By Cynthia Bourgeault
For almost thirty years the standing joke has been “What enneagram type is Cynthia?” Leading teachers in all the various schools have typed me variously (frequently categorically) as a Four, Five, or Six. While I can see certain points of congruence (after all, my Mom was a Four, my Dad a Six, and most of my partners Fives, so I know these types well), none of them really resonated—and more important, none of them really captured my interest. They failed to paint for me any authentic description of where I was pinned, or the road to authentic freedom—more authentic, at least, than what I already knew in my own heart of hearts. And thus, I simply lost interest in the entire psychometric. When people ask me my type nowadays, I usually just smile and say, “I’m a Ten.”
On my very first encounter with this system nearly thirty years ago—through Helen Palmer’s book The Enneagram—I initially self-identified as a Seven. The story starts out right: perceived lack of parental nurturance, Puer Aeternus (eternal youth), planning (gottcha!). But the narrative runs off the rails when it comes to the core passion (gluttony) and the reason behind it: self-distraction from pain, the need to maintain a cheery, spontaneous, excitement, and adventure-laden dance card. This simply never resonated; it still doesn’t. (Either I am totally un-self-aware or else the person who invented the Seven story was clearly not a Seven.) And so again and again I would approach the Seven story as intrinsically energetically congruent, only to be thrown back by the mountain of narrative evidence arguing against it.
I would add that in the various tests I’ve taken online (RHETI and otherwise), the Seven doesn’t usually come up as a strong contender. That’s because the choice points presented for discernment always feature “pleasure,” “excitement,” “fun-loving,” “spontaneous.” When these are set against responsibility, goal-orientedness, concern for others, capacity to face pain, and willingness to make and keep long-term commitments, I always wind up getting parceled out among more dutiful types. (As for the celebrated enneagram panels—forget them! All players know their scripts and simply arrange the evidence, and even their voice tone) to confirm their prior self-identifications…
But what if the Seven type were to prioritize restlessness, compulsive motion, fear of constriction, underlying existential anxiety? What then?
When I asked Helen Palmer if there was any possibility that the type narrative was inaccurate or incomplete, she responded that that pretty much clenched the case that I was a four (need to be a special case).
Anyway, thirty years later—and spurred into action by a review copy of Christopher Heuerts’ new book, The Sacred Enneagram, which I found insightful but still basically recycling the old typologies—I am finally getting around to taking that risk. If in trying to elucidate the deeper waters of the Seven I prove myself indubitably a Four, so be it. But I think there is something here that is still not being seen by enneagram afficionados, and if these deeper waters were better understood, a lot of people like myself who still find themselves without a home base in the enneagram might find a way in.
This is a first gambit, but see what you think. Over the course of the summer I’ve shared it privately with several of my enneagram colleagues including Richard Rohr, Russ Hudson, Jeanine Siler-Jones, and Leslie Hershberger, and their comments have been enormously helpful as I continue to fine-tune my observations.
So now, for all of you out there: In your experience, do you know any Sevens that work the way I’m laying out here? I’m mostly interested in whether you think there’s enough merit in what I’m suggesting here to warrant a more comprehensive re-evaluation of this particular personality type…
By the way, if my typology here is correct, I think there’s absolutely no doubt that Teilhard de Chardin was a Seven. Maybe that’s why he keeps pulling me in….
Anyway, here’s my report, with a couple of short personal vignettes at the end to flesh things out. And yeah, after all these years, I’m finally claiming Seven as my home plate.
Enneagram Type Seven (Bourgeault Revision):
HOLY IDEA Freedom
BASIC FEAR Annihilation
BASIC DESIRE Fullness of Being
PASSION Accidie (existential restlessness, “the noonday demon”)
As children, Sevens felt trapped, subject to the authority of caregivers who seemed unresponsive or even inexplicably hostile to their deepest being needs. While from the outside the nurturance received during their childhood may have appeared stable and conventional, from the inside it registered as hollow, frequently duplicitous, and sometimes downright treacherous. An underlying sense of disconnection—between call and response, appearance and reality—became the filter through which the Seven learned to view the world, leading to a chronic (and at times acute) sense of existential dread.
Resilient and inherently live-loving and optimistic, Sevens learned early on to become skilled self-nurturers—but always with that signature Seven wound: a restless addiction to forward motion and hyper-vigilance against any form of confinement that would appear to limit their options, cut off their escape routes, or impinge upon their ability to “help themselves.” Sevens need to “feel the wind whistling in their ears” to outrun a pervasive sense of existential dread and emptiness, an inability to rest comfortably in their own skins.
