In the psychology of personality if we use a model such as the Enneagram, we are helped to face our emotional avoidances. This is a huge step towards cultivating psychological wellbeing. If you are coping with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse or other family members, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.

Previously I highlighted three avoidances, failure, pain, and vulnerability. Let’s examine three other common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as internalized anger, not anger that devolves on others but anger at oneself for not being perfect and so allowing the situation one is facing to have manifested in the first place. Those who avoid this kind of anger see themselves as moral standard-bearers and they see the potential for perfection in the world. Yet they can never make the world as perfect as they perceive it could be. The panacea for internalized anger is to try to bring an ever-expanding awareness that the way things are is perfect in itself. To see the “imperfections” caused by stress as perfection inherent in the way things are.

Another avoidance is feeling ordinary, living in a mundane. The cause of stress is processed as a feeling that you are special. Stressful situations are to be avoided and they pull you into a messy emotional morass where you do not belong. You are ill because you thought of yourself as too special to take healthy precautions, those routines are for others. Your extended family is in turmoil because no-one realizes your uniqueness and they blame you for relationships not running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he does not appreciate your creativity, and anyway (s)he should never have asked you to do those mundane tasks in the first place. The panacea for those avoiding ordinariness is to cultivate compassion and empathy and see the basic goodness of all life in every moment lived—whatever that may be.

A third avoidance is not to form connections on an emotional level. You overvalue privacy and independence and draw back from personal conflicts. Engaging in stressful situations drains you and you guard your time and energy. You try not to let stressful situations arise by continually signaling your unwillingness to engage. You can easily withdraw into the safety of your mind, pull up the drawbridge of communication and interaction and literally not be present, even if you are in the same room. The panacea for those who avoid interacting on an emotional level, however low key, is be present in a calm, balanced and non-judgmental way that can be helpful to everyone in charged situations. If others feel your presence and attention they will accept and appreciate your rational perspective.

A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Anger, or Dear Ordinariness, or Dear Emotional Connectedness. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological wellbeing.

In my next blog I’ll look at the final three common personality avoidances.

You can read more on the avoidance and other aspects of the psychology of personality in my books Know Your Parenting Personality and The Enneagram Intelligences. More information at http://www.janetlevine.com

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Pundits I’ve read recently on common mistakes bloggers make, my guilt is like an egg on my face in some of my latest blogs. If I have bored you in the past, forgive me. The most egregious error; my complaints about the state of publishing and the new avenues of dissemination of the written word in our burgeoning Information age, even, if as I believe, it is sadly adrift. So I apologize to my readers for trying (in my blog) to make sense of why I am so frustrated about all of this. Too personal (I have learned), no one wants to read about someone else’s gripes. According to the pundits again, readers, like mine, enjoy blogs on parenting, spirituality, books and other recommendations, nature, gardening, meditation and Buddhism, and one of my areas of expertise, the psychology of personality. (I wrote two books on this and have lead many international workshops.)

According to the E-model (the personality paradigm that I use) facing our avoidances is a huge step towards cultivating psychological well being. If you are faced with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.

Let’s examine three common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as pain, not physical pain but emotional and psychological pain. Do you or someone you know avoid dealing with pain? Ways to avoid pain are to push down on it whenever your thoughts enter that territory. Or push away from it, not wanting to engage with the emotions around the source of the pain. You say to whomever wants to talk to you about the stress, “Do you have to go there?” You hide behind emails and avoid conversations. The panacea for pain avoiders is to always have another plan or option in mind that takes them away from the pain and into a pleasant activity or to turn conversations to less stressful encounters.

Another avoidance is failure. The cause of stress is processed as your failure. You are ill because you failed to do enough to stay healthy. Your extended family is in turmoil because you didn’t juggle the pieces well enough to keep relationships running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he found out something about you that you are unaware of about yourself. The panacea for failure avoiders is to only operate in arenas where they can feel successful and win approval. Therefore their resumes shine, they have avoided failure.

A third avoidance is vulnerability. Engaging in stressful situations is dangerous it leaves you vulnerable. You don’t let such situations arise. You exercise control from the get-go. “It’s my way or the highway, baby.” You walk away from stress before it can jump you. Illness? You power your way through with every resource you have, and never trust medical help until you have established control of procedures. The panacea for vulnerability avoiders is confrontation and control, “the bull in the china shop” approach. If everyone is wary of your energy and confrontational anger you are no longer vulnerable.

