The Pain of Personality
Updated: Jan 20
My greatest fear is being a bad person.
This was my main thought as I howled into my wet pillow. I felt violent and pathetic and ridiculous. I felt the stomach-punching pain of not having done the right thing, of not having been perfect.
After my heart and throat hurt from crying, I got out my journal and wrote on impulse: “My greatest fear is being a bad person.” I knew the reason I wrote this. Because of the Enneagram, I couldn’t have written anything else. The Enneagram is the lens through which I view myself, the ideology I use to express and interpret my identity, and with it, I can say without blinking that I am afraid that I am wrong, defective, imperfect.
The first time I heard of the Enneagram, I took an online test. The result was “Type One”; what the heck did that mean? Reading the description that accompanied it, though, I knew what it meant: this is me. Even though I’d never thought of myself this way before, it was me. It kindled an awareness. Here is what I am like. Here is why I do things. The description told me that I most likely judge myself and others harshly. The thought jumped, “I’m not judgmental!” But recognizing my rage as an indicator of truth, I allowed the reality to sink in: yes, that is me.
Ones are often “very opinionated about everything: correcting people and badgering them to ‘do the right thing’—as they see it.” Again the rebellion: “I’m not like this either!” But I couldn’t lie, even to, especially to, myself: a weighty part of my life does indeed involve telling my siblings and anybody else who’ll let me what they should and should not be doing. “Should” might be my favorite word. This infuriating description also helped me to realize that while I can oppress others with my advice and correction, I’m even harder on myself. I have an internal struggle for perfection. I expect an unreasonable amount from myself. How could I not have known it before? Of course, it told me nice things, too. That I’m responsible and honest and principled. But, true to type, it was the bad that trapped my focus.
I have an internal struggle for perfection.
As I became more familiar with the Enneagram, this individual description grew into nine different descriptions. None of the other eight were as painful or enlightening as the first, but they put my egotism in perspective. I learned that my mother was a Type Three, success-oriented and image-conscious, and my father was a Type Seven, fun-loving and distractible. It didn’t take too long for people to just be their number, a Four or an Eight or whatever. It became a language I used to understand people. I read books, I tried out different tests, I discussed my family’s types with my mother and sister for hours. I learned that types can have a wing, which is an influence from one of the neighboring numbers. I was now a One with a Two-wing, more extraverted and people-pleasing than the One with a Nine-wing. I delved deeper, into “centers,” “directions of integration and disintegration,” the “three instincts,” the several kinds of “triads.” I was studying myself and others and personality in general, and the Enneagram became my favorite way to view personality.
Before the Enneagram, I never thought about my greatest fears, but I have loved personality tests for as long as I can remember. I love the satisfaction I get from classifying myself and others into neat categories, the clarity and click. I think I have an innate desire for everything to be black and white, but personality systems also help me to better understand people and the way they work, opening up my world to more diverse ways of being “correct” or “good.”
In middle school, I was into the four temperaments, an old European system used to classify the qualities and natures of people based in the four bodily humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic. For Halloween one year, I got three of my friends to dress up as the temperaments with me. I was choleric, with a fiery red-painted face. The temperaments weren’t as satisfying for dividing people up, though, because no one is just one of the five; everyone has a combination of all of them. Everyone spills out of clear-cut boxes.
Even before that, I had developed a theory about birth order having an effect on personality, which was the way that I explained why, as the oldest, I was so well-behaved and responsible and my younger siblings were just terrible children. Then there was CliftonStrengths, a more career-oriented system that is based on the excellent self-development strategy of building on one’s natural talents. That one is beautifully personalized and specific, but there are thirty-four potential talents with an astronomical number of possible combinations, which means it’s not ideal for typing people.
