The Enneagram in Addiction Treatment

The Enneagram in Addiction Treatment

Identifying the Core Relapse Pattern and Understanding Its Nature
By Michael Naylor, M.ED, CCS, LADC, CCPC, ET

Reprinted with permission from the May-June 2010 Nine Points Magazine, a bimonthly publication of the International Enneagram Association.

I have worked in the Addictions field for over 25 years. During those years several patterns have revealed themselves. There are three. The first I have observed time and time again. A man comes into residential treatment, gets sober for 90 days, is feeling better than ever, and a day later has returned to addiction hell. Presto, change, gone! In the wake of feeling a surge of well being, he took, or was taken by a back door exit. This happens repeatedly. The second story is that of a man (or woman) who gets sober for two to five years, appears to have stabilized their lives, and then relapses and disappears into the folds of addiction. And this pattern: a man is sober twenty plus years and the next day news says he’s suicided, or like the others, relapsed and disappeared from sight. (The story on suicide is a hugely under-reported phenomenon in addiction recovery especially after significant periods of clean time.)

In response to these tragedies the addiction world has responded through a variety of means. One is to try to help individuals understand what are called ‘relapse triggers,’ or those circumstances internal and external that make an individual go ‘blind’ to the hell that awaits them if they use their substance of choice. The hope is that individuals will ‘notice’ when their relapse triggers, and their ‘addiction’ has been triggered and awakened before they pick up the substance of their doom. The warning attached to the triggering of one’s inner ‘addict’ is “Beware of euphoric recall.” When an individual becomes addicted to drugs he develops a crafty inner demon, his own ‘inner addict’ who appears to be hardwired to tempting him back to his addiction. At various times, in the midst of success or the midst of sorrow, a film clip begins to play in his mind-stream reminding him of the very best times in his substance using, and deletes all the scenes reflecting the horror and sorrow. This inner movie can be so compelling that in the midst of success an individual abandons all of his good work and jumps headlong back into the swamp he arose from. The question is “What turns this movie on?”

Within recovery circles, be it Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, the refrain often heard when someone relapses could be “Well, he wasn’t going to enough meetings,” or “He wasn’t working the steps,” or “He wasn’t working with a sponsor” or “He just didn’t want it bad enough,” or “He took his will back,” or “He isolated and stopped coming to meetings.” But the truth is, the best of the best, those who had been the leaders in recovery circles, relapse and die and suicide. They disappear and are gone and no one understands why. What remains in the psychic atmosphere of recovery circles is pure shock. “How could this possibly happen?” is the deep question and plea.

Utilizing the knowledge of the Enneagram could have profound positive effects on these shocking events. What everyone in addiction recovery learns sooner or later is that after their substance abuse is halted they are left with ‘themselves’ and all the issues that drove their addiction (This does not mean the ‘issues’ caused the addiction. That’s another story.) That is, they are face to face with their personality, their Enneagram Type. If they are able to clearly understand their personality type with its particular nuances and features they will be able to begin to understand the driving engine that takes them back to their self-destruction, and how to transform their personality habits such that what is best in them can arise. At the very least, the key fundamental “relapse pattern” that underlies all addiction relapses will be seen. What causes addiction relapse? Well, the short and long of it is everything and nothing. It can look like its emotional suffering, or heartbreak, disappointment, boredom, unhappiness, long term loss of identity, success, more success, falling in love, being around drugs, wanting to feel good, not wanting to be lonely, hoping for better sex, failure, divorce, marriage, deep spiritual moments, a sunny day, a rainy day, you name it. All external symptoms and events on the surface of the real issues: the lack of awareness on the part of the individual as they navigate their daily life with its ups and downs. What individuals don’t tend to understand is the unique set of relapse triggers that exist for each Enneagram Type, which describes the major inner dynamics that an individual will wage spiritual war with throughout their sobriety. I have met the enemy and it is “I.” Understand this and the story of relapse prevention will get crystal clear. Not meaning that it will be solved, but the odds will go up enormously in favor of success.

Essential Psychic Structure of Each Type

Don Riso and Russ Hudson have made a significant contribution to understanding the psychological dynamics and growth patterns of the types. In their work they identify the essential psychic structures of each type: The Basic Desire (what the individual wishes for because they have lost contact with it), Basic Fear (what the individual is driven to avoid at all costs because it reminds them of suffering they have already experienced as children), the passion or vice (the emotional habit the individual developed in response to closing down their heart and abandoning their true self) the mental fixation (or habit of mind that supports an individual in staying disconnected from themselves, others, and reality, and keeps them locked in repetitious suffering), the Inner Critic message (how an individual is compelled to judge themselves causing repetitious suffering), the Self-Concept (what an individual tries to be for others to suppress their own suffering).

