February 18 by The Running Son
I’m a Six.
I do have some other qualities, of course. Still, the discovery of my essential Sixness — embedded in a personality-typing system known as the Enneagram — has revealed more to me about my unconscious patterns, habitual preoccupations, underlying fears, and misused strengths than any technique for self-understanding I’ve yet come across.
And I’ve looked at plenty of them. During the past five years, I traveled the country, interviewing more than two hundred psychologists, philosophers, physicians, mystics, yogis, and scientists who have made the search for a deeper truth primary in their lives — and who pursue it through an array of practices and systems. What sets the Enneagram apart is that it contains such detailed, useful information about what drives us to behave as we do. It’s valuable not just for those seeking to understand themselves but also as a source of insights into one’s friends and family, colleagues, and even enemies.
The word ennea is Greek for “nine,” and the Enneagram is a nine-pointed figure that has its roots in Pythagorean theory, originally as a model for understanding the predictable patterns of movement within any given system. It was first adapted to understanding personality types by a Bolivian psychiatrist named Oscar Ichazo in the early 1950s. As Ichazo formulated it, each personality type on the Enneagram — he called the figure an Enneagon — is marked by a different central fixation or passion. Around this fixation, he concluded, our individual personalities take shape.
The result is a narrow, habitual, and often defensive way of perceiving the world that deeply influences what we think and feel and how we behave. “The moment we know our type,” says Ichazo, “we have observed ourselves in reality.” Or as David Daniels, a psychiatrist who works with the Enneagram, puts it: “Embedded in each type is our basic belief about the world and how we live in it — not just the aspect of our underlying essence that has been most damaged but also the corresponding path of healing. If you are fully developed, you can incorporate all nine types or points of view, rather than skewing toward just one.”
As a Six, for instance, my fixations are fear and doubt. What made this discovery so surprising — to me, at least — is that I’d spent so much of my life behaving in just the opposite way: aggressively and authoritatively. I’d long been aware of a vague underlying anxiety and a chronic ambivalence, but mostly these feelings baffled me. I didn’t see that these feelings covered a classically Sixish view of the world as a dangerous place — one in which people’s motives can’t be fully trusted, the worst-case outcome is forever expected, external success runs the risk of prompting resentment, and the need for vigilance makes it difficult to ever fully relax. A grim picture to be sure, but one that gave sudden coherence to a lifetime of puzzling emotions and behavior.
I also began to understand that other types saw the world very differently than I did, but often just as narrowly. Twos, for example, rewarded early on for being self-sacrificing, grow up ruled by a constant hunger to win approval from others, even at the cost of suppressing their own needs. Fours, beset by a sense of early abandonment and loss, believe that intense, passionate relationships are the key to escaping depression and finding happiness, only to feel forever let down. By contrast, Fives, intruded upon or simply ignored as children, cultivate detachment and minimize their needs in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed — but often end up isolated and cut off from intimate relationships. In a slightly different spin, Nines, overshadowed and often neglected when they were young, react by discounting their own needs and assimilating the agendas of others.
The Enneagram is not limited to characterizing pathology, however. Nearly all of the system’s leading teachers believe that recognizing one’s fixation opens the door to healthier states of mind and greater freedom. Unlike most Western psychological personality-typing systems, the Enneagram treats all personality types as inherently defensive structures. “The work of the type is to stop being that type,” says Ichazo. “The fixation is dissolved by obtaining an understanding of the other eight positions.”
Ichazo refers to the higher opposites of the nine fixations as the “holy ideas.” The Six’s doubt and fear, for example, become courage and faith. Put another way, these higher opposites represent aspects of our essence — who we are fundamentally, beneath the personae we habitually wear. “The personality mechanism is put in place for good adaptive reasons,” says Enneagram teacher Don Riso. “Over time, however, we begin to identify with this personality. We think it is us. The Enneagram shows us that there is something else — a higher self, an essence, a soul — that the personality obscures.” At the same time, each personality type gets reflected at different levels — from the most pathological and fixated to the healthiest and most evolved.
