Relational Psychology of the Enneatypes – Part I: Relationship by Eric R. Meyer, PhD

Relational Psychology of the Enneatypes – Part I: Relationship by Eric R. Meyer, PhD

Enneatype patterns are widely understood as childhood “survival strategies”.  While the resulting accounts can sound plausible enough, I will argue that this notion is essentially mistaken on both counts.  First, type patterns are specifically shaped and driven by negative feelings about relationship that need to be better understood, rather than fear regarding physical survival.  Second, type behaviors are more an expression of and reaction against those feelings, than externally oriented strategies – and when they do have an immediate goal, it may not be as obvious as we imagine.  A deeper explanation of the Enneatypes is needed both in order for them to be more widely recognized as illustrations of the richness and complexity of human psychology, and for therapeutic purposes.  Jack Killen has related the emotions fear, distress, and anger to the head, heart, and body triads, and characterized types by their styles of emotional regulation, in “Toward the Neurobiology of the Enneagram” (Enneagram Journal, July 2009, pp. 40-61).  Kristin Arthur and Katherine Allen have used empirical assessments of avoidance and anxiety to illustrate contrasts between the types in“The Nature of Love: Understanding the Enneagram Types as Nine Expressions of Attachment” (EJ, July 2010, pp. 6-21).  Establishing meaningful connections with current psychology and biology will facilitate further advances in our own understanding, and potentially also begin to interest a wider audience.

Here I mean to investigate the internal psychology of the Enneatypes, ultimately proposing specific subjective experiences in early relationship that lead to the development of each type pattern, and calling attention to a relevant therapeutic approach.  In doing so I rely on what little scientific research seems relevant, my general understanding of psychology and evolutionary biology, and (very largely) my own inner experience and perceptions of others.  To those who share my concerns about methodology I can say that this is still an essentially empirical process, if not quite a scientific one.  It appears to be the only possible way to proceed, as subjective experience can only be investigated subjectively, and such an inquiry can only be judged by its results.1

Feelings vs Strategies

The origins of the types lie in difficulties experienced early in human childhood, a remarkably long period of total and then near-total dependence upon caregivers.  As simple and obvious as this sounds, its consequences can be envisioned in different ways.  If we focus on the child in isolation, on her basic needs and how imperfectly they may be met, on her fears and need to deal with them, we construct the familiar “survival strategy” model of type.  The child comes to view the world as fundamentally flawed in a certain way, and eventually adopts a logical strategy for coping with this perceived environment in order to survive.  This type pattern becomes a deeply ingrained and ultimately dysfunctional habit, but later, upon becoming aware of it, she can correct her perception of the world, learn to manage her reactivity, and be free to choose differently.

This analysis is a product of the cognitive-behavioral psychology of fifty years ago.  It considers only the perceptions, needs, strategies, and choices of individuals conceived as purely rational actors.  It identifies bad habits, supposing that one has only to start doing something differently in order to experience different results and come to feel differently.  But this isn’t an adequate model for understanding complex human beings, let alone infants with developing minds and minimal physical abilities, and its limitations are fairly obvious.  Children don’t exist in isolation; an enormous amount of their attention is devoted to their connection with caregivers, and they learn much even of what they know about themselves through relationship with others.  Relationship isn’t merely a necessity for survival, even in childhood; it’s a crucial aspect of human experience in its own right.  Feelings aren’t just an incidental response to our circumstances, but of primary importance themselves.  In recent years, neurobiology has rediscovered the essential role of feelings, not all of which normally register in conscious awareness, in motivating our thoughts and actions.  (In particular, they seem essential to the sort of quick responses involved in patterns of reactivity.)  Many schools of psychology and therapy now recognize this too, going beyond the purely cognitive-behavioral realm.  Relationship is crucial.  Feelings do matter.  Feelings about relationship shape personality.

