Why Fives Observe – Eric R. Meyer, PhD

Why Fives Observe – Eric R. Meyer, PhD

Descriptions of Enneatype Five concentrate so much on solitary, avoidant habits that people can feel unsure how to relate to Fives in their lives, and as a Five myself, I might wonder why I wouldn’t just prefer to be a hermit in the wilderness. I too kept saying that I valued self-reliance and privacy, that relationship could feel like it required more effort than it might be worth, and so on. Yet I also knew how much relationship mattered to me, so this was a puzzling contradiction, a strange sort of story to be telling about myself however true it could feel. Recognizing our type leaves us in a very curious position: despite all its problems, we still identify strongly with it. We suppose we’re now free to choose differently, but for a mere habit it turns out to be remarkably persistent. Something more must be going on beneath this level of awareness, and I’m convinced that it involves early feelings about relationship.

Feelings shape our perceptions and drive our behavior, even (perhaps especially) when we’re unaware of them. Relationship is crucial because human beings aren’t isolated individuals struggling to survive, but highly social by nature and deeply interconnected, especially in early childhood when personality forms. If relationship doesn’t feel good to me as a Five, then rather than wondering whether I really want it, I need to explore further in what way it tends to feel bad instead. In years of Enneagram work I never heard that question, and it wouldn’t have been easy to answer. When Fives are asked about difficult feelings, there’s typically a very long pause. I used to think I was taking great care to express myself accurately, but eventually realized that I often wasn’t aware of a feeling at all, and just tried to find something plausible to say. It was disconcerting to realize how little I knew, or appeared to want to know, about how I felt, but a good reminder that all of us have feelings we’re not conscious of, and we’re not always sure why we do what we do.

So when I ask why Fives are such detached observers, I don’t imagine that the answer is already known or should have been obvious, even to me. I want to connect with the actual feelings I once had that led to the development of this type pattern, because they must still be affecting my life today. Rather than reciting my type experience in detail or guessing which familiar aspect might be most fundamental, I need to explore a deeper level of feeling that I normally avoid, even as I evaluate whether relationship seems “worth the effort”. Eventually I realized what this effort is for me as a Five that would feel so bad not to have returned: a certain quality of attention.

The Relational Problem: Feeling Seen

If you ask a Five whether they generally feel seen, heard, and understood by others, the reply will likely be a thoughtful “well, not really” or “often not”. Ask whether they felt this way at home as a child, and you’ll get a more immediate and definite response: of course not, is that a serious question? On what planet would childhood have been like that? It’s a curious difference, good evidence of our developing ability to avoid awareness of such uncomfortable feelings, even though they persist. Young children are dependent and vulnerable for a long time, and it just appears to be human nature that they internalize bad feelings that arise in moments of relational difficulty, coming to feel that they themselves are somehow bad. This becomes a problem in its own right, changing the entire experience of life: reducing inner awareness, diminishing openness to exploring the world, diverting energy into compulsive patterns, and lowering expectations – especially of relationship.

Not feeling seen, for example, leaves you wary of others because they seem likely to ignore whatever you’re trying to say or do, or walk right over you as if you weren’t there. Fives report childhood memories of intrusion and neglect because they feel their parents didn’t notice what was going on for them, including when they wanted contact and when they didn’t. They come to feel ambivalent about relationship, somehow separate from others. They limit their exposure to an unsatisfying world in a variety of ways, but deny feeling lonely. In fact, Fives largely detach from feelings generally: if others don’t seem to care how they feel, why should they?   However curious they may be in other ways, they pay little attention to themselves, and this self-neglect only perpetuates the problem.

Fives consider their participation in life selective and conditional; much of the time their mind is somewhere else. They may even prefer to imagine other worlds instead, historical or fictional. Whatever they consider stupid or pointless they try to ignore, as if refusing to see it could negate its existence. This withdrawal is a Five’s reaction to the pain of feeling invisible and ineffective around others, and of course the resulting self-reliance and solitary habits actually make them ever less visible. They avoid attracting unnecessary attention, and keep different aspects of their lives separate in order never to allow anyone to see them completely. They don’t even make eye contact for long without “thoughtfully” looking away. It’s still hard for Fives to really feel seen even when they are now being seen and know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make visibility strangely unsettling, even undesirable. Understanding the specific, literal nature of this “seeing” issue and its role in early relationship is very important.

