I was delighted to have the opportunity to present this experiential workshop at the IEA conference in July 2014.   In it we animated the inner dynamics of the Enneagram defense mechanisms using drama and movement.

The workshop began with an explanation of the defense mechanisms. What they are, how they work, including their positive and negative functions in our personality structures, and how one can begin to loosen their grip.  I also described how they correspond to each of the nine enneagram personality types.

What is a Defense Mechanism?

A defense mechanism is an unconscious psychological coping strategy. It is an automatic pattern that may have served as protection early in life, but that now has limited usefulness.

What positive function does it serve?

It protects us from being aware of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are too difficult to tolerate. It helps us avoid facing unacceptable parts of ourselves – our weaknesses and foibles. It allows us to uphold an idealized or familiar self-image: who we believe we need to be in order to have value. 

What is the downside of a defense mechanism?

Ultimately, defense mechanisms block psychological and spiritual growth, limiting access to the truth and the wholeness of who we are.  The problem is that they keep us in the thrall of a delusional system, “fixated” in a static type structure.

How does one loosen the grip of a defense mechanism?

We can pay attention to our reactions and the reactions of others when a situation triggers defensiveness.  Once the reaction pattern enters awareness, there’s value in pausing and sensing what is happening in the body, emotions and mind. We can try to intervene by facing the difficult situation and feeling the uncomfortable (avoided) feelings. It takes time and commitment to relax the hold of these patterns, but it is possible to become more attuned and skillful at working with them.

In this workshop I attempted to illustrate how a defense mechanism works through a physical demonstration – by breaking it down into parts.  The purpose of this endeavor was to bring awareness and a bodily felt experience of what is typically an unconscious process.

What is the connection to the Enneagram?

Each Enneagram type uses a range of defense mechanisms, but one defense mechanism tends to function most effectively with a particular type’s style. That defense mechanism serves to keep the type’s self-idealization in place, helping to avoid the energy that might actually further growth. For instance, in Enneagram Ones, reaction formation helps them reduce their anxiety about being openly angry or feeling pleasure.  Powerful instinctual energy is converted to its opposite or perhaps to something unrelated, and is kept constricted.  “ I am not angry. I’m happy.  Just a little irritated.  I’m right about that.”

Please see the attached diagram showing the three functions involved: The defense mechanism for each Enneagram personality type, along with the associated idealized self-image and the uncomfortable feeling or avoidance.

Enneagram Defense Mechanisms

With Avoidance and Idealization

Defense Mechanisms

(double click to enlarge diagram)

Thanks to Peter O’Hanrahan for the diagram above showing the three-part organization of the enneagram psychological defense system.  His article on the Enneagram Defense System in enneagramwork.com elucidates how the defenses function in each Type.  Thanks also to Ginger Lapid-Bogda for her insightful article, “Enneagram Theory: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Enneagram” at theenneagraminbusiness.com.

The Exercises

As this was an experiential workshop, we warmed up by walking through and around the open space in the room attuning to physical sensations and the breath.  I encouraged a spirit of playful exploration, making suggestions about how to move and where to bring attention.  We started by focusing on grounded-ness, feeling the feet and legs, and the support of gravity.

I emphasized that body awareness is key to recognizing reactivity that triggers habitual defensive reactions.  When you notice the tension pattern, you can more readily intervene in the moment.

The Three Centers

The walking continued into an exercise in which we practiced sensing physical defended-ness as it manifests in the three centers of intelligence:  the belly or instinctual center, the heart or emotional center and the head or mental center. The purpose was to bring sensate awareness to the body’s defenses in a general way, and to help in noticing our particular reaction pattern when facing a disturbance or threat.  The threat might, for example, affect one’s physical safety, emotional well-being or one’s mental convictions.

Beginning with a focus on the instinctual or belly center, I suggested letting their attention drop to that center and allow it to “lead.” I asked, “How does it feel to be guided by gut knowing?” They moved through the room in response to that cue.  I asked them to imagine they had to defend themselves from a physical threat, and to notice what the body’s reaction was.  What pattern of tension did they experience?  Did it resemble the fight, flight or freeze reaction? Was it familiar?