So if we redirect our attention to a wider range of a child’s feelings, and to the richness and quality of his connection with others, a rather different model of type emerges.  The child comes to feel something crucial missing in relationship with his imperfect caregivers, and bad feelings about that become deeply embedded in his sense of himself and his connection with others.  He worries about this and starts to formulate a corresponding positive idea to provide good feelings that can support his developing sense of self.  As he eventually becomes more capable, this preoccupation also begins to be expressed in behavior.  The underlying bad feelings remain unaddressed, so this pattern of feeling and behavior persists and expands.  Later, upon becoming aware of the type pattern and its cause, he can learn to cultivate healthier feelings of himself in relationship, his reactivity can begin to diminish, and he can feel a wider range of possibilities in life open to him.

This is the view that’s come to make more sense to me: the Enneatypes are relational patterns.  Of course it’s natural, given the complexity of the human mind, that they would eventually generalize very broadly into extensive world-views, elaborately nuanced experiences of life that people find they share in remarkable detail.  But telling the story of this experience can merely reinforce it, and the feelings that accompany it, and explaining what we think we’re doing can seem rather too easy.  The human mind is so determined to make sense of everything that it constantly fills in gaps and imagines likely explanations.  When we remember to be especially careful about this, as in science, we use words like “hypothesis” or “theory”; when we don’t, we just confabulate – we make things up, often without even being aware of it.  When we think we should remember details that we don’t, we begin to invent them; this is how eyewitness accounts come to differ so widely, and stories about the past can become so strange with memory loss in old age.  When we think we should know why we feel fearful but don’t, we examine our environment until we identify a potential threat.  When we think we should understand why we’re doing something but don’t, we try to imagine a plausible purpose it could be serving, and interpret it as a rational strategy with that goal.  Or we discover that this has already been done for us, and we can read all about it in Enneagram books.

Virtually any behavior can be called a survival strategy, with no assurance that anything has been learned by doing so.  Biologists themselves worry about the ease with which adaptive explanations (Steven Jay Gould called them “just so stories”) can be imagined; the popularization of evolutionary theory has carried this problem into our broader culture.  These stories about rational type strategies that we encourage people to accept as self-descriptions aren’t even particularly nice; we judge them to involve serious perceptual errors if not moral vices.  I recall several years ago asking another Enneagram teacher, herself a Two, whether Twos are really “giving to get”, caring for others in order to be cared for in return.  The question was so basic that I felt a bit silly asking, and she may well have been puzzled too – and yet this rather desperate, selfish story just didn’t feel right to me or appear to fit the Twos I knew.  I doubt that people often feel truth in it directly; instead they appeal to the principle that it’s an unconscious strategy – a fine example of how pseudoscience tends to defend its claims by making them impossible to falsify.

The fact is that unconscious material can be brought into awareness, and we’re quite capable of discerning between actually feeling something internally and simply being willing to believe it of ourselves, though we may be unaccustomed to doing so.  As I recall the initial discovery of my own Five type, I realize that the classic “aha” experience involved recognition of feelings of reactivity, not the explanation of type motivation, such as it is.  My reaction to that was less excited: I suppose that must be why I do this, because it would make sense.  But Fives don’t really stand back to observe because they don’t feel sufficiently prepared to act; both may indeed be true, yet they’re consequences of something else.  That account doesn’t even involve relationship, since no one appears to know what Fives would want from it, and if they did we’d probably just have a story like “Twos give to get” or “Threes try to earn love”.  These are shallow fictions that can leave us feeling even worse about ourselves than before we encountered the Enneagram.

The fundamentally relational nature of the Enneatypes can appear more obvious in some cases than in others.  Connection is widely regarded as the special concern of the heart triad – and presumably therefore not so much of other types, which are thought to have their own issues with fear or anger instead.  But distress isn’t the only emotion that arises in relationship; fear and anger do too.  Attachment theory can also help explain how the relational concerns of some types can be overlooked.  Arthur and Allen found One, Three, Five, and Seven to exhibit “low anxiety”,  which means less intense monitoring for relationship information.  (A typical statement on the ECR-R questionnaire is “I rarely worry about my partner leaving me.”)  They also found all the types on the left side of the Enneagram to exhibit “high avoidance”, denoting a lower-key attachment style.  (A typical statement is “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down.”)  Either of these tendencies could make people seem less focused on relationship, and type Five shows both – yet that doesn’t mean that Fives don’t care about relationship, as so many suppose, and some Fives might even prefer to think themselves.2

Closeness and Space

The immediate motives for our behavior aren’t always as obvious as we might imagine, nor quite the same even for people of the same type.  Even for young children, it’s not always about wanting or trying to be closer to others, or getting something from them.  There are times when we do want connection (and may be unable to get it), and also times when we’ve had enough, at least for the moment (and may be unable to escape it).  As children begin to explore themselves and the world, a natural balance or rhythm arises between curiosity and rest, desire and satisfaction, closeness to others and space for their own internal experience.

