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Enneagram Theory: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Enneagram

 There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

– Kurt Lewin*

In this series of blogs, I’m selecting the Enneagram theories that I believe are the most accurate and most useful. I think it is essential, especially as the Enneagram grows and expands in usage, that we each think rigorously about which aspects of Enneagram theory are both true (or true-enough) and useful, allowing us to understand ourselves and grow in ways we might not do as well without them.

In this, the second, blog, I have chosen psychological defense mechanisms and the Enneagram. The rationale for this choice is that I believe that understanding the psychological defense mechanisms for each type are absolutely essential for our psychological development, but just as important, for our spiritual development and overall consciousness.

I want to explain my bias. I am a trained Gestalt therapist – though not a licensed psychotherapist – having trained with direct students of Fritz Perls. I have also followed a non-denominational spiritual practice for over 30 years, one that is more Eastern than Western. I have seen so many people grow psychologically and when they do, they usually – but not always – make inroads in the spiritual dimension as well. I have seen people who believe themselves to be spiritually evolved – and perhaps they are – who have gaping holes in their self-development. There are others who are highly engaged spiritually, but a mess psychologically. This latter group has taken what is known as a “spiritual bypass,” meaning they have bypassed doing their psychological work because they have convinced themselves that doing spiritual work makes the psychological unnecessary. They are “unworked” psychologically, meaning not very deeply aware of how they think, what they feel, and the consequences of what they do.

I have always valued doing psychological and spiritual growth, sometimes in tandem, at other times in an alternating fashion. But the interface between the psychological and spiritual realms offered by the Enneagram has been one of its biggest attractions for me.

I use the following criteria before I use a theory in my work:

What is it?
Who is the source; is that source reliable?
Is it a true enough model or theory that describes some aspect of reality better than other models?
Is it practical and useful; does it help us do something we can’t do as well without it?

Psychological Defense Mechanisms

What is it?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies used by individuals to deal with uncomfortable and difficult situations. These mechanisms work to reduce a person’s anxiety, sadness, and/or anger and to maintain his or her self-image. Individuals of all Enneagram styles use a variety of defense mechanisms, sometimes at the same time but also at different times; however, specific defense mechanisms are strongly associated with each style, and these style-based coping strategies are most obvious when individuals are dealing with difficult issues.

In terms of the Enneagram, understanding the primary defense mechanism of each style is a major key to unlocking the ego’s hold on us; the ego has nine specific forms, called Enneatypes. The stronger the defensiveness – and particularly the primary defense mechanism – the more active the ego is indicating self-defense. As a result, if we want to allow the ego to show itself in more pure form so we can explore, examine, and grow by reducing the ego’s hold on us, we find that underneath the defense there is a treasure trove of unexplored possibilities. In fact, we may conclude that this defense, something that protected us early on, is no longer needed or only needed when we choose to call upon its services.

Here the list of primary defense mechanisms by type, followed by a more in-depth explanation of each:

Ones: Reaction Formation
Twos: Repression
Threes: Identification
Fours: Introjection
Fives: Isolation
Sixes: Projection
Sevens: Rationalization
Eights: Denial
Nines: Narcotization

Ones: Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation is a defense mechanism by which individuals reduce or try to eliminate anxiety caused by their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that they consider unacceptable by responding in a manner that is the exact opposite of their real responses. The One’s active inner critic dictates what is acceptable based on social mores, contextual expectations, and moral principles, and reaction formation becomes a defensive remedy when Ones experience what they deem “unacceptable” reactions. A subtle example often seen in Ones is when they dislike someone yet are especially nice and polite to this person. A more blatant example – one that is not exclusive to Enneagram style Ones – is an individual who crusades against corporate corruption, only to be discovered later as having embezzled money from the organization.

Twos: Repression

Repression is a defense mechanism by which individuals hide information about themselves from themselves – for example, feelings, desires, wishes, aversions, fears, and needs – that are too difficult to acknowledge consciously. However, the repressed information doesn’t disappear; instead, expression of the repressed data is controlled or held down while it continues to influence the individual’s behavior. For example, Twos may feel anxious and need reassurance, but they may be only minimally aware of this. Instead of exploring these feelings or seeking comfort, the Two reassures another person who appears to be in distress.

