E Is for Enneagram

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The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.


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

Give Up Choice; Get What You Really Want

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Being clear about what you really want and why you want it is essential if you want to bring about a behavioral change. The what and the why provide you with direction: your highly desirable outcome. But if you don’t feel a sense of urgency about creating that outcome, you’re likely to continue operating on the assumption that you can choose whether or not to do what you need to do to get there.

If you want to change the status quo, the outcome you’re after has to be so compelling that you’re willing to give up the freedom to not have it. I’ll give you a personal example.

Vitality is a highly desirable outcome for me. One thing that contributes significantly to my level of vitality is a combination of physical activities, such as walking, hiking, using a treadmill, and strength training. I generally enjoy doing those things as much as I enjoy the results of doing them. A couple of years ago, I had a much more regular schedule that allowed me to walk nearly every morning, hike a couple of times a month, and get in four strength training sessions a week at the gym. But that hasn’t been the case for the past year.

When my schedule changed, my level of physical activity declined and became hit-or-miss instead of regular. At the beginning of last summer, I decided to start walking for 25-35 minutes every day. That seemed like something I could reasonably commit to. Although it wasn’t ideal, it was a start. So from May 31st through today, I have walked or walked and used a treadmill every single day, no exceptions.

In September, I decided to increase my target to 45 minutes a day and have reached that most days. In December, I took a deeper look at how important vitality really is to me (VERY!) and realized that walking wasn’t enough. I get a better aerobic workout on a treadmill. In fact, I’d made a few attempts to get over to the gym to use the treadmill in the fall, but didn’t get far because I felt like I had a choice as to whether or not to do it. On December 19th, after an insanely busy two weeks, I decided to start using the treadmill three times a week, no exceptions. Since the best I’d managed during the  previous 12 months was three times in one month, I may have been overly optimistic.

But even though my schedule isn’t any more accommodating than it was before, I am now using the treadmill three times a week. The difference is that having decided to do it, I stopped giving myself a choice. I schedule the day and time I’m going to go to the gym. I may have to reschedule once in a while, but because I have no choice, I always get my three sessions in.

Going to the gym brought home to me how much I miss strength training and how wonderful I felt when I was doing it. I had a portable weight bench in the garage and a few sets of hand weights in a closet, and I realized that even if I couldn’t go to the gym to do it, I could do some upper body strength training at home. So on January 1st, I decided to include three 30-minute sessions of upper-body strength training each week, no exceptions.

Of course, I feel much better as a result of all of the increased physical activity, but maintaining this schedule is far from easy or comfortable. It’s winter now, and on the days I’m scheduled to walk outside for 45 minutes, the wind chill might be in the mid-20s, and snow might be blowing directly in my face. Winter, to put it mildly, is not my favorite season. I’ve been known to hike in the Sandia foothills when the temperature was in the mid-90s. If I could dress in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals all year, I would be ecstatic. But as I’m writing this, we’ve just had three brutally windy and cold days in a row, the coldest so far this winter. If I gave myself a choice as to whether or not to put on multiple layers of clothing and subject myself to the elements, I would never do it.

But having made the decision to invest in my vitality, I’m willing to tolerate (not always silently) the discomfort and occasional pain in the moment for the medium and long-term outcomes I’m after. And because I don’t have a choice in the matter, I don’t waste any time whatsoever debating whether or not to follow through or trying to talk myself in or out of doing what I have decided to do.

When the path ahead is clear, why wouldn’t you take the obvious next step?

By giving up the freedom to not have it, I get to have what I really want. And although it isn’t always easy, it is astonishingly simple.


Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts. To follow the thread, select the category Making Different Choices in the box under Explore.

How Do Decisions Affect Your Choices?

choice snooze

Moment-to-moment, the vast majority of the choices you seem to be making are being made for you by the unconscious part of your brain. You do have both the ability and the opportunity to affect your choices, but you may not be making the best use of either.

