Personality- the mask and the method
One of the themes that arose for me from our slow engagement with the Grace in Aging book was this whole idea of getting behind and underneath the stories we tell about others, about ourselves and to ourselves. Again and again author Suzanne Dowling-Singh encouraged us to recognise that it is wise and kind to begin the process of letting go…before we are facing our final dozen breaths and are left with no time to die with grace and peace, never mind to live with grace and peace.
Let go of the stories. Let go of your conviction that you are what you can do, have done or wish to do. Let go of the conviction that your identity is limited by what others have done to you or say about you. Let go of the idea that your identity is as shallow as your possessions or connections or skills. Let go of the smallness of that identity and open to the fullness of your wholeness, your brokenness, your possibilities and your needs. Let go that mask and open to the flow where grace accepts you for the whole of who you are.
Letting go is a matter of holding a space within where you are able to observe, notice and recognise where you are grasping, acting mechanically or actively numbing. From that space in the pause between the provocation and the reaction you get to choose a different response – a wiser, kinder more compassionate and awakened response.
But this is truly very hard. The mask is one we have made to keep us safe, to show the world the parts that are allowed and will hopefully help us to be accepted and valued. The mask keeps us safe by hiding the things that are not allowed – the things that we have been shamed for or that others have used to hurt us somehow. We learned to put that mask on before we were conscious of making a choice – the mask is a matter of survival from a time when we were utterly dependent and simply had to stay connected.
There is method in the mask. It comes with a set of beliefs about what is safe and what is dangerous, about what is important and what will be effective to get your needs met. Unless you have already done some kind of self reflection, personal growth work through therapy, counselling or spiritual direction, there is going to be very little space between you and the mask. The beliefs and behaviours of the method are also likely to be hidden below the surface of your awareness.
The work of waking up to your glorious fullness involves accepting the presence of the mask and doing the work of pulling it back so you can start to see and then clean up those habits, patterns and unconscious beliefs that keep you trapped in the stories.
Personality – the pattern is the prison
The personality mask fits snugly over your face so that you don’t even know that it is actually separate from you. Not only is it separate, it’s restricting, trapping you in patterns of habitual thinking, acting and reacting that keep you from becoming who you truly are beneath the mask.
As long as you identify with this personality and believe the story it tells you about this is who you are, then you are stuck with the merry go round of lack and longing, fear and avoidance. So what you need is a safe place within where you can stand back and observe the personality in action without being identified with it.
Committing to a contemplative practice of some kind is the way we find that space in the first place. By contemplative practice I mean any practice that allows you to observe your thinking/sensing/feeling and let everything rise and fall away without following or feeding the impulses when they arise. My practice is centering prayer which fits like a glove for me, but your practice is whatever fits like a glove for you and that you can commit to doing on a daily basis.
You have had many years without this practice, so let’s assume it will take some time to train yourself in holding the interior safe space – it’s like training a muscle that hasn’t had much prior use.
During the sit, though, (or whatever your practice is) you can expect that your thoughts, emotions and sensations will take you on a whirlwind of ride, replaying old stories that are almost guaranteed to get your attention. The belief system you developed knows exactly which buttons to push to get you to react and stick to the story. Another aspect of the mask’s prison guard pattern to be aware of is the inner critic. Although it’s often very harsh, the critical voice inside is really trying to keep you safe from an even more painful experience. Better to torture yourself in the privacy of your own head than open to the chance of someone else doing it out loud and in public.
Once you are wise to the mask and method playlist of awful things about you and you begin to learn to let go with compassion and without judgement, you’ll find that new stories will start to show up for you to get wise to and let go of. It’s a slow process requiring some grit and grind from you, but with the gift of grace in the midst. You do the work, and then somehow the work does you.
Personality – the key to focus and growth
So, this is the shape of things: you have this mask and this set of beliefs that keep you striving, driving, longing for a particular feeling state and avoiding other feelings and you have a way of achieving these goals, although it’s not especially effective, which means at some level of awareness there is also persistent sadness, fear and anger.
Our true motives are hidden from us although if we know where – and how – to look they start to become more obvious.
The enneagram offers 27 distinct personality types with 27 paths for growth. The beauty of it is that there is enough room for unique nuance in how each of us embodies and incarnates our own type but also enough similarity that a common path can be outlined and you tailor it to fit you and the way you inhabit your particular patterns.
