In this chaotic and painful world, so many people are doing what they can to make a change for the better, to turn the tables from fear and hate to love and service. And I find great hope in that. No matter how messed up things get due to a small minority of people in power, there will always be more people on the ground who are operating from a place of care, integrity, soul power, compassion, loyalty, and alignment with good.
So how can we make sure we are having the impact that we intend? So often, we see people who start with such good intentions end up hurting others because they are stuck in their way of doing or seeing things and they seem unable to work with others who are different from them; even people on "their side.” It’s so easy to see it in other people:
“There goes Pastor again, trying to massage his hurting sense of white guilt by being extra friendly and helpful to all the people of color in the congregation.”
“Gosh, I wish Brenda knew that her leadership style scares the shit out of all of us. There’s no room for creativity when it feels like I’ll be murdered for making any mistake.”
“Ugh. Sam is driving me crazy. He comes up with all these great ideas and says he’ll help the team in carrying this through. But then he disappears again and knocks us off course because he gets hooked on some new idea!”
Working in teams and communities is hard. People are complicated and relationships are messy. Always. So what can we do about those annoying coworkers, volunteers, and bosses? Unfortunately, not too much. People don’t like to be told to change, don’t like to be “fixed.” As hard as it is, the place we can enact the most change is in ourselves. We can take time to take an honest look at conflicts we’ve been a part of in the past, or situations that have felt uncomfortable.
What was my part in it? What were my motivations, really?
James Flaherty, Enneagram teacher, Integral Leadership coach, and founder of New Ventures West talks about six ways that we tend to interact with systems; whether those systems are our family, workplace or other type of community. He bases them on our Enneagram type, and they are very helpful in understanding our impact, as it’s not enough to just look at our intentions.
There are 6 ways of interacting with systems. We can:
Here is the specific breakdown by Enneagram type
(from his interview with the Shift Network on June 27, 2019)
First triad: Enneagram types 8, 3, 6- they are either Exploiting or Mobilizing
8- Exploit: Through intimidation and coercion, threatening people, by force of personality to get what they want.
Mobilize: possible to inspire systems by serving, huge potential to serve when connected to their heart. (Power of body + sensitivity of the hear t= a healthy 8)
3- Exploit: take credit for what’s happening in a system. Nothing takes the air out of a team as when one person wants to take credit for it
Mobilize: by highlighting the strengths and successes of what’s going on with work partners and within the whole system. This empowers others and helps systems become more aware of their own power, is life giving
6- Exploit: distracting systems with endless “what ifs,” or by demanding clarity that isn’t possible. Stops the forward momentum. This is a way a 6 can stay in charge, and say when their criteria has been met before letting it unfold
Mobilize: bring the courage to create a safe space to innovate and imagine things in a new way, instead of what’s always been.
Second Triad: Enneagram types 1, 2, 5 - they are either Resisting or Harmonizing
(Harmonizing = stepping back and letting life flow, getting out of the way)
1- Resist: everything has to go according to my rules and standards. I’m the guardian and steward of what is correct, in such a way that nothing happens because it shuts everyone else down. (destroying the “good” for the sake of seeking the “perfect”)
Harmonize: bring ease and the pleasure of engagement. We know that systems are always changing and don’t have an endpoint, and we can harmonize with the good that systems can bring, and enjoy the act of engagement itself
2- Resist: dismiss systems as inhuman and unkind. There’s not enough humanity/heart here, so I’m just going to get away from it, dismiss it as not worth my time. I delude myself in thinking I can opt out of the system.
Harmonize: they can point out what strengthens and connects all the different elements of the system, and create optimal space for relationships, which allows the system to unfold
5- Resist: highlight all of its limitations, what it leaves out, it’s blindspots and inconsistencies, get cynical and believe there is no true hope for change, so I opt out
Harmonize: assist people in being able to see the big picture, look at all the ramifications and the wholeness of what they’re doing- connect the dots
Third Triad: Enneagram types 4, 7, 9- They are either Ignoring or Including
4- Ignore: fight for individual views and rights- deny that there even is a collective system. We are all individuals!
Include: help us with stories of imagination that helps us find inclusive meaning so that people hearing it can understand they are part of the system. Promote creativity.
7- Ignore: will cherry pick what to support, ignore the influence of the whole system and only looking at the parts I want to affect me (to protect myself from discomfort)
Include: Welcoming dislodgment-- welcoming being challenged and pulled out of what I like and what’s important to me. Inviting in others point of view, I’m unstuck, not rigid. Visionary mind!