The Type Two’s Basic Challenge

Let’s take a look at the Type Two. Their basic desire is to feel love, to be at one with love, or to be a source of love in the world. Their basic fear is of being loveless, that there is no love to be had. We call the Type Two the Helper, and she is driven by the conundrum of her basic desire and fear depending on her level of health. The healthier she is the lighter she will hold these desires and fears. But the unhealthier she is the more they will rule and run her blindly, she a puppet on their string. Riso and Hudson qualify this through their Levels of Development which they divide into nine Levels. Levels 1-3 are the healthy levels, and here, due to inner work or an extremely healthy childhood the Type Two is in contact with her loving nature, rejoices in it, shares it when appropriate, is generous, kind, creative, empathic, nurturing to self and others. Level 4-6 is called the average levels where most of humanity resides. It is here that the individual has lost contact with her deeper nature and is now driven by the engine of her basic desire and fear. The Two, feeling that there is no love in the world, tries to manufacture love through her loving acts. This intensification of effort to prove her lovingness and to create love around her increases when she moves down the Levels of health. This descent down the Levels reflects her deeper disconnection with herself and reality due to the undigested suffering she has experienced or is experiencing. Level 7-9, the Unhealthy range, describes the continued descent into illusion and mental illness.

When Mary, a 25 year old woman struggling with alcohol addiction, entered treatment she easily identified herself as a Type Two. “I give until it hurts, and then I give some more.” In treatment she begins to see the trap of her personality. Each time it comes to identifying her need for help, she immediately begins talking about her boyfriend, a struggling heroin addict, and what he needs for support. “He’s such a good guy and suffers so much. It’s not fair.” With kindness and support I remind her that her attention has moved to her boyfriend when asked about what she needs. She smiles, a trace of embarrassment flashing in her eyes. “It’s okay,” I say, “No need to get down on yourself. The mental habit of the Two is to think of others even when they need to be thinking of themselves. Many Twos report that when they think of their needs they feel selfish and unlovable.” She smiles again. “I don’t know if I can stop that. I think about him all the time. I’m not really sure I know how to think about myself. It seems like he needs a lot of help.” I reassure her. “It won’t happen overnight, but every time you can gently notice that you’ve moved your attention from your needs to his, from your life concerns and priorities to his, this will start to weaken the habit. As you know, people get sober who learn how to ask for help and receive help, and as a Two, this may feel like an impossible task. Right now you’re just trying to learn when and how you forget to notice and identify your primary needs, and instead focus on helping another. It will take time but it’s definitely learnable.

When individuals enter addiction recovery they are typically experiencing life at Level 6 or 7. For the Type Two it means that she will be gripped by the her basic fear that she is unlovable, and unwanted, and that she must do something to change this immediately. Her entire sense of self-worth hedges on being seen as the loving one, acting as the loving one, and becoming indispensable to someone, which drives her to focus on another and completely loss contact with herself. This suffering is so acute that she can barely comprehend it (this is the nature of life at the lower levels, we are driven by feelings that are unconscious to us), except as a feeling of terrible loneliness and emptiness, which propels her into immediate action. She will be driven by the emotional passion of the Two, pride. This pride shows up in her as “I don’t need anything, but I can see that you have needs which I can help you with.” That is, her ability to sense her own needs disappears in this emotional habit. In addition, her mental fixation, ingratiation, will function such that she is wired to be always thinking of ways she can help those she loves or wants to love, or such that she is often drawn to over-complimenting others to endear them to her, or to at least to insure she will not be abandoned by them. This is the machine of her personality, and it is alive and kicking at Level 6 and 7, with little room for ‘her’ to show up. Add to this her Inner Critic message: “I’m good or okay if I am loved by others and close to them.” (Meaning I can’t hurt or upset or inconvenience anyone or I’m bad and unlovable.)

As Mary learns to ask for help, she notices that the help she receives, be it attention, compassion, loving suggestions, makes her feel selfish, which she can’t bear it for very long. “I feel so selfish when I receive anything. Like I’m a greedy person. I should be helping instead of asking for help! I see what he needs, why shouldn’t I help!” When the utmost gentleness she is reminded that she is two weeks sober and her life in desperate straits. She begins to see that in same breath that she receives help, she immediately starts planning how to help her boyfriend, when she is only barely surviving herself. This mechanism is fast and swift, mostly invisible to Mary, and with many patient reminders she will begin to see the mechanism at work and the underlying feelings driving the habit: her conviction that she is not lovable or wanted. It first arises as a compelling need to help another and to avoid the feelings of being selfish, and with time she will feel the core issue: I am unlovable and unwanted. The quick turn of attention to her boyfriend diverts the harsh sting of feeling unlovable, or being selfish. This habit has been her survival for enduring intractable suffering in her life.

See if you can grasp the psychological prison she is in. There is no love so I must create it. I’m not really wanted so I must make myself indispensable. I’m bad if others get mad at me, don’t love me and don’t want to be with me. I can’t sense my needs because I only see yours, which means I can’t experience lasting happiness or peace unless you are happy with me. I’m on empty all the time trying to fill myself with you. I can’t love others enough to get rid of the nagging feeling I’m not wanted.” This is the machine that runs her addiction to drugs, or to people. This is her relapse trigger. The belief and feeling that “I’m not loved, there is no love, I must produce the love” will be there throughout her recovery. It will be touched over and over again at deeper levels. It may arise after moments of great love and joy, or at the end of a romantic relationship. But arise it will.

