The Enneagram, Addictions Treatment, and the Levels of Development

The Enneagram, Addictions Treatment,and the Levels of Development

By Michael Naylor, M.ED, CCS, LADC, ET
From The Enneagram Monthly May 2008, Issue 148.

Norman Ouellet’s article in the Enneagram Monthly  discussed the completion of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in relation to a recovering alcoholics concurrent ascendance up the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development. I was inspired by this article to share my experience as a Addiction’s counselor with over 28 years in the field, as a recovering individual with 38 years, and as an Authorized Riso-Hudson Faculty Enneagram Teacher who has utilized the Enneagram personally and professionally since 1995.

I hope that this writing inspires others to begin utilizing the Enneagram to assist individuals in the process of recovery from their addictions, and to more skillfully navigate the difficult stages of growth that they will encounter as they move in the direction of positive growth. My experience shows that although AA and NA has helped many individuals to get sober and clean, over 90% who attempt recovery do not succeed. When individuals with short or long-term sobriety relapse, there is often a common refrain that is invoked: “They just didn’t want to stay sober. They are not willing to go to any lengths for their recovery.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is every individual who makes the attempt to gain sobriety has a deep desire to succeed. What they often lack is the wisdom needed to do so. Our task as teachers and guides is to assist these individuals in staying in touch with the soul longing that brought them to AA/NA in the first place. This translates into teaching them how their particular Type falls asleep, goes unconscious, and relapses into addiction. (The Enneagram Levels of Development map this movement into relapse precisely.) It also means teaching them how to access ‘presence’1 so that they no longer feel the need to engage in addictive behaviors that substitute for experiencing genuine well being.

The teachings of the Enneagram allow us to both identify the individual ways that we forget and also how we can remember who we really are. This is why I see the Enneagram as providing a hand-in-glove fit with Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or any other system of transformational change.

In this article I’ll talk about how the Enneagram can be used to support recovery, and how the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development assist this process. I’ll also provide an extended example of the Type Eight’s recovery journey through the levels. Let’s take a brief look at the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development:


• 1 Level of Liberation: Ego Transcended — Balance & Freedom—Living as Essence, Self Realized and conscious.
• 2 Level of Psychological Capacity: Ego is Identified with as the basis of a Particular Mode of Being Living with Essence
• 3 Level of Social Gift: Ego Operating in a Constructive Way, Successfully Sublimating—Moving towards Essence


• 4 Level of Fixation: Losing Contact with Presence and Awareness, the Beginning of “Sleep” — A Social Role/Identity develops—Basic Fear is intruding more.
• 5 Level of Interpersonal Conflict: Ego Controlling Environment to get its needs met — Manipulative & Defended—Basic Fear is activated strongly.
• 6 Level of Overcompensation: Ego Inflation, Aggressive defense of Ego-Identity. Demanding that others/reality support the ego-agenda


• 7 Level of Violation: Ego willing to violate self and others to maintain itself. Abusive, Devaluing, Desperate (Serious pathology arises)
• 8 Level of Delusion and Compulsion: Ego-self out of Control and Out of Touch with Reality (Major Personality Disorders)
• 9 Level of Pathological Destructiveness: Extreme Pathology or death (Psychosis)

Levels in Early Recovery

When a man or woman arrives in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, they are often operating at Level 6 or 7 (Overcompensation and Violation) on the Riso-Hudson continuum. Captured in the unconscious dynamics of their personality, they are hooked by the compulsion of their substance use. In AA/NA they will journey through the 12- Steps as a fundamental strategy for maintaining sobriety. In a nutshell they will admit their powerlessness over addictive substances, take a personal inventory of their addiction history and begin to make amends to those they’ve hurt, start a spiritual practice of prayer and meditation, and begin supporting other addicted individuals in their efforts to remain clean and sober. This first journey through the 12 Steps initiates the process of learning to take responsibility for and begin healing one’s unconscious self-destructive patterns. But this is only the very tip of the iceberg, and by no means creates a revolution such that one suddenly jumps from Level 6 or Level 7 of emotional reactivity and unconsciousness to Level 1, where one is a fully conscious human being.

As referenced in the above chart, Level 1 is living as Essence and is self-realized. Level 2 is a journey with Essence. Level 3 is a journey towards Essence. Level 4 is a peaceful day without Essence, that is, we are running on automatic pilot, and the more negative manifestations of our personality are not interfering. The movement into the Healthy Levels (L1-L3) often takes many years of self- observation, counseling, spiritual practice, and many rounds through the 12 Steps.

