What are arrows and why are they useful?


'Arrows' is the term given to the internal lines that join your type on the Enneagram to two others. These are often referred to as the growth and stress paths, or directions of integration and disintegration. On the diagram, the arrow direction shows the stress/disintegration direction - so to find the type you move to in growth/integration, go against the arrow pointing at your number. For example, the line going from 2 → 8 shows that 2s move to 8 in stress, so 8s move to 2 in growth. The line going from 4 → 2 shows that 4s move to 2 in stress, so 2s move to 4 in growth (scroll to the bottom to see the movement for all 9 types). 

Arrows are ways in which we naturally have access to the traits of other types, which is extremely helpful to us even if it doesn't always feel like it. A common misconception is that one arrow is 'good' and another one is 'bad' - the terms integration and disintegration imply that movement in one direction is great but movement in another is a personal failing. In reality, these movements are simply tools to help us become more balanced, and they are 'activated' in different kinds of situations.

Each type's personality structure is useful up to a point. Our personality is what develops to help us to deal with the world, and so each structure is adaptive and useful. But each type is only one way of seeing and responding to the world, and if we stick too rigidly to our own survival strategies, at some point they will fail us and we will start to disintegrate in a spiral of helplessly trying the same thing over and over. We need flexibility; we need to adopt other coping mechanisms that don't come as naturally to us, and don't feel like they so obviously meet our needs depending on our core desires. Sometimes we are able to enact this flexibility - and other times, we are not. When we are under pressure, our first response is to be more of our type - for example, 2s become more needy, 6s seek more reassurance, 8s become more controlling, 9s become more withdrawn, 1s become more critical. If turning up the volume on our standard ways of being doesn't work, and we aren't able to choose alternatives, alternatives kind of get chosen for us.

This is where the 'stress arrow' comes into play. I like to think of it as an escape route, and rather than this arrow being a sign of 'disintegration', it's more of a rescuer to stop this disintegration from happening. The type our stress arrow takes us to has something that we need. A few examples:

  • Initially, 2s become more reliant on others' good opinions of them, more self-sacrificial, and more avoidant of their own needs. The move to 8 helps them to be more assertive, direct, and to focus on their own needs and wants.

  • 7s' thinking and pursuit of fulfilment becomes more scattered; the move to 1 helps them to be more organised and take responsibility.

  • 9s' go further into themselves and detach further from external demands; the move to 6 drives them to seek opinions and guidance from others, reconnect with the world around them and consider different courses of action.

So this all sounds good, right? The problem is that when these movements are triggered by necessity, we're not in a great place when they happen, and so the ways in which these helpful traits get played out tend not to be our shining moments. So 2s' assertiveness is often aggressive and demanding; 7s' increased sense of responsibility comes with self-criticism and rigidity of thought; 9s' re-engagement is anxious and self-doubting.

We can end up seeing the qualities of the type we go to in stress as bad qualities. When I first discovered the Enneagram there was one type I really hoped I wasn't - the 8. Type 8 sounded awful to me. Now I understand that, as a 2 who moves to 8 in stress, this is because the vast majority of the times I drew on 8 qualities I FELT awful. We need to see the value in our 'stress type' for two main reasons: firstly, we need to have compassion for, and not write off, everyone who identifies with that type; and secondly, if we see that type as something to be feared or avoided, we will miss out on opportunities to use its qualities intentionally.

Imagine that your type is your home base, and there are paths leading out to all the other types. We can choose to walk down any of the paths to get resources from any of the other types. Some of these paths will be well trodden, such as our stress path. Others are more like an overgrown jungle trail that we can still walk down but it will be slower and require a lot of effort. When our stress arrow is triggered, it can feel as though someone has bundled you into the boot of a sports car and whizzed you straight to stress town. As soon as I've made my way home, I'm not very inclined to go back there of my own free will. But if I allow myself to do so, it can be like seeing a place in the daylight rather than at night. I will see my stress type in a different light; I will see how the qualities can be used in a healthy way; I can choose to practise some of these different personality strategies and feel like the one in control of them. It isn't easy to do this, because it goes against many of our instincts, but the more we make this journey on purpose and bring back souvenirs, the easier it will become.

On the other hand, we have our 'growth'/'integration' arrow path. This takes us to a different type with a different set of useful qualities, but these only come out in situations where we feel safe enough. They might be situations we feel confident in, people we feel secure around, places we feel comfortable. This allows us to try out other things that don't come naturally, but because it feels more pleasant to visit this place, we can more happily integrate them into our normal functioning. For example, 1s moving to 7 can let themselves relax and have fun for the sake of having fun; 6s moving to 9 become more grounded and inward focused; 8s moving to 2 become more nurturing towards themselves and others.

We visit these two places under different circumstances, but both are equally valuable, and both have their potential downsides - the move to our 'secure' type isn't without its problems either. If we get stuck in this type without integrating it more broadly then it becomes unhelpful in a way that we can struggle to see because it doesn't feel uncomfortable, like our snap visits to stress town. We can develop new blindspots. For example, 4s moving to 1 in security become more organised, action oriented, and consistent, but they can also slip into being excessively critical of themselves and others, more controlling and impatient. If they only focus on the benefits of them having moved into 1-space (such as, most likely, increased productivity), they can dismiss the less helpful aspects and forget to integrate their core personality.

So what do we do with all this? Here are some suggestions for how you can use arrows for personal growth:

  • If you don't already know your Enneagram type, pay attention to how you respond under stress and when you feel more comfortable and secure. In particular, how does your personality seem to shift to a surprising degree? When would you/others say you're not acting like yourself? This might help you to narrow down your core type, based on where the arrows lead.

  • Reflect on what about the move in stress feels uncomfortable to you. What is it about these qualities that you struggle with? Do you struggle with these qualities in others as well?

  • Reflect on how the move in stress is helpful to you, even if it feels unpleasant. What qualities could you practise integrating before your stress move gets triggered?

  • Reflect on how you are able to be when you feel more comfortable and secure. How could you allow yourself to embody some of these qualities at other times?

Direction of disintegration (reverse for direction of integration):

1 → 4 → 2 → 8 → 5 → 7 → 1

3 → 9 → 6 → 3

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