Returning to the example of the Two pattern, this can help us understand the awkwardness often experienced when trying to return the attention and care we say Twos want: they may not actually be wanting it just then at all.  Caring for others can indeed be done with the intention of getting closer to them; it can also be used to maintain a comfortable psychic distance when desired, by keeping attention deflected onto others instead of oneself.  The same behavioral preoccupation with caring can serve opposite relational purposes at different times, and either tendency can become part of a personality style.  Twos can use caring in a mode of pursuit and seduction, and some may do so habitually; others focus more on the ethics of it, adopt the comfortable role of rescuer, and can approach even intimate relationships as projects to improve or fix a partner.  They actually can attend to their own needs, and may prefer to; when attempts at reciprocation seem to hit some sort of wall, the sign on it that we’re ignoring reads “I need my space”, just as it might for anyone else.  The Two pattern isn’t always about trying to get closer to others or get something from them, so we shouldn’t be telling Twos that subconsciously they really are, and undermining awareness of their own inner experience.

Each type preoccupation can serve either of these opposite relational motives; everyone feels a need sometimes for closer connection with others, and at other times for more space.  Oscillation between the two is a natural cycle, though many find that one concern plays a larger overall role in their lives than the other.  Consequently there will be two rather different styles for each type, like the seductive Two and idealistic Two just described.  This is actually something we already know,  and have tried to express by distinguishing between those with a “Three wing”, charming and ambitious, broadcasting their personal qualities, and a “One wing”, dutiful and selfless, focusing on the welfare and treatment of others.  The same chronic desires for closeness or space will account equally well for the so-called “wings” of the other types, an exercise I leave to readers now for the sake of brevity, and even for possible changes from one life stage to another.  (I myself became more of a science-geek “Six-wing” Five in high school, a period when I felt a much greater need for personal space, than before or since.)  It’s important to remember that both of these motives play a role in most people’s lives, so the styles won’t be entirely distinct; sometimes we alternate between the two, unsure which goal would make us happy.  A simple relational motive offers a more accurate causal explanation for this phenomenon, and one likely to make more sense to a broader audience, than appealing to some influence of neighboring types.  (Of course anyone may also actually experience the reactivity of one of those patterns itself, like any other, but that’s another story.)

As a Five, I often felt that my own type was less well described or understood than others,3 and was astonished at how many people would ask me how to understand or deal with a Five in their lives; they often seemed uncertain whether their relationship really mattered to Fives at all.  This hardly figures in standard accounts of the type, as if the pattern were simply about avoiding relationship – precisely the opposite of the situation for Two, in which only the desire for closeness tends to be seen.  The usual description captures just one of the two orientations for the Five type also, the one focused on maintaining space safe from intrusion.  Even in this mode relationship is still desired, although it may be carefully managed, for example through playing the comfortable role of the expert.  And then there’s the other aspect of the Five pattern to consider: seeking what may seem to be rare opportunities for meaningful connection, and using observation and understanding to develop it.  Rather than talking about “wings”, which doesn’t explain very well what people are feeling and doing, it would be a good idea simply to recognize the full range of relational behavior within each type.

Focusing on Feelings

In the Narrative Tradition, I learned something special and valuable from the sharing of type experience on panels, energetically as well as verbally.  I have vivid memories of my first week-long workshop, including a Three panel one day when an outwardly confident professional woman reached deep into the pain and frustration of her type to confess “I don’t know who I really am!” and begin to cry.  I was deeply moved by this myself, and tried afterward to say so and thank her for having shared that; she looked puzzled and asked what I was thanking her for, as if unsure what actual good it had done her or me, and suddenly I wasn’t sure either.  It bothered me that her panel experience should have ended on that note, just when she appeared to have come up against something truly important, as if we knew nothing further to say or do.4  In the next few years I sat on many more panels where sharing my experience and developing insight still felt better than keeping them to myself, but at some point continuing to rehearse my story was no longer serving a purpose for me, however much it may have helped others understand the Five experience.  It never led me to a similarly profound confrontation with the core issue of my own type, and I didn’t find anyone’s idea of what that might be very convincing.

