Lessons in Compassion From the Wisdom of the Enneagram

Photo by Noor Sethi on Unsplash

How our subconscious drivers can tie us up in knots

Apparently, the man arrived at the workshop in a private helicopter. He was head-to-toe gilded with the trappings of success. Smooth, charismatic, charming, he befriended every delegate he met. Within hours, you’d imagine he’d known them all his life. 

By the end of the week’s learning, he stood alone on the raised platform at one end of the room. The other delegates listened as he described what it was like, coming from the pain at the core of the Enneagram 3. 

“You see all this,” he said, gesturing to his expensive clothes, “but inside, I am completely empty.”

I wasn’t even there but that story always brings a lump to my throat. He was the only 3 to attend the training. That’s not unusual, as the 3s’ drive to avoid failure makes it hard for them to want to explore their dark side, especially in public. 

I can only imagine the courage it took for him to stand, exposed like that. But I’m eternally grateful. That story has helped countless people who’ve found themselves struggling with the ways of the unbalanced 3.

3s, you see, are the archetypal show-offs. When they’re not in a healthy, happy state, they’re unbearably braggy. They’ll even lie, cheat and deceive if the going gets tough. 

But underneath all of that, there’s a primal drive. A subconscious desire for love that’s so intense it can lead a 3 to ruin. The premise of the Enneagram is that the 3, subconsciously needing and lacking love, gives up on ever trying to be loved and settles for respect instead. Hence the glam-show, like a peacock, dressed to impress.

When they’re balanced, 3s are inspirational, dazzling achievers. They delight in winning the trophy and they bring it home in style. They teach us to strut our stuff. To be proud of our gifts. To stand in the spotlight and shine.

Knowing the poignancy at the core of 3s’ behaviours makes it so much easier to work, live and be with them. Nowadays, when a potentially unbalanced 3 tries to ram their resumé down my throat, after a flash of desire to slap them (I have my dark side too), I remember the man with the helicopter and the suit and the desperate void inside. 

The Enneagram breathes compassion into these tricky interactions. It helps us to see the bluster and bling as a poignant need for love. It helps us to celebrate the gifts that 3s bring and to soften their needy hard sell.

This is why I love the Enneagram so much. It’s the deepest, most compassionate self awareness tool I’ve encountered. It’s hard to write about any aspect of life without referring to Enneagram insights, so it seemed like a good idea to offer an outline here, in case this treasure is new to you.

Enneagram Compassion for the Painful Knots We Tie

First, some guiding principles

Enneagram compassion comes from understanding the knots our personality types can create. There are a few principles to absorb first. The Enneagram, an ancient tool describing nine personality types, teaches that:

  • Our personality is driven by a subconscious, primal, emotional avoidance and a sense of profound lack.
  • Behaviours may suggest categories or types but the Enneagram goes deeper with behaviour and asks ‘Why?’ People may do the same thing for very different reasons and their personality drivers may be far from similar.
  • Core personality remains unchanging from conception throughout life, but behaviours can and do change over time, and are subject to influence.
  • All personalities are equally glorious at best and equally destructive when out of balance.
  • We spot types by the behaviours that show up when we’re out of balance.
  • We all need each other. Diversity is essential to life.
  • Types are cross-culture and gender, we find all types in all walks of life.
  • All type combinations can work well. Some connections may be easier to navigate than others, but challenges overcome will yield great benefits.
  • It’s powerful information, we must take care. (I nearly lost a very dear person in my life because of my Enneagram zeal many years ago.)
  • We can never type another person. Only they know their core motivations.
  • We do type other people. We can’t help ourselves. But we’re probably wrong and we need to be very aware of that.

The Enneagram describes nine types, subdivided into three centres:

  • Heart types — need love
  • Head types— need safety
  • Gut types — need control

It takes time and dialogue for most of us to figure out our types. Questionnaires are likely to be revealing, but wrong. They don’t generally take us deep enough to find the truths we hide from ourselves.

Oh and one more thing, perhaps the most important point of all:

Our personality driven behaviours are NOT who we are.

They are the product of perceived lack and need. They may be default modes but they are not our core truth. When we are in balance, we become in many ways alike — we draw on the strengths of all types when we are the best of ourselves.

A Knot You Might Know — From the Heart Types 

In the heart centre, we have 2s, 3s and 4s. They’re all seeking love and attention in their attempts to avoid hurt and shame. 3s ,‘The Achievers’ (as described by my fellow Enneagram trainer/author, Rachel Watson and I) court attention by means of showy success.

By contrast, 2s, ‘The Helpers’ find love by meeting needs. They seek to be indispensable, pouring attention on others in the hope of love in return.

4s, ‘The Individualists’ are different again. For them, being loved is about being special, being appreciated for their unique sensitivities.

Here’s an example of how 2s and 4s sometimes get entangled…

A mother, an Enneagram 2, sacrifices everything for her highly sensitive daughter. Clock-watching in the kitchen when her daughter was in school, she used to ache daily for the moment she could bring her little one home. Now she continues each day to iron and fold tomorrow’s outfits. She puts them on the end of her daughter’s bed. With a kiss. Her daughter is 24. Her baby.

The daughter, a 4, loves this attention, distressed if there’s a day she doesn’t leave the shower to find her clothes on the bed. Always an outfit she herself has selected — no one understands her style, (how could they?) Changing her mind with accompanying hysteria is just part of her artistic temperament. 

The daughter knows that her life is richer, more poignant than anyone could understand. The mother knows her daughter couldn’t live without her. They adore each other. The rest of the family just doesn’t understand.

2s seek love by making themselves indispensable. This mother can’t stop her self sacrificing, it’s the only way she gets to feel loved. 

4s find love by being special, having needs no one can fully understand. Dramatic and emotional, they are drawn to the tragic and the flawed. 

Put these two together and you can have a knot tied in dependency masquerading as love — the rescuer and the victim eternally entwined. 

Seeing beyond the behaviour shows human fragilities for what they are. We all need love. 2s, 3s and 4s struggle subconsciously with feeling fundamentally unloved. 

When we know their pain, judgement melts away. Compassion takes its place.

Remember, types are found in all roles, genders, cultures — not all mothers are 2s and not all 2s are mothers… and so on. And all types can get themselves tangled…

We’ve just had a taste of the heart centre with our 2s, 3s and 4s. For simplicity’s sake we will paint a picture of two trios now, staying within the centres for each type. Of course in reality there are many other possible combinations when you mix and match the centres and generally our groupings will have at least two centres represented.

Now For a Head-Centre Tangle…

In the head centre we have the 5s, 6s and 7s, all driven by fear, all trying to feel safe in different ways.

5s, ‘The Forensics’, seek safety in knowledge. They need to know. Readers and researchers, 5s are information hoarders; it helps them prepare for the scary turns life can take.

Security for 6s, ‘The Teammates’ comes from being part of a structure they can trust. Eternal worriers, they feel most safe when they know that there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place.

7s, ‘The Adventurers’, avoid fear by being so stimulated, the feeling can’t reach them. They crave constant entertainment and interest. Winning or losing is immaterial, as long as there’s a good tale to be told…

Picture a head-type family, stumbling into conflict on a sunny Saturday morning…

The wife, a 7, has woken desperate for an open water swim. It’s only half a day’s drive away, and there’s a great ice cream parlour en route, and someone said there’s a kite festival nearby…. The buzz of fun in the offing makes her blood bubble with glee. She can’t understand why her husband’s face falls as she shares her grand plan…

Her husband, a phobic 6, steals himself for a showdown. His wife knows he does the housework on a Saturday afternoon. There’s no WAY he’s going to hop into a car and go careering off to some random lake today. 

