An Encounter with the Enneagram: Part 3

Words by Evan Barbee

Photos by Chris Koelle

In a culture and at a time when we fear pain and avoid suffering, we often prioritize what is comfortable and convenient. A friend of mine once observed, “If each of us was given the option to experience life on a scale of 1 to 10, most of us would probably choose to live between 4 and 6,” feeling neither the stab of remarkable sadness or the thrill of immense joy but living pleasant, if not slightly dull, predictable lives. The secret tragedy is that in doing so, we might remain somewhat green and wary of our own soul, our own “being-ness.” We might be as comfortable with ourselves as two strangers in an elevator—politely close but silent.

The soul of a person has long been compared with the sea, an elegant if well-worn comparison drawn and retraced by the artists, poets, and spiritual teachers of the age. The ocean in its depth and vastness mirrors the heart with its capacity for feeling and expression, and both are home to creative and destructive forces. Neither can be easily charted and measured as might any other fixed thing with solid surfaces and rational edges. When storms at sea or the storms of life rage, the turbulence of the surface experience does not so much as hint at the calm depths beneath, suspended and undisturbed as if in soulful meditation.

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A force is at work in us as resolute as the timing of the tides, one that pulls us from happy shallows, plunges us for a time into our own oxygen-deprived depths, and then bears us back again to shore. It hurts and it is frightening, this rhythmic baptism, but it is not without purpose. There is something about suffering that cleans us up, something in the wrestling with our own personhood that matures and enlivens us. Something wants us to know ourselves entirely before we die, and the invitation to this introduction is usually extended in moments of piercing chaos. One ordinary Tuesday our world falls flat and we throw our hands in the air and go looking for who we really are beyond all the props and posturing. It’s the search of a lifetime and it becomes the unconscious weaving of our story. The work of looking for who we are is the thing that makes us who we are.

In the Enneagram tradition, all of the nine types personify this universal search for ourselves. As Narrative Enneagram trainer and Enneagram in Business senior associate Peter O’Hanrahan astutely observes, the archetypal issue of the Heart Triad (types 2, 3, and 4) involves the relational complexity of striking a balance between self and other. In contrast to the elemental power of the Body Triad (types 8, 9, and 1) and the intellectual probing of the Thinking Triad (types 5, 6, and 7), the Heart Triad represents individuals more strongly oriented to the emotional intelligence of the heart. The focus of attention rests on their sense of belonging and value to the group, and they possess a keen ability to tap into the feeling states of others. Embodying the aspect of us all that will adapt and bend in order to secure what we most need, individuals in the Heart Triad have a flexible, fluid quality and ease of expression reinforced by a concern with presenting the image they perceive will be most advantageous to achieving their goals. Sometimes referred to as “Image Types,” these individuals tend to develop a reliance on others to inform and validate their sense of self-worth. Shame is a driver, arising from a feeling of inadequacy if they perceive that they have failed, disappointed expectations, or are inherently flawed in some way.

Enneagram 2: The Giver

Type 2, The Giver, represents individuals who develop an identity of importance through acts of service, being loving and by contributing their time, energy, and attention to others. Often generous and deeply caring, these individuals rightly sense their inner capacity for healing and channel enormous effort into meeting the needs or expectations of those around them. In the vigilant attention on others, acknowledgment of their own needs or perhaps awareness of their own motivation becomes of less importance and eventually of little consequence. Fatigue, moodiness, and physical limitations may be characterized as luxuries the 2 can’t afford to acknowledge, and while extending so much care to others they allow themselves to go without. As the inner tension builds, so does the need for outer reassurance and 2s may err in assuming that their presence, attention, and energy is of fundamental importance to everyone’s well-being. Conditions are right for the development of a prideful and overly-confident trust in both their ability to anticipate needs and to meet them appropriately, a kind of caretaking that implies, “I don’t need anything, but you do.” Others feeling both smothered and strangely dismissed resist the attention of the 2, which offends their pride, triggering grief and anger as they are driven further from the closeness they have labored to foster and to which they feel entitled.

