“Working with the Personality”–What’s the best approach?

Mario Sikora
Jan 2, 2013
The Three Enneagrams
(To receive a pdf of this chart, send an email to
me at mario@enneagramlearning.com.)

A Facebook friend, Cirilo Santos, who happens to be an Ennea-type Five, posted an interesting question regarding a photo (right) that I posted on the Enneagram Learning International Facebook page. I wrote this blog as a response. 

Mario, [Something has] been puzzling me for some time. The main objective of our development is to stop the fixation/trance/illusion and lose our identification with it. Generally, all Enneagram authors agree on that. Paradoxly, they say you [have to] focus/improve the high qualities of your type. Isn’t this identification nonetheless? It’s as if, we got this crappy personality somewhere around childhood and we are going to have it forever. I think you even wrote about this, we are not going to lose our “strategy” no matter what. [Other teachers] when describing on [the dynamics of the types] sound like even if you do something about yourself, your future qualities are already set. Are you a 2 or a 9? Well, you going to be a great helper or a great peacemaker or have the qualities of one. What if you don’t want to have the “great” qualities of your type? Maybe because you are tired of being your type and may dislike anything related to it. Probably, I’m missing something about this subject, but don’t know what it is…

This is a great question and points to the problem at the heart of the essentialist view of human nature. Before addressing what we can do to grow and how I use these three Enneagrams, I need to take some time to explain the problem with this perspective.

Essentially (pun intended), essentialism is the view that an entity possesses specific qualities that are critical to the classification of that entity. Derived from Plato, this view holds that a table has an essential “tableness” that makes it a table, a dog has an essential “dogness” that makes it a dog, etc. In our realm of existence dogs and tables are merely inferior and flawed examples of Platonic Ideals or Forms–perfect or complete versions of dogs and tables that exist in some other realm. 

This view is pre-Darwin, meaning it doesn’t take into consideration the realities of biological evolution, and it is not taken seriously by biologists or modern science in general*–there are no “essential qualities” of a dog or a rabbit or a bear, even though each of those “types” of animals falls into a broad range of similar characteristics that allow us to categorize them into separate groups. Biologist Ernst Mayr referred to this essentialism as the “cold, dead hand of Plato,” one of the flaws in our intuitive understanding of the world that limits our ability to understand how things really work. In modern thought, the idea of a “species” is really just a convenient way to make sense of the world, an artificial label to make conversation easier.  

Thus, while we intuitive think we know a rabbit when we see one and think of rabbits as a well-defined species, every rabbit is different and exists on a continuum of interconnect mammals with blurry lines separating them from other mammals on the evolutionary tree. It would be impossible to find an “ideal rabbit” or even a definable group of “essential” characteristics that all rabbits share. Such labels are an external convenience rather than an inherent feature of the thing itself.

Many people take this intuitive essentialism and apply it to humans and Ennea-types as well. Even the concept of “personality types” is misleading if we see the typology as something inherent in the thing itself rather than seeing “type” as a convenient external label of a population with enough similarity to justify such a label. In other words, there is no essential “Five-ness” in a Five; referring to someone as a “Five” is a convenient way to talk about people who share certain characteristics we can all agree to call “Five.”

(I know this can sound like semantic hair-splitting, but not understanding the issue leads to the kind of confusion demonstrated in your question, and it can impede our efforts to change.) 

I don’t take an essentialist view and have written previously about the scientific and philosophical problems with this perspective. Instead, as you point out, I focus on strategies rather than traits–what people do rather than what they are. For me, a Five is someone who adapts to the world with a preferred strategy of striving to be detached. In other words, from my way of looking at it you are not a Five because you have some essential and unchanging Five-ness; you are a person who tends to use the strategy of striving to be detached more than you use the other eight strategies. It is about processes and patterns rather than fixity of characteristics. Referring to you as a “Five” is just a convenient shorthand that can’t be taken too literally.

For me, growth is not about trying to reject the ego or our “type;” instead, the path of growth lies in becoming more flexible in our responses to the world. We run into trouble when we respond to the world in an ineffective (or nonadaptive) habitual way. Whether we approach life from a “healthy” manifestation of our type or try to approach it from the manifestation of another Ennea-type is irrelevant; it only matters if we are acting adaptively and thereby increasing the contentment and decreasing the suffering of ourselves and those around us. We are better able to do this when we are aware of our behavioral and psychological patterns and exercise the wisdom to overcome the non-adaptive habits that grow out of our unconscious use of the strategies. 

