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The Fullness of Midlife

"Our best hope is to understand both our strengths and our limitations."

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Valerie Atkin with Dr. Barb

Valerie AtkinBefore founding Wells Street, Val Atkin held a variety of positions including Organizational Analyst at DuPont, Manager of Development at Stauffer Chemical, National Accounts Manager at Zenger Miller, and Regional Vice President at MOHR Development. She has served as Marketing Chair on the International Enneagram Association Board of Directors, the president of the University of Michigan Museum of Art Friends Board, and vice president of the Saugatuck Douglas Historical Society. Through Wells Street Consulting, Val works with companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions to help individuals and teams meet their potential and find satisfaction in their work together.

Dr. Barb: Today we’re in conversation with Val Atkin, who through her company Wells Street Consulting has worked since 1990 with major companies, universities, and non-profits. Her work with them is “focusing on the human side of enterprise,” helping both individuals and teams engage and grow. Welcome Val!

Val: Thank you.

Dr. Barb: So you’ve used a range of models, I understand, in your consulting work over the years. Today we’d like to talk specifically about the Enneagram. It keeps coming up in conversations and for those of us who haven’t been introduced to the tool, can you help explain it?

Val: Yes. I’ve been working with the Enneagram for over ten years. And for me it is the single most useful interpersonal and intrapersonal decoder. Essentially what it does is lay out nine different world views, which help us see both our focus of attention and our underlying motivation. Other systems tend to focus on specific behavior or cognitive preferences. The Enneagram helps us understand what holds that behavior or preference in place. It’s a deeper tool that allows us to understand, you know, both ourselves and others.

Dr. Barb: So would knowing my Enneagram type help me understand myself and how I might want to make changes? Or, how would the discovery of one of those nine aspects improve my function or functionality in my own work or work amongst others?

Val: The Enneagram above all, is a system that engenders compassion for ourselves and for others. Once we are able to identify what our core type or style is, we can begin to amplify the positive aspects of that style and also begin to address some of the limitations of that style. Understanding your style is the first step. I often joke that it’s the ticket into the carnival, but it doesn’t get you on any rides. [laughs] Once you understand your style, you know how to enter the system, and then the system becomes very dynamic in terms of showing you ways in which you can address the limitations of your particular style.

Dr. Barb: So your work with this approach is primarily to help individuals function better with their co-workers? Again, help me understand how it’s going to optimize functioning for me to understand which category my co-worker might fall into and how I might best work alongside them? Or helping me understand how to do my work more successfully in the midst of other types?

Val: So, yes, both. [laughs] Both of those. Relative to your own work, it does give you a path and a direction, so for instance. I am an Enneagram Type 3 and my focus of attention is always drawn to getting things done. Accomplishing things, being “successful” based on how I determine that. And so, I end up doing more than I should be doing, and have to constantly remind myself, that there are things that either don’t have to be done or might best be done by others. Once I landed on understanding my type, I began to see why I function out of impatience often. Because I am a bionic multi-tasker and most other people are not.

Much of the challenge or conflict in our lives arises from differences in personality versus content.So it gives me that understanding into my own inclinations. It is also, just a magnificent tool for working with others. In the consulting work that I do with others, there are times when I’ll be called in when two people are in conflict, and if I understand their Enneagram Style in advance, I can sit down with them, and I’ve done this dozens of times. And I’ll say, “Before you tell me any of the content associated with this disagreement. Let me just explain to you how your individual styles might just create friction together.” And I’ll lay out what the Styles are, and where, places where they might have tension or conflict. Every single time I’ve done it, people go, “We don’t need to tell you any more. That’s it.”  So we begin to see that much of the challenge or conflict in our lives arises from difference in personality versus content. And we tend to focus on the content and not the perspective or worldview we bring to the conversation.

Dr. Barb: And Is it possible that a type might change over their careers or life?

Val: There’s great debate about whether you are born into a certain Style or you—it develops early. You know, we can debate that all day long. When I teach the Enneagram, I’ll often ask people, who has two or more children and how long it took them to figure out that the second one was different than the first one.

So we know that each of them come to us with a lot of predetermined elements and I would argue that your Enneagram Style is something you are born with. We do know that it does not change over your lifetime. That does not mean that there aren’t opportunities to incorporate the attributes of other styles. Often we will carry attributes of our parents, it’s called a parental overlay. My mom was an Enneagram Six and was a world class worrier. I take a lot of that on. I can hear her voice.

