Rage Against the Personality Tool: On the Limits of Self-Growth Tools Like Enneagram

Rage against the personality tool.

When I originally wrote that line, they were the title of a poem. A long, messy and cheesy, but frustrated poem.

I want an easy way to explain why
I want to spill my guts
and gather them all at the same time
Maybe, leave each of my friends with
little pieces of my intestines

like a nice souvenir,
so they know the feeling’s real

I’ve used tools such Myer-Briggs, astrology and the Enneagram over the past couple of years to try to understand myself and why I am the way I am: the shyness, the bursts of unforeseen energy, the constant need to self-protect, my impatience with small-talk, and my love of love (both love with a lowercase and uppercase). The first time I was introduced to the Enneagram, I was 20 years old working on a farm. All of my teammates at the farm were raving about it, eagerly learning and discussing their types. The online test that I took described me as a Type Four, but not only was I assigned a Four, the particular test I took described me as an unhealthy Four. I responded by bursting into tears. The label of “unhealthy” slapped me in the face. I didn’t want to be reminded that I wasn’t well, especially after being sent home from a service year program because they couldn’t provide the mental health support that I needed, despite their best attempts.

Fast forward a few years, I visit a friend in Albany and I’m invited to spectate an Enneagram workshop. I’m curious about my type, but during the process of reassessing my type, I spiral into another fit of tears, bawling in my friends car over how tired I feel of being reminded of how I’m not at my best.

For the record, I live with anxiety and depression. And, I have a history of panic attacks and suicidal ideations. I have probably had depression for a lot longer than I remember, since much of my teenage life, but I was in denial over my depression. I told myself that I couldn’t possibility be depressed because I was loved by God and that love was a genuine source of hope for me. I saw myself as a music-loving ball of sunshine, the embodiment of blue skies– I was so in love with Jesus– guidance counselors and high school librarians suggesting I was depressed would have me laugh in their face! But, I know now that depression has been my reality, and anxiety plagues my body. I don’t know how severe, only that it controls my life in a way that I wish it did not. I didn’t know that I had generalized anxiety until being diagnosed with it in recent years.

Since learning about these diagnosis, I’ve been curious about the story behind my mental illnesses. As I’ve stated before, I’ve been told for most of my life that these could just be innate chemical imbalances in my brain — a notion that I have resisted because of the ways I have felt it as a dismissal of my personal history.

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Admittedly, I am also a struggling perfectionist… I think my perfectionism might be a trauma thing. Like my anxiety, my perfectionism gets in the way of me living my life. That is the part that makes it difficult for me to trust self-growth tools like the Enneagram and how it is currently being taught. As a Four, it is suggested that we look at the positive characteristics of Type Ones for self-growth and integration, to help us with the unhealthy qualities of Type Four. But so much of the current trend and culture of the Enneagram describes Ones as “perfectionists” — something that I am trying to heal from. And so much of this culture also describes Fours as being moody and depressive without necessarily looking into WHY that may be.

There’s so many ways that I don’t resonate with the reductionistic interpretations of the Four Type. For instance: “Fours want to be special, different, to be like no one else. They insist upon telling themselves they are the only one who experiences what they experience.”

But what if you have grown up with a sense that there isn’t anyone around you that you can see yourself in? No one who mirrors you back at yourself? What if it is only in recent years that you’ve started to see yourself reflected a little more in media, at national gatherings, in books, etc? I know so many self-identified Fours who live in between social groups, who don’t fit well into gender binaries or racial assumptions or occupy spaces of social marginalization… they don’t see themselves represented well. I don’t know if it is fair to paint with a wide brush that these Fours necessarily revel and delight in being misunderstood. Rather, speaking for myself, I would say it is my normal or my comfortable place.  The land of “Misunderstood” feels more like a shitty ditch I’m used to being in, as opposed to a place I want to make into my home.

I suppose that my logic for having been so invested in growth and personality tools is the hope that if I can understand myself and what I need to grow, perhaps I can find some direction towards healing from the things that may exacerbate my mental illness. With personal tools like the Enneagram, I wonder how much of my suffering is my own doing? How responsible am I for my constant sense of fear — or the mental health struggles that make it difficult for me to feel like I can pursue the life and love that I want to have?