Although the Enneagram emerged as a personality-typing system just twenty-five years ago, its roots are mysterious, faintly mystical, and ancient. The Enneagram diagram goes back to at least the fifth century B.C. Seven of the personality types correspond to Christianity’s seven deadly sins: anger (One), pride (Two), envy (Four), greed (Five), gluttony (Seven), lust (Eight), and sloth (Nine). As far back as the fourteenth century, in the “Purgatorio” section of The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote not only about the seven deadly sins but also about those of fear and deceit, the fixations of the Six and the Three, respectively.
The Enneagram itself was introduced to the West by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic and teacher born around 1870. Gurdjieff studied many esoteric disciplines but was perhaps most influenced by the Islamic mystical school of Sufism, from which he is believed to have first learned about the Enneagram. Its nine-pointed star was painted on the floor of his main school in Paris. Gurdjieff’s “Work,” as it came to be known, was conceived around his belief that most of us are asleep to our true selves, identifying instead with our “false” personalities. Gurdjieff used the Enneagram not to categorize personality types but as a model for dance movements suggested by the nine-pointed diagram. His goal was to use these movements to force people out of their habitual patterns.
Gurdjieff also introduced the notion that each of us has a central fixation that drives our personalities. As a bossy, controlling Eight, Gurdjieff liked to pick out what he called a student’s “Chief Feature” and then take steps to force this defensive behavior out into the open. Most people, Gurdjieff theorized, become so identified with their personalities that they lose all connection to their underlying essence. Instead, they begin to behave in rote, defensive ways aimed at compensating for one aspect or another of inner deficiency. “The hope is that by naming our own chief feature,” writes Helen Palmer, a leading Enneagram teacher, “we can learn to observe the many ways in which this habit has gained control of our lives.”
Using the Enneagram to diagram personality types was the seminal contribution made by Ichazo, who grew up studying not only medicine and psychiatry but also philosophy, theology, and mysticism. It was while studying metaphysics with a group of intellectuals in Buenos Aires that he came to his central insights about the Enneagram and began mapping each of the personality types on the nine-pointed star (see diagram). While Ichazo has been fierce in taking credit for developing the system — to the point of suing two other Enneagram authors — other theorists and teachers have, in fact, amplified his insights and made the system much more broadly accessible.
The first to do so was Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean psychiatrist who studied in the U. S. in the 1960s and went on to train under Ichazo in Arica, Chile. After a falling-out, Naranjo returned to the U. S. and began teaching the Enneagram to small groups of students in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s. In contrast to the more authoritarian Ichazo, who insisted on typing all students himself, Naranjo encouraged his students to figure out their own type-related fixations. Ichazo’s training manuals contained only brief descriptions of each fixation. By interviewing highly self-aware students about their preoccupations, Naranjo began to develop a far richer picture of each type. Several of the leading modern Enneagram teachers came out of these groups.
Today, at least a dozen main teachers offer Enneagram workshops across the country. More than thirty books about the system have been published, and two of them — Helen Palmer’s The Enneagram and Don Riso’s Personality Types — have sold more than one hundred thousand copies each. The demand keeps rising. Last summer, a proposal for a book about the Enneagram’s application to business, written by first-time author Michael Goldberg, attracted a half dozen bids from publishers, and the highest one eventually exceeded $200,000.
In August, two prominent professors at Stanford University — psychiatry-department chairman Alan Schatzberg and business-school professor Michael Ray — gave the Enneagram its first dollop of mainstream credibility by cosponsoring the First International Enneagram Conference on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, California. Helen Palmer and her partner, David Daniels, who also teaches at Stanford, organized the conference. The four-day event was sold-out, attracting more than fifteen hundred people to hear nearly a hundred presenters, who spoke about the Enneagram’s application to subjects including psychotherapy, medicine, education, business, and spiritual growth.
