From Worshiping the Idols of Our Personality to Following the Ideals of Our Real Self
I’m intrigued by the parallels among the Bible story of the Israelites turning away from the true God and fashioning a false idol in the form of a golden calf; George Gurdjieff’s statements about the personality compensating for our essence; Karen Horney’s description of an idealized self image substituting for the real self; and the Enneagram showing how this replacement plays out in nine personality styles.
After wandering around in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites were feeling a little hopeless that Yahweh was ever going to get them out of the desert and into the promised land (something like Chicagoans waiting for their Cubs baseball team to lead them to a pennant.) So they decided to turn away from their true God and fashion a false idol in the form of a golden calf. Hopefully their idol would lead them to security and happiness since Yahweh didn’t seem up to the task.
It is the nature of idols to promise everything and produce little and they don’t do this for nothing (something like investment advisors.) To get results from idols you have to promise to do what they tell you. You must follow their advice otherwise everything you are afraid of will happen to you. Idols are not above threats.
In addition you have to bring them sacrifices – some flowers, fruits, animals, your first-born child – whatever is important to you. But these are minor offerings compared to the safety and glory idols promise.
Bringing this socio-cultural story closer to the psyche, George Gurdjieff, the Armenian teacher of esoteric wisdom, speaks about the personality or false self compensating or substituting for our essence or true self. If we abandon and lose faith in our real self, then we need to fashion a false self to mimic and stand in for the real deal.
Karen Horney, a neo-psychoanalyst, writes about the idealized self image replacing the real self. She believed each individual is born with a healthy real self. By aligning ourselves with our real self, we will realize our full potential and live in harmony with other people (the humanist version of the promised land.)
When children are loved unconditionally for themselves and when they have their biological, emotional, and social needs satisfied, they remain connected to their real selves for they have no reason to be other than who they are.
On the other hand, when children’s needs are frustrated and unmet by their caretakers’ indifference, rejection, or hostility (what Horney labels “basic evil”), they then develop a view of themselves as lowly and despicable. There must be something wrong with them to deserve such treatment and deprivation. So they fashion an idealized self to compensate for and escape from their real self which has morphed into their despised self. A conflict then develops between the real and idealized self which has become crystallized into an idealized self image.
Our idealized self-image is how we think of ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, and how we want others to think of us. In the Enneagram system, the nine self-images have been labeled “prides”. We are proud of being right, loving, successful, deeply feeling, insightful, loyal, upbeat, powerful, and easy going. But as Horney notes there is a certain arrogance involved in that we appropriate to ourselves more than actually may be there. When our prides are not noticed, minimized, or somehow stepped on, we overreact with anger, guilt, embarrassment, or other negative feelings.
From the Enneagram perspective, personality is an exaggeration of our authentic personal qualities. Similarly Horney observed that the idealized image is based partially on the person’s genuine self.
Personality masquerades as our essential self and tricks us into identifying with and believing that an inflated dimension of our self is our whole self. We collaborate in this deception as a way of defending our true self from anxiety-provoking vulnerabilities and as a way of compensating for certain imagined shortfalls in our real self.
Our personality retains intimations of our real self and we can follow it back to our authentic self if we follow our developmental trail back the way we came. This will return us to the path of self actualization. Or we can follow our personality further into its idealized self-image and this will lead us down the road to self-image actualization where only a distorted part of us will be fulfilled.
From the Enneagram perspective, the idols of our personality, manifested in our idealized self image, beckon us to security and happiness. But to reach their promised land, we must pledge our unwavering devotion and fealty to them. And should we disobey them and take another route, they warn us that what we are most afraid of will surely come about. Here we find our should’s and idealizations.
On the other hand, our essence or genuine self invites us to a deeper security and well-being. It is a gentle calling, doesn’t use threats, is always there, but is not as easily noticed. We are guided along this path by our values and ideals.
So what does each type value and really want? What is their head- heart- gut’s deepest desire? What are they enlivened by? And, opposed to their desire, what do they most dread? What is each type particularly vulnerable to and afraid of? It is these fears that their idols promise to protect them from. The irony is they are sheltered from what they fear, but they don’t get what they really want. Tragically their defensive strategies prevent them from finding what they need. The good news about living in a castle surrounded by a mote, alligators, and barbed wire is you are safe. The bad news is, since you are so cut off, you eventually die of boredom or starvation.
Ones want to be good. They want to realize all their potentials and be all they can be. And they want to help others do the same. They have a passion for excellence and doing things well. They want to make the world a better place. When asked, what Ones say they really want is to be accepted as they are and feel good and right about themselves.
