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 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.
An example that may seem small, but contains the essence of Marie’s personality structure and her core issues, was an incident that had recently taken place during a visit with her mother. “One day, my mom suddenly announced that we were all going to an awful place to eat and what time we were going to go do it.” Then, with great tensing of her muscles in the abdomen, thorax, and neck, Marie found herself erupting, “Well, nobody asked me! Doesn’t anybody care to find out if this is okay for me?” But as soon as those words came out of her mouth, she immediately felt she’d gone too far.
At that point, I said, “For someone with your type, speaking up at all can feel like going too far. So pause and notice your inner state as you recall the feelings inside your body. From that place of reactive upset, you know what you don’t want---you don’t want to be told. But it comes out, ‘Nobody asked me!’ Let this be a step toward getting to what you do want.” The goal was to help Marie get in touch with the core issue of making herself matter without either suppressing or acting out her anger.
An important part of Enneagram work is teaching clients to welcome their own reactivity and upset as a way of exploring their personality style. With Marie, I said, with considerable resolve, “When you get that reaction, you really need to befriend it. Ask yourself, ‘What’s this reactivity trying to tell me?’ I then asked her to make a commitment to herself to determine what mattered to her and how to best speak up for what was important to her. Since Marie wasn’t practiced at speaking up with thoughtful compassion, I provided a suggestion of what she might say to her mother: “What about saying, after you breathe back down, of course, to get grounded and receptive, ‘In the future, I’d like it if you asked me what I want.’”
Working with the Patterns
Enneagram work is structured by what we call the Universal Growth Process (UGP) consisting of “5As.” These are:
When we can witness, or self-observe, our own habit of mind and its repetitive, limiting pattern in a nonjudgmental way with gratitude—the first “3As”—we gain great leverage in changing the pattern. We get many opportunities each day to work with our pattern, since it shows up all the time in large ways and small in our reactivity and defensiveness.
Focusing on Marie’s new relationship with quiet, nondemanding, 50-year-old Elliott, a man with few voiced needs, demonstrates the importance of recognizing underlying personality patterns even when external circumstances change. In one session, Marie observed, “Now, I’ve found someone who shares my view of the world and completely allows for my decisions and opinions. But while he makes me feel understood and supported, I still find myself getting upset and reactive because I want to nurture and support him, too.” She added sadly, “It just seems so one-sided the other way!”
In response, I said, “Sense that anger in your body and really welcome it.” I put my hands on my gut, chest, and neck, where Marie manifests anger in her body. “When you’re angry, get grounded, and open your heart and speak up for what matters, for what you want. It’ll transform the energy.”
I said this with passion, as the challenge with Elliott felt so central to Marie’s struggle to speak up for herself, and not against what she doesn’t want. I concluded with, “My hunch is that whatever Elliott’s type style, he also needs to know that you’ll nurture him, rather than deplete him. He needs to welcome your support.” Essentially, I said that speaking up for herself would likely help her and benefit her relationship with Elliott.
With its focus on long-time core patterns, the Enneagram is a transformative but not a brief therapy. Marie continues to work with her Type Nine Mediator/Peacemaker style. This is how Marie describes her own process of change and transformation: “I’ve learned to welcome the gifts that come with my type. I’m taking action in my life to make changes despite my natural reluctance. I’m doing more now to expand my life than I’ve ever imagined that I could, stretching myself beyond my perceived limitations every day.”
Marie is learning to live Rabbi Hillel’s saying: “If I’m not for myself, who am I? If I’m only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” In the process, she’s coming back to the higher essential quality of true love of self, which is equal to—and not more or less than—love for any other.
This blog is excerpted from "The Five 'A's of Transformation" by David Daniels. The full version is available in the November/December 2011 issue, Who's Afraid of Couples Therapy: Stretching Your Comfort Zone.
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