Reflections from an Enneagram Four: Learning Not to Let Emotions Rule
When I was seven or eight years old, my mom opened the door to our basement stairs and found me sitting on the top step. It’s unclear how long I’d been there, but it had been awhile. I was hunched over an old tape recorder, listening to Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have to Say ‘I Love You’ in a Song.”
Alone. On repeat. In the dark.
I’m pretty sure when I was seven I didn’t know any actual girls. Even if I did it was maybe a bit early in life to musically drop the L word. But I remember liking how that song made me feel—heavy, deep, full on the inside. I was in another world, one inside me that felt bigger and more colorful than real life, as if someone had hooked an electric wire to my soul and hit the juice.
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.
The Sad-Happy Deep Life of an Enneagram Four
Enneagram Fours are often called “the Individualist” type, or “the Romantic.” They see themselves as special, owners of vivid and expressive emotional lives, and are often unusually attracted to (and skilled in) the arts. Fours feel like they were born missing something inside them that makes them fundamentally different from other people. As a result, Fours cultivate a self-image rooted in being different, hoping that people will notice their individuality and affirm them. The quintessential movie Four is John Cusack’s character in Say Anything.
When healthy, Fours are creative, honest, empathetic, passionate, and authentic. When unhealthy, they can be overly sensitive, self-pitying, emotionally self-destructive, and prone to envy. Regardless of health, almost all Fours nurse moody streaks and are unusually attracted to the bittersweetness of life. Their flagship quote could be this bit of dialogue from Doctor Who: “What’s good about sad?” “It’s happy, for deep people.”
Feeling Like an Outsider
Two experiences seem to be common to all Fours: (1) the sense of being a misunderstood outsider, of not really belonging anywhere, and (2) deep shame at their perceived insignificance.
The first experience, in particular, is in many ways the root of the Fours’ primary sin, which is envy. I’ve often battled the sense of being “out of place” wherever I’ve been. For most of my childhood and early adult years, I felt like my nose was pressed against the glass of life, watching confident, secure, at-ease peers who really had this life thing nailed in a way I didn’t. Surely they didn’t feel the way I did, I thought, and I wondered what they had inside that I was missing.
Example: I remember coming home from fifth grade and telling my parents that “everyone in my class hates me.” This, despite these objective facts: one of my best neighborhood buddies was also in my class, I was doing alarmingly steady business in birthday party attendance, and when I won the school geography bee a classmate hand-drew me a little first-place medallion. Like a lot of Fours, my perceptions about if I belong or fit in somewhere are often wildly, almost comically, distorted.
This comparison game always, inevitably, leads to envy. C. S. Lewis has a famous essay where he talks about the dangers of “the inner ring”—exclusive social circles to which one hungers to belong. Fours are adept at seeing inner rings—both real and imaginary—everywhere in life, and you can guess which side of the line they think they’re on.
Finding Joy and Freedom as a Four
Reading this, you might get a picture of us Fours as constantly tortured artists, forever paddling our rowboats out in the rain to journal and listen to Dashboard Confessional. Luckily, that’s not the whole story. Far from being a constant sad-sack, I’m usually a pretty happy guy. But like most Fours, I’ve also had to learn that my emotions aren’t the seat of reality. Creativity doesn’t have to come from a storm of emotion to be genuine. In fact, my feelings are sometimes the least authentic, most temporary part of who I am.
I also don’t have to luxuriate in angst just because the emotional weight makes me feel significant, like that old Jim Croce song did once upon a time. God has, in fact, already told me I’m significant and important to him all throughout Scripture. That’s an objective fact, not a subjective reality. As my identity in Christ has strengthened over the years, God has graciously short-circuited those emotional doom loops that shout otherwise. When we are set free by the gospel and growing in the Spirit, life as a Four is rich with real joy. God has turned envy of what’s missing into celebration of what God has given- the artistry of his creation, for example, or God’s craftsmanship in shaping each individual life (even my own!). This ability to celebrate instead of resent frees me to do what I was created to do: “glorify God, and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Catechism).
Because of this, I’m at home in my interior in a way that other Enneagram types might find enviable, and maybe even a little exciting—like a harbor where the wind always blows just perfectly for sailing. When I joke that, like the TARDIS (a second DoctorWho reference!), I’m bigger on the inside, there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing how true that really is.
The Beauty Fours Bring
So what place do we Fours have in the body of Christ, where he has made Christians to fit together perfectly? In its fullness, the Christian life is a perfect balance between external and internal, between the outer life of obedienceto Christ and the inner life of being transformedby Christ. Fours like me, inveterate chroniclers of our soul’s every twitch and spasm, have a high comfort level with the latter idea. By example we call our fellow believers into an experience of God’s kingdom that includes both their interior and exterior selves. A church or community with healthy Fours will never lack for reminders that personal transformation is a core part of God’s work among us.
Likewise, groups with healthy Fours will never lack encouragers and listeners. Having ruthlessly catalogued our own soul’s sludginess, very little about another person’s inner experience can shock a healthy Four. They know that God’s grace washes every part of them, even (especially!) the shadowy and shameful parts. This emotional honesty opens up spaces of compassion where fellow Christians can unmask themselves and share burdens in safety.
Perhaps the best part about being a Four is knowing that beauty is an essential part of the Christian story. Christianity—God, Jesus, the cross, the whole shebang—isn’t just historically true or propositionally true, although it is those things. It’s also beautiful. It’s aesthetically true.
Our God is one whose steadfast love never quits, whose mercy for sinners never fails, whose justice over evil always triumphs, and whose future redemption will make all things new forever. The entire redemption narrative uplifts the downtrodden and marginalized. It gives us a savior God who was born in a stable and crucified like a criminal for people who hate him. The story, this God, is so much bigger, so much fuller, so much lovelier, than its alternatives. You don’t have to be an Enneagram Four to see that—but I must admit, it might help.
Image designed by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
When I heard about a Christian group on campus, I knew it was something I didn’t want to just join—it was an opportunity for me to step up and lead. I was driven, ambitious, and a little too eager to shine. I was, in short, a young Three on the Enneagram.
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.