When you’re in an uncertain or less-than-ideal situation, how do you react? Do you become frustrated and defensive or withdrawn and isolated? Maybe you deny your emotions altogether and make excuses for your behavior. Or, perhaps you’re not quite sure of your reaction, which you wouldn’t be alone with—most of these defense mechanisms live deep within our subconscious. 

People use defense mechanisms as a way to avoid difficult emotions, thoughts, or parts of themselves they see as unacceptable. While not all defense mechanisms are “bad” per se, they can limit your growth and access to the wholeness of who you are. By understanding how they operate in your life, you can confront your shadow, and as a result, have more control over your reactions.

Given the Enneagram helps undo our ego structures, which defense mechanisms keep us trapped in, it’s a wonderful tool for cultivating awareness of your defense patterns.

Specific to each type is a core fear that limits them. Each type also belongs to a Center of Intelligence with a common emotion—fear for head types, shame for heart types, and anger for body types. While humans are complex beings and use a variety of defenses, each type tends to lean towards one primary defense, given how their common emotion and core fear are expressed. It’s then used as a coping strategy to minimize unwanted anxiety, anger, or sorrow.

Find out the associated defense mechanism of your type below as well as a strategy for how you can reroute these patterns to live in your essence. 

Type One, The Reformer: Reaction Formation

Ones work to avoid anger, which they see as “wrong” or “bad,” through reaction formation. This means acting in the exact opposite way of which they think or feel. For example, if they find their new coworker to be a threat, instead of questioning or disliking them, they go out of their way to be kind to them. This is the One’s attempt to keep their anger and anxiety in check. Ones have a strong inner critic which reprimands them for thoughts, feelings, or actions that go against how they think they “should” be. However, when not aware of this defense, they may internalize even more anger and become reactive and critical when it finally comes to the surface.

How to work through reaction formation:

  • Verbally process—when you talk through something, you can better understand your reactions. Notice: Are you contradicting yourself, shifting from compliments to criticism about something?
  • Check in with your body—as a body type, you store a lot of tension there. Are you noticing tight shoulders, a clenched jaw, or a pit in your stomach? Use these signs as an invitation to explore how you really feel.
  • Make peace with your inner critic— if you notice yours going into overdrive, explore any underlying emotions that are driving these thoughts.

Type Two, The Helper: Repression

Twos work to maintain their image of being helpful through repression of their personal needs and feelings. This can be extremely difficult to recognize, since this is an unconscious blocking of emotions, desires, fears, and needs from coming into your awareness. Your conscious brain decides it’s easier to “forget” these things altogether so you don’t come across as needy—but the thing is, you don’t really forget. You hold onto the data and express your anxiety through seeking reassurance and validation from others, rather than exploring what you really need. 

How to work through repression:

  • Have daily check-ins with yourself. Ask yourself what you need more of, not less of. If nothing comes to mind, keep asking yourself. Get in tune with your body and see if you can pick up on any cues. 
  • Carve alone time into your schedule at least once a week to process your thoughts and emotions away from everyone else
  • Notice when you’re needing more reassurance and what this could be telling you. On that same note, where might you be getting more short-fused and reactive? Both are indicators of an unmet desire.

Type Three, The Achiever: Identification 

Threes want to uphold an exemplary image of success. When they feel this is threatened, they unconsciously adopt the characteristics or attributes of someone they admire into their own personalities. This is called identification. An example of how this could play out is an entrepreneur who is struggling to get their start befriends someone they see as successful and models their behavior into their own business—oftentimes, without realizing it. That’s because it can be too painful for Threes to deal with the rejection they might face for being authentically themselves. However, if they’re not aware, they may keep shifting identities and personas without ever uncovering the power of their true selves.

How to work through identification:

  • Notice how your fear of failure influences your decisions, behaviors, and thoughts. Use this as an opportunity to check in with deeper-rooted feelings. 
  • Stop celebrating what you do and instead celebrate who you are outside of your achievements. Explore your values, ideals, and other areas of interest to ground your sense of self-worth.
  • Deep breathing—notice your driving energy to move into action and allow yourself to slow down, breathe, and observe before moving forward. Affirm yourself that you’re right where you need to be.

Type Four, The Individualist: Introjection

Fours avoid ordinariness through introjection, which is wanting to maintain a unique sense of self. This is a counter-intuitive defense mechanism where you internalize negative feedback and absorb the beliefs of someone in power. For example, if a parent criticizes you for a personal decision you made, you take it to heart, think you made the wrong choice, and blame yourself. At the same time, positive data is rejected. This keeps you trapped in the Four pattern of believing something inside of you is missing or deficient. It’s easier for you to cope with damage done to yourself rather than confront rejection or the situation at hand. 

How to work through introjection:

  • Develop a positive self-talk habit. This increases your sense of self-worth and can also ease in dealing with painful feelings.
  • Notice how you tend to blame yourself and focus on the “damaged” parts of yourself. Start celebrating your progress, wins, and incredible parts of yourself that make you “you.”
  • When you’re overwhelmed with negative feedback or emotions, try a breathing practice where you can observe and make space for your feelings. Take a moment to really feel them, then let them go with each exhale, knowing they do not define you.

Type Five, The Investigator: Isolation

Fives use isolation as a way to protect their inner resources and avoid feeling depleted. This can be either physically isolating themselves or mentally withdrawing from their emotional world. By compartmentalizing their thoughts from their feelings, their feelings from their somatics and so on, they stay in their heads and acquire knowledge as a way to feel a sense of safety and self-worth. However, this can also prevent Fives from developing the connection and engagement they need with others as well as their whole selves.