What they are afraid of and sensitive about is being criticized, rejected, treated unjustly, or being wrong(ed). Their Idol of Perfectionism promises to protect them from these vulnerabilities. After all, if you’re perfect, you’re safe and no one can criticize you.
Ones need to bring to their “We Try Harder Idol” all their good deeds, their exhausting efforts, their musts, shoulds, and ought to’s, their critiques of themselves and others, their anger and resentments. Their idol (and their ego) thrives and grows strong on these offerings.
What Ones have to sacrifice to their idol is fun, enjoyment, spontaneity. They give up feeling carefree and relaxed and won’t be able to ever go with the flow since they have to be in control. They must renounce their own desires and wants for the sake of their shoulds and forego being dappled since their idol’s world is black and white. In other words they, like every other type, must forfeit their inner child or real self – a small price to pay for safety and security.
Twos want to be loving. They desire to be helpful, caring, and needed. They like being nurturing, considerate, and appreciative. They want to make the world a more loving place. What Twos say they really want is to feel connected, cared for, and loved.
They are afraid of and are very sensitive to being rejected, separated, disconnected, not liked, not accepted, not being needed, and feeling isolated. Their Idol of Co-Dependency promises they will never experience these awful situations. If you make yourself indispensable, who would want to part with you? If you love me, you won’t hurt me, and I’ll be safe.
Two’s need to bring to their “How Can I Help You Idol” all their helpful deeds, personal sacrifices, accommodations, shape-shiftings, and abundant compliments and flatteries. These make their idol and ego feel proud and worthy.
They need to sacrifice their own needs, agenda, and self to their idol. But no one approves of that self, anyway, so no great loss. They are not permitted to receive and they can’t accept grace since that goes against their job description as a helper. Twos can’t ask directly for what they want but they are encouraged to seduce others into giving them what they need.
Threes want to be effective and productive. They want to get things moving and done and accomplish what they set out to do. They enjoy being motivated and motivating others. They seek to make the world more efficient. What Threes say they really want is to be accepted and affirmed and to be able to put being before doing.
They are afraid of not being successful and of being a failure. They fear being rejected, not recognized or admired, not being paid attention to, being inactive, feeling useless, and not worth anything. Their Idol of Workaholism and Success guarantees, in less than 10 days, they will be winners and will avoid being losers. If you look good, work smart, and put in long hours, how can you fail? And if you make others look good, why would they want to fire you? I’m safe if I’m successful and admired.
Threes need to bring to their “How Am I Doing Idol” all their works, awards, successes, clubs joined, society pages appeared in, achievements, accomplishments, networkings, linked-in connections, deals closed. These trophies keep their idol’s and ego’s addictions going.
What Three’s need to sacrifice to their idol are their own agenda and wishes, their family and intimate relationships, and their inner life. Who has time for these anyway? They need to forego time off from performing and from having to impress others, being loved for who they are vs. for what they do, and they can’t just be.
Fours want to be original, authentic, and creative. They want to feel life deeply, express their reflections aesthetically, find their deepest selves, and find meaning in their world. And they wish to remind others to do the same. They desire to make the world a more beautiful place. What Fours say they really want is to be connected to others and connected to themselves. They want to belong and they value self discovery and development.
Fours are afraid of being abandoned, left out, neglected, ignored, not paid attention to, feeling rejected and uncared for, bored, criticized about their style, and having their creativity stifled. Their Idol of Elite Standards promises them they will not experience these terrible circumstances if they follow their idol’s inspirations. And because they will be so extraordinary, even if someone foolishly does leave them, the Fours will make such a profound impression on these callow creatures that they will never forget them. I’m safe if I’m special and I suffer.
Fours need to bring to the altar of their “Suffering Idol” all of their exquisite tastes, their unique contributions, their beautiful creations and clothes, and all of their dramas, misunderstandings, sufferings, and tragic flaws. All these things make Fours and their idol singular and special.
Fours need to sacrifice to their idol any future happiness, any experience of being ordinary, and any sense of equanimity and calm. But what good can come from being ordinary, really? Even though they want it more than anything, they have to give up a sense of connection to others because then they might be understood and lose their mystery. They forego having what they want since they would lose the feelings of longing and yearning that make them feel alive and different.
Fives want to understand. They want to be wise and perceptive and to know the truth. They enjoy learning and getting the big picture. They desire to make the world a more enlightened, better understood place. They also value privacy. When asked, Fives say they want to be themselves in relationships. They want connection and also freedom, privacy, and territoriality. They seek to know and to be competent.