A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Pain, or Dear Failure, or Dear Vulnerability. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological well being.

In my next blog I’ll look at three more common personality avoidances.

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Yesterday I opened a Twitter account @jlevinegrp.

This is a big step. For months now many of my valued blog readers have asked me if I have a Twitter account so they can become a follower. So now I can shout out, “Yes, I do. Hope to connect with you.” Several factors coincided to move me to act now. The first is already stated. I am so grateful to all my blog readers and those who take the time to leave comments on the blogs. One hundred and ten thousand of you in the last three months! Thank you for being so loyal and proactive. Not all the comments make it onto the blogs, maybe I am too discerning a censor? I approve comments from people who use a personal name (as opposed to a business label), I try to catch and trash all the porn and references to porn, and political or other, propaganda. Unfortunately I can’t approve those in a language other than English (I don’t know what they contain) but do approve the occasional comment in French. If someone left a comment in Afrikaans or Dutch, I can respond to those, too.

Secondly, the pressure and temptation to be a member of a social network is overwhelming. I am a social person, I love forging connections, networking, and as I wrote in a previous blog, we live now largely  in a brave new world on a LCD lit screen that we hold on our hands, balance on our laps or spend hours with on our desks. Addiction, did anyone say the word, addiction? This pressure only increased when recently I received an e-mail from an older friend, whom I mentioned in that same blog as being an unlikely kindle owner, asking me to be her friend on Facebook. This was a revelation to me and I decided (as they say) that I had better get with the program.

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“If only there was a cure for unhappiness.”

The other day someone spoke those words to me accompanied by a heartfelt sigh. Unhappiness is a burden we carry at times and it can be debilitating. Is there a cure? It is easier to contemplate the idea that we cause much of our unhappiness by attaching so much energy and attention to the cause—loss, unwelcome change, illness, our own or that of someone we are close to, disappointment and so on—than to change our state of mind about the situation. Yet change our attitude is exactly what we need to do. As Hamlet in the famous Shakespeare play of the same name says, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Here are some proven “cures.”

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Virginia Woolf said famously in 1928 at Girton when addressing a group of those first women to attend Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, the hallowed sanctum of male intellectual and creative life that helped to ensure male hegemony for the eight hundred preceding years, both in Great Britain and indeed the far-flung British Empire, (and that largely continues today) that if we have “five hundred [pounds] a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”

I was reminded of this sterling essay from one of my favorite thinkers and authors the other night when I attended a showing of a documentary Who Does She Think She is? This is hard-hitting, factual reportage of several outstanding women artists—potters, ceramists, painters, singers, film makers—to honor their creativity while juggling the raising of children, relating to spouses and partners, washing dishes and car pooling, in other words quilting a patchwork life.

The greatest toll on these artists is in relating to their spouses or partners, specifically male, whose expectations are shaped by society and familial expectations that the woman partner support their endeavors artistic or otherwise, and while they support their female counterparts—it is only to a point. Now of course there are variants on these themes but that is the general pattern. Surprisingly male children of these struggling artists—who generate their livelihood from their work primarily to feed their children—support, admire and honor their mothers.

The venue for this showing was a meeting room at a retreat center in suburban Philadelphia where thirty women writers (who are also teachers) were meeting for a weekend retreat of writing, sharing and networking. It was striking to me that the film- maker interviewing a male physician, an ardent feminist himself went on record reminding us that the great women writers and artists of the last one hundred and fifty years—ranging from Emily Dickinson, Colette, Georgia O’Keefe and Woolf herself—did not have children.

In discussion after the showing many participants shared that the struggles we had just witnessed on film still speak strongly to the patterns and events of their current lives. I thought of my life, the first woman in my family to attend university, my two wonderful sons, my political career in South Africa that included elected public office at a young age, my publishing career that began when I was an adolescent and fortunately continues, my love of teaching—but also of my divorce after twenty six years of marriage. I thought of my mother and the women of her generation and the generations that came before her without these opportunities and those women all over the world who struggle daily with this reality. It is my profound belief that we cannot create a “whole” world while more than half of humanity is barely valued and even more rarely acknowledged in public domains—such as that of artistic expression.

