We hear A LOT of opinions about the arrows, a k a the inner lines, of the Enneagram. The specific directions of stress and integration are a “debunked myth”, according to some opinions. According to others, the directions of the arrows are still relevant. So, what gives?
When confronted with this kind of conflict, I usually want to probe deeper, as my experience is people often haven’t quite agreed on what exactly it is they are discussing. The question the of inner lines is no exception, so here I’ll attempt to untangle some of the confusion. My basic position and understanding is that yes, we do potentially move in both directions in both “stress” and “growth” — but that does not cancel the fact that the arrows do indeed have a profound meaning. It just depends what particular filter we are applying. For the discussion below, I’m going to focus primarily on “stress movement”, as that is usually both more useful and easier to see, but the reasoning goes both ways. But first, I need to briefly say something about the Enneagram symbol as such and the mathematics behind it.
The symbol, maths, and meaning
Depending on your level of Nerd, you might or might not be familiar and/or fascinated with the mathematics behind the Enneagram symbol. (Yours truly is both familiar and fascinated, but I can’t recount the whole thing here as that would just provide too many rabbit holes. You might google it, but let me warn you: there are all qualities of sources out there, and I gave up trying to find a to-the-point and not too creative account of them.) I will refer to bits of it below, but again — there is plenty of information out there if this is your thing.
Anyway. Suffice it to say that the lines within the symbol aren’t just a cool pattern that someone thought looked good; they are a result of mathematical divisions by the numbers 3 (for the equilateral triangle) and 7 (for the hexad), relating back to the law of three and the law of seven, on which the geometrical symbol is based. When we observe patterns relating to the Enneagram which are somehow informed by this mathematical or geometric structure of the symbol, these are usually worth exploring. If patterns are “discovered” that have no correspondence to the maths or symmetry of the symbol, interestingly, they tend to turn out flawed. But when they do line up, which is the case with the stress/integration patterns, there is usually something to them. When I then come across expressions of an opposite view that also seems to have merit true, my question is not which one of them is wrong, but rather how they might both be correct — and if there is a possibility that different camps are not really referring to the same thing. With the arrows, there are a number of different perspectives we can take, but I usually don’t hear them distinguished or accounted for in the discussion. Also, there is terminology wrinkles to be ironed out. But let’s start with the perspectives.
Basically, there are two fundamental camps in this discussion: the one where we can move both ways in both “stress” and “growth”, and the one where the specific direction of the arrows has significance.
Coping strategies — a “we move both ways” perspective
Our type’s connection in two directions with two other types is not random, and both these types have a significant energetic relationship to the point they are connected to. Varying individually, we can “shunt” to either arrow point in reaction to everyday or even prolonged stress. We can picture our procession through time as a car on the motorway. As long as the road is level, the personality, too, stays on the same levels of balance (a k a the Level of Development). But now, we are facing an incline (either descending or ascending, depending on how we continue the analogy). It will be hard for us to comfortably continue without increasing the power moving us forward (i e continuing with and increasing the volume of our personality’s usual tool-kit), so we either need to do that or start looking for a plan B.
For plan B, we can picture the arrow points as two side roads for us to veer off into. They will have different qualities, but both will offer an alternative to the incline while ultimately still bringing us forward. And as far as the levels are concerned, we generally do not both move sideways (i e, borrow strategies from an arrow point) and fall down the levels (i e, add more energy to the personality strategy) at the same time. The ego/personality tends to resist a change in level, so when pressure builds, we might shoot off into on of our arrow directions instead. This means that if we “react sideways” in stress and borrow tools from an arrow point, we will be borrowing them from the same level of balance as we are generally acting from. Another way to put this would be to say our arrows function a bit like the valve in a pressure-cooker, relieving pressure that would otherwise have forced us to a lower level.
In this way, it’s completely correct that we move (or actually, we do not in fact move at all, but rather copy certain tools and keep carrying them out with our own core personality end agenda) in both directions for both stress and growth, not just one. It’s also clear to me that the extent to and way in which we do this varies strongly with each individual. Some egos will first resort to “bouncing in the elastic band”, level-wise, without exercising their arrow points too much; others might slide into a third option, such as leaning more heavily on a wing. The ways we prioritise our safety hatches vary individually.
The path of least resistance — a “specific directions” perspective
For this part of the discussion, the maths becomes relevant — as well as nuanced, correct type descriptions. The brief version of the mathematical background for the stress/integration discussion is that the series of numbers going in the direction of the arrows (1-4-2-8-5-7 and 9-6-3) reflect decimal chains on the maths side and a kind of law-of-least-resistance, reactivity-wise, on the personality side. Very briefly summarised, if we see each type as an energetic approach to life, ourselves, and the world we live in, we also find that each type can be seen as a reaction against the type before it in the sequence*. The contained, principled, and self-reprimanding approach of point One is a counter-reaction to the excitability, hedonism and focus on instant gratification that we can see at different levels of point Seven. At point Four, however, it’s the impartial and contained self-restraint of point One that is reacted against with passionate, intuitive self-expression and brooding self-involvement. And so on, and so forth, for both the hexad and the triangle. (If you are curious about this, I recommend reading Sandra Maiti’s book The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram and the section on “The Soul Child”.)
