The Enneagram and the Mother Within

Woman tossing a young boy into the air, showing love and joy, helping us have a healthy inner mother

Mothers on Display

We were at the playground, my children running, sliding, and swinging, when I noticed shouting. At the wading pool, a girl of about twelve or thirteen sat, her shoulders hunched, her feet in the water. Thin hair hung across her shoulders. Her knees bulged from her emaciated legs. Beside her, an obese woman chastised her for hanging out in a pool for babies, but whenever the girl tried to stand, the woman pushed her back down. As the woman recited a list of sins the girl had committed and told her she was stupid and worthless, the child stared silently at her feet.

The bullying was horrifying. No one else dared go near the water, for the woman’s words cowed us all.

I tried to think what I could do. How could I intervene? I feared that if I yelled at the woman, she would take her embarrassment out on the child later. Could I say something kind to the girl? What if I empathized with the adult, commiserated with how overwhelmed she must feel, invited her to open up? I’d been successful with such an approach when a mother overreacted, but I didn’t think that tactic would work this time.

Small Yet Powerful Actions

A few years ago I read an article written by a woman who had been mentally and emotionally abused by her husband. One day, while they waited by themselves on a New York City corner to cross the street, the woman looked up to noticed the spread of sunlight across a historic building. Gasping, she pointed at it and said, “Oh, how beautiful.”

Her husband snapped at her, “You idiot. That’s an ugly building. How can you be so stupid as to think it’s beautiful?”

A familiar flush started to rise to her face, when a woman behind them said, “You, sir, are an ass. That building is indeed beautiful.” Then the light changed, and the woman strode away.

That moment made all the difference for the author. She realized she wasn’t crazy, and eventually she got out of that marriage.

Could I have said something that would have made all the difference for that child at the park? Probably.

Woman tossing a young boy into the air, showing love and joy, helping us have a healthy inner mother

Mothers Who Fail

I have read that if someone is being bullied by a stranger, the best thing to do is ignore the bully and engage the victim in conversation. Does that work when the perpetrator is the victim’s own family?

I don’t know, but at the time when this incident occurred, I hadn’t read either of these articles. Even if I had, I’m not certain I would have known what to for I felt shocked, helpless, and appalled. Apparently no one else knew what to do either, for no one except the bullying woman spoke. No one approached the pair.

Finally, the woman hauled the girl to her feet and dragged her out of the park. The rest of us shook off our shock and started to play and laugh and hug our children.

Accepting Our Failures

I don’t know if that woman was the girl’s mother, but it doesn’t matter. She was very effectively passing down what must have been her own trauma and torment to this member of the next generation. Fortunately, I am not often forced to watch an adult jeer at or taunt a child.

Also fortunately, few of us are blatantly abused, though most of us have experienced some harm at the hands of our mothers, even if that harm was unintentional and infrequent. To mature and evolve and grow into compassionate adults, we must experience some frustration, confusion, shame, yet if we experience too much, we can end up unable to soothe ourselves, cope with anxiety or uncertainty, or calm our anger. We become lost, broken, and try either to protect our fragile egos by abusing everyone else, or we accept abuse as our due.

This need not be the end, however. We can heal. We can learn to appreciate our gifts, to care for ourselves, and to find peace. Therapeutic techniques, spiritual practices, friends, and meaningful work can all help us change our past and feel better. So can learning to mother ourselves.

Mothers are supposed to love us, but even the best ones have moments when they fail to nurture, guide, or protect us. Even those who don’t scold or shame us might cause harm in other ways. They might try to live out their dreams through us, so we never figure out what we want from life. Perhaps they praise us indiscriminately, leaving us uncertain and afraid to make mistakes. Some mothers don’t know how to listen, so they can’t teach us to recognize our true selves, and we might wear ourselves out trying to win approval by taking care of everyone else.

The Mother Inside Us

On the other hand, some mothers, so I’ve heard, are close to perfect. I’ve read books by some of them. Patients tells me about them. As a minister, I see colleagues who seem always to know what to do or say no matter how their children are behaving.

I didn’t have a mother like that, though my mother was pretty good. From her I learned kindness, generosity, and love, but I also felt abandoned at times. Following in her footsteps, I was an imperfect mother myself, though I like to think I parented a little better than she did, and I hope my children will improve on what I gave them. I like to imagine life gets better with each generation. Right now it in the United States, it’s hard to see that, but the long “arc of the moral universe” bends not only toward justice, but also toward love. [1]

To improve things for the next generation, though, we have give up wanting a different mother than we had. We have to learn to mother ourselves.

