Stress, Integration, and the True Meaning of the Enneagram Arrows

We hear A LOT of opinions about the arrows, a k a the inner lines, of the Enneagram. According to some opinions, the specific directions of stress and integration are a “debunked myth”, springing from Claudio Naranjo throwing something out there, trying it on for size — and later going back on his theory. According to others, the directions of the arrows are still relevant, not only in their mathematical implications but also for the expression of the types and our continuing development. So, what gives?

When confronted with this kind of conflict, I usually want to probe deeper. This is mainly because when such conflicts arise, in my experience, people often have not quite agreed on what exactly it is they are discussing. The question the of inner lines is no exception, so this is an attempt to untangle some of the confusion. My basic position and personal understanding are that yes, we do move in both directions in both “stress” and “growth” — but that still does not cancel the fact that the arrows do indeed have a profound meaning. It just depends on what particular filter we are applying. For this discussion, I’m going to focus primarily on “stress” movement, as that is usually both easier to see and more problematic. However, the reasoning goes both ways. First, though, I need to briefly say something about the Enneagram symbol as such and its inherent mathematics.

The symbol, maths, and meaning

Depending on your level of Nerd, you might or might not be familiar and/or fascinated with the mathematics behind the Enneagram symbol. Yours truly is both familiar and fascinated, but I’ll try and keep this bit to a minimum here. Suffice it to say that the lines within the symbol are not just a cool pattern that someone thought looked good; they are a result of mathematical divisions by the numbers 3 (for the equilateral triangle) and 7 (for the hexad), relating back to the Law of Three and the Law of Seven, on which the geometrical symbol is based. When we observe patterns relating to the Enneagram which are somehow informed by this mathematical or geometric structure of the symbol, in my experience, these are usually worth exploring. When I then stumble across objections to those patterns at also seem to have merit, my question is not which one of them is wrong, but rather how they might both be correct. Often, the latter is the case, and the reason for the confusion tends to be that different camps are not really referring to the same thing. With the arrows, we can take multiple perspectives, but I usually don’t hear them distinguished or accounted for in the discussion. Also, there are terminology wrinkles to be ironed out. But let’s start with the perspectives.

Basically, there are two fundamental and seemingly opposing camps in this discussion:

  • we move both ways in both “stress” and “growth”
  • the directions of the arrows have significance

Coping strategies — a perspective where we move both ways

Our type’s connection in two directions with two other types is not random, and both these types have a significant energetic relationship to the point they are connected to. Varying individually, we can “shunt” to either arrow point in reaction to everyday or even prolonged stress. We can picture our progression through time as a car on the motorway. As long as the road is level, the personality, too, stays on the same levels of balance (a k a the Level of Development). But now, we are facing an incline. It will be hard for us to comfortably continue without increasing the power moving us forward (i e continuing with and increasing the volume of our personality’s usual tool-kit), so we either need to do that or start looking for a plan B.

For plan B, we can picture the arrow points as two side roads for us to veer off into. They will have different qualities, but both will offer an alternative to the incline while ultimately still bringing us forward. And as far as the levels are concerned, as a response to stress, we do not generally both move sideways (i e, borrow strategies from an arrow point) and fall down the levels (i e, add more energy to the personality strategy) at the same time. The ego/personality tends to resist a change in level, so when pressure builds, we might shoot off into one of our arrow directions instead. This means that if we “react sideways” in stress, borrowing tools from an arrow point, we will be borrowing them from the same level of balance as we were currently acting from. Another way to put this would be to say our arrows function a bit like the valve in a pressure-cooker, relieving pressure that would otherwise have forced us down to a lower level.

In this way, it’s completely true that we move (or actually, we do not in fact move at all, but rather copy certain tools and keep carrying them out with our own core personality end agenda) in both directions for both stress and growth. It’s also clear to me that the extent to and way in which we do this varies strongly with each individual. Some egos make use of their respective arrow points’ resources, others might first resort to “pay a temporary visit to a lower level, without exercising their arrow points too much; yet others might slide into a third option, such as leaning more heavily on a wing. The ways we prioritise these safety hatches vary individually.

The path of least resistance — a perspective where the specific directions are relevant

For this part of the discussion, the maths of the symbol becomes relevant — as well as nuanced, correct type descriptions. The brief version of the mathematical background for the stress/integration discussion is that the series of numbers going in the direction of the arrows (1-4-2-8-5-7 and 9-6-3) reflect decimal chains on the maths side and a kind of law-of-least-resistance, reactivity-wise, on the personality side. Very briefly summarised, if we see each type as an energetic approach to life, ourselves, and the world we live in, we also find that each type can be seen as a reaction against the type before it in the sequence. (Please note that this does not mean that we will have issues people whose type is our point of integration. Ones will not by definition dislike Sevens, and Fours won’t necessarily have issues with Ones — and so on. These are attitudes and defences in the basic ego-structures, not predictions about whom you will like or not.)