9- Ignore: wait out change and interventions, avoiding and denying conflict, stay comfortable
Include: Invite all voices to the table, make everyone feel heard. When we listen to each other we are more powerful and kind and more effective. Understand and mediate between views.
So much of activist/organizer energy and thought is about “How do we change those people to come to their senses, to be more generous, to be less fearful?” But if we are ever going to have a fighting chance of inspiring others to change, we need to look at our own approach on a personal level. People respond to people, not to theories. With the help of the list above, we can ask ourselves if we are using our passion, talents, time and energy in the most effective way possible.
Ironically, the way to be most effective isn’t to crank up the dial on our speed, output, or marketing strategy. It is to slow down and get present. When we can bring Presence into our work, we are more clearly seeing things as they really are. When we lose presence and are taken over by anger, shame, or anxiety, we react to the way things are instead of responding. A calm, measured response that is free from ego can only happen if we are feeling grounded in something outside of me, myself, and I.
We can use James Flaherty’s list alone or in conversation with a group. Read how your own Enneagram type interacts with systems. As painful as it might be, bring to mind a few times where you were not at your best. It is only by exploring these memories with curiosity that we can learn to avoid making the same mistakes again. And chances are, we will make the same mistakes again. But hopefully, with this new awareness, we will catch ourselves earlier in the act, make amends, and change course. It’s never too late to enact change in ourselves. And changing ourselves is the place where we have the most control, so let’s start there.
Each of us is a piece within the system. When we change, the whole system changes. If we burn out, disengage, or blow up, who benefits?
Take some time to either journal or talk about these questions with a trusted friend, mentor, or coworker.
For many of us, it can be difficult to find our Enneagram type accurately. Oftentimes, the biggest mistake is that people will look at the stereotypical behavior of each type and focus on that. For example, "I worry a lot so I must be a six." Or, "I have always been drawn to art, so I'm a four." "I go to a lot of protests, so I've narrowed it down to 8, 9, or 1!" "I love to read and am a deep thinker. I've gotta be a five!"
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The Enneagram is unique in that, unlike other personality typing systems, it is based on motivations, not behaviors. Each type has a specific "Passion" (emotional pattern of suffering) and a specific "Virtue" (emotional gift), a predictable "Fixation" (mental trap of the ego), and a unique "Holy Idea" (the mind's beautiful consciousness when in a grounded and accepting state.) All of these are sooooooo helpful and fascinating, but the part of Enneagram teaching that I resonate with the most is the teaching on each type's "Lost Childhood Message."
Each of us as children, at some point, began to interpret a fundamental flaw about ourselves. The innocence is lost, fear sets in, and we begin basing all our choices around this delusional perception. It isn't necessarily our caregiver's fault, but we may react to their Shadow and interpret it in a certain way as a coping mechanism to feel safe and loved. The messages are called "lost" because we had them at some point. For example, an Enneagram One's lost childhood message is "You are good." When this message gets lost, it becomes the opposite belief that "I am bad/corrupt/evil." As a baby and young child, of course Ones were pure and good. But Ones as children typically feel criticized, not good enough, and punished for mistakes or for expressing emotion, so the ego develops a fixation between right/wrong, good/bad, because she is trying so hard to avoid mistakes and maintain control. Because she has lost touch with the inherent birthright of being good, in the back of her mind, she's always anxious about doing something wrong that would define her as corrupt, bad, or evil. For any Enneagram One to begin her path back toward wholeness and healing, she needs to reclaim the truth that "I am good."
Here is the list of Lost Childhood Messages. Every one of them is a message for all of us, but one of them in particular is at the core of our ego's motivations. This piece of the Enneagram can shine much needed light on our type and on the direction of our growth path.
1- "I am good." - - Interpreted as "I am evil/corrupt/bad. I need to stay on the straight and narrow to avoid
the slippery slope! My moral superiority proves my goodness."
2- "I am lovable" -- Interpreted as "I am only lovable when I'm helping others, when I'm needed. I've gotta
give more to prove my lovability!"
3- "I am capable" -- Interpreted as "I am only lovable and valuable when I'm accomplishing
great things! Proving my capabilities will bring me the love and attention I desire."
4- "I belong" - - Interpreted as "I don't belong. I am different from everyone else and no one understands
me. I will prove that I belong by making myself noticeably special to draw love toward me,
and by withdrawing into my inner world of feelings and fantasy."
5- "I am enough." -- Interpreted as "I am not enough to gain love and security on my own, so I'll spend my
energy gathering knowledge and ideas, and detaching from others and my feelings. This
proves my competence, my enough-ness."