I’ve tried to study Myers-Briggs, one of the most popular personality tests, but it feels shallow and static after having studied the Enneagram. Everything is divided into two: Extraverted or Introverted, iNtuitive or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, Prospecting or Judging. In the Enneagram, there are triads, which allow it to stand firmly without toppling. Do you lead with your head (thinking), heart (feeling), or gut (willing)? When you want something, do you demand it, withdraw for it, or try to earn it? And though most experts don’t think a person’s primary type can change, the Enneagram allows for drastic movement within a type.
The Enneagram has stuck the longest and seems the most relevant in my day-to-day life. It has completely changed the way I think about myself, instead of just confirming what I thought to be true. I’m constantly studying characters and people I know, trying to figure out their types. I delight at seeing the key characteristics in people and noticing when my loved ones say a comment that particularly encapsulates their type. I don’t know how I could not view myself in terms of this anymore. When I’m asked to describe myself, I use my type description to say I’m perfectionistic and purposeful, but that I can be idealistic and critical. I am describing me — it is the most accurate identity I’ve ever had — but it still feels funny to use someone else’s words.
The Enneagram has influenced how I think about myself, but while it has given me self-awareness and self-knowledge, it hasn’t made me perfect. Just because I know my personality traits does not mean that they have gone away. Not in the least. I wish they would. I’m still working toward this unachievable end, every other second of my life. It is painful to know myself but not be able to change.
Just because I know my personality traits does not mean that they have gone away. Not in the least.
Before I had lost control of myself and dampened my pillow with tears, I had gotten into a conflict with my sister. Eden is a Five, which along with the intellection and perceptiveness, comes a desire for privacy, secrecy, and introversion. She holds her passions and interests closely, and doesn’t appreciate prying eyes and ears. What a problem then that I am so extraverted. I had been curious about a project that she was working on. I sensed her getting upset at my prying, and I waited longer before asking each question. Finally, she sighed. “Can’t you just leave me alone?”
I stopped and thought about how she is a private person, and it probably seemed to her that I was intruding and judging. Wanting to give her space and make it right, I apologized for intruding with too many questions. I was doing my very best to be a considerate sister. I wanted it to be resolved, and to me, nothing ever feels dealt with until it’s been talked out. How surprised I was then when she immediately snapped, “My saying I didn’t want to talk about it didn’t mean bring it up again!” My eyes and throat smarted. Hurt and anger and shame rose in me, and I melted and exploded at once with burning tears and words I don’t remember. The argument grew, my mother got involved, and I stepped out of it, facing away from them as I silently sobbed. Eden kept saying how she didn’t want the conversation to keep going. Mama made Eden apologize to me. I didn’t say anything when she asked if I would forgive her. She wasn’t sorry at all. I fled to my room.
I over-thought the situation to regain control. I thought of all the bad things Eden had recently done. I thought about how I was acting out the “negative spiral” of the Type One. I thought of how all I wanted to do was understand her. Since it seemed I had hurt her feelings, the right thing to have done was apologize. But that wasn’t her right thing, it was mine. Even as I was trying to empathize with her and her situation, I had still been finding a solution from my perspective. I was sorry and sorrowful; I hadn’t done the right thing. Even then, I knew I was thinking about the conflict in terms of the Enneagram. I was having what felt like an Enneagram core moment, a moment in which my basic fear was distilled. Without the knowledge of this typology, I would have just been experiencing the pain, but the pain was accompanied by an extreme consciousness of why I was feeling it. But there was still no relief, and the knowledge twisted the blade in my stomach.
I could hear the conversation continuing between my mother and sister downstairs, right below my room. I heard my mother defending me, my sister defending her annoyance. I called down to my mother to not talk to her. I heard Eden say, “She apologizes out of a sense of obligation, not because she’s sorry or thinks she’s done something wrong.” She was thinking about me in terms of the Enneagram, too.
A little after, Eden came upstairs to my room where I was bawling about my wretchedness and inability to do things right. She opened the door, letting in a slice of light, and said in a flat, even voice that she was sorry but did not want this to be brought up again. I screamed at her to leave. I don’t think I’ve ever, well, I don’t remember ever yelling at someone like that.
My greatest fear is being a bad person.