Saturday, April 16, 2022

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I believe that the story of fixation, the story of ego identity, is actually true – on the level of fixation . . . Most of us spend our whole life either trying to get rid of the story, and/or striving to live our story in the best possible way. No matter what we do we are looking through the lens of our fixation, trying to fix the fixation with the fixation. Lissa Friedman, “From Fixation to Freedom,” Enneagram Monthly, May 2009.

I just love my ego, don’t you? We get along so well together. And what a relationship! It’s been life-long, predictable, we’re safe—more or less. OK, fine, we get angry, we feel hurt, we challenge our constraints but, oh, the seduction of familiarity. As helpful as the Enneagram can be, we’ve all experienced personally and with our clients the tenacity of those familiar patterns. And typical of any long-standing relationship, breaking up is difficult — no matter how strong the desire to end it. As Lissa wrote, 

There seems to be a point we all get to when we have done enough spiritual and/or psychological work; where we realize the work we have done has failed. We are still living within the story of our ego. It may have loosened, become less painful, but it is still doing its dance.

Clarence Thomson and I emphasized for years the importance of going beyond first-order change (e.g., coaching someone fixated at point Nine to be more assertive doesn’t address an underlying pattern of avoiding conflict); worse, that coaches can unwittingly reinforce a pattern (e.g., responding to a request for structure by outlining exactly what to do simply reinforces the pattern of following someone else’s agenda). 

I’ve coached many clients to observe how their patterns operate and to loosen those patterns, but I must admit that for them (and for me) the ego has still seemed to be doing its dance. As someone described in Lissa’s article cited above, I can now attest that there is a way to free yourself at a deep level, by uncovering your fundamental story and accessing the belief that the story is true: 

. . . we stop and look it directly in the face, and acknowledge its truth, its reality . . . When the core of the ego story dissolves, the central theme of being is gone. It is like the center of identity has been removed. There is nothing for the fixation or ego to form around. There is no sense of resolution, of the issues, or the painful experience. It is just that the issues no longer exist. The basic core question no longer makes sense. 

The workshop Lissa described in her article was born when she despaired one day of ever having her needs met, then realized that was her story — she would never get her needs met and any effort to meet her needs would still be within the story. When she surrendered “completely into the heart of the pattern,” she wrote, “I couldn’t find the issues that had been so devastatingly disturbing; the story was gone. It seemed to have never been true.” As she described to me later in conversation, Lissa began to experience that sometimes her needs were met, sometimes not, but whether or not they were met was no longer an issue.

So, for weeks before her workshop, I held the intention to experience what’s purported to be a fundamental belief at point Nine: 

I am inferior, and being nice will not make me good or deserve to exist. I cannot avoid the reality of this awful feeling by not engaging life. 

Though I’d never consciously felt inferior, I was willing to give it a go, and for the first week or so began to notice how that story kept me from engaging fully. As a small example, I became aware of how fast I tended to read, even when reading fiction or poetry for pleasure. I heard, as if magically radioed in from my past, Mary is such a good girl. She does exactly what she’s told and she does it quickly. I remembered being praised for how many books I could read in a week. That expanded to memories of being praised at work for how quickly I completed projects. I had the insight that this was designed to feed my story: If I do things quickly, people will praise me, I’ll feel worthwhile, and this proves I have to keep doing things quickly so I’ll know I’m worthwhile.

But I didn’t experience the belief, it was still an idea. This continued up through and past being interviewed and taped during the workshop—interesting insights, a deeper level of awareness, less defensiveness, a new perspective on coaching clients by looking for their fundamental stories, and an exchange with Carolyn Bartlett about Coherence Therapy (or Brief Deep Therapy):

How, in this person’s world of meaning, is the presenting problem cogently and compellingly necessary to have, even with the suffering or trouble it brings? The therapist keeps prompting the client to zero in on the emotional truth of the symptom—specific, unconscious personal themes, knowings and purposes that, in one way or another, powerfully and passionately require having the presenting symptom, even though consciously the client wants so much not to have it.

I had the sense that Lissa was onto something more, not refuting the story (a “disconfirming juxtaposition” in Coherence Therapy terminology), but fully surrendering into the story, believing it. Still, I hadn’t yet experienced the truth of my story.

Several weeks after the workshop, I received the DVD of Lissa interviewing me, eagerly turned it on, and BOOM! I saw myself as fat, old, and BLAND. 

Those of you settled to any degree among the gut types will know what I mean when I say it was a body blow. I was completely crushed. I could not identify with that woman on the screen. For a full day my ego danced around looking for ways to accept the external evidence that contradicted my self-image: “Surely there’s something I can do to prove I have value.” I read about strategies for embracing growing old. I considered following the path of aging boomer artists Alice and Richard Matzkin (The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self) and painting a self-portrait, warts and all — still feeding the story by trying to refute it: “I am worthwhile! I am worthwhile!”

Then, on the second day, I experienced the fundamental story. I am worthless. I fully believed this, felt it down to my bones, my heart full of deep shame, and I knew it to be true. It was real and it was horrible.

On the third day, I fell through. The phrase fell through is inadequate to capture the experience, but as Lissa acknowledged in her article:

Ultimately what I am trying to describe cannot be described in words, and cannot be understood by our minds.

What I can tell you is that when I subsequently viewed the DVD of my interview, I felt compassion and even delight, a feeling akin to “Oh, so that’s the body and those are the mannerisms my soul is riding in at the moment.” 

I’m not saying I’m transformed. In the immortal words of Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land, “I am just an egg.” But I am seeing a significant difference in how momentary defensiveness dissolves quickly — and in a way that’s very different from tamping down my feelings — a sensation of lightness, of each molecule breathing.

Lissa’s DVDs show a full hour interview of each Enneagram point in a workshop format, including responses to audience questions. Lissa chose people to interview who are older and have worked on themselves for many years, her questions designed to guide them through their lives. When they talk about their earlier lives, you’ll hear a more fixated expression of their patterns. As they review their life paths, you’ll see the evolution of their patterns and the unique journey of each toward freedom.

And you’ll see me looking kind of chubby, no longer young, and — yes — kind of mild in my self-presentation.