Understanding the Psychological Defense Mechanisms of the Enneagram

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 here. 

In the introductory blog post to Enneagram Fundamentals, I described defenses as being like band aids we have forgotten to take off. Covering up wounds that never quite healed. 

As children we have many needs that go unmet. Despite our best efforts, our parents simply can’t read our minds to really understand exactly what we need and when. And as children, we often lack the ability to articulate clearly what we want and need so some of these needs will fall through the cracks. 

To ensure our own survival and that we continue to be loved and protected by our caregivers, we develop defenses to protect our minds from that pain—hence the bandaids. 

Enneagram’s Nine Defenses

There are nine defenses under the Enneagram; one for each type. However, while we are particularly sensitive to the wounds that arise during the stage of development that corresponds with our inborn type, we can also develop any of the nine defenses. In fact, you have probably used all of these during the course of your life. 

The question, and challenge, is which one do you find yourself relying on the most? Which band aid do you find harder to take off?

For example, it is human nature to learn by copying others. I remember in the early stages of my legal career, trying to adopt the key traits of successful lawyers and trying to step into the “skin” of a high-status legal professional. I tried for a while, but eventually I realized that this skin just wasn’t who I was or wanted to be. So I shed that persona (and all those uncomfortable suits I used to wear!) and started to explore other career paths. 

For a non-Three like me, realizing that the “skin” of success I was trying on did not align with my identity was much easier than it would have been for a Three. That’s because Threes have a defense of Identification. The skin of success is the one thing keeping them from feeling all the painful feelings about not being accepted for who they are. And letting that defense go means confronting the grief that they have to perform to be loved. 

For me as a Seven, I find it much harder to spot when I am idealizing someone, particularly people I have idolized my whole life, because that is my defense mechanism. And I use rationalization on a daily basis as I constantly chant to myself “it’s all going to be fine,” while secretly holding my breath and feeling my body contract with tension. But my mind (my band aid) tells me that there is no other way, that there is no alternative, and no other path forward than pretending everything is fine. That is the trick of our defenses—to understand the strategies they use to both keep us safe but to keep us living with blinkers on.  

With those explanations taken care of, here’s a short introduction to the main defense that each type uses, although some use more than one. We will go into each in more depth in future articles. 

Type One - Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation is the act of taking a feeling or sensation and expressing it as something else, often its polar opposite. For example, turning frustration into politeness, envy into admiration, or a desire to rebel into taking on more responsibility.

For Type Ones who have to comply with external standards, Reaction Formation means taking their real feelings and sensations and turning them into whatever is defined as “good” for that situation. Internally this happens very quickly, so they will be briefly aware of their anger or other response, before their defense bounces it back out as something else. 

A One can observe this in themselves when they start saying, “I’m not angry, I just want to do it right.” Others can observe Ones using their defense when they get focused on doing what’s right or insisting others do it right too.

For example, I know a One who happily taught her guests the right way to pour milk from a longlife box. Surprise, it is not how you have been doing it (turn the box around so the milk hole is furthest away from the cup—yes, it feels very awkward at first). She couldn’t imagine why anyone would do it the wrong way, as it creates a lot more mess!

Type Two - Repression

Repression acts like a psychological anesthetic. It takes a thought, feeling or sensation and quickly sends it into our unconscious to keep us from experiencing a deeper source of pain. 

For Type Twos, who are driven by a desire to avoid rejection, it makes sense to repress anything that may undermine their connection with another person—whether that is expressing anger or sadness, having negative thoughts about a person, or even getting rid of a part of themselves that others may not like. 

This will be more prevalent with a person a Two cares about and regards as being in their inner circle, than with someone they aren’t as connected with. So even if they need a sleep in, to take the night off, or cook some really healthy food, if a Two cares about a connection with someone, they will repress these needs in order to prioritize someone else's. 

Type Three - Identification

With Identification, we identify with a person, image, or role model that others value, and we become that. Like stepping into a second skin, we aim to appear like someone or something that others value. 

