The Enneagram is a personality system that combines spiritual wisdom and modern psychology to describe nine distinct, dynamic personality strategies and their relationships to one another. A personality strategy is how we get our needs met and avoid pain in our lives. The Enneagram looks at our unique motivation over behavior—not what we do, so much as why we do what we do. Each Enneagram type has a different pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting that arises from a deeper inner motivation or worldview. The Enneagram goes beyond mere descriptions of personality to provide a dynamic, compassionate, and comprehensive guide for living life and interacting with others.
As we age from child to adult, we learn defense mechanisms and reactivity structures that help us cope with how life is shaping us. Eventually, we become trapped in these points of view and have difficulty accessing the deeper parts of our true selves. These defense mechanisms become the glue that supports our survival structure. Thankfully, through the use of our Inner Observer we can begin to relax these self-erected structures. The Inner Observer is the aspect of ourselves that observes what we are thinking, feeling, and doing in each moment as the thoughts, feelings, and actions are occurring, as well as in retrospect. This is where learning the power of awareness comes in. By turning on our Inner Observer and paying attention to what we are doing and why we are doing it, we are able to choose a different way of responding. But before the choosing must come the awareness.
Observation and awareness can be learned, but it takes courage, patience, and time. We must be willing to look at the difficult aspects of our personality without ignoring, excusing, or blaming. Honesty is a key aspect of developing authentic self-awareness. Learning self-awareness can be enhanced by regular conversations or debriefing with a counselor, spiritual director, or coach. It is helpful to seek a neutral observer as we begin the arduous journey of becoming aware of ourselves.
The Enneagram is a useful tool in learning the art of self-observation because it highlights key behaviors and the motivations behind them. Within the Enneagram system we learn to notice our reactivity to people and situations. We learn to notice when we learn to pause, and with the pause we can ask good questions: What am I experiencing or feeling? Where am I feeling this in my body? Why am I reacting this way? How can I respond differently? As we discover the answers to these questions, we can choose a different response than the one that we most easily default to.
But first, let’s learn more about the pause. When we feel vulnerable, threatened, or afraid we automatically jump into a fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s just how we are wired. We were meant to survive at any cost. When we feel threatened, our bodies become tight and tense. The blood vessels in our brains constrict and we go on autopilot. The problem with that kind of a response is that we can’t think clearly. All the blood in our brain is targeted on our survival. By pausing, we can give our brains a chance to relax a bit. We give the constricted blood vessels a moment to open up and get blood to that part of our brain that can imagine a different outcome than the one we are headed for. When we pause, we must incorporate deep breathing. This may mean just a deep breath or two, but enough to get us headed in the right direction. Practicing the pause means intentionally stopping yourself from engaging in your usual response, taking a few deep breaths, and moving forward more attuned to yourself and your true desires to be a better person.
Now, let’s look at the above questions in more detail:
What am I experiencing or feeling? Most of our lives we learn to just react to situations or people that feel threatening to us. We don’t usually question what is going on in us and that is why we stay stuck. But we can teach ourselves to pause—to take a moment—and in the pause, take stock of what is happening. Name what you are feeling. Am I afraid? Am I being defensive? Do I feel unsafe, mistreated, misunderstood, embarrassed, confused, or jealous? In the beginning, it may take time for us to discover what is going on, but when we commit to the process we will be able to arrive at this information faster. We may not even notice that we were in a reactive moment until later—sometimes, much later. That’s okay. That is part of the learning process. But when we continue to examine our reactivity, we will grow in our ability to notice it in real time.
Where am I feeling this in my body? Our western culture is beginning to recognize the importance of being in tune with our bodies, but we have a long way to go and a lot still to learn. Our bodies are communicating to us more often than we recognize. It would do us well to pay attention. When we find ourselves in a tense situation where we don’t feel safe—sometimes it takes us a while to even recognize that we don’t feel safe—and we have taken the time to pause, the first thing we need to notice is what our body is feeling. Are my shoulders tense, is my stomach churning, do I have a headache, is there a pain in my back? Questions like these can give us a clue that we are feeling defensive or out of sync with a situation or another person(s). With curiosity, we can begin to pay attention to where stress and fear show up in our body and what it feels like. What does that rush in my torso mean? Why is my eye twitching? These are important realizations and can inform us in the future that things aren’t going the way I want them to go or need them to go. The body is speaking – learn the language!
