No ToE (Theory of Everything)

I have enjoyed learning about and working with the Enneagram for the past couple of decades because it describes—amazingly accurately—how we humans actually function. I’ve gotten to know myself much better as a result and have learned to curb some tendencies and to live with some shortcomings. It has also been an invaluable tool for working with clients in various situations and capacities. Maybe best of all, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, at least a little. And I’ve gotten to know others on a deeper level.

But sometimes I think we ask too much—or expect too much—of the Enneagram. As comprehensive and amazing as it is, the Enneagram can’t and doesn’t explain everything there is to know about us. It is not the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything.

One aspect of the Enneagram that has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years is identifying the so-called Instinctual Variants, and more recently Instinctual Variant Stacking. The concept seems to have originated with Oscar Ichazo, but it has been considerably expanded and given greater significance than it once had. The purpose of the Instinctual Variants, and the stacking thereof, appears to be to try to explain the differences within types. (This is what I’ve read, not just my interpretation.)

Well, of course there are differences within types. And there are all kinds of things that could explain them, most of which have nothing at all to do with the Enneagram. Over a dozen years ago, my then partner in crime Elizabeth Libbey and I devoted a great deal of time and effort reviewing a large portion of Enneagram literature and looking at how the Enneagram maps onto or corresponds with other psychological, sociological, and neurological research. We found a solid basis for the Stances (Aggressive, Compliant, and Withdrawing), but nothing comparable in regard to the Instinctual Variants. In fact, I came across research results that flatly contradict the idea (held by many in the Enneagram community) that “instincts” have anything whatsoever to do with actual biological instincts. That’s why I don’t write about that particular topic.

Trying to fit all the disjointed, fractured, and misshapen pieces of us inside the Enneagram doesn’t seem realistic or useful to me. And I wonder if that isn’t what turns some people off about personality typing systems. What I’ve learned about the brain and mind supports the idea that who we are is much more complex than that. There are aspects of ourselves we will never completely know or be able to explain, as much as we may be driven to search for such explanations. I also think that’s a good thing!

Originally posted in ninepaths.com.

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

Demystifying Creativity

demystifying creativityEach day, we create thoughts, ideas, meals, impressions, relationships, goals, deals, situations, and objects of all types, shapes, and sizes. We create sadness, happiness, love, peace, violence, and everything in between. We create order out of chaos and chaos out of order. Our creations run the gamut from tiny to monumental, practical to completely frivolous, transitory to long-lasting, and helpful to harmful. I had fun writing about some of the things I created when I was in elementary school.

To a great extent, we also create ourselves.

Yet, the many myths and mysteries surrounding creativity get in the way of our ability to unleash our full creative potential. So let’s do a little myth-busting and demystifying.

What is creativity?

There are many different definitions of creativity, some of which are quite complex. I think simpler is better. Creativity is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things.

Is there a difference between actually creating something and just thinking creatively?

Some creativity “experts” make this distinction and suggest that unless the creative form (the new idea or object) is widely accepted (valued) in the field within which it was generated, it isn’t entirely legitimate. But that seems like a very high bar and one most people would fail.

Certainly creative thinking is a prerequisite for being able to create something new. But being a creative thinker has many rewards apart from the products of creativity. For example, compared to a non-creative thinker, a creative thinker is less likely to be bored, is more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and is very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life.

Is creativity something you’re born with or can you train yourself to be creative?

Based on their orientation to tradition, authority, and conformity, some personality types may have a greater or lesser tendency to think creatively. But everyone has the ability to be creative, and people who are already creative can become more creative.

Is being creative the same as being artistic?

Absolutely not. This is one of the biggest myths about creativity. Creativity is extremely useful, even necessary, in mathematics, science, computer technology, education, medicine, business, and many other “non-creative” fields. It may be even more important to note that being artistic is not the same as being creative.

Do you have to be “right-brained” in order to be creative?

The myth of people being either “right-brained” or “left-brained” has contributed to the stereotype of the free-spirited creative person who is high on imagination and low on logic and practicality. Although the two sides of the brain do have different functions, they are in constant communication with each other and both are essential to creative thinking.

Are creative people more eccentric than other people (maybe even a bit mad)?

Well, in the case of highly creative people, the answer seems to be…maybe yes; maybe no. For more on the link between creativity and mental illness, you can read this post with links to some of the research. But learning how to think more creatively is unlikely to lead you down the slippery slope to eccentricity or madness if you weren’t already traveling along that path.

Is brainstorming an effective technique for increasing creativity?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes and no. Beginning with a group brainstorming session is not the best approach to creative problem solving. But research shows that if the members of the group first consider possible solutions on their own before participating with the group, group brainstorming produces more numerous and better quality ideas.

How practical is creativity in the real world?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, creativity may be the best hope we have for solving most, if not all, of the real-world problems that now exist. As Einstein is quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Y Is for Yesses

Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.

It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.

The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work

This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.

Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.

Count Your Yesses

You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.

Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.

That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.

It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.

Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans

The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.

If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.

Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses. 

Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

S Is for Self-Talk

Buddha is supposed to have described the mind as resembling a drunken monkey that’s been stung by a bee. The monkey mind is a restless mind. It chatters incessantly, jumps from thought to thought the way a monkey jumps from tree limb to tree limb, is easily distracted, undisciplined, unquiet, and often confused.