Until we die, and perhaps afterwards, our mothers live inside us. We can’t excommunicate them, even if we want to. If their voices were cruel, though, we can learn to replace them with compassionate voices of our own. To do this, it helps if we can understand the pain our mothers carried, the suffering that caused them to lash out at or look to us for their salvation. It helps if we can forgive. When we realize that the ugly or unrealistic things they said came from something broken inside them, we can stop believing our mother’s words.

The Enneagram to Reparenting

To figure out what hurtful messages our mothers instilled in us, if we don’t already know, we can look at how we judge ourselves. Do we fear being wrong, making mistakes, being weak, getting angry, losing control, showing our sadness? Not every dysfunctional coping strategy we’ve developed comes from our mothers, but knowing what untrue thoughts swirl in our heads can help us heal. It can also help us identify our Enneagram type.

The Enneagram is a typology system that divides humanity into basic types, labeling each with a number from one to nine. The different types have different basic fears. Different anxieties lie at our core.

  • Ones, for instance, fear that they are corrupt or evil. Because of this, they act with a virtuous integrity that can become rigid, self-righteous, and judgmental.
  • Afraid they are unlovable or unwanted, Twos try to earn love by taking care of others.
  • Threes fear being worthless, so they strive to achieve, to succeed by the standards of the people they respect and love.
  • Fours fear being insignificant, overlooked, one of the crowd. They thus try to be unique, expressing their individuality through their clothes, their homes, their creativity.
  • Fives are afraid of being helpless or overwhelmed by the stresses of life, try to protect themselves by learning everything they can so they can be independent and competent.
  • Afraid they won’t be supported or won’t be able to survive on their own, Sixes seek the help of others, looking for guidance and security.
  • Sevens fear pain, so they seek fulfillment and happiness in excessive optimism.
  • Eights are afraid of being wounded. Thus they court power, striving to be strong, independent, and in control.
  • Since Nines fear loss and separation, they try to maintain peace, harmony, and stability by avoiding conflict. [2]

Parenting and Our Type

Often, we grow into our particular Enneagram type because of the ways our mothers – and fathers – fell short. Given that we all experience pain and fear, what can help us turn the limiting and hurtful voices of our past into encouraging, joyful, loving ones?

As an Enneagram five, I wanted to have the right answer when I witnessed that abuse in the playground. Inside me lives a mother with great expectations, who thinks I should always be able to figure out an answer, manage to take care of everyone, improve the world with my brilliance, and be strong enough to face adversaries. In that city park, I wanted to use my wit to rescue that pitiable child, to be her savior, but I wasn’t wise or brave enough. I failed her.

Instead of beating myself up for being who I am, however, I can remind myself that I am acceptable even with my faults. If I don’t know what to do in any particular moment, or if I try something and get it wrong, I am still okay. The mother inside me can be patient, forgiving, and compassionate. Maybe I didn’t figure what to do at the park, but maybe I can do better next time. Yet even if I fail in the future, I can remember that I can’t protect everyone. I have never been a hero, though I honor those who are.

Accepting Failure

Of course, I’d like to be a hero. At least, I think I would. Yet in life there are many situations we don’t know how to handle, and that is okay. If I feel at a loss, I can seek help from others. If I fail to act, I might leave an opening for someone else to be a hero, to step up and reveal her strengths. I don’t have to know everything, nor solve every problem.

At least, that’s what my gentle and kind mother tells me. If I accept failure, though, if I forgive myself for not being brave, what’s to keep me from ignoring suffering when I see it? I want my internal mother to guide me to be my best self, not to limit me, but I’m not likely to find courage if I’m chastising myself.

Every Enneagram type fears getting it wrong in one realm or another. We all feel limited or foolish in some way. Thus, the reassurance and reminders we need vary. What would you like your inner mother to tell you?