This way, the contained, principled, and self-reprimanding approach of point One is a counter-reaction to the excitability, hedonism and focus on instant gratification that we can see at different levels of point Seven. At point Four, however, it’s the impartial and contained self-restraint of point One that is reacted against with passionate, intuitive self-expression and brooding self-involvement. And so on, and so forth, for both the hexad and the triangle. (If you are curious about this, I recommend reading the section on “The Soul Child” in Sandra Maiti’s book The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram.)

This means, staying with our example above, that there is already a built-in resistance in Ones to welcoming Sevenish traits in themselves, as these feel like they go against the grain — and if point One is indeed a reaction to what point Seven represents, this makes perfect sense. In contrast, the One’s “movement” along the direction of the arrow to point Four is like water following the path of least resistance, which is what egos in reactivity tend to do. The already pre-existing idealism and strive for perfection, along with the notion that I am the only one really seeing the need for improvement, can have the normally objective and restrained One lapse into bitterness and a “woe is me” attitude, complete with moodiness and temperamental outbursts.

All this does seem familiar, doesn’t it, as a description of the One? By contrast, the version where the One reacts to adversity by going on a gluttonous bender, rushing from one form of stimulation to the other (to exaggerate the possible reaction style of point Seven at the lower average levels) is not what we’d generally expect. (We might see that, too, though — stay tuned.)

The arrow points as built into the type description

As you see, the set directions of stress and integration (although this nomenclature needs at least some unpacking and possibly further updating; see below) is kind of there already in the description of the core type. An Eight floating about in the average to unhealthy ranges will already be at a level of low-grade, constant “stress”. To a varying degree, s/he might express qualities typically associated with point Five, such as being secretive, feeling increasingly insecure (although still likely handling the insecurity in a very Eightish manner), keeping mentally occupied, showing anarchistic tendencies, feeling rejected, isolating, shutting down — all of which are Five-flavoured qualities, but not really hard to see manifesting in a troubled Eight, without the person really having to “move” anywhere.

Again, it will vary how many of these qualities show up in the Eight, but generally, down the levels, they will definitely be more common than their Twoish counterparts: being ingratiating, sentimental, whiny, clingy and trying to fabricate a manipulative “closeness”. (This has exceptions, though, which we will get to.)

By the same token, a Three in the average to unhealthy realm might show some qualities that would normally be associated with a Nine at those levels: adapting to others, smugness, resistance and being conciliatory, placating, and unrealistic, sticking their head in the sand or downright dissociating. We can see how these things even “fit” with point Three overall — much more so than the strength-in-equality comradeship, passive-aggressive behaviour, strong reactivity, rashness, unpredictability, cutting others off, and being blind to their own accomplishments that we can see in Sixes. (The Three might still feel these things, of course, but they would be strongly unlikely to show. The same goes for other types.)

In this way, the “stress point” is definitely a specific direction. But since aspects of it come online so soon (if we view the levels with a top-down, fall-from-grace perspective), and also show up very differently (in both quality and strength) in different individuals, we rightfully do not necessarily consider that “moving” anyway. We just see them being average, reactive Eights, Threes, and so forth.

“The point of security”

There is also a dynamic we might adopt average-level aspects expressly from the other point, the would-be “point of integration” — i e, the scenario that I described as unlikely above. When this happens, we are utilizing what is sometimes referred to as the “security point”. On the Enneagram model, this is the same point as that of growth/integration (a k a the heart point), i e type Two for the Eight, type Six for the Three, and so on.

The dynamic behind the security point is that in some cases, after all, the ego might actually utilise the tools of this point for less noble reasons than growth — but we typically only do that when we are in a secure relationship or situation where we feel we can vent, fall apart, shut down, act out, be needy (or whatever it is about for us) without it backfiring too badly. This is where the strong and decisive Eight might turn indirect and needy with people they really trust, or where Threes go into a full-on stress-loop over their inadequacies and need talking down by a close friend or significant other. (Obviously, these are just examples, and the individual variations are countless.) Or we do it in secret altogether, such as when a One really does go on a bender, secretly indulging in the things that s/he is publicly loudly condemning.

As I said in the beginning, we can see a similar schematic for inner growth in the other direction, which includes identifying “the missing piece” — another phenomenon identified by and term coined by Don Riso and Russ Hudson — but, as we still have plenty of ground to cover here, I’ll mostly leave the growth side alone for now, except for when we need it at the end ;-).

