chess pieces on board

Enneagram Styles and Defense Mechanisms

by Jerry Wagner, Ph.D.

Defense mechanisms are used by our ego to maintain our self-esteem. They automatically keep out of our awareness any parts of ourselves that might damage our good reputation as well as keeping our offensive ego-dystonic parts out of sight of the judgmental eyes of others – not to mention our own.

Freud and his daughter Anna catalogued many of these defensive maneuvers and Claudio Naranjo arranged some of them around the Enneagram circle. So, while one of the defenses might be congenial to a particular type, we certainly have all of them at our disposal.

Defense mechanisms in the service of the ego distort reality and limit us; defense mechanisms in the service of the self may actually help us expand beyond ourself and get somewhere. Is there something redeemable about defense mechanisms if we can use them consciously and conscientiously?

Let’s look at the bad news and potential good news about defense mechanisms. We may have to channel our inner SEVEN to find the good in the not-so-good. But maybe we can reframe defenses so they become something useful and productive.

To describe the defenses, in italics I’m using the explanation from the APA Dictionary of Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2007). That makes it more official and officious.


Style ONE – Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is the defense in which unacceptable or threatening unconscious impulses are denied and are replaced in consciousness with their opposite. For example, to conceal an unconscious prejudice an individual may preach tolerance; to deny feelings of rejection, a mother may be overindulgent toward her child.

Do the opposite. If you feel angry, repress it and be nice. If you feel vulnerable, stuff it and be mean. If you feel sexy, be puritanical. Whenever I’m tempted to exercise, I lay down until the temptation passes, which is opposed to the advice that the best way to get rid of a temptation is to give in to it.

The ONE’s superego is uncomfortable with and intolerant of their id. Their wants get replaced with their shoulds. Instead of transcending and including their animal nature into their human nature (cf. Ken Wilber below), they reject their impulsive self and go right to their angelic self. This is sometimes referred to as “spiritual bypassing.”

So, what’s good about reaction formation? Well, it’s the basis of exposure therapy. Think the thought, feel the feeling, do the very thing you are loath to do. Afraid of rejection? Be a telemarketer. Afraid of heights? Take up skydiving. Afraid of dogs, volunteer at an animal shelter. Instead of avoiding (which is the preferred option of negative reinforcement), just do it. Do the opposite. This is also a tried-and-true spiritual practice: agere contra, act against. Tempted to pray less? Pray more. Tempted to fast less? Fast more. Acting against are also practices for training the will.

According to Rollo May, will is the capacity to organize oneself so that movement in a certain direction or toward a certain goal may take place. Will converts a cognitive intention into behavior.

Is your will frequently:

  • Pushed around by the will of other people?
  • Subjugated by your feelings, such as depression, anger, or fear?
  • Paralyzed by inertia?
  • Lulled to sleep by habit?
  • Disintegrated by distractions?
  • Corroded by doubts?

Using your will:

  • Do something you have never done before.
  • Perform an act of courage.
  • Make a plan and then follow it.
  • Keep doing what you are doing for five more minutes even if you are tired or restless or feel the attraction of something else.
  • Do something extremely slowly.
  • Say “no” when it is right to say “no,” but easier to say “yes.”
  • Do what seems to you the most important thing to be done.
  • When facing a minor choice, choose without hesitation.
  • Act contrary to all expectations.
  • Behave independently of what other people might think or say.
  • Refrain from saying something you are tempted to say.
  • Postpone an action you would prefer to begin right now.
  • Begin, at once, an action you would prefer to postpone.
  • Eliminate something superfluous from your life.
  • Break a habit.
  • Do something that makes you feel insecure.
  • Carry out an action with complete attention and intensity, as if it were your last.

These are some ways you might use reaction formation in the service of the self.

Style TWO – Repression

Repression is the mechanism that consists of excluding painful experiences and unacceptable impulses from consciousness. Repression operates on an unconscious level as a protection against anxiety produced by objectionable sexual wishes, feelings of hostility, and ego-threatening experiences of all kinds. It also comes into play in most other forms of defense, as in denial, in which individuals avoid unpleasant realities by first repressing them and then negating them.

