Enneatype Six is an anxious pattern, involving chronic uncertainty and an active imagination kept busy anticipating and preparing for the worst. This experience of everyday life is often described as faulty perception or overuse of the mind, but that can be a subtle way of misunderstanding and blaming ourselves. We don’t all end up feeling bad because our type patterns involve flawed approaches to life; we approach life in problematic ways because we’ve felt so bad for so long, and we could try to find some compassion for that. The Six experience can easily sound like an elemental struggle for survival, but personality forms at a very early age when children are highly dependent (and intensely focused) on their parents. When we consider distress or anger, and the role these uncomfortable emotions play in the patterns of the heart and body types in particular, their relational context seems obvious: we miss or feel angry at someone. Yet something peculiar tends to happen with fear: the conversation turns to basic survival needs, as if the worries of young Sixes (or Fives, or Sevens) were existential rather than relational. The relevant question is, why do children feel fear around others?
We need to remain curious about the nature and development of the Enneatypes; they clearly involve material that’s not initially in full conscious awareness, and we shouldn’t assume that identifying our own type has revealed it all. We do become more aware of our reactivity: how the familiar discomfort of our life gets triggered by others, and the strategies we’ve learned for managing it. Yet many people sense that something further must be involved, that type patterns aren’t purely erroneous or pathological, and try to focus on a more positive aspect of type like the observation of Fives or helpfulness of Twos. I think those aren’t merely useful skills we end up with, but central features of each type; even our desire to feel better about them today is a clue to why we began cultivating them long ago, as a generous and benevolent reaction to all those bad feelings. Like loyalty for Sixes, they’re not mere strategies, but good intentions toward other people. Helen Palmer originally called type Six the “Devil’s Advocate”: one who easily gets interested in other points of view. Sixes do this reflexively not as a matter of mere uncertainty, but because it feels good and right to them. What is that really about?
We won’t fully understand our type pattern, how it arose and what continues to drive it, until further subconscious material has been brought into our awareness. If we bear in mind that humans aren’t purely rational and refocus on feelings about the support of others rather than a need for support, and on relationship rather than individual survival, we may arrive at a more complete picture of this type pattern. Feelings shape our perceptions and drive our behavior, even (perhaps especially) when we’re unaware of them. Relationship is crucial because human beings aren’t isolated individuals struggling to survive, but highly social by nature and deeply interconnected, especially in early childhood when personality forms. Bad feelings about relationship can persist for a lifetime, and unlike fear and other more familiar emotions, they don’t motivate us to seek what’s good for us; in fact, they discourage us from doing so.
The Relational Problem: Feeling Empathic Support
One way in which we can come to feel bad about ourselves in relationship is not feeling empathized with, that others care how we feel and support us. This is a central painful memory of a Six’s childhood, and remains a recurrent theme for them as adults. Dependent and vulnerable for a long time, young children internalize bad feelings that arise in moments of relational difficulty, coming to feel that they themselves are somehow bad. This becomes a problem in its own right, changing the entire experience of life: diminishing both inner awareness and openness to exploring the world, diverting energy into compulsive patterns, and lowering expectations – especially of relationship.
Not feeling empathized with leaves you feeling insecure and inadequate on your own, and suspicious of others who seem capricious and unreliable at best. At worst, someone who isn’t concerned with your feelings could be capable of anything; they could easily harm you, perhaps even deliberately. How can you possibly know what their intentions may be, what they might do next? The Six imagination runs wild on the danger of this situation, putting fear out of mind by envisioning and preparing for potential threats. Yet Sixes are still unsure of their own ability to handle all that, while also doubting that they can count on support from others. (Of course the less support they seem to need, the less they’re actually likely to receive.) When this experience eventually begins to feel absurd, Sixes try to release anxiety through humor, ridiculing themselves and the world in order to make their plight seem amusing rather than frightening.
