An often marginalised although critical part of the understanding of Enneagram points is the vertical aspect of balance that Don Riso discovered, mapped out and coined the Levels of Development. The levels explain how the same type can spawn saints as well as terrorists (and how some people could go from one to the other in one life-span) — and, at the same time, highlights how each type’s main theme still threads from one end to the other on this spectrum.
Without these levels, the concept of type easily becomes the boxy categorising system that outsiders sometimes take the Enneagram to be, where people of the same type are expected to fit into the same description, sporting the same array of traits and behaviours, regardless of their psychological maturity or internal balance. With the levels, the vertical axis opens up the Enneagram to a three-dimensional model, living and changing, yet still from a consistent structure. This is where the Enneagram starts resembling the nature of the human psyche and, as a result of that, becomes truly useful.
The levels distinguishing themselves
The story I heard from Riso himself was that as he was sorting hallmark traits and behaviours for the types, he was confounded by how different people of the same type could be. He realised that each Enneagram point incorporated a broad spectrum where the strength of ego-identification — and consequently the quality of psychological maturity and balance — affected how the same main themes of a point were expressed.
On looking further into the shifting qualities, he started to sort each type’s characteristics into piles of what seemed to be different levels of perspectives, traits and behaviours — and lo and behold, he ended up with nine stacks of traits for each type. Thus, the nine “Levels of Development” were born.
Two noteworthy aspects
Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that they were discovered. Two things about the levels are immediately striking me as rather too advanced to be forcefully contrived. One is that the levels are not only distinguishable within each type, but also independent of type. This means that we can see the characteristics of each level in itself, without talking about specific points. Then, when we do look at the types, we can see what the properties of a given level mean for that specific type, while still conforming to the general description.
The other thing is that the nine levels neatly fall into three larger categories, each containing three levels. While one could argue that we could choose the total amount of levels we wanted to divide behaviours into, depending on how we preferred to cluster traits and behaviours, it just also so happens that the three larger flights of three-levels-each do make sense. The gap between levels — as in what needs go happen for a shift and the likelihood of the shift happening — is markedly more pronounced between levels 3 and 4 and 6 and 7 respectively.
These two noteworthy things tell me that either the levels point to a true constant in the structure and operations of the human psyche, or, if they are a made-up representation, it took an incredible amount of work and a good measure of genius to put them together. Either way, I bow down to Don Riso for this achievement. Later he refined and deepened the insights into the levels together with Russ Hudson, mapping out aspects like what particular twist of each type’s basic fear was active on each level for that type. But we’ll get back to that.
Balance in the long term or wobbliness here and now?
The three ”storeys” of three-levels-each, Don called the healthy, average and unhealthy levels. While I’m not entirely sure “development” is the best word for what the levels are about, here, in my opinion, he absolutely nailed it. What the levels show us, after all, is psychological health — or, for those in inner work, how strongly we identify with the ego at any given point. And while our development is unlikely to fluctuate over a day, our level of ego-identification undoubtedly might.
Here, an important insight about the levels comes in: While we might see them as a measure of how we ascend or descend over time, they can also describe how we sometimes see-saw between them oven a much shorter time-span.
“The peg and the elastic band”
Don and Russ have described it like this: Picture the levels as a vertical board with nine holes drilled into it. Then picture yourself, or your presence and awareness, as a wooden peg with an elastic band at the end.
Your peg is then plugged into one of the holes, representing what we might call your centre of gravity; the level that you tend to gravitate back to, longer term, at this point in your life. Your default level, to put it simply. If you look at the levels for your type, and then you think a number of years back or back to a major event in your life, you might find that your peg has indeed moved over time. This would mean your “default level” or centre of gravity has changed. But, on the other hand, just thinking three days back (or even just back to this morning), it might be clear to you that you don’t steadily and unfalteringly operate from where your peg is located. Rather, you might sometimes seem to be inhabiting multiple levels over the course of a single day.
This is where the elastic band comes in. Over the course of a day or week, we might bounce both upwards and downwards from our default. Something happens which knocks us off balance, and we react from a pettier, more worked up or more rigid place than we normally would. Or we have a series of really ego-boosting things happen to us in quick succession, leaving us feeling and behaving more magnanimous, generous or forgiving than our default level would suggest.
Awareness and growth in and from the levels
So we need to be aware of both “the peg” — i e, centre of gravity or default level — and “the elastic band” — i e, our tendency to fluctuate in presence and awareness as we go about our day. The real focus of inner work is of course to shift the peg. While we can’t control everything or even most of what happens to us, investing unto having circumstances lifting us upwards is not very useful. (Neither does it work, obviously, as the point true of inner balance is being less affected either way by whatever happens on the surface.) However, shifting our centre of gravity helps us live in greater balance, less likely to be knocked sideways by life’s curved balls.