This means, staying with our example above, that there is already a built-in resistance in Ones to welcoming Sevenish traits in themselves, as these feel like they go against the grain — and of course they would feel that way if point One to a large extent is a reaction to what point Seven represents. In contrast, the One’s “movement” along the direction of the arrow to point Four is like water following the path of least resistance, which is what egos in reactivity tend to do. The already pre-existing idealism and strive for perfection, along with the notion that I’m the only one really seeing the need for improvement, can have the normally objective and restrained One lapse into bitterness and a “woe is me” attitude, complete with moodiness and temperamental outbursts.
All this does seem familiar, doesn’t it, as a description of the One? By contrast, the version where the One reacts to adversity by going on a gluttonous bender, rushing from one form of stimulation to the other (to exaggerate the possible Seven style reaction at the lower average levels) is not what we’d generally expect. (We might see that, too, though — stay tuned 😉.)
The arrow points as built into the type description
As you see, the set directions of stress and integration (although this nomenclature needs at least some unpacking and possibly further updating; see below) kind of already show in the core type description. An Eight floating about in the average to unhealthy ranges will already be at a level of low-grade, constant “stress”. To a varying degree, s/he might express qualities typically associated with point Five, such as being secretive, feeling increasingly insecure (although still reacting in a very Eightish manner to this insecurity), keeping mentally occupied, showing anarchistic tendencies, feeling rejected, isolating, shutting down — all Five-flavoured qualities but still well within the Eight type description, without the Eight really having to “move” anywhere.
Another way to view this is if we see the Eight as suspended on an axis between two poles made up of Two and Five. If we increased the measures of pressure and tension and simultaneously decreased inner freedom and relaxation — which is basically what happens in “stress” — it’s pretty clear that if anything, the Eight would typically slide further towards the average/lower Five pole and away from the higher Two pole, not the other way around.
Again, it will vary how many of these qualities show up in the Eight, but generally, down the levels, they will definitely be more common than their Twoish counterparts: being ingratiating, sentimental, whiny, clingy and trying to fabricate a manipulative “closeness”. (This does not mean Eights can’t still act out their “point of security”; see further down.)
By the same token, a Three in the average to unhealthy realm might show some qualities that would normally be associated with a Nine at those levels: adapting to others, smugness, resistance and being conciliatory, placating, and unrealistic, sticking their head in the sand or downright dissociating. We can see how there things even “fit” with the Three overall — much more so than the strength-in-equality comradeship, passive-aggressive behaviour, strong reactivity, rashness, unpredictability, cutting others off, and being blind to their own accomplishments that we can see in Sixes. (The Three might still feel these things, but they would be strongly unlikely to show. The same goes for the Eight/Two above.)
In this way, the “stress point” is definitely a specific direction. But since aspects of it come online so soon (if we view the levels in a fall-from-grace perspective), and also show up very differently in different individuals (with regard to both quality and strength) we rightfully do not necessarily consider that “moving” anyway. We just see them being average, reactive Eights, Threes, and so forth.
“The point of security”
There is also a dynamic we might adopt average-level aspects from the other point, the would-be “point of integration”, too — i e, the scenario that I described as unlikely. When this happens, we are utilizing what is sometimes referred to as the “security point”. On the Enneagram model, this is obviously the same point as that of growth/integration (a k a the heart point), i e type Two for the Eight, type Six for the Three, and so on.
The dynamic behind the security point is that we might, after all, borrow the ego-tools of this point for less noble reasons than growth — but we do not do that unless we are in a secure relationship or situation where we feel we can vent, fall apart, shut down, act out, be needy (or whatever it is about for us) without it backfiring too badly. This is where the strong and decisive Eight might turn indirect and needy with people they really trust, or where Threes go into a full-on stress-loop over their inadequacies and need talking down by a close friend or significant other. (Obviously, these are just examples and the individual variations are countless.) Or we do it in secret altogether, such as when a One really does go on a bender, secretly indulging in the things that s/he is publicly loudly condemning.
As I said in the beginning, we can see a similar schematic for inner growth in the other direction, which includes identifying “the missing piece” — another phenomenon identified by and term coined by Don Riso and Russ Hudson — but, as we still have plenty of ground to cover here, I’ll leave that bit for another time.