The path of development for the 2 is one of humility. The Latin root of the word generosity means “of noble birth” and indicates those who know  their value and share easily and unconsciously from a cup that is already overflowing. The 2s cannot heal what they do not love, and what the 2s cannot see in themselves they cannot serve in others. In acknowledging their own neediness, messiness, and limitations rather than bypassing them, 2s develop a deeper understanding of their gift. Like an aged healer whose skilled hands know from experience how to bind wounds and set bone, 2s develop a graceful, unhurried wisdom that allows them to meet the need of the moment--for themselves and for others.  

“When love overflows and is expressed through every word and deed, we call it compassion. That is the goal of religion.”

-Amma, the Hugging Saint

Enneagram 3: The Performer

Type 3, The Performer, represents individuals whose value was earned through what they can achieve in the eyes of others. This impulse may be played out in the corporate sphere, in the role of parenting, or wherever a desirable image is carefully curated. Charming, enterprising, and gifted, these individuals rely on their innate ability to perform—to “play the part” required to receive the mirroring so necessary during early childhood years. Their past was colored by a feeling of belonging when they competed and won, made the good grades, and were successful or married well, and by not belonging when they didn’t. With an increasing emphasis on accomplishment, narrowed by the dread of failure and fueled by a formidable determination, the 3s’ authentic feelings are identified as a hindrance to their goals and are eliminated from the equation. In the race to “be someone,” a very real sense of themselves is lost. Other people may enter and exit the frame but a profound loneliness accompanies their success, and dissatisfaction follows closely behind each accomplishment.

The path of development for the 3s is to turn only inward to contact their worth—the one place they haven’t looked. They must cease all effort, which seems a terrifying prospect. Having had little desire and no investment in a contrary mode of operation makes them resistant to a world in which people belong without having to earn their place. The word vanity is defined as both an inflated pride in outward appearances and as a quality of worthlessness. So, the self-deception that accompanies vanity must be set aside in order to encounter the glory, “the divine spark,” that was given at birth to each of us without exception. In reclaiming this birthright, 3s become perhaps the most powerful champions of the human spirit, channeling their many gifts into inspiring meaningful change, encouraging and shoring up the lives of those around them.

“The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.”

-V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State

Enneagram 4: The Romantic

Type 4 represents individuals who found their value and meaning in being different from others. Deeply feeling, introspective, and expressive, these individuals accurately sense the profound relational connection between all things. Perceiving the connection severed, a persistent longing tinged with envious overtones permeates all experiences of the 4. In the focused concentration on locating “what is missing,” all that is present and available in the moment is sidelined. A tendency develops to idealize the extraordinary, infusing the past and future with promising qualities while developing a distaste for what is familiar and “ordinary.” Others feeling caught in the 4s’ cycle of high highs and low lows may grow impatient with them. The weighted scales tipping further in the direction of grief, conflict and disagreement may be interpreted as either a confirmation of their own deficiency, or as evidence that they are more authentic and real, more deeply misunderstood than others. Overcome with feelings and operating on reflex, the stormy 4s may react strongly, inviting what they fear most: abandonment and disconnection.

The path of development for 4s is to investigate the realness of their feelings and to examine where they have become fiercely protective of beliefs that bring unnecessary suffering. The sad stories must end, the cataloged disappointments must be discarded, and the precious identity, however disparate or deficient, must be sacrificed. In doing so, the space and opportunity is created for a fresh, new relationship with the present moment. No longer looking to a distant horizon for meaning and relief, 4s find the key to their wholeness in their own back pocket, where they left it. Experiencing a deep inner connection restored, these natural mystics are capable not only of deep feelings but also of great constancy. Finely attuned to reality without need for distraction, 4s sense the pulse of holiness within the most humble and mundane of moments—their lives become the communion table, each breath becomes a prayer.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

-Khalil Gibran, The Prophet