Our best hope is to understand both our strengths and our limitations.Our best hope is to understand both our strengths and our limitations. The beauty of the Enneagram is that it does point us in a direction, so that as the system, if you look at an Enneagram symbol, it’s interesting, because people look at it and think, “what is that?” It’s basically a nine pointed diagram. Ennea is nine in Greek and gram is diagram, so that’s the secret. But it also shows you how the styles are linked and where one can look for specific ideas and directions on how to grow and how to best compensate for the limitations of their style. And that’s where it has its real value. You can in a four-hour session, or reading one book, gain a lot. You can also study the Enneagram for a lifetime. I literally have studied it for over ten years, I’ve attended and spoken at conferences internationally, and I still feel like I learn every time I read another book or gather with my local Enneagram colleagues and peel the onion further.

Enneagram diagram

Dr. Barb: Well, I did the testing for myself in advance. And I wasn’t surprised at the outcome, I wouldn’t choose that if I got to pick from those nine types [laughs]. It wouldn’t be the one I might have preferred to be, but I also wasn’t surprised at the outcome. And it’s always interesting to me how answering, I don’t know, were there 60 questions maybe about preferences, just takes you to the essence of who you are.

Val: Indeed, indeed. And that exploration, there are a variety of ways to understand your Style. There are online tests, some of which, one of which is particularly good and some of which are pretty good, and some of which aren’t all that great. My bias about any test, regardless of its validity, is that it’s far better at helping you understand the styles you aren’t, than the one that you are.

There are a couple of elements that allow you to know you’ve arrived home. One is what I will call the “duh factor.” You sort of read the focus of attention or the worldview and you go, “Well, of course.” But the other one that is perhaps more telling, is what I refer to as the “ick factor.” So, to your point, there’s always some part of it where you go, “Oh, I wouldn’t pick that, but that really is true.” [laughs] “I do go there.”

It’s easy to be mistyped. I spent quite a bit of time believing I was a Seven, I even had a couple of very skilled Enneagram teachers believe that I was a Seven. And over about a three month period of study, it became really clear to me that I’m more of a Three with some inherent ADD, but not a Seven, even though I really wanted to be a Seven, because it seemed a whole lot better than—as you said, parts of the style that you identify with and don’t particularly like.

Dr. Barb: So in my day-to-day work, I’m focused on women in midlife, and I think that the data would suggest that stress is often an issue for women at this stage and our challenge—we are challenged by a lot of different responsibilities involving family and career, maybe challenging relationships. Is there any way to help navigate particularly challenging times of life and integrating the Enneagram in being successful in moving through that?

Does this have to be done right now? Does it have to be done by me?...Val: For me, it’s when I came to the Enneagram, so I was at midlife. While I wished that I had learned about it far earlier, particularly when I was raising my kids, it was of such value to me at that point. It helps us take responsibility for the rationalizations and the decisions we’ve been making. So, for instance, I mentioned my addiction to doing as a Three, and it helped me put together actually, a protocol as I was taking care of my parents and still raising my kids. And what I found myself doing, is when I felt compelled to do, I would ask myself a series of questions, and the first is: Does this have to be done right now? Does it have to be done by me? Who should be doing this? And does it have to be done at all? What would happen if it’s done later or not at all? And it helped me awaken from autopilot, where I would just sort of jump in, take over, and manage it all, which you know, when I think about my female friends, it’s something we all fall prey to.

Dr. Barb: Yes, that sounds magnificent! It—we can all relate to what you’ve just stated. And to think that there’s a model in place that could help us be more successful in navigating some of these roadblocks we’re either coming up against, or will be coming up against, seems like a great place to invest some time and energy.

I’m curious as to answering those questions you just posed, did you ask them mostly because you had other family members who were also involved and you were trying to improve the outcome, because it involved others? Or was it more a self reflection that allowed you to be successful?

Val: You know, I think it was probably a combination of both. The Enneagram helped me really own the extent to which I had trained everyone around me to look to me to be in charge. I know my dad was having surgery and I had broken my ankle and literally couldn’t walk. And my sister was, “You need to get down here!” And my initial reaction was frustration, and then I thought, I have totally trained my family that I’m the Red Cross, and when something happens, I fly in with donuts and blankets and take care of it. [laughs] And it wasn’t them, it was me.

And for the first time I stepped back and she and my brother and I really negotiated how we were going to care for my dad and we became this—our relationship strengthened and deepened through our ability to collaborate in taking care of him for the next few years to the end of his life. None of that would have happened if I’d stayed in my entrenched pattern of, you know, being “Master of the Universe.”

Dr. Barb: Yeah, that’s an interesting concept as to understanding yourself and seeking ways to improve or change, but then needing to take those who are close to you along with you in that journey.

