This blog post is part of our Fundamentals of the Enneagram series, which takes a deeper dive into all the Enneagram elements - wings, arrows, subtypes, centers of intelligence, growth pathways and more. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post, then check out our story How Does Personality Develop in Childhood?
Our personality is shaped by our childhood experiences. Our personality also shapes how we perceive our childhood while we are a child, and what we remember about it as an adult. If that seems like a mindbender, let me explain.
It is likely that we are born with our personality preferences already in place. It’s tricky to verify but as any mother knows, children emerge into the world with very different personalities.
Now imagine for a moment you are a very young child, somewhere between 6 months to 2 years old. And let’s say, to keep things very simple, you have nine core needs you are subconsciously asking your parents to meet. Your parents are imperfect humans, unable to know exactly what you want and need at every moment. And so, every parent will fail to fulfill every one of their child’s needs. Each failure will be psychologically painful for you as a child.
However, of those nine, you are hypersensitive to one need in particular going unmet. And you will be more strongly shaped by events and experiences that trigger psychic pain around the need you are extra sensitive to.
That also means you remember those events more clearly. They leave a more lasting impact on your psyche; they are memories you are more likely to revisit and events you are more likely to reenact throughout your life.
Which means that when you talk to people of different Enneagram types and ask them to describe their childhood, some common patterns start to emerge. While every childhood is different, and some are far more traumatic than others, our inborn personality type shapes how we see and experience the childhood we have no matter how good or bad.
Here is a brief overview of common elements from each type’s childhood. While you might recognize elements of your own childhood in these descriptions, you might also realize that everyone carries around pain from their childhood, even if it’s not obvious to the people around them.
The One child was required to take on too much responsibility too soon. They were pressured to do something “correctly” or “perfectly” before they were ready, either physically or psychologically. For example, potty training before they were ready, or having to be the family spokesperson.
The One learnt not to trust or rely on their natural instincts. Instead they found that “being good” was defined by an external authority who regularly informed them they were doing something “the right way.”
To avoid being criticized and seen as “bad”, the One child internalized that critical voice and used it to self-monitor their behavior. They discovered that being “faultless” earned them positive reassurance and acceptance.
The Two child realized early on that to stay connected to the people they loved, they had to choose between their own needs and the other person’s needs. And they chose the other person.
The Two child may have had to take care of a caregiver, or were simply told they needed too much. Their caregivers may have been inexperienced or overwhelmed, failing to provide some basic aspects of love and care. While this could include all sorts of basic needs, Twos generally report that it was the early emotional needs they missed the most, like the need to feel recognized and loved unconditionally.
Twos recall repeatedly hearing the message that they were “too much,” “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” This reinforced their sense that their needs were overwhelming for others, so they suppressed their own needs and emotions to be liked.
Instead, they became experts at sensing others' needs and working out how to meet them. As they grow, they gain approval and affection by being likable and selectively supporting the people they most want to reciprocate love and support in return.
Some Threes had well-intentioned parents who praised them for their accomplishments, for what they ‘did’ rather than for who they are. Or they may have been part of a big family and did not receive the attention they needed. So they started performing, finding ways to stand out and get noticed, such as being the family comedian or opera singer.
Some Threes simply lacked parental support and protection. For example, if their father, or father figure, was absent, the Type Three child may have felt the need to step in and fill the gap left by that protective presence.
One way or another, the Three child learns that the path to love and appreciation is through doing and action. And so they become superhuman doers, achieving whatever goals they set for themselves and being impressive in the eyes of others.
All children are sensitive to loss. Yet when the Four child experiences actual or perceived loss of love early in life, they blame themselves for it.
It might be that another sibling came along, or another life event simply made the parent less available or completely unavailable. The Four child made sense of this abandonment or deprivation by convincing themselves they somehow caused this. By claiming this loss for themselves, it gave the Four child a way to control the situation.
While rarely true, having a sense of control allows the Four child to believe they can regain what was lost. Hence they strive to prove themselves worthy of love, showing people how special they are, all the while truly believing in their own inadequacy.
For whatever reason, the Five’s caregiver was somehow not responsive to their needs. And the Five child felt neglected. Not getting enough of what they needed led them to be self-sufficient, learning to get by on less by retreating into their heads and protecting their meager resources.
Other Fives experienced a sense of invasion or intrusion. Often, they had to deal with other people’s emotional drama or relationships that were too intense. They learnt to withdraw, either emotionally or physically, by detaching from feelings and people.
Fives sought refuge in the private space of their intellect, after they realized that they could not get their needs met through force or seduction. When relationships feel like a threat to their safety, retreating into their intellect seems like the only way to protect themselves.
The Six child had a problem with authority, and was often left feeling unprotected by the very person who was meant to protect them. The caregiver may have been unpredictable, unreliable or undependable. For a long time life seemed dangerous on a daily basis, and so the Six concluded the world must be that way too.
An unpredictable caregiver might be an alcoholic, be violent, or have mental health challenges. Or, the Six child may have been raised by a parent who was overly strict with constantly shifting expectations or illogical punishments. Given the unpredictable nature of their environment, the Six child learnt to be constantly on the lookout for small cues that signalled the presence of danger or threat.
They became very skilled at anticipating what was going to happen next so they could be prepared for danger or challenges. Being able to predict when something scary or bad might happen was their way of staying safe and gave the Six child an inner sense of security.
The Seven adult may remember their childhood as being quite rosy, fun or idyllic. But that’s how they want to remember it.
Many Sevens report an event in childhood that shook them out of their playful reverie; where they realized how ill-equipped to face the challenges of life they really were. And so they withdrew to an earlier stage of development where they felt more secure and in control.
For Sevens, this experience of safety comes in the form of positivity. They aim to only feel positive feelings and reframe any negatives in a good light. They focus on whatever feels good to avoid suffering - whether from pain, negative feelings or any other dark experience.
The Eight child had to grow up fast. To them, home was a battleground, where conflict or combat were necessary to survive. Perhaps because of violence, neglect or simply being the youngest or smallest child in a big family, the Eight child saw the need to adopt a tough persona. Whether that was to be stronger, more powerful or protective of others, they let go of their innocence to get by in a world that did not provide love, care or protection to the weak.
The Eight child saw the world as divided into the weak and the strong, and vowed never to be powerless, vulnerable or alone ever again.
The Nine child felt overlooked, not heard or not included. They may have been a middle or younger child and unable to get the attention they needed. Or a quiet voice whose opinion got lost in a sea of loud or forceful voices.
So they learnt to go along to get along, finding ways to blend in and avoid getting upset by wanting what others wanted. They learned to remain calm when what they wanted was dismissed, and simply allowed others to decide for them.
They became the easy going, friendly child who would accommodate the needs of the family, as a way to feel a sense of belonging or connectedness.
Here the Enneagram teaches us two things. One, that very few of us escape childhood without wounds that need healing. And two, that we need to have a lot of compassion for ourselves and others as we navigate life unconsciously reacting to the pain of childhood we all carry with us.