Why am I reacting this way? This is such an important question to ask. Then, give time for the answer to come. It may come right away or we may need to come back to it later. Usually, there is something going on underneath the reaction. The reactivity is an automatic response and we engage it often without much thought. It takes time to discover the motivation underneath the reactivity. For example, I identify as an Enneagram Eight so anger is an automatic response when I feel threatened in some way. It’s crucial for me to discover what is going on underneath the anger so that I can address that real issue. I may feel afraid, embarrassed, sad, out of control, or like something is unjust. All these things initially show up on the surface as anger, but when I can get to the truth of what I am experiencing, I can often find a way to move to the next question.
How can I respond differently? Once we honestly know what we are working with, we have the power to choose a different response. This is the wondrous gift of awareness! We can choose to let go of self-sabotaging behaviors and responses that cause us grief in our work, in our relationships, and in ourselves. It starts with observing ourselves in real tune so we can identify what it is we want to change. Then we can begin to notice when those behaviors/reactions surface. We learn to pause, observe, and choose. This is the power of awareness.
A quick review of self-awareness:
We can learn to notice our reactivity and move into responsiveness by pausing and asking good questions:
- WHAT am I experiencing/feeling?
- WHERE am I feeling this in my body?
- WHY am I reacting this way?
- HOW can I respond differently?
David Daniels, one of the founding teachers of the Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition, said this about awareness:
While self-observation can be taught and becomes easier, it ever becomes habitual. It requires continuing practice!
This may seem discouraging but remember that the end goal of awareness is to improve how we experience ourselves, others, and God. A commitment to personal growth is never wasted energy. Below are some practical steps to help us develop the Inner Observer and increase our awareness.
Practice the Five A’s
- Awareness: Notice when my Type is going on automatic and I am acting habitually.
This will require learning about my Enneagram Type basic fear, basic desire, vice, focus of attention, defense mechanism, chief emotion, fixation, and what I avoid.
- Allowing & Accepting: Open my heart to allow whatever arises in the moment and give it space.
When we dismiss the truth of what we are experiencing or feeling, or condemn it, we halt the process of honest awareness. We must allow the truth of who we are to be exposed and we must accept it as part of our humanity.
- Appreciation: Manifest gratitude for self and others.
When we appreciate the humanity of ourselves and others, we open to new possibilities. I may not like a behavior I have observed in myself, but I can be grateful that I observed it instead of moving ahead in unawareness. I can choose compassion for my journey and the journey of others around me. This creates a desire to move toward intentional change.
- Action: Pause . . . Ask questions . . . Choose intentional conduct . . . Form new patterns
This four-step action plan is easy to remember AND it packs a lot of weight. When we pause and ask questions, as mentioned above, we get to be intentional about how we conduct ourselves. As we practice this action plan over and over, we form new response patterns and move along in our personal growth goals.
- Adherence: Commit to the process.
This goes without saying. We will not experience transformation unless we commit to a process of interrogating our behavior and motives.
Utilize Contemplative Practices
Pausing is a great way to grow in self-awareness and is easy to practice anywhere or anytime. However, practicing the pause will be greatly enhanced by committing to regular contemplative practices where the seeds of pausing have time and space to germinate and grow.
- Silence: Teaches us to listen—listen to self, listen to God, listen to others.
- Solitude: Intentional withdrawal teaches us to be present—present to ourselves and to God—and affects how we are present to others.
- Stillness: Teaches us restraint, and in restraint we are able to discern what appropriate engagement looks like.
There are a plethora of tools available to guide us as we move into a more contemplative style of living. For example, a Daily Examen, Centering Prayer, and Meditation are great places to begin developing a habit of quieting and noticing. Tools and practices may come and go in our journey to transformation, but awareness must always be at the forefront of our lives in the quest for personal growth. The Enneagram is a unique and useful tool to aid us on our journey.
Sharon Hornbeck, Certified Teacher of the Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition
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