Attachment Bias within Enneagram StudiesAug 15, 2023
This article is written by John Luckovich
The central purpose for studying the Enneagram is to see oneself. However, biases of all kinds negatively impact our capacity to observe and understand ourselves. Attachment Bias is a major obstacle that impacts how the Enneagram is explored, understood, and applied and prevents awareness in the guise of deepening it. In one sense, it’s an Enneagram-specific version of the Barnum effect, but a bit more nuanced. The short of it is that it’s an assumption that all people are seeking out common ground (or rudely against common ground), adapting, and multi-faceted. This isn’t the only such bias within the Enneagram, but it’s probably the most widespread and unquestioned.
This bias bends the use of the Enneagram to further “finding common ground”, thus confusing inner work with self-regulation and co-regulation. Sharing about the Enneagram, then, takes on the emotional stakes of mutual validation and trying to make one another feel supported and attached to, which can make intellectual discussions difficult and delicate. Validating and soothing the personality becomes confused with inner work. This stalls deeper learning and seeing.
The biggest problem that stems from Attachment bias is conceptual drift (see below). Type descriptions get written from an Attachment Bias, a supposed universal drive to seek belonging via adaptation and a sense that everyone experiences their identity as somewhat unfixed, which then ends up flattening the sharper distinctions at the root of the different types. It can promulgate an assumption that, at the core, all types have the same basic desires and needs, just different approaches to them. Descriptions then overlook entirely some of the most psychologically rich material the Enneagram holds and a lot of the power of the Enneagram is lost. What results is a difficulty in accurately understanding and describing types that do not abide by Attachment Type motivations, often erasing or overlooking “what they’re all about”.
This is because Attachment Types are multifaceted and can both see themselves in a wide range of traits but may also unconsciously adapt their own view of themselves to attach to a type description that may not be their own type, as seen with the common confusions of Nine with Five and Four. It makes the popular reliance on descriptions and type panels to understand the Enneagram nearly useless without an an accurate view of the inner ego-dynamics of the types.
Conceptual drift refers to the tendency for definitions, descriptions, and depictions of a phenomenon to gradually “drift” away from the reality that those things are meant to describe. There’s less accuracy. So certain terms, definitions, and concepts will be picked up and associated with an Enneagram Type, regardless of whether it’s correct or not. There will be a “conventional wisdom” that these terms are accurate, but they, nonetheless, won’t actually reflect reality and are simply widely-agreed on.
What this means is that people will mistype, and they will speak as a representative of the wrong type, they’ll share about their experience as the wrong type on panels, and they’ll teach about being the wrong type without knowing it, which will gradually shift the collective perception of a type further away from whats true. Reality and it’s intended representations get stretched further apart.
For example, it’s not uncommon for Sixes to misidentify as Eights. They will speak about their experience as Eights, which will influence how people see what “Eightness” is. Eights will gradually be spoken of in light of Sixish values like “fighting for the underdog” and as a “protector”. Over time, the sense of what an Eight is becomes overloaded with traits and motives actually more reflective of Type Six. Consequently, “what Type Eight really is” gets overlooked, and instead, “Eight descriptions” will end up being relatively shallow descriptions of one facet of Six - maybe Six with a Eight Fix in their Trifix, or maybe just the bolder and more reactive side of Six.
“Genuine Eight” will be lost, losing all sight of what it means to be a rejection type, a body type, and an assertive type. Not only will Eight get lost, but many Six attributes will “drift” away from Six and become linked to Eight instead. Sixes who are more aggressive may fail to see the role their head center, attachment, and superego plays in shaping their personality. They don’t see their own Sixness. They can’t use the Enneagram as a mirror to see through their own ego.
If these cognitive biases and larger trends are left unexplored, the Enneagram is reduced to means to reinforce ego-blindness rather than a tool to deepen consciousness.
Attachment Object Relation
“Attachment” comes from the application of Object Relations Theory to the Enneagram of Personality, first done through the work of A.H. Almaas, Don Riso and Russ Hudson and further fleshed out by subsequent thinkers (collaboratively: Courtney Smith, Czander Tan, Josh Lavine, David Gray, Emeka Okorafor, Alexandra Arroyo-Acevedo, and myself). Object Relations posits that the Personality is structured by our past relationships with our caregivers. Unconsciously, the ego upholds a self-image that is connected with an object. Between the self and object is a dominant affect that is continuously reinforced by the personality. These affects are called Attachment, Rejection, and Frustration, and they’re not really emotions per se. They can be more accurately thought of as emotional convictions. They operate at the core of the Enneagram Types.
Nine, Three, and Six are Attachment Types. Five, Eight, and Two are Rejection Types, and Four, One, and Seven are Frustration Types. The Enneagram of Passions are attempts to describe the subjective experience of these affects.