TWOs are inclined to repress their own needs and preferences so their ego can be less distracted in focusing on the needs of others. This maintains their reputation as a good helper and trusted advisor and facilitates their acceptance into the club.

Repression, then, is the unconscious pushing down of any thoughts, feelings, behaviors, judgments, etc. that the ego deems unworthy of our or anyone else’s’ attention. These despicable intrusions are dangerous to our survival and belonging and are not congruent with our current self-image. They make us anxious and so we avoid them and stay away from them (negative reinforcement again). Away with you! Get thee to the basement where you won’t be seen or heard from again. Or, if you do raise a stink, we’ll have to remove you from the basement and put you in any convenient garbage bins. (That would be us.) But now we’re talking about projection. See Style Six.

Ken Wilber writes about repression in the context of growth which involves identifying with the self at its current stage, then disidentifying with that self, then transcending that self and identifying with the more evolved self. But the trick is to transcend and include. Don’t leave that former self behind. Rather include it in our new formulation of ourself. Otherwise, by repressing that former self, we exclude instead of include. Which, unfortunately doesn’t work because those parts are still around and want to be kept in the family. They don’t want to be orphans.

So, can we use repression in the service of the self? How about suppression which involves actively and deliberately (vs unconsciously) putting an anxiety-provoking or self-defeating thought out of one’s mind. For example, if we want to accomplish something and self-doubts, feelings of inadequacy, messages from our first-grade teacher that we’ll never amount to anything, etc., arise, we can thank them for their past service but they’re not helpful nor needed right now and put them back on the shelf of bad ideas. We’re now deliberately screening out distracting, show-stopping thoughts in order to get on with business. This is done with awareness not out of awareness.

Or, if we want to be open-minded, we might need to recognize and then suppress our culturally conditioned biases and stereotypes so we can be present to who and what is actually in front of us. Paradoxically, suppression helps us expand vs contract.

Style THREE – Identification

Identification is the process of associating the self closely with other individuals and their characteristics or views. This process takes many forms: The infant feels part of his or her mother; the child gradually adopts the attitudes, standards, and personality traits of the parents; the adolescent takes on the characteristics of the peer group; the adult identifies with a particular profession of political party. Identification operates largely on an unconscious or semiconscious level.

Freud introduced the process of identification in his Oedipal stage of development wherein we want to get rid of the same sex parent so we can have the opposite sex parent all to ourselves. Seems like a good idea until we realize that the opposite sex parent has been around longer than us and is more powerful and better equipped than we are. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Be like them. The young boy identifies with the values of his father and the young girl identifies with and models herself after her mother.

THREEs use identification to become whatever is popular and working in their culture. While that’s a successful way to get ahead, get affirmation, and belong, it also can put too much attention on image and personality and less consideration on self-identity and person. We may gain a popular persona but lose ourself in the process.

Eric Fromm writes about the “marketing personality.” Like the handbag, we’re on the market and we have to keep updating and adjusting ourself to accommodate what is in demand. It partially works but now our self-worth is dependent on figuring out and shape-shifting to what the market is buying. Our value is dependent on others’ whims. I am who you want me to be. That’s anxiety producing.

Is there anything good about identification? Can we use it in the service of the self? Albert Bandura’s theory of observational learning comes to mind. Children (and adults) tend to model themselves on those around them, reminiscent of Freud’s notion of identification. That’s why our parents were concerned about who we were hanging out with. Were our friends a good influence or were they leading us straight to jail or hell – whichever came first.

Tony Robbins and NLP also talk about modeling. Want to be a billionaire? Study very carefully every thought, feeling, analysis, choice, philosophy, etc. of Warren Buffet. Copy what he does, become like him and we, too can become a billionaire. Now, we might leave ourself behind in the process, but we will be very wealthy

Short of losing ourself, how about if we just want to be more assertive or loving or studious or dexterous? Do we know someone who does this well without any collateral damage? Can they negotiate for what they want without destroying the world? Can we practice their golf stroke or piano technique to become a better player ourself?

Who are our heroes and heroines? And how can we incorporate their attitudes and skills into our own life in our own way? We all have models (like our healthy parents) and imitating them, loosely not slavishly, is a productive form of identification. The “productive person”, by the way, is Eric Fromm’s model of the healthy person – someone who can love and work. Freud said the same thing.

