Enneatype One is known for self-critical perfectionism. While we all find failure painful and can be hard on ourselves when we most need kindness, Ones are haunted by the prospect of falling short even in ways other people might dismiss as unimportant, and can get caught up in endless recrimination. With all this negativity, it can be easy to forget that the type must also have a central positive motive beyond merely avoiding or correcting errors, that something must actually feel good to Ones. Helen Palmer is exploring this aspect of the type when (in The Enneagram) she describes the deep feeling of ease and rightness that Ones report when they sense the full potential of a situation, how perfect it could be. That sounds like just the sort of rewarding feeling (a nice pat on the back from ourselves) that I think we all get when we’ve fulfilled the idealization of our type, that I feel myself as a Five when I’ve been clever and figured something out.
So what exactly is going on here for Ones? The nine types are generally regarded as early survival strategies, and we could plausibly imagine Ones trying to earn the love and approval they need (or avoid punishment) by behaving well. But that’s just something any child might do at times. The actual psychology of the types is more subtle, and the One pattern is often correctly recognized instead as an internal reaction to disapproval, perhaps because Ones so clearly formulate and adhere to their own standards, not those of others. Yet we can still wonder how such self-discipline leads to the impulse to improve the world that this type is also noted for. And why does the mere sensing of good potential feel so right to Ones itself?
If we bear in mind that humans aren’t purely rational and refocus on feelings about appreciation rather than a need for appreciation, and on relationship rather than individual survival, we may arrive at a more complete picture of this type pattern. 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. Bad feelings about relationship can persist for a lifetime, and unlike fear and other more familiar emotions, they don’t motivate us to seek what’s good for us; in fact, they discourage us from doing so.
The Relational Problem: Feeling Appreciated
Ones prefer to focus on practicality rather than feelings, but what generally feels wrong to them in relationship is not feeling appreciated and approved of. This is a central painful memory of their childhood, and remains a recurrent theme for them as adults. 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 must somehow be bad. This becomes a problem in its own right, changing the entire experience of life: diminishing both inner awareness and openness to exploring the world, diverting energy into compulsive patterns, and lowering expectations – especially of relationship.
Not feeling approved of leaves a child feeling inept and deficient, while perceiving other people as spiteful or mean-spirited. Ones are uncomfortable with their own anger at this harsh situation, and try to redirect that energy into worthwhile pursuits. They become painfully conscientious, worrying about every detail of a task to avoid the feeling of falling short; anything worth doing is worth doing right. (Of course the more they try to monitor themselves and avoid being judged by others, the less praise they’re likely to receive.) Ones lead very disciplined lives, following rules they consider important, and holding themselves to a high standard, as they suppose everyone should. Their suppressed anger may leak out in resentment of those who seem not to be trying hard enough to do the right thing, or just to be enjoying life too much; it may even erupt occasionally in righteous criticism, though seldom as scathing as a One’s attitude toward themselves.
Criticism and punishment tend to be prominent memories of a One childhood. Gathering that something must just be wrong with you without understanding how that could be – as all children do to some extent, but I suspect Ones take in most explicitly – leaves them deeply conflicted. Ones learn to reject their own impulses, meticulously doing whatever they can argue should be done instead of acting according to their feelings or desires, whose goodness they no longer trust. This feels like it provides solid ground to stand on. Even when relationship seems to be going well, bad feelings can arise if a One is tempted to let down their guard, starting with not feeling appreciated. In fact, the more praise or approval they may receive, the more confusing or awkward a situation can feel. It’s still hard for Ones to really feel appreciated even when they are now appreciated and know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make wanting or receiving approval strangely unsettling, even undesirable.
Exercise: To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People don’t appreciate me”. Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Ones 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 appreciate you? Do you even want to find out? Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People will appreciate me.” You can imagine a good parent long ago saying “I’m proud of 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 Ones.