All of this suggests a process in which an individual, as they ascend the Levels towards health, sheds layers of distortion and begins to actually observe themselves with more clarity and compassion (L4). They learn to step outside the magnetic pull of their personality habits, wherein “presence” can arise and inform a direction. But the
journey to essence (L1-L3) is rarely sudden. There are many wonderful recovering individuals with years of sobriety who find themselves frustrated and stranded at Level 5 and Level 4, and although their lives have greatly stabilized, they lack the knowledge necessary (which is found in the Enneagram) to move beyond their present Level. Over time they can experience stagnation and become disenchanted, angry, bored, stuck, unhappy, self- condemning, and then relapse. The Enneagram provides the map through these stages of stagnation (which are really stages of transformation) that they will invariably experience in recovery, thus deterring relapse. As the Enneagram is incorporated into addiction treatment and recovery the percentages of those successfully maintaining sobriety will increase exponentially. It is then, I believe, that we will witness a long awaited revolution in addiction treatment.

The Power of Discovering your Type

It has been my experience that when an individual in addiction recovery discovers their type, a bright light of self-recognition turns on. Suddenly they see that the difficulties they’ve gone through via their experience with addiction have a fundamental sanity and logic to them. They understand they’ve been struggling to reach
something heretofore they hadn’t been able to comprehend or describe. But with a clear description of their type’s psychic structure (core fear, desire, inner critic voice, emotional habit and mental fixation, etc. ) along with the Levels of expression of their type, they glimpse what their heart has wanted all along, which is the stuff of Levels 1-3. They realize that many of their self-destructive actions center around a loss of connection with the healthy levels. It’s as if a cooling breath of fresh air has entered their life story, and freedom to see themselves with compassion and forgiveness has begun. For many this is the start of tremendous healing, and wakes up the real passion to thrive, grow and optimize themselves. With the Enneagram as a map, a clear path home has been laid before them. They’ve seen the outline of their essential self, and they like and want what they see.

A Journey with the Type Eight

In discussing the potential use of the Enneagram in addiction treatment, I will utilize keywords from the Riso- Hudson Levels of Development to provide an example of a Hypothetical Type Eight’s journey through the levels. We’ll call him “Jack,” the Challenger, known for being powerful, dynamic, self-confident, assertive, willful, and confrontational.

Healthy Levels

• Level 1: Heroic and Self-Surrendering (Open hearted and strong, magnanimous and present)
• Level 2: Strong and Self-Reliant (Vigorous and action-oriented, can-do people)
• Level 3: Leading and Self-Confident (Inspired to bring out the strengths of others)

Average Levels

• Level 4: Enterprising and Pragmatic (Self-concerns for having enough resources begin to dominate, emotional sensitivity is guarded. “Presence” has disappeared. Begin to be driven by the Fear of being violated and harmed.)
• Level 5: Dominating and Self-Glorifying (Willful and proud, they want others to know they are in charge, that they are important. Demand respect and loyalty. Are boastful.)
• Level 6: Intimidating and Confrontational (Fearing disloyalty, they pressure others to do what they want through threats and oppression. Push others to the limit).

Unhealthy Levels

• Level 7: Dictatorial and Ruthless (Feel betrayed and unable to trust anyone, protect themselves at any cost. Others are objects for them to manipulate.)
• Level 8: Terrorizing and Megalomaniacal (Attack others before they can be attacked.)
• Level 9: Destructive and Sociopathic

As a Type Eight Jack has inherited a core fear: of being violated and harmed, and of losing his power to control his environment. He grew up in a abusive household in which his life was literally at risk. In response to his traumatic childhood he became a raging alcoholic at a young age—a real terror at Level 7 (L7)—ruthless and full of anger. But Jack was also a fighter, one with hands-on experience in saving his own life as a child, and his little brother’s life. He survived where others would have been destroyed.

