Reflections from an Enneagram Five: Learning to Trust God’s Abundance
My wife and I remodeled the second floor of our house a few years ago, and in preparation I watched and rewatched probably hours of videos to learn how to hang and mud drywall. The funny thing is that I had a friend who was coming to help and teach me how to do it! But I wanted to be sure that I understood the process and would be able to do it well. As a Five on the Enneagram, I love to learn and want to be competent.
Some people call Fives “the Observer.” As a Five, my natural state is to stay in the background, watching and learning, happy to let others be the center of attention (at least, until there is a topic where I can demonstrate my expertise). And because we observe, research, and learn, Fives often do become experts in a specific field, which is likely why many Fives choose careers as scientists, researchers, professors, and engineers (my background). These fields encourage a deep knowledge of a specific area (and often allow you to work alone for long periods of time). I can normally focus intensely on one thing, ignoring all distractions and really diving deep into a topic, problem, or task.
But at the same time, Fives are frequently seen as detached because we don’t get emotional . . . at least in public. If I’m going to cry, it’ll be by myself or with a very trusted friend. But to others I can be like a blank computer screen; it seems like nothing is going on. Behind that blank screen, though, the processor may be running at 100 percent. Unless I’m really tired, my mind is always going, always noticing things, processing what I’m learning, and storing it away for future reference; my face just might not show it.
It’s like everything I outwardly express passes through a filter. This sounds bad, but sometimes I need to remind myself to have a smile on my face when I run into a friend I haven’t seen in a while, or to visibly show compassion when someone shares their struggles with me. I may be thinking, “I’m really glad to see that person!” or “That must be really difficult,” but my thoughts don’t necessarily connect with my body.
Because we think through our emotions, Fives can gather and analyze information and remain objective, only allowing our emotions to come out when we’re ready. A few years ago, there was a large conflict among a leadership team that I was working with. While I was deeply involved, I was able to remain detached emotionally. This allowed me to talk with those involved, ask questions, and understand their perspective, without being colored by my own feelings and initial reactions.
But my desire to observe and learn also has a major drawback: it’s hard for me to actually act on things. I can spend all day learning and not actually doing anything (the Internet is both amazing and terrible for me because it’s an endless source of information). I store that info up, knowing that someday it may be useful.
This gets to the core desire for a Five: to be competent or capable. When I worked as a software developer, I loved the accomplishment of fixing a bug in the code—especially if I did it by myself. I now work with international students on campus, and I love being able to help students and volunteers understand the cross-cultural dynamics that are happening in ministry. My experience overseas, the books I’ve read, and the training I’ve received make me a valuable resource.
The flip side is that a Five’s biggest fear is to be incapable. This is what often drives my actions: I never want to be in a situation where I’m useless, so to protect myself, I will accumulate and hoard. It could be possessions (“I might need this someday . . .”), money, time, or even knowledge (“If I’m in a situation where someone asks me about this, I’ll be ready”).
Last night, I recognized the feelings of incompetence surge up when I pulled bread out of the oven too early, leaving the insides doughy. Running through my mind was: My wife made this delicious bread; all I had to do was take it out when it was done, and I blew it. I can’t do anything right. When I start to have thoughts like that, I can disengage from everything and everyone and pull back into my mind—a realm I can control. I withdraw.
Leaving Afflictive Thoughts and Moving to Abundance
Learning the Enneagram over the past couple of years has taught me to recognize and respond more appropriately to that natural reaction. My withdrawal ends up hurting those around me . . . and usually doesn’t help me, either, as I often replay those negative thoughts again and again. My spiritual director calls these “afflictive thoughts”: they are repetitive and circular, and don’t bring us closer to God and his way of life.
To counter that, I’m learning to remain present and remind myself of truth. The first step has been to simply recognize when I’m withdrawing and am not emotionally or mentally present. My wife has helped me with this; she (gently) lets me know that I am pulling back and reminds me to be more than just physically present. But—and this is important—she also gives me the space I need to be able to process what’s going on. This has helped me recognize my tendency to withdraw more quickly and reverse course, staying engaged.
I also need to counteract those afflictive thoughts with truth. Am I really incapable of doing anything right? Of course not; that’s a lie! But the more I allow myself to spiral down into these thoughts and dejection, the harder it is to hear the truth. There are many things that I am good at—things that God has gifted me in, ways that I have blessed others—and I need to remind myself of these things in order to get out of these traps.
In the end, I need to remember that God is full of abundance, and he gives that abundance to us. It’s easy to settle into a mindset of scarcity—there’s not enough time, money, or knowledge, so in fear I hoard it. The antidote is to learn to trust God. A friend who is a Five wrote:
Trust comes when I don’t have all the knowledge. . . . He wants me to trust that he will work it out, so that I cannot rely on myself but need to know that I am dependent. I can be very individualistic and independent; having to trust God in my life forces me to remember that I need God.
Feasting and celebrating is hard for me, because I don’t often live in God’s abundance. But if I can remember that I need God, that I can trust him, and that he loves me regardless of my competency or usefulness, I’m taking good steps toward who he made me to be.
Image designed by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
My parents didn’t know about the Enneagram back in 1989. If they had, it would have been pretty clear to them what was up: I was a Four. My flagship quote could be this bit of dialogue from Doctor Who: “What’s good about sad?” “It’s happy, for deep people.”
Spiritual director (and former InterVarsity staff member) Alice Fryling introduces the Enneagram with questions and meditations to lead you into deeper self-awareness. You'll learn how you can experience God's love more abundantly and extend God's grace to others more fully.