Inevitably, the Enneagram’s rising popularity has prompted some backlash. Perhaps the most stinging denunciation of the system — delivered by one of the first people to teach it publicly — came at the recent conference. “When you see a person as a type,” warned Kathleen Speeth, a Berkeley psychologist who studied with Naranjo, “you tend to see some attributes and think you’ve seen the whole…. This is true of any diagnostic system. But it’s even more true of the Enneagram, because it is so addictive, so interesting, and so easy to get into. You forget that the system [gives] closure where there is none. It leaves out a lot of information. In our secret self — our real self — we cannot be categorized. This is why I think sensitive people recoil from the Enneagram.”
Speeth’s incendiary remarks generated equally impassioned responses. “To me, she was incredibly myopic,” said David Daniels. “We cannot not categorize. Human beings make distinctions to function and to communicate. The solution is not to suppress systems that categorize but to be more aware of their potential abuses in order to reduce and prevent them.” Riso responded by turning Speeth’s remarks on their head. “Does the system put you in a box?” he asked. “The fact is we’re already in a box. The Enneagram shows us how our fixations block real contact with ourselves. What the system really gives us is a way out.”
It’s precisely because the Enneagram delivers up so much information so easily that some critics dismiss it as superficial. Certainly, it can be used to assess people’s motivations and behavior quickly without necessarily understanding them more deeply. I know, because I’ve done it myself plenty of times. Whatever nobler uses the Enneagram may be put to, it’s great fun just to sit around with fellow Enneagramniks and gossip about people’s types. Is Bill Clinton, for instance, a Three (the achiever), a Seven (the optimist), or a Nine (the peacemaker)? Is he so difficult to categorize because he tries so hard to be all things to all people? Or take Nancy Kerrigan. Her bland, disengaged response to Tonya Harding suggests she’s a Nine, but might she really be an image-conscious Three? And what about David Letterman? Underneath his genial Seven-like demeanor, is he really a fearful, anhedonic Six? Of course, this sort of celebrity typing is inherently speculative and imprecise, since people often wear public personae that have little to do with who they really are.
Speculation about types also inevitably extends to how they interact in relationships. While there’s no clear evidence that certain types necessarily get along better, some matchups are common. For example, Threes and Sevens — both upbeat and externally focused — are often drawn to one another. Eights and Nines can be another snug fit, the former oriented to power, control, and certainty, the latter accommodating easily to other people’s agendas and naturally playing the role of conciliator.
That it’s possible to use the Enneagram as a parlor game doesn’t make the system itself trivial. The notion that human nature expresses itself in fundamental categories or types, after all, is the very basis of modern Western psychology, beginning with Freud’s varied classifications of psychopathology. Thinkers ranging from Jung to Reich to Horney to Erickson to Kernberg have modified and reshaped Freud’s ideas, but in each case partly by offering up their own new and improved typologies.
The Enneagram offers something subtler than other systems by suggesting that personality is not static. When Ichazo mapped the nine basic personality types around the Enneagram, he theorized that they have certain predictable patterns of movement. The Enneagram’s central triangle, for example, is formed by types Three, Six, and Nine. Under conditions of great stress, most teachers agree, the Six tends to take on characteristics of the Three, the Three begins to look more like the Nine, and the Nine more like the Six. The same thing occurs in reverse under conditions of unusual security The Six, in short, tends to act more like the Nine, and so on. A similar pattern of movement exists for each of the types.
Here, the Enneagram starts to get more complex — and more interesting. Take my own fixations of fear and doubt. In times of stress, the system suggests that I’ll tend to take on characteristics of the Three, the type most concerned with status, image, and external success. No sooner did I become familiar with the Enneagram than I recognized precisely this pattern. Whenever I felt especially threatened or secure, I found myself more drawn to power, external achievement, and recognition. I also got more jealous of those who seemed to have them. In effect, I sought protection from the inner experience of vulnerability by pushing harder for outer confirmation. Sometimes I got what I sought, but only rarely did it bring me much satisfaction. By contrast, when I was feeling most secure and comfortable, I tended to experience the healthier Nine’s easygoing capacity to empathize with other people and to see the world from other points of view. In short, I became less suspicious and more open.
My introduction to the Enneagram took place when my wife, Deborah, and I attended an intensive five-day workshop run by Helen Palmer at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Trained initially as a psychologist and now in her midfifties, Palmer has been teaching the Enneagram for nearly two decades. More than anyone, she has helped to bring it alive by gathering panels of each personality type and then interviewing them in depth before large groups of students.
Neither Deborah nor I arrived at the workshop convinced that we’d accurately identified our Enneagram types. Palmer suggested that we’d almost certainly recognize ourselves in the course of listening to panels of the nine types. As it turned out — aided partly by two dreams that focused on primal childhood fears that first night of the seminar — I identified myself fairly quickly as a Six, the same type as Palmer.
Central to the childhood experience of the Six is the feeling that one can’t trust authorities. My formative years certainly fed this belief. My mother was a powerful presence, as I grew up, fiercely protective and supportive on the one hand but controlling, critical, and volatile on the other — almost certainly an Eight. My father was a gentler, sweeter presence, a quintessential Nine, but I never felt that he stood up to my mother on my behalf. Perhaps inevitably, I developed a wary view of the world, an ambivalence toward authority, and a tough exterior to ward off feelings of vulnerability
Recognizing this pattern of fear and doubt in my life hardly seemed cause for celebration. Still, it felt oddly exhilarating. On one level, I was happy to find others at the workshop who shared my perceptions and preoccupations and to realize that I was not alone. At another level, I was relieved to discover that my way of seeing the world — one that had caused me no small amount of pain over the years — wasn’t necessarily accurate or complete. “Once personality is formed, attention becomes immersed in the preoccupations that characterize our type,” Palmer has explained. “It can be astounding to realize that we perceive 360 degrees of reality in a very limited way and that most of our decisions and interests are based on highly sophisticated habits rather than real freedom of choice.”
Seeing the narrowness of one’s worldview, most teachers believe, is the first step to widening it. For the Six, this means beginning to transform chronic doubt into more discriminating trust, rejecting imagined negative scenarios in favor of more balanced, realistic assessments. Beyond that, the central challenge for Sixes, I began to see, is to recover faith in their own authority — to give up constantly and fruitlessly seeking reassurance and confirmation from others and to find it instead within.
At about the same time that I did, Deborah had an epiphany about her own type. She was, she realized, a perfectionist One. In the One’s characteristic way, Deborah went to great lengths to do the right thing, to be well liked, and to avoid criticism at all costs. What the Enneagram helped her to see was how the perfect image that she sought to project to the world masked her own underlying fixation—anger and resentment, born of the relentless pressure she felt to be perfect. It was a curious bind. Acknowledging this anger, even to herself, exposed her imperfection and opened the door to more criticism. But keeping up a perfect pose only fueled her resentment and made her feel less authentic.
From the Enneagram perspective, the challenge for the One is not so much to ventilate anger as to become more aware of it and more able to accept such feelings with equanimity Beyond that, the One’s challenge is to give up the internal demand to meet the sort of impossible standards that prompt resentment in the first place. In short, Ones are challenged to feel self-acceptance even though they aren’t perfect, much as Sixes aim to experience an inner sense of safety and security even though not everyone merits trust.
Yet another window opened up in the first few days of the workshop as I listened to others describe their fixations. I’d always tended to idealize certain people with sunnier, more easygoing dispositions than my own. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be protecting themselves from pain and conflict in very different and sometimes more veiled ways than I did. Watching the panels made it clear, for example, that several of my oldest friends were Sevens, the Peter Pans — eternal children, full of high spirits, fun, charm, and good humor, often highly self-absorbed and self-satisfied.