We can respect each other's strengths but also know we can compensate for each others's limitations.Val: Yeah, I see it very much in my relationship with my husbandish, as I refer to him. He is an Enneagram Nine with a very strong influence from One—we call it having a Wing. So you have your dominant style, and then you’re influenced significantly by one of the contiguous styles. So, for him, he is a Nine with a One Wing, which means he’s very linear and very perfectionistic. He’s an architect. I couldn’t be more opposite on every dimension. [laughs] A global thinker and it’s like, this is good enough. And we joke about the fact that we can either take those respective strengths and cross our swords and be better, or we can kill each other [laughs]. Those are our choices. But, it’s been so helpful to me, we’re in the process of designing and building a house, and I don’t think it would go as well if we weren’t able to take into this process our—and respect each other’s strengths but also know that we can compensate for each other’s limitations. 

Dr. Barb: Well, I was going to ask about marriage and how this might apply to marriage. Obviously you have just sort of outlined that close personal relationship with a significant other or spouse. I’m just curious, how well do you think I could identify one of those nine types as my spouse? Without him taking the test.

Val: Yeah, you know if you learn the system well enough, the styles begin to really show. I have gotten pretty good at identifying at least within two or three what most people are. It is also one of the warnings. If the Enneagram came with instructions and warnings, the warning would be: Be very, very careful about typing other people. You know, there are some Enneagram teachers that will talk about politicians or famous people and what their style is. For me, it is totally an inside job. Only you can determine truly what your style is. And, one of the best ways to annoy someone is to go, “Ugh, you are such a Seven.” Or, you are… There are a number of ways that couples can explore this terrain, but it’s best if there can at least be some effort on the other person, be it a spouse or child or friend, to self-identify.

Dr. Barb: How does a person go about finding out about their Enneagram number? And what would you recommend for those who have an interest in learning more about this model?

Val: There are, as I said, some great—Google is a wonderful resource and there are just a whole host of wonderful resources online. The Enneagram Institute and The Enneagram Worldwide are the two largest schools and in my mind have the most credible information. Although, the testing on those sites is not something that I think is as effective as it might be elsewhere.

There are a couple of wonderful books. One of my favorite books is called, The Enneagram Made Easy. The Enneagram Made Easy was written by a woman named Liz Wagele, who sadly passed away last year. It is full of cartoons and fabulous information. I’ve used it with senior executives; it’s just an easy welcoming portal into this system. And in the beginning of each of the sections it lists twenty questions, which help you begin to refine, does this feel like me or not?

The other significant element is, at the back portion of it compares the Enneagram to Myers-Briggs, which is another system that many folks are familiar with. If you really want to know the system, the best book out there that I believe is written by a colleague of mine, Beatrice Chestnut, and it’s called, The Complete Enneagram. If you’re someone who is, the Enneagram has spiritual roots, and many, many—it was literally introduced into the United States by the Jesuits, and it has a number of churches do work with the Enneagram and there’s a great book called The Road Back to You, which is a more spiritual or religious version. It’s used extensively in corporations, in schools, in the government; it’s really beginning to grow in its use and exposure.

Dr. Barb: Thanks, Val, for your time today and in helping understand more about the Enneagram. My profession and my job, as I do it today is, looking at some potential transitions with staffing and models of how we practice and I look forward to maybe exploring this to maybe be more successful in making transitions that are approaching. I’ll be interacting with other individuals and I think this provides an interesting platform for insight for more success.

Val: Absolutely! It is the best guide I know to discover individual possibilities and the possibilities that exist between couples, families, or teams.

Dr. Barb: So, where do you find richness at this stage of your life, Val?

How do I want to spend myself today?

Val: You know, I—my parents passed away a few years ago, and it was before my granddaughters were born. I had a period of a couple of years without all the other distractions and demands and I jokingly refer to it as my “grown-up junior high period.” But it did give me a chance to sort of step back and take a look at the type of life I want to lead.

I literally, every morning at this point, wake up and ask myself how I want to spend myself today. I’m involved with a circle of women in Traverse City; I’m moving up to Suttons Bay, and our focus is just that. We meet monthly and we really dive into: where do we find richness, what do we want this last third of our life to look like? And, so for me, honestly, it is through the company of my children and the company of women that I’m finding more and more richness every day.

Dr. Barb: Well, I’m heartened to hear that. It sounds like it’s been a great journey, and that you’ve got some exciting new horizons ahead.

I know I don't know what's going to happen.Val: Absolutely! I have a couple of friends who have said, “Oh my God, you’re going to do that? You don’t know what’s going to happen!” And I said, “You know, the only difference is, I know I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I think we can get caught in this false sense of security that, by trying to keep things exactly the same, there will be some static nature to life, and we all know that that’s not the case. So, being fluid and flexible and more and more as I don’t have the responsibilities as I used to, it’s a real gift.

Dr. Barb: Well those are great words to part with. Thanks again for your time today, Val.




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