Fives are afraid of being invaded, taken over, and engulfed. They fear being emptied and deprived and having to respond to draining demands. They fear being evaluated and put down. They are not keen about being visible, exposed, looking foolish. They don’t like to feel dependent or inadequate. Their Idol of Intellectualism promises to make them omniscient, invisible, and out of reach (also out of touch, but the idol doesn’t mention that.) You can’t be criticized for what you never said and you can’t hit a target you can’t see. I’m safe if I’m invisible and I know.
Fives have to bring to their “Know-it-all Idol” all of their ideas, books, articles, and internet sites visited. They need to bring in their hoarded items along with their evasions, smoke screens, and abstractions. All of this will make them and their idol safe in the attic in the realm of thoughts.
What Fives have to sacrifice to their idol are any close relationships, any feelings or sensations, any possibility of being known. Fives need to give up becoming involved and engaged in life. They forfeit being in the game for the sake of staying safe on the sidelines. They subordinate their heart and body to their head. However, as is well known, real life is the life of the mind and all else is inconsequential anyway.
Sixes want to do their duty. They desire to be loyal and committed to their word. They wish to feel safe and secure and they want to make the world a safer place. They are conscientious and responsible and value law and order. Sixes say they really do seek safety and security. They want a sense of belonging. They want to be listened to and have their side taken.
Sixes fear most everything but are especially sensitive to being betrayed and betraying others. They don’t like deception. Because they value consistency, they fear being caught off guard. They fear physical and emotional harm. They are afraid of being thrown out of the group, not being heard or listened to, being treated unfairly, and being given premature responsibility before they have the ability to do what is required. They are sensitive to feeling trapped. Their Idol of Fear reassures them that it will guard them from all these dangers. If I do what I ought and have authority on my side, I’m safe (Fearful Six). If I’m wary of authority, act blustery, and have an exit strategy, I’m safe (Counter-fearful Six).
Sixes must bring to their “Frightful Idol” all their fears, because they are what keep them safe – miserable, but safe. Their fears help them be prepared. So they need to pile up all their suspicions, doubts, and paranoid thoughts. These keep their fears alive and well and keep them alert while the enemy prowls about.
To be safe Sixes must sacrifice their own inner authority and inner compass, surrendering their own ideas and beliefs. But these will only get them into trouble, anyway. So best to doubt them, hand them over, and lean on the authority of their idol. To be safe, Sixes have to give up trusting themselves and others and ever feeling carefree and relaxed, otherwise they might get caught off guard.
Sevens fancy adventure. They want to explore the world of possibilities, enjoy life, and make the world a more exciting and delightful place. Friendly, sociable, and optimistic, they are full of interesting ideas and plans. What Sevens say they really want is happiness, freedom, choice, and commitment (believe it or not).
Sevens fear being limited and tied down, feeling immobilized, paralyzed, sick and lifeless. They don’t want to be trapped and they dread being bored or boring. They are not particularly attracted to suffering and pain and don’t see much good coming from either. They want to be encouraged and don’t like being discouraged. Their Idol of Hedonism will make sure none of these downers ever befall Sevens. Hold your head up high and look for the silver lining. If I’m OK, I’m safe.
What Sevens are asked to bring their “Upbeat Idol” are all their fantastic plans and options, their fun times, variety, spices, excitements, ice cream and toppings, exotic adventures, possibilities explored and moved on from. These feed their idol’s and ego’s addiction to pleasure.
What Sevens need to sacrifice to their idol are any inner stillness and peace, any sitting still for longer than two minutes, solitude, any present satisfactions vs. anticipating future delights, and any genuine fulfillment. But future fulfillment pales in comparison to present delights, anyway. They may have to give up a permanent home and deep relationships for the sake of traveling on. And they will miss discovering the riches of their shadow. But, if you are afraid of the dark, no great loss.
Eights want to be autonomous and independent. They like to live their lives the way they want to live them. They want to use their power to empower the disenfranchised. They desire to make the world a just place. Eights say they want self-determination, equity, respect, approval. On a basic level, they seek to survive and be in control.
Eights fear being neglected and treated unfairly. They don’t like injustice or dishonesty. They fear feeling weak, powerless, limited, dependent, subordinated, unable to do, not being in control. Their Idol of Strength assures them that if they follow his/her coercions, they will be invulnerable and invincible. If I intimidate you, you won’t hurt me.
What Eights need to bring to their “Tower of Power Idol” are their triumphs over their enemies, outrages, affronts, anger, firepower, huffs and puffs, injustices. This breastplate of anger gives them strength and keeps the fire in the belly burning. Their idol and ego thrive on resentment and revenge.