He knows she’s being ridiculous. You don’t break with routine. Routines keep us secure. His biggest problem is making his daughter do her share. She can be so unashamedly selfish. A loner, a bit of an odd-bod, if truth be told, she seems to have no sense of filial duty. He worries about her, a lot…

For the child, a 5, the thought of a gazillion sweaty strangers traipsing into a pond does NOT appeal and anyway, she has a new book to read. Knowledge makes her feel strong. Out there in the world, she is exposed and fearful. Here, in her mind palace, she is invincible.

We see the desperation of the 7 who fears death by boredom. But then we pan to the 6’s secure foundations are rocked by his wife’s quest for fun. The child, a 5 lost in her books, finding safety in facts and faraway places, may withdraw so far from both her parents that she barely knows them at all.

And a Gut Type Tangle, How Might That Go?

8s, ‘The Champions’ are overtly powerful people. They command. They provide for their own. You’re either with them or against them and there’s no compunction about battling it out if push comes to shove.

9s, ‘The Peacemakers’, bend over backwards to keep everyone calm. Conflict is avoided and the status quo maintained. Seemingly easy-going types, subconsciously they ‘re suppressing murderous rage.

1s, ‘The Reformers’, have vision and purpose. They see what’s wrong with the world and are driven to make it right. With harsh, unyielding inner critics, judging others as they judge themselves can push support away.

Three controlling types walk into a bar…

We have a 1 and a 9 awaiting a third colleague in a favourite watering hole. These two always got on pretty well —  they find it easier when their 8 workmate is too busy to meet up. 1:1 connection works well for the 9 who likes to tune in and soothe the stress out of the conscientious, overworking 1. 

The 1, always so hard on himself, doesn’t trust others easily, but in the presence of the 9, he can vent and allow suppressed frustrations out. He knows the one thing his placid coworker will never do is criticise. That suits him fine. He can go on believing that he is right and those challenging staff members are a waste of space. If only he could tell them what he really thought…

The 9 sees himself as the centre of calm, feeling secretly pleased that he doesn’t feel frustration like his 1 colleague. And as for the blasting the 8 gives anyone and everyone who crosses his path on a bad day, well, as a peacemaking 9, if he can pacify an 8, he knows he’s cracked the greatest challenge in life. 

When our 8 does arrive, his huge persona takes over. The 1 and 9 gauge quickly the mood of their companion. They brace themselves. He’s in combat mode. 

The 9 gets straight to work, doing all he can to accommodate his high energy colleague’s needs. The 8 sees nothing of his friend’s stress response, finding his subservience a bit pathetic, in truth. Still, it’s nice to have someone pander to one’s needs, he certainly won’t say no…

The 8 — needing to feel strong, courts conflict; the rage-avoiding 9 does all he can to avert it. The 1 takes a moral stand, teeth and fists clenched, but finding it hard to outgun the 8 who has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to dominate. If you’re not the most powerful person in the room, you’re nobody, in the 8’s opinion. The 1 is hampered by the restraints of good conduct. Why the 9 won’t take a stand and challenge the belligerent 8, he’ll never know… 

And so, the tangles ensue…

Vulnerability drives the gut types to seek power — 8s, through combat, 9s through keeping the peace, and 1s by doing what’s right. We can see the invariable clashes these three might have with each other as well as with other types. And yet they, like all types, have tremendous gifts to bring.

How Does This Help?

When we look at the knots we can tie, it can sound like we’re criticising the types for their flaws. We’re not.

The fragilities of each type cause conflict. In any context. The scenarios above offer a mere glimpse. Only by understanding the painful drivers of behaviour can we begin to untangle the knots.

The Enneagram offers deep understanding. Understanding breeds compassion. When we know what a type is struggling with, we can help them find the love, the safety or control they crave. We can work to untangle the knots. We can weave instead, the rich tapestry of life.

Bring forth your conflicts.

Bless them with exquisite attention and they will surrender their strengths.

— Based on words from David Grove

Unknown and unseen, subconscious drivers tie us in knots.

Understood, they guide us to compassion, compelling us to be kind — to ourselves first and foremost. Then to others.

The Enneagram connects us with kindness.

And we can never have too much of that.