Master Class

I’ve been captivated by the extensive research that explains how childhood experiences shape our personalities and impact our ability to cope with life’s inevitable adversities. It intrigues me on several levels. One, it helps me unpack a lot of mystery and confusion about relationships I have had since childhood. And two, it fuels my advocacy for children, mental health and the importance of personal growth.

I’m extremely grateful for the work that Dr. Bruce Perry, Brene Brown and many others have been doing over the past several decades that is culminating in a greater awareness and deeper understanding of our hard-wired need for love and belonging. Research is shedding a lot of light on all the ways people go about trying to fill these deficits of worthiness, trust, and connection — and what goes wrong more often than not.

The cause of these feelings of deficit are often rooted in our childhood experiences and even the culture of the time.

Acceptable and normalized punishments for “bad behavior” from my generation have thankfully evolved. As is so often the case, because we did not understand basic brain functions, we were making things worse — for ourselves and our children. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We are now beginning to understand that a child’s bad behavior is not a choice, but a natural limitation due to childhood brain development.

Our personalities and our behavioral patterns are all shaped in early childhood. They are a direct result of our lived life experiences. We develop our coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns as a child to to keep us safe all while also seeking to be accepted, to be valued and to be heard. We need love and belonging to grow and thrive.

As we make our way into the adult world, we subconsciously take these childhood experiences and patterns with us.

Imagine how many relationship problems could be resolved in a supportive and meaningful way if we actually addressed the “right’ problem. Between the armor we have all piled on to protect ourselves from childhood trauma and insecurities — and the behavioral patterns that become walls to scale, we truly do get in our own way of achieving a wholehearted life.

When I left a failed relationship six years ago, I decided I needed to unravel whatever it was that I was doing that was blocking my success in rebuilding my relational life after Skip’s death. I had no idea how invaluable that broken relationship would become as a reference point for educating myself about the complexities of living an authentic, wholehearted life.

One of the most revelational tools I discovered was the Enneagram.

The enneagram was the equivalent of having an MRI to uncover my learned behavioral patterns and the core motivation driving them. When I took my first enneagram test to determine my type, I found it to be remarkably accurate. It dovetailed perfectly with my childhood experiences, and the people pleasing skills I carried far into adulthood. It was a helpful starting place for me to unpack the “why” questions. Why was I a “rescuer”, why did I avoid conflict and why was I so afraid to express my own needs.

As I began to recall childhood memories, I saw the pattern of frequent occurrences of painful experiences. In order to navigate the chaotic uncertainty, I developed coping skills to mitigate adverse consequences. I was also witness to the experiences that my two younger brothers had and as the big sister, I felt a responsibility to protect them.

The enneagram evaporated all the beliefs I had that I was somehow irreversibly flawed. It allowed me to realize that the behavioral patterns I’d developed were simply coping skills intended to protect me. These now irrelevant behavioral patterns were the product of my environment. I was not a product of my environment. At the core, I was a big-hearted, tender, spirited girl.

My personal growth work was to reconnect with that girl — and step out of the armor I no longer needed.

I don’t think my story is all that unusual. A hardship or a heartbreak causes pain and self-reflection. Some of those events bring about change that cannot be avoided, like me having to get on with life after Skip died. Some become the catalyst for proactive change and that can be a job, a divorce, a diet, a move — or personal growth. Self-awareness, personal accountability and acceptance can all feel very vulnerable and overwhelming.

It is often a family member or close friend who becomes the emotional glue when we are in that vulnerable state. They care for us through the healing. They encourage us through the transition. It just takes one trusted, caring human being to make a meaningful difference.

Dr. Bruce Perry has repeatedly stressed the value of having one trusted person that we can confide in, who will provide the scaffolding we need as we work through the awareness, the healing and the growth. In fact, professional therapy may not even be required for most people.

I was so blessed in this department — for some unknown and incredible reason, my friend Judy and I reconnected at that very vulnerable point in my life six years ago. Although our lives had taken remarkably different paths, we found ourselves in the same place at the same time. We both were knee deep in some personal development work. We initially stuck our toes in the pool of vulnerability and self-disclosure and once we discovered how safe and therapeutic it was, we took deeper dives.

Honestly, we didn’t know then just how helpful and transformational our deep friendship would be for our personal growth. We did not know about Dr. Perry’s research. We bumbled along for a while without the benefit of the enneagram, peeling back layers with the encouragement of Brene Brown, daily devotionals, inspirational quotes and self-help books. Our trust in each other grew organically and our healing came naturally. We forged a rare sisterhood built on our mutual commitment to become better versions of ourselves and we held each other accountable to the work, to our progress and to continued learning.