If you’re like the rest of us, you probably have many conflicting wants, needs, and goals but little available mental space in which to sort them out. Most of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are not even consciously generated. They’re the result of what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls zombie systems.

Your unconscious (System 1) passes along suggestions to consciousness (System 2) that you experience as impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If System 2 endorses them—which is most of the time—those impressions and feelings turn into beliefs. If System 2 doesn’t veto or modify the impulses generated by System 1, they turn into actions.

Monkey mind is a result of your brain’s wiring. You can’t eliminate the monkeys, but neither do you have to let them run amok. The best way to get them under some degree of control is to start tuning in to your self-talk.

You’re engaging in some variation of self-talk whenever you:

  • Explain yourself to yourself
  • Explain external events and other people to yourself
  • Assign blame
  • Rationalize
  • Justify
  • Judge
  • React to events and other people
  • Rehash events
  • Mentally argue with yourself or others
  • Come to conclusions
  • Try to make decisions
  • Recall past events
  • Berate yourself
  • Make comparisons
  • Make predictions about the future
  • Encourage yourself
  • Give yourself directions
  • Remind yourself or keep a mental to-do list
  • Rehearse for the future

Much self-talk is not very productive or what you would call positive. But self-talk can have a very powerful effect on you.

Anyone listening in on your internal monologue, particularly in times of nerves, anxiety, or fear, might hear a verbal rabbit hole of unreasonable negativity and self-berating. —Janet Choi

Self-Talk Helps Maintain the Status Quo

The incessant jabbering in your brain is one way System 1 keeps you from veering off course. If you’re satisfied with the course you’re on, thank System 1 for helping you stay on it. If you’re trying to change some aspect of your behavior, however, listening unquestioningly to your self-talk is problematic. It’s part of the ongoing narrative your inner interpreter spins to make sense of your life. It may not seem like a big a deal, but it is. It’s as if you’re being blasted incessantly with so much propaganda from a dictatorial regime that you eventually come to believe it.

Believing your own self-talk can lead to a whole host of additional problems.

Negative Self-Talk Keeps You Down

When your monkeys are in charge, it’s harder to:

  • Remember
  • Concentrate
  • “Do the right thing”
  • Relax
  • Learn
  • Maintain your equanimity
  • Respond to life’s challenges
  • Experience joy
  • Follow through on your intentions
  • Be present

It’s also easier to:

  • Make mistakes
  • Stress out
  • Get depressed
  • Make snap judgments
  • Blow things out of proportion
  • Lose sight of the bigger picture
  • Get into arguments
  • Miss what’s right in front of you
  • Get hijacked by external (often fleeting) events
  • Continue unproductive habits
Frequent Negative Self-Talk Can Lead to Rumination

According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University, the definition of rumination is: a tendency to passively think about the meaning, origins, and consequences of your negative emotions.

Rumination isn’t the same as worry. Worry tends to be focused on the future (an anticipated threat), while rumination tends to be focused on the past or present (some form of loss). Almost everyone ruminates from time to time, but rumination has the potential to become a mental habit you can fall into automatically without thinking about it. And habits are notoriously difficult to break.

Rumination feels like problem-solving but it actually prevents you from solving problems because it keeps you focused on negative events and emotions.

Frequent rumination leaves individuals highly vulnerable to several problematic outcomes, particularly future episodes of depression. —Michael Anestis

You can ruminate about external situations and events and about relationships or you can ruminate over your own perceived mistakes and shortcomings (self-rumination).

Addressing Negative Self-Talk

If your self-talk has a tendency to accentuate the negative, you can help yourself avoid getting sucked into the vortex by practicing self-distancing. All that means is getting a little space between you and your self-talk so you are not stuck inside your own head.

Two ways to do that are:

  1. Avoid Talking to Yourself in the First Person
    If you use the first person when you talk to yourself, switch to the second- or third-person or address yourself by name. This allows you to gain some perspective regarding the situation. Getting into the habit of using second-person, for example, or addressing yourself directly diminishes the voice of your inner critic.
    .
  2. Have a Dialogue with the Wiser You
    Assemble paper, pen, and a timer. Begin by asking your Wiser Self a question about the situation (or feelings) at hand. Allow a written dialogue to evolve between you and your Wiser Self. Ask for suggestions and encouragement. Then use your self-talk to give yourself instructions and support.

Some of the bonuses of practicing self-distancing are:

  • A decrease in rumination
  • An increase in problem-solving ability
  • Disruption of the status quo
  • More self-awareness
  • Greater confidence
Self-Observation

Tuning in to your self-talk is a good way to find out what’s going on in there (inside your head). The problem is that once you start paying attention to your self-talk, you’ll likely feel an overpowering urge to change it. It’s difficult for us to observe anything without having a judgment about it, so observing your self-talk will take practice.

You can develop the habit of paying attention to your self-talk if you get a pocket-sized notebook to carry with you. When you notice your self-talk, jot down the date, time, and a brief summary of (or comment on) your self-talk. The more often you write in it, the more aware you will become of the way you talk to yourself, what you talk to yourself about, and what effect it has on you.

Remember that Self-Talk Radio is always on the air—so you can tune in any time.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.