I will blog again on my thoughts of this retreat weekend, but now it is time for me to return after a many month hiatus to grapple with my current writing project that is requiring more “freedom and the courage to write exactly what [I] think” than I have experienced before.

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© amazon.com 2011

Many of my readers clamor for another post on Generation E. These are mostly readers who have found the early posts in this web blog on that topic of interest and helpful. One of my students recently read my book The Enneagram Intelligences: Understanding Personality for Effective Teaching and Learning , and found the E-model so intriguing that for a class assignment to create an utopia (after we studied Plato’s The Republic)  this student wrote a short essay on the topic. Here is an excerpt (printed with permission.)

Heptilibrium: A perfect balance of the nine ways to be in the world: Perfectionist, Helper, Performer, Dreamer, Observer, Questioner, Optimist, Boss and Peace Keeper. In order to create the perfect utopia, especially one that accommodates nine different aspects of living, requires a profound and complete educational system. The general principles of education will revolve around the core values of the utopia: equality, compassion, fairness, honesty and trust. Every teacher will be trained in the nine ways to live and with this broad spectrum of knowledge they will teach these principles and values to all students. The nine different ways of learning will be accommodated: every student can explore their own learning style. Students will learn how to compete fairly, treat each other with honesty and respect, and be guided to acquire true knowledge of life. Students will learn compassion and how to care for and be concerned about, others. Exploring various cultures (through the nine lenses) will teach them to forgo racism and respect the differences among people. Students will perceive the world through different perspectives. To elaborate on the core values, everyone is created equal and has equal rights under the law. There is no racism and separatism between the people; everyone is taken care of on an equal basis.

Heptilibrium is governed under the perfect balance of the nine. By forming harmony with nature, different cultures, moral principles and one’s inner self, citizens of Heptilibrium will walk the paths of happiness and live life content with joy while being responsible and upright citizens.

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Below you will find a photo of peonies that bloomed in my garden this morning. For some reason this is a once in three years occurrence so I greet each bloom with excitement. They are among the most beautiful peonies I have seen, and the scent is intoxicating. I have been a gardener for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, I remember my mother at work with her roses, about 50 bushes of various varieties, secateurs in hand as she deadheaded, debudded (to leave only one rose on a stem) and carefully removed aphids and other undesirable pests. My grandfather who spent a third of every year with us always wore a fresh rosebud in the lapel of his suit jacket. When I was an adolescent I was given the rock garden as my provenance and loved to plan and plant and move rocks. My nemesis was the snails who shared my rock garden. Johannesburg, situated on a plateau at 6,00 feet, and with a temperate climate, dry heat and usually reliable summer rain, is an Eden for gardeners. There is one drawback, cyclical drought and with it watering restrictions, so every seven years gardeners watch their hard work, manicured lawns and the beauty they created wither and die. In the suburbs drilling for artesian water sources was a flourishing business.

As a young wife and mother I had first a pocket garden with an almost sub-tropical micro-climate due to a sunny vantage and thick white washed walls. Around giant strelitzes,  avocado and mulberry trees the carefullly designed borders flourished. Later I had almost an acre in which to garden and loved every inch of the rich loam in which whatever I planted grew with vigor and beauty.

When we moved to the Boston area many years ago I had to re-examine everything I had learned about gardening. Our first home was a three hundred year old carriage house set on an acre of land. We had hundred year old giant beeches on the property. The land itself had been neglected for years, but with care and attention a garden will emerge with alacrity from underneath the undergrowth and weeds. As I uncovered flower beds, dug and sowed, the garden returned to some of its previous glory. From spring to autumn we ate fresh produce from the rescued and resuscitated cold frame beds. I planted strawberries around the swimming pool, hosta in the shady areas and a riot of day lilies wherever I could. I learned to accept the cycle of the year, and reluctantly return my gardening tools to their permanent place in the garage each November. Come February the catalogs arrived and soon I would have spindly seedlings growing under lights.

I planted myself in American soil in bringing that garden back to life.

Now I have a much smaller garden again. It is all I want to manage. For me little else in life compares to the satisfaction of caring for a flower bed of rich dark soil where every plunge of the weeding fork or hand spade reveals not only the roots of the weed but wriggling earth worms too. Then you know you have an arable patch and the result is glorious peonies like these.

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