Style FOUR – Introjection

Introjection is a process in which an individual unconsciously incorporates aspects of reality external to himself or herself into the self, particularly the attitudes, values, and qualities of another person or a part of another person’s personality. Introjection may occur, for example, in the mourning process for a loved one. In psychoanalytic theory, introjection is the process of internalizing the qualities of an external object into the psyche in the form of an internal object or mental representation which then has an influence on behavior. This process is posited to be a normal part of development, as when introjection of parental values and attitudes forms the superego, but may also be used as a defense mechanism in situations that arouse anxiety.

Freud wrote about “Mourning and Melancholy.” If we don’t grieve for the lost person or object or dream and let them go, then we introject, take in, that lost person, object, or hope and carry them around with us in a state of mourning and unresolved grief. Melancholy is a mood familiar to FOURs. A sweet sadness about the state of affairs. FOURs need to deal with their unfinished business through grieving so they can be present to new connections in the here and now and let go of their longing and nostalgia. Easier said than done. What addict wants to give up their drinking and smoking? Melancholy is a constant companion, a background feeling that, in its absence, would leave FOURs feeling empty.

Besides taking in the values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions of our parents, society, culture, religion,, is there anything else good about introjection?

It can lead to understanding and empathy. If we can take in, introject, welcome the other person without identifying and merging with them, we can know and feel what’s going on in them. That’s what therapists, parents, friends, lovers, FOURs are good at. We can resonate with the other while remembering that we, as a tuning fork, are not the same as the oboe making that sound. Our self can do this consciously and lovingly for the benefit of the other self.

Artistic sublimation is another defense mechanism that Claudio Naranjo attributed to FOURs. It can be a way of exaggerating what’s going on. Mere words are not enough to express the profundity of the FOURs’ experience. Only a poem, a sculpture, a song, a dance, some dramatic expression will do.

On the other hand, when not used to amplify the ego, artistic expression is the source of great works of art, music, dance, literature, etc. that reflect what it’s like to be a human being. And we are all the richer for that.

Style FIVE – Compartmentalization and Isolation

Compartmentalization is the defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments. In the classical psychoanalytic tradition, compartmentalization produces fragmentation of the ego, which ideally should be able to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence.

FIVEs talk about compartmentalizing their relationships. Colleagues at work may not know their family. College friends may not know their high school friends, etc.

Also, if we compartmentalize parts of our life, we may not be able to go back and re-examine or re-experience those parts. Thus, Naranjo says FIVEs don’t do well in psychoanalysis because they are unwilling or unable to reconnect with their past. Or, as someone I know said: “I had an unhappy childhood. Why would I want to go back there and talk about it?” Good point.

I wonder how ministers can officiate at a church service and then abuse altar boys and girls in the sacristy. Seems like compartmentalization at work.

Isolation is the condition of being separated from other individuals. In psychoanalytic theory, it is a defense mechanism that relies on keeping unwelcome thoughts and feelings from forming associative links with other thoughts and feelings, with the result that the unwelcome thought is rarely activated. The isolation of affect is a defense mechanism in which the individual screens out painful feelings by recalling a traumatic event without experiencing the emotion associated with it.

Normally when we have an experience, we have a thought and a feeling about it. Isolation involves pushing the feeling down and only being aware of the thought. That’s why when you ask a FIVE what they are feeling, they tell you what they are thinking. If the defense works, they aren’t feeling anything. Afterwards, when they are safe in their solitude, FIVEs might allow the feeling to surface.

In a stressful situation (and aren’t they all), we repress the feeling so we can think and act to help us survive and get the hell out of there.

For most people their feelings are close to the surface. Like, the water is right at the top of the well and they can touch it and say I’m feeling anxious, loving, angry, sad, etc. For FIVEs, the water is at the bottom of the well and they need to drop a stone down and wait for feedback to come back up. This may take a few minutes, hours, days, whatever. So, when you ask a FIVE what they are feeling, be prepared to wait.