What Eights need to sacrifice for the sake of being invulnerable is any closeness to people. But, then, intimacy might invite in a Trojan Horse. They have to give up their inner child with any innocence or fear or fragile feelings they might have. But these are chinks in their armor and ought to be disdained anyway. They won’t be able to extend or experience tenderness, compassion, or forgiveness. They won’t experience any unguarded vulnerable moments and they won’t be allowed to tolerate any weakness in themselves or others.
Nines value harmony and peace. They want to make the world more harmonious and inclusive. Possessing a laissez-faire attitude toward life, they allow people and events to unfold in their own way and in their own time. Nines say they want to be loved and cared for and noticed. They desire inclusiveness and union.
Nines fear being neglected, not noticed or cared for, being alone. They don’t like being upset and so fear conflict, confrontation, and dissonance. They fear feeling ashamed, crushed, and left feeling defenseless. They don’t want to be accused of hurting others out of anger. Their Idol of Comfort will lead them to the promised land of contentment where they will never be troubled again. If I’m numb, I’m safe.
Nines need to bring to their “Couch Potato Idol” all of the comforts they have gathered around them – their comfort food, drink, TV, marijuana. They need to bring their conflicts avoided, groups and athletic clubs joined but never attended, their boring jobs. All of this will keep their idol and psyche deadened for the duration.
Nines need to sacrifice to their idol their own opinion, agenda, thoughts, feelings, and assertions. They also have to give up ever completing anything for the sake of procrastination. They will have to forgo a sense of accomplishment and a sense that they really do matter. They need to tamper down their feeling of aliveness and vitality and certainly will not be permitted to experience the opportunity and growth that come from conflict. But all these personal preferences and agitations might disrupt the harmony of the universe anyway, so best to leave them unexpressed.
If we determine that the cost: benefit ratio of following the idol of our personality is not worth it, we’re giving up a lot more than we’re gaining, what other options do we have available? When all else fails, as it inevitably must, we can always return to the resources of our real self which we gave up on when we left the Garden of Eden.
We have the strengths of our own style, our neighboring styles, the styles of our stressed and relaxed points – the resources of all nine styles, really, since we have nine players on our inner team. Though we may only choose to put a few of our favorite players on the court, we do have nine players on the bench.
We have the idealism, conscientiousness, and persistence of Player #1 (the Idealist) to focus, concentrate, and hold our energies on the right path and keep the end in mind as we proceed.
We have the empathy, love, caring, and relationship skills of Player #2 (the Relater) to connect us with others and provide the intimacy we seek on our journey.
We have the industriousness, productivity, competence, and energy of Player #3 (the Closer) to bring our projects to completion and transport us to the end of our journey, not to mention letting others know we’re on the journey.
We have the sensitivity, refinement, grace, and introspection of Player #4 (the Artist) to add depth and style to our undertakings and add beauty to our journey.
We have the objectivity, big-picture panorama, analytic skills, and wisdom of Player #5 (the Observer) to understand what our journey is all about and take in the landscape from beginning to end.
We have the trouble-shooting, risk-managing, devotion, and circumspection of Player #6 (the Loyalist) to keep us safe on our journey and obtain for us the sense of belonging to a group that we need along the way
We have the imagination, vision, brainstorming capacity, optimism, good cheer, and joie de vivre of Player #7 (the Optimist) to find interesting people and places to visit as we enjoy our journey.
We have the strength, autonomy, durability, and force of Player #8 (the Energizer) to push obstacles out of our way, clear the path, and protect us on our journey.
We have the relaxed confidence, inclusivity, negotiating and mediating abilities of Player #9 (the Peacemaker) to include others on our journey and align us with the flow of the universe.
Take some time and ask yourself the following questions:
When do you feel spiritual?
When do you feel not-so-spiritual?
How do you know when you’re following and acting from your real self/essence or from your personality/ego? Is there a different feel to these two states? How do your head, heart, and gut experience the difference?
What do your idols promise you? What will they do for you if you do what they ask?
What do your idols demand from you? What must you bring them?
What must you sacrifice for your idols?
What are you afraid will happen if you don’t obey them?
What other resources do you have available to allay your fears and help you to adapt?
What resources lie in your own style?
What resources lie in your wings (the Enneagram styles on either side of yours)?
What resources lie in your heart point (the Enneagram style preceding yours)?
What resources lie in your stress point (the Enneagram style following yours)?
What resources do all the remaining styles offer you?
Dropping our idol is like swinging out over the void and letting go of the trapeze. This is always going to be anxiety provoking. It’s easier when we have some assurance that our real self is a more reliable and trustworthy trapeze to grab hold of to carry us over the chasm of our fears. Our journey won’t be trouble-free but it will be our authentic journey and not make-believe. As the tour host Rick Steves says: “Keep on traveling.”
Jerry Wagner, Ph.D.