I suggested physically increasing the intensity of their particular expression of tension while walking, then stopping in place, holding the tension in a posture, and exaggerating that posture.  As they felt their own body’s ways of defending the belly center, they were also asked to notice how others were expressing it. Then I instructed them to let go of the posture of exaggerated tension, shaking it out.  I suggested they find a balance of openness v. defended-ness that felt right, and walk around feeling the more balanced state.

We moved through a similar process with the heart center and head center.  First the experience of letting the center lead, then exploring the physical sensation of defending it from a perceived threat, then exaggerating the tension pattern as a posture, feeling it, noticing how others held it, and then letting it go.  The last part , as with the instinctual center, was to establish a felt sense of the right balance for them in that moment.

For the heart: What’s it like to be led by a strong emotion or yearning?  Many walked with chests pressed forward, the heart area literally leading. What happens in the body, especially in the chest area when we feel emotionally attacked or threatened? A number of participants used their hands to protect the heart area. Others appeared to contract the chest into a concave shape.

Likewise, for the head center, how does it feel to be driven by a powerful idea or conviction?  People walked with their heads tilted forward. How does it feel when one’s thinking is under attack or when defensiveness takes hold of one’s thoughts? I noticed that there were many who tucked their heads back into their necks and looked around at others with vigilance and what looked like distrust.

After this exercise, there was sharing about the experience with comments about the power of using sensate awareness in recognizing habitual patterns.

The Idealizations Personified

Then, we resumed walking, this time with the intention of personifying each of the nine idealized ego states. (see diagram)  We did this by embodying each one, finding way to express it through gesture and through speaking the Idealization as an “I am” statement.

As an example, for Type Eight, I suggested saying aloud, “I am strong. I am powerful” while walking around, affecting postures that expressed strength and power.  Then we greeted each other while holding the posture, affirming with the “I am” statements.  They were encouraged to come up with other Type Eight statements expressing that idealized self-image in their own way.

Then I suggested exaggerating the posture, moving it from a healthy expression to a less healthy extreme.  For Type Eight, this looked like some very pumped up “power” postures

expressing dominance or aggression.  As we went through the same process for each Type, the exaggerated expressions reached comic proportions, and got people laughing.

After the exaggerations, I suggested practicing winding down or relaxing the posture for a healthier expression of the idealized self-image.  For instance, using the Three’s self-image of being successful, all were able to find a healthy relationship to being success-oriented.

We ended each idealization collectively dramatizing an imaginary organization which has the character and mission of a specific Type.   For example, after doing the exercise with the Point One idealization of being right, we affirmed as a group, “We are the good people and we are righteous in our work!” This sparked some recognition and laughter.

After some discussion about how it felt to do the movement and personification exercises, we sat and I described the next exercise.

Defense Mechanisms Animated

The intent of this exercise was to focus attention on and enact the defense mechanisms in action as a chain of events:

  1. The unwanted feeling or avoidance arises as a result of an external or internal stimulus. For example, a Two might start to feel neediness after a long period of helping others. The neediness is a feeling that is incompatible with the Two’s self-image of being helpful. So the undesirable neediness causes anxiety by challenging the status quo of familiar behaviors.
  2. The defense mechanism is activated. An automatic conversion occurs, repressing the unwanted energy of neediness so that the idealized self-image of being indispensable and helpful may be maintained. For a Two the defense mechanism of repression performs an action that keeps the neediness stuffed down.
  3. The idealized self-image wins out and the type structure is kept intact.  One’s self-image is then reinforced. The Two can remain attuned to the needs of others and will continue to receive positive feedback for this trait.  Of course there is a significant downside to avoiding addressing one’s own needs.  The Two has avoided a key ingredient that would support emotional growth and deepening.
  4. While the defense mechanism has helped maintain a kind of ego stasis, the side-effects over time take a toll.  An interviewer asking about the relative success of the process might receive a different answer in the short v. long term.  Short term answer to “How are you?”:  “I kept that unwanted neediness at bay.” Long term, like after six months: “I don’t take care of myself.  This neglect has left me exhausted and feeling like I don’t matter.” Side effects: stuck-ness, burn-out, bodily ailments.

We enacted a process involving an individual going through the stages mentioned above. People role played different parts.