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So we can see that it is kind of built into each type that expressing the average-to-unhealthy attitudes of the point of stress indicates more imbalance and relative unhealth, whereas expressing the healthy attitudes of the point of integration type indicates increased balance. Of course this does not mean, however, that expressing the healthy attitudes of ANY type wouldn’t point to growth, or that the expression of any unhealthy attitudes should be considered a positive development.

So how does all this add up? To clarify that, we need to address the issue of arrow nomenclature; that is, we need to agree that there are multiple aspects of “stress” and “growth” and when and how we are referring to what.

The terminology tangle

Originally, the directions of the arrows were said to represent “integration” and “disintegration”. On account of especially the latter being considered a bit rough on the digestion, other terms were introduced to better explain what we were talking about. Only, it turns out “we” were talking about several things, possibly without noticing. Factors we could be referring to in this discussion, all relevant but still distinct from one another, are:

  • stress — increased pressure or ego provocation, in the moment or over a day; anything from a more severe everyday challenge to a series of smaller ones. Stress is whatever increases the load on the system, and it can be shorter or longer term. The opposite of this stress could be relaxation and expansion which could in turn be the result of various degrees of personal growth — or not. As you can tell, it is a wide term.
  • compromised psychological balance — this is when defences are wearing down and we are “doing worse”, mentally and emotionally. (We are not necessarily experiencing it as such, depending on our level or self-awareness. But from the point of view of ego identification, it’s getting stronger.) This entails a fall down the levels and the corresponding changes in attitudes, reactivity, and coping strategies. The opposite would be a move up the levels, signifying increased psychological balance and lessened ego-identification.
  • change that profoundly affects core type patterns these are changes on the positive side, which can actually shift part of our basic type structure. The opposite would not really change the personality core, but rather just wedge us harder into the grooves of our ego-identification and agendas, with an increase in whatever coping strategies and reactivity we generally have going on.

Let’s look at these one by one and see how they fit into this framework.


This was discussed above under “coping strategies”. The concept of stress probably does not need too much introduction these days, since we constantly hear about stress, different types of stress, and its effect on mind and body. This is, again, where we each have our individual coping mechanisms in place: those offered by our core type as well as other types whose attitudes we have easy access to, might they be represented by arrow points in either directions, a wing, behaviours modelled for us by authority figures when we grew up, or all of the above. The order in which we will deploy them varies with the situation and/or depending on our personal leanings; some people utilize several of these, whereas others tend to fall back on just one or a couple of them.

If the stress is persistent and we lack the inner space to transmute the reactivity, thus continuing to escalate our core type’s reactivity, we are likely to fall down in the levels. (And if it is persistent enough, if whatever set(s) of defences that we deploy does not ultimately provide said space for transmutation, in the end this will happen regardless.)

Compromised psychological balance

This is a longer-term decline. Maybe we suffer from depression, feel increasingly put-upon by others or the world at large, sustain a severe blow to our self-esteem, meet with a series of failures, disappointments, or betrayals, experience increased levels of anxiety due to unprocessed psychological material, or something else that makes us grow less resilient, more ego-identified, and generally the worse for wear.

Here, too, it’s possible that this shift comes with the use of various “ego resources” — again, depending on individual leanings. However, it will also include an actual shift, levels-wise, and therefore most likely some expression of the attitudes of the stress point, in the way they are more or less subtly built into the core type as discussed above. Sometimes we spot them as such and say we are “going to our stress point”, but they might just as easily be overshadowed by other ego defences also being activated, so that the sum total doesn’t necessarily show a lot of “stress point action” to speak of.

Change that profoundly affects core patterns

Here, we need to step out of the land of regular psychology and plant one foot in psycho-spiritual terrain. The understanding of each type’s core identifications and challenges really goes beyond psychology, even though it can be expressed pretty well in psychological language. When we start looking into the essential aspects of each type — and the loss of contact which leaves a metaphorical wound, giving rise to the type passion — it gets clearer what bits of the personality structure are relatively minor aspects, more subject to individual variation, and which aspects are the major, core aspects that hold the type-pattern in place.

If we go back to our point One, we could view it as built to counteract the excitability, rashness, and gluttonous hedonism lurking at point Seven. (Sevens, don’t worry; none of us sound great when presented in our lower-average glory from the point of view of our stress point — to which we, of course, represent the point of growth. If point One had been able to take in the gifts and blessings of point Seven, the resistance would have been superfluous in the first place.) This way, point Seven is a threat to the very core of point One; its reason for being, if we’re being a bit dramatic about it. It’s clear why this is a major thing, and why integrating the balanced, healthy aspects of point Seven would mean a fundamental shift in the One’s inner structure. This is what integration means in the arrow teachings. It is not just any growth or maturity (which, again, can resemble any of the points and does not have to look the same for every One), but the nature of realisation that shifts the core structures of the  inner prison provided by our personality.

But does not “disintegration” offer a kind of opposite, too?

