On Being an Enneagram Nine

My Enneagram Journey

I have always enjoyed personality theory, I think because of the great (and false) promise it offers to show us who we are and what we might be good at.  I say it’s false, because ultimately such things are not due solely to personality, but also to other things like family, friends, and the setting in which you live.  

When I first took the enneagram, I thought I was a Four.  Fours (artists) are artistic, and experience life through their emotions.  I conflated my results with my Meyer’s-Brigg’s score of INFP.  For a while, I believed this to be true of me:  I was a Four with a Three (performer) wing.  This is a perfect enneagram assessment for a man who had long dreamed of being a singer/songwriter.  I thought something had gone wrong with this dream (I am not presently a singer/songwriter), and I was hoping the enneagram would tell me something.  My results were depressing:  Not only was I not a singer/songwriter, but my enneagram personality test had told me that I was supposed to have been one.  Not only was I not living up to my potential, but now I wasn’t living according to the core of my being.  

I started reading about the other enneagram divisions.  I knew my wife was a One.  Others I knew were Eights. Both have something in common with the Nines, and so I read about them as well.  That’s when I realized that I was not a Four after all, but a Nine.  I turns out that unhealthy Nines act a lot like Fours.  I’ll come back to this later, but I often feel a tightness in my chest that seems like an emotion, and I want to express it somehow, so I’ll turn to music.  I’ll play the piano, or a few songs I know on my guitar, and I’ll feel better.  Seems like a Fourish thing to do, except that unlike a healthy Four, I’m not creating any art.  I may be “doing” art, but not creating it from an emotional center.  Rembrandt, for example, painted his portraits with a keen, specific, emotion that he was trying to communicate.  It wasn’t just some general “tightness in the chest” and then he picked up his brush and threw up a few strokes on the canvas, you know, to see what comes out the way I pick up my guitar when I’m feeling down.  

No, that tightness in the chest is a feeling.  I know psychologists have very specific definitions for “feelings” and “emotions,” but I’m not a psychologist. For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to define a “feeling” as a response to your environment, and an “emotion” as something you can use and direct outward toward your environment.  

But we’ll get back to that in a second.  The revelation that I was a Nine rather than a Four was quite unsettling.  On the one hand, I had always thought of myself as some kind of “struggling artist.”  All I needed, I thought, was to find the right medium and mode of expression.  Then I needed the right opportunities.  The right people in the right place.  When I lay in bed at night, dreaming of my future, I saw myself standing on stage singing songs I had written with thousands of people watching and listening and going “yeah!” in their hearts to my message.  I saw myself writing bestselling books, and preaching in churches, and teaching classes people wanted to take.  I saw myself fit, and healthy, and with a happy family running in circles around me.  These dreams were incredibly narcissistic, and incredibly foolish.  I was dreaming them while averaging out in my senior year of college as a philosophy major, alone, all my friends having already graduated.  I had no recording contract, no writing contract, no published works, no job prospects after graduation, no applications pending review for graduate school.  My plan was to graduate, get married a week later, and then magically all my dreams would fall into place sometime shortly thereafter.  

How a Heart Dies

Five months after graduation, five months after marriage, Leslie and I were doing our regular routine of running together in the afternoons.  I came home from work as a filing clerk at a mortgage company, and when she wasn’t otherwise occupied with a class in medical school, the two of us would jog together to catch up.  We would sneak into the old apartment complex where she lived before we married and run on a path around a water reservoir.  In the middle of Denver, it gave us a peaceful feeling of getting outside the city while we were still very much ensconced within it.  

I remember one afternoon I was nearing the bottom of that bout of depression I had been feeling since the good feelings had worn off from our wedding, and from the new move for me from Oklahoma to Denver.  I was trying hard to talk to Leslie about my feelings, but I couldn’t get the words out right.  She didn’t understand what I was trying to tell her, mostly because I didn’t understand what I was trying to tell her either, and I couldn’t even find a good way to communicate what I couldn’t even understand.  All I remember was feeling a tightness in my chest like my heart was about to explode within.  Leslie said those fateful words that are the motto of the One on the enneagram, and which every Nine probably needs to hear:  “You need to make a decision.”  That’s when I knew I couldn’t.  I didn’t know what to decide.  I knew I had this dream of being a performing musician, and I knew I had a day-job working in a dusty file room and no evening plans to practice with a band.  I felt stuck, and that’s when my heart burst.  I could actually hear the popping sound.  The tightness turned to numbness.  In the strain between my dreams and the reality I was facing, within my young chest, I had somehow murdered my own heart.  