As Mary continues her treatment, her boyfriend breaks up with her. In less than a week she has found another ‘love’, someone she really cares about. Like a homing pigeon she has found a temporary home in another needy soul. As she learns to observe this process with compassion she will slowly sense the suffering of her basic fear: being without love. As she learns to bear this feeling rather than transform it into another action of fear-driven kindness towards another, she will begin grief work, sensing into the wound that caused this mechanism. In time, through her tender grieving will arise the palpable sense of her own lovingness, her True Nature. This will begin her redemptive journey, sensing within her the love that she so longs for. But the habit of forgetting herself and tuning into others will not disappear quickly. When she thinks she’s finally understood it she will discover another layer still operating. With kindness and grace she will observe the speed of this mechanism, her tendency to try to love someone who cannot love her back, her need to redouble her efforts to save the wounded lover, with addiction calling to her at her most vulnerable moments. If she is aware of these Type Two patterns, develops eyes to see them, knows the Siren call of these patterns, she will sit in the suffering, allow others to support her, digesting it such that the quality of her lovingness and sweetness begins to emerge and make its presence known. As she loves with less fear, she will love more deeply, and she will find those who can return her love. This is the adventure she has embarked upon, the redemption of her heart.

The Untold Story of Spiritual, Psychological and Emotional Growth

Here’s the untold story that recovery circles have yet to grasp: the healthier she gets, the more she is not driven by her personality habits, the more sharply and clearly she will begin to sense her deepest fear of being unlovable and unwanted. At year 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 of her recovery, after much growth, she may feel it head-on and it will bring her to her knees. If she knows this in advance, she will get the help she needs and move through it. If she has no knowledge of this dynamic, she may feel that all her efforts were for nothing, that she has failed at what she cares about most. How could she be feeling so badly after all the work she’s put in over fifteen years of addiction recovery? In despair, she may relapse or develop a new addiction, or suicide.

But being forewarned in understanding the stages of true spiritual growth as Riso/Hudson have so clearly described in The Wisdom of the Enneagram, she will get the support she needs. The myth that sets many wonderful recovering folks up for the heart-rending return to addiction is that after a year or two, or ten, or fifteen of sobriety, their major suffering will have ceased. The truth is that unnecessary and extraneous suffering will be lessened, but the encounter with their basic fear will be more intense and disarming until it is passed through and transformed. What is misunderstood and yet to be clearly articulated is that every expansion of one’s ability to experience and savor life invites a deeper inquiry and contact with what has caused one’s suffering and contraction. Deep joy opens the psychic doors for deeper grief to be embraced and digested.

Each of the Types in addiction recovery has a primary relapse trigger pattern identified by their basic desire, fear, passion, fixation, inner critic habits and self-concept. When an individual begins to sense and understand these personality dynamics and how to navigate them, the necessity and tragedy of relapsing into substance addiction will be averted. With the critical knowledge in hand that certain aspects of their inner life will get more difficult the longer they have been growing and expanding emotionally and psychologically, the necessary crisis that precede profound breakthroughs will be seen as opportunities rather than igniting a inaccurate interpretation that they have failed in their spiritual work.

Achilles Heel of the Types

Each Type has a characteristic Achilles Heel dictated by their passion (emotional habit) and fixation (mental habit). The best way to examine this is to become aware of how the particular passion and fixation is manifesting to keep an individual out of contact with their self- confidence, their value, their preciousness, their significance, their integrity and goodness, their joy, their capacity to be in contact with well being and being comfortable in their own skin. Observing, seeing and not acting out the particular passion and fixation of the Enneagram type is the doorway to change, and to stopping relapse. This means helping an individual see the illusion they are caught it without judgment, and helping them learn to see and observe their thoughts and emotions as they arise. Observing them, not messing with them (suppressing and denying them or acting them out) is the key. But each Type, when they arrive in addiction recovery, is under the spell of their Type’s emotional habit and mental fixated thinking pattern, and this pattern helps keep them stuck at Level 6 and 7, wherein they’re ability to notice how their addiction talks to them goes unseen, and where their capacity to sense and feel when they are endanger of relapse also does not touch the radar screen of their awareness. They walk into danger, whistling past the graveyard, and low and behold, pick up an addiction substance and are shocked: how the hell did that happen, I thought I was doing so well. The amnesia or forgetfulness of recovering substance abusers, that capacity to forget on-the-spot why they stopped using, and why, is unraveled by becoming more clearly aware of the unconscious habits of their personality Type.

It is the goal of my work with the Enneagram to provide clarity on the primary relapse triggers of each Type and the phases in an individual’s recovery journey is which this relapse triggers and core suffering will be more deeply felt, in hope that with the precision the Enneagram identifies these patterns, addiction relapse might significantly be decreased, thus eliminating so much unnecessary suffering that inhabits addict’s lives today.



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