  • One person played the individual having the experience of an unwanted feeling arising and then going through the process to the end.
  • Another person played the role of “Anxiety Alerter” who sounded the alarm when the unwanted energy began to surface: “Activate defense mechanism!”
  • Two people played the defense mechanism like a repetitive machine .  Their role was to perform a mechanical action expressing the mechanics of the defense.  For Type Seven, one person said, “”Reframe! Explain it all away!”  The other half of the defense mechanism due said, “Be okay! No blame, no pain!” They found repeating gestures that expressed their statements. The effect was of a mechanical converter that rationalized the Seven’s unwanted, avoided pain and personal accountability.
  • The person playing the individual showed the effects of the energy conversion of the defense mechanism through gesture and movement. The Seven who’d begun to feel the authentic pain of remorse at the beginning, went back to being “okay” as the pain was rationalized away.
  • Another person played the Reinforcer – Their role was to pep-talk the individual, encouraging and supporting the idealized self-image.  They were like a cheerleader for the status quo, emphasizing the positive in the idealized self-image.  To the Seven the Reinforcer affirmed, “You’re very okay.  Everyone thinks you’re cool!”
  • The last role was the Interviewer who asked the individual right after going through the process, “How was that?”  The Seven responded as if pleased with the success.  Then 6 months later the Interviewer asked, “How are you doing?  How are your relationships? Any side effects?”  Now the Seven had a less glowing assessment, mentioning the problems of keeping the self-image in place.  She reported feeling lonely and being stuck in her head.
  • Other types who went through the process reported lack of real contact with themselves or others, a feeling of stuck-ness, sadness, monotony…

There was some discussion of the downside of defense mechanisms. Someone observed how the defense mechanism always seemed to squash an important and vital energy before it could be experienced or integrated.  Narcotization in a Nine serves to numb out the feeling of disturbance conflict might produce, and keeps the habitual personality pattern in place.  For a Nine, experiencing conflict and connecting with anger might can serve by bringing an increased sense of aliveness and vibrant presence.  We note how devastating it can be to remain oblivious to the action of our defense mechanisms.

Next I described the final exercise.

Higher Self Intervenes

This exercise involved a process in which one’s wiser, overseeing self intervened in the defense mechanism process to effect a more desirable outcome. The roles were:  the wiser self, the idealized self-image, the defense mechanism and the avoidance.

I set up a spatial arrangement of the different parts with the Idealization standing behind the defense mechanism.  The avoidance was facing them both and the wise overseeing self stood a little bit away from the three.  A Type Eight woman volunteered to be the overseeing self, so we used the idealization, avoidance and defense mechanism for Type Eight.

The avoidance person (vulnerability) was asked to slowly approach the idealized self-image (I am strong) behind the defense mechanism (denial).  As the avoidance came nearer, she asked the Idealization to be let in.  The defense mechanism began to activate.  “Squash vulnerability! Be strong always.” The overseeing self stepped in and paused the action of the defense mechanism.

She then helped facilitate a dialogue/negotiation between the avoidance and idealized self-image.  Vulnerability made a case for its value.  It argued with the idealization who expressed concerns about being weak.

The overseeing self encouraged them to come to an agreement.  She recommended that the Idealization tolerate some of the avoided vulnerability, which would serve the Eight in many ways.   Finally I asked the overseeing self to physically reorganize the whole configuration into something more useful and functional.  She put them in a more cooperative appearing arrangement, expressing greater harmony for all the parts.

We ended with some discussion about how to work on lessening the grip of our defense mechanisms.  Some of the points included:

  • There’s value in becoming aware of reactivity, preferably in the moment.
  • Noticing bodily cues such as physical tension can help identify the reactivity.
  • It helps to catch one’s defense mechanism in action.
  • The Enneagram helps pinpoint defensive patterns with accuracy.
  • It also shows us our higher potentials, like with the Virtues and Holy Ideas; practices to use in lieu of the habitual and defensive patterns.
  • Learning to tolerate or allow the discomfort of the avoided feelings is key to relaxing the defensive process and ultimately to gaining greater freedom.
  • Self-acceptance helps a lot.
  • We have the power to choose a path of emotional growth.  It is a choice that may have to be reinforced daily.


Catherine Williams has a Master’s Degree in Drama Therapy from CIIS and a Bachelor’s Degree in Art from Duke University. For over 30 years she has led workshops in drama and movement. An EANT certified teacher, she has worked with the Enneagram as a toll for personal development since 1974.