These are the inevitable sort of results when an issue that really involves deeper feelings is approached principally on a cognitive level.  Of course many people upon hearing a phrase like “deeper feelings” may understandably cringe, imagining having to relive every unpleasant memory of their own childhood, wallowing in the same painful feelings they never got anywhere with before, perhaps even in public.  The point of doing this can also seem unclear, since we don’t suppose that any specific events determined our type (although that would be a natural assumption if type was an adaptive strategy).  Delving into the details of personal history may not be for everyone, but fortunately there are promising alternatives.  One is to slow down and explore immediate bodily sensations through a therapeutic method like Somatic Experiencing, as I’ve seen (and experienced) Marion Gilbert do so well on panels.  This is very effective, and a workshop environment is clearly supportive enough for such a process.  There must also be ways of explicitly addressing simple, deep, early feelings that would be equally appropriate and useful in such a context.  We already know what many of those key feelings are.

Everyone seems to agree that the Three experience involves not feeling loved for oneself, ultimately even feeling unsure who one really is.  Whatever the resulting pattern is supposed to be doing, all the awareness one could bring to it wouldn’t directly address the actual feeling of not being loved for oneself, and the role this plays in driving the type pattern.  Instead we need to take the time to experience and work with such feelings.  What if rather than being left feeling unloved and unsure who she might be, a Three were encouraged to find direct feelings of who she is, and of being loved for that, in her body?  When I realized I badly needed to work with the Three theme myself, several years after that workshop experience – incidentally not a connection predicted for a Five by any line on the Enneagram, of whose significance I’m highly skeptical – I was surprised to find that I didn’t quite get the point of talking about being loved “for who I am” either.  Of course parents are supposed to love their own children, I thought; that’s just customary, even biological.  What would being “me” have to do with it?  This sort of blankness or incomprehension around a crucial relationship feeling (which may be more characteristic of early trauma), or alternatively a sense of sadness, hurt, or longing around it (which is probably more common), suggests a need to work with that feeling in order to effectively address the corresponding type pattern.

Naturally there should be another such missing feeling that would play the truly central role for me as a Five.  Had Fives likewise been invited for decades to explore their feelings about relationship, we would surely know by now what it is that Fives find lacking that can make interaction feel like more trouble than it’s worth.  Type patterns may still come to involve simple strategies; I’m indebted to Mario Sikora for an extended conversation on this topic that reassured me that teachers of “strategies” can envision them being motivated by feelings, and reminded me that strategies can still be said to play a role in managing our reactivity.  For example, self-sufficiency could be called a Five strategy, and in turn would involve sub-strategies like careful resource management and planning well ahead.  But the primary question about the pattern is why relationship would feel like a matter of demands to resist in the first place, why self-sufficiency would feel desirable living in a world full of other human beings.

(Continued in Part II)

____________________________

1  Copyright © 2016, Eric R. Meyer.  This paper summarizes elements of a larger work in progress.

2  That curious odd-even anxiety pattern among the types must explain the resemblances described by the Riso-Hudson school as “harmonic groups”: the One-Three-Five “competency” group who try to be practical and avoid emotional baggage are precisely the “low anxiety” types, and could be extended to include Seven.  The Four-Six-Eight “reactive” group, along with Two, are the “high anxiety” types who lead with interpersonal issues.  (Of course Type Nine shows mixed results on both the anxiety and avoidance scales.)

3  The fact is that many types have been poorly understood; even the personal testimony I’ve heard (and given) on panels has long been elicited mainly to illustrate and confirm pre-existing theories about how they work.

4  Of course I realize that further individual work is always necessary, and as the disclaimer states, an Enneagram workshop is “not intended to be a substitute for psychotherapy or counseling”.  Still I think we could hope to do rather better at a moment like this.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.

Skip to toolbar