Childhood. The start of all of our problems, right?
How does childhood influence the type of person we become as an adult, and what effect does it have on our overall personality? Quite a lot, in fact. Psychologists have many theories on how our childhood dynamics shape us as adults, such as nature versus nurture and so on.
In their books on the Enneagram, Riso and Hudson have discussed the idea that our Enneagram type fixations stem from our relationships with our primary caregivers, the protective figure and the nurturing figure. The attempt comes off a bit pop-psychology and is too neatly packaged to reflect anyone’s actual situation growing up, but all the same, it’s an idea worth examining. To what extent do our childhood dynamics, along with our relationship to our primary caregivers, result in our Enneagram type?
I’m a bit of an easy example. Like Riso and Hudson suggest is the case for 5s, I had an ambivalent relationship to both my parents. I felt at odds with and rejected by both of them, and my personality largely formed in response to my sense of rejection from the world around me. R+H suggest that 5s create their own niche since they feel they do not fit into their families, and I spent my life trying to find mine. As a kid, it was video games. As a teenager, it was anime, manga, and drawing. In college it was cynical anarchy and cheap vodka. You get the idea.
As a child, I got the message that I was weird, that I didn’t play my role right, that I couldn’t quite hide the zipper of my human suit. In terms of Keirsey’s temperaments, my parents were both SPs and I am an NT, so our priorities were very different (though we all valued autonomy and independence, another major element of the type 5 personality). I was busy contemplating eternity and life after death whereas my parents wondered why I wasn’t brushing my hair or making an impression. So, in the end, I felt the best way to deal with this friction was to start to hide myself.
I began compartmentalizing, creating sections of myself that only certain people could access. I got into the habit of being evasive, feeling that if I didn’t tell anyone what I really thought or believed, they couldn’t pin me against a wall with it. I detached from my body and accepted my role as a mind in a vehicle. I shut my feelings deep inside so no one could use them against me. All of these are 5 traits, and all of them, arguably, came from my childhood.
So, in a sense, I’m a convenient example of exactly what R+H are getting at: that each type forms as a particular reaction to whatever childhood dynamics were experienced in the family. Of course, real life is much more complex than their map of the nine relationships to the protective and nurturing figures. My best friend, also a 5, grew up supported by parents who shared aspects of his temperament. There aren’t only nine ways to relate to your parents. That being said, it’s worth examining how your childhood actually shaped your personality.
How the dynamics of childhood teach us to be broken
Before we get into this, let’s look at the three Hornevian triads of the Enneagram: the withdrawn triad, the assertive triad, and the compliant triad.
Each triad responds to the experiences of childhood by becoming one of three things: small (minimizing presence), large (maximizing presence), or agreeable (other-oriented), respectively.
Types 4, 5, and 9 are in the withdrawn triad and each type seeks to minimize its presence in different ways. These types make themselves small so as to minimize the risk of conflict or rejection, fearing that they are unseen and unwanted. Common tactics include being evasive, withdrawn, detached, isolated, rebellious, unavailable, and unreachable.
Types 3, 7, and 8 are in the assertive triad and each type seeks to maximize its presence in different ways. These types stand out by being larger than life to prevent being overpowered or forgotten. Common tactics include being disruptive, intimidating, loud, humorous, energetic, risk-taking, exuberant, and attention-seeking.
Types 1, 2, and 6 are in the compliant triad and each type seeks to gain security by identifying with others or with the group. There is safety in gaining the approval of others, as well as a certain comfort in knowing where one belongs and what is expected. Common tactics include keen social awareness, gossip, manipulation, loyalty, dependability, workaholism, and the shaming of self or others.
You may see yourself easily in one of those groups (especially if you know your type) but if not, let’s walk through how this plays out in real life. If we can break down our essential defense mechanism from childhood to be one of three things: withdrawing, asserting, or complying, one of those will stand out to you the most. One of those will be your knee-jerk reaction.
Consider this: what is your worst fear? Rejection? Being forgotten? Being humiliated? Being overwhelmed? And how do you respond to that fear? By hiding yourself away so no one can reject or humiliate you? By making sure everyone knows how big and powerful you are, or how desirable you are, so they won’t overwhelm or forget you? By making sure you are always available, helpful, and likeable so that you are always needed and supported? Think about it.
Type 5, as I said above, is in the withdrawn triad. When I was little, my emotions and my social needs were always sent away, so to speak. I get the sense that my parents found parenting overwhelming (and like me, their personalities weren’t geared towards nurturing). It was made clear to me that my needs were burdensome, my emotions overpowering. Playing with me was annoying; dealing with my frustration and anxiety almost impossible. So I learned that my needs were a problem and to survive, I’d need to minimize them as much as possible. Most importantly, my emotions were never to see the light of day. My mom was in the assertive triad and I found her approach to be harsh and overbearing, whereas my dad is in the withdrawn triad, like me, so I took after him. I modeled my behavior after my own 5 tendencies and his outward 9 behavior.
When my mom died and it was just my dad and me, I found that minimizing my needs came in handy. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t want to take care of my needs, but making ends meet in a single parent situation is incredibly difficult. We didn’t have a lot to work with and the less I needed, the easier it was for both of us. I learned to take care of my own needs and my own natural withdrawn tendencies matched this perfectly.
But here I am, a neurotic and anxious 30-something trying to get a grip on myself. You can see here how my childhood defense mechanism manifested as the withdrawn pattern and why. Had I had a sibling growing up, he or she may have responded by making themselves large so as to never have their needs forgotten, or making themselves compliant so as to secure themselves a place in the social network.
(Side note: the Hornevian triads are one of many intersecting philosophies of the Enneagram and are neither a complete assessment of our entire personality nor the only meaningful triad. I’m just examining it here in this context. It is of course possible to be a withdrawn 6 or a larger-than-life 1 or an aggressive 4, because these traits can and do overlap. The point is, the 9 types each fall into these three essential categories for certain reasons, regardless of how our personality manifests individually.)
How do we get unstuck?
First, identify where you fall and why. Identify the patterns you have developed as a response to your childhood dynamics and the role you had in your family. Were you the caretaker? Were you taken care of? Were you nurtured or left to nurture yourself? Was your family emotionally accepting or did they expect you to keep your emotions under wraps? And so on.
Your Enneagram type is a clue to the types of dynamics you experienced (and resisted) as a child. While it may not be as simple as Riso and Hudson have suggested, our childhood relationships and experiences meaningfully influence our Enneagram type in ways we can observe. In fact, I’d argue that it is essential to explore our childhood in order to begin to heal ourselves as adults. It tells us everything that paved the way to where we are now.
So when you study your personality, be sure to examine the personalities of those you grew up with. How did they affect you and shape you? Did you take after the behavior modeled around you or did you resist and develop something new?
Have any thoughts you’d like to share? Comment below!