The terms choice and decision are often used interchangeably, which muddies our understanding of the process of taking one action instead of another. So let’s make a distinction.

A decision is a conclusion you reach after some consideration of a significant issue. It involves thinking or deliberation. That means a decision is a result of a conscious (System 2) process. Some examples are: moving to a new city or staying where you are; keeping your current job or looking for a new one; trying to iron out the problems in your relationship or separating from your partner.

A choice, on the other hand, is more immediate and—at least in the short term—usually less consequential. Choices are generally the result of unconscious (System 1) predictions and responses. Some examples are: selecting from a restaurant menu; determining which movie to see; getting up with the alarm or hitting the snooze button.

Over time, the choices you make add up: to an outcome you want or to an outcome you don’t want. If you hit the snooze button every morning instead of getting up when you need to, you could end up getting to work late often enough that your employer notices. That’s probably not a desirable outcome. If you regularly select healthy meals in restaurants, you could end up maintaining a healthy weight or improving your sense of well-being, either of which is a desirable outcome.

If you don’t have much influence over your moment-to-moment choices, how can you influence them to add up to outcomes you want instead of outcomes you don’t want?

If you want your choices to add up to positive outcomes, you need to clearly identify what those positive outcomes are. Not only do you need to know what outcomes you want, you also need to be clear about why you want those outcomes. Identifying the what and the why requires conscious deliberation, and anything that requires conscious deliberation is energy intensive for your brain.

The decision-making process is sometimes protracted and even painful. For many people, it involves making a list of pros and cons, which is not a particularly effective strategy. Trying to imagine how you will feel if you achieve a specific outcome is also ineffective. There’s plenty of research to indicate that humans are notoriously poor at affective forecasting (being able to predict how we will feel in the future). No matter how much time you invest or how carefully you consider your options, you still can’t guarantee you’ll be happy with the outcome.

That’s why the default response is to throw up one’s hands and give in to following the path of least resistance. It means letting your brain continue choosing for you because it’s just so much easier. Learning how to use your brain to regulate your behavior (choices) definitely does not come naturally or easily.

Given that the unconscious part of your brain is completely capable of making the majority of your choices for you—with no input from you—why bother expending energy and mental effort on decision-making or trying to change your behavior?

The short answer is because you have consciousness. You’re driven to try to change your behavior because you can imagine outcomes other than the ones you have gotten or are likely to get if you continue along the path you’re on. Simply following the path of least resistance may be easy, but it isn’t satisfying and it doesn’t provide you with a sense of meaning.

In order to have a meaningful and satisfying life you need to master the process of changing the status quo.

So…what do you want to change? And why do you want to change it? If you can’t answer those two questions, the how is irrelevant.


Note: This is the third in a series of posts. To follow the thread, select the category Making Different Choices in the box under Explore.

Freedom from Choice

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You always have a choice. At least that’s what many people believe. No matter what happens, you can choose how to respond. And if you want things to be different, all you have to do is make different choices.

It’s a highly appealing belief to hold, yet you may have found that making a different choice is often tantalizingly out of reach, even when you know exactly what you want to do differently. So what’s going on? If you don’t make a different choice, does that mean you really don’t want to? Does it mean you lack self-control or will power? Does it mean you’re trying to sabotage yourself?

If you believe that you could make a different choice but don’t, why don’t you?

When you fail to make a different choice, you’re forced to explain yourself—at least to yourself. The result is often the beginning of a vicious cycle of rationalization, excuse-making, or self-blame that can drag on for years or even decades. This is a waste of time and totally counterproductive to changing behavior.

The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more the answers tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline—and move toward the details of the biology. —David Eagleman, Incognito

The truth is that you don’t always have a choice. In fact, you rarely have a choice. You keep doing the same things you’ve always done because that’s how your brain is wired. It conserves precious energy by turning as many behaviors as possible into routines and habits. Once those routines and habits are in place, they’re extremely difficult to disrupt. When faced with a familiar situation, you will most likely do what you’ve always done in that situation, even if you want to do something else.