For Type Threes who got the message that they are valued for their achievements, they look around with their child’s eyes and identify what is defined as successful in their environment. They study that person closely and then do their best to become that person, adopting their skills, talents and abilities in order to be accepted and loved for their successes. That can sound like, “Dad always wanted me to be a lawyer, so I went to law school.” 

Type Four - Introjection

With Introjection, we internalize something that isn’t ours; something that didn’t belong to us to begin with, but we trick ourselves into believing it did. For example, if someone criticizes our artistic ability, with introjection we would internalize that and believe that we are the critic. By doing so, we believe we are more in control of the criticism and the relationship. 

This is something we all do. If you were criticized, you criticize yourself. If your needs were not met, you ignore your own needs. For Type Fours, by taking in the criticism or any other painful experience, and continuing to expose themselves to the pain on the inside, they both seek to manage it and to avoid experiencing it again. 

For example, a Four might say, “I love writing music, but my sister told me I was terrible, so now I just play the guitar.”

Type Five - Isolation

Isolation isn’t just physical withdrawal. The true definition of isolation is separating feelings from thoughts or ideas, in order to avoid anxiety or being overwhelmed by feelings. For Type Fives, this separation not only protects them from experiencing difficult emotions but also from needing support from other people—emotional or physical. 

We all use isolation when we need to be objective and seperate ourselves from our emotions. Like when a surgeon holds the life of a patient in their hands or a military general needs to not be overwhelmed by the horrors of war. However, isolation leaves the Five unable to feel feelings at all and believing they don't need much contact with other people. 

Type Six - Projection

Projection is where you take something that belongs to you, a feeling, thought or sensation, and project it onto someone else. This is the opposite of introjection. This allows a person to escape the blame or threat they are feeling and believe it is caused by another individual or group.  

For a Type Six, this allows them to get rid of uncomfortable fears or “truths,” shifting them onto an outside source. For example, someone feeling insecure at work could imagine a colleague is judging them. Or they might be having doubts about their commitment in a relationship and say to their partner, “I know you want to break up with me.”  This is the source of a Six’s paranoia, as projection has become an ingrained habit, they are unconsciously suspicious about everyone. 

Type Seven  - Rationalization and Idealization

With rationalization, we find good reasons for doing whatever we want to do. We simply invent a reason for a position or action without acknowledging the real underlying reason. We all do this, especially when things don't go according to plan and to avoid feelings of failure we chalk it up as a “good learning experience.”

Ideali\ation is needing to see everything as better than they are, to put a positive spin on everything. We all use this when we need to look past the flaws of someone we love. 

But for Type Sevens, rationalization and idealization help them avoid uncomfortable feelings about a person or situation they are in. To avoid boredom they might say, “Let’s get this party started, the birthday girl won’t mind if I crank the music and start handing out cocktails.”

Type Eight - Denial

Denial is just as it sounds, we deny the existence of a feeling, sensation, thought or reality. Painful truths can simply be made false by saying “that didn’t happen” or “that didn’t hurt.”

For Type Eights, denying their vulnerability and weaknesses, allows them to feel strong, helping them take on any challenge. It enables them to feel superhuman and invulnerable, to believe that nothing can hurt them. That’s because for an Eight, denial means pain and weakness simply do not exist. They might say “When I broke my leg I just walked myself to the hospital. I didn’t feel a thing!”

Type Nine - Dissociation

Dissociation forms part of every defence mechanism. It is that tendency to “go to sleep” or numb out our painful inner experiences. The problem with this is we risk losing touch with ourselves in the process. 

For Type Nines, numbing out is like turning down their light, dimming their experience of life—both internally and externally. They can do this through activities such as reading, eating, and watching TV, but also through joking around, talking too much or focusing on minor matters. It is simply a way to not feel the pain of separation and not feeling heard or included. So a Nine might say, “I can’t talk about our fight now, I need to go and help a friend.”

Summing up

Whether you think of defences as band aids you forgot to take off as a child, or your own personal army trying to keep you safe from invaders, they do keep us from having a full experience of life and being able to hold different perspectives and opinions around those unhealed wounds. As adults we do have the tools and capability to manage the pain life regularly throws at us. Learning to see when and why we use these defenses can help us work with our triggers, and have more compassion for ourselves and others. 

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