A Six’s memory focuses on episodes when people they had to depend upon seemed uninterested or untrustworthy, so the sense of security they long and strive for is always tenuous or fleeting. Sixes become suspicious of and easily alienated from authority; belief systems initially seem attractive, but can’t deliver a certainty they aren’t able to feel. They may take great risks simply to resolve an uncomfortable situation one way or the other, just to put an end to their uncertainty about it. Whenever things seem to be going well, that missing feeling of support can always ambush a Six. In fact, the more others try to reassure them, the more awkward a situation can feel; even a simple hand on their shoulder can feel disconcerting instead of comforting. It’s still hard for Sixes to feel supported even when they are now supported and know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make wanting or receiving support from others strangely unsettling, even undesirable.
Exercise: To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People don’t care how I feel, and won’t support me”. Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Sixes will have an entire life story about it. It may help to remember specific instances from childhood, and really wallow in them. Notice how this feels in your body (especially the upper torso), how you carry yourself, and what it’s like to interact with others while this is going on. Do they appear likely to support you? Do you even want to find out? Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People care how I feel, and will support me.” You can imagine a good parent long ago saying “I care how you feel, and I’m here for you”, or even say this to yourself today. The good feeling associated with these words may be much less familiar and take a while to find at first, but once you begin to feel it, explore what it’s like in your body, and how it affects even a casual encounter with someone else. With the right intention it’s possible to make this shift from bad to good experience of relationship, at least for a short time. Regularly cultivating this positive feeling is a longer-term project that many people will find worthwhile, especially Sixes.
The Idealization: Becoming the Empathetic Supporter
Feeling bad about ourselves is painful enough in adulthood. For young children, such a conflict with their own natural vitality must be unbearable, so I suspect they intuitively try to find some way to be good again, as the Enneatype patterns demonstrate: focusing on an aspect of goodness and identifying themselves with it. This idealization becomes the core of the personality, allowing a child to continue to develop a positive sense of self. Perhaps Sixes were particularly sensitive to not feeling empathized with, or this was the most problematic experience for them at some critical time. In any case, Sixes try to feel good about themselves again by learning to embody this very quality of empathy: becoming a loyal supporter, someone others can trust to be there for them. Sixes know the importance of this from their own experience. Support others as you would have them support you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for getting support yourself. The Golden Rule seems to come naturally to young children, in nine specific ways. This is why our type pattern involves such a feeling of rightness, and we remain so attached to it.
Unfortunately, adopting such a nice idealization is an abandonment of the genuine self as somehow bad. Being a good empathic supporter allows Sixes to feel good about themselves again much of the time, yet can never really make up for not feeling deserving of others’ support. At its best, a Six’s loyalty is a profoundly affirming and supportive way of connecting with someone they feel close to. But pursued automatically as the type idealization, supporting can become a sort of compulsion instead and can easily be overdone, when Sixes aren’t actually connecting with others spontaneously and authentically. Loyalty can become more of an abstract principle than a genuine feeling, the basis of a zealous allegiance system that remains subject to reversals of judgment in moments of fearful suspicion. People can often sense the difference and may feel uncomfortable, or begin to suspect that this apparently well-intentioned approach might involve some ulterior motive. In return, Sixes may feel that they’re being denigrated or ridiculed when others don’t seem to properly value their contributions.
When describing their strengths, Sixes use words like “responsible”. They like to think they have a special gift for being there for others, even a neglected “underdog”, and they want to be recognized for having this positive effect on people, because this is what feeling good about themselves has come to depend upon. The value of relational support always remains paramount for Sixes, but consistency can be a challenge as they make the sort of judgments we all do about who they feel close or sympathetic to – and then second-guess those whenever difficulties arise. A type idealization doesn’t apply to oneself; Sixes ignore their own feelings, just as we all neglect ourselves in exactly the way we consider most important. (Since feelings motivate action, this leaves them prone to indecision, hesitation, and procrastination.) Because human beings are so complex, type idealizations also tend to generalize broadly: Sixes may feel drawn to support not only individuals but organizations or belief systems, animals, or nature, seizing any opportunity to make the world more empathic and supportive. But performing this idealization never relieves the bad feeling that drives it.