THE CORE PASSION
The passion classically assigned to the Seven is gluttony, but I believe this assignation rests on a misunderstanding of the true motivation driving the Seven typology, plus a comparable misunderstanding of the true nature of the passion in question. The correct match-up is actually accidie, typically but incorrectly understood as sloth (and hence assigned to the Nine). Famously characterized by the early desert fathers as “the noonday demon,” accidie is not primarily sloth (i.e, passivity or sluggishness), but the sense of paralyzing dread called forth by the engulfing immediacy of the present, where the egoic escape route of “flight into the future” is cut off and one is face to face with the inescapable reality of the Now. It is against this noonday demon that Evagrius issued his counsel, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” But it is exactly this sitting in your cell that is so terrifying to the Seven, for it means sitting in that primal place of annihilation, where the child’s desperate cries for succor went unheard.
For many Sevens, the profile of gluttony may indeed appear to fit—superficially, at least. Some do indeed wind up piling up a lifetime full of high living and endless exciting adventures. But the real driving motivation, I believe, is never the self-nurturing itself, but maintaining the freedom-of-motion which the Seven believes is required in order to perform these self-nurturing rituals. In the midst of a banquet, the Seven will already be mentally orchestrating the next banquet; what is missing is not the nurturance but the NOW. The hollowness and emptiness of that primordial experience of non-nurturance continues to replay itself endlessly as the Seven reaches for the stars—and comes up with only a hand full of stardust.
Sevens hide in time. It is in the relentless planning, orchestrating, designing, creating options and possibilities, that the Prospero’s castle that passes for their life is constructed and maintained. To deconstruct it appears to them like sure and certain death. But unfortunately, the fullness of Being that they so desperately seek can only be found in the Now. This is their great spiritual challenge.
The real pathology is not “distraction from their pain” and dissipation, as the classic Enneagram Seven story reads. Most Sevens I know are actually intensely focused and have high levels of tolerance for personal pain and the painful inner scrutiny to be paid for self-knowledge. The core pathology is not distraction but flight. Cessation of motion—i.e., stillness—feels like death to them, and they are too adept, too wary, to die in an ambush, even by Infinite Love.
Transformation for the Seven: The Holy Idea and Virtue
“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” This is indeed the terrifying eye of the needle the Seven will have to thread to move from “choice freedom” (as both Thomas Merton and Beatrice Bruteau call it)—i.e., freedom experienced as “keeping my options open,” to “spontaneity freedom:” freedom experienced as the capacity to say “yes” wholeheartedly to NOW; freedom to trust the primordial nurturance to be found only in the plenitude of presence. In such a way, and only in such a way, does the Seven finally come to rest—and in the simple immediacy of the presence there find, as St. Augustine (probably himself a Seven) so profoundly summarized: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”
Two personal vignettes to illustrate the above points:
Trapped!!: At the age of seven months I suffered a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia at the hands of my Christian Science mother, who refused on religious principle to call a doctor. When the doctor was finally summoned, at the insistence of my grandmother (herself a Christian Science practitioner), he examined me gravely and concluded that I was beyond help. “But you were simply too stubborn to die,” my Father recalls, as breath by breath I fought my way back to life.
I have no direct memory of this incident, of course. But the trauma still lives on in my body in a nervous swallow and residual anxiety around breathing. And even before I could think or speak, I already knew as a core datum of my life that my mother could not be counted on as my protector; I would have to “help myself.”
Hiding in Time: When I was three years old, I was formally enrolled in Christian Science Sunday school. The preschool class was intentionally located a bit out of earshot of the other groups, and after opening exercises, our small group of toddlers was led by the teacher up a narrow stairway to a tiny, closet-like classroom at the end of the hall. I panicked. Where were they taking me? Would I ever be released? I screamed in terror for my parents, but my cries elicited no response—neither from my parents (who were actually right on the other side of the classroom wall), nor from the teacher, who simply informed me that the longer I misbehaved, the longer it would take for the class to be over.
As I tried desperately to avoid a total meltdown, my attention fell on something that looked like a big dinner plate hanging in the wall, with numbers painted around the edge and two hands that moved in what seemed like a slow but regular way. And as I began to pay attention to this strange object over the next few weeks, I began to notice that when the big hand moved around the dial to the place where it pointed directly at the ceiling, then the teacher offered a closing prayer and we were led back downstairs.
So that was it! No more panic helplessness. I’d lerarned that all I had to do was to wait till the big hand pointed straight up at the ceiling, and my release would be assured. I’d learned the secret of their game, and knew that I could on it to protect me.
Thus began my addiction to “tempus fugit” as a surrogate form of nurturance and an escape route from the existential terror I by this time knew only too well.
Would you like to browse a full list of our resources by subject categories? A complete list of all our Resources by Category available HERE