I was recently listening to a podcast with Dr. Bruce Perry where he was describing a “teaching” experience he had twenty years ago, but didn’t realize it at the time. He needed to have more experiences, more knowledge, more insight to extract the wisdom from that teaching moment. This really resonated with me because I too have very recently become aware of the master class I was enrolled in during chapters of my life.

It is only now, as I sit on the other side of a lot of hard personal introspection and the work done to heal and transform, that I can look back and see others through a much better lens. If I step way back from those confusing, dysfunctional relationship issues, I am aware that we were often addressing the wrong core problems. We were attempting to treat the consequences of behavioral patterns. We should have been addressing the key motivations.

This is precisely why it is so imperative that we each “do our own work.”

I was often puzzled why people in my life could not see and feel how much I loved them. I would wear myself out, doubling down on my efforts to help, to rescue, to solve, to soothe. The truth is, they were not in “receiving” mode — they could not take in what I was offering and accept it unconditionally as proof positive that they were loved, valued and seen. All the armor they wore, all the core beliefs they had about being unworthy, unloveable and not belonging blocked any possibility that they could absorb these affirmations and confirmations. It underscored my belief that I was a failure. Two people trapped in old history, false narratives and blind spots. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister. Nobody wins in these scenarios.

Dr. Perry talks about how the wheels get set in motion in early childhood years — a disregulated stress response system contributes to poor coping skills and emotional regulation later in life. Learned behavioral patterns close us up to receive what we need the most, so that even when we get it, it is foreign to us and we feel vulnerable. This is the root cause of emotional triggers, PTSD and panic attacks. Left unaddressed, these factors will set us up for a cascade of problems throughout our adult lives.

Overlay Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability on top of Dr. Perry’s findings and you get a profound sense of why her work resonates with millions of people all over the globe.

Brene has taught us that when we numb all these hard emotions in an effort to get some relief, we also numb the joy in our lives. This is yet another example of not being in “receiving” mode. Numb the pain and check out for a while. It means we “disconnect” so we just double down on what causes the problem. Disconnection, isolation, not being present in the moment — we are treating our pain with the very stuff that causes it.

Sitting with our real feelings, even the hard painful ones, is our brain and body’s way of processing. It builds resilience and it helps us self-regulate in a healthy way. We use the phrase “No pain, no gain” for our physical health, but we shy away from it for our mental health. As Dr. Perry says, no one gets out of life unscathed. We will all suffer loss, health issues, heartaches, adversity. We can — and we should — do hard things.

We have the tools to do this in a safe, healthy, productive way. It can start with a trusted friend. Asking for help is not an admission of weakness — it is a sign of strength and a desire to overcome whatever is holding you back from enjoying life and building resilience. This is precisely why Brene calls vulnerability the birthplace of courage and creativity.

I believe that the enneagram is another invaluable tool for self-discovery. Just as it evaporated my false beliefs about who I am at the core, it can have that same impact for others. It diffuses all that negativity and heavy emotional investment we have around our sensitivities and needs. It turns the spotlight onto the core motivations and that gives way to clarity and understanding. I believe we all really do want to support and help each other, but it gets so hard, so frustrating and self-defeating if we put all our time and energy into solving the wrong problem.

The more I learn about all nine types in the enneagram, the greater my awareness of what makes others tick. I have a clearer sense of what drives their behavior especially if I am familiar with some of their life history. A little awareness, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy can go a long way in creating the scaffolding for anyone who wants to get a foothold on their own personal growth.

Life is always providing lessons for us. The more we know what we don’t know, the greater the motivation to discover. I started out just trying to make sense of my own life six years ago and now I find myself a part of something that will greatly benefit my children and grandchildren. Imagine how we can all benefit from these game-changing, transformational shifts in how we raise children and how we support with each other.


The Big Why

I recently discovered some great new resources about the enneagram, a favorite tool of mine for self-awareness. What is driving my excitement is how the enneagram is now being used to help us not only get to know ourselves better, but also to be able to engage more effectively with others. Better yet, how we can tap into the individual strengths and motivations of all 9 types to create dynamic new solutions to our collective, repetitive problems.

The distinctive difference between the enneagram and other personality assessment tools is that the Enneagram addresses the “why” of our behavioral patterns. It reveals why we are motivated to respond and behave in familiar patterns, taking the phrase “it’s just who I am to a whole new level. Think about how transformational it would be in your closest relationships if you had this deeper insight about yourself and each other. It has the potential to take conflict off the table and replace it with understanding. Just that awareness alone can turn disagreements into more empathic and productive conversations.