For years, I’d been amazed — and not a little jealous — that these friends were so consistently upbeat, free of apparent fear and anxiety, and capable of enjoying themselves even in stressful circumstances. Actually, these experiences were not entirely foreign to me. Most Enneagram teachers believe that any given type is influenced by at least one of its wings — meaning the types directly adjacent to it. A tragic-romantic Four with a strong Three wing, for example, while prone to dramatic emotions, might also exhibit some of the more outgoing performance-oriented traits of a Three. A Four with a strong Five wing, by contrast, might deal with depression by turning more inward and withdrawing. Indeed, Riso refers to types not as a single number but in tandem with a dominant wing. Hillary Clinton, for example, with her strong moral bent and her inclination to service, is probably a One-Two.
As a Six, I shared with my Seven friends high energy, the capacity for sudden, new enthusiasms, and a belief in the boundless possibilities ahead. The difference was that my attention inevitably turned to all the things that might go wrong along the way. Where I envisioned the worst, they tended to see the best. Where I worried decisions to death, they simply jumped in or guiltlessly set decision making aside. I’d always found it uplifting to be around them. At the same time, I’d long been aware that there was often something limited and one-dimensional about these relationships.
What I had failed to recognize, until the Enneagram made it clear, was how the relentlessly upbeat stance of the Seven is less a choice than a compulsion. Sevens are as addicted to pleasure and high spirits as Sixes are to conjuring negative outcomes. For Sevens, cramming their lives full of new experiences and activities helps keep deeper emotions — including fear and anxiety — at bay. The problem, I realized, is that their insatiable hunger for new experiences makes it difficult for Sevens to stay with anything long enough to become deeply immersed in it. The Seven’s aversion is not just to boredom but also to the sort of intimacy that carries with it the risk of pain and loss.
I recognized yet another variation on this theme when I listened to the members of the Three panel. More than any of the other types, the Three embodies the American dream. Driven, hardworking, self-assured, and often high achieving, Threes tend to be leaders in any given situation. Like Sevens — whom they superficially resemble — Threes keep themselves intensely busy and active. But unlike Sevens, who focus first on pleasure, Threes are most concerned with power and status. In turn, they become highly image conscious.
The cost is that Threes get disconnected from their underlying emotions. Their fixation is deceit, and indeed Threes tend to be chameleons — quickly adapting themselves to whatever a given situation demands. “There is a profound split,” Riso has written, “between who they seem to be and who they are, between the image they project to others and the reality behind it.” All of us seek in some measure to fill externally what’s felt to be missing internally, but this becomes a full-time job for Threes. Often, it pervades even their closest relationships. “Threes,” says Helen Palmer, “can make honest and enduring commitments to their intimates . . . without being truly connected to the emotions they describe.”
An extreme example of a Three is 0. J. Simpson. Publicly, he meticulously cultivates an image as a charming, likable, easygoing guy. Privately, the evidence suggests that he viciously abused his wife — denying it to the very end, perhaps even to himself. Healthier Threes tend to be productive and successful in all aspects of their lives. Still, they’re far more comfortable describing what they do than what they feel, more at home talking about what they’ve accomplished than who they are. On a broader level, I was struck by how the personality types that our culture tends to admire most — among them achievement-oriented Threes and upbeat Sevens — are often the least inclined to look within for any deeper level of self-understanding.
There was at least one other type I’d been drawn to repeatedly in my life. Eights are known as bosses and leaders. Typically powerful, bluntly direct, ceaselessly energetic, and confident to a fault, they’re also instinctively protective of those they care about most. My own childhood experience had fueled an eternal search for authorities I might finally be able to trust. I’d sought out a succession of Eights, I now realized, as mentors and even as protectors — all roles that the Eight takes to easily. My pattern was to begin by idealizing them, accepting too readily that they did indeed have all the answers. So long as I maintained this view, they couldn’t have been more generous and friendly the problems arose when I began to question their authority. I did so in part because I eventually recognized their shortcomings but also because of a belated need to assert some independence. The catch was that questioning Eights can bring out their less attractive qualities — the intense need for control, explosive anger, and a tendency to dismiss those who do not share their worldview. The Enneagram helped me to see how I unconsciously set up these friends. By idealizing them at first, I was bound to feel let down and even betrayed later.