The interesting thing about this is that when we look at the Four, the One’s point of stress or “disintegration”, that offers a kind of opposite, too: the rationality and self-restraint of the One versus the emotionality and self-indulgence of the Four. (Again, Fours — needless to say, this is not meant to provide a comprehensive picture of point Four, but only to illustrate how its average-to-lower qualities contrast to the One’s overall characteristics.) So, just like the line to Seven, the one to Four represents a kind of contrast to the One package. Why, then, is that not a point of integration, too?

It goes back to the core-of-structure aspect. While point One’s resistance to gluttony, frivolity, and impulsive behaviour is a part of this core, its rationality and self-restraint are merely consequences of this. Failure to hold up these qualities (as the One ego would see it) and resorting to emotional self-indulgence (e g) instead only changes the method, not the goal, as it were. From where the One stands in the Enneagram curriculum, the sliding over into Four makes it harder yet to see, question and soften their core attitudes. (This is not all there is to say here, though. Stay tuned.)

This means I actually don’t think that disintegration was that bad of a term to begin with. Sure, it’s a bit hard to understand and quite sinister, and we could use a more approachable word — but also, by now, we can see that “stress” does not really cover it. Because what integration and disintegration are gauging is basically how deeply entrenched we are in our type’s core attitudes and beliefs and, thus, how close to liberation. Those are very type-specific. “Stress” (and, by all means, “growth”, too) by contrast can be anything — type-related or not. By no means less relevant — but a different concept.

Distinguishing your growth from your, er, growth

So this is basically it. We can talk about growth (or its opposite) on all manner of planes. If I’m afraid of public speaking, it would likely constitute growth for me to overcome that. This growth has nothing whatsoever to do with Enneagram types, core or otherwise. Then we have individual personality growth, which has to do with our personality patterns but which varies depending on our individual cocktail of experiences, leanings, preferences, and habits. (This is where we can grow — or the opposite — every which way, arrow-wise, and obviously even outside of the arrows, or the entire Enneagram.) This is still growth, and brilliant, as it stands to make our life all kinds of easier. It’s not nothing — I mean, at all. It is precious, freeing, and worthwhile. But it does not necessarily entail any change in my ego-identification.

And then there’s what might perhaps best be called the transformation of core structures. To do that will by definition, sooner or later, entail integrating the healthy aspects of the point whose arrow is pointing towards us. Because this point is the antidote to our core suffering, or the basic, fundamental misunderstanding that we are consistently operating out of (sometimes with the help of other type expressions). Unless and until we do, we will still to some extent live from this misunderstanding and experience the suffering that it gives rise to.

The “final stop” of the real deal

In their work with types, levels and understanding their dynamics, Don Riso and Russ Hudson also recognised something that they called “the missing piece” — the final stop, as it were, on the personality’s journey towards liberation. Even after the whole process of letting ourselves be subtly permeated by the liberating attitudes of the high side of our growth point (which to a large extent is about connecting with our true heart, whichever type we are and wherever we are located in the centre triads), we still have to integrate one more aspect for the balance to be complete.

This final step is offered by our so-called stress point. As a Six, even as I have integrated the Nine qualities of grounding and being with whatever arises, countering my core Six patterns, at point Three, I get access to inner direction and real self-esteem. As an Eight, even as I have integrated access to my heart and vulnerability at point Two, at point Five I learn that the experience of emptiness is not annihilation, but freedom, as well as find my rightful place in the grander scheme of things. And so on and so forth, for all the types.

But again, there’s growth, and then there’s growth. These things play out both in sequence (chronologically in our life and geometrically on the symbol) and holistically, with parallels and overlaps. The Eight can access aspects of emptiness, and lots of other worthwhile insights and qualities, from type Five at any time (just like he or she can express higher insights from any point). This is where a lot of people arrive back at the “we integrate in both directions, so the arrows are obsolete”-view. But the point is, what I am integrating will not be that missing piece — that is, it will not have that same final-insight impact, have I not first integrated my way up the levels to find my true heart (for all the types, in different guises) and see through the shackles of my ego. It is only once I have genuinely made myself at home in the higher-healthy levels (including integrating the high end of my growth point) that the missing piece can hit all the way home. Before that, at best, I am only trying it on for size.

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Whew. As a wise man once noted, “there are a lot of levels to talk about something on”, and this is certainly true for the inner lines of the Enneagram symbol and the directions of their arrows. Hopefully, I have succeeded in expanding the topic from the flat, black-and-white expression of “are the directions true or not?” to a deeper understanding of how they are indeed relevant, and how this still doesn’t negate the fact that we can “move” either way in both meaningful development and constricting reactivity. It is just that one perspective is purely psychological, whereas the other is rooted in the psychospiritual realm.