Disclaimer: everything about this post personifies “4-ness.” Overly-indulgent self-examination, grandiose self-importance and cringeworthy self-obsession. In my defense, self-knowledge lies at the heart of the Western and Christian traditions. The Delphic maxim “γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” or “Know Thyself,” was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It supplied Socrates with his characteristic methodology and infused the dawn of Western philosophy with an introspective temperament. Later, Christian thinkers carried the tendency into their work. It’s hard to read Augustine’s Confessions without recognizing this self-critical inclination. The Delphic impulse received renewed prominence during the 19th and 20th centuries with the emergence of Existentialism. Try to read Nietzsche’s letters or Kierkegaard’s journals without choking on their shameless self-importance.
There’s obvious value in examining oneself—I maintain it’s an intellectual and moral obligation—but if given free rein the tendency to fixate on the self can become destructive. When allowed to dominate one’s personality and outlook, self-critical traits can develop into morbid obsessions and crippling phobias that inhibit our joy.
I am generally skeptical of psychological and personality assessments, but over the last year I have given greater credence to the Enneagram system of personality profiles. On separate occasions, three women have told me I am a superlative type 4, and after consulting the type’s profile I see their point. Each woman shared the information as a warning—they detected signs that my melancholic meditations (dare I say narcissism?) could erode my happiness.
According to the Enneagram Institute, type 4s are “The Sensitive, Introspective Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental.” A cursory glance through the pages of this blog will quickly convince anyone that I possess these traits. In short, I am confessional and emotional to a fault.
Additionally, we’re told that 4s “Want to express themselves and their individuality, to create and surround themselves with beauty, to maintain certain moods and feelings, to withdraw to protect their self-image, to take care of emotional needs before attending to anything else, to attract a ‘rescuer.’” I identify with this description entirely, to the point where I find it hard to comprehend that others might not share these desires. For me, intellectual authenticity has always ranked above practical, concrete considerations such as career and material possessions.
For me, the real is the ideal, to echo and distort Hegel. To be authentic is therefore to feel a certain way, and to express those feelings eloquently is my sole vocation and life’s calling. It’s little wonder that I seized hold of music in my 20s as a mode of authentic self-realization, even though I was awful at it. It’s little wonder that I pursued two graduate degrees in disciplines that frustrated rather than enhanced my career prospects. And it’s little wonder now that I type these words for the benefit and edification of precious few readers. I am compelled to share; at my core I am desperate to manifest something genuine in the midst of continual flux—the uncertain chaos of life.
This, too, is a deeply Socratic ambition: to pin down the mutable world of change and seize hold of the everlasting. I want to feel my way into a permanent, immaterial reality, but in fact my extravagant, unchecked perturbations confect a fantasy world. I feel things as I’d prefer them to be, as ideal states, not as they are. I formulate delusions.
The 4 profile continues: “The ‘romantics’ of the Enneagram, they [4s] long for someone to come into their lives and appreciate the secret self that they have privately nurtured and hidden from the world. If, over time, such validation remains out of reach, Fours begin to build their identity around how unlike everyone else they are.”
The very impulse that prompts 4s’ frenzied over-examination and self-indulgent sharing—their sense that something is deficient, lacking, or unique about them—increases their alienation by driving people away. Others perceive their frenetic activity as a desperate bid to connect, and so flee.
Of the three women who identified me as a 4, none are willing to speak to me today. Through my insistence that the world conform to my ideal—my feelings—I sever myself from reality and forfeit whatever genuine joys it holds. There is nothing less attractive to women than desperation and nothing more pitiful than a grown man paralyzed by feckless introspection. The profile states, “As long as they [4s] believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, they cannot allow themselves to experience or enjoy their many good qualities.” The search for the ideal, authentic self ends in misery among phantasms.
Whether Enneagram is a reliable psychoanalytic resource or not, there is wisdom in its warning to balance self-examination with active engagement in the concrete world inhabited by people, not ideas. It’s an admonition as old as our civilization. Alongside “Know Thyself” at the Temple of Apollo was another inscription, “μηδὲν ἄγαν:” “nothing in excess.”