it is useful. With it, I am able to focus my interventions and work with clients to apply this knowledge to themselves so they can replicate it on their own.
    I use the 5 A's to help me sequence what I do as I move from the insights the Enneagram provides me into action. There are multiple ways of bringing clients into the present moment so that they can feel a shift in their experience of their primary defensive pattern (or "habit of mind"). David refers to a breathing technique he uses. Steve's point that David doesn't give a lot of specifics about the techniques he uses to bring a client into an experiential shift is a good one. But I think the reason highlights the beauty of the Enneagram and the 5 A's. It is flexible and allows for multiple techniques including mindfulness techniques, radical compassion, tapping, and hypnotic suggestion to name a few. Any method which allows a client to experience their defenses (not just recognize them intellectually) can be used to assist clients in building awareness, fostering self-acceptance, shifting their relationship to their defenses into one of appreciation, allowing them to take different action and become accountable. Adherence, of course, is the necessity of practicing this basic pattern repeatedly. The intense professional interest in mindfulness of late is an indicator of our own growing awareness that effective change requires a physiological/ emotional shift which is fundamentally experiential. This does not mean we throw away our insights, but rather that we use them to more effectively, with greater precision, help our clients answer the question Steve asked at the beginning of his response: "Awareness of what?"
    The Enneagram confirms for me a basic truth: we don't change who we are fundamentally, nor do we need to. We learn ways of facing our demons, or in more clinical terms, managing our defenses, so that they become our guides, allowing us a much wider range of motion, emotionally and behaviorally.