At the same time, it was among Eights that I saw most vividly the Enneagram’s transformative power. Eights wear the toughest exterior of any type, and perhaps nothing comes harder for them than admitting their own vulnerability and lack of certainty. But beneath this hard shell, the Eight is typically protecting the tender, innocent heart of a child. Two years ago, I introduced my oldest friend — a prototypically swaggering Eight — to the Enneagram. He became fascinated by it and, in time, vastly more self-aware. In the process, he began to reveal a depth of sweetness and tenderness that I’d never seen. Indeed, nothing so consistently brings people to tears at Enneagram panels as listening to self-observant Eights talk honestly about themselves.
Palmer has used the panel-interview format to demonstrate vividly the nature of each type. At the same time, her deeper interest is in helping students convert their fixations to their higher opposites — more essential qualities that the personality tends to mask. For the One, the challenge is to transform anger and the tendency to criticize into self-acceptance and serenity; for the Two, pride and people-pleasing into humility and unconditional love; for the Three, workaholism and image-consciousness into integrity and inner conviction; for the Four, envy and self-absorption into equanimity and clarity; for the Five, emotional detachment and abstraction into involvement and compassion, for the Six, fear and doubt into courage and self-possession, for the Seven, gluttony and distractedness into focus and contentment; for the Eight, control and certainty into tenderness and openness; and for the Nine, inertia and complacency into conviction and self-awareness.
Palmer’s techniques are based more on meditation than on psychotherapy. Her primary interest is in teaching the tools for gaining control over the placement of one’s attention, drawing on a classic Buddhist meditative technique known as mindfulness. By learning to observe with more detachment the constant swirl of our thoughts and emotions, she argues, we can avoid becoming caught up in them and cease reacting to them so automatically.
Palmer is less interested in working with one’s defensive habits the way that a psychotherapist might — by exploring their origins in childhood and working through the painful feelings they typically mask. My own experience is that this meditative approach is immensely valuable but not nearly sufficient. When conflicts in love and work tap directly into old, unresolved wounds, it’s difficult for most people to stay in a neutral place of self-observation. In the face of stress, for example, I saw Palmer’s central passions as a Six — fear, doubt, and mistrust — rise right up, despite all her meditative training.
To understand better how transformation occurs, I found myself drawn to the insights of Don Riso, who has developed a more systematic and developmental approach to the Enneagram than its other teachers. Beyond the nine personality types, Riso theorizes that there are nine levels of development within each type, ranging from the most pathological to the most integrated and healthy. Because his work has been largely theoretical, his overall descriptions of types often don’t feel as rich as Palmer’s. Still, by taking into account the varied levels of people’s development, Riso is the first Enneagram theorist to describe the very different ways in which each type expresses itself.
“Each of us has a center of gravity,” he told me. “Let’s say it’s level five. That serves as your home, the place you live in most of the time. In the course of a given day, however, you can move up and down, depending on what’s happening in your life. The challenge of self-development — which begins with self-observation — is to move your peg up, to raise the stage that is your home.” The Enneagram is most useful, say Riso and his partner, Russ Hudson, for those at the middle levels of development. “At the very bottom, people have no capacity to self-observe and, therefore, no means to change,” Hudson says. “For those who are most highly developed, the fixations are no longer so evident — or so problematic.”
Perhaps nothing is as powerful as seeing one’s own fixation in action. I had this experience for the first time toward the end of the workshop that I took with Helen Palmer at Esalen. An intense, diminutive man — let’s call him Richard — was sitting in the center of the room and describing the way that he, as a highly analytic Five, handled a certain situation. As he spoke, I sensed that he somehow felt superior to the rest of us — an impression Fives can sometimes give. Without thinking, I blurted out this observation. In my own mind, I was groping for a way to understand him better, to bridge the gap between us.
