Looking for the main International Enneagram Association website? Click here

Home/General Enneagram/Why Fours Are Sensitive

Why Fours Are Sensitive

November 8, 2019   General Enneagram   

Enneatype Four is known for heightened sensitivity, dramatic feelings, and a profound sense of loss and disappointment.  Ever longing for fulfilling connection, always finding something mysteriously lacking, it’s no wonder that this type has been called the “Tragic Romantic”.  But such perverse yearning is hardly unique to type Four; I see something similar at the root of all nine patterns, which really explains the human experience much better than imagining it driven by simple rational strategies, however flawed.  For example, Fours are said to be trying to attract the love they need by being “special”, out of the ordinary.  Why then do they keep finding fault with that love?

To understand this, we must leave behind adult dreams of romance, focusing instead on the early age when type patterns form, and this favorite word clearly means special to someone: not an individual characteristic, but a quality of relationship.  (The Enneatype patterns show how sensitive young children are to subtle aspects of relationship that we seldom bother to distinguish.)  A Four child doesn’t exactly feel unloved, but denied some further sense of close connection they feel entitled to.  Envious thoughts may arise when they see their parent treating other children well, whether siblings or not – even when they aren’t actually being treated any better, so it’s not exactly envy, just an uncomfortable reminder of feeling too much like anyone else instead of… special.  Fours keep missing that extra degree of emotional attunement we expect from those close to us, those we rely on to care especially about us, more than strangers or casual acquaintances would.  Children know how important that is, and how good it would feel.  So when Fours begin to cultivate greater sensitivity themselves, that’s not a strategy to attract love, just what feels like the good and right thing to do for others.

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 about close connection rather than a need for it, and on relationship rather than individual survival, we may arrive at a more complete picture of the Four 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 Special Connection from Others

One way in which we can come to feel bad about ourselves in relationship is not feeling that others feel a special connection to us, that they’re emotionally attuned to us in a close way.  This is a central painful memory of a Four’s childhood, and so persistent that it 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: reducing inner awareness, diminishing openness to exploring the world, diverting energy into compulsive patterns, and lowering expectations – especially of relationship.

Not feeling that others are attuned to you leaves you hurt, frustrated, and perhaps even confused, because it can be hard to name what’s wrong.  They do seem to love you, yet somehow not really to connect closely enough with you, to be aware of how you feel, what you care about, what you want, as if they just weren’t really all that interested in you.  Because of this, the more you love someone, the more painfully separate from them you can actually feel.  Fours do instinctively have an idea what true connection should feel like, which some describe as if they had once experienced but then somehow lost it.  They can feel full of love yet not know what to do with it, whether it’s better to try to express it or just bottle it up, to make the effort or write it off.  Fours develop deeply ambivalent feelings about relationship, and can be more comfortable when there’s enough distance to indulge their imagination and desire, since daily reality always seems to disappoint.

Worried about somehow not being interesting enough, Fours begin to exaggerate their emotions, trying to convince themselves that they and their feelings really are important.  They become self-conscious, feeling different from others around them, and compensate for that by developing a self-image that’s better than merely ordinary, even somehow “special”.  They reframe mere loneliness as soulful longing, unhappiness as tragic drama, and these intense moods come to dominate their memories, plans, and choices.  Fours find that this emotionality can be more than others want to deal with, leading to irritation or misunderstanding, but wouldn’t want to tone it down.  They’re easily offended, and their reflex can be to raise the stakes, challenging others to handle their intensity, often making a bad situation worse.  They feel that no one will ever comprehend the magnitude of their love, the depth of their hurt and loss, the drama of their existence – which indeed becomes increasingly likely.  Acting out such moods can obscure a Four’s awareness of whatever they may genuinely be feeling in the moment, and actually make it harder for others to connect with them as they long for.  The more sensitive someone actually tries to be to a Four, the more awkward or uncomfortable the situation can feel.  It’s still hard for Fours to really feel deeply received even when they now are and know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make the whole idea feel strangely unsettling, perhaps even undesirable.

Exercise:  To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People don’t really feel close to me, that I’m special to them.”  Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Fours 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.  Does it seem likely that they will attune sensitively to you?  Do you really want to find out?  Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People can feel close to me, that I’m special to them”.  You can imagine a good parent long ago saying “You’re special to me”, 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 Fours.