Exercise: To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People don’t see me, don’t hear me, don’t understand me”. Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Fives will have an entire life story about it. It may help to remember specific instances from childhood, and really wallow in them. Notice how this feels in your body (especially the upper torso), how you carry yourself, and what it’s like to interact with others while this is going on. Do they appear likely to see you? Do you really want them to? Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People see me, they hear me, they understand me.” If you like, you can imagine a good parent long ago saying “I see you, I hear you, I understand you”, or even say this to yourself today. The good feeling associated with these words may be much less familiar and take a while to find at first, but once you begin to feel it, explore what it’s like in your body, and how it affects even a casual encounter with someone else. With the right intention it’s possible to make this shift from bad to good experience of relationship, at least for a short time. Regularly cultivating this positive feeling is a longer-term project that many people will find worthwhile, especially Fives.

The Idealization: Becoming the Observer

Feeling bad about ourselves is painful enough in adulthood. For young children, such a conflict with their own natural vitality must be unbearable, so I suspect they intuitively try to find some way to be good again, a way that’s evident in the Enneatype patterns: focusing on an aspect of goodness and identifying themselves with it. This idealization becomes the core of the personality, allowing a child to continue to develop a positive sense of self. If not feeling seen was the most problematic experience at some critical time, as it must have been for Fives, they try to feel good about themselves again by learning to embody this very quality of good seeing: becoming a good observer, a good listener, and understanding what’s going on with others, especially whatever might be wrong and why. They know the importance of this from their own experience. Observe others as you would have them observe you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for getting attention yourself. The Golden Rule seems to come naturally to young children, in nine specific ways. This is why our type pattern involves such a feeling of rightness, and we remain so attached to it.

Unfortunately, adopting such a nice idealization is an abandonment of the genuine self as somehow bad. Being a good observer allows Fives to feel good about themselves again much of the time, yet can never really make up for not feeling worth seeing. At its best, a Five’s observing is a subtle, nonintrusive way of feeling close to someone and supporting them. But pursued automatically as the type idealization, observing becomes a sort of compulsion instead; it can seem detached and impersonal because Fives aren’t acting fully consciously, aware of and expressing how they feel in the moment. It can focus defensively on what might be wrong with others, starting with how they don’t seem to notice things or know what they’re talking about. Because human beings are so complex, the idealization of our type also tends to generalize broadly: a Five may become interested in studying and understanding not just people they know but human nature, the collapse of civilizations, or the expansion of the universe – anything really, perhaps the more overlooked or problematic the better. One can easily forget that all this began as a drive to understand other people in relationship.

Fives commonly say that understanding makes them feel safe; that may sometimes be true, but more generally I’d say instead that it makes me feel good about myself. I’ve always felt not merely curiosity but an actual urge to investigate questions or problems that occur to me, as if here was something I really should learn more about now, with little thought of how long it might take or whatever else I might need to be doing. Whether I could see any use for the results or not, something about the process itself always felt important and rewarding. (Of course I was never very interested in examining myself; the idealization applies only to others.) Yet a Five’s compulsive observing often leaves them frustrated with eternal preparation for tasks, and strikes others as a strange unwillingness to act in obvious and practical ways. Action just doesn’t appear to be the point when the idealization of the type is focused on observation and understanding alone. Furthermore, actually trying to do something would probably require frustrating interaction with others. It might seem preferable to abandon a project, retreat to solitude, and analyze everything wrong with society that stood in the way of its ever working. The Five remains in the same trap; performing the idealization doesn’t relieve the bad feeling that drives it.

