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Why Ones Are Responsible

October 12, 2018   General Enneagram   

Enneatype One is known for self-critical perfectionism. While we all find failure painful and can be hard on ourselves when we most need kindness, Ones are haunted by the prospect of falling short even in ways other people might dismiss as unimportant, and can get caught up in endless recrimination. With all this negativity, it can be easy to forget that this type must also have a positive aspect beyond merely avoiding or correcting errors, that something must actually feel good and right to Ones. Helen Palmer touched on this aspect of the pattern when (in The Enneagram) she described the deep feeling of ease and rightness that Ones report when they sense the full potential of a situation, how perfect it could be. That sounds like just the sort of rewarding feeling (a nice pat on the back from ourselves, so to speak) that I think we all get when we’re fulfilling the idealization of our type, that I feel myself as a Five when I’m clever and figure something out.

As I see it, the deeper challenge of the Enneatypes is not just learning to recognize and manage their problematic habits, but understanding why these patterns arose, why we keep wanting to do things in a way that may not serve us or others well, and how to address that. So what exactly is going on for Ones? The nine types are commonly regarded as early survival strategies; Ones are said to have tried to earn love and approval (or avoid punishment) by behaving well, and some recall examples of this. But that’s just something any child might do at times, whereas we recognize that individual Ones formulate and live by their own personal standards. Moreover, their conscientiousness seems related to an impulse to improve the world, not just get by in it. What is it that Ones have such belief or confidence in, if not themselves? Why does the sensing of good potential feel so right to them, and how have they become responsible for it?

We won’t fully understand type patterns, how they arise and what continues to drive them, until further subconscious material has been brought into awareness. If we bear in mind that humans aren’t purely rational and refocus on feelings rather than needs, and on relationship rather than individual survival, we may arrive at a more complete picture of the One 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 Concern

One way in which we can come to feel bad about ourselves in relationship is not feeling that others are concerned about us, and will offer guidance if we have trouble or make a mistake. This is a central painful memory of a One’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 benevolent concern for you, even feeling shamed instead for whatever you do wrong, leaves you unsure of yourself and angry at not feeling encouraged to develop your abilities and pursue what you want. As a result, Ones tend to lack self-confidence and aren’t primarily motivated by personal ambition. Instead they build an internal sense of stability by trying to feel what must be right: doing what they determine should be done, is worth doing, or seems reasonable, and having confidence in its rightness rather than in themselves. The need to know what’s right must conquer any doubt – and too often, curiosity along with it. Ones become painfully conscientious, worrying about every detail of their performance and obligations to avoid any possibility of error or criticism. (Of course the more they try to monitor themselves and avoid being judged by others, the less they’re likely to notice anyone’s concern for them.) Ones lead highly disciplined lives, following rules they consider important to maintain proper order, as they suppose everyone should. They can be very demanding of others, and most of all themselves.

Criticism or punishment tend to stand out in a One’s childhood memories because it felt so unhelpful and unfair, undermining their self-worth, and they still cringe at any prospect of criticism. Ones are often described as good little children who internalized their parents’ values, but in fact they’re quite likely to reject them and adopt their own standards instead, perhaps even becoming the responsible person in the house themselves. Enormous tension surrounds a child’s attempt to adopt such a superior role: Ones lecture authoritatively and repeat themselves, while at the same time always worrying about what they could have done better. Life is hard work for Ones, who see others enjoying it more or having it easier and wonder whether they must just be lazy or cheating somehow. Living by what’s right seems to provide solid ground to stand on, but even when things seem to be going well, that missing feeling of concern can always ambush a One. Nonetheless, any hint of actual concern or guidance from others can make a situation feel very awkward. It’s still hard for Ones to really feel others’ concern even when it’s now offered and they know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make wanting or receiving concern strangely unsettling, even undesirable.

Exercise: To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People won’t be concerned about me if I have trouble”. Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Ones 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 be concerned about how you’re doing? Do you even want to find out? Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People will be concerned about me.” You can imagine a good parent long ago saying “I want you to do well”, 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 Ones.