Here’s the tricky part: When we repeat our patterns over and over, our brain gets more effective at doing them and habituation starts to snowball–we repeat a behavior and our brain builds more efficient synaptic connections related to that behavior, making it easier to do next time and strengthening the connections even more. By the time we reach adulthood, these patterns are extremely entrenched in the gray matter of our brain. We literally develop physical mechanisms (chains of myelinated axons) that impel us to act in ways that seemed to be efficient in the past without having to involve conscious thought. Changing those pathways takes an incredible amount of work–we are not simply resolving to be different in some way, we must change the biology of our brain in order to make these new behaviors feel comfortable. We must allow old pathways to atrophy and create new pathways related to more adaptive behaviors. 

So, perhaps one could “become a different type” or even truly become free from one’s fixation, but it would take an awful lot of work and, at least regarding being a different type, be of very little value. Freeing ourselves from fixation is a noble goal, and it certainly helps to know what the fixations are and practice the virtues as an antidote to them, but that is not necessarily my approach. Moving toward “the higher qualities of our type” is, at best, an intermediate step along the path. 

For me, the true goal is to become more flexible so we can exercise a greater number of adaptive behaviors (those suited to the circumstances and that increase our flourishing** and reduce our impeding of the flourishing of others) and concurrently decrease our maladaptive behaviors. 

The way I try to do this is through working with the three Enneagrams represented in this photo and the Awareness to Action Process. For starters, simply trying to reject our strategy is not a realistic solution because of the literal existence of these brain pathways–they are too deeply embedded to ignore or simply will away. Instead, the best way to create the kind of flexibility that we need to be adaptive is to continually rewrite our definition of the strategy so that it incorporates a broader meaning until eventually the strategy, and our stories associated with it, becomes so broad that it is almost meaningless. 

For example, a Five who strives to be detached continually works at rewriting the definition of what “detachment” means. At first, most of a Five’s understanding of this strategy is related to disengagement and avoidance, especially avoidance of emotion; to retreat into the mind to avoid the pains and fears of the heart. This is a maladaptive use of the strategy; it works in the short-term, perhaps, but ultimately inhibits our flourishing. An adaptive use of the strategy is to develop the kind of nonattachment in the midst of engagement commonly associated with, say, Zen Buddhist practice. The maladaptive use of the strategy restricts people to those behaviors often associated with the type, while adaptive use of the strategies allow for a wider range of behaviors–some of which may not seem very “Five-like.”

The problem is not that we have a preferred strategy, the problem is that we use limited, immature, and nonadaptive versions of the strategy instead of mature and adaptive versions. The Awareness to Action Process helps us move from the former to the latter. 

While we should start with applying the process to the strategy at our Enneagram point, we want to ultimately work on all the strategies, moving from immature/nonadaptive versions to mature/adaptive versions of each. Fortunately, working on our preferred strategy (the one at our Enneagram point) has the effect of speeding up the maturation of the others. 

Working on the strategies is the starting point, but we must also work on nurturing the core qualities because the stunting of these qualities that occurs early in life also keep us from flourishing. The accelerators are practices that aid in the maturation of the strategies and nurturing of the core qualities. (I wrote about the core quality associated at point Five in a previous blog that can be found here.) As with the strategies, focusing first on the accelerator and core quality at our Enneagram point is the best place to start, but we want to work with all nine points. For me, it seems to make sense to start with our Ennea-point and the two connecting points, and work outward from there.

(We shouldn’t forget about the instincts, of course! The instinctual biases tend to indicate to us the areas of life where we should focus our efforts, but that’s another story:).)

How all these pieces fit together is the focus of my certification program and the work I do with my clients, and one of these days I’ll get around to putting it all in a book. 

In summary, however, I offer this:

  • We should never try to reject anything about ourselves, or to try to become like a different type. In reality, the concept of type is an illusion and fighting it is fighting with a ghost. Rather, we should see ourselves in terms of a series of processes–things that we do rather than things that we are.
  • The goal is to become flexible enough to respond to our world in aware, adaptive ways rather than habitual, maladaptive ways so that we can increase our flourishing and that of those around us.
  • The way to get better at doing this is to apply the Awareness to Action Process to the strategies, practice the accelerators, and nurture the core qualities, starting with our Enneagram point and working outward from there. 

*There is an argument to be made for Platonic forms in mathematics, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

**I prefer the term “flourishing,” based on the Aristotelean idea of “eudaemonia” as a goal rather than, say, happiness or enlightenment.

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