6- "I am safe." - - Interpreted as "I am in danger. Life and people are unpredictable. My defense against
harm is doubting and questioning, even doubting my own instincts and inner guidance. By
preparing for the worst, I will prove that I'm protected."
7- "I am free." - - Interpreted as "I could be trapped! Best to avoid this by becoming self reliant and
focusing on all my positive options and creating pleasurable experiences! Keeping the
Fun-pedal to the metal proves that I am free!!"
8- "I can be vulnerable"- - "I mustn't show weakness, only Power! Emotions, tenderness, and quietness are
weakness and weakness gets you hurt. I'll make myself as big as possible to protect myself
(and others). My strength, productivity, energy, volume, and fast pace prove my Power."
9- "I matter." - - Interpreted as "My presence doesn't matter. My feelings and needs are unimportant, so I'll
keep a low profile and merge with others. I cannot affect change. Making others feel
comfortable and keeping the peace proves that I matter."
Each of these Lost Childhood messages is incredibly heartbreaking, and also incredibly ironic. How could Nines believe they don't matter? We all love them in their natural gifts of sweetness, inclusion, and peacekeeping, and when they are absent we miss them like crazy. How could Threes be worried about proving their capability, when none of the rest of us could ever keep up with their positive energy, confidence, and enthusiasm? Why would eights hide their tender side, when their big hearts are what make them so darn lovable? They don't need to prove they are powerful, because even when sitting in silence we would feel the strength emanating from an Eight!
We are all striving for something we believe is lost about ourselves, but it turns out we have just lost sight of it! It never went anywhere! It was there waiting for us all along, under layers of stories, delusions, fears, greed, and anger. If only we could see ourselves the way our true friends see us, the way our pets see us, the way The Divine sees us. We are seen as good, lovable, capable, belonging, enough, safe, free, with permission to be vulnerable, and that we matter, SO MUCH. Not only are we seen as each of these things, we are each of these things, because they are our birthright.
Now, repeating these messages to ourselves and keeping compassionate eyes on this birthright, we can use the other tools and insights of the Enneagram to carry us back "Home" to our True Selves.
If you know your Enneagram type, I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments below or through a private message, how your Lost Message shows up as a motivator in your life, in either its negative or positive form. What have you done that has been helpful in convincing yourself to reclaim this message?
I just made this painting for my nephew's 4th birthday, to be read to him each night before bed, in the hopes that the lies and delusions won't penetrate so deeply. He will, of course, still develop an Enneagram type (thankfully!) but perhaps this will serve to guide him back Home quicker than would otherwise be the case. Happy Birthday Ethan!!!
P.S. If you would like me to make one of these paintings for a child (or adult!!) that you love, let me know, and I'll pray for them the whole time I'm painting. Also, check out my new Custom Paintings page!
Happy Fall everyone! May this season bring you inspiration, guidance, and time for contemplation!
When people ask me what the Enneagram is, I am immediately elated and nervous to give an explanation, because it feels like introducing them to a best friend who has saved my life. Any “elevator speech” is incomplete, and even a dissertation would still miss the mark, because this dynamic spiritual tool interacts with each person in a unique and individual way. My story will not be the same as your story, but our common humanity of brokenness, possibility, and innate hidden wholeness guarantees that this tool has something life changing for everyone. Let me (begin) to explain, and tell a bit of how the Enneagram has made me a kinder, wiser, and healthier human.
First, an overview.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system that is unique among its peers. While other systems put you in a box and leave you there, the Enneagram shows you all the parts of your “box” that you’ve been living in (even the parts that are subconscious and denied), and then gives you a path of transformation and healing to move outside of the box of your habitual thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can do this because the Enneagram looks at the motivations of each type, instead of the observable behaviors. It also shows us both our Light and Shadow sides, our “blessings and blights” as teacher Ian Cron likes to say. In its wisdom, the Enneagram shows us that “our personality type is not who we are, but instead what keeps us from being who we are.” (Quote from teacher Anne Muree). It points toward ego structure. However, it is a non-dualistic system (like any healthy spirituality), and includes this paradox: it also shows us exactly who we could be, and provides a path to our True Self/Essence (as opposed to our False Self/ego).
The Enneagram has nine personality types, which are actually habits and coping mechanisms built up over time in an attempt to feel safe, secure, loved, respected, in control, and happy. Each of these “programs for happiness” work for us for a time...until they don’t. They end up getting us into trouble, again, and again... and again. We get frustrated with ourselves, feeling defective, angry, ashamed, and afraid. (e.g. What is wrong with me that I just can’t seem to change?? I intend to stop reacting to people and situations in this way, but I just can’t stop myself!! I guess I’ll just have to suffer like this the rest of my life. Poor me, no one understands me!)