On the other hand, inner work is often most efficient when tailored to your expression in the current situation, whether that represents your default level or a shorter detour to the furthest reaches of the elastic band. I played with this thought, and it resulted in the pdf booklet Climbing the Levels of Development, where I describe my thoughts around this and offer ways to do it. By popular demand, it also morphed into the course Exploring, climbing and experiencing the Levels of Development. I’ll say a bit more about this at the end of this article.
An overview of the three health-spans: healthy, average and unhealthy
The healthy levels
When someone’s centre of gravity is in the healthy span, we can assume it is at level 2 or 3, as individuals residing permanently at level 1 would be exceedingly few and far between. What characterises our life and consciousness at these levels is our relatively transparent ego and our relaxed relationship to it. It’s there, and we can see its workings, but we don’t take it to be who we are; that is, we don’t invest all of ourselves in it’s agendas. We can notice it in a positive self-image, where we put the gifts of our Enneagram point to good use, and in us actively contributing to society by way of our type-specific capacities and aptitudes. In the healthy span, there is a deep trust in these qualities, and others, being supported from within. We make use of them, but there is no sense of us having to produce them or uphold them for them to stay with us.
The point of integration*
Also, at the healthy levels, we naturally integrate some insights that are a given at the healthy level for our point of integration (or “heart point”; the one that goes against the direction of the arrows on the lines inside the Enneagram symbol). As an Eight, while the “shutting-off-my-heart-to-protect-myself-from-sensitivity” approach might be deeply ingrained in my type, on the healthy levels, to a varying degree, I open to sensitivity, compassion and relationships like a healthy Two, thus mitigating the harshness. As a One, with my habitual tensions, self-control and suppressing instincts, in the healthy span I allow more spontaneity and value my instinctual responses, like a healthy Seven — and so on.
The type passion
At these levels, the passions — the type-specific “vices” that we are partial to — are already discernible, but as with all the ego features here, they are no big deal. The fact that we seem take be extra delight in something (fact-collecting, intensity, love, or whatever it may be) is not a problem, as long as we don’t make this our permanent centre of attention. And at the healthy levels, we won’t.
The gap between Level 3 and Level 4
Whereas a shift in balance and identification presence occurs in each shift from one individual level to the next, these shifts are more marked and significant when then also move us between different health-spans — between the healthy and average spans, or between average and unhealthy. And the reason is that something qualitatively changes in our identification and perspectives at these points.
Remember I said above that Don and Russ also identified what specific fear and consequent desire/focus was operative on each level. The particular fear that might arise on Level 3 (which, if bought into, produces the desire/focus of Level 4, i e, the first on the average levels) was coined the Wake-up Call, for the reason that if we keep our awareness at Level 3 and continue to call the ego’s activities out, it is. If we live consistently at Level 3, our type’s Wake-up Call will be extremely familiar to us.
Then again, it might also be that this fear (or way of seeing the world) is so familiar that we don’t even notice it, but just buy straight into it. This fear basically whispers: It might not be enough. You’d better crank up the volume of “you”. And if we buy into that, if we start fearing that our gifts might not keep coming if we don’t put in some active effort — well, then the ego has won the battle for now, and nudged us well and truly down on Level 4.
The average levels
Here, the climate is different. Having established a stronger grip (so to speak; obviously the ego does no such thing as it’s only a thought construct — but it often helps to talk about it as an entity in its own right, and with its own agenda!), the ego is no longer as transparent. We have taken the step over to the other side of a border: a side where we concede that yes, it seems to know stuff that is important for our continued safety, and we’d better listen to it more closely. And so, we start believing that we have to do our personality, produce our gifts and actively show them off to the world as they don’t really count unless we can get others to mirror them back to us and see us the way we think we need to be seen.
The type fixation
At this point, too, our type fixation comes into the picture, simultaneously with the insight from our point of integration being pushed further and further away from consciousness. As an Eight, to continue our type example, I start objectifying** people (including myself), to toughen myself up so I can do what’s needed (or so my ego would claim). This obviously directly counteracts my Twoish insights about compassion and sensitivity, and the combined hardening and increased ego-identification firmly establishes my new centre of gravity on Level 4, in the average range. In the case of the One, in the same way, I start judging myself and others more harshly — especially, of course, for any improper (again, by the ego’s standards) impulses and instinctual reactions, which effectively pushes my Sevenish joi-de-vivre and spontaneity further away from the toolbox.
The stress point*
Yet another thing that might happen when we leave the healthy levels is that our point of stress (the one along the direction of the arrows on the lines inside the Enneagram symbol) makes itself known. It’s not necessarily that the Eight starts looking like a Five, or the One like a Four — but rather, that other point starts subtly tainting the whole gestalt of the original point. The lower the Eight sinks in the levels, the more s/he develops an increasing tendency to be secretive and go into preparatory mode, like a lower average Five. The lower a One sinks, the more s/he will tend to feel misunderstood and victimised, like a lower average Four. This tendency can get even stronger as the person descends into the unhealthy realm.