Threes: Identification

Identification is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously incorporates attributes and characteristics of another person into his or her own personality and sense of self. Identification is a way of bolstering one’s self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with an admired person, then taking on that person’s characteristics. When Threes model their own behavior after someone else or the idea they have of someone, they are usually not aware they are doing so. For this reason, it becomes complicated for them to untangle who they really are from this image. In particular, Threes identify most with images of individuals who are admired in the Three’s desired social context, and the image with which Threes identify often changes as their context changes.

Fours: Introjection

Introjection is a counter-intuitive defense mechanism. Instead of repelling critical information and negative experiences that can cause a person anxiety or pain, individuals introject the information – that is, they fully absorb, internalize, and incorporate these data into their sense of self. Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, refers to this phenomenon as swallowing something whole without being able to differentiate between information that is true from information that is untrue. Fours introject negative information – and repel positive data – about themselves as a way of coping with painful information and neutralizing external threats. They prefer to deal with self-inflicted damage rather than having to respond to criticism or rejection from others.

Fives: Isolation

Isolation occurs in Fives as a way for them to avoid feeling overwhelmed and empty. Fives isolate themselves by retreating into their minds, cutting themselves off from their feelings, and compartmentalizing – that is, isolating each part of themselves from the whole or the related parts. For example, Fives separate their thoughts from their feelings and/or feelings from behaviors, as well as separating their personal and work lives. Fives may also isolate themselves from other people and separate their relationships so that their friends never meet one another; in fact, some Fives even have secret lives.

Sixes: Projection

Projection is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals unconsciously attribute their own unacceptable, unwanted, or disowned thoughts, emotions, motivations, attributes, and/or behaviors to others. While the projection may be positive, negative, or neutral, it occurs because the individuals who are projecting perceive the projected attributes as difficult to acknowledge or threatening to believe about themselves. Because Sixes make these attributions unconsciously, they imagine that they are true, although at a deeper level they are not entirely certain about this. Although Sixes use projection as a way to create some certainty and thus reduce their anxiety in ambiguous, uncertain, or potentially dangerous situations, these projections – particularly if they are negative in nature – ironically raise the Six’s anxiety level. In addition, when Sixes project either something negative or positive that is untrue, they create a false reality without knowing they are doing so.

Sevens: Rationalization

Rationalization is a defense mechanism by which individuals explain unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a way that entirely avoids or obscures their true motivations, intentions, or the effects of the behavior. When Sevens rationalize, they do so by positive reframing, justifying their behavior by explaining it in highly positive terms. Sevens use reframing to avoid pain, discomfort, sadness, guilt, and anxiety, as well as to avoid taking personal responsibility for what has occurred.

Eights: Denial

Denial is a defense mechanism by which individuals unconsciously negate something that makes them feel anxious by disavowing its very existence. These can include thoughts, feelings, wishes, sensations, needs, and other external factors that are unacceptable to the Eight for some reason. Denial comes in a variety of forms. A person may deny the reality of the unpleasant information altogether, admit that something is true but deny or minimize its seriousness, or admit that both the information and its severity are true but deny any personal responsibility for it.

Nines: Narcotization

Narcotization is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals unconsciously numb themselves to avoid something that feels too large, complex, difficult, or uncomfortable to handle. Nines narcotize and distract themselves by engaging in prolonged rhythmic activities that are familiar, require very little attention, and provide comfort – for example, washing the dishes; working in the garden; continuous pleasure reading of books by the same author or within the same genre; going for a walk or a bike ride; engaging in frequent or extended casual conversations; or continuously changing channels on the TV. Nines also use daily routines such as morning or evening rituals to immunize themselves from being fully aware, and they feel agitated, irritated, or disoriented when these repetitive activities become disrupted.

The source?

The idea of defense mechanisms appears to have originated with Sigmund Freud and has been part of our modern psychological understanding since his time. There are numerous names for the most common defense mechanism people use, and modern psychologists sometimes group them in categories from “pathological” to “healthy.” But even healthy people use psychological defenses.