Maybe the way I come to approach these tools are misguided. But, isn’t that why so many of us approach these tools anyway? That they might help us understand ourselves a little more? That we might make sense of the role that we play in the social problems that keep us up at night?

But, I don’t think that incorporating a little bit more structure into my life is gonna be enough. I don’t know.

 

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Our world today is cruel and tiring because of the large and constant presence of violent forces like capitalism and white supremacy. The values of white supremacy and capitalism are constantly imposed on me: homophobia and queer erasure in my daily interactions and on TV screens; rampant anti-blackness in my government, the Church, schools I’ve attended; rape culture in the dating world. A lot of us are lacking resources and access to that which could heal us because of these forces. Even then, our attempts to heal ourselves may get thwarted by the relentless evils that surround those of us marginalized by race, gender, class, ability, you name it. I may heal myself, but then, if the rest of the world isn’t healing with me, I’m at risk of being re-traumatized. My own attempts at self-growth and self-responsibility isn’t enough. My environment is toxic so often. We are trying to make small oases of peace, rest and pleasure despite.

I rage against these personality tools and tests, but maybe I rage more because of the ways they they are taught and presented as life-changing. So many of these tools don’t account for the world we live in, a world filled with normalized systematic and cultural injustices. A personality tool may tell me that I am self-absorbed with no context. But after years of having to deny my own personhood and individuality in my formative years- in the name of representing la raza, in the name of making white supremacy and white people comfortable, in the name of protecting myself from my the violence of my parents– why would I not be a little bit self-concerned or self-absorbed, as the Enneagram suggests Fours are? A personality tool may suggest that what I need to heal from my personal delusions may be a little more structure and distraction in my life, but what if some of the inner demons that I am suffering from — what if they are not personal delusions? What if they come from all of the violence in my environments that I’ve been taught to internalize?

I rage against personality tools, because I am trying to resist internalizing that I am the only thing standing in the way of my growth and healing. It gets hard to resist all the time. Self-growth tools become seductive to me. And, I can’t deny that I need and crave structure in my life. But, I rage against how we hold these tools without a critical analysis because I am tired of feeling like my sensitivities to an unjust world are something that I must manage in order to make others comfortable. What if my sensitivity and darkness is a gift? What if my “self-absorption” is my body and brain begging me to pay attention to what’s going on in my life, in a world where I am taught as a queer black woman and a survivor, to focus on serving and fighting for everyone else?

Enneagram Institute
Please don’t explain away my pain
Like so many other institutions have


A note:

(I anticipate receiving unsolicited advice about how I ought to get a coach. I also anticipate a response to this along the lines of “you don’t understand the enneagram!” Maybe I don’t. But, I have tried to for several years now, and it still stresses me out. However, I’m seeing black women like Mickey Scottbey Jones and Leanette Pokuwaah bring forward POC-centered approaches to the enneagram. And Hannah Paasch, a white queer person, is exploring context and personal history in her enneagram work. This makes me hopeful, but it’s very important for me to share my story of struggle. I am tired of skipping straight to the resolution, to the tidy neat bow).


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What Beauty Means Now.

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In my 25 years of living and in the year 2018 I have found that

now, in our world, beauty means

hiding from people that your family didn’t love you well

hiding that your family growing up isn’t kind, a safe place and put together

hiding that things in your family have still not gotten much better

and hiding that this pain has shaped a part of your brain and body.

Now, in our world, beauty means

not being dark

of mind,

of story,

or skin,

not being sad

or moody

not struggling with confidence

or having to be reassured.

In our world beauty means

not telling the truth of how everything is hurting

and not telling how you feel about those who perpetuate the hurt.

It means to be silent about your pain

your anger,

and your questions.

Beauty means you must always be smiling

You must never show fear

never show doubt

never need

and cry

and ask

and hope for help.

In our world, beauty is confidence

and not having to consider that the world gives you this thing called “confidence”.

(What is confidence, now, in this world, except being affirmed by the powers that be?

In our world, beauty means

that those who are ugly,

those who are dark,

and bent,

and gnarled,

must find their significance elsewhere

in another world

in order to survive.