Attachment Types occupy the inner triangle of the Enneagram symbol while the remaining types are on the hexad (the symbol connecting points 1-4-2-8-5-7-1), we can call Rejection and Frustration Types, collectively, “hexad types”. Attachment Types are seeking to attach, to create connection, to find validation and support with others, whereas this is not a primary aim of Rejection nor Frustration Types. Therefore, Frustration and Rejection can be lumped together as hexad types in contrast to Attachment.
The primary object of the personality was our mothers, and our object image builds, expands, and is elaborated from this emotional foundation over time. The object image is projected outward onto everything.
In early life, the Attachment Object Relation represented the infant’s openness to and reaching for their parents' love and care. Psychologically, the stance is that the “good things” are found outside themselves, and this orientation stays somewhat fixed into adult life. As adults, it means that the self is unconsciously compelled to be psychologically open and receptive to others and to their environment.
Unconsciously, Attachment types hold a sense that their environment will provide what they seek - a good holding environment for Type Nine, mirroring and validation for Type Three, and support and guidance for Type Six. This stance leads these types to seek their “object” externally, and as a consequence, these types gain a natural adaptability that helps them meet others on their level. It also means that these types can wear a lot of hats, so to speak, and are naturally multifaceted.
Does this mean Attachment Types want to connect to everyone and everything? Of course not, but their default stance is to reflexive openness and adaptability.
The downside is that these types can adapt themselves to excess, losing sight of their own grounding and personal wishes in an effort to create connection. It can mean Attachment Types may have a passive relationship to their own individuation - they may wait for something in their environment to activate aspects of themselves, to define themselves, or to give parts of themselves “permission” to be expressed. They can have a sense that their identity is unfixed and how they express themselves is context-specific. This might seem universal to some people, but that’s Attachment Bias.
There are disproportionately more Attachment Types in the world then Frustration types or Rejection types. This observation is reinforced not only by personal observations, but also via data collected by Enneagrammer’s professional services over several years, whose typing team incorporates a serious study of Object Relations, unlike most other services. Without the application of object relations, typing results are extremely unreliable.
Newcomers to the Enneagram typically assume a relatively uniform distribution of Enneagram Types among people. However, because Frustration and Rejection Types are so underrepresented in populations relative to Attachment types, they tend to be depicted, described, and explained through an Attachment lens.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Attachment, Rejection Types experienced a sense that their object was inadequate and completely shuts out external influences. By contrast, Rejection Types do not think the external environment will provide the holding environment, the mirroring and validation, or the orientation they seek. Instead, they reject exogenous influences and seek to provide themselves with their own sense of holding, validation, and orientation.
Frustration Types likewise experienced that their caregivers were inadequate suppliers of whatever they needed, leading to intense frustration. Instead of wholly shutting out external influences, Frustration Types react against external influences in order to “do it better” and on their own terms, albeit from a very incomplete and infantile sense of what they need.
Both Rejection and Frustration have a very fixed sense of who they are, but this core identity crystallized the perspective of a frustrated infant. For more on this, see our first course at The Enneagram School.
When interacting with others, Attachment types, Nine, Three, and Six, seek connection and reciprocity with others, whereas types defined by Frustration and Rejection are focused on their individual agendas first. Frustration Types will look for others who share in their vision or outlook, and Rejection types will connect with those who are receptive to their offering: their insight, their care, or their forcefulness.
“Attachment Type Lens”
As the name suggests, Attachment Types have a pro-relationship bias, and they assume that others are either seeking to forge a connection by finding common ground. This leads to a superego demand on themselves to “reach for” likeness in others and an expectation of reciprocity from others - that because they are extending themselves to connect, others ought to be as well. For others to not seek common ground, then, reads inconsiderate, offensive, or selfish.
So, the first facet of “Attachment Bias” is to assume that these relational strategies are simply universal. This assumption leads to a difficulty in imagining an alternative, so hexad types motivations are interpreted in light of Attachment assumptions. Teachers and authors of the Enneagram will fail to account for and depict the genuine ego-agenda of hexad types. Four and Five are regularly confused with Nine, Eight is regularly confused with Three and Six, One with Six or Three, Two with Nine or Six, and Seven with Three or Nine.
The most straightforward and prevalent example of Attachment bias is in describing the inner workings of Type Four. Fours are Frustration Types in the heart center. There is frustration that their identities cannot be known, mirrored, and fully expressed in the outside world. A kind of huffy rejection of others follows - others are too shallow to understand them, so they will push away from the outside of things and go inward, to give themselves the mirroring they feel the outer world cannot give them.
What’s actually going on within Type Four is largely overlooked in most Enneagram resources because so much “Nineness” has infused the ways Four is understood and described. Instead, the Four’s desire to distinguish themselves from others and to be different from others is interpreted as the result of feeling that something is “wrong with them”, and that Fours actually do want to fit in with others, to be seen and accepted.
