Why is change difficult… and can science help? – Eric Meyer, PhD

Why is change difficult… and can science help? – Eric Meyer, PhD

Achieving meaningful change in our lives is difficult.  Shall we be curious why?  In a recent article I described how attention to basic scientific method could benefit Enneagram studies, because there’s a large empirical component to this interesting mixture of psychology and spirituality.  Here I want to suggest how another important aspect of science could guide future Enneagram work.  Rather than how to investigate the facts that theories are based on, it has to do with why we construct theories at all, what we want from them.  A minimal answer would be prediction: a theory (if true) allows us to identify further instances in which we can expect similar things to happen, and prepare for that.  A fuller answer would involve explanation: we want to understand how things are related and why they are as they are, or happen as they do.  Ideally we seek causal explanations, wanting to know what’s going on beneath obvious appearances, how one thing actually occurs because of another.  A theory with this kind of explanatory depth not only feels very satisfying, it can even suggest (if true) how to bring about or prevent a certain result deliberately.  Scientific knowledge can serve us in all these ways from the satisfaction of understanding itself, to the practical utility of prediction, to the power of choice.

Our knowledge of the Enneatypes obviously scores very highly on predictive accuracy; we know all too well how we’re likely to react in many circumstances.  It also has some explanatory value, showing how different aspects of our life experience fit together in a pattern, one that’s shared by many other people as well.  We even tell ourselves that awareness gives us choice – and are all too ready to criticize ourselves when we don’t seem to take full advantage of that.  But to what extent does it, really?  I’m not posing a philosophical question about free will, rather an empirical one about the character or quality of our self-knowledge.  It just doesn’t appear sufficient yet to allow us to identify a precise cause of our difficulty, and take effective action for change; instead we work around the edges of the problem and get however far we can indirectly, thanks to the amazing sensitivity and sophistication of the human organism.

Surely we could do better if we gained deeper psychological understanding of the Enneatypes, not merely their structure but their dynamics.  Our present accounts of the type patterns are essentially descriptive, not causal; through them we come to understand very well how we see and react to the world, but not so well why, which leaves change a rather vague possibility.  The “why” question tends to lead back to childhood, perhaps wondering why you’re one type rather than another, or what happened to make you so, which may not be the most productive lines of inquiry.  More importantly, the past can’t really be the whole story; habit alone can’t possibly account – as seems to be widely assumed – for the remarkable tenacity of these patterns ever since, even long after learning the Enneagram.

The success of science in understanding (and exploiting) cause and effect suggests that we should be more curious what’s happening in our life right now: what sort of internal experience we continue to have today that produces such consistent results.  Various elements have already been proposed in Enneagram theory that might play some explanatory role here, such as a flawed view of life (Basic Proposition), a Basic Fear, an Avoidance, or a Vice for each type; a Buried Function, or key emotions (Distress, Fear, Anger) for each triad; and so on.  But it remains unclear which of these have been correctly identified and how they’re related, which (if any) might be an underlying cause and which only symptoms.  So what exactly shall we apply our awareness to, in order to loosen the grip of type?  A more scientific approach to the Enneagram would attempt to answer this question by sorting out cause and effect, and identifying what actually continues to drive our type patterns.  Otherwise we can only try to behave in some other way that now seems desirable, in spite of whatever may be going on inside us – which sounds disconcertingly like what we’ve already been doing all our lives.  And we risk continuing to be just as unkind to ourselves in that attempt as we always have been.

The difficulty of change is familiar in every context including coaching, therapy, and spiritual growth.  It’s often envisioned simplistically in terms of making the effort to break bad old habits and try something new.  Or it can be portrayed as internal conflict between a part of you that wants change and a part that doesn’t, since your familiar way of doing things seems reliable, whatever its limitations.  For some the focus remains external, upon behaviors or strategies that seem likely to make you more effective, and presumably therefore happier.  Others may sense a problem that runs deeper than behavior and strategy, and pursue change in more therapeutic or spiritual terms: something seems wrong with our entire experience of life, so we don’t want merely to learn to plan and act differently; we truly want to feel differently to begin with, and have the rest follow authentically from that, as we’re surprisingly confident that it would.

I think we arrive at this perspective (if and when we do) for a very good reason: human beings aren’t purely rational.  By that I don’t mean that we also have to allow for emotions that can cloud our wits and lead us astray, but that life isn’t only about strategies and consequences; it involves rich qualities of internal experience.  Feelings matter: it’s a simple biological fact that feelings are what actually motivate us, constantly driving our imagination and behavior.  As neurologist Antonio Damasio explained in his elegant and influential book Descartes’ Error, we’d be lost without feelings: reason alone would be of little use if we couldn’t tell what we wanted it for.  That’s not to say that feelings are more important than reason (or vice versa) or that the two have their separate spheres of life, as has often been supposed, but that we need them both because they’re meant to work together.  That’s likely to remain just as true with personal growth.  There’s some kind of felt sense of life that we just know would be right to have, and long for; but we also need to figure out what’s going on instead.  Reactivity can be a powerful concept to work with if approached not just as what we seem to do blindly over and over again, but what we must keep feeling, and therefore doing.

Feelings arise and are experienced in the body.  As Damasio wrote, a brain in a vat (that famous thought-experiment) might have some sort of mind, but it wouldn’t work very much like ours.  Unfortunately the quality of our connection with our body isn’t all that it could be.  We tend to get caught up in stories and plans, and to have only limited awareness of how we truly feel, which is to say why we’re really doing what we’re doing.  But feelings play a crucial role in our lives, including from the first moment you encounter the Enneagram.  Without some access to them, you can only read descriptions of characteristics and guess at your type, just as you must have had to conjecture about yourself all your life.  It’s quite possible to get it wrong, and even an ultimately correct guess remains only a guess until some deeper connection is made.  Full recognition of type isn’t just a matter of having the mental pieces fall into place, but of beginning to sense the uncomfortable feelings that your type compulsions formed around and try to protect you from.  (Of course the more you still want that protection, the slower or less likely this is to happen.)  And going on to work with your type involves continuing to explore and deepen that contact, whether intentionally or not.

My previous article concentrated on testing for potential errors in Enneagram teachings, so here I want to strike a more positive note, suggesting what scientific thinking could add to our work.  Approaching the Enneagram in a more scientific spirit wouldn’t mean ignoring or deprecating deep feelings, as some may fear; in fact it would involve becoming much more accurately aware of them, and hence  understanding ourselves better.  Neurologists like Damasio learn about normal brain function mainly indirectly, by studying the consequences of various injuries; the Enneagram could lead us toward a better understanding of the human psyche in a very similar way.  Our type behaviors routinely frustrate our deepest interests in life; rather than a sign of needing a practical tune-up or a positive makeover, I think that’s a clue that they’re really about something else altogether, more internal.  The Enneatypes are nine accommodations to emotional and relational distress that appear to be a universal feature of human childhood, nine styles of attempting to avoid or contrive feelings instead of directly experiencing them.  Therefore, dealing with type patterns more effectively would require working at the level of feelings, as they arise (or are held) in the body.  Otherwise change is bound to be difficult when, to paraphrase a familiar folk definition of insanity, we keep feeling the same way we always have inside and somehow expect different results.

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