Minute by minute, second by second, the unconscious part of your brain is absorbing and processing an unbelievable amount of data, all but a small fraction of which you’re not consciously aware of. So at the moment you’re faced with that familiar situation, your unconscious has picked up on signals, made connections, and initiated the usual response all before you can consciously consider doing something different. When it comes to routines and habits, consciousness is simply no match for the speed and anticipatory responses of the unconscious brain.

Letting Go of the Illusion

It’s hard to give up our illusions about choice. We want to keep our options open instead of locking ourselves in. We want to be spontaneous. And we prefer to believe we’re exercising conscious choice, no matter how ineffective or detrimental those choices may be. As a result, we often refuse to make a commitment, even to something we really want or that really matters to us.

We repeatedly put far more trust than is warranted in our conscious brain’s ability to override our unconscious brain’s programming. We’re convinced that next time we’ll do things differently.

The reality is that keeping our options open really means leaving the outcome to chance. Yes, there’s a slim possibility that when the moment comes we’ll make a different choice. But the odds are not on our side. The unconscious operates automatically and at a much faster speed than the conscious part of our brain.

When we blame our inability to effect change in our lives on a lack of self-control or will power, our only option is to work on developing those mental muscles. That can be done, to a limited extent, but the source of the problem is not the lack of self-control and will power but our reliance them.

The situation is not hopeless, however. We’re not entirely at the mercy of the unconscious part of our brain. We do have a say in the matter. We can learn how to use both parts of our brain to our advantage instead of letting the unconscious have its way all the time.

But that requires changing the way we think about choice.

The concepts of freedom and choice seem to belong side by side. After all, what is freedom if not freedom to choose? The idea that we could be free, experience freedom, without also having and exercising the ability to choose is difficult to contemplate.

But Krishnamurti believed otherwise.

We think that through choice we are free, but choice exists only when the mind is confused. There is no choice when the mind is clear. When you see things very clearly without any distortion, without any illusions, then there is no choice. A mind that is choiceless is a free mind, but a mind that chooses and therefore establishes a series of conflicts and contradictions is never free because it is in itself confused, divided, broken up.

Decide Now so You Won’t Have to Choose Later

Changing behavior requires that you do something different ahead of time instead of counting on doing something different in the moment. Determine how you want to respond in a familiar situation when you have some distance from it and can think clearly about it instead of when you’re in that situation. And then make a pre-commitment. A pre-commitment eliminates the need to make a choice in the moment because you’ve already decided what you’re going to do.

  1. Formulate a clear and specific intention.
  2. Come up with a way to keep your attention focused on your intention.
  3. Assume you won’t be perfect out of the gate. Your unconscious brain is stubborn and set in its ways. With perseverance, however, your desired response will become the automatic one.

By giving up your so-called freedom of choice, you greatly increase the likelihood you’ll do what you’ve decided you want to do in order to have the life you want to have.

You can have what really matters to you

How Quickly Can You Turn Success into Failure?

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We don’t have to make a point of looking for what isn’t working or the places where we haven’t lived up to our expectations. Our brain automatically notices those things and points them out to us. It’s wired to pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones. That’s because while positive events may be extremely pleasurable and possibly even good for us, negative events could kill us or put us in grave danger. At least that’s how the unconscious part of the brain (System 1) perceives them. This automatic tendency is so universal it has a name: the negativity bias.

In and of itself, having a brain that points out what isn’t working or measures how far we missed the mark isn’t a bad thing. That kind of information is potentially very useful.  It’s the way we over-value and respond to negative information that gets us into trouble. Because we have a brain that is primed to notice the negative, it’s easy for us to overlook the positive altogether, even when there’s plenty of positive for the eye to behold.

