Have you done enough work on yourself that you know who you really are? If you think so, would you be willing to make a radical change to your narrative if you discovered something startling about yourself?
I’ve been changing some of my ideas about myself for the past two or three months. I don’t remember precisely when it started, but I know the words that made me uncomfortable enough to reconsider a lot of things:
“…[U]nder increased stress, unhealthy [Enneagram Type Ones] begin to behave like unhealthy [Type Fours]. When they are unable to maintain the intensity of their rigid intolerance and rage, Ones collapse into depression. Their depression can be severe and long term — and in this regard, Ones with strongly dysfunctional family backgrounds where stress was a constant factor may mistake themselves for Fours.”
I was listening to the audio version of “Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery,” by Don Riso and Russ Hudson when I came across these words around the first of the year. That was the beginning of changing some of what I think I am — and it allowed me to finally integrate the person I am now with the person I was before I turned 30.
I’ve been studying personality psychology for many years — and studying the Enneagram for at least five or six years — but I had made a serious mistake in typing myself. I had been certain that I am an Enneagram Type 4, but I’ve been forced to see that I’m actually a Type 1.
I realize that much of this won’t make sense if you don’t know anything about Enneagram typing. But even if you don’t get the details, you might understand having to make a radical shift in what you think you are.
I’ve talked here — several times, actually — about realizing that I was somebody different when I was young. I had different attitudes and different habits. I knew that everything changed in the year after my newspaper company failed when I was about 30. All this time, I have interpreted that change as me finding who I really was.
I’ve come to believe that what happened was a descent into an unhealthy emotional place. After my company failed, I went into a serious depression and did nothing for almost a year. It was my most serious failure in life and I didn’t know how to deal with it. In the depths of that depression, I was forced to confront feelings which I had always repressed until that time.
Dealing with my feelings — and letting them out — was the start of a long-term process of taking my emotions more seriously. It was the start of a long and painful period of emotional growth. But I started out in that place because I was at a very depressed and dysfunctional place, even though I learned a lot about myself over the years.
I have been quite happy thinking of myself as an Enneagram Type 4. It fit a lot of things about my feelings and it explained so much of what I’ve gone through — and what I’ve become. But I’ve had a nagging question all this time about how I could have been this type of person when I didn’t exhibit any of those characteristics as a child or in my early adult years.
Riso and Hudson called the Type 1 the Reformer, which they describe as, “The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic.” Those sound a lot like who I was early in life. (Other Enneagram teachers call the Type 1 the “Perfectionist” or something similar.)
Up until that depressed year when I underwent such a change, I had always been a driven workaholic. I had been driven by a strong internal voice telling me what’s right and what’s wrong in the world — and how I had to do my part to fix things.
A healthy Type 1 can be an amazing reformer, but an unhealthy Type 1 can be dogmatic and hypercritical of others. I was very guilty of things such as that at times when I was younger. There were plenty of times when I used my “reformer energy” for good things, but I also bullied people. I’ve understood that for years, but I had never found an explanation for it that fit in the personality framework. Now it all makes sense.
I fell into an emotional black hole of depression during that year after my company failed. The things I learned about myself — my previous unwillingness to be in touch with my emotions, for instance — were valuable to me and laid the foundation for emotional growth. But they didn’t change who I fundamentally am.
I thought I had mellowed into an emotional and creative type of person, but I’ve come to understand it differently. I was an average to unhealthy Type 1 when I was younger. I didn’t have much in the way of healthy emotional development in my family. I was a driven Type 1 who wanted to change the world and make sure everything around me was correct in every way.
I’ve still been that person, but I’ve spent years confused about my identity. What I’ve been realizing is that I’m still the driven reformer who wants to change everything. It’s just that I came to understand the importance of emotional understanding — for myself and others — and I added that layer on top as a way of integrating parts of myself which would have been in conflict otherwise.
Riso and Hudson say these are the key motivations of a Type 1: “Want to be right, to strive higher and improve everything, to be consistent with their ideals, to justify themselves, to be beyond criticism so as not to be condemned by anyone.”
All of those things seem so natural to me that I always assumed everyone was motivated by those things, but I’ve realized that was a mistaken assumption.
I have a strong need to be right. When I was younger and more immature, I was eager to make sure others knew I was right. I want everything I touch and everything in the world around me to be the absolute best it can be. For most of my life, it’s been baffling to me that most people don’t seem to care about having higher standards.
I’ve always had a strong inner sense of what’s right — my morals or ideals — and it’s been very important to me that I live those values, even when there was a cost. I have a strong need to justify myself to others. I need you to understand why I do the things I do — so you will think I’m acceptable. And I desperately want to live my life in a way that keeps me beyond the criticism of others — because being criticized makes me feel like a child who has failed to be good.
This change has been so complicated that I’m forced to leave out a lot of the story. It’s already too convoluted and — let’s face it — not that interesting except to people strongly interested in personality or who happen to care about who I am. (And the first group is exponentially larger than the second.)
What has all this meant to me? It means that who I am and what my goals are will be slightly different from what I have perceived. Yes, I’m still interested in creating, but I now understand why I’m more interested in creating a new world — or reforming parts of the world — than creating what others consider art.
This is why I’ve never been able to get excited enough about just creating art in traditional terms. This is why I’ve wanted a long-term plan that could allow me to develop something in the commercial world which can create real and lasting change in the lives of real people.
The positive part of that is that it means I can give myself permission to see my goals in much bigger terms — as I did when I was younger. To oversimplify a bit, if I start a company that makes matches — to pick a mundane example — they’re going to be the most amazing matches anybody has ever seen and they’re going to revolutionize what people think of matches. (No, I’m not going to make matches. It’s just a metaphor. Honest.)
The negative part — and this is no different than the limitations I’ve already had on me — is that I can’t do anything which I don’t care passionately about.
I can’t run a company that makes widgets that are like everybody else’s widgets and we just shave 2 percent off costs to be more profitable. I can’t provide a service to others that doesn’t fundamentally change their lives.
I’m still digesting how my change in understanding is going to affect me going forward, but I can say without hesitation that it will eventually make me more successful in the conventional sense. There’s a lot more money to be made in developing new kinds of residential neighborhoods, for instance, than there is in making artsy films that few people will ever want to watch.
I didn’t realize how much my sense of self affects what I do and how much it affects my daily confidence in myself. I’ve written before about my desperate need to find the person I was when I was young. I’m delighted to say I’ve found him.
The real me has been here all along — just waiting for me to rediscover who I really am.