That tightness in my chest?  That was the feeling of hurt.  It’s a feeling I’ve had over and over again.  For years, I thought that feeling was my emotional center.  “I’m emotionally oriented,” I told myself, because I had that tight feeling in my chest every day.   “I just need to find some creative way to express it,” I told myself, and then I threw myself into a hundred different hobbies:  Photography, writing, music, reading, art, bookmaking, exercise, cooking, poetry, filmmaking, etc.  I became scattered.  None of what I did ever became anything more than just a hobby.  Most of my creative work I didn’t even share with others, but kept it all to myself.  

Then I became horribly unhealthy: 

“Because repressed Nines obstinately resist contact with reality, they become inadequate and undeveloped as persons, virtually helpless about doing anything on their own.  Ironically, for people who exert themselves so little, unhealthy Nines have little energy because of their repressed rage… They are often fatigued because their energy goes into warding off reality rather than dealing with it.  The usual result of this is depression” (Rise, p. 363). 

I was filled with rage.  I was angry with my job, and went to work each day bitter and resentful.  When I eventually quit the highest paying job I’ve ever had in my life, I quietly celebrated until I had a new job and felt bitter about that one, too.  I became bitter and resentful of Leslie and her work.  She seemed to have it together: to have a job she liked to do, or rather, that gave her a sense of meaning and fulfillment which made it worth doing even when she didn’t like it, and she was successful.  I wanted that, too, so I surrounded myself with successful people.  

How Not to Have a Friendship

Imagine walking into a room with ten people who you don’t know.  Who would you gravitate toward?  I would go to whoever seemed to be most successful in their career.  They usually had one thing they were good at, and they stuck to it.  I would spend all evening with such a person, hoping that some of their successfulness would rub off on me, and then I would set up a time to meet with them again, over and over and over.  I called it a “friendship,” but I was actually just using them.  I thought I knew them personally, but the only thing I really knew was the idealized version of them that I had in my head.  

Let’s just pretend this person was an accomplished chef and restauranteur.  Would I go home then and practice cooking?  Take business classes online and develop a plan to open a restaurant?  No way!  I went home, lay in the middle of my bedroom floor, and dreamed about doing those things.  Then I would maybe watch a movie about cooking and finally make packaged pasta with store bought sauce and canned green beans for Leslie and I before she came home from work.  I might send an email to my new chef “friend” for another meet up next week.

I did this over and over.  Most of my friendships have been with people who were good at something.  I probably missed out on the more important relationships I might have had with average failures like myself.  It’s probably why I don’t have any real meaningful friendships today.

“Nines are not necessarily anxious about the qualities they believe they lack; in fact, they are not particularly focused on themselves at all.  Their attention is drawn far more to what they see as the positive qualities of the other.  Of course, the specific qualities will very from Nine to Nine, but all will seek to identify with people who have or express the mental, emotional, or physical qualities which Nines feel they lack.  Most Nines will not be aware of this dynamic, but they will be aware of their strong identification with certain figures in their lives and their repeated attraction to persons with assertive, energetic qualities.  Subconsciously, they desire to merge with someone else in order to incorporate through that person the qualities in themselves that they have repressed or rejected” (Rise, p. 341-2).  

This is how I’ve been treating most of my friendships over the years.  The result is that everyone is hurt and frustrated, and I feel very, very alone.

How Not to Lead a Family

The worst and most costly failure of all, though, has been with my family.  Remember that anger and repressed rage I was always feeling inside? 

“…the only way unhealthy Nines can express anger is to resist others and block them out all the more.  Passive resistance is as aggressive as unhealthy Nines become, except perhaps for an occasional inadvertent eruption of rage when the repression momentarily fails.  More typically, however, unhealthy Nines tend to be victims and “doormats” (p. 362). 

I wasn’t ever abused by my family, either by my parents or by Leslie.  In fact, she was trying to love me the best way she could.  I was so unhealthy, however, that I took on this role even though I had no reason to.  I felt that I needed structure in my life.  I needed someone to make decisions for me.  I needed validation as a man.  So, I turned to my wife for that.  This was grossly unfair to her.  I look back at it, and I shake my head in shame at what I did.  When Leslie would get upset with me, I either retreated into a cold numbness, or I lashed out at her in rage.  Either one left me feeling ashamed and miserable after the argument was over.  I felt depressed with that old tightness in my chest, and I would look for the next opportunity to ease that tightness through “art” or, ever more frighteningly the case, with alcohol.  

