One of the first questions we were asked in our enneagram training last fall was some version of “What’s your first memory of being your type?” I found it an interesting way to see how the different types reacted, often at a very young age, to similar early experiences. It also helped me get – deep down – how my type has been influencing how I move through the world for a long, long time. I found the simple answer to that simple question very enlightening, and from their reactions, I think my fellow trainees did too.
I first answered that question over six months ago, but just recently I started thinking about my answer again. Right now, to be honest, I can’t remember what got me thinking about it, or what my sudden insight was. I remember the flash that came with the insight – it truly was like a cartoon light bulb over my head – but no details. I have thought and remembered and pondered and rolled those things around in my head too much the past couple of weeks for me to remember what’s the original thought and what I have added on sense then.
But let me start with the story I shared in answer to that question. Compared to some early childhood stories, it’s pretty mild. More amusing than traumatic. In fact, I decided to tell this story at our training mostly to lighten the mood. I was uncomfortable with the heaviness in the room. It was the first day of out time together – first six over two long weekends – and I was already working on setting myself up as the smart ass in the back of the room. It was a defense, I know it now and if I am honest, I knew it then. It is one of my go to defenses. I am so familiar with it I barely need to work to pull it off. And it did its job. It made people laugh. Which made me feel a bit safer, which gave me a little room to process the emotions – mine and others’, which gave me the courage to go a bit deeper.
By the end of our time together – hell, even by the end of that first night – I trusted everyone in that group to go pretty deep and express some real emotion. But I am not sure I ever told any of them how the story I shared still breaks my heart. Even now, as I sit in a familiar coffee shop, four and a half hours from home and just ten minutes from home-away-from-home, I take great comfort in knowing multiple ways to get to either. And I wish I could scoop up preschool Beth and assure her of that.
I was probably three or four years old. Certainly no older than that. Dad had taken me down to the brand new mall. It was a fairly small mall by today’s standards, but this was the mid-60s and malls were the [cue dramatic music] Wave of the Future. It had just opened and Dad wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And I probably needed to run off some excess energy. So, we drove down, walked from one end to the other, window shopped and probably (knowing Dad) got a treat. None of the details of the trip have really stayed with me.
Except when Dad stopped, about 10 feet into the anchor store we’d entered through. We were in the ladies’ clothes section. On the main aisle. The entrance to the mall still visible behind us. We were holding hands. People had to walk around us. Dad stood stock still for a moment and then said, “Damn. I wonder where I parked the car.”
Such a simple statement. Muttered millions of times a day by drivers all over the world, no doubt.
But they made my blood run cold. My mind filled with questions. If dad can’t find the car, how can we get home? Can we live in the mall? There is food, and beds and clothes and toys. All the things that we need. But I didn’t want to live in the mall. I wanted to go home. I wanted mom. My heart sank. I can still feel the dread and fear and betrayal. I loved my dad, but he wasn’t mom and frankly, what good was he right now if he couldn’t get me home? I remember wanting to cry, but knowing crying was not going to get me home; in fact, I needed to keep Dad calm because I would need him to drive the car.
All of those feelings and fears flashed through me leaving me with one cold, calculating thought. If I am ever going to see mom and home again, I need to get us there.
I forced myself to think, to remember what we saw coming it and using landmarks that were no more than 3 feet high, I took Dad by the hand and led him back along the winding, window-shoppers’ path we had taken coming in. Past a round rack of clothes. Around a glittering perfume display. Through what seemed like a forest mannequin legs. And then out a familiar looking door and down the right aisle in the parking lot. The whole while, holding back the terror that this was my life now.
Once we were in the lot, Dad found the car and thankfully remembered how to drive (I remember wondering if – should push come to shove – I would be able to reach the pedals; after that it was just a matter of pushing them and turning the wheel, right?) in a matter of minutes we were home.
I still remember the sight of Mom holding the door open for us as we returned. She must have seen us passing the kitchen window and was interested to hear about our adventure. It must have been shocking to her – not to mention Dad – when I rushed to her and burst into tears. What was in my mind a terrifying experience of being lost forever was to him a simple moment of forgetting where the car was.
For Dad, the incident proved he had a bright, observant daughter and a lousy sense of direction. To me, it proved three things that are central to a Six’s world view:
- No one, no matter how powerful or loving or lovable or dad-like they may be, can completely keep me safe.
- I need to always be alert, always scan, always be prepared, always know where I am and how to get to safety.
- Even if the powerful people around me can’t keep me completely safe, I still need them. It’s in my best interests to take care of them.
I remember knowing those things – or four-year old version of them – in a flash during the few short minutes it took us to get to the car. They were just facts, like the oven is hot and socks slide on a wood floor. A new thing about how the world worked that need to be respected and used to get by.
It’s been interesting the past few weeks seeing how that has played out over the years.
- I have always prided myself on knowing how to get back. “Once I have been somewhere, I can find my way home from it,” I am always telling people. They never seem as impressed as I think they should be, but that doesn’t stop me from being proud of it.
- I need to know where I am. I have a mental compass with a needle that points to “home.” When I am someplace new, I often have to stop and figure out where I am in relation to “home.” If I can’t figure it out, I feel cut loose and adrift. If I am stressed, I also feel just a little panicky. If I am in a good place, I feel amazingly free.
- I love maps and love to find where I am in relation to where I have been and what I already know. Knowing that is way more interesting to me than where I am going.
- “Home” is a feeling more than a place. Home is where I am safe and secure and can let my guard down. Most of the time, the place I live and keep my stuff is home. But sometimes it’s not. Anyplace I can be with the people I love the most is home. The worst feeling in the world is when someone I love no longer feels like home.
- I take care of authority figures in my life, especially emotionally. I mentally “take their side.” I am aware of their moods and make sure I am doing what I can to keep them calm and happy. I am helpful. I can even be protective and defend them.
- I can be hyper aware of my surroundings. I notice and remember landmarks wherever I go. I know who is in a room with me, who just left and even have a guess on their moods. I can tell you where everyone was sitting at the table last Christmas.
- People who are not aware of their surroundings irritate me. What, you expect me to watch out for you, too?
- As a child, I had horrible problems with homesickness, to the point where my parents refused to let me go on overnights for a few years.
- I hate malls. That may not be that unique, but when I do go to malls, I lay down what I think of as my “shrew trail.” I track the stores and landmarks I pass to get to my destination and then always take the same path, even parking in the same part of the parking lot.
- I have a short – but white hot – flash of panic when I don’t know where I parked.
- When a crisis hits, I shove my fear aside and start running scenarios in my head until I am safe again.
None of these traits are likely to go away soon. That’s not really the point of the enneagram. But I am enjoying getting more familiar with them, recognizing them when I do them. Knowing I am acting out of habit helps me decide if that habit is really helpful right now, or if I want to choose another way to.
It also helps comfort that little girl and assure her she’s survive even if she doesn’t know where the car is.