Gut-Level Knowledge: Micro-Worldviews, Attachment Theory and the Enneagram, by Gary David Stratton

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Our largely subconscious values and belief system grows out of our unique life story and profoundly influences our life strategy. Yet it is so deeply tied to our identity it can be extremely difficulty to detect, even in ourselves. Still, it is possible to at least catch a glimpse… if you know where to look.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Gut-Level Knowledge 2As Kevin and Jeannie discovered on their volcanic honeymoon from hell, the story shaping our life at the micro-worldview level is mostly the experiences of our earliest upbringing. The values and beliefs of micro-worldview are normally not the intentional and rational creeds of a macro-worldview:  e.g., the deity of Christ, the tri-unity of God, the dignity and value of all human beings, etc. They are more the gut-level knowledge derived from our childhood experiences.

Gut level knowledge is what psychologist Todd Hall calls Implicit Right Brain Knowledge. It is the nonlinear, nonverbal, and holistic emotional connections that reach back as far as the womb. They are realities so deeply programmed into our psyches that we just know that we know that we know they are true. (Even if, in fact, they are completely inaccurate.)

Gut level knowledge controls many of our actions and relationships because our right brain processes it automatically, immediately, and emotionally without our having to think about it. It is not under the direct control of the intellectual value and belief system in our more explicit and linear left brain system and often undergirds it.

For instance, if your mom affirmed and rewarded you only for being pretty (versus being smart, talented, virtuous, or just for being you), you know “in your gut” that your appearance is the source of your worth and begin to subconsciously develop a life strategy that maximizes your outward appearance.

If your childhood featured an untrustworthy father, you just know “in your gut” that people (or at least men) can’t be trusted. You automatically react with mistrust in most situations and therefore subconsciously develop a set of rules and roles to prevent you from ever having to trust others… including the God of your profess to trust in your macro-worldview.

These unspoken and subconscious values and beliefs grow out of the gut-level knowledge of our unique life story and profoundly influence our outlook and our strategy of life. Jeannie’s conscious mind told her that Kevin was trustworthy, however the gut-level knowledge produced by her story of hidden abuse kept triggering alarms that Kevin was a dangerous intruder. It ruined their honeymoon and nearly ruined their marriage.

What’s worse, Jeannie had no idea why she was responding so negatively to Kevin’s loving advances. That’s the problem with gut-level knowledge. It is so powerful and deeply intertwined with our identity (even when it is wrong) that it is extremely difficulty to detect. Still, detecting it is possible… if you know where to look.

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory BoxesOne helpful tool for exploring how our behavior is impacted by the hidden personal stories in our micro-worldview is the psychological discipline of Attachment Theory. Attachment theory traces how our childhood connection to our parents impacts our adult patterns of connecting to others. If children feel safe and secure with their parents they normally build strong bