Posted on 10 November 2017 by Colin Adam

Introduction – the Enneagram of illusions?


As you may know, the Enneagram is a powerful map that helps make sense of our complex human condition. It reveals our basic fears; strengths; habits of mind, attention, and emotion; and describes the behaviours we adopt to protect ourselves. In short it helps us understand our ‘way of being’ that Alan Sieler has eloquently described in his book Coaching to the Human Soul: Ontological Coaching and Deep Change, Vol 1.


Of course, the Enneagram is only a model and not the hugely complex territory of our humanity, so we need to be cognisant of George Box’s wise warning that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” This is indeed a useful model!

All models are wrong, but some are useful

The Enneagram suggests that we each have a core fear that we find very difficult to face, particularly in our early life, but it may well persist as a permanent feature. In response to this, we formulate the often unconscious belief that if we can just adopt the right strategy we can successfully avoid ever having to face this fear and so protect ourselves from triggering the deepest and most negative of feelings - weakness, abandonment, guilt, selfishness, failure, loss, incompetence, insecurity, pain.


Of course, this belief is false. Ultimately, there is no way we can conceivably escape experiencing these feelings in our lifetime.


Nevertheless, we do our utmost to avoid them by focusing elsewhere, or reframing negative experiences into the positive, and by adopting behaviour that reduces the chance of experiencing the ‘bad stuff’ in the first place. “Surely we can avoid feeling ‘bad’ if only we can gird ourselves with the right protective armour?” Fortunately, the answer is ‘no’. I say ‘fortunately’, because these so-called ‘negative feelings’ are inherently part of being human. If we were to successfully avoid them we’d eliminate at least 50% of our human experience. It’s by experiencing the ‘negative’ we are so much more able to appreciate the ‘good stuff’ when it happens. I recall the late David Daniels once saying that “life isn’t just a bowl of cherries – you have to deal with the pits as well”.

life isn’t just a bowl of cherries – you have to deal with the pits as well

And so, we strive for joy, happiness, success, status; we want to see beauty in the world, to feel fulfilled, loved, and accepted. We want to experience the sunshine of life 24/7 and avoid the darkness, the ugliness, and the mean spiritedness of life. We want to cherry-pick the good parts, and avoid or fast-forward through the negative. And we behave as if we believe that all of this were possible! This is the first and most significant illusion.


The illusion of invulnerability


Many of us have a strong aversion to owning and displaying vulnerability – the place of woundedness and weakness, the results of being beaten, down-trodden, overcome, abused. In reaction, we pretend as if that most sensitive and tender part of ourselves that is capable of being deeply hurt simply doesn’t exist, and if it ever did it’s now dead, buried, and a thing of the past.


We then might adopt the strategy of projecting a ‘pretend persona’ into the world that becomes adept at flexing, accommodating and apparently agreeing with the prevailing view. It’s a form of ‘going along to get along’ so that we never have to take a stand and risk the possibility of a fight where we could get hurt.


Some of us choose a different option and build ourselves up to be tough and strong like warriors who are so skillful in combat that they always prevail, often by intimidating the opposition into submitting to their will. If this is our strategy, it’s quite possible that we make others feel vulnerable weak or abused, but at least we feel safe, strong and validated.


A third strategy is to always take the high ground by defining our own rules, morals and values and imposing them quite forcefully on others so that they have to fit in with our way of doing things which we believe is the ‘right way’. In so doing, we become the rule-book that defines right and wrong. We also become the judge and executioner, able to criticise and condemn others while keeping ourselves on the safe side of the law – after all we are the law! (At least we behave as if we are!)


All of this is done not just to protect our inner vulnerable self, but more importantly, to convince ourselves that it doesn’t even exist. Yet, the more we step into our ‘pretend persona’ and practice these protective behaviours the more we reinforce the existence of our wounded, defenseless, inner child who has some genuine and deeply felt fears. Bear in mind that this inner child that we’re so afraid to even acknowledge, let alone reveal, is part of our authentic self.


We’re desperately afraid to experience the hurt and pain that this child carries and so we over-identify with the armour instead of the child, pretending that the armour is who we really are. We come to believe the pretense is real. Yet, the fact is, that the armour is simply the inauthentic, self-created ‘way of being’ that attempts to make us feel better while we hide our true self from the world. This represents the ‘false self’ referred to by Thomas Merton and others.


The illusion of avoiding broken heartedness


“I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” – Robin Williams


We have a fundamental human need to be in relationship with others, to feel accepted, appreciated, acknowledged and wanted. In fact, the survival of any animal species depends on the ability of individuals to form relationships. It’s as if our life’s purpose is inherently bound up with the quality of the relationships we establish, nurture and build.


For many of us, our worst experiences are those that leave us feeling unwanted, unloved, unnecessary, insignificant, rejected. When this happens we’re left broken-hearted, sad, depressed and with a deep sense of worthlessness. It can happen in romantic relationships, in work relationships, and wherever we’re emotionally invested. In fact, the more deeply invested we are emotionally, the greater the risk of having our hearts broken and the more devastating the potential impact.


