Its not unusual to get a knowing chuckle from a friend or family member when I announce that I have officially retired from chief problem solver. Don’t get me wrong, I do love to solve problems. I still readily show up when someone needs my help. But now I am more of a ‘guide” helping others empower themselves to find their own solutions. I credit the Enneagram for helping me to discover a rewarding new path for my natural inclination to be a “helper”.
The Enneagram provided a good blueprint for me to better understand my approach to life, and most importantly, my motivations. As a Type 2, often referred to as the Helper, I was motivated to gain acceptance and love by “helping others”. In other words I believed that I had to “earn” love, trust and acceptance.
Looking back over the years, I can most definitely see this pattern play out over and over again. Sometimes it worked. Most times it didn’t. Diving deeper into understanding myself, I freed myself from falling into the trap of “helping too much.”
I’d been blindly operating on the principle that If those I cared about were happy, then I would be happy. Yet it was my over-involvement when problems cropped up that got in the way of others discovering for themselves what that really looked like. And it often left me feeling like a failure in my biggest hopes of making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Classic “unhealthy” Type 2 paradox.
Beatrice Chestnut, a renowned authority on the Enneagram and also a Type 2, helped me gain a deep perspective on the pitfalls of the “unhealthy” patterns that my Enneagram type can easily migrate to and why. She also came up with a new moniker for “helper” that shines a light on the best part of healthy Enneagram 2’s. She calls us the “befriender.” I liked the sound of that — the “befriender” and it become a good framework for this shift I was seeking to achieve.
I had overcome my fair share of adversities in life and always hoped to be a shining light of inspiration for others. I wanted to be a good friend, a good role model. While I was resilient, positive and always willing to help, I had a big blind spot. There was one critical missing piece to my personal puzzle — the person I need to trust, love and accept the most was — myself.
Brene Brown’s ten guideposts in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, became an invaluable aid to accepting myself fully — embracing my imperfections and becoming rooted in an unshakable belief of my own worthiness. My challenging childhood set me up for simply accepting “being less than” and “unworthy” for a very long time. Brene’s book unlocked the fallacy of this messaging and set me in a new direction.
As I took both Beatrice’s wisdom and Brene’s research to heart, I had an eye opening moment. It dawned on me that in the past when I was jumping headfirst into solving other’s problems, I actually had a very vested interest in the outcome for my own reasons. Let me share a few examples:
I was so uncomfortable in conflict situations that I’d rush to calm everyone down. Instead of letting them blow off steam and get the problem out in the open, I was focused on me achieving peace and a calm environment where I would feel safe.
I’d often feel guilt when something was left undone though it wasn’t mine to do. I’d get right to work and undertake tasks on my own without even asking if help was wanted or needed. It was me that was feeling uncomfortable about unfinished business.
I would often agree to do things that I really did not want to do, or outwardly agree with others just to keep the peace. While others were often happy with that approach, my own internal peace and values were often in conflict.
The Enneagram enabled me to understand the underlying reasons for unconsciously choosing these options. There is no doubt that many were rooted in coping mechanisms related to my childhood experiences. Being the oldest child, I grew up too fast in a volatile environment, always striving to protect my younger brothers by being one step ahead of the impending and inevitable trouble created by our parents.
I became a compliant, responsible, harmonizing peacekeeper, entrusted to care for those who couldn’t defend themselves and diligent enough to cover for irresponsible adults. A perfect recipe for a helper with no boundaries who was comfortable in co-dependent relationships and skilled at people pleasing.
Here’s the rub with this ineffective “comfort zone” I had acquired. It was not serving me well at all in my adult life and it certainly was not beneficial to those I loved and genuinely wanted to help. Once I was enlightened about my problematic “comfort zone of unconscious responses” I definitely started paying attention to them with greater awareness.
Looking at the examples I shared above, I gained a lot of clarity about how my coping mechanisms landed on others:
When I would swoosh in to calm tempers and diffuse a tense situation, I’d actually be derailing getting the real issue out in the open. Some could feel that I didn’t value them because I shut down the opportunity for them to share their perspective. Some could feel a sense of superiority because they escaped accountability. My intervention was not productive and often not welcome.
Doing unfinished tasks could feel like micro-managing to others. Or, give an impression that I viewed myself as more capable and efficient. While that was not all my intention, I can surely see that so clearly now. Not to mention the fact that some people like to have “works in progress” rather than rushing to complete a task.
My lack of boundaries and inability to say no caused a lot of confusion for others. They really did not know just how far they could push me til I’d lose my temper. Neither did I. No wonder others would often tell me I was “too sensitive” when I’d lose it over something minor (because I had stuffed a lot of bigger things for far too long). If I finally found the courage to draw a line in the sand, few people actually believed I’d actually adhere to it.
You could say that the Enneagram gave me a full 360 perspective about the way I was “showing up” in life. It made me aware of how the armor I was using to protect myself from being hurt was really getting in the way of building healthy, flexible relationships. It was also problematic for actively engaging in life in an authentic, whole-hearted way. While I had good intentions, what I also needed were grounded, healthy emotional tools. I found the Enneagram enabled me to get very clear about where I needed to focus my attention to make positive changes.