The Idealization: Becoming the Appreciator
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, as the Enneatype patterns demonstrate: 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 approved of was the most problematic experience at some critical time, as it must have been for Ones, they try to feel good about themselves again by learning to embody this very quality of appreciation: becoming a good appreciator, someone who approves of others and tries to see and encourage the best in them. They know the importance of this from their own experience. Appreciate others as you would have them appreciate you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for getting approval 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 appreciator of others allows Ones to feel good about themselves again much of the time, yet can never really make up for not feeling worthy of approval. At its best, a One’s appreciation is a profoundly affirming and supportive way of connecting with people. But pursued automatically as the type idealization, appreciation can become a sort of compulsion instead and can easily be overdone, when Ones aren’t connecting with others spontaneously and authentically. Genuine appreciation and confidence are increasingly replaced by the imposition of a One’s own vision of what others can do and how things should be. People can often sense the difference and may feel uncomfortable, or begin to suspect that this apparently well-intentioned approach might involve some ulterior motive. In return, Ones may feel angry when others don’t recognize the obvious rightness of their position. The world can seem not only misguided but perverse.
Ones are often drawn to pursuits like teaching or mentoring that encourage others to develop their full potential. They want to have faith in other people, because this is what feeling good about themselves has come to depend upon. Reconciling this impulse with reality is a perpetual challenge for supposedly reasonable, practical Ones, who can actually be quite incurious and inflexible, “just knowing” what’s right and not asking or tolerating many questions. Ones can be painfully surprised, even shocked by human failings, especially in people they had particular confidence in, and have great difficulty coming to terms with what happened. Of course a type idealization doesn’t apply to oneself; Ones fail to appreciate themselves just as we all neglect ourselves in exactly the way we consider most important. Type idealizations also tend to generalize broadly: Ones may be drawn to appreciate not only people they know but the full potential of any situation they encounter, or humanity or nature in general, seizing any opportunity to make the world more positive and full of appreciation. Yet none of this can really make a One feel deserving of approval themselves.
Exercise: This particular idealization of appreciation won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Ones who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine. If you’re a One, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m a really good appreciative person, more positive than others”, and if you like you can add “if someone is having trouble I’ll still have faith in them.” 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 appreciated”, “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, appreciating and having confidence in others may still be useful skills, but they can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.
Being Kind to Ourselves
Let’s dive into bad feelings we’ve been avoiding for decades! That may not sound very desirable, but I think the Enneatypes are inviting us to do it, by identifying some of those feelings very precisely. Of course the Enneagram tradition hasn’t paid much attention to early childhood experience, instead regarding the types as a matter of cognitive or spiritual error to be corrected, nine wicked misperceptions of reality. But it’s no error or misperception to remember that we actually felt (and probably were at times) poorly appreciated, or cared for, or understood as children. And if feeling bad about ourselves is the fundamental problem here, moral condemnation seems more likely to worsen than to relieve it. Instead of talking about vices that little children develop, I think it would be helpful to find a way (like the exercises I’ve suggested above) to relate to ourselves and our early experience with more compassion and kindness. As simple as it sounds, that can be a challenge for all of us, not only Ones.
In A Fearless Heart, Thupten Jinpa mentions a surprising problem he encountered in presenting Buddhist compassion practice to a Western audience. Compassion is traditionally developed in a progression from the self, to others dear to us, and eventually to more difficult people, but Jinpa found that many individuals in our busy modern culture get stuck at what’s supposed to be the easy starting point: compassion for themselves. As he puts it, “Often, we are our own difficult person.” When we recognize that someone we care about is suffering, our first impulse normally isn’t to wonder what they did wrong or how it’s all their own fault; we simply wish their suffering to be relieved, we wish them happiness. Unfortunately, we often don’t care about ourselves in this way; instead, in our self-abandonment, we’re accustomed to just making ourselves do what we think we should do, and blaming ourselves when we don’t do it well enough. Our life has involved suffering from the beginning but we try to ignore it, perhaps even telling ourselves “tough luck”. Ones especially can make life a routine of duty and endurance.
Personal growth itself can easily become another such project: once our original attempt to be a better person (our type idealization) begins to lose its appeal, we may be eager to revise it and try all over again. There are more Enneagram-related teachings alone than most people could ever evaluate or work with, and we’re still left trying to stop living out our type pattern without quite understanding why we started. We may worry that we haven’t mastered everything we need to know and blame ourselves for not making enough progress toward our new ideal, rather than simply wishing a better experience of life for ourselves, which we may not even be sure we deserve. That’s self-kindness, and it can feel very unfamiliar. As long as we have trouble opening our hearts to our own basic goodness, we’re likely to go on doing whatever it is we do to make us feel better about ourselves – just as Ones are devoted to appreciating other people because that’s their idea of what a good person does.
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. [link]