How to work through isolation:

  • Notice when you are pulling away more frequently, either physically or emotionally, and identify your triggers. Is there something rooted deeper that you need to explore?
  • Get out of your head and into your body with daily movement—it can be as simple as taking a walk where you concentrate on your breath and being in the present moment
  • Connect with others—talk out what you’re feeling with someone trusted or check in on your loved ones more regularly. This may feel counter-intuitive, but you’ll discover an abundance of energy when you engage (of course, you can and should take time to recharge after!).

Type Six, The Loyalist: Projection

The opposite of introjection, Sixes use projection as a way to avoid rejection and maintain their image of being loyal. This is the casting of your own thoughts, emotions, behaviors, insecurities, or motivations onto other people. While this can be positive or negative, it’s an unconscious way for Sixes to cope with their anxiety by creating a sense of certainty and minimize potentially threatening situations. An example of this is going to a party and not knowing anyone. You think everyone is critiquing you for being alone, when really you’re projecting your own insecurity about it coming from other people. The ironic thing is, while projection is a defense to diffuse anxiety, it can actually spike anxiety levels when the mind becomes overactive with possibilities and situations that may not even be true. 

How to work through projection:

  • Notice how anxiety feels in your mind and body. Does your head whirl and your heart race? Acknowledging your triggers can help minimize potential projection patterns.
  • Understand the root of your anxiety. Self-doubt and worry are familiar emotions, but where is it really stemming from? Is it frustration, sadness, or something else you need to explore?
  • Set boundaries. Oftentimes you feel obligated to do everything, which can spur anxiety. Protecting your space, time, and energy can decrease your reactivity and stress levels.

Type Seven, The Enthusiast: Rationalization

Sevens are upbeat, optimistic, and want to maintain their sunny disposition. Should that be threatened, they use rationalization to avoid dealing with pain. This is the tendency to explain or justify their unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as a way to avoid their true emotions. Since Sevens want to project that everything is well and good, they use rationalization as positive reframing of situations. For instance, say they’re running late to an important meeting. Instead of taking ownership, a Seven might justify their behavior by explaining they thought of a new idea that’s even better than the original. Rationalization keeps them trapped in their heads, while avoiding feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, or discomfort.

How to work through rationalization:

  • Notice your tendency to reframe situations in a positive light—of course, it’s not a bad thing to see silver linings, but this can also be an indication that there’s something buried beneath the surface.
  • Get out of your head and into your body with daily walks where you focus on your internal state rather than external stimuli. Be aware of what emotions arise and take time to explore them!
  • Stay present—you tend to rely on future planning as escapism, but staying present allows you to sift through your thoughts and feelings so you can feel content as you are.

Type Eight, The Challenger: Denial

Eights want to be seen as strong, so they use denial as a way to avoid vulnerability. This is an unconscious way of coping with anxiety or pain, where instead of experiencing a situation, you refuse to acknowledge it altogether—and most importantly, the intense thoughts and feelings it brings. Let’s say an Eight has a fight with a close friend. Instead of confronting the hurtfulness of it, they may deny the pain which is then expressed through anger, expansiveness, and doing other things to keep “busy.” Eights are very guarded and do not trust easily as a way to avoid getting hurt. By denying the reality of a situation, it helps to minimize the seriousness of it or even admit to responsibility in it. 

How to work through denial:

  • Notice how the more you rev up your instinctual body energy, the more you detach from your emotions. Use this awareness as a sign to check in with what you’re feeling underneath the anger.
  • Reframe the way you see vulnerability—what if you looked at displaying emotions as a strength, not a weakness?
  • Be aware of how you might externalize blame, whether it’s directed at other people or something out of your control. Stop, breathe, and consider whether you are avoiding the root of something. 
  • Explore your fears—you may be afraid to face a problem and not even know it, which is why it may help to acknowledge fear in the first place.

Type Nine, The Peacemaker: Narcotization 

Nines want to maintain a sense of internal balance, using narcotization to deal with stressful situations. This is the act of “numbing out” with familiar, rhythmic activities as a way to avoid feeling pain or anxiety. Think of someone having an issue with roommate boundaries, for instance. Rather than bringing it up directly, a Nine might instead spend more time with other friends or pick up a new hobby to keep busy. Any habitual activity, whether it’s work, chores, food and drink, or entertainment, enables Nines to “fall asleep to themselves.” It’s the avoidance of conflict—both internal or external—that causes Nines to lose connection with their identities. 

How to work through narcotization:

  • Notice when and how often you resort to rhythmic activities to blow off steam, and explore what you might be avoiding.
  • Get comfortable with your anger—it can be a powerful path to understanding your true wants and needs by tapping into deeper-rooted emotions. 
  • Practice taking a stand and asserting yourself more regularly. This can be tiny daily decisions or addressing a conflict. Getting in the habit of speaking up helps you become more connected to yourself and avoid avoidance.
Julianne Ishler
Julianne Ishler is a writer, Enneagram coach, and creative mentor. Obsessed with all things personality and storytelling, she helps creatives and entrepreneurs define their voice and feel empowered to follow their own path to live a life of fulfillment. She is based in Chicago and enjoys travel, rainy days, and deep conversations over hot tea.