To shed a little light on the “Big Why”, take a look at the core desires and basic fears for each of the 9 enneagram types:

  • Enneagram Type 1: The Reformer
    • Core Desire: Having integrity, being good, right, balanced
    • Basic Fear: Being wrong, bad, inappropriate, imperfect
  • Enneagram Type 2: The Helper
    • Core Desire: Being loved, being wanted
    • Basic Fear: Being unloved, unwanted, needy
  • Enneagram Type 3: The Achiever
    • Core Desire: Being valuable, successful, admired
    • Basic Fear: Failing to appear as successful, being exposed as incompetent
  • Enneagram Type 4: The Individualist
    • Core Desire: Being authentic, unique and special
    • Basic Fear: Being without identity, flawed, misunderstood, inadequate
  • Enneagram Type 5: The Investigator
    • Core Desire: Being competent, independent and knowledgeable
    • Basic Fear: Being helpless, incompetent, without resources
  • Enneagram Type 6: The Loyalist
    • Core Desire: Security, guidance, having help
    • Basic Fear: Being unprepared, afraid, being blamed, without support
  • Enneagram Type 7: The Enthusiast
    • Core Desire: Fun, happiness, freedom, contentment
    • Basic Fear: Missing out, being deprived, trapped or bored
  • Enneagram Type 8: The Challenger
    • Core Desire: Being in control, protecting self and others
    • Basic Fear: Weakness, vulnerability, being controlled
  • Enneagram Type 9: The Peacemaker
    • Core Desire: Peace, stability, harmony
    • Basic Fear: Conflict, feeling shut out, losing connection

Having this basic understanding of key motivations and basic fears helps us become more aware of the root source of our own reactive behavioral patterns. It also gives us a relevant focal point for understanding where others are coming from and what is at the heart of the matter for them.

It was through a recent Typology podcast with Ian Morgan Cron and his guest, Seth Abram ,that I learned about another enneagram podcast — “Fathoms”. I just loved that name, Fathoms, and what it represents: discovering our inner depths, one fathom at a time. I scrolled through the Fathoms podcast episodes and found several that caught my immediate attention. I’m going to share the highlights of these episodes in the hopes of whetting your appetite to learn more for yourself.

Just imagine the potential that could be unlocked for creative problem resolution if we cultivated an appreciation for different perspectives based on “others” core desires and unique strengths. In the episode entitled “A Conversation with Enneagram Magazine” two college friends share their initial introduction to the enneagram and how they came to launch their dream — the Enneagram Magazine. What makes this magazine so compelling is that Bekah and Molly are tapping into the collective insights of all 9 types to explore one singular topic per issue. For example, the most recent issue of Enneagram Magazine is entitled “Justice”. What a timely and critically important topic. Here’s the intro provided from their website for the Justice issue:

We begin 2021 by diving into the topic of Justice through the lens of the Enneagram. We will be honest, this topic is not an easy one to cover. However, the importance of discussing Justice has never been more apparent to us. We dive into uncomfortable conversations with grace, providing perspectives that may be unusual, unexpected, and unfamiliar to our circles–and that’s okay. Our hope is that this issue will help move us from individualistic comfort into higher communal awareness that encourages thriving for everyone.

Enneagram Magazine was launched just last year. The first issue provides the foundation — it is Enneagram Primer. Subsequent issues included Creativity, Leadership, Relationships. In 2021, they are embracing a theme of growth and using a relatable metaphor of the life cycle of plants. Topics will be Soil, Health, Endeavor and Wonder. Health will correspond to seeds and what is needed to grow from the inside. Endeavor will represent the emerging and Wonder will focus on the flowers and fruits of self reflection and personal growth. It is an apt metaphor for going inward and examining the areas of our life that invite change and then taking the big step to live it out. All 9 enneagram types will be represented for each topic. The diversity of self-discovery perspectives will be rich.

Another Fathoms podcast I found to be enlightening was the March 10th episode entitled “Addiction, Recovery and the Enneagram” with Michael Naylor of Portland Maine. Michael Naylor is an esteemed addiction expert and an enneagram teacher. I was fascinated by his background, stories and observations especially since the enneagram is rapidly becoming an invaluable tool for many types of counseling. The big takeaway from this episode was that people can successfully go through rehab programs only to relapse later because they never really got to the root cause of their motivations for their addictions – the big why. This is where the enneagram plays an impactful role. The rehab and the enneagram work done in tandem can be a lasting pathway to freedom from addiction and its root causes.

