What does it mean to be incompetent?
We all know how it feels. It feels like shame. It feels like embarrassment. It feels like worthlessness.
So how do Enneagram type 5s compensate for this? In one of two ways: they either build up a body of knowledge so formidable that no one can stand a chance against them (specialization), or they will keep their mouths shut and hide away until they are certain they won’t be called out for stupidity or ignorance.
Fives are known for their presence in the first category, but the reality is that they spend much more time in the second.
I guess you could call this “imposter syndrome” and that’s pretty much what it looks like. Fives spend so much time being uncertain of themselves that often you won’t know what they’re thinking unless it happens to be their subject of expertise.
An as example, I’ll be having a conversation and suddenly I’ll freeze and think, wait, is that right? Do I know that for sure? And then the next thing I know, I’m playing a chess match in my head where my statement is met with their response and my response to their response and so on…while in real life, I’m saying nothing. What if I’m wrong? What if I get humiliated?
So I say nothing.
Maybe this is the curse of the philosophy student, always anticipating arguments and counter arguments in one’s mind, but more often it’s just plain old doubt that serves to protect me from the one biggest terror:
Why is this so scary? Why is it so scary to not know something or to look stupid? Fives have built so much of their identity and security in their mental presence that stripping this away shows us the weak, undeveloped husks we fear we really are.
And this is why Riso & Hudson, along with other Enneagram teachers, urge us to move away from the safety of our mind and into our emotional and physical centers. Without developing these aspects of the self, we really are just a husk, aren’t we?
As Fives go further down the levels of development and further away from their own highest growth and potential, they tend to cling to tools that bolster their ego. This leads to specialization, hyper-focusing on niche (read: irrelevant) topics, and intellectual arrogance. At this point in their psyche’s degradation, they start to look more like the stereotypes we love to hate: the internet trolls, the aggressive nerds, the guy who flips over the table at a Magic: the Gathering competition in rage. The dude who knows perfect Klingon but can’t get through a job interview.
(Come on, I said dude, but that can include anyone. Let’s not be sexist on top of superior, here.)
The point is, we are all aware of these stereotypes and they each represent an aspect of type 5 in that they either over-focus on niche topics and intellectual development, or they under-focus on social, emotional, and physical aspects of life. The result is…well. It speaks for itself.
Type 5 connects to the 8 point on the Enneagram, and type 8s are in the gut triad, meaning that they have a physical awareness that dominates their psyche. Type 8 also centers around control and power, which type 5s tap into in their own way. For a Five, this may involve power fantasies that favor them (with no applicable real world action) or fantasy worlds that are skewed in the Five’s direction of competence. A Five may be great at RPGs and video games or immersed in fantasy world building, but this doesn’t often translate into a real world capability because the real world is built on a different kind of narrative.
This may be a little bit of a stereotype in itself, but I think there’s some truth to it. One area in which Fives really can experience some incompetence is in the social realm. I think this is due to dissonance of values rather than an actual inability to receive or translate social cues. Fives don’t tend to focus on or value the same kinds of things as other people (group cohesion, bonding, finding common ground) and as a result can be at odds with everyone else. Fives certainly have emotional and social needs just like everyone else, but they have a harder time getting these needs met when they have less interest in what other people think is important. Add to that the contrary, arrogant and cynical nature some Fives adopt as a protective mechanism and you can see the problem. This translates to less social experiences that would help the Five develop competence in this area, meaning the Five instead will retreat to their own mind or in fantasies to deal with it. Hence, real incompetence, which leads to the feelings of shame and embarrassment that drive the cycle.
So, here’s an idea (and this is for everyone, not just Fives): try sitting with the shame for a minute. Try really feeling the shame you have when presented with a situation that you don’t feel competent in. What’s underneath that?
For me, it’s fear. Fear that I’ll be endangered if I don’t know what’s going on. Fear that I won’t be able to protect myself.
And how do I get past that fear? By running into a fictitious fantasy world where I have a false sense of security? Or by doing the things that give me a sense of real security in the real world?
Doing that means risking looking wrong or stupid by taking the time to learn. It’s scary letting people know that you don’t know what you’re doing. But, that’s the first sign that you are moving past your ego and your type fixations: you are willing to admit that you are afraid and vulnerable. When you can do that and be fully present in your own vulnerability, you’ll find a sense of security develop within you, since you are no longer seeking validation in the form of competence or strength. You won’t need it, you’ll have it!