My hope:  in order to survive the world

where being ugly

and being dark

is not desired

or welcomed

or necessary,

we must find our desire for another place

where being ugly is magnificent,

is nothing to fear.

Isaiah 53:1-3

Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Inspired by queer, disabled, transnational and transracial adoptee, Mia Mingus.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Advent is for the Killjoys

I have a tendency towards sadness, which is why I think I like Advent so much.

When I say “a tendency towards sadness”, I mean that not in the sense that I like or enjoy being sad, but rather… it feels honest to be sad in this world and I feel the need to pay attention to that. Christmas matters to me because of the sadness that precedes it.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

I remember when I was doing Mission Year several years ago, feeling so much shame for my sadness. I felt like I was broken. I was suffering with deep depression, lingering feelings of childhood needs unmet, an enduring sense of loneliness that I could not shake off. I remember sensing that I have always felt this way. I have always felt sad– I just did not want to admit it to myself and I did not want others to see it. I wasn’t allowed by my family to talk about it. And, I do not live in a world that lets black girls express grief. And tiredness.

But, during Mission Year, I also remember one of my teammates challenging me when I expressed dismay and shame over my constant sadness, lamenting that I ought to never feel anything. I prayed for numbness. In response, he offered this: “If you never feel anything, if you decide to just be numb forever, you would be asking to not feel joy either. You can’t experience joy without experiencing grief.”

He said this to me, the first time that I ever heard this.

Since that time, I have been able to accept that this tendency towards sadness is okay and real.

Later, I have come to understand that this tendency towards sadness is not my fault. It is a remnant of my history on this earth; a reminder that a longing for justice has been worn into my brain and skin cells through my lived experience, this sense of sadness that doesn’t quite leave.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

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photo credit: rachelvirginiahester

A year prior, in my first year of college, I remember having my depression explained away. Someone in the college ministry told me that maybe there was something wrong about my brain and that I needed anti-depressants and that there was nothing wrong with me. It could just be how my brain worked, she assured me, and that I am okay, and that she cares about me. She knows that we don’t talk often but she hopes that this message doesn’t bother me.

I did not know what to make of this new idea, that some brains are just sadder than others. I could not imagine at the time that maybe, while there could have been truth in that statement, maybe there was more than just this simple explanation. She was not the only one who told me this. I remember always hearing about depression this way from my college-mates that did affirm the use of anti-depressants.

I didn’t want my sadness to be dismissed. So, I became afraid of anti-depressants*, because I had concluded that if my sadness came from nowhere, that sadness was something inherent in me, about the way that I was born. I did not want my sadness to be dismissed — to be decontextualized — because I had been through a lot.

And this world is dark.

I did not want to believe my sadness came from nowhere.

I think about the Christmas story, the one that many Christians will be thinking about for the next month, and I think about the gift of frankincense and myrrh that the wise men gifted Jesus. I remember being told that these two items were given to him intentionally, because these were medicines used to cope with pain. (I don’t know what to do about the gold, so I won’t comment on that). But, I think about the life that Jesus would have, one where he would be spat upon, threatened and mocked by authorities and others in his society, and I know that any sadness Jesus felt during his ministry did not come from nowhere. The kings must have known about what kind of life Jesus would live. One where he would be acquainted with sadness and grief.

As I’ve become more honest with my own experience in the world, I know that I can now attribute this pain to much of what is happening in the world around me, whether it is that which directly affects me or something felt by communities worlds away.

Advent is powerful for me, because I can live into the mystery of this season and the complexity of my emotions as I interface with a hostile society in a precarious global climate. Advent encourages me not to put complex emotions away, because Advent reminds me that it is okay to have hope that is grounded in reality. During Advent, I can resist the compulsion towards happiness without giving into sadness. It is a season where I feel more comfortable not shaming myself for refusing to feign contentment in a dark world.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy. A time that I think about The One Well Acquainted with Grief, the One that Befriended me. The One who Hopes for Joy After Grief.

Advent begins this Sunday.

*For clarity, this is not to be taken as a statement about anti-depressants. Rather, this was what I was told to believe about them at the time. If you are considering anti-depressants, please talk to a professional who can be sensitive to your needs.