In actuality, being too accepted and seen by others is actually a negative for Four. Fours take being too easily brought onto common ground as a mark against their own precious individuality. If they’re easily accepted and understood, are they really then all that unique and individualistic? In the Attachment Bias retelling, Four’s interest in being different from others, then, is a way to advertise some kind of value that will allow them some kind of meager acceptance from others.
Additionally, shame, which underlies the types of the heart triad, is interpreted as feeling inadequate in the eyes of others, a fear of rejection or a sense of “not being good enough” for others. Again, this is very much an Attachment Type fear, and when imbalanced, this sense of not being good enough is a large part of their need to adapt - the way they naturally are “as themselves” is somehow incomplete or not okay.
Shame in Types Two, Three, and Four operates at a far deeper psychological layer - it’s better understood as a profound mix of fear, sorrow, and emptiness that the entire identity structure is empty, meaningless, and artificial. In fact, despite Shame being the underlying problem of Type Fours, Fours typically think they are superior to others, and that others ought to adapt to them instead of the other way around.
From the Attachment interpretation of Four, Fours feel inadequate and less than others. As Frustration Types, Fours do experience a lot of frustration in the form of hatred, which may be directed at themselves, but as Image Types, Fours generally feel superior to others, even when they hate themselves. Not only is this lost, but even more crucial is that from the Attachment interpretation, “Fourness” is reduced to nothing more than self-esteem issue. From the Attachment interpretation, what’s a Four that has good self-esteem?
Moreover, because of this problem, Attachment Type struggles are not seen in their true light, and that many Attachment Types see themselves as other types. When Attachment Types see their pain and struggle in light of another type, Attachment Type struggles, as well as their gifts, are not properly attributed to Nine, Three, and Six, so Nine, Three, and Six can get flattened, overlooked, or trivialized.
Attachment Types are very good at mirroring and validating others. There’s a natural inclination to “foster” other people’s self-expression, but this can set a precedent of waiting for the other person’s social cues for what’s comfortable or acceptable to be expressed. In other words, Attachment Types will seek to understand someone else’s emotional location and adapt themselves to it in order to create a connection, but their adaptability can become habitual and automatic i.e. beyond their conscious control. Because of this, it means that Attachment Types have a great deal of versatility, exemplifying a wide range of traits and qualities, on the one hand, but Attachment Types can often lose a sense of their own emotional location and boundaries on the other hand.
Attachment Types often experience their identity as being unfixed and multifaceted, and they assume the same is true for others. So when parsing out the differences in types, Attachment types can disbelieve the purported fixed-ness of other types. Fours and Fives, for example, are often argued for being far less fixed, specific, and singular than they are and far more general and “human”.
This means that Attachment Types typically can relate to several Enneagram descriptions, but some may have difficulty boiling themselves down to one clear and accurate lens with which to view their personality. In some cases, Attachment Types can relate to extreme ends of a polarity of traits and behaviors. Because of the versatility of Nine, Three, and Six, they are likely not wrong about their self-impression - rather it is a failure of Enneagram teachers and authors to clearly understand and articulate the depths of the Enneagram.
When discussing the Enneagram or when trying to see what type is their own, some Attachment Types overestimate context-specificity and mutability of other types. They can see aspects of themselves captured in multiple types or they can resonate with more exaggerated expressions of a particular type, like the drama of Four, intellect of Five, lovingness of Two, the boldness of Eight, etc, and identify with those types, not recognizing how limited and “one note” those types actually are. In short, the motivations and dynamics of other types are blurred.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Attachment Types may have some sense that they need to be more singular in their identity or less permeable to external influences. There may be insecurity about this aspect of themselves. They may therefore unconsciously project an ego-ideal of strength, unflappability, and solidity onto another type, especially Type Eight, and identify with that type to keep this anxiety at bay.
When the Rejection dynamic of Eight isn’t well understood, it’s easy for Eights to be mischaracterized as lacking vulnerabilities, insecurities, and anxieties. Attachment Types that struggle to recognize the strength and value of Attachment often have a difficult time understanding how Eight can appear so forceful and strong, yet be deeply insecure. This is reinforced by the adaptability of an Attachment Type learning about another type: Attachment Types can often adapt their own view of themselves to better fit with and attach to a personality description, even if it isn’t their Type.
A Three might start adapting their own self-view to see themselves as less image focused and adaptable than they are, and instead, they may over-emphasize their willfulness and drive. A Six may adapt to overlook their anxiety and need for guidance and overemphasize their protectiveness and reactivity. Even a Nine can adapt themselves to see themselves as an Eight by rightly recognizing their own inner strength (something that most Nine descriptions overlook, in part due to Attachment Bias) , but as Nines are so sensitive to disharmonies, they can see even minor reactions as “big” events. Thus, a Nine who isn’t all that reactive can begin to view their periodic outbursts of rage or drama as highly characteristic of themselves, giving it an excessive emphasis. Meanwhile, compared to an actual Eight, the Nine will seem steady, mellow, and easy going.
