Addressing Your Primal Wound

The Enneagram approach.

Posted Jul 14, 2019

The Enneagram is an ancient Middle Eastern system for spiritual development (true-self actualization) taken up by Sufis and early Christians that emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s (Rohr, 1998). It used to be secret knowledge used by spiritual communities to help their charges develop their spirituality. The Enneagram is related to the list of deadly sins or capital vices but includes a couple more vices—fear and deceit (which are the ones apparently dominating today’s humanity).

The Enneagram proposes ways that individuals move away from their true selves. The theory is that childhood experience of some sort pressed each individual to develop their gifts in a particular direction and the individual continued in that direction by choice, developing particular strengths. You get caught up in identifying with what you’ve learned to do well—you are too attached to that self-image.

You can tell that you are caught up in one of these patterns of misperception, the thinking goes, if you are not enjoying life at a foundational level, living with a deep happiness. That means you are not living as your true self. “The Enneagram can help us to purify our self-perception, to become unsparingly honest toward ourselves, and to discern better and better when we are hearing only our own inner voices and impressions and are prisoners of our prejudices—and when we are capable of being open to what is new.” (Rohr & Ebert, 2014, p. 21)

According to the theory, these sins or vices are the “passions” that cloud our perception and keep us from encountering the “Totally Other” (God) in the present moment. Each of the nine types of sin/vice/misperception represents a false self built from the strength you worked on in the first part of your life. But that strength keeps you from reaching your full potential because each false self is avoiding "full being" in one way or another. You defend that false self in how you perceive the world, in what you don’t see, what you ignore or reject.

Shifting to the true self, in this way of thinking, means that one integrates the skills and strengths of the false self with the shadow side, the aspects of self that were being suppressed by the false self. This way, one moves into an enlightened view of connection and unity with others, life, universe.

Psychological validity?

The emphasis on self-growth through uncovering one’s psychopathologies fits with Maslow’s recommendations for self-actualization or human fulfillment. However, research support for the enneagram is nonexistent.

Although the framework can be encouraging for self-growth in adulthood, as a social scientist I question the absolute categorization of a person. Rather, as we know with personality characteristics, people change in consistent ways according to situations—you might be kind toward people at work but cruel at home, respectful of men but not of women, etc. So I suspect that people may have a different enneagram flavor for different circumstances—e.g., with father, with mother, with brother, with sister, at school, in the neighborhood. Once in the adult world of work, one or another may be emphasized and perhaps that becomes the most rigid persona adopted. But it is likely that people have layers of persona to integrate into a true, centered and balanced self. If my own life is any guide—I took up different types of self in different stages of life—there may be much more work to be done than just shape up one false self. According to theory, with full integration we move healthily around the whole wheel. 

A review of the types (Listen to their description here.)

Number One is an aggressive crusader who aims for perfection. Healing comes through accepting one’s anger and finding serenity.

Number Two helps others driven by a proud desire to be needed. Healing comes from understanding one’s own neediness and fulfillment.

Number Three is oriented to feeling appreciated by getting things done but uses deceit when necessary. Healing comes from embracing integrity and accepting failure.

Number Four lives for beauty, feeling and unique expression. Healing comes with the acceptance of ordinariness with serenity.

Number Five is obsessed about collecting and mastering knowledge. Healing comes learning to give out energy instead of just taking it from others.

Number Six is oriented to relying on authority for clarity and security. Healing comes from building faith that is guided by personal experience and authority.

Number Seven radiates joy and optimism and is a glutton for fun. Healing comes from learning to deal with pain in ways that are not overwhelming.

Number Eight lives passionately, challenging imperfection. Healing comes from allowing the inner softer self to be visible.

Number Nine is a peacemaker, putting out minimal energy in relationships. Healing comes from learning to take decisive action.

It has been proposed that one can use the Enneagram to work on self-development in multiple ways.

Healing

To integrate the self, first one must see the nature of one’s false self and its futile attempts to control or be fearless. Laugh at it. Then, one must be transformed by an experience outside the self—a “god” experience or peak experience of unitive or oceanic consciousness—feeling connected to the cosmos with a sense of peace and feeling lovable.

According to Franciscan monk Richard Rohr, there are three steps toward healing and it takes years of contemplative practice to make them semi-automatic. 

1. Dis-identify with the false self by observation, not by judgment. This involves the practice of accepting and letting go of your feelings and thoughts as they come and go.

2. Identify with another source and energy. This means falling into the hands of connection and unity.

3. Take back the appropriate energy of the false self and integrate it into a single "I" without judgment or inner conflict. Suffer the wound that took you to the false self but don’t reject it, embrace it. Practice surrender and letting go.

Accepting one’s shadow becomes the cornerstone of an integrated person. The "good" goes with the "nongood." We affirm the wounded part of us that we’ve been trying to compensate for or hide. Through affirmation of the wound we move toward total reality/God. We find joy in being present to and taking in the world without judgment or separation. We move away from dualistic thinking (good/bad).

It’s an ongoing effort—two steps forward and one back, because the well-practiced and well-defended ego (that includes one’s strength) keeps rearing its head through all the habits of perception, reaction, and concepts about the world that guide our behavior.

Rohr says we all need to live in our false self (roles) part of the day, but we need to return to practicing the true self each day. Daily reconnection to the true self, the unitive consciousness, helps us not to get caught up in believing our misperceptions to be true and do damage to self and others in an effort to make them so.

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Resources

  • The Center for Action and Contemplation (started by Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk)
  • Rohr, R. (1998). Enneagram II: Advancing Spiritual Discernment.  NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
  • Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Rohr, R. and Ebert, A. (2014). The Enneagram: A Christian perspective. NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company.