Deny, Embrace, and Blame, or Choose to Grow
Deny, Embrace, and Blame,
or Choose to Grow
Philosophies from a Enneagram Four
by AK Carroll
I sit at a kitchen table sipping Earl Grey and staring at a 12-inch screen. I’m 30 minutes into an Enneagram test that I’m taking as seriously as if it were the bar exam. It isn’t an assessment of classroom learning or a survey of general knowledge. It’s a test about me. Surely, I think, I should be an expert on this topic. After all, I’ve spent the past 20-some years with myself.
Still, I agonize over questions like #47, “Which of the following best describes you? A) I often feel confident about my conclusions, B) I frequently doubt my own mind”
Later, after I’ve lifted the curtain on my ego and started to identify the parts of me that I put up to gain acceptance and protect myself from judgment, I will see the irony in getting stuck on a question that’s meant to identify indecision. (I mean, who here among us is decidedly indecisive?) I will see the irony in the fact that two weeks into a three-month personality course, I am terrified of being mistyped — I am afraid of being given the wrong sheet of descriptors and identifiers, strengths and weaknesses, longings, fears, and formative pitfalls. I am afraid of holding them sacred and then living into the wrong identity.
As if a system could know better than I who I am and how I function in the world. As if the system itself had the power to unlock and release the person inside without my willing participation. As if exploring the wrong path could result in becoming the wrong person. As if there is a wrong path to explore or the wrong person to become. If I spent months or years living under the belief that I’m a helper in the world instead of a leader it wouldn’t really keep me from making a difference, having an impact, or deeply loving myself and the people around me. But all of this is stuff that I’ll learn later, much later. I will start by being eager and afraid, earnestly longing to know myself more and seeking to understand where I fit in the world.
I don’t realize when I’m filling in bubbles and agonizing over answers how much the world itself is about to shift.
I’ve always loved personality tests, from meaningless quizzes about Disney princesses to spiritual gifts inventories or work-style evaluators. I love the concept of self-knowing and the process of introspection. Personality is terribly difficult to measure, but I just can’t get enough of the nuances that make us unique.
In college, I lived for pop psychology and spent late nights pulling my roommates and classmates into discussions on learning styles, love languages, and birth order theory; anything that might solidify my concept of self.
When I first hear about the Enneagram, I think it’s just another Myers-Briggs. In some ways it is, but also it’s not. The Enneagram is a nine-part structure that is said to have ancient roots in the Sufi tradition. It came to the Western world in the early 20th century and first showed up as a personality structure in the 1950s. It has recently resurfaced in many Christian and psychotherapy circles as a tool for self-knowledge and spiritual transformation.
As it’s used today, the Enneagram identifies and connects nine fundamental personality types and highlights the main tendencies, attitudes, strengths, weaknesses, and perceptions of each, while also creating pathways for self-growth (“integration”) and self-shrinking (“disintegration”). Like any personality system, it can set limitations on individuals, but mostly I see it as a gateway to understanding.
Self-knowing and self-discovery sometimes get a bad rap in the church and in Christian circles. Too much introspection is seen as egocentric navel-gazing. It’s better, they say, to turn your gaze outward toward people or upward toward God than inward on the self. As someone who’s introspective by nature, I know there’s a real risk of self-reflection turning to self-absorption.
Selfless giving is tough, which is the sort of thing that you learn when you study your own vices and virtues, and start to you know yourself well enough to see them crop up in sneaky but predictable ways. Real self-knowing is difficult, too. But it’s also essential to personal and spiritual growth. As Socrates put it, “our own self-knowledge is a knowledge of God.”
That is something that this nine-part tool makes possible. In the six years since I was first introduced to the Enneagram, I have deconstructed my concept of self one painful and beautiful piece at a time. I’ve begun to own my own shortcomings, and I’ve become a better, kinder, more compassionate person. I’ve learned to identify when I’m devolving into a less healthy version of myself, and I’ve found that my greatest struggles can also be my greatest strengths.
I identify as an Enneagram Four, which is sometimes called The Artist, The Romantic, or The Individualist. In general, Fours are emotional, creative, temperamental, and authentic. Every type has a key fixation, and the Four’s is melancholy. This doesn’t mean that Fours are perpetually sad, but it does mean that they, more than most, can and will sit in pensive contemplation and longing.
Longing is not an especially desirable state, but it is honest to my experience and has been for most of my life, though I didn’t always have the insight or language to say so. Armed with this information — that this is the lens through which I view life — I can do one of a few things: deny it, embrace it, blame it, or use it for growth.
Denying who you are or how you’re put together is a recipe for repressed emotions and hidden resentment. It’s also a disservice to who and how you were made to be.
Embracing a lens can go one of two ways: It can develop a positive appreciation in you for the way in which you see the world, or it can leave you limited.
Blaming your predisposition is where you can really get into trouble. To say that I’m temperamental because I’m a Four and that’s just the way I am is the opposite of compassionate. And sitting in my own melancholy without any real reason removes me from a world in which I could make an actual impact.
Using your typology for growth is where it gets good. Two years ago I was sitting in on an Enneagram workshop and we broke into groups based on type. Joining a group of five other individualists felt just a little threatening, but I went with it anyhow. We began chatting about our respective artistic expressions and the way that we personally fixate on suffering and pain.
“I’m not afraid of pain,” said one woman in my group. “Not of my own, and not of anyone else’s. I can hold space for that emotion. It isn’t a problem I feel like I have to run from or ignore.”
I’d never heard someone describe it that way. It’s one of the best “ah-hah” moments I’ve had, at least where this work is concerned. To realize how difficult pain is for others and how easy it is for me to hold space for it allowed me to reimagine this predisposition as a gift to be shared rather than a mood to be avoided. It also freed me to understand that I can enter and leave that space at any time. That I can sit with pain, but also, I can stand up and leave.
That moment of realizing one of the gifts of my Fourness is not unique to myself or to my type. Each person and each personality offers virtues and vices. We all have different ways of moving in the world and interpreting experiences. Making space for those differences is vital for authentic connection, and gently pushing past them is part of the path toward transcendence.
Years later, now that I’ve learned what it means to transcend a type and transform a fixation, I look back and see the humor in my fear of being mistyped. I think of how nervous I was about functioning under the wrong set of assumptions. How would I ever know who I was if I didn’t know my typology? I wondered. Moreover, how would anyone else?
I chuckle at my young self and my identity-centric Fourness. But I also see myself wanting what I still want today — a deeper sense of my giftings, limitations, and capacities; a truer grounding in my unique identity and awareness of how to convey that to others. I want what I’ve always wanted, what I believe each of us really desires: to know and be loved for the people we are.