Jack found his way into AA recovery and there, got sober. He was very angry and aggressive in the early stages of his recovery (L6-intimidating), yet remained sober. In addition, he continuously struggled with his core fear that others might harm or betray him (L6). However, he hung in and by working the Steps of recovery, his overwhelming fear that he was going to be violated or harmed if he didn’t threaten and take control of people or situations (L6) became less pervasive. With growth, he began moving to a Level of more freedom where his intimidation actions turned to boastfulness and demands for self-respect (L5). In time he became an addiction’s counselor. Now after 20 years of recovery in AA he has secured his position around Level 4 and 5 (that is, his center of gravity is located here) and he is a skilled strategist in promoting his career. He can function with strength and independence. He has worked the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous dozens of times, and on his best days “presence” arises and he taps into Level 3 (Self-confident, empowering of others), where he can express his finer gifts. Then he empowers the most troubled and traumatized to get sober. (Level 3 gifts). This shows up specifically in his work as an addiction’s counselor and in his work with other AA members struggling to get sober.

But these finer moments are hard to maintain because he is not truly conscious of how to arrived in this zone. He lacks real understanding of the dynamics of his personality and how it can take him up and down the Levels of Development. Without knowledge of the Enneagram this remains unmapped, foreign territory, and the lightening quick machinations of his fixated personality still has a strong magnetic pull on his attention. On bad days he can slide down to Level 6 (Confrontational/ Intimidating), or to Level 7 where, filled with paranoia and suspicious of disloyal attacks, he becomes threatening. He then wears the mask of the Dictator, and you better not cross him. The good news is that he doesn’t stay here long.

Jack faces a dilemma that many face after 20 years sobriety. On the one hand his life is more stable, he is successful in his counseling business, he helps and empowers people to get sober, but something is missing. In his quietest moments it creeps up on him. He still has unexpected rages he cannot explain. On the personal level he struggles mightily with intimacy, as his need to be in power blocks people’s access to his vulnerable loving side. Repeatedly he finds that as issues involving loyalty, betrayal or lack of respect (L5 and L6 issues) are triggered he pushes his partner away, she complaining that he is insensitive to her needs, treats her like an object, and is obsessed with trying to control everything (L5-L6 habits of self-protection). Jack can’t help it: it’s his way or the highway. Still he thinks of himself as a feeling and open-hearted person (L3 & L2, moments of presence, and surely indicative of his deeper wish), but his capacity to be vulnerable with other staff members hedge on one criteria: that his staff agree with whatever approach he deems correct to follow in the treatment of a client (L5—Self-glorifying, Dominating.). Unwittingly, any time staff (or loved ones) challenge his approach or procedures he immediately goes on a fierce defensive, his reactive nature instantly ignited, as he is compelled to challenge their ideas by being confrontational & intimidating (L6). Caught in his obsession to be in charge, and his core fear of being violated, he cannot receive the help offered him (L5-6). There is a quiet desperation arising in him and he knows it but tells no one: he is stuck and can go no further. He has worked the 12 steps and runs a good recovery program, but he has reached a wall, one that he must break through or two options await him: relapse or suicide.

He is so identified with the role of being “the strong one” that he cannot surrender to how his heart truly feels. Instead of quietly admitting “My life is not working, I’m pushing everyone away and I can’t seem to stop this”, he cannot slow down long enough to gain meditative calm so as to begin sensing this sacred part of him, his heart. Instead, he finds himself hyped up, on the go, driven by workaholism. He blows through his counseling staff with fierce intensity. His body is wearing down with a thousand ailments, all the result of high stress and no relief. Addicted to Type Eight “intensity” resulting from his habit of continually challenging his environment, attacking and protecting himself from it, he is unable to sense his core fear (which is the driving force of his addiction), or notice when this live wire of vulnerability is being “touched”. Nor can he stop the angry reactions that flare up in the night sky of his psyche. The fact that he offends so many and can’t stop it, barely reaches him. He cannot bear to see it, nor feel the hurt of it. Instinctively he covers the pain with a Type Eight rational: “They can’t handle the truth. They’re a bunch of wimps. I don’t need them. They don’t deserve to be in my company.” (L5) Until Jack knows what to observe, and the meaning of his self-observations related to where he is at on the Levels of Development, and gains enough presence to not “act out” his reactivity, nothing will change.

Sobriety allows Jack to make better decisions, and to be much less destructive. For the most part he has left Level 7 behind, where being a ruthless dictator with a no-holds-barred approach to reality has completely disappeared from his life. Sobriety has allowed him to strengthen his social identity as the strong one (L4-the Rock), as the one who is in control and gets the job done, who welcomes challenges and goes nose to nose with them skillfully. But at Level 5 he often takes disagreement as a threat to his security, and is particularly threatened by those who are not afraid of his potential angry ranting or confrontational explosions, or who have an equal intelligence and are not afraid to express it.