I hated everything.  I hated my wife.  I hated my guitar.  I hated alcohol.  I hated the very idea of friendship.  Hate was my emotion.  Hurt was my feeling.  For years I felt this.  I tried distracting myself with all my hobbies.  I tried graduate school.  I tried teaching.  I tried leading worship in a church.  I spent way too much unproductive time with people I thought were friends.  I didn’t really know them: I was only using them.  Eventually I hated all of it.

Hurt and Forgiveness

Here is the key to all of this:  Nines have no emotional connection with the world.  Feelings are scary.  Feelings, as I’ve defined them above, are undefined.  They come at you from out of nowhere and interrupt the inner peace that Nines so desperately want but don’t know how to get.  They tighten the chest.  The only way to get rid of them is to kill them, which is what I did to my heart that afternoon while running.  

I’ve learned that most everyone deals with Hurt somehow, and usually its the wrong way.  We stuff it until it ferments into the addictive and intoxicating brew of resentment and bitterness.  We ignore it.  We control it by controlling everyone else around us.  We conceal it behind a characterized version of ourselves – a mere act.  We do everything possible except to confront it head-on and with honesty, because to do so would require us to actually feel hurt.  It would require us to, in fact, bear our own crosses.  And the thought of dying on the cross of hurt is too much for us. 

Forgiveness cannot happen, however, until we’ve come to terms with our hurt.  We cannot forgive ourselves, receive forgiveness from God, or forgive others unless and until we fully experience the hurt we’ve experienced as hurt.  We’ve all seen the dramatic forgiveness episodes, where someone murdered someone else’s child, and the parent gives the murderer a big Christian bear hug and says he’s forgiven everything, and hopes jail goes well.  Then the bailiff puts the hancuffs on and the case is closed.  This is just a way of expressing grief, not true forgiveness.  Read this carefully:

True forgiveness always fully bears the pain of the sin.  

There is, therefore, no forgiveness without a cross.

Too many times, we’ve heard the message that the only way to get rid of the hurt you feel is to forgive, as if the hurt will dissipate immediately after the bear-hug.  This is a half-truth, and as such it amounts to a lie.  The forgiver must first acknowledge the hurt she feels before she can being the process of forgiveness.  For some, the hurt may linger for years and years.  What do we do with that hurt?

Well, that’s the problem isn’t it?  That’s where we’ve all gone wrong.  Where I’ve gone wrong.  I turned my hurt into a knife and used it to stab my own heart to death.  Now that I’m beginning to understand what this has done in my life, I can see the alternative more clearly now than ever:  As a Christian, I believe there was one man who took on himself the ultimate hurt.  The pain of forgiveness for all of us and all of our sins.  He hurt and died, therefore, so I don’t have to.  I have no right to kill my heart because of the hurt I feel.  I feel the hurt, and I take it to him in prayer.  I allow it to connect me to him, and then it turns from a reactionary feeling to a proactive emotion.  The hurt becomes a way in which I can connect my heart, and my individuality, to the heart of God.  The hurt can no longer be used as a weapon against myself or the person who I’m trying to forgive. Instead, it turns into love, and the cycle of vengeance (toward God, myself, or others) is thus broken.  

Hope for Enneagram Nines

Feelings are the raw material of emotion.  Emotion is the way in which we Nines can connect to the world and others.  We can stay engaged with the world outside our heads only by running toward our feelings and making good, connecting emotions out of them; To be fully present as an individual;  To be, rather than just to imagine or appear to be;  To fully ‘be;’  That’s true inner and outer peace, and it doesn’t come without a fight.  In order to live this way, we Nines have to fight to maintain that emotional connection with what we do.  People in our lives are going to tell us “You shouldn’t do it that way.”  They might not understand: “Why are you doing that?”  It doesn’t matter.  This is your calling.  Fight for it.

Frederick Buechner famously wrote:

“The place where God calls you to is the place here your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger coincide.”  

I honestly don’t know where that is for me, or for anyone else.  I used to be angry about that, but now I’m okay with it.  I am who I am – that’s the Imago Dei in me.  His name imprinted on my heart because He made me an individual.  I am an individual with feelings and a vast array of emotions through which to connect my individuality with the world and the people around me.  Right now, I suspect that my calling has something to do with writing.  It seems to be the best and most comfortable way that I can express myself to others and to the world.  Whether it meets some deep need, I can only hope and trust that God is in charge of that, but I won’t anymore let it intimidate me to stop writing, stop living, or stop loving.

Riso, Don Richard. Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

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