Rather like the inevitability of ‘death and taxes’, you can be sure that if you’re in a relationship you will be hurt emotionally at some point. This is the reality of life, yet we behave as if it were possible to avoid it. We might, for example, work really hard at making sure others’ needs are taken care of, or maybe strive to deliver above and beyond expectation, or focus on offering something to the world that people admire and appreciate. All of these ways bring beautiful gifts to the world and to the people around us, and we’ll be loved and appreciated for them.


For some, the fear of experiencing a broken heart becomes too great and so they try to isolate themselves and avoid investing in relationships altogether.


Underneath these various strategies there are probably two motivations. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the need to avoid the emotional trauma of being rejected and hurt. The second motivation relates to the need to be valued and appreciated. The first is an avoidance, and the second is an attractor.


Whatever strategy we adopt, it’s done to protect ourselves and becomes a form of defence against the world. The related behaviour is again that invented protective armour designed to keep our fearful self safely hidden away. The difficulty is that this can only ever deliver a false sense of security.


Here again, we see the possibility of an over-identification with a ‘pretend persona’ or ‘false self’ that we project outwards believing that it’s honest and authentic. Actually, it’s a mask, a shield, and hiding behind it is an innocent child that we’re too afraid to reveal. After all, ‘what if people don’t like my real self and reject me!’


The irony is that innocent children are actually very lovable. In healthy adults they typically invoke strong feelings of compassion, empathy and love. And, of course children will get hurt and have their hearts broken – this is a fact of life that cannot be avoided. No matter how hard we work at doing things designed to gain worldly appreciation and acceptance, we’ll still experience rejection and hurt.


So, why pretend? Surely it’s best to show the world our true self in the full knowledge that we’ll be let down, we’ll be hurt, and we’ll have our hearts broken. This way, at least, we’ll experience our lives authentically and others will be interacting with our real self so that when love and acknowledgement come our way, we know that people appreciate us for who we truly are and not simply for the work of the false self.


The illusion of certainty through planning and knowing


It seems that human beings often like to have as much certainty about the future as possible, and in general, the less certainty the more anxious or scared we become. Anxiety and fear usually emerge when we’re faced with the unknown, where there’s little trust and where we sense that our personal safety or the safety of others could be at risk.


It’s for these reasons that we like to know what’s coming and have a plan in place to deal with it. Plans give us a sense of security - a feeling of increased certainty about what is going to unfold. So by ‘knowing’ what is going to happen and how we’re going to tackle it we trick ourselves into feeling more secure. In this way, plans and forecasts serve to reduce our anxiety.


But how often do our plans work out exactly as expected? Probably not very often! The experts tell us that we are increasingly moving into a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. For this reason it’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict future events accurately, even in the relatively short-term. In this context, planning becomes somewhat problematic. That’s not to say that planning is a total waste of time, but we do need to expect the unexpected, be flexible enough to throw our plans out of the window, and adapt quickly to changing circumstances whilst managing our levels of anxiety.

VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

The illusion, or trap to guard against is the belief that our plans will keep us safe. In fact, it’s the confidence we have in our capacity to be agile in our thinking and quick to adapt plans and behaviours that will ultimately create our sense of safety. This implies living in the moment, being fully present to whatever is happening around us and being able to make good decisions quickly. The practice of ‘mindfulness’ is now commonly accepted as a way of helping us to manage this.


Towards reality


Of course, it’s not to say that the various behavioural strategies mentioned earlier are entirely negative. Bear in mind that we unconsciously adopted our preferred strategies at a very young age, so we’ve been honing them for quite some time! When behaviours are practiced over many years we become really adept at them. The Enneagram depicts particular skills or gifts that each of these strategies brings to the world and which the world so desperately needs. For example:


  • Caring for the needs of others
  • Setting clear goals and doing what it takes to achieve them
  • Creating beauty in our world
  • Generating insight and wisdom
  • Noticing and managing risk in order to stay safe
  • Creating the vision of an optimistic, enjoyable future
  • Driving forward through adversity
  • Enabling the peaceful resolution of conflict
  • Integrity, and an ethical approach to life


When we consciously choose to respond by using behaviours that deliver these gifts we become our best and most authentic self. However, when we unconsciously and compulsively react in order to protect ourselves from a fear that we experienced long ago, our behaviour is driven by a hidden and mostly selfish ulterior motive. In other words, our behaviour is then a means to an end rather than a pure and honest gift to the world. It’s rather like buying someone a bunch of flowers in order to get them to do something for you rather than simply offering flowers as an unconditional gift – in both cases the behaviour is the same but the motivation is different; one is manipulative, the other is honest and real.


So the challenge is to increase our levels of consciousness and self-awareness so that we’re making many more deliberate behavioural choices with much reduced unconscious reactivity triggered out of habit. Ennea International’s products and processes used with individuals and teams are specifically designed to address this very issue and the outcomes achieved have been truly astounding!


If you’d like to learn more about Ennea International or to find out how to become certified in our work, please contact us at

Colin Adam

Director: People Development

Ennea International