Here’s where the Enneagram steps in with the radical introduction to CHOICE. As the late and brilliant Enneagram master teacher Don Riso used to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” My own genius teacher Anne Muree says (and I paraphrase), “The Enneagram is about LOVE and CHOICE, and they are right around the corner from one another. First we choose to love ourselves. Then we love ourselves enough to make different choices. And through these healthier choices, our love for ourselves and others grows.”
I will give one example from my own life in how this process has unfolded for me.
I am a Type One on the Enneagram, which sometimes gets called the Perfectionist or the Reformer (both labels were easy for me to claim, even before I had much self awareness.). With a constant focus on what can be improved, Ones have a deep drive to make ourselves better, to improve and maximize others potential, and make the world a better place. Those are all great things, until we overdo them. As teacher Suzanne Stabile points out, “The best part of you is also the worst part of you.” And believe me, all my efforts to perfect myself, others, and the world led me into a place of dissatisfaction, frustration, and a near constant state of resentment toward others.
The funny thing about it, in hindsight, is that I never recognized myself as an angry person, even though I was walking around with irritation simmering right under the surface of my “good girl” facade at all times. Resentment was just the water I was swimming in. I’m sure others could see and feel it, and that’s why the people I loved avoided controversial topics with me, because I would always turn it into a black/white, right/wrong argument, and I had to be right. I always got the last word in order to fuel my sense of goodness and purity (a.k.a self righteousness). For example, when I couldn’t convince my father that his politics were wrong, I resorted to writing snarky counter-arguments in his political books while home on breaks from college. While that never changed him, it made me feel like I’d done my duty in setting the "truth" straight. I had still won. (But this was extremely damaging to our relationship, obviously).
Some of you may be wondering why I’m being so hard on myself. I’m not. It’s just the pure, unadulterated truth. After a lifetime of powerful denial, I’ve finally learned to trust that only the Truth will set me free. After years of working on this, I don’t feel much emotion in the re-telling of my version of insanity. If anything, it’s humorous to me. I’ve finally stopped trying to control things I cannot change. I’m also finding a sense of compassion for myself, for all the suffering I have created, for how difficult I’ve made my life out to be. That is completely new to me. My version of ego has always believed that self criticism and reprimand would be what would eventually whip me into spiritual shape, but thank goodness for the Enneagram, Love has now been given the decisive voice (on my good days!).
One more quick story.
I used to feel that anger was the only fuel that could keep me going. It was the motivation to make a difference in the world. This is the rhetoric in many activist circles, and even within many religions who speak of a righteous anger. While I would never say that this is completely untrue or that anger has no value, I know that anger was robbing me of sleep, shaming me into feeling like I could never measure up to its high bar, and causing pain and tension in my body, particularly in my jaw, neck, and shoulders.
I remember distinctly the first time I reacted to injustice with compassion instead of rage. I was traveling in the West Bank of Palestine, and parts of Israel, listening to people’s stories from both sides of the conflict. While I had very strong opinions about the devastation of genocide, military occupation, imprisonment of children, and the system of apartheid going on there, I suddenly knew with clarity that anger and hatred were not going to help. Only compassion for everyone involved (including the brainwashed oppressors!) was going to end this conflict. If I wanted the people there to love and understand each other, I couldn't ask of them something I was unwilling or unable to do myself. On that trip, I began to experiment with the possibility that Love was actually a powerful force for change, not a wimpy or fluffy emotion for pushovers.
When all is said and done, the Enneagram helps each of the nine types find their own much needed compassion for self and others. As a One, I happen to be in the “anger triad” along with Eights and Nines, and only compassion and kindness can counter this toxic reaction in our bodies. There are three types that find themselves in the “shame triad” and the last three types are found within the “fear triad.” For all of us, whether anger, fear, or shame is our go-to motivator, we can do better for ourselves and others. And compassion is the path for us all.
We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve been given, at all times. Only self acceptance, loving encouragement, and self awareness can move us toward greater freedom and toward our True Self.
If you have not looked into the Enneagram, but feel ready to face your "demons" and be given guidance to defeat them, I recommend reading the book “The Road Back to You” to help you discover your type. There are also trained Enneagram coaches (such as myself!) who can help you through this self discovery process, starting with a typing interview. For some people, finding your type can be difficult and may take some time. But it is worth it! Blessings on your Enneagram journey.
With deep compassion,
I'm a Spiritual Director, Enneagram Educator, and Liberationist-Buddhist-Universalist-Mystic-12 step-Queer-Christian. Playing with questions, answers, and surrender.