"I have personally witnessed the effect of self-awareness training on the incarcerated. I KNOW in my heart this is the only path for all of us, as a collective society that wants a better future for all involved."
— Susan Olesek, Enneagram Teacher, Founder, EPP
When I was five years old, my three siblings and I left our dinner on the table and followed the sound of my father’s scream downstairs. We stopped short at the scene of my mother’s suicide. The night she hung herself, my mom must have decided that her life had no worth, and I decided, as a child does, that my mother’s decision was because of me. I would spend the next three decades of my life telling myself versions of, “If I was good enough, horrible things wouldn’t happen.” Living under the habitual obligation to improve myself — ran me like a junkie. This became my own personal prison.
In my 20s, I married, had my first son, (and then a second and a third) and promptly put myself in a parenting class that introduced me to something called “The Enneagram.” An incisive psychological tool, the Enneagram is taught at places like Stanford and Harvard. It showed me that people’s neurological organization is so patterned that we are actually predictable. Like a “map” of ego-structures; this curious, nine-pointed diagram pointed out the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies all of us use to survive our childhoods.
Reluctantly, I recognized myself as a Type 1, also called “the Perfectionist, the Reformer,” whose pattern it is to suppress anger, and to reframe it into something more appropriate. Utopian at heart, Type 1s forget that our “goodness” is inherent, not earned, and we set standards, for ourselves and others, that leave us eternally idealistic but chronically frustrated. For the first time, I understood that the contempt I held for myself was directly connected to my fury at the world for abandoning me, when my mother disappeared from my life. I could temporarily suppress my outrage by staying above and beyond my own reproach until my own ego caught up to me with its self-critical judgment and seething resentments. There was nothing “wrong” with me, it turns out, just an intelligent response to a massive hurt and a fierce compulsion to avoid it.
Slowly I began to realize, that in nine different ways, we all come to suffer that we’re “not enough” — not good enough, not helpful, successful, unique, masterful, loyal, happy, powerful or loved enough. This, is the human condition. I wish I could tell you, “that’s when I became enlightened,” but, I would not find any lasting reprieve from my inner critic until 10 years later when I found myself in a little Texas prison, as a newly certified Enneagram teacher, face-to-face with 100 men who were in for everything from drug dealing to murder. I was hired to teach something that I believed, but had yet to really learn, “That we are all in a prison of our own making in the way that we suffer our personalities.”
I spent months stressing myself about the men I would meet, projecting myself right onto “them” - imagining that they would be too broken, too defended, too angry to “get it.” The US prison system provided me a convenient metaphor for my own “shadow side,” where I could unconsciously take the things I could not stand in myself, and dump them onto a whole population of already hurting people; but I wouldn’t get away with that for long. The men I met behind bars were nothing like I imagined. They were so grateful that someone came, and they were starving to know the truth about themselves. I was shocked by their transparency, by what they admitted they had done, and by what they shared had happened to them in childhood.
As I stood before dozens of men in blue uniforms, who reminded me of my own children, a little part of me sat among them with her arms folded, foot tapping, waiting for those tough guys to find their vulnerability, waiting for them to drop their defenses...and then they did, and I suddenly found myself up against my own ego structure in ways that I did not anticipate. And I did not like.
Sitting with people at the unhealthy rock bottom of themselves as we found our breath and located an inner witness to ourselves — in a place like prison — was a miracle, because, their practices of self-sabotage, self-abandonment, and self-hatred, I sheepishly realized, were also mine. Years of therapists and healers, workshops and self-help books could not rival the extraordinary journey inward I received teaching in that prison, with those men, over the next four years. I saw that my story of being “not good enough” was a tired one, and what a fraud I would would be if I refused to take my own teaching, the teachings of the Enneagram, to heart. Right in front of me, I watched as those hurting men began to wake up to themselves, and as they did, they literally held space for me to do the same.
Traditionally, the Enneagram has been taught in privileged, white, esoteric circles, but it has always been meant for everyone. In 2012, I founded a nonprofit called, “Enneagram Prison Project” in order to bring this self-awareness tool to the people who seemed to need it the most. Together with a small, but dedicated team, we have been teaching the Enneagram in California at progressive facilities in San Mateo and Santa Clara county jails, and at San Quentin State Prison. People told us, “You can’t teach the Enneagram ‘to them,’ they’ll manipulate you.” But, that’s not what happens. I’ll tell you what does. When we give people an incisive psychological tool and the loving support they need to unpack what has happened to them, those who have been practically thrown away, warehoused — who have all but discarded themselves— do what hardly anyone believes is even possible; they begin to heal.
Historically in the US, our approach to correcting bad behavior has been to punish. But punishment alone doesn’t work. We know this because we saw a 700% increase in incarceration in this country over 30 years. Nearly one in 100 Americans is behind bars, and 67% of them will return to prison within three years. We have been “tough on crime,” and waged a “war on drugs,” but the human beings targeted in our campaigns are already among the most hurting members of our society… We put them in prisons more destructive than the lives they were living, and then hate them for not changing when they get out.
Every one of the women in our maximum security classes has been raped, many before age 10. Most of the men in custody have lost their fathers, through violence, abandonment, death, or incarceration before they were even teens. Sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, for both the men and the women, is so normalized that our students are highly detached in listing off tortures they’ve lived through. AND 91% of the inmates where we program are in for drug-related crimes.
Dr. Gabor Maté, the Canadian-Hungarian physician who specializes in addiction says the most pressing question: “...is not (why) the addiction,” but rather “...but why the pain?”
