I recently blogged about Enneagram — the personality model, not the board game. The Enneagram Institute splits humanity into nine definitive personality “types,” each interconnected with the other types. What follows is the second post in a brief introspective series about my life as a Type 4: “The Individualist.” Today, I examine the darker side of life as an unhealthy Type 4 — the unhealthy life of Tom.
“Unhealthy people are scary,” says my friend, the Enneagram aficionado who first introduced me to Enneagram. It’s kinda funny, the way he says it. But it’s true. Unhealthy people are scary. I know; I’ve been there.
It’s easy to see someone from afar and judge their messed up selves. But it’s another matter entirely to look inward and confess the messed up darkness of your own soul.
Yes, even for me, the “struggle guy,” admitting my faults and failings as an unhealthy Type 4 remains a challenge. Remains so very shameful.
Life as an Unhealthy Type 4: The Bottom Three Levels of Healthiness
Each of the nine Enneagram types is structured on a nine-level hierarchy of healthiness. At Level 1, you’re at the peak of your healthy existence. And at Level 9, you’ve sunk to your unhealthiest depths. According to the Enneagram Type 4 page, here’s how my bottom three levels as an unhealthy Type 4 look:
Level 7: When dreams fail, become self-inhibiting and angry at self, depressed and alienated from self and others, blocked and emotionally paralyzed. Ashamed of self, fatigued and unable to function.
Level 8: Tormented by delusional self-contempt, self-reproaches, self-hatred, and morbid thoughts: everything is a source of torment. Blaming others, they drive away anyone who tries to help them.
Level 9: Despairing, feel hopeless and become self-destructive, possibly abusing alcohol or drugs to escape. In the extreme: emotional breakdown or suicide is likely. Generally corresponds to the Avoidant, Depressive, and Narcissistic personality disorders.
If you ever hit Level 9 for any of the nine Enneagram types, you basically become prone to destructive, off-the-cliff behavior, including suicide. Thankfully, I can’t say I’ve ever been that far gone in 27 years. I’ve never been suicidal or abused any substances. But as to the other two unhealthy Type 4 levels? Well…
Life as an Unhealthy Type 4: Am I “Depressed”?
I generally try to stay away from the word “depressed.” It’s a legitimate word with a complicating psychological meaning that, quite honestly, I don’t fully understand. Have I ever been truly clinically depressed? I don’t know; I don’t think so. But that’s not to say middle school and high school was a cheery cakewalk. It wasn’t.
Those difficult, often torturous teenage years brought me as close to Levels 7 and 8 as I’ve ever been. I wrote a lot about those struggle-lined times in Struggle Central: of acne and insults and isolation abounding. Of hidden harrowing shame over my attacked awkward ugly self.
I certainly blamed others for my emotional ruin. Blamed the bullies who blasted me — most of whom were other men. When it came to all the other guys, however, the ones who either ignored me or could’ve cared less about any sort of deep meaningful friendship, I turned the blame inward.
I must be the messed up one, then. Of course he’s ignoring me; of course he doesn’t care. Why would he want to be my friend? Why would anyone? Friends with this emotional disaster?
I can connect much of my adolescence with those descriptive snippets from Level 7: of being ashamed of myself. Fatigued. Emotionally paralyzed.
Life as an Unhealthy Type 4: Shame Is Not My Identity
Nearly a decade now removed from high school, I still dabble in Level 7 from time to time. I’m practically a professional at the blame/shame game. While I rarely blame others anymore, I do still wonder why this person or that group — usually other men — would ever want to befriend the complete and utter mess of me.
Even after all these years, it’s hard to let go of my shame. Because Type 4s tend to tie shame to our very identities, to discard shame, then, would be to destroy something intrinsic and significant. It’s who we are.
But is it? Is it really? Desperately holding onto my shame seems as sad and inane as the story of this sickly dog and its bone:
There is a Sufi story … about an old dog that had been badly abused and was near starvation. One day, the dog found a bone, carried it to a safe spot, and started gnawing away. The dog was so hungry that it chewed on the bone for a long time and got every last bit of nourishment that it could out of it. After some time, a kind old man noticed the dog and its pathetic scrap and began quietly setting food out for it. But the poor hound was so attached to its bone that it refused to let go of it and soon starved to death.
Fours are in the same predicament. As long as they believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, they cannot allow themselves to experience or enjoy their many good qualities. To acknowledge their good qualities would be to lose their sense of identity (as a suffering victim) and to be without a relatively consistent personal identity (their Basic Fear). Fours grow by learning to see that much of their story is not true—or at least it is not true any more. The old feelings begin to fall away once they stop telling themselves their old tale: it is irrelevant to who they are right now.
Unhealthy Tom doesn’t trust people.
Unhealthy Tom is afraid of people.
Unhealthy Tom prefers solitary shame to communal love.
Unhealthy Tom is scary. But understanding more about my unhealthy Type 4 tendencies has been an enlightening and empowering process. Moving forward, I need to let go of the bone of blame and shame. Need to recognize the past for what it is: something that is behind me. Not still with me. To shed my shame and reject any further identification with it.
May I take all those awful teenage experiences and sculpt a new existence into my twenties and beyond. One free of blame toward others and, more vitally, myself.
What’s your Enneagram Type? Describe your life as an unhealthy Type 4 or whatever other unhealthy type. What does being “unhealthy” look like for you, and how can you climb upward?