The Enneagram is often used in individual therapy and couples counseling. And just like Myers-Briggs and DiSC, it is now being used in the workplace and career counseling. It honestly takes a lot of the emotional attachment and defensiveness out of the equation when it comes to our unique personality traits. Understanding how we are naturally hard-wired and how our “motivations” move us through the range of healthy and unhealthy behaviors is a big key to acceptance. We can accept ourselves as we are. And when we can do that, we are more open to accepting others as they are too.
The heartwarming “aha moment” for me was the realization — and the affirmation — that I could “fully embrace my natural born passion of a helper” and be more in alignment with my true nature and life purpose just by moving toward the healthy spectrum of being an Enneagram Type 2. Honestly, I laughed and cried simultaneously when I made this discovery.
So let’s go back to my three examples and take a look at the work I had to do:
I had to learn to get comfortable with confrontation. I could not let it trigger me anymore. Meditation really helped with this one. It took a long time and lots of practice, but I have a mental image of “dropping my anchor” into my core of calm and I ground myself with three deep breaths. The game-changer for me is not being sucked into my own emotional vortex just because there is confrontation. It enables me to truly be “other” focused and to listen attentively to what is being said. I do have to remind myself mentally turn down the volume if there is shouting involved. Oh and the most meaningful change — if it doesn’t involve me, I stay out of it. True confession here — the more I have practiced this in real life situations, the better I have gotten at it. I keep a few gold stars tucked in my pocket for times when I realize just how far I’ve come.
I am an anal organizer and have a hard time sitting still. If there is laundry or dishes to do, I’ll be on it. But just because I run my household that way does not mean that everyone else wants to. I’m also aware that it was my own undoing as a young mother that taught me how to get more organized and prioritize things. So now, when I find myself itching to becoming the cleaning Tasmanian devil in someone else’s space, I pause and take those three deep breaths again. And I do nothing. And oh my gosh it is hard, but only for a few minutes. My discomfort with unfinished tasks has waned. I’m growing to like this new feeling of respecting others space, the way they like to do things and the control they have over their own life. If I sense that they could use a little help, I ask before jumping in. “How can I best help you?” is my new “go-to” question. I have learned that some people thrive in the most creative ways in an environment that might feel out of control to me. I’m learning so much about consequences and accountability since I stopped doing things no one asked me to do.
This brings me to boundaries. If you read my last blog post, Growth Spurts, you will know that I came to a deep understanding of the value of boundaries and how they actually supported me in becoming a better version of myself. Boundaries are a form of self-care for me. Most importantly, they really clarify for others what is acceptable and not acceptable for our relationships. As Brene Brown has stated, “Clear is Kind” — and my boundaries make perfectly clear what my values are. Here’s the surprising twist — personal boundaries actually give me improved agency to be more flexible with others. I credit Dr. Rick Hanson and Nedra Tawwab or teaching me this.
A big gift of the Enneagram was a deeper understanding of all nine types — what motivates each type, their unique attributes and the places they feel less comfortable. Having some basic knowledge of how others show up in life and why, it becomes a lot clearer to see what their hot buttons might be. Truthfully, it takes a lot of unnecessary emotion and drama out of the equation when you have greater awareness of others basic needs. As I shared above, this is a great opening for “acceptance” of our differences and a bridge to finding creative solutions to recurring disagreements and misunderstandings.
As I have reframed my helping proclivity to that of a “befriender”, I rely more heavily on curiosity, acceptance and non-judgment when interacting with others. The better I get to know myself, the more I want to discover about others. We are all complex human beings with so many stratifications of emotions and experiences accumulated over our lifetimes.
While empathy and compassion come naturally to me, I am keenly aware not to dismiss another’s feelings by reminding them of their blessings. I know I did that in the past and while well-intentioned, it was not helpful. We all feel how we feel. Our feelings are legitimate and neither right nor wrong. We respond differently because we are uniquely different and our life experiences are not the same. We have no idea what another’s history might be and why they are sensitive to things that may never hit our radar screen. I’m learning to listen carefully and talk less. I’m learning to ask questions to gain understanding. I’m also learning to ask questions for which I don’t need the answer, but my friend may want to sit with for a while.
Little did I know when I started my personal growth journey six years ago, I would become better skilled and more effective at the very things I loved so much but that once got me into a lot of trouble and some very dark spaces.
I wish I had learned much earlier in life to look inward first and to remove the obstacles that were no longer needed as I did in fact “come through” an adversity, a setback, a painful loss. I wish I had given myself grace when I was just being vulnerable and healing. I wish I had learned to trust myself and my worthiness. If I had loved myself as I was loving others, I think I would have reached this peaceful, joyful, grateful, grounded space much sooner. The learning and the growing never stops which I find delightful. I feel more in alignment with my gifts and I genuinely feel I am making a meaningful difference in a much healthier way than I ever did.
The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut
The Enneagram Institute https://www.enneagraminstitute.com Great resource for an introduction to the Enneagram and a free test to determine your type
If you enjoy a daily dose of inspiration, sign up for your Enneagram number’s Daily EnneaThought email. I love getting this daily encouragement to stay on my healthy path in my inbox every day.
Typology Podcasts with Ian Morgan Cron, author of The Road Back to You, An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. Let Go of Who You Think You are Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
Yung Puelbo’s Book Inward and his new one being released in mid-April, Clarity & Connection