Still, due to sobriety, Jack is smarter about getting want he wants, and protecting his territory, and asserting himself skillfully, thus averting many unnecessary clashes (L4—pragmatic /enterprising). He has better access to the Type Eight “savvy” (L4 skills) and is a more skillful defender of his personal space, and better at keeping a strong boundary up against unwanted intrusion. On his good days his inherent “practical intuition” helps him deliver his capacities in the world (L4). His pragmatic understanding of power gives him the ability to work political circles to activate the power he seeks for his projects.

Healing for Jack

Working the 12 steps of AA recovery helps Jack stay at Level 4 and 5, and avoid more frequent slides down the Levels. But moving into Level 3 requires a sincere commitment to spiritual practices that engage “presence” more deliberately (This is not to say that he hasn’t had moments of Level 3 presence due to his attention to his recovery program.). An important ally for his growth will be knowledge of his Type’s Achilles heal, his unconscious habit of succumbing to his core fear of being violated and losing control of his life. As he begins to “observe” the arising of his core fear, and learns to sit with it and not react to it, his capacity to sense thru the fear to his inner strength will ensue. As his unconscious reactivity quiets and he senses the inner states that activate his need to protect himself, his heart will begin to naturally open (L3). Along with it may be grief over how defended he has been, or sorrow over the emotional shocks that shaped his defensiveness. Understanding the map of his travels up and down the Levels will provide him with invaluable knowledge about his state of presence. Clearly understanding and observing how his reactivity takes him down the Levels when loyalty issues arise, and how it impacts others when he reacts (scares them and pushes them away, or ignites them into full battle mode), will further allow him to disengage this reactivity.

With knowledge of his Type’s inner dynamics, he will see that admitting vulnerability has become his unwitting enemy, and that opening his heart to his fear is instinctively avoided. He will begin to notice that resisting the urge to intensify his experience by confronting others is no man’s land for him, like walking into a cage of lions unarmed. And that showing vulnerability, or anything other than the mask of “I’m in charge here, I know what I’m doing, do not even think of messing with me” is his Achilles heel. With time he will see and sense that his inherent courage which could be used to promote positive action often turns into vengeance, protection and blame, attack and battle, manipulation to acquire power over others. As he restrains himself from engaging in battle, a true sense of inner “strength” and “indestructible courage” will emerge. Now he is stepping into Level 3 “presence” by observing the subtleties of his unconscious personality dynamics and resisting acting upon them.

This is the path of relapse prevention for Jack. Staying conscious to his inner dynamics is the fundamental key to keeping his drug cravings hermetically sealed away from him. Once he falls prey to his reactivity and goes unconscious, the dungeon doors of his addiction creak open, and his cravings seep into his consciousness until the desire to take a drink of drug makes perfect sense. At the unconscious levels he will forget where his substance use always takes him, and instead he will fall prey to euphoric recall, he only able to remember the thin strand of happy moments that have existed in his substance using days.

If Jack had the space within himself to humbly reside in his intense feelings, if he understood the Enneagram map of his reactivity, if he was aware enough to observe and sense into the reactive fire of emotion and paranoia without acting on it, he would arrive at a point of “objectivity” and “presence.” From here taking a drink or a drug would make no sense, nor would it be an option. Now present, he could see the true and objective things that could be done without the firestorm of his personality intruding and whipping up a war, thus placing himself in the position of the defender and susceptible to falling into familiar patterns of addiction. As soon as his reactivity pattern is seen without judgment and condemnation, the doorway to his freedom will further open, and being more present to his experience, healing choices are self-evident.


As can be seen by the example of the Type Eight’s journey up the Levels, the path of addiction recovery is not easy by any means, and requires patience, much support, loving kindness, intelligence and skillfulness. The Enneagram provides both essential knowledge and a map for transforming the emotional and mental habits that inhibit the full and joyful expression of the individual, and keep their addictive behavior in place. It is my sincere hope that this tool begins to find its way into the addiction field, both in 12-Step programs, and into the treatment plans of addiction providers. The precision and efficiency that the Enneagram provides for understanding the specific pathways to health that each Type needs could greatly increase the success rates of those striving to become addiction free. `

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