The Enneagram and Psychotherapy
Excerpted from The Enneagram Field Guide (2003), by Carolyn Bartlett
“The Enneagram is not a model of therapy itself (among other things, it maps out an accurate personality typing system, D.K.) but can be applied to any treatment approach. It exists on the boundary between secular and spiritual psychology. Spiritual psychology holds that each human being has a sacred gift to offer, but as we react defensively to the pain of human experiences, our gift is obscured. An individual’s defense can resemble their gift, but it is actually a protective mask, often referred to as a “persona,” “false self,” “fixation” or a “trance.” People labeled co-dependent, for example, are unusually gifted at being compassionate; however, they may warp the capacity to disguise and protect their early wounds. By identifying a client’s type of false self, a therapist can understand the nature of their underlying wound and see what the client really wants in its place.
Clients come to therapy for many reasons but usually an external life change or internal feelings are causing them incongruence and pain. Sometimes this cause is an obvious event—divorce, death, job loss; other times clients arrive in therapy troubled by internal feelings like depression or free-floating anxiety. It is unusual for human beings to challenge their defensive patterns as long as the patterns are effective. Most people usually have to be very uncomfortable before they call a therapist. Experiencing emotions that overwhelm their defenses, they hope that therapy can help. When their vulnerable self is available to the therapeutic relationship, they are most ready to change.
The exposure required by psychotherapy, however, is not entirely comfortable. Clients worry about how the therapist sees them as well as what they may discover about themselves. There is almost always a tension between trying to drop the mask while still staying protected. Then there is the question of trust: Can the client depend on the therapist to provide real help? How much self-revelation is safe? Clients at this stage may question whether change is even possible.
In fact, sitting down in a therapist’s office often heightens a client’s defenses and they may resist the situation with the very patterns they are there to change. Good therapists recognize that these defenses are at play in the circumstance, and that clients will need them for protection until they feel safe.
When a therapist sees how a client’s defense works, it gives them an edge. The Enneagram helps by precisely identifying the specific defense mechanism that supports the neurotic habit—akin to an addiction—of each personality style. This unconscious automatic reaction keeps the client from feeling exposed. So, although this defense “helps” the client feel protected, it is at the cost of limiting an unobstructed investigation of the problematic aspect of their behavior: the defense itself!
Psychotherapeutic process usually begins with the therapist affirming the client’s essential self while examining the negative impact of their defensive style. Later the therapist has to shift from playing a solely supportive role and begin to encourage the client to take responsibility for what they can change. This may entail confronting them with the fact that they now inflict on others what was done to them in the past; that what once worked as a survival tool now causes suffering. A therapist needs to skillfully gauge a client’s readiness to tolerate such insights. Otherwise, the client may feel shamed, setting the therapy back.
The Enneagram can sometimes smooth this difficult transition, by providing therapists with a roadmap, which they can pass along to their clients. Some clients find that learning about their Enneagram style helps them see through their behavior to underlying patterns and appreciate their defenses in a compassionate light. By learning about the common experience of other people with the same Enneagram style, clients realize they are not alone or unique in their difficulties. They also recognize that there are reliable ways to transform the suffering created by their personality defenses. From this perspective change can seem survivable and even exciting.
By studying the Enneagram, clients can better understand their own motives and begin to recognize that their personality pattern is not who they are. Since it is impossible to simultaneously observe your story and live it, this strengthens the client’s ability to be more objective about themselves. They learn to observe their defenses rather than act them out. The Enneagram can further encourage clients by providing accounts of others like them who have successfully changed.”
Many good books, workshops, and videos are available. The Self-Test available through this site’s homepage can provide some helpful clues for determining your type, however no one Enneagram test is guaranteed to uncover your number accurately the first time you take it. One place to pursue your investigation of the Enneagram is through the Enneagram Institute. Once you have correctly determined your number, the insights that ensue with further study are guaranteed to be deeply transformative and healing.