Is there anything good about compartmentalization and isolation? When consciously employed, they can be ways of establishing useful boundaries. They might enable us to not bring work home or family to work. They create a little distance between us and the pain of our students, clients, friends, relatives, In order to be useful, our observing ego might need to step back so as not to become a merging ego. If we over-identify with the other, we may become as stuck as they are and not be able to offer any objective opinions and options.

Compartmentalization and isolation, then, can help us be present to what and who is in front of us. Surgeons, therapists, teachers, parents may need to box out differing thoughts, feelings, and people so as not to confuse them with the patient, client, child right before them.

Also, if we’re in a plane crash, it’s probably best not to focus on how afraid, angry, disappointed and sad we are until after we remember where the exits are and get clear of the danger. Then we can let those feelings come up. Evolution and our ego, after all, have come up with a few good strategies.

Style SIX – Projection

Projection is the process by which one attributes one’s own individual positive or negative characteristics, affects, and impulses to another person or group. This is often a defense mechanism in which unpleasant or unacceptable impulses, stressors, ideas, affects, or responsibilities are attributed to others. For example, the defense mechanism of projection enables a person conflicted over expressing anger to change “I hate him” to “He hates me.” Such defensive patterns are often used to justify prejudice or evade responsibility; in more severe cases, they may develop into paranoid delusions in which, for example, an individual who blames others for his or her problems may come to believe that others are plotting against him or her.

It’s also good to remember that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that others aren’t out to get you. And if you think others are talking behind your back, they eventually will start talking behind your back.

As a further reminder, we all use projection so SIXs don’t have a corner on the projection market. It’s just that it’s congenial to a self-doubting suspicious mind-set. So, for example, if you are fearful that others are critical of you, it might be that you have projected your own harsh superego onto others, thus forgetting that you are really the one that is judging you.

Projection (putting outside of ourselves characteristics that belong inside our boundaries) is the opposite of introjection (putting inside our boundaries parts that properly belong outside of ourselves.)

So how can projection be used in the service of the self instead of protecting our ego? As AA says, “If you spot it, you got it.” If we follow our line of projection, we can bring back parts of ourselves that we’ve thrown or given away. That makes us more whole.

Just as we project away those parts of ourself we don’t like, so can we toss out our inner resources only to find them in others. We wouldn’t be able to recognize someone’s kindness, assertiveness, integrity, thoughtfulness, etc. if we didn’t have something like that inside ourself. Budha nature recognizes Budha nature.

Regrettably, we might also have to reclaim those attributes of others that drive us round the bend. If we bring those parts back in, we now have control over them and can modify their expression. Or we might uncover the hidden gold that’s been overlaid with the dross we’ve discarded. Reframe it. “I’m not mean. I’m laser-like in my perception.” If we clean up our act, we’ll have more players on our team.

Style SEVEN – Sublimation

In psychoanalytic theory, sublimation is a defense mechanism in which unacceptable sexual or aggressive drives are unconsciously channeled into socially acceptable modes of expression. Thus, the unacceptable drives and energies are redirected into new, learned behaviors, which indirectly provide some satisfaction for the original instincts. For example, an exhibitionistic impulse may gain a new outlet in choreography; a voyeuristic urge may lead to scientific research; and a dangerously aggressive drive may be expressed with impunity on the football field. As well as allowing for substitute satisfactions, such outlets are posited to protect individuals from the anxiety induced by the original drive.

That description of sublimation reads like it may have been written by a SEVEN. Sublimation lifts up our instincts and impulses for the service of society vs the ruin of society. Some, if not all, contributions to the enhancement of culture are compliments of sublimation. Even Freud found some merit in sublimation. And it is one of the defenses that least distorts reality. Paranoia, on the other hand, really skews it.

Sweet lemon would be a slight-of-hand that comes easy to SEVENs. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. “Not getting that job I wanted is good for my humility.” Find the good in everything. For example, I recently returned from a visit to the Southwest where the sun shines and the sky is blue 363 days of the year. I was there, of course, on the 364th day when it was cloudy and rainy. Our guide reassured us how fortunate we were not to be there on some boring sunny day. Rather, we might now see some waterfalls and interesting cloud formations. Actually, the following day there was a landslide that blocked the road but, lamentably, I wasn’t there to hear the reframe of that.