A sign that I am sinking into the lower average levels is that I start imposing my own greatest fears (which might at this point not be conscious) on others. The Eight, whose basic fear is being harmed, violated or controlled by others might start subjecting other people to the feeling of being violated or controlled. The One, whose basic fear is to be bad, corrupt and evil will judge others in a way that makes them feel that way — et cetera. And while this dynamic might be easy to spot for a bystander who happens to know about this dynamic, to myself, it will just feel like “reality”.
The gap between Level 6 and Level 7
But as ego-ridden as I might be there, at Level 6, in the same way as with the shift from healthy to average, shifting from the average realm into the unhealthy is a bigger one than between individual levels within the same health-span. It’s like something is built into the psyche to make it harder for us to traverse these larger gaps — and unfortunately so, in either direction.
This means that it’s not enough with a minor inconvenience to push someone down into the unhealthy realm. It takes a more serious crisis without adequate support, or perhaps an unfortunate row of smaller incidents that just become too much to handle. And just like with the former gap, Don and Russ identified what they called the Red Flag Fear for each type: the fear that, if we respond to it with blind reactivity, could make us shift into the unhealthy realm.
The unhealthy levels
According to The Wisdom of the Enneagram, it’s not that common that people actually move their centre of gravity down into the unhealthy levels. We might suffer a blow, and the ego might ramp up its game — but since it’s uncomfortable to live there, this “red flag” (which is generally based on reality) might shake me up enough to realise that something has gone seriously out of balance and that I need to snap out of it somehow.
If we do, however, what characterises the climate in the unhealthy levels is that the ego basically has pulled out all the stops. While in the average range we still had some investment into how we came off to others, in the unhealthy range, we increasingly don’t care. It’s like we are quickly losing any last shred of hope we had to get our basic desire (as indicated by our basic fear) fulfilled, and now we’re settling for any substitute we can find.
What has happened, although we would not see that ourselves, is that we have lost touch with our true nature. We live to an ever larger extent in our own projections, reactions and illusions, and we can no longer reliably distinguish actual reality from our fears or theories around it. At this point, even if we do realise we are in trouble and need to get out, we are quite incapable of climbing out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves without help from the outside.
(If this is you, seek help. If you have a friend or loved one that you believe has fallen into the unhealthy level-span, the best thing you can to for them is get them professional help. Further points on this — and on working through and from the levels in general — can be found in the booklet Climbing the Levels of Development.)
Nuances and further insights
Obviously, there are further distinctions to be made between each of the individual levels within each health-span — but as blog entries go, this one is getting kind of lengthy anyway 😉. If you want brief descriptions of each level, the booklet is a good source of information. And if you really want to sink your teeth into the level dynamics and see what each level tends to mean for each individual type, I refer to Personality Types, where this is mapped out in some depth.
Working yourself up the levels …
In theory, “all” we need to do to climb up the levels is realising all the ways in which we live from our basic fear, and let go of those. However, that is easier said than done; otherwise we’d all happily hang out in the healthy levels on a permanent basis. But there is a reason the middle range is called “average” — it is where most people hang out most of the time 😉.
So if I am currently — because of my centre of gravity or courtesy of a temporary flair of reactivity — acting from, say, a Level 5 or 6 perspective of reality and myself, then I’m not likely to respond too well to the request that I look into my basic fear. I’m just not there, so any such exercises, should I be persuaded to do them at all, would be an intellectual drill at best. It wound not reach my heart or gut and, thus, not having any meaningful effect on my life, world-view or way of handling myself. But then what can I do to shift the current energy?
… it easier if you start where you are
That was the question that prompted me to start considering tailor-made exercises and perspectives for each level, which ended up in the aforementioned booklet. The booklet contains level-related insights about how the ego-identification plays out started brewing slowly together with my own observations in working with people for inner growth and self-awareness for almost 20 years. What resulted was insights, guidance and tips for how we can, in a way, cater our inner work to the ego’s preferences so that it can be persuaded to do what will ultimately loosen its grip. (And believe me, more than anything, it wants to rest. It just does not know that yet ❤️)
*) In relation to the inner lines (or arrows) of the Enneagram, I often come across the view that the idea of a direction of stress and another for integration is an obsolete theory that has long since been debunked. “We can move in either direction in both stress and integration”, goes the argument, “and it doesn’t necessarily only just go one way”. While this is true (and it’s also true that we can react to various circumstances in a myriad of ways, as we are human beings and individuals and not a set category on a theoretic model), the conclusion that this invalidates the directions is faulty. The original arrows and their directions (which have a mathematical source) are significant, and this is how. It’s not about mimicking behaviour, it’s about an overall influence on the core type from the arrow point. This influence can be subtle, but nonetheless, it taints the original type in a way that has some significance for our inner work and growth.
**) The original fixation that Ichazo put with the Eight was vengeance. However, in Russ Hudson’s teachings, he developed the wording of some of the fixations to better represent what actually happens in the type in question. Eight is one such type, and the word he came up with was objectification.