So we can see that it is kind of built into each type that expressing the average-to-unhealthy attitudes of the stress point points to more imbalance and relative unhealth, whereas expressing the healthy attitudes of the point of integration type points to increased balance. Of course, this does not mean, however, that expressing the healthy attitudes of ANY type wouldn’t point to growth, or that the expression of any unhealthy attitudes could ever be a positive development.
So how does all this add up? To clarify that, we need to address the issue of arrow nomenclature; that is, we need to agree that there are multiple aspects of “stress” and “growth” and when and how we are referring to which one.
The terminology tangle
Originally, the directions of the arrows were said to represent “integration” and “disintegration”. On account of especially the latter being considered a bit rough on the digestion, other terms were introduced to better explain what we were talking about. Only, it turns out “we” were talking about several things, possibly without noticing. Factors we could be referring to in this discussion, all relevant but still distinct from one another, are:
- stress — increased pressure or ego provocation, in the moment or over a day; anything a more severe everyday challenge to a series of smaller ones. Stress is whatever increases the load on the system, and it can be shorter or longer term. The opposite of this stress could be relaxation and expansion which could in turn be the result of various degrees of personal growth, or not 😊. As you can tell, it’s a wide term.
- compromised psychological balance — this is when defences are wearing down and we are “doing worse”, mentally and emotionally. (We are not necessarily experiencing it as such, depending on our level or self-awareness. But from the point of view of ego identification, it’s getting stronger.) This entails a fall down the levels and the corresponding changes in attitudes, reactivity and coping strategies. The opposite would be a move up the levels, signifying increased psychological balance and lessened ego-identification.
- change that profoundly affects core type patterns — these are changes on the positive side, and this is when part of our basic type structure shifts. The opposite would not really shift anything, but rather just wedge us harder into the grooves of our ego-identification and agendas, with an increase in whatever coping strategies and reactivity we generally have going on.
Let’s look at these one by one and see how they fit into this framework.
This was discussed above under “coping strategies”. The concept of stress probably does not need too much introduction these days, since we constantly hear about stress, different types of stress, and its effect on mind and body. This is, again, where we each have our individual coping mechanisms in place: those offered by our core type as well as other types whose attitudes we have easy access to, might they be represented by arrow points in either directions, a wing, behaviours modelled for us by authority figures when we grew up, or all of the above. The order in which we will deploy them varies with the situation and/or depending on our personal leanings; some people utilize several of these, whereas others tend to fall back on just one or a couple of them.
If the stress is persistent and we lack the inner space to transmute the reactivity, thus continuing to escalate our core type’s reactivity, we are likely to fall down in the levels. (And if it is persistent enough, if whatever set(s) of defences that we deploy does not ultimately provide said space for transmutation, in the end this will happen regardless.)
Compromised psychological balance
This is a longer-term decline. Maybe we suffer from depression, feel increasingly put-upon by others or the world at large, sustain a severe blow to our self-esteem, meet with a series of failures, experience increased levels of anxiety due to unprocessed psychological material, or something else that makes us grow less resilient, more ego-identified, and generally the worse for wear.
Here, too, it’s possible that this shift comes with the use of various “ego resources”, again depending on individual leanings. However, it will also include an actual shift, levels-wise, and therefore most likely some expression of the attitudes of the stress point, in the way they they are built into the core type as discussed above. Sometimes we spot them as actual expressions of the stress point, but they might just as easily be overshadowed by other ego defence lines that are being activated, so that the sum total doesn’t necessarily show a lot of stress point action to speak of.
Change that profoundly affects core patterns
Here, we need to step out of the land of regular psychology and plant one foot in psycho-spiritual terrain. The understanding of each type’s core identifications and challenges really goes beyond psychology, even though it can be expressed pretty well in psychological language. When we start looking into the essential aspects of each type — and the loss of contact which leaves a metaphorical wound, giving rise to the type passion — it gets clearer what bits of the personality structure are relatively minor aspects, more subject to individual variation, and which aspects are the major, core aspects that hold the type-pattern in place.
If we go back to our point One, we could see how it is built to counteract the excitability, rashness, and gluttonous hedonism lurking at point Seven. (Sevens, don’t worry; none of us sound great when presented in our lower-average glory from the point of view of our stress point — to which we, of course, represent the point of growth. If point One had been able to take in the gifts and blessings of point Seven, the resistance would have been superfluous in the first place 😉.*) This way, point Seven is a threat to the very core of point One; its reason for being, if we’re being a bit dramatic about it. It’s clear why this is a major thing, and why integrating the balanced, healthy aspects of point Seven would mean a fundamental shift in the One’s inner structure. This is what integration means in the arrow teachings. It is not just any growth or maturity (which, again, can resemble any of the points and does not have to look the same for every One), but the nature of realisation that shifts the core structures of the One’s inner prison.
