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).


All of the photos used in this blog post were created by me. If you want to support my writing and my photography, consider becoming my patron on Patreon! 

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.

My Pain Matters: On Affirming the Pain I Often Underestimated

I call 2016 my shit year.

Why? Because a ton of shit happened to me during 2016. I was testing the waters of “organizing” for the first time. I attempted to work with religious communities that expressed a desire to do anti-racist work. I also struggled to find support in school from my peers and my teachers.

I experienced a lot of pain within these and many other moments in 2016. I was gaslighted by people who claimed to care about the black freedom struggle. I attended tension filled demonstrations and have been in the presence of violence. I’ve had my creative and intellectual work unfairly judged by parties who couldn’t see my work rightly. 2016 was also the year that my university’s Peace Studies department used police presence to intimidate me into compliance when I rose concerns about racism and sexism in the program’s curriculum.

2016 left me burned and wasted.

You could even say that 2016 broke my spirit. In retrospect, 2017 went a whole lot better for me, even though the first year of Trump’s presidency brought with it so much maliciousness.

I don’t know if I have yet to fully recover from what 2016 did to my mind, my body, my spirit, but most days, I expect myself to be better by now. It’s been over a whole year, after all.

I tell myself that I shouldn’t be afraid of picking up my camera, taking new clients, doing new gigs… That my fear should be gone by now. I should be better. I shouldn’t still be carrying around a fear of running into ministers and activists who hurt me deeply. I shouldn’t be carrying around the fear of running into members of other organizations and coalitions that didn’t do their part to respect me and see my rightly. But, I do.

I don’t always know what to do about these fears. I try to power through them, but it doesn’t seem like enough on the days that I can’t.

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me, in the beginning of 2017 on a roadtrip.

As I work a few hours during the week, I get to enjoy roaming the isles of the library in solitude. I use this opportunity to catch up on podcasts that I’ve been wanting to listen to and I also get a chance to discover and listen to new ones as I quietly shelve books (and occasionally shed a few laughs here and there).

One of the more meaningful podcasts that I’ve been able to listen to this year has been AFFIRM, a podcast from the website Redefine Enough. Between listening to AFFIRM and taking a break from Twitter, I feel like I’ve been receiving the breath of air that I need… and will reluctantly say that I deserve.

I say reluctant, because I often forget a lot of what I say that I believe. Or, I forget to take seriously certain truths about mental health and caring for myself. I don’t always believe that the things that I whole-heartedly want for other people, I deserve as well. And so, it’s been so helpful for me to listen to the podcast and to listen to the host describe and name things that I forget or experiences I don’t always have words for.

One of the topics in the podcast that I found to be very affirming was the topic of “secondary trauma”. Essentially, secondary trauma isn’t trauma that you personally experienced, it’s trauma that you may have witnessed or trauma that you hear about. Trauma therapists and other healers often experience secondary trauma from listening to people’s stories and witnessing their pain.

I’m a person that typically listens with enthusiasm… but I’ve noticed my capacity to listen growing less and less. I have noticed within my body the desire to retreat into my own personal space. My capacity to hold others has shrunk. I often fear that this has meant that I have grown to be less big-hearted, less caring. I think to myself that I must be selfish now (which is the worst thing to be if you’ve grown up being told your worth is defined by how well or how much you care for others). However, the podcast reminded me that secondary trauma is still trauma. It makes sense for me to be tired after listening to others share their own pain. It makes sense for me to not always have the capacity to listen to others if I myself am in a dark place.

The podcast also affirmed a lot of my own experiences and struggles with mental health and anxiety. Within the last year, I’ve struggled to leave my house and have felt the kind of tiredness that lingers and overstays her welcome.

I believe now that my body has been shutting down… it’s been telling me that I need help, that I need to find healing and care. I couldn’t see the messages that my body was giving me: the lack of energy, the inability to leave home, the lack of excitement that I found sitting on my chest when I woke up in the mornings… I couldn’t understand the messages my body was giving me because I couldn’t find affirmation from myself or from many others that I was carrying a lot and that a lot was hurting me. In my mind, I downplayed everything. But, between Twitter drama, racism, sexism, biphobia, spiritual abuse, family trauma, rejection, life-changes, loss, flashbacks — all of it was affecting me. And most of it still affects me.

There were days when flashbacks made it difficult for me to leave the house. I would feel the emotions of the flashbacks hit my body right before placing my hand on the door. I’d find myself winded from the pain of those memories and needing to recover from the flashback. Then I would be late for something. And then, I couldn’t tell anyone about why I was late, because we don’t talk about mental health in our society well. Not in activist spaces, not in church… many spaces still hold stigmas, discomfort or general cluelessness around mental health.

Listening to women of color affirm each other’s mental and emotional health is doing something to me. I don’t know if I can call it “healing” necessarily but it’s encouraging me enough to get out of bed and to feel like I can do something about my anxiety and depression. The women on the podcast are reminding me that I deserve rest and care. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain matter, that the world’s bigotry, interpersonal messiness and systematic injustices affect me because I am human. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain won’t just just go away overnight. Trauma doesn’t just magically disappear. Healing and care has to happen.

Thankfully, I am in a place where I am seeking therapeutic support. I’m also trying to take advantage of this slower time of my life by making sure that I fight for my care time. I want to enjoy this life. I want to be happy. I want to have meaningful relationships, and I want to be filled with purpose and love when I do my work.

I think I deserve that.


A few of my favorite personal affirmations:

Rest is as important as work. Rest makes magic that work can’t do.

What I went through is real. I am not weak for feeling pain from my past, no matter how far back. I matter, my pain matters, and I deserve to have my pain attended to and healed. I deserve to be cared for and loved.

I deserve to be celebrated and respected in my work.

I have enough faith for today. I am spiritual/religious/Christian enough even if others can’t see it because of their religious boxes. I don’t have to do more to prove it.

I deserve to be celebrated, loved and respected in a religious community.

I have a lot to offer and to give, even when I don’t always feel like it.

I deserve to protect myself. I don’t owe anyone my gifts or my vulnerability.

The promise of life abundant is for me, too.


Please check out AFFIRM podcast if you get a chance, especially if you are a woman of color. Also, AFFIRM should not take the place of real therapeutic help. I grew up being afraid of therapy and being taught that it was bad and meant something was “wrong” with me. If you are intimidated or scared of therapy, I’m always willing to talk to you. AFFIRM is great about addressing fears about mental health and reaching out to a therapist.