The Levels of Development

There is an internal structure within each personality type. That structure is the continuum of behaviors, attitudes, defenses, and motivations formed by the nine Levels of Development which make up the personality type itself. This discovery (and the working out of all the traits that comprise each type) was originally made by Don Riso in 1977, and was further developed by Don with Russ Hudson in the 1990s. They are the only Enneagram teachers to include this important factor in their treatment of the Enneagram. The Levels are an important contribution not only to the Enneagram but to ego psychology — and the personality types of the Enneagram cannot be adequately explained without them. The Levels account for differences among people of the same type as well as how people change for better or for worse. The Levels can also help therapists and counselors pinpoint what is actually going on with clients and suggest solutions to the problems they may be confronting. 

The Levels of Development provide a framework for seeing how all of the different traits that comprise each type fit into a large whole; they are a way of conceptualizing the underlying “skeletal” structure of each type. Without the Levels, the types can seem to be an arbitrary collection of unrelated traits, with contradictory behaviors and attitudes often forming part of the picture. But by understanding the Levels for each type, one can see how all of the traits are interrelated—and how healthy traits can deteriorate into average traits and possibly into unhealthy ones. As pioneering consciousness philosopher Ken Wilber has noted, without the Levels, the Enneagram is reduced to a “horizontal” set of nine discrete categories. By including the Levels, however, a “vertical” dimension is added that not only reflects the complexity of human nature, but goes far in explaining many different, important elements within personality.

Further, the Levels introduce a dynamic element that reflects the changing nature of the personality patterns themselves.  You have probably noticed that people change constantly—sometimes being clearer, more free, grounded, and emotionally available, and at other times, more anxious, resistant, reactive, emotionally volatile, and less free. Understanding the Levels makes it clear that when we change states within our personality, we are shifting within the spectrum of motivations, traits, and defenses that make up our personality type.

To understand an individual accurately, it is necessary to perceive where the person lies along the continuum of Levels of his or her type at a given time. In other words, one must assess whether a person is in their healthy, average, or unhealthy range of functioning. This is important because, for example, two people of the same personality type and wing will differ significantly if one is healthy and the other unhealthy. (In relationships and in the business world, understanding this distinction is crucial.)

The continuum is comprised of nine internal Levels of Development—briefly, there are three Levels in the healthy section, three Levels in the average section, and three Levels in the unhealthy section. It may help you to think of the continuum of Levels as a photographer’s gray scale which has gradations from pure white to pure black with many shades of gray in between. On the continuum, the healthiest traits appear first, at the top, so to speak. As we move down the continuum in a spiral pattern, we progressively pass through each Level of Development marking a distinct shift in the personality’s deterioration to the pure black of psychological breakdown at the bottom. The continuum for each of the personality types can be seen in the following diagram.

The Continuum of the Levels of Development

 Healthy

  • Level 1: The Level of Liberation
  • Level 2: The Level of Psychological Capacity
  • Level 3: The Level of Social Value

Average

  • Level 4: The Level of Imbalance/ Social Role
  • Level 5: The Level of Interpersonal Control
  • Level 6: The Level of Overcompensation

Unhealthy

  • Level 7: The Level of Violation
  • Level 8: The Level of Obsession and Compulsion
  • Level 9: The Level of Pathological Destructiveness

At each Level, significant psychological shifts occur as is indicated by the title we have given to it. For example, at Level 5, the Level of Interpersonal Control, the person is trying to manipulate himself and others to get his or her psychological needs met. This invariably creates interpersonal conflicts. By this Level, the person has also fully identified with the ego and does not see himself as anything more than that: the ego must therefore be increasingly defended and inflated for the person to feel safe and to keep their identity intact. If this activity does not satisfy the person, and anxiety increases, he or she may deteriorate to the next state, Level 6, the Level of Overcompensation, where their behavior will become more intrusive and aggressive as they continue to purse their ego-agenda. Anxiety is increasing, and the person is increasingly disruptive, and focused on getting his needs met, regardless of the impact on people around them.

One of the most profound ways of understanding the Levels is as a measure of our capacity to be present. The more we move down the Levels, the more identified we are with our ego and its increasingly negative and restrictive patterns. Our personality becomes more defensive, reactive, and automatic— and we consequently have less and less real freedom and less real consciousness. As we move down the Levels, we become caught in more compulsive, destructive actions which are ultimately self-defeating.

By contrast, the movement toward health, up the Levels, is simultaneous with being more present and awake in our minds, hearts, and bodies. As we become more present, we become less fixated in the defensive structures of our personality and are more attuned and open to ourselves and our environment. We see our personality objectively in action rather than “falling asleep” to our automatic personality patterns. There is therefore the possibility of “not doing” our personality and of gaining some real distance from the negative consequences of getting caught in it.

As we become more present, we see our personality traits more objectively and the Levels become a continuous guide to self-observation, a map that we can use to chart where we are in our psycho-spiritual development at any given time. As we move “up” the Levels, we discover that we are freer and less driven by compulsive, unconscious drives and therefore able to act more effectively in all areas of our lives, including in our relationships. When we are less identified with our personality, we find that we respond as needed to whatever life presents, actualizing the positive potentials in all nine types, bringing real peace, creativity, strength, joy, compassion, and other positive qualities to whatever we are doing. (For more, see Personality Types, 45-51, 421-6; 465-93; Understanding the Enneagram, 136-66, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.)