No sooner had I spoken up, however, than Richard flashed back in red-hot anger, accusing me of imposing my views on him and misunderstanding him. This was the second time during the week I’d done so, he said. I believed it was he who had misunderstood me, but from the murmurs around the room, it seemed clear that others in the group agreed with Richard. This brief exchange made me feel terrible, not least because the week had been such a positive experience and I hated to have it end on a hostile note.
As we got closer to the end of the session, I raised my hand and asked Palmer if I might come out and discuss with Richard what was on my mind. In recent years, Palmer has begun to experiment with interactions between types, both as a way of exploring how their fixations play out in real life and of working through the conflicts that arise. While Palmer didn’t seem eager to cap the week with a confrontation, she finally relented. I walked out to the middle of the room and sat down across from Richard. Palmer kneeled between us. In my urgency to set things straight, I immediately started to lean forward toward Richard. I felt my adrenaline rising, but just as I was about to speak, Palmer literally pulled me back.
“Instead of putting your energy out here in the room,” she said gently but firmly, “I want you to try first to follow your breath down and in — to come inside. When you’ve done that, just say what you’re feeling, simply and from your heart.” I felt as if I’d been stopped in my tracks, but I tried to follow Palmer’s instructions, consciously pulling my energy back in and following my breath down into my belly.
As I did so, the room began to disappear, and I lost track of whatever had been on my mind. Then, I felt a wave rising inside me — a powerful wave of sadness that began to fill my body. I tried to say something, but I discovered I was too choked up. Suddenly, tears started to stream from my eyes. They took me utterly by surprise. I tried to compose myself, but it was no use. For what seemed a very long time, I sat quietly, filled with overwhelming emotion, and waited. Finally, Palmer turned to me and said, “Just say what you’re feeling.”
“I feel as if I could have made a connection with Richard, yet somehow I’ve ended up with just the opposite of what I wanted,” I heard myself respond. “I also realize this has happened to me before. And it just makes me very sad.” In ordinary circumstances, I’d have found acknowledging this much vulnerability intolerable — especially with a large group of people looking on. Had Palmer permitted me to confront Richard when I first came out, we’d almost certainly have ended up in an angry exchange. Instead, with a very simple gesture, Palmer showed me a way to take the energy of my anger — born of the conviction that someone had unfairly turned against me — and use it to direct attention instead to the painful feelings of loss and bewilderment that this anger covered up.
I had no sense of how much time had passed when the interaction ended and the room came back into focus. The first person I saw was Deborah, and I could tell that she, too, had been crying. Slowly, I realized that many people in the room had tears in their eyes and that nearly everyone was emotionally shaken. All week, I had been unconsciously playing my usual role as an aggressive, sardonic tough guy — the classic counterphobic Six. Here, however, rather than run from an underlying experience of sadness and loss, I’d allowed myself to sense it fully.
Far from feeling humiliated or rejected, I got the very connection I’d been seeking — not just with Richard but with many others in the room. My ordinary defenses had given way. In Palmer’s terms, I’d tapped into an aspect of my own essence. The experience was extraordinary and bittersweet — sad for what it revealed about the barriers I typically put up but incredibly promising for what it suggested about the value of letting them down.
I’d like to report that my fear and doubt — my fixations as a Six — simply fell away in the weeks and months following this revelatory experience. Alas, they did not. Nonetheless, the Enneagram has had a profound and enduring impact. On the one hand, it’s given me an extraordinary appreciation for the way others in my life see the world and what they’re up against. In turn, by trying to see the world from their perspectives instead of mine, I find I can often deal with them far more effectively, even compassionately.
As for my own fear, doubt, and anger, when they do come up these days, I no longer look so quickly for the external causes. Rather, I try to turn my attention inward, to focus on my automatic inclination to react and on how my perception narrows in the process. I certainly don’t catch myself every time, but I do far more often and sooner than I ever did before.
Of course, I haven’t totally renounced my Sixish roots. I’m still expecting the sky to fall in on me any moment now.