When Good Isn’t Good Enough to Qualify

Several of my clients are addressing health-related issues in my Goals, Habits & Intentions course. They have either set long-term goals to achieve specific results in terms of such things as diet and exercise or they are working on changing or creating habits that support the level of health and well-being they want to achieve.

One person who has diabetes is working on lowering her blood glucose level (which is measured by a test called the A1c). She decided to aim for lowering her A1c to a specific number and created a goal action plan to help her do that. She was following her plan just fine until she purchased a kit from a drugstore to do a home test and got a result that was better than the one she was aiming for.

At that point, she pretty much stopped following her plan. But when she got her official A1c test results back from the lab a few weeks later, they were disappointing. The number was not as low as the one she’d gotten from her home test. Her view of the situation was that she had failed—not just in continuing to follow that specific goal action plan, but in doing the Goals, Habits & Intentions coursework.

So I was surprised to learn that her A1c result was lower than it had been the last time she was tested. And the number last time she was tested was lower than it had been at the beginning of the year. From the first test to the third test, she had lowered her A1c by 1.6 points! By any objective measure, that’s a significant success. Instead of celebrating it, however, she discounted it. Her successful results were a failure in her own eyes because they weren’t quite as amazing as she’d thought they would be.

I suggested she make a visual chart that tracked her A1c numbers over the course of this year and put it up in a prominent location so the irrefutable evidence of her success would be harder to ignore.

The Default Response

This is a pernicious problem we all face: jumping to conclusions about the information provided to us by our brain and by external sources. It can happen at either end of the scale (“good” news or “bad” news), but the interesting thing is that the result of both good news and bad news is often the same: we stop whatever it is we were doing. And the culprit in both cases is System 1 thinking, which is focused entirely on the short term.

If the news is “good,” we stop because we think we achieved our goal so we don’t need to continue working toward it. That makes a certain amount of sense because that’s what you do when you actually achieve a goal. But in a lot of cases we need to set up a goal in order to change or start a habit so we can maintain our success. This is especially important in the area of health and wellness. If we want to maintain long-term changes, we can’t stop doing the things that are making us healthier. Instead, we need to turn them into habits. (As an aside, I read a blog post a couple of years ago by someone who set out to develop a 30-day habit of strength training. After the 30 days he decided he had been successful and didn’t need to do it any longer.)

If the news is “bad,” we use it as evidence of our poor character (lack of self-control, powerlessness, etc.) and of the pointlessness of our attempts. Why bother? Nothing works, anyway. The automatic tendency isn’t to evaluate what might have gone wrong, but to chuck the whole thing, thus guaranteeing failure and maybe even overlooking evidence of success.

Celebrate Success!

I used to be able to count on getting in several workouts at the gym each week. And I loved it. But at the beginning of this year, my daily schedule went bonkers and has stayed that way. After months of attempting to fit the gym into my new schedule, I traded the gym for walking every day because I can break walking into smaller segments of time and fit them into the breaks between classes and appointments. As September approached, I decided it was time to exchange a couple of days of walking each week for using the treadmill at the gym.

I went to the gym at the beginning of the first week, loved it, and thought I could probably get in not just one more visit but two that week. Nevertheless, I managed only the one visit. The same thing happened the next week and then the week after that. I noticed I had failed to follow through on my original intention. I noticed the impulse to interpret my once-a-week gym visits as a failure. But I also acknowledged I really hadn’t had an opportunity to get in more time at the gym, and I’d kept up my walking and even increased it. I reminded myself that baby steps and perseverance are an almost unbeatable combination. At the end of three weeks, I looked at the notations on my calendar and realized I’d gotten in three more workouts on the treadmill than I would have if I hadn’t set an intention.

In order to celebrate success, we have to notice it, which means not having a knee-jerk reaction to every realization we haven’t met or exceeded our expectations. The game is only over when we stop playing—and that is largely up to us.

When have you turned a success into a failure? What do you think you could do to change your perspective in those kinds of situations?