Our system is broken and so are the people in it.
Author Henry Cloud said, “We begin to change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.”
We have come by our reputation as the country that incarcerates more people than any other nation by perpetuating a system that has long since failed those it aims to “correct.” We need to hold people compassionately culpable for what has gone wildly wrong — on both sides of the bars: for those locked up in our correctional system, and for those running it. But, we cannot change what we cannot see. We have to be willing to take a look at what is actually, really going on, “on the inside.” On the inside of our jails and prisons, on the inside of our family systems, and inside of ourselves.
A man named John self-selected into our eight-week class at the jail 18 months ago, tatted up, buffed up, awaiting court, and looking at some serious time. He picked a type overnight with an Enneagram book in his cell: Type 3, “the Performer, the Achiever,” and he got to work on himself immediately. Type 3s are known for their hustle, for being “the best,” for being successful, but John owned the hardest side of his type: the chameleon-like deceit, a violent aggression for anyone who busted his self-image, and the tough mask he wore — all of which, we helped him to realize, were his good cover for a very hurting heart.
For John, prison started in utero. He was born to a coke-addicted mother and a father who showed up to beat his family and have sex with his mother in front of the kids. Little John protested by “ruining his mom’s high” every chance he got, hiding her drugs, being a disruption, starving for attention. When John was four years old, his pregnant mom went to prison and John went to foster care when he was violently and repeatedly raped, for years,he was beaten often until he was hospitalized.
When his mother was finally released, John was returned to her care, so full of rage and hate that he could barely contain himself. When he was nine, he found Mom’s sack of crystal meth and instantly escaped his “childhood.” When he was 12, John came upon his father beating his mother nearly to death. In her defense, he saw red and put his dad in a six-month coma with a baseball bat. John was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and was locked up in “juvie” until he was 18.
Our ability to hold ourselves together when things outside of us are falling apart is learned in childhood; how much presence we can tolerate is directly related to the relationship to nurture we had when we were small. For John, nurture was nonexistent, the scariest part of his childhood was his own parents. Under that kind of terror, the reptilian brain signals us to fight, to flee, or to freeze; it’s the only guardian we have, the only thing we come to trust.
We teach students like John that his childhood was not his fault.
As the famous English Psychologist D.W. Winnicott said, “There are things that happen in childhood that should never happen. And, there are things that should have happened, that never did."
Things like basic nurturing and loving. But, we also teach, that the holding he did not receive is something he could learn to do for himself, now. We taught him of the intelligence behind his instinct to fight to survive, to be seen, of the radiance we could still see in him, and that his capacity to be as whole as he hopes to become is undiminished. Then we watched as tears filled his eyes and John set a goal to transform his life.
I founded Enneagram Prison Project on a leap of faith, believing that, if people could just see their patterns of personality they would be freed to make new choices. but over eight years I’ve learned from the best teachers in the field that this is only partially true. Learning the personality pattern is a big piece of the puzzle. Trauma resolution and recovering the emotional losses of childhood are the others. Adverse childhood experiences can impair the very architecture of the brain with negative effects that last a lifetime.
Actually, a prison made for us in childhood is not our choice at all. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma experts says: “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on...as if every new encounter … is contaminated by the past.” Our work is about helping people to excavate the highest parts of themselves from the lowest places in their past.
We need prisons. John posed a real threat to society and needed to be contained; I’ve had many people tell me that going to prison saved their life. But, John was not born violent or evil, no child is.” Human beings do not come into the world as murderers and rapists, home invaders and gang leaders, addicts and thieves, these roles are fostered inside families. Where were we when John was only four-years-old?
How we live out our adulthoods is ultimately, our responsibility, but, we all need to come clean to our own negligence in failing to give children the chance they deserve to ever learn how. What we do with human beings once they end up in our custody, in our “care,” is our responsibility.
Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist said that for people to grow they need to be held in “unconditional positive regard.”
The women and men in custody where we work are not allowed to even allowed to hug. When people are first booked into custody, they’re placed in a cold, concrete room called a “holding tank.” People can spend all day there and entire lifetimes in prison without a single human being ever helping them to understand how to hold their pain. Imagine if the “correctional system” added “healing” to its charter. What if we all start asking because we all start caring, “What happened to you, that led you here? Tell us about your childhood.”
John has been sent to prison and is scheduled to get out in 2036. How the years he already served in his persecuted childhood do not somehow “count” in his overall sentencing is confounding. John has a one-year-old daughter and will experience her entire childhood from behind bars. When he heard the prison door clang closed behind him, he fell to his knees and sobbed, thinking he would lose his mind, but then he heard a little voice in his head say... “Can you be okay?” and in the most counter-instinctual move of his lifetime, John sat down in his cell and took a breath.
The people we least expect to change are waking up to the pain inside of themselves, ending generational cycles of incarceration one person, one pod, one correctional facility at a time. The rest of us need to wake up, too. Impacting the pattern of this epic proportion requires a radical, paradigm shift in consciousness, a shift in caring. Self-scrutiny must happen on both sides of the bars. We need not insist that the most hurting members of our society bear the brunt of our collective healing. Actually, the incarcerated are among the most powerful, willing agents for transformation that exist.
On a spiritual level, this healing lifts the collective, but in the most practical sense, “their” healing is for the protection of our society as a whole. The way “they went in” was bad enough, EPP’s loving application of the Enneagram system gives people the choice to leave prison better off than where they started. We all benefit from this kind of expansion, and I know now, without a doubt, that “they” are the ones who deserve it.