Michael NaylorAnyone in 12 Step recovery knows about the Levels of Development from their daily life. It’s as simple as this: on good days I’m clear headed, serene, not emotionally reactive, less self-absorbed, can relax and do my best work, and am less distracted. In essence, I am more present to what is happening inside me and outside me, and less inclined to be distracted by my opinions. I still have them, I just don’t hold onto to them as if they were made of gold. And, I seem to have better access to feelings of well-being and contentment, and when feeling really good, experience a kind of seamless unity and kinship with those around me. I like everyone just as they are. Now we’re talking about a peak day, when the sun is really shining inside me. On these really clear days, I don’t mistake people’s moods and bad actions as indictments on me, nor indictments on them. I see they are suffering, that something is bothering them, and instead of reacting as a result of my own buttons being pushed, on this day my triggers seem immune to being ignited. What shows up instead of my reactivity is compassion, a soft heart and understanding heart, a mind that can discern clearly what is happening in front of me. I suddenly seem to be able to hold the otherwise difficult person in kind regard. Now I know I’m in the flow of a good day, and I’m also certain that something really sweet seems to be arising in me that creates this openness. That is, I’m aware that I didn’t make this delicious awareness occur. It, instead, is flowing through me. I notice that I seem to take in reality more deeply, vividly and with deeper satisfaction. You could say that in this healthy state I am more ‘present’ than usual and each moment seems to be something I can savor, taste, and behold with gratitude. Yes, I am being blessed me this day.

So, the Levels of Development actually measure our states of presence and openness, or our emotional reactivity and our narrowing perception of reality. We all know too well what it’s like when another person’s tone of voice, or words, or facial expression seem to trigger us into a robotic rage, or strike a chord deep in us that sends our insides whirling with fear or shame, or throw our quiet mind into a furious frenzy of worry. When our emotional buttons are triggered, we don’t think clearly, we don’t act with intelligence or precision, we say things that curl our own toes, and then we instantly defend our behaviors with rationalizations. You see, ‘there were good and intelligent reason’ for my actions and words. Not!

The Levels of Development measure whether our hearts and minds and bodies are open and awake, or closed and tightened like a fist. Put more practically, they represent the full spectrum of possibility for any Enneagram Type, describing the attributes and qualities that arise when the type is healthy, present and awake (the essential qualities of the type), and likewise describing the ways in which an individual’s behavior changes as they become less present and more defended and constricted, and drop down into the average and unhealthy levels of their type.

There are nine Levels divided into Healthy, Average, and Unhealthy Levels. Levels 1 to 3 are called the Healthy Levels in which individuals are conscious and in contact with their innate gifts. Level 4 to 6 represent the Average Levels of health, in which individuals are progressively losing contact with their innate healthy qualities and the ability to be present, and relying more and more on defensive emotional reactions and distorted perceptions inherent to their type. Levels 7 to 9 represent the Unhealthy Levels, in which individuals descend into mental illness, compulsion, delusion and self-destructiveness. Here’s a visual representation.

The Riso-Hudson* Levels of Development

Healthy Levels

Level 1 The Level of Liberation

I’m liberated from my type-specific ego patterns


Level 2 The Level of Psychological Development

I’m in contact with my type’s highest qualities


Level 3 The Level of Social Value

I generously give my type’s gifts to the world


Average Levels

Level 4 The Level of Imbalance

I start to close down and identify with my type-specific Social Role


Level 5 The Level of Interpersonal Control

my personality patterns are in charge, I’m reactive


Level 6 The Level of Overcompensation

I coerce others via aggression to get my needs met


Unhealthy Levels

Level 7 The Level of Violation

I’m desperate, trying to end my suffering at any cost


Level 8 The Level of Obsession and Compulsion

I’m out of control and agonized


Level 9 The Level of Pathological Destructiveness

I’m murderous or suicidal and utterly hopeless


*Don Riso discovered the Levels of Development. His book, Personality Types, discusses in depth the Levels of Development in each type.

Each of us has had many palpable experiences of the Levels in ourselves. We know what it’s like to feel ‘with it,’ and able to respond with clarity, grace, precision and sensitivity to what arises in our life (Levels 1-3); and what it’s like when we’re not at our best, preoccupied and taken by stress, worry, shame, anger, hurt, numbness or fear (Levels 4 and below). It’s as if the light and clarity of our awareness, when stressed, is dimmed, fogged or blocked, and our perception of what to do in the present moment is obscured and narrowed. Instead of responding with clarity, precision, adaptability and sensitivity, we get tangled in our subjective interpretations of life, or knocked off base by the emotional reactivity endemic to our type. That is, we are taken by our type’s personality habits, preferences and particular skew of reality (Levels 4 and below). And each of us knows that there is a predicable path we descend down when we are not doing well. This path also reveals our personality type to us.

In retrospect, we often stand back, aghast, that once again we got hooked by something in us that led us astray. In time we begin to sense that, horrors of horrors, we live in a kind of predictable prison of habits that often chooses for us our next action (the longer we are sober, 15, 20, 25 years, the more clearly we see our deeper personality patterns which easily elude us). With deeper awareness we see that we wander about it in these habits, often mesmerized and entranced by them, wondering how we can finally free ourselves of their gravitational pull upon us. One friend said it this way: ‘I pace about in a psychological cage, reciting the same lines, thinking the same thoughts, and making the same errors, in spite of my best intelligence, my best intentions, or the libraries of experiences I have accumulated about myself. I should be able to use my acquired information to respond intelligently and gracefully in moments of stress, and yet, I too often repeat the same errors – I react predictably like a damn robot!’ Welcome to the temple of Level 4 to Level 7! Where our Inner Robot runs free, going where it wants in spite of us and our intention to change! Here is where our deeper work is, which after a period of time, becomes more evident.

It’s not rocket science. When we are less present, we make more errors, and misread the signals that our loved ones, friends or life is giving us. In addition, we don’t ‘read’ ourselves well. It’s like we have layers of fog or sludge that distort the truth of our experience, or the clarity of our feelings, so that our intimacy and clarity with ourselves also distorts, and becomes vague and distant. We walk around inside ourselves like strangers in a strange land. With a little self-observation and reflection, each of us knows the story of what happens when we’re not ‘with it.’ It is then that something like an automatic pilot switch turns on, and in spite of our best understanding, we go ‘into action’ (or are ‘taken’ into action) by habits of being which we’ve probably vowed for years, to not be taken by. We might even notice a little voice in the distant back of our awareness that pleads with us, ‘Stop, dude. You are headed in the wrong direction. Stop now before you are swept up in the torrent of your fast-moving habits. You know where this leads!’ Truth is, our personality habits are so quick and nimble that they blow past this inner observer with the speed and ferocity of a speeding bullet. Until we gain more presence and awakeness. The Levels of Development are a map and guide to greater Presence. We’ll take a closer look next time.


The Levels of Development were discovered by Don Riso, and are a fundamental part of the Enneagram Institute’s training.

Michael Naylor, M.Ed, CCPC, LADC, CCS, is a faculty member of the Enneagram Institute, a Certified Professional Coach, an Authorized Riso-Hudson Enneagram Teacher, and IEA accredited teacher, and a Licensed Addictions Therapist. He teaches in the U.S.A. and coaches internationally.