The Idealization:  Becoming the Sensitive 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 Fours were particularly sensitive to not feeling that others were attuned to them, or this was the most problematic experience for them at some critical time.  In any case, Fours try to feel good about themselves again by striving to embody this very quality of sensitivity: becoming someone who is emotionally attuned to others.  They know the importance of this from their own experience.  Be sensitive to others as you would have them be to you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for earning sensitivity 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 sensitive person allows Fours to feel good about themselves again much of the time, although it can never really make up for not feeling sensitivity from others.  They’re drawn to the emotional aspects of life, anticipating and responding to people’s feelings and desires.  At its best, a Four’s sensitivity is a profound way of connecting with someone they feel close to, and helping them feel well and deeply received.  But pursued automatically as the type idealization, sensitivity can become a sort of compulsion instead and can easily be overdone, when Fours aren’t actually connecting with others spontaneously and authentically.  They can seem to be savoring some internal experience themselves, more than relating to someone else’s feelings.  Those who sense the difference may feel uncomfortable and wonder what’s going on, perhaps beginning to suspect that a Four is insincere or has some ulterior motive.  In return, Fours can feel hurt when others don’t appreciate their exquisite sensitivity.  The world can seem indifferent and unresponsive.

Some Fours become artists, and more wish they could; creativity is attractive because it expresses and honors feelings.  Simply reacting to the world on a daily basis can become an art form itself, a fundamentally aesthetic approach to life.  When describing their strengths, Fours use words like “intuition”, “sensitivity”, even “taste”.  They like to think they have a special gift for honoring the beauty and depth of feelings, and congratulate themselves for doing this so well, because it’s what feeling good about themselves has come to depend upon.  Yet a type idealization doesn’t apply to oneself: Fours actually have difficulty recognizing and responding to their own true feelings, 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: Fours become sensitive not only to other people’s emotions, but to art and all forms of expressing feelings, to animals and the beauty of nature, continually trying to make the world more sensitive and deeply connected.  But performing this idealization never relieves the bad feeling that drives it.

Exercise:  This particular idealization of sensitivity won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Fours who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine.  If you’re a Four, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m really sensitive, more so than others”, and if you like you can add “I can make anyone feel I’m specially attuned to them”.  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 wish I could have felt special to someone”) 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, being sensitive to feelings may still be a useful skill, but it can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.

Getting Unstuck… and Growing Up

In his memoirs, André Malraux recalled once asking a Catholic priest what he’d learned about people from decades of hearing confessions, whose conclusion was: “There are no adults.”  Indeed, the Enneatype patterns show how much of the inner work we have to do is remedial.  It’s easy to understand why: human children are born underdeveloped and helpless, taking many years to complete their growth (not only physical but mental, emotional, social) while exposed to a variety of stressful situations.  Hurt feelings are inevitable, and a persistent feeling of wrongness develops, narrowing our perceptions and leading us to expect (even create) the same problems in future relationship.  As much as we may intend to leave childhood problems behind, it can be hard to act like responsible adults when we’re still in such a state, or even to feel a meaningful range of choice in life.  And these problems remain difficult to address effectively until we recognize in ourselves, and feel compassion for, the child who began to have them.

In writing about this theme “You’re special to me”, I’ve been struck by how unfortunate it is that the greater our longing for such messages, the more trouble we have taking them in.  I  recall how utterly sappy I thought Mister Rogers sounded fifty years ago, singing this to children on his TV show.  It just didn’t feel real to me, and I couldn’t relate to it.  (He did have critics, who I suspect had the same sort of reaction, and mistook it for maturity.)  This shows how tightly children may have to shut down around bad feelings, and the price we pay for that ever afterward.  Fours aren’t the only ones with such stories of suffering, perhaps just more likely to share than others who tend to keep this sorry stuff to ourselves – how we constantly feel ignored, criticized, taken advantage of, and so on.  These painful stories of each type pattern come to feel like lessons learned the hard way: life is just like that (somehow, for us).  We might wish that such feelings could be neatly escaped or transcended, but they’re part of human nature, and continue to arise in relationship.  What we can hope to do is learn to recover from them each time, better than we had a chance to learn as children, and cultivate a more positive sense of connection, with ourselves as well as others.  This can even be practiced retrospectively on memories of our own flawed childhood, exploring how we could have felt better and more present than we did.  The Enneatypes indicate nine important aspects of connection to address.  Over time, this kind of self-care can improve the baseline experience of life.

As Fred Rogers once said, we should know “that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”  Fours give feelings paramount importance and consider themselves especially sensitive to them, even painful ones.  But in fact they tend to avoid their own most difficult feelings just as much as anyone else does, even as they exaggerate others, and may need as much help recognizing them.  Their tragic story of loss and disappointment is just that, a familiar story they’ve constructed – one that can come to involve more shame and victimhood than actual grief, more anger than love.  Because of that, they can miss the fact that suffering doesn’t isolate us; it connects us in being human.  Recognizing that involves finally coming to terms with our own.  In the meantime, Fours try to be sensitive to others, because that’s their idea of what a good person does.

____________________________

Copyright © 2019, 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

    Loading...
    More Information about Eric R. Meyer