I don’t know about most people, but I found my first therapist by crying in my gynecologist’s office.
To set the scene: I was working as an associate editor at a daily paper in a small town. My only real friend was my boyfriend, who was also my co-worker, who I had very recently been promoted to supervise. It was a weird and lonely time.
Luckily, as often happens in small towns, my doctor came through with a personal recommendation. She referred me to her sister’s therapist, a social worker who had a practice on the edge of town. This lady was everything I was looking for: kind, feminist, spiritual, open. She kind of looked like my grandma, but had an amazing phone-sex voice. And she took my insurance. Hallelujah.
Before my first appointment, she gave me some homework; I needed to print out and take the Enneagram Test, then bring her the results. We’d go from there.
The enneagram, if you’re not familiar, is a personality test, designed to explain how you think and how you deal with stress. It was developed by philosopher Oscar Ichazo, but it’s got roots in psychology and mysticism going back to the Fourth Century A.D.
If that’s freaking you out a little bit, you’re not alone. I grew up in a house where horoscopes were banned, and nonfiction was the genre of choice. I was a cops reporter. Like Jeremy on Sports Night, I have a pretty healthy respect for logic. So personality tests, and all the crunchy-hippie-granola-hooey that goes with them? Not up my alley.
Until I took this one, and it legitimately changed my life.
The way the enneagram works is it categorizes you into one of nine different personality types. Your type describes how you think (head, heart or gut), your motivation in life and how you react to stress or success (your directions of stress or growth). It is NOT Scientology, I can promise you that.
Does it sound like New Age bullshit to you yet? It did to me until I started reading about my type, the One: the Reformer or Perfectionist. Helen Palmer’s enneagram study says that for Ones, “There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything," and, "They live with a powerful inner critic that monitors every thought, word, and deed; they worry about getting things right and are unusually sensitive to criticism; they strive for perfection and feel responsible.”
Oh, hello, my life.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, taking on as many projects as I was physically able. I distinctly remember a middle school anxiety attack (somewhere between student council, volleyball, basketball, bowling, polka lessons, piano lessons, yearbook and tutoring, I’m sure), during which my mom yelled at me, “You’re going to have a heart attack before you’re 15!”
I think she felt kind of helpless. Sorry Mom, but that’s just my Oneness.
Ones see the potential in everything -- but we don’t always believe in other people to get things up to our own standards. The One will always say, “I can do it myself,” or, “If I don’t do it, no one will.” Ones will always believe that they’re right. And Ones will always be their own worst critics. Any terrible thing you can say to a One will pale in comparison to what they put themselves through.
It explains the way I never wanted to farm out assignments. Even though the newsroom was filled with really good writers, I wanted to do it all: to have the most bylines, the best stories, the most awards lining my empty apartment walls. And everything I wrote? As soon as it was published, I tore it apart. I screwed up this turn of phrase; I could have edited this story down further.
Fun fact: I still do this!
Ones believe they’re principled, that they rule by their head, but they are actually body-based in their instincts. We go with our gut. When we’re stressed, that can affect our bodies. In my own experience with IBS (which I’ve dealt with since I was just a kiddo), that makes a lot of sense.
The more stressed I got at work, the worse my stomach got, culminating in crazy “Am I going to make it?” bathroom runs on deadline.
I remember covering a particularly gruesome murder trial, in which a photo of the victim’s torso was posted in the courtroom all day. It was the only part of her body investigators ever found. I was sick for a week after filing that story.
Ones can also be pretty angry, but when we’re not at a healthy place mentally, we likely don’t realize it. While I was exploring this, I was hit with an awful memory of a fight with a college roommate, who at one point cried, “Lindsey, you are so COLD sometimes.”
“No, I’m not,” I said, all calm, and I slammed my bedroom door on her. UGH. What a bitch! I called Kelsie that night and apologized for my dick move three years earlier. She laughed at me and said it was cool; I’m pretty sure she’s a Seven.
And I think worst of all, my unhealthy One ways were keeping me from seeing the good in people. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved so many people in the town where I worked. But in taking on more and more responsibilities at work, I was isolating myself on purpose. I felt lonely, so I built up all my time making myself lonelier.
So even though I didn’t believe in this “hippie bullshit” (I think that is a direct quote from my first session with the therapist), I knew I needed a change. I needed to let go of some responsibility, and trust in people around me. I needed to listen to my body. I needed to chill the fuck out.
And, slowly but surely, I did. By sharing some of the load, I was finally able to finish the weeklong domestic violence series that won the whole staff some statewide reporting awards. By freeing up some of my downtime, I was able to read more, to walk and ride my bike along the river, to join an all-faiths prayer group and even meet a couple of friends. And eventually, when I felt burned out, I was able to recognize that and move on to a new job in a bigger city.
Sometimes I still feel that urge to shove someone out of the way and take over a project. Occasionally I will stress to the point of crippling all-day bathroom excursions. But it’s not as bad as it was, and I can recognize it coming on.
Maybe you don’t need some personality test to explain how you deal with stress. Maybe you’ve got a better grasp on how you react to other people, and what your body does when you’re wound up. Maybe you think this is hippie bullshit. I did, too. But it worked for me -- at least, I don’t cry in front of doctors anymore.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the granola in my oven.
Lindsey is embracing her Oneness on Twitter: @lindseywoho.