It’s important to make a note here: Attachment Types do have a strong and specific identity, but they often become so habituated to adapting that their specific identity can feel elusive, vague, or too broad to feel confident in. It’s the work of Attachment Types to hold and to bring their specific individuality with their multifacetedness out themselves instead of waiting for cues or permission from the outside.
Disagreement and “Negatively Attached”
From the point of view of an Attachment Bias, simple disagreements and deviations within discussions can be interpreted as rude, offensive, and even harmful.
It's an Attachment Type’s first impulse to seek commonality, like-mindedness, and interpersonal ease with other people. Because of this, Attachment Types are adaptable. This often means that they initially downplay their individuality and their self-interested agendas on the onset of a relationship, seeking common ground first. When connection is established and they feel they can relax, an Attachment Type will gradually bring forward all their more individualistic traits.
By contrast, hexad types tend to lead with their emotional location and individuality, and only when their individuality is respected, will they then relax and adapt to meet another person where they’re at. Rejection and Frustration, therefore, have an opposite strategy to that of Attachment Types.
Attachment Types have a strong expectation for reciprocity. They are doing a lot of unacknowledged work and effort to meet others. When those efforts are unnoticed or unreciprocated, Attachment Types can feel the other person is being offensive, mean, or even cruel. Hexad types simply don’t have this expectation for adaptation, so unintentional offense can follow. They often don’t pick up on how the Attachment Type is extending themselves and may not even have the ego-flexibility to adapt. This is not to let hexad types with bad manners or ill intentions off the hook, but to simply illuminate a common dynamic.
Therefore, when certain Attachment Types perceive someone is not providing a comfortable holding environment, mirroring and validation, or support, they may read negative intentions in the other. If the Attachment Type is especially fixated, they may get into conflict and even an obsessive preoccupation with the person who they see as withholding the attachment they’re seeking. When distressed Attachment Types cannot securely form a mutual attachment, it may devolve into the more insecure styles.
The Attachment Type can goad, blame, and throw a kind of tantrum against those with whom they feel entitled to reciprocity and validation from when it’s not given, intentionally or not. In other words, the Attachment Type becomes negatively attached. The object of their attachment becomes unconsciously viewed as a mean, withholding parent for which the Attachment strategies have failed to work on, leading to outbursts, hurt, and anger.
This gets at a core feature of Attachment that is elusive, but extremely important to understand for an Attachment Type’s inner work that was first brought to light by Czander Tan: Attachment Types ego is built on the effort to attach, and therefore, if the Attachment Type is deeply fixated, an attachment that is too easily formed won’t give the Attachment Type’s ego anything to “do”. Czander termed this “attachment to disconnect”. The ego seeks out an object it cannot actually attach to so that it can experience the disconnection that affords it the false sense of identity provided by the ego-activity of winning attachment from the object or becoming negatively entangled with an person who won’t provide the sought-for validation.
The lack of being able to attach motivates the fixated Attachment Type to adapt themselves and strive to attach over and over. Thus, if an Attachment Type has had a difficult history, they may seek attachments with people who cannot be “positive objects”, who cannot give them the holding, mirroring, and support they seek. At low-average levels of health, everyone becomes an attachment object. If they perceive a potential for connection, they cannot be neutral toward the person at this level of psychological imbalance. Thus, those who are perceived as refusing the attachment or hostile toward it, can become objects of this kind of preoccupation. When an Attachment Type is imbalanced, depending on the nature of the relationship between subject and object, the “ego project” can take on more importance than actually securing a good attachment because it gives the fixated Attachment Type direction, purpose, and a false sense of identity.
A common example of this is one encountered in Enneagram discussions all the time. If someone’s self-typing is overtly or indirectly not validated by others, the lack of support can be interpreted not as simply having a different point of view, but as an intention to hurt the person in some way. Disagreement is seen as rude and harmful. Intellectual discussions become underlain with an emotional expectation of “with or against”. It prevents dialogue and evolving ideas around the content.
Attachment Bias is only one of innumerable cognitive biases that obfuscate the illuminating power of the Enneagram. This article is not meant to pick on Attachment Types or downplay their gifts. Instead, it can hopefully contribute to expanding the usefulness of the Enneagram, which includes providing a clearer sense of what Types Nine, Three, and Six are. Part of the problem with Attachment Bias is, counterintuitively, that a lot of the gifts, depth, and beauty of Attachment Types often gets erroneously assigned to hexad types. To “see what is” is the aim of the Enneagram, and by clarifying both this bias as well as the role of object relations within the types, the value of the Enneagram can deepen.
Check out our featured courses, books, and resources in our store.
Join our email list
Your email is safe with us.