In Enneagram circles, we sometimes hear about “positive outlook” as a part of some types’ makeup. The term originally comes from Don Riso’s description of the Harmonic groups, that say something about each type’s coping strategies and habitual patterns of reaction; their go-to response, as it were. I wrote about the positive outlook — what it means and doesn’t really mean — the other day in the article The true meaning of ”positive outlook” in Sevens, Nines and Twos.
On and off, I hear about the positive outlook being (or, at the very least, offering) a bypass mechanism; a chance to disregard bothersome, worrying, saddening or angering bits of life and hiding in “focussing on the bright side”. This, and what part the positive outlook plays in this as part of your personality makeup, is a complex matter.
Let me first of all say that I absolutely agree that forced or compulsive positivism is indeed an obstacle to inner growth. Used like that, “positive bypass” is a potentially toxic and quite interference-resistant way of refusing to look at, explore, or ultimately dissolve disowned, suppressed or dark patches within ourselves and others. However, this is not necessarily what the positive outlook aspect of personality is. Saying “positive outlook equals bypass” is like saying “knives equal murder” or “the sun equals skin cancer”. And possibly, it points to some confusion about the aspects of our personality that the Harmonic groups show us.
A coping strategy is a balancing tool
The patterns and strategies we develop and use are tools, just like an axe is a tool. If I want to chop wood, the axe is perfectly suited for the job; in fact, without the axe, I’d be in trouble. If I want to carve some letters into a piece of wood and all I have is the axe, the tool is not ideal, but still better than trying to scratch with my fingernails. If I want to do acupressure on someone and use the same axe as my tool, the results will be catastrophic. But it’s the same axe. In itself, or isn’t good, bad, useful, redundant or unbalanced. It’s just a tool.
It works the same way with our patterns and strategies. They are there for a reason: they fill a purpose. Sometimes perfectly, other times less than ideal, and occasionally really badly — but if the results were always bad, we would have thrown them out.
The ego — a master of manipulation
So does it happen that Nines, Twos and Sevens use their toolbox to avoid looking at painful stuff? Sure. (Just as it happens that the rest of us to it, too; just because something is mentioned in describing a certain type structure other types are not devoid of that same feature.) But the thing is, it doesn’t have to. It’s not the tool, it’s what you do with it.
It’s the same axe. In itself, or isn’t good, bad, useful, redundant or unbalanced. It’s just a tool.
When it comes to taking whatever’s at hand and running with it, the ego is a star. And usually the running is in the direction of comfort, of the path of least resistance. In the case of pain, sure, the obvious escape might be into positivity, possibilities and optimism. But the ego has hijacked plenty of psychological functions to forward its agendas, not just one. So what about the other two Harmonic groups? Let’s take a closer look at them.
“Competency” — feelings later, thank you very much
On the one hand, we have the competency group, were the Ones, Threes and Fives belong (and where other types, too, dip their toes or, occasionally, go for a more extensive swim). Their coping strategy or patterns of reaction revolve around rationality: looking neutrally, writing lists, thinking strategically, focusing on objective reality (to the extent that it exists) and not getting their emotions involved.
Does this feature sound like it could help you escape looking at yourself and dealing with your personal pain and darkness? For sure. The only reason “positive” had become such a therapeutic red flag is that it’s relatively modern and tries to look evolved. But escaping emotions by going into rationalism and logic is as old as time. The rational is, after all, the very opposite of the emotional. From the ego’s point of view, it offers a safe escape from feeling or even approaching pain on the emotional plane.
So we can see that competency makes just as fine a bypass as positivism. It’s just so common in society that it either goes without saying or you miss it entirely (depending, likely, on how much under work you’ve done and how fond your ego is of this particular flavour of escapism). The third group, however, is a little trickier.
“Emotional realness” — as long as said emotions are on the guest list
For a long time, the Riso-Hudson teaching struggled to name this group. First, it was called “”reactive”, implying emotional reactivity. But then all these are about reactivity in some form, so that really didn’t cut it. Later, Russ suggested the name “(match my) intensity”, but that also was problematic, as the bit in parenthesis was significant, but often got dropped. And lastly, he started calling the group “emotional realness”.
Whichever term we prefer, it requires some unpacking. The Four, Six and Eight, who make up this group, are all in some way emotionally expressive and in touch with how they feel. But already, we need to back up a bit. It’s not like they are comfortable with feeling, let alone expressing, all emotional nuances. (Eights are famous for happily expressing anger, but not really comfortable with sadness and certainly not with fear — for example. Et cetera. Our ego-personality as a whole has a lot to say about which emotions are okay to express, to whom and in what situations.)
But its not only that. This group is also characterised by its request — or hard claim, as the case may be — for a response. It’s not that the other has to agree, per se, but at least s/he has to respond. (This is why the parenthesis matter in the term “(Match my) intensity”.)
When the ego appropriates our psychological functions, it’s usually not an upgrade in terms of presence and awareness.
Anyway. This group does acknowledge feelings, especially negative ones, it seems. These types are emotionally expressive. So aren’t they doing it right? This is where it gets interesting. It turns out you can successfully hide from experiencing your feelings by expressing them.
Hiding in plain sight — cameo style or in disguise
Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes it is through expressing that we actually get in touch with emotional material, especially if the expression happens in a therapeutic setting, in front of a canvas, on a dance floor — you get it. But just as often, that’s not what happens.
One way we can escape what’s really going on inside is by ramping up an emotion that covers up another. This is what happens when the Eights mentioned above gets angry and rowdy, when the truth might be that the anger is a reaction to a fear that he does not want to acknowledge (or even realises exists), or covers up some other feeling that he deems “weak” and prefers not to explore.
It turns out you can successfully hide from experiencing your feelings by expressing them.
Another form of “emoting” that the ego employs is drama. Say, for example, that something happens that makes me sad. But instead of experiencing the true “sad” inside, I express it, dramatise it and possibly exaggerate it. I might cry and wail, I might sob my heart out — but I’m actually occupied with the story of my sadness, rather than feeling and processing it. (This ego strategy might, in contrast, bring to mind type Four, but again, obviously, all of us can employ all kinds of strategies at one point or another.)
”Awareness is right; unawareness is wrong”
The late mystic Osho once said, Awareness is right; unawareness is wrong. This was in response to a question about right and wrong, and an attempt to say that it’s not necessarily what you do, it’s your motivation and, ultimately, the presence of mind (and heart, and gut) with which you do it.
This goes for almost everything in life, and it’s certainly applicable to our coping strategies and patterns of reactivity. When the ego appropriates our psychological functions, it’s usually not an upgrade in terms of presence and awareness 😉. What the Enneagram can do is show us where our tendencies lie and gently point us to patterns and “just how I am!” that we might want to take a closer look at ❤️