Tools for One through Four

Jill McCormick, in her Enneagram article about our fears and how to soothe them, suggests all of us need to remember we are loved. We also need to seek a place of silence, stillness, and inner peace. Slow down, listen, feel. Stop trying to perform or do or change. Pay attention to the voice of spirit. Be instead of do. In such stillness is healing. [3]

Then she offers some specifics for each type:

  • The perfectionistic One could learn to play, for instance. Imagine an inner mother who laughs and dances and invites you to be silly.
  • Rather than taking care of everyone else, the Two could ask for what she needs. Her healing inner mother wouldn’t deny or shame her for being selfish, but would say, “Sure, you can have that. You deserve it.”
  • Instead of seeking to fulfill everyone else’s expectations, the Three could focus on his basic, core desires. In this way, he could find his true calling. His inner mother would affirm and revel in his choice.
  • The Four could stop focusing so much on their own uniqueness and look at the beauty and individuality of those around them. Their inner mother might remind them that they are already special and don’t have to prove anything. Even more important, though, the inner mother loves the Four even if they’re like everyone else.

Tools for Five through Nine

  • McCormick suggests the Five attend a small group, as this will help him connect with others. The Five’s inner mother stands by as he ventures into the world, reminding him that though he feels bombarded when others make demands on his time, he’ll be okay. The Five’s inner mother will give him all the time he needs to learn and grow and become.
  • Perhaps the Six could give up her fears to a higher power. Maybe she could journal them out. No matter what technique she uses, though, the Six’s inner mother will keep her safe even from herself, delighting in her insight and soothing her anxiety.
  • The Seven could meditate on what matters most in their life. This would help them focus their energy, stop darting off toward everything glittery thing that rises up before them. After all, it’s not the dance, not the excitement, that matter, but the love we share with one another, and the inner mother’s love is unshakable, even if the Seven cries and rages.
  • For the Eight, learning to help and serve others can be liberating. They will benefit from letting their inner mother keep them safe, hold their hand, and model the kindness and generosity they need to learn. Once they realizes they can trust themselves, they can also learn to trust their inner mother.
  • The Nine needs to decide what his priorities are so he can keep from getting side-tracked by everyone else’s requests and desires. Yet even if the Nine does procrastinate, his inner mother will love him, as she will love him if he fails to ease his family’s tensions or if he dares to say “no.”

Becoming Our Own Best Mothers

Since that summer day years ago, when in front of me and my children a travesty of parenting unfolded, I have seen other examples of abuse, and I have heard multiple stories of pain and suffering endured and perpetrated. Sometimes I’m wise enough to help; at other times, I simply witness. Yet witnessing can be powerful. At times, all we need is for a hero or a loving mother to see us as we really are, to listen to the secrets of our hearts, and to be present to whatever we share.

Maybe our own mothers modeled this for us. Maybe they did not. Regardless, we can heal, we can grow, and we can be our own best mothers. With time and practice, we can also spread our love and our healing to those around us. As long as we live, we will be given opportunities to get it right.

During the last few days of her life, my mother released resentments she had held for nearly ninety years. As she let go, she grew in love and wisdom. What a gift she gave me, for by figuring out how to die, she learned how to live, and I was there to witness to her transformation.

Changing Ourselves and Others

If that abusive woman were someday given such a gift, would it change her life? Might she discover a compassionate inner mother and thus learn to love herself? By this, I mean true love, not the narcissistic bluster we occasionally call self-love. If so, perhaps she could then learn to love others. In this way, on some small scale, she could make the world a more kind and joyful place.

When we turn the judgmental and shaming voices inside us into ones of acceptance and patient forgiveness, compassion and wisdom, we, too, help create kindness and joy. We help bend that arc toward justice and toward love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. According to Garson, Quote Investigator, November 15, 2012,
    https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/, accessed /11/19, this idea – that of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice – was preached in a sermon by Theodore Parker in Ten Sermons of Religion published by Crosby, Nichols, & Co., in 1853, 84-85. Martin Luther King, Jr., used the phrasing I quoted in “Out of the Long Night,” published in the Gospel Messenger, February 8, 1958, 14.
  2. Priebe, Heidi, “If You’re Confused About Your Enneagram Type, Read This,” Thought Catalog, April 5, 2019, https://thoughtcatalog.com/heidi-priebe/2015/11/if-youre-confused-about-your-enneagram-type-read-this/, accessed 5/8/19.
  3. McCormick, Jill, “Each Ennegram Type’s Biggest Fear and What to Do About It,” Relevant, November 19, 2018,https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/each-enneagram-types-biggest-fear-and-what-to-do-about-it/ , accessed 5/8/19.

Photo by Raju GPK on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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