Exercise: This particular idealization of empathic support won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Sixes who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine. If you’re a Six, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m a really supportive person”, and if you like you can add “I’ll support someone even when no one else does.” Notice where your attention goes because of this, and what it’s like to interact with others with this motivation. Once you’ve had enough of that, try a simpler, unconditional feeling instead: “I’m a good person.” Again this isn’t just something to say to yourself but a feeling to find in your body; if these words don’t lead you to it you may find others that work better (“I’m not bad”, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, “I deserved empathy and support”) or a breathing practice that helps. To reverse the core self-abandonment of type, it’s essential to learn to feel yourself and your own goodness directly, not merely imagine or evaluate it. This will be another ongoing practice, perhaps a more challenging one. Once you do have this feeling, notice how you feel in your body and in the world, the quality of your attention, and how this will affect even a casual encounter with someone else. Naturally, offering empathic support may still be a useful skill, but it can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.
The Empathy Triad
The relational context of fear is easily overlooked; a fearful child can appear less eager for or more guarded about contact, but every type pattern is fundamentally about relationship. As we do inner work and seek better connection with others, it’s helpful to recognize where we’re having the most trouble feeling it. As a Five myself, I’ve realized that the central problem for the head types involves empathy. Just as issues with acceptance provoke anger for the body types, and issues with affection provoke distress for the heart types, the fear of the head types is provoked by concern that others aren’t really connecting with their experience. Children need to feel this quality of empathic connection from parents in order to feel comforted and safe. Its manifestations range from understanding what’s going on for a child (the particular Five preoccupation) to wanting what’s best for them (for Seven); the core issue for the Six pattern is responding to a child’s feelings in a supportive and comforting way. That’s what security and trust involve for a young child, who will otherwise feel afraid – not so much for their bare survival as how they suffer from being left on their own to deal with their experience, or even how they may be harmed by someone acting regardless of the consequences to them.
Anyone might begin to feel scared around others in whom they sense some lack of empathy; the problem isn’t just unpredictability but disconnection from their own experience. The challenge for Sixes, as for us all, is to avoid imagining or exaggerating present threats under the influence of a familiar discomfort rooted in the distant past. This involves not just childhood memories but bad feelings associated with them that remain very powerful, giving the impression that there’s still something fundamentally wrong with our life that we have to keep trying to compensate for. Behind troublesome emotions like fear, anger, and distress there generally lies a persistent bad feeling (shame) that accounts for much of the difficulty we have with them. Relieving it by cultivating a sense of goodness in relationship should naturally lead to more accurate perception, more authentic action, and a better overall experience of life, and the Enneatype patterns guide us to specific ways of doing this.
“Empathy” is a surprisingly recent word, coined barely a century ago. It differs from the much older and more familiar idea of “sympathy”, a mental act of identification with someone else who seems enough like us that we can imagine ourselves in their position; instead, empathy is an actual feeling of connection with another person’s experience, however different it may be from our own. I’m drawing this distinction carefully because despite the enormous importance of empathy, it’s something that people haven’t really been talking about for very long at all, and may still not be explicitly aware of. When a relationship lacks empathy, we feel uncomfortable but may not be able to articulate what’s wrong. That might explain why the word isn’t common in Enneagram teaching, although it’s the central theme of three type patterns. Unaccustomed to empathy, Sixes tend to think (and sometimes talk) on and on with little connection to what they may be feeling. We can’t think our way out of problems with our feelings; we need to address them directly. Otherwise we’ll just tend to keep doing whatever it is that we once learned to do to try to feel better about ourselves. Sixes empathize with and support other people because that’s their idea of what a good person does.
Copyright © 2017, Eric R. Meyer. The first part of Exercise 1 is modeled on one used by Karen DeHart at IEA 2016, the rest on elements of Integrative Body Psychotherapy. More articles in this series