Michael is a type 4 and freely shared some humorous yet poignant moments with his own counselor as they unraveled his patterns and his recurring melancholy with the help of the enneagram. Michael stressed the importance of having two or three rock-solid people in our lives that will support our efforts to become aware of our behavioral patterns and help us “catch” them in real time. Early detection is key in the process of changing old habits and patterns for the better.

Since I recently shared my blog post, Author of our Own Stories, the next episode to catch my attention was “Understanding the Inner Critic” with Lynda Roberts, an authorized Enneagram Institute teacher and former president of International Enneagram Association. No matter what enneagram type we might be, we are all quite familiar with our inner critic.

Lynda offered that our inner critic plays two roles — the judge and the ego manager. Our inner judge is the one that offers an abundance of self criticism and is prone to shame or blame us. Lynda also pointed out that our own inner judge is the one who also judges “others”. Our “ego manager” sends our marching orders and this ties right into our core desires and basic fears. She offered an example of these marching orders for herself, a Type 6: “you need to be responsible, you need to do what is expected of you.”

Lynda pointed out that our inner critic was developed in childhood and absorbed both explicit and implicit messages about the rules of life. Since humans can’t survive on instincts alone, we needed this guidance to launch us into adulthood. But much of this messaging is no longer valid or needed as we evolve through our adult life. Lynda equates this to “taking off the training wheels” — we do not need childhood messaging that gets in the way of opening to our true selves. We can discover and enhance our own mature inner guidance that aligns with our personal core values.

It may have been serendipity that beckoned me to listen to one more podcast as I was working on this blog post. This Typology Podcast, hosted by Ian Cron, featured Dr. Curt Thompson, psychiatrist and author, focused on shame and how it plays out in the human experience. This conversation dovetailed so perfectly with Lynda Roberts insights about our childhood and our inner critic. It also circles us back to the beginning of this post where I shared the core motivations and basic fears of each other 9 enneagram types. The enormous take-away from this podcast was that the very things we do to cope with our basic fears ultimately end up reinforcing our fears. We create our own self-fulling prophecy through ineffective coping skills. We push away what we want the most.

Dr. Curt Thompson believes that the enneagram reveals nine helpful ways in which people develop their personal narratives. It helps us understand how we came to develop our attachment style and our temperament when we were quite young. Dr. Thompson says “It is the dominant way we make sense of our lives. Nine consistent, predictable ways to tell our narrative, that comes naturally, and was shaped in our family of origin.”

In this episode, Ian Cron and Dr. Thompson offer remarkable insights around the power of shame and the subtle, silent messages that are carried over from childhood into our adult lives. That inner critic that whispers we are not enough or will never be enough. They walk us through each of the 9 enneagram types and real life examples of where our strong desire to avoid shame at all costs can derail us. I have a few friends who are also students of the enneagram and we compared notes on these examples — and oh yes, they were spot on:

Afraid to ask for help for fear of hearing no (type 2)

Coming off as a bully to protect vulnerabilities (type 8)

Afraid to assert yourself (type 9)

Second-guessing yourself in a conflict (type 6)

Dr. Thompson shares that shame is a signal for us. We will first feel it in our body. He does an incredible job of explaining both the neurobiology and the neuroscience of residues from childhood experiences that cause us to be unconsciously triggered. He encourages us to pay attention to how we feel and to pause before reacting or responding.

His strongest piece of advice was also his most touching — “healing for shame requires that others come find us”. We need to be there for each other, to help each other recognize that often our pre-conditioned behaviors are preventing us from having great relationships and happier lives — not who we are at our core.

Michael Naylor sums up the value of the enneagram this way: “the enneagram assists people in discovering unconscious patterns causing them unnecessary suffering and guides them to more liberation from the patterns acquired as a little one.”

The Enneagram is such an enlightening transformational tool. It can really help us to see our full potential and the incredible capacity we have to be the best versions of ourselves. Each of the 9 types brings unique strengths and perspectives to the world. I am more than a little excited about harnessing all of that energy and creativity for the greater good.


Enneagram Magazine

So beautifully designed, it will become a treasured resource, a coffee table magazine and a conversation starter.

Fathoms: An Enneagram Podcast

April 8, 2021 – A Conversation with Enneagram Magazine

March 25, 2021 – Understanding the Inner Critic with Lynda Roberts

March 11, 2021 – Addiction, Recovery and the Enneagram with Michael Naylor

Typology Podcast with Ian Morgan Cron

April 22, 2021 A Framework for Wholeness with Seth Abrams (Enneagram 9)

May 28, 2020 Dr. Curt Thompson on the Enneagram and Shame