The Idealization: Becoming the Responsible Person

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 Ones were particularly sensitive to not feeling concern for them, or this was the most problematic experience for them at some critical time. In any case, Ones try to feel good about themselves again by learning to embody this very quality of responsibility: becoming a dutiful guardian of others, who tries to help them overcome difficulty and correct their mistakes. They know the importance of this from their own experience. Show concern for others as you would have them offer it to you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for getting concern 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. Feeling responsible to others allows Ones to feel good about themselves again much of the time, yet can never really make up for not feeling worth their concern. At its best, a One’s concern is a joyful and affirming way of connecting with someone they feel close to. But pursued automatically as the type idealization, it can become a sort of compulsion instead and can easily be overdone, when Ones aren’t actually connecting with others spontaneously and authentically. They tend to worry that you’re likely to do something that’s bad for you, because your judgment isn’t as good as theirs. Ones can wear themselves out accumulating worries and responsibilities, while genuine concern is increasingly replaced by grim advice about what life is like and how it must be lived. People who sense the difference may feel uncomfortable, and begin to suspect that this apparently well-intentioned approach might involve some ulterior motive. In return, Ones may feel mortally offended when others question the rightness of their beliefs and methods. The world can seem misguided and unfair.

Despite all their caution, Ones describe their strengths with words like “trusting” and “optimistic”, believing that people can do better if they would only take the trouble. Ones are often drawn to pursuits like teaching or mentoring that encourage others to develop their full potential. They like to think they have a special gift for guiding others, because this is what feeling good about themselves has come to depend upon. Reconciling this impulse with reality is an ongoing challenge for supposedly reasonable, practical Ones, who can actually be quite incurious and inflexible, “just knowing” what’s right and not asking or tolerating many questions. They can be painfully surprised, even shocked by the failings of those they had confidence in. They endure life’s tests with instinctive stoicism, patiently offering stability and good judgment, and struggling with frustration when others ignore it. Yet a type idealization doesn’t apply to oneself; Ones can’t be making mistakes, so they offer themselves no such concern or patience, just as we all neglect ourselves in exactly the way we consider most important. Because human beings are so complex, type idealizations also tend to generalize broadly: Ones may feel concern for any group whose welfare seems in peril, or for other animals or the Earth as well, and become devoted to good and necessary causes, continually striving to realize the promise of a better world. But performing this idealization never relieves the bad feeling that drives it.

Exercise: This particular idealization of concern won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Ones who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine. If you’re a One, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m an unusually responsible person”, and if you like you can add “Everyone can benefit from my concern”. 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 concern and guidance”) 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, showing concern for others may still be a useful skill, but it can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.


Practicing Self-Kindness

Let’s dive into bad feelings we’ve been avoiding for decades!  That may not sound very enticing, but I think the Enneatypes are inviting us to do it – and underneath the problems of every type we can recognize more joyful feelings, and the basic human impulse to do good.  We have trouble when we can’t tolerate feelings that have become disconnected from their early context, which the nine type patterns can identify for us very precisely.  The Enneagram tradition hasn’t focused on childhood experience, approaching the type patterns from an adult perspective instead as cognitive or spiritual errors to be corrected.  But it’s no error or misperception to remember feeling poorly appreciated, or cared for, or understood at times as children.  And if feeling bad about ourselves is the fundamental problem here, moral condemnation seems more likely to worsen than to relieve it.  I think it would be helpful instead to find a more positive way to finally come to terms with our early experience, and treat ourselves with compassion and kindness.  That can be a challenge for all of us, not only Ones.

In his book A Fearless Heart, Thupten Jinpa describes a surprising problem he encountered in presenting Buddhist compassion practice to a Western audience. Compassion is traditionally developed in a progression from the self, to others dear to us, and eventually to more difficult people, but Jinpa found that many individuals in our hectic culture get stuck at what’s supposed to be the easy starting point: compassion for themselves. As he puts it, “Often, we are our own difficult person.” When we recognize that someone we care about is suffering, our first impulse normally isn’t to wonder how it’s their own fault or what they did wrong; we simply wish their suffering to be relieved, we wish them happiness. Unfortunately, in our self-abandonment, we tend not to care about ourselves in this way; instead we’re accustomed to just making ourselves do what we think we should do, and blaming ourselves when we don’t do it well enough. Our life has involved suffering, but we try to ignore it, perhaps even telling ourselves “tough luck”. Ones especially can make life a routine of duty and endurance.

Even personal growth can become another such project: once we begin to tire of our original attempt to be a better person (our type idealization), we may be eager to revise it and try all over again. There are more Enneagram-related teachings alone than most people could realistically evaluate or work with, and we’re still left trying to stop living out our type pattern without quite understanding why we started. We may worry that we haven’t mastered everything we should know and blame ourselves for not making enough progress toward our new ideal, rather than simply wishing a better experience of life for ourselves, which we may not even be sure we deserve. That’s self-kindness, and it can feel very unfamiliar. Coming back to ourselves means opening our hearts to our own basic goodness. As long as we have trouble with that, we’re likely to go on doing whatever it is we do to make us feel better about ourselves. Ones feel responsible to others, perhaps even for others, 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

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