The geometry of relationship

enneagramI’ve just returned from having a coffee in town with a friend: the perfect way to unwind and regenerate after a day of client work. It offers a way to see and feel the contrast in how relationships take or offer energy – and that isn’t a straightforward segregation as “clients take” and “friends give”; and neither is it consistent – I feel fortunate to have friendships that allow me to give and take at different times.

And this was something of what my friend and I were discussing. An aspect that we share is the wish to live a more conscious life. We would both describe ourselves as “seekers”, and have a sincere wish to “wake up” (to ourselves, to life). We do this through our respective paths – mine being the path of meditation and Buddhism. We also see how relationship offers an exploration to uncover more of our “self”, and particularly what may still operate from our shadow – those unclaimed parts of self that often run the show. It is a real gift to have a friendship in which patterns in relating can be explored real time.

A system that I am coming to appreciate more and more (in my understanding of self, other and relationship) is that of the enneagram. From the Enneagram Institute’s webpage:

“The Enneagram can be seen as a set of nine distinct personality types, with each number on the Enneagram denoting one type. It is common to find a little of yourself in all nine of the types, although one of them should stand out as being closest to yourself. This is your basic personality type.”

Alarm bells!!! A humanistic therapist aligning herself with a “personality typing”? Well, erm….yes, this does sort of feel like a “coming out”! I would say that like with all labels, diagnoses, and indeed any theory, I feel able to hold this frame lightly and to not mistake it as the truth.

Since learning about this system, which apparently has its roots in Sufism (no-one seems really clear on this), I have enjoyed learning how my own “type” (I am a ‘Six’, the middle of the head triad) thinks, feels and behaves in the world and have appreciated how it has helped me understand why I am the way I am in relationships – especially in relation to other “types” on the enneagram.

I tend to collect “Nines” and “Fours” in my close circle – there are obviously lessons I need to learn from these people (with their own tendencies and patterns of relating). My wife is a Nine; and the friend I met for coffee today is a Four. We shared how we had both viewed a recent occurrence in our friendship; and how my “loyalty” mixes with her “individualism”. Again, from the Enneagram Institute’s webpage:

4 THE INDIVIDUALIST: The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental
6 THE LOYALIST: The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious

I would agree with how Sixes and Fours come to form close relationship:

“Fours and Sixes can bring to each other the feeling that they are kindred souls, connected by their feelings of abandonment and a certain distrust of others. They may feel like “orphans in the storm” who offer mutual support and reassurance. Fours and Sixes tend to support and stabilize each other, usually acting as a sounding board for worries and complaints that they feel they cannot air anywhere else.”

Over coffee today, in sharing our experience of how we feel we communicate together, my friend and I could see where we meet and where we diverge. Sixes tend to be those “friends for life”, and I know I often want my friends to know I am thinking of them – so I reach out, and I make regular contact. My Four friend expressed how she loves receiving my messages, appreciates them but might not respond because she doesn’t feel able to give the meaning-full response she feels it deserved. My reaching out process, her one of in-dwelling. Sixes tend to get anxious; and the flip side of our loyalty is a paranoia of betrayal. My friend (being a classic Four) has no sense this is going on for me, but is devastated when she realises she has forgotten to get back to the message she meant to reply to but hadn’t thought how to meet me in the way she wanted to! Thankfully, we know this – and it was a truly touching (and humorous) encounter in which we learned so much about self, other, and relationship.

This triad – self, other, relationship – is a facet of psychotherapy that we make integral to our trainee’s learning at the University. And even with my tentative attitude* toward personality systems, I am finding myself considering my clients through the lens of the enneagram more and more. In fact, ideas for another book are bubbling – I know, book number 1 needs finishing first! I’m even more excited about how the wisdom of the Buddhist paradigm might be integrated – I wouldn’t be the first to notice their compatibility: Claudio Naranjo, one of my “hero psychotherapists” from the world of Gestalt, has written much about Buddhism and meditation in psychotherapy; and then separately on psychotherapy and the enneagram. It wouldn’t be an unrealistic leap to consider how he might have integrated all three. Another member on my “hero list” Buddhist teacher Susan Piver, seems to confirm this. I cannot wait for Susan to finish her own book on Buddhism and the enneagram.

I’d like to share more thoughts on the enneagram in psychotherapy with you; and I will think about how I can best do that without compromising progress on my blog to book project. Today’s post arose from bonus time, and in many ways a bonus space offered by a dear friend in a trusted relationship….well, as trustworthy as any Six would admit to.


*well, I am a Six – I doubt everything

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