In addition, Gurdjieff refers to ‘buffers” that keep the ego in place, although he was likely referring more to the fixations or mental habits that align with each of the nine styles or the passions – emotional reactivity patterns – that get triggered when our egos are driving our responses. By deduction and by definition, defense mechanisms are “psychological buffers” that keep our psychological egos in place. By further deduction, reducing the impact of our defense mechanisms reduces the ego’s hold on us.

In terms of the Enneagram, I learned the primary defense mechanisms listed above from Helen Palmer’s first book, The Enneagram. I would assume these come from the work of Naranjo rather than Ichazo because Claudio is widely credited with having placed the psychological aspects of the 9 styles on the map, thus adding Western psychology to the Enneagram map. Given that psychological aspects of type include defense mechanisms, my logic has it that Claudio deserves credit for this. In addition, when I attended his 27 Enneagram Subtypes program in 2010, he artfully reviewed these mechanisms.

Are they true?

Can Freud, Naranjo, and Palmer be wrong? Yes, of course, but they are all extremely reliable sources who have worked with thousands of individuals over the years. Claudio, as a psychiatrist and student of Fritz Perls, would be likely to have the correct primary defense mechanisms for each type.

From my own personal experience, I remember being 20-years old and, on receiving a compliment from someone I barely knew, and said, “Well, I might be as good as you think I am if I weren’t so repressed!” In my late 20s I had a strange desire that made no sense to me at the time. I felt very constricted in space and longed to have a body-stretch pull on both arms and legs to give me more freedom. Of course, now I recognize that repression is the style Two defense mechanism, and I have been making great progress working to unleash more and repress less.

From my observations working with people of various Enneagram styles, the defense mechanisms map extremely well to the 9 styles. The additions I would make is for Enneagram Sevens. What I have observed is that if rationalization through reframing does not work, they move to blame of some sort (blame the situation or blame other people). A case could be made that this is secondary rationalization; that instead of reframing to make themselves look good, Sevens may reframe to make the other look bad.

Are they practical and useful?

I believe they are extraordinarily useful because they are accurate and practical. Here are just some of the ways I utilize this theory in my work:

Identifying a person’s Enneagram style: When people are sorting through the styles to determine which one fits them best, understanding the defense mechanism often helps them differentiate between two or three styles they are considering.

Self-development: Once we understand our style’s primary defense mechanism, we can them observe ourselves in the throes of using it. Once we can do this, we can ask ourselves what is really occurring within us, underneath what the defense mechanism is protecting. In addition, there are specific development activities for each style that soften the effects of the primary defense mechanism over time. For example, when Threes recognize they are over-identifying with their roles in real time, they can ask themselves probing questions – for example, Who am I? What am I feeling that my over-identification is masking? Fours can establish better filters for negative and positive feedback so they don’t automatically absorb the negative and reject the positive.

Coaching: Working with a client’s defense mechanisms is key to the client’s development. Observing the defense in action and then probing what lies beneath is often a major key that unlocks the client’s key issues.

And more about defense mechanisms

You can read a great deal more about defense mechanisms and the 9 Enneagram styles in my newest book, Bringing Out the Best in Everyone You Coach (McGraw-Hill 2009). The defense mechanisms for each style are described in more detail as are how coaches can best challenge the defense mechanism using a direct or indirect approach.

So agree with me, disagree with me, or add to what’s been said. But please don’t believe all this to be absolutely true just because I said so. Discover it for yourself. Explore, examine, and experience!

The next blog will be on the wings, the Enneagram styles on both sides of our core style.

*Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist of the early 20th century who is considered to a pioneer of modern social, organization, and applied psychology. Even more, force-field analysis, action research, and change theory all bear his name. Beyond this, National Training Laboratories (NTL) and the field of organization development (OD) owe their origins to Lewin and his work.

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I am new to the Enneagram and I found your post fascinating. I’ve been struggling between identifying between types 3 & 5. Your comment about 3’s over identifying with their roles made me gasp. That’s me! With that tendency in mind, several of my deeply painful & non-resolved wounds suddenly make perfect sense. Now for healing…meh…baby steps. Thank you!


[…] keep their inner space tranquil, 9s use the defense mechanism of narcotization. Narcotization is numbing oneself to avoid life's challenges. On a subtle level, it manifests as […]