What’s good about sublimation? It’s positive, optimistic, hopeful, uplifting, proactive, encourages moving forward, etc. What’s not to like?

Style EIGHT – Denial

Denial is the defense mechanism in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness. It may take such forms as refusal to acknowledge the reality of a terminal illness, a financial problem, an addiction, or a partner’s infidelity. Denial is an unconscious process that functions to resolve emotional conflict or reduce anxiety. It is also called disavowal.

Denial would be one of those defense mechanisms that substantially distort reality. Whatever it is that we don’t like, we don’t see it, hear it, feel it, etc. EIGHTs don’t especially like weakness so they deny it in themselves and then sense it in others. They don’t like it there, either, finding a victim-mentality particularly distasteful. On the upside, if they perceive others as weak, they can scare and exploit them more easily.

Like all defense mechanisms, denial has collateral damage. It can hurt others and ourself. I had a great aunt who refused to acknowledge she had cancer which she died of because she never had it treated. I know someone else who has had foot, hip, shoulder, and surgery on most other of his moving parts because he pushed himself too far athletically and didn’t listen to his body when it said “Stop it!”

Is denial ever good, then? I suppose if we really need to accomplish something, get something done, or escape some threatening situation (like get out of that crashed car or crashed marriage or crashed career choice), we have to deny temporarily our physical and psychological discomfort. Separation is painful whether it be cutting off parts of ourself, our dreams, our relationships, etc. But to move on, we might have to consciously debunk the pain that is involved.

Denial could also be deployed when maladaptive thoughts are around. When we’re telling ourself we’re incompetent, stupid, ugly, a loser, ad infinitum, denial says: “That’s not true!” Banish those thoughts just like you might deny you have a drinking problem. Only now the defense is in the service of reality not wishful thinking.

Style NINE – Narcoticization

This defense is not found in the APA Dictionary of Psychology. It was introduced by Claudio Naranjo in his book Character and Neurosis (Gateways/IDHHB Publishers, 1994.) Here is what he writes about it. “When I first presented my views on the correspondence between character structure and dominant defense mechanisms, I did not find a fully appropriate term for the characteristic way in which the ennea-type IX person distracts herself from inner experiences through attention to the outer world. The most appropriate I found and that which I adopted was Karen Horney’s word narcoticization – for her meaning is not only a loss of awareness but, more precisely, a putting oneself asleep: through an immersion in work or in stimuli such as TV or reading the papers.” (p. 259)

Naranjo refers to this as psychological inertia. “Not wanting to see, not wanting to be in touch with one’s experience is something akin to cognitive laziness, an eclipse of the experience or inner witnessing in the person. (p. 255)

Externalization is another defense mechanism categorized by Karen Horney. She describes externalization as the technique by which individuals shift their center of gravity from the self to others. It involves a shift outward to others not only of unacceptable feelings, but of all feelings, all emotions. Other people become the center of the person’s emotional life. These external individuals become the nucleus of all important strivings that would normally be directed to and experienced by the self. One focuses not on what one thinks or feels but, on the thoughts, and feelings of others.

Confluence is another way to conceptualize this. Think of two rivers running together so it becomes impossible to tell which river is which. NINEs can so blend and merge with others that it becomes difficult to tell which person is doing the thinking and feeling. In running away from themselves, they can lose themselves in the other. Discrimination is the antidote to confluence. It creates boundaries. “I’m feeling this and you’re feeling that.”

So what’s good about narcoticization? Let’s put it in the service of the self and not in the maintenance of the ego. Let’s wake it up and call it self-soothing, a way of calming and gentling one’s upset self. It’s somewhere between stirring up the waters and eliminating the waters all together. When SIXs, or any of us for that matter, access our inner NINE, a little self-soothing sedates our jangled nerves. “It’s OK. You’re OK. All will be well.”

And what’s good about externalization? When used in the service of others and oneself it is the basis of empathy. In the manner of NINEs, we can put ourselves in others’ moccasins, walk with them, and appreciate what they are thinking and feeling. In this walking together, both remain present vs one disappearing into the other. While the boundaries are permeable, there are still boundaries.


In sum, defense mechanisms in the service of the ego maintain it; defense mechanisms in the service of the self actualize it.

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