Posted on 21 October 2016 by Colin Adam
In an earlier article – “The Enneagram – Ennea International’s Approach” (February 2015) I raised the controversial issue of using the Enneagram as a typing tool and suggested that this can lead to an over-identifying of oneself (or of someone else) with one of the nine Enneagram points. As discussed previously, such over-identification is invariably translated into powerful language that defines an individual’s perception (or, more accurately, perceptual distortion) of reality. What then becomes visible and reinforced to the individual is largely a false or limited sense of reality leading to firm beliefs about self and others. The individual is then locked into a metaphorical prison cell with one small window through which to look at the world, and even this is somewhat distorted.
Based on limited and distorted data the individual then formulates his or her story or ‘truth’ about personal experiences and the world in general and tends to adopt this as factual. This ‘story’ about an experience or observation is integrally linked to an internal response comprised of thoughts, emotions, and somatic changes all of which feed into a personal ‘narrative’. In this way, the interpretation of, and the meaning given to, an experience emerges from a fairly rigid structure through which we ‘see’ and make sense of the world.
So, if I use language like, ‘I am a Seven’ (referring to one of the Enneagram points), this represents my interpretation of reality. It’s what I hold to be true and it will be difficult for me to ‘see’ any other possibility. My ego thus becomes even more locked into place and my fixation reinforced. This entrenched structure of interpretation enables me to witness and recall my ‘Seven’ behaviour, and filters out or diminishes my awareness of data that contradicts the belief that ‘I am a Seven’. My ‘Seven’ pattern is thus continually reinforced and actually becomes more than a behavioural pattern; it becomes part of my deep sense of self; my perceived identity or ‘false self’. This is classic self-fulfilling prophecy in action.
But isn’t the purpose of development interventions to free people from their fixations and stuckness? Aren’t such interventions meant to open up new possibilities rather than entrench existing ways of observing oneself and the world? So, how can it possibly be helpful to over-identify with any particular Enneagram ‘type’ to the point where I plant my identity in it?
So, how can we avoid the trap of reinforcing ego fixation and associated defences that the Enneagram describes? How can we free ourselves from unconsciously repeating the same old responses as mechanical reflex reactions, particularly when those responses are inappropriate for the situation in which we find ourselves? These are the real challenges facing anyone using the Enneagram in the work of personal growth, learning and development.
In response, there are perhaps a number of important options to consider. One of these, and arguably the most significant, is to work with the ‘area of avoidance’ of an individual’s dominant Enneagram style.
Areas of Avoidance
Many accept that personality is partly inherited and partly shaped through early life experience. If we apply this thinking to the Enneagram, it is possible to suggest that we entered the world with a genetic pre-disposition for one of the Enneagram styles to become more dominant than the others. Bear in mind that at the centre of a person’s dominant Enneagram style is a defensive mechanism which is linked to a particular area of avoidance that is strongly associated with that style. This mechanism translates into a behavioural pattern that serves to protect the individual from having to experience a core fear associated with the specific area of avoidance. This ‘fear’ was probably first encountered very early in life although not everyone is able to remember the actual experience. The implication is that we each have a particular sensitivity to one of the nine areas of avoidance, each of which is associated with a specific Enneagram point.
It’s likely that on the very first encounter with the situation that invoked this core fear, it had quite a profound emotional impact. This relates directly to the ‘childhood wound’ which a number of Enneagram teachers discuss. Bear in mind that this reaction would have emerged from a subjective interpretation of reality, which created meaning from the experience, and not directly from reality itself. This meaning would have manifested as a story, or narrative, that we told ourselves about the experience. This narrative became our truth, our understanding and belief about reality, and continued to be repeated at a sub-conscious level. This is the basis of fixation or stuckness in our dominant Enneagram pattern.
As a result of this early sensitisation experience, we learned to generalise and elicit our narrative and associated defensive pattern whenever we again encountered a situation similar to the original triggering event. The defensive pattern, of course, developed to keep us from experiencing the core fear. As a result of repetition, this defensive pattern became automatic to the extent that we didn’t need to consciously think about it. In fact, it progressed into a natural reflex reaction produced unconsciously without choice. In this way we become trapped within our unconscious reflex reactions triggered primarily by external events.
Note that each time we defend ourselves against the source of our core fear, the more we empower that source. And so, although the defence mechanism attempts to protect us, it effectively prevents us from facing, confronting, and learning new ways to deal with the source in a grounded, calm fashion without emotional reactivity. In effect it closes down learning and reinforces old behavioural patterns invented in childhood, which perhaps no longer fully serve us.
From Imprisonment to Freedom
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way! What needs to happen is that we raise our level of consciousness so that we are able to observe and understand our defensive reactions. Then, instead of having them unconsciously and mechanically click into place, the possibility opens up of being able to deliberately choose a response that we deem to be most appropriate. Of course, we may also need to practice and embody some new behaviours in order to become skilful in using them when needed.
At the outset it’s important to become aware of the mechanism that’s at work here (i.e. the dominant ‘area of avoidance’ linked to the core fear, and the reactive patterned behaviour that attempts to keep us feeling safe). Remember that particular mechanisms tend to be linked to specific Enneagram styles.
It’s then important to become curious about the source of fear, to face it and explore it, in order to learn what it has to teach us. By doing so, we may see that it no longer makes sense to have such strong defences against it. We can then start to utilise this defensive energy, which is a form of internal entropy, in far more productive and effective ways, such as in learning new and more adaptive behaviours.
One way to begin this process is to invoke the quality of genuine curiosity in order to bring more grounded data into our awareness. Mechanisms that can help with this include requesting feedback from others, and being prepared to hear it without defending, rationalising, justifying or criticising. Another is to reflect honestly about ourselves, focusing in particular on repeated mechanistic responses to life experiences. Self-evaluation questionnaires can also be useful here. A third option is to develop the capacity to self-observe. Self-observation is especially useful when experiencing a state of emotional reactivity or stress. This requires some practice, and involves accessing that part of self that can non-judgmentally witness our own thoughts, emotions, and physical behaviour in any given situation. The term ‘non-judgmental’ is significant here and any self-criticism needs to be replaced with curiosity. The process is simply about gleaning useful data from which we can learn.
Once we’re able to observe something openly and honestly, it emerges into our awareness; it comes into ‘line of sight’, and the possibility occurs of consciously exploring and choosing alternative responses that may be more useful and adaptive than the usual response. Paraphrasing the wisdom of Alan Seiler, we can’t consciously change what we can’t observe. When it’s not in awareness it remains in the realm of ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ and is incredibly difficult to access, and so learning is compromised.
A huge part of the work in people development, therefore, lies in opening up the possibility of consciously choosing from a repertoire of alternative behavioural responses to any given situation. In order to do this, we need to believe that change is possible, understand the mechanisms involved, learn to work with the source of ‘fear’ so that it doesn’t trigger the old automatic fear reaction, and incorporate some new behaviours which may need to be learned and practised so that we become skilled and comfortable using them. It’s important that practice occurs in conjunction with the accessing of data from feedback loops provided by self-observation and external sources. Sustainable positive change requires these factors to be taken into account in order to be effective.
Language and Labels
In conclusion then, it makes complete sense to avoid using limiting labels in the context of people development; particularly language that is rooted in personal identity. Saying“I am…..” this, or that, defines my identity at a deep level, and as I start to take on this identity my behaviour is highly likely to align with this label which summarises who I am in terms of my false self. Using language such as “I display this pattern of behaviour quite frequently” or “This is a common behavioural style that I adopt”,simply speaks about my behaviour, which although still quite difficult to change, is nevertheless easier to adapt than who I am – my identity.