Why is it that the seeds of some people’s destruction are found in their greatest strength?
I’ve been wrestling with this question for a long time now. As I’ve gone through a low part of my life for the past four or five years, I was under the impression this had been a very recent thought for me. But last week, I found a note from myself dated April 11, 2008. It simply read, “Seeds of destruction? Why is it that the seeds of some people’s destruction are found in their greatest strength?”
I don’t remember having this thought back then and I have no idea what prompted it, but it struck me strongly enough to write it down. Almost 10 years later, it seems as though I had half of an insight back then — and maybe I finally have the other half of it today.
For most of my life, I’ve been fascinated with personality and how it affects different people’s actions, but I think I’ve had something backward for all these years. In fact, I suspect most of our personality systems have something fundamentally wrong. We focus on our apparent strengths in order to allow us to “outrun this humanity” inside — the messy parts we are so ashamed of.
I suspect we have been trained to find the most obvious outward manifestations of the way we act in the world — and we’ve called those things our strengths — when in reality we were mostly identifying the defense mechanisms we created in childhood to protect ourselves.
I’ve mentioned before that studying the Enneagram personality system for the last couple of years has been transformational for me, but I’ve recently realized something I originally misunderstood about it. I’ve been listening to a new podcast by therapist and Enneagram teacher Ian Morgan Cron. On several occasions, I heard him say that “we are not our type.” In fact, at the risk of grossly oversimplifying his point, Cron seemed to suggest that our personality type is partly what we were born with and partly the coping mechanism we adopt by which to deal with the world around us.
If you’re a Type 2, for instance, you might have gotten praise and affirmation from helping people as a child, so you grew into an adult who serves and fixes people. If you’re a Type 6, maybe you were made to feel insecure in the world, so you grew into someone who interacts with the world with suspicion and a constant search for security.
I’m a Type 4 — in ways that are both good and bad — so I learned to live in my emotions as a way to constantly search for the place I can be loved and understood.
As I listened to the latest episode of Cron’s Typology podcast today, I heard a fascinating interview with former child actress Lisa Whelchel, who was a Mouseketeer on the New Mickey Mouse Club before starring for nine years on a sitcom called “The Facts of Life.” Whelchel is an Enneagram Type 3 who learned to perform and achieve as a child.
She even describes the moment when she performed on stage at a preschool event — a time when she outshined everyone else — and she saw her proud father in the audience. Even though she was just a little girl, she says she remembers realizing that the way she had performed made him love her and approve of her. It was the beginning of her performing — and achieving — to win the approval of her parents and then everybody else.
After she left show business, she married a minister and she had three children. She was going to be the best mother ever. She was going to be the best pastor’s wife ever. She kept pushing herself to perform and achieve. The things she did were genuine, she says, but she was covering up a more basic insecurity about who she was. The talented parts of her that achieved great things — which she calls her “shiny parts — became her way of covering up the “messy parts” of her that she feared others would reject.
“When the shiny parts weren’t working, all that was left were the messy parts and the messy parts were ‘rejectable,’” Whelchel said. “So for me, it was more being able to accept the imperfect parts and being human. And a lot was tied to what other people felt about me. … I could either decide, oh, I don’t care what anybody else thinks about me or I could love myself. And once I really sunk into [the idea] that I love myself because God doesn’t require me to be perfect — He sees all my imperfection — but for me to learn that, I had to fail.”
Five years ago, Whelchel and her husband divorced. She’s been on a journey of change since then, partly to understand herself and partly to figure out how to take what she’s learning and help other people. She’s become a life coach in the meantime.
(To see how all of this relates to how Whelchel’s strengths kept her from seeing what she really was, I encourage you to listen to the entire episode.)
When we focus so much on the strengths that we believe are really us, they allow us to fixate on one narrow part of us — and that’s the part of us that keeps us from looking at the rest of us. We project an image to the world because we believe it will keep others focused on the best of us. We believe it will keep them from seeing the parts we believe aren’t good enough. And if we push it hard enough, we won’t even had to acknowledge those “messy parts” to ourselves.
But the “messy parts” are largely who and what we really are, even though we’re scared of them. The personality that we become so proud of is just our way of presenting something great to keep others from seeing the vulnerable humanity inside.
Whelchel says she tried to “outrun this humanity of mine.” She tried to achieve so much — and perform so well — that she didn’t have to face her feelings. More than anything, she didn’t want to have to face her shame about herself.
You are almost certainly projecting the best part of yourself — or the most developed side of yourself — into the world, but doing so is preventing you from developing the rest of who you are. In this way, your dependence on this facade or defense is laying the foundation for your own fall.
There will come a time when your mask will slip. When your defense won’t be good enough. When you can’t run hard enough to escape your fears or shame.
When that time comes, you will need all of your humanity — all of who you are. You can’t “outrun this humanity” forever. As Whelchel said, you might very well have to fail. But from the ashes of your failure, you can discover the rest of yourself — and you can discover that you won’t be rejected even if you’re not achieving or not doing whatever you’ve been programmed to believe you must be.
Is there anything more liberating than to know you can be who you really are — and still be loved unconditionally — just for being yourself, not for having to achieve anything in particular?