Exercise: This particular idealization of observing and understanding won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Fives who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine. If you’re a Five, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m a really good observer, better than other people”, and if you like you can add “if something’s wrong I’ll figure it out.” Notice where your attention goes because of this, and what it’s like to interact with others with this motivation. Once you’ve had enough of that, try a simpler, unconditional feeling instead: “I’m a good person.” Again this isn’t just something to say to yourself but a feeling to find in your body; if these words don’t lead you to it you may find others that work better (“I’m not bad”, “I deserved to be seen accurately”, “I didn’t do anything wrong”) or a breathing practice that helps. To reverse the core self-abandonment of type, it’s essential to learn to feel yourself and your own goodness directly, not merely imagine or evaluate it. This will be another ongoing practice, perhaps a more challenging one. Once you do have this feeling, notice how you feel in your body and in the world, the quality of your attention, and how this will affect even a casual encounter with someone else. Naturally observation and understanding may still be useful skills, but they can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.

Why Feelings are so Difficult

Fives are no anomaly. Even this pattern is all about relationship, and Fives aren’t the only ones wary of unpleasant feelings. The world is full of relational difficulty. There are nine different ways of feeling unappreciated, unloved, or unsupported in childhood, and we approach any encounter suffering from many of them at once, to varying degrees. There are also nine corresponding ideas of what the right thing is to do in life. You can recognize your own type idealization by noticing how central it is to your sense of what sort of person you want to be, how much of your time and attention it occupies, and above all, how you continually congratulate and feel good about yourself for having performed it well, perhaps even better than others. You can also recognize it by how critical you are of those who seem careless of something so important, and especially by how harshly you judge yourself when you appear to have failed somehow. Self-kindness is a very helpful practice at times like these. The internal voice or story that’s often called the “Inner Critic” becomes especially active and nasty, because suddenly you’re feeling bad about yourself again, and the whole attempt to hold together a good sense of self is in jeopardy once more. This is really why the experience of our Enneatype eventually becomes so frustrating: not because it can’t achieve some external goal, but because it never quite manages to keep us from feeling bad about ourselves again, as it was meant to do.

It may seem strange to discuss the feelings of Fives without having mentioned the role of fear. Fives do try to use their observing skills to avoid any possible threat (and hence fear) preemptively. But fear itself, like anger or distress for other types, is less significant in this context than we’re accustomed to imagine. It’s important to remember that fear is also a normal and useful emotion that naturally helps us all avoid danger, and even adds a certain amount of excitement to life. A “negative” emotion like fear isn’t intrinsically painful to experience, as commonly imagined; managing fear only becomes a problem because we’re already feeling bad about ourselves and focusing attention outward as we act out our type pattern. Stories about what’s wrong, what we need to do, and how we’re still not doing it well enough fill our minds. Our somatic awareness is diminished, so fear develops into persistent anxiety instead of simply receding or being acted upon as needed. This makes the bad feeling involved in relational discomfort (which we can call shame if naming it seems useful) the primary problem to work with. As progress can be made with that, fear itself can be experienced with less difficulty.

Fives observe because that’s their idea of what a good person does. I find this explanation of my own type more deeply satisfying than traditional accounts, and see many advantages in taking this approach to all the Enneatypes, identifying the felt problem in relationship and the corresponding idealization for each. It demonstrates the common structure of the nine types as patterns of feeling, not merely behavior. It recognizes them as relational patterns rather than individual survival strategies, patterns of giving not getting. Most importantly, it explains the psychological origin of the types in a way that identifies and allows us to address the feelings that drive them. Of course that’s a project for each of us to undertake ourselves, not something we can do for or expect from one another. I’m not suggesting that you start making special efforts to show Fives in your life how well you “see, hear, and understand” them, unless you want to see how quickly they can vanish. There are no secret tricks for relating to other types; we simply have to manage whatever arises for us as we try to be present to one another.

____________________________

Copyright © 2017, Eric R. Meyer. For an overview of this approach and its application to all nine types, see Part II of my earlier article “Relational Psychology of the Enneatypes” on the International Enneagram Association’s NinePoints magazine.

 

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.

Skip to toolbar