How can the Enneagram help us deal with the most difficult people in our lives? It happens that I am currently in this situation and I have a few realizations about it to share—if only to remind myself of them when this inevitably happens again.
What is a difficult person? While this is a broad category and nearly impossible to define succinctly, we all know them when we come across them. The insight of the Enneagram shows a pattern in which they generally cluster around Level 6 on the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development. Tellingly, this Level is often euphemistically referred to as the “Level of the a-hole.”
My current situation happens to involve a type Two with a Three Wing co-worker at this Level. The classic traits of counter-productive over-interference, manipulation, narcissism, poorly disguised hostility, lack of self-awareness of their own motives and obsequiousness are all frustratingly and blindingly in evidence. Because this person is a co-worker, my default defense of limiting contact is unfortunately off the table which leaves me feeling powerless to control the effects of the behavior on my mood and ability to perform my job.
Being an Enneagram student, it’s very important to me to be able to see the humanity in this person beneath the infuriating behaviors, to have some compassion for how they got to be in this place to begin with. However, in the heat of the moment, that can be far easier said than done.
Twos in the healthy Levels are among the most supportive, warm-hearted and truly altruistic of the types. They honestly want the best for the people in their lives whether or not it benefits them in any way. They feel grateful simply for the opportunity to share in the lives of others and trust that love exists in abundance and they need no external affirmation that this is so. But being a rejection type, in the average Levels and below they assume they’ve already been rejected and denied the love of others. A large part of the egoic structure in the average Levels is to charm, seduce and wheedle their way back into what they feel is a state of grace. The lower down the Levels they go, the more validation they need from others to feel they’ve achieved that state of grace—and the more hostility comes into play when they don’t get it. While I know this and can see it in operation right in front of me, the behaviors from Level 6 are such that I can easily behave in such a way that exacerbates the situation.
That brings me to the point. The “power” of the Enneagram is solely in dealing with our own stuff. As powerful as the Enneagram is, the rules remain in place: we can’t change others and there is no magic bullet that will make us immune to the damaging behavior of difficult people. The Enneagram brings awareness and a deep understanding of the dynamics of the situation. We can see how this person got to where they are and how their behavior ignites our own unconscious patterns, thus allowing us to put the brakes on the normal chain of events and choose a different route.
Don’t allow what is asleep in the other to irritate what is asleep in you.
What Russ means by this is that egoic behavior tends to create more egoic behavior unless acted upon by Presence. When we get into the heat of the moment with each other (as is inevitable among people in the average Levels and below), we feel attacked and lash out in our type’s characteristic patterns. Our lashing out is interpreted by the other as an attack and so they lash out in return. This escalates until either someone becomes conscious and chooses to take a step back or things come to an impasse of one kind or another. Another of his teachings is that in any relationship, it’s the job of the more conscious person to bring some Presence into the mix; always assume the more conscious person is you.
So, just like everything else about the Enneagram, there are no shortcuts. It gives us powerful insight and understanding, but in the end, it’s up to us to do the tough work of becoming radically Present and choosing life over the day-to-day dying of Ego.
We may desperately want the difficult people in our lives to experience some consequences, to get their come-uppance, to learn the same tough lessons we’ve had to learn. Why is it that it’s always our job to be the bigger person? In the end, we must recognize all of that is simply Ego’s manifestation within us in response to Ego manifesting in them. It’s the normal tit-for-tat routine that only serves to escalate egoic behavior.
All negative behavior is a result of unresolved pain.
So one thing that can help us to bring the requisite Presence into the mix is to understand that all unconsciousness is suffering. And because the Levels of Development are essentially a measure of one’s ability to be conscious, we know that the “Level of the a-hole” must necessarily involve a large measure of misery and feeling lost. No one gets there because things are going great and we’re feeling loved by the Universe.
So, when someone comes at you with some Level 6, remember to breathe and feel your toes. Maybe that will be enough to stop the train of reactivity and maybe not. But the more we’re able to breathe some space into the situation, the more room we’ll have to exercise Presence and compassion.