Learning about Early Childhood Patterns—Object Relations Theory x Enneagram

If you’re here, you already know that the Enneagram is powerful. And if you are an Enneagram professional, you have probably made adjustments to how you interact with clients based on their type. But chances are, you have only cracked the surface of how to fully leverage the Enneagram.

What if we told you that you can get deep insights into your clients’ early childhood experience just by knowing their Enneagram type?

As infants, each of us tries to understand who we are in relation to the world around us. Early in childhood, we have needs that aren't met. We aren't fed, changed, or held right when we want to be and our caregivers are human—often trying but failing to read our minds. When an internal need is not met by the external "objects"—i.e. people—around us, it helps us in infancy to distinguish between us and them.

Throughout our early life, once we become more aware of this separation, we go onto explore and test for danger as we move out into the world. And later, we try to reconcile our individuality with maintaining connection to an important other. These are phases that all children go through, but the types experience and adapt to them in different ways. 

To cope with the disappointments and frustrations that come with these phases of life, we develop adaptive strategies that stick with us. And the Enneagram shows us that these adaptive strategies are different based on our inborn personality type—making this framework all the more powerful when combined with the Enneagram System of Personality. 

As an Enneagram enthusiast, you already know that Nines habitually merge with others and tend to “forget” themselves. Object relations theory helps us understand from where this merging and forgetting come.

For Nines, like the other two body types, there is a core childhood issue of differentiation. In this phase of life, children must both understand their desire for independent existence while also facing an impulse to re-immerse in the original fusion they have with their mother figure. So the stage of differentiating between the primary caretaker and the self underlie their core developmental story.

The Nine's way of coping is to dissociate from the pain of that initial separation. For them, this can look like being numb to their own desires or blending in with others. Although, as we said, the centers have a common sticking point, Eights and Ones have adaptive strategies that differ from those we just learned Nines use.

While this framework stems from psychoanalysis, it isn’t only useful for therapists. Say you are a leadership coach. When you want insight into an executive client’s reactivity, you probably won’t ask about their unmet childhood needs. That's why developing this knowledge is so important. Understanding the patterns they solidified early in life may provide great insights into how they are interacting with their team.  

So, when you learn how these theories overlap, you don’t need to hear about someone's early life experiences to know the core issues and adaptive strategies they developed. And importantly, these are the same adaptive strategies they continue to practice well into adulthood.

BASED ON THE ARTICLE BY BEATRICE CHESTNUT, PHD, Understanding the Development of Personality Type: Integrating Object Relations Theory and the Enneagram System. Learn more here.