“Disintegration”: another kind of opposite
The interesting thing about this is that when we look at the Four, the One’s point of stress or “disintegration”, that offers a kind of opposite, too. From the rationality and self-restraint of the One to the emotionality and self-indulgence of the Four. (Again, Fours — needless to say, this is not meant to provide a comprehensive picture of point Four, but only to illustrate how its average-to-lower qualities contrast to the One’s overall characteristics.) So, just like the arrow to Seven, the one to Four represents a kind of contrast to the One package. Why, then, is that not a point of integration, too?
It goes back to the core-of-structure aspect. While the One’s resistance to gluttony, frivolity, and impulsive behaviour is a part of this core, the rationality and self-restraint are merely consequences of this, and the failure to hold up these qualities (as the One ego would see it) and resorting to emotional self-indulgence (e g) instead only changes the method, not the goal, as it were. From where the One stands in the Enneagram curriculum, the sliding over into Four makes it harder yet to see, question and soften their core attitudes. (This is not all there is to say here, though. Stay tuned.)
This means I actually don’t think that disintegration was that bad of a term to begin with. Sure, it’s a bit hard to understand and we could use a more approachable word — but also, by now, we can see that “stress” does not really cover it. Because what integration and disintegration are gauging is basically how deeply entrenched we are in our type’s core attitudes and beliefs and, thus, how close to liberation. Those are very type-specific. “Stress” (and, by all means, “growth”, too) by contrast can be anything — type-related or not.
Distinguishing your growth from your, er, growth
So this is basically it. We can talk about growth (or its opposite) on all manner of planes. If I’m afraid of public speaking, it would likely constitute growth for me to overcome that. This growth has nothing whatsoever to do with Enneagram types, core or otherwise. Then we have individual personality growth, which has to do with our personality patterns but which varies depending on our individual cocktail of experiences, leanings, preferences, and habits. (This is where we can grow — or the opposite — every which way, arrow-wise, and obviously even outside of the arrows, or the entire Enneagram.) This is still growth, and brilliant, as it stands to make our life all kinds of easier. It’s not nothing — I mean, at all. It is precious, freeing, and worthwhile.
But then there’s what might perhaps best be called the transformation of core structures. We need to integrate the healthy aspects of our growth/integration/heart/security point, specifically, at some stage, because it is the antidote to our core suffering: the basic, fundamental misunderstanding that we are consistently operating out of (sometimes with the help of other type expressions). Unless and until we do, we will still, to some extent, live from this misunderstanding and experience the suffering that it gives rise to.
The “final” stop when it’s the real deal
In their work with types, levels and understanding their dynamics, Don Riso and Russ Hudson also recognised something that they called “the missing piece” — the final stop, as it were, on the personality’s journey towards liberation. Even after the whole process of letting ourselves be subtly permeated by the liberating attitudes of the high side of our growth point (which to a large extent is about connecting with our true heart, whichever type we are and wherever we are located in the centre triads), we still have to integrate one more aspect for the balance to be complete.
This final step is offered by our so-called stress point. As a Six, even as I have integrated the Nine qualities of grounding and being with whatever arises, countering my core Six patterns, at point Three, I get access to inner direction and real self-esteem. As an Eight, even as I have integrated access to my heart and vulnerability at point Two, at point Five I learn that the experience of emptiness is not annihilation, but freedom, as well as find my rightful place in the grander scheme of things. And so on and so forth, for all the types.
Everyday growth vs true transformation
But again, there’s growth, and then there’s growth. These things play out both “in order” (chronologically in our life and geometrically on the symbol) and holistically, with parallels and overlaps. The Eight can access aspects of emptiness, and lots of other worthwhile insights and qualities, from type Five at any time (just like he or she can express higher insights from any point). This is where a lot of people arrive back at the “we integrate in both directions, so the arrows are obsolete”-view. But the point is, what I am integrating will not be the missing piece, that is, will not have that same final-insight impact, have I not first integrated my way up the levels to find my true heart (for all the types, in different guises) and see through the shackles of my ego. It is only once I have genuinely made myself at home in the higher-healthy levels (including integrating the high end of my growth point) that the missing piece can hit all the way home. Before that, at best, I am only trying it on for size.
*) Please note that this does not mean that we will have issues people whose type is our point of integration. Ones will not by definition dislike Sevens, and Fours won’t necessarily have issues with Ones — and so on. These are attitudes and defences in the basic ego-structures, not predictions about whom you will like or not.
Whew. As a wise man once noted, “there are a lot of levels to talk about something on”, and this is certainly true for the inner lines of the Enneagram symbol and the directions of their arrows. Hopefully, I have succeeded in expanding the topic from the flat, black-and-white expression of “are the directions true or not?” to a deeper understanding of how they are indeed relevant, and how this still doesn’t negate the fact that we can “move” either way in both meaningful development and constricting reactivity.