Who are you, God,
and who am I?
Remember this prayer practice from Francis of Assisi? It’s genius! These two questions are interdependent. Knowing more of who God is requires me to know more of who I am and vice versa. And knowing is not a mental activity here – it is soulful; intimate; loving.
Up the road from Assisi, Catherine of Siena offers us this helpful and insightful description of the spiritual life. It is like a large tree.
The trunk is love.
The living core of the tree is patience.
No growth can happen without it.
The roots of the tree are self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge is what sustains the growth.
The branches of the tree are discernment.
Discernment is how we listen and respond, reaching out to connect with the world.
So the growth pattern is inner and outer. It’s a psycho-spiritual path of growth meaning that as your self-knowlegde increases, so your capacity to incarnate the divine within also increases. “Let your light shine” takes on a whole new depth.
The practices – Spot out for….
Your preferred centre of intelligence – Sense, Feel or Think?
As you go through your day, keep alert for clues that point towards which of the three centres of intelligence you most rely on as a mode of perception, processing and expressing: sensing or moving; feeling; thinking.
The body centred types are sensitive to ‘gut’ impulses – a solid, embodied sense of right action. This can also look like impulsive behaviour or inertia.
The heart centred types are feeling focussed around connection and empathy. This can be misused and looks like over sensitivity, insensitivity or emotional manipulation.
The head centred types are thinking focussed to express thoughts, belief and other cognitive activity. Reasoning and analysis can become overanalysing.
We all function with one of these three as our main way of interpreting and interacting with the world although obviously we can draw on any of them as needed…it’s just that we don’t often see the need to move outside of our preferred mode. There will probably be one of these centres that you sense/feel/think you can rule out….so that may narrow things down!
A possible passion?
Each of the nine types (which are then divided into three subtypes to get the 27) have a particular passion associated with them. This passion is the emotional driver behind the mask and was born out of lack – a hunger for something you needed.
Passions look like this:
- Laziness – a resistance to change, aversion to effort especially in regard to being aware of your own feelings, desires, sensations. This isn’t outward laziness, it’s inattention to the self.
- Lust – a passion for excess and intensity most often through physical gratification (but not necessarily sexual).
- Anger – as a repressed emotion which can show as resentment, irritation, hostility toward imperfection and a pursuit of perfection. Can look like trying to force things to conform to their ideal.
- Vanity – as in ‘living in the eyes of other people’. This drives an effort to be whatever will be best appreciated, admired, accepted and successful depending on the context.
- Pride – this is in response to a need for self-inflation and looks like false generosity as a way of seducing others. Pride fuels a pattern of self-idealisation followed by reactive devaluation and self-criticism.
- Envy – is experienced as a painful lack and longing for something good that is present outside of the experience. This something is perceived as necessary for survival and it is missing because of an inner deficiency.
- Fear – this usually goes hand in hand with anxiety, and is a response to recognised sources of danger. It may be experienced as tension, unease or apprehension related to a danger of unknown origin…it may be out there, or it may be generated in the mind.
- Avarice – hoarding, holding back and holding in not just of things but also of time, space and energy – any resources. There is a fear of scarcity or impoverishment which results in this clinging to what you have more than a grasping and accumulation of more.
- Gluttony – this manifests as a passion for pleasure and a desire for more, always moving on to the next thing that promises to bring pleasure.
Remember that these are the drivers behind the mask, so as such they are mostly unconscious and therefore HIDDEN from you. When you read through the descriptions you are less likely to experience the ring of resonance for your type’s passion (only one) and more likely to experience a prickle of unease.
Because the passions are in our blindspot it may be more obvious to those we live with or work with what our passion is. (check out the Johari window to see how your blindspot is actually perfectly visible to others) So if there is someone who is able to offer you their loving and compassionate perspective on which of these passions is most evident in the choices you make and the things that you prioritise then it might be helpful (also humbling) to ask what they see.
Discovering your type and subtype is, eventually, deeply affirming and reassuring and leads you to a path for growth that will truly feel like coming home to yourself. There will be some uncomfortable aspects to the journey and some of what is revealed about you may be painful to accept. But some of it will also be deeply liberating and joyful.
A heads up…
The path for growth is also likely to sound like the most impossible task – of course! There is a part of you that has been convinced for a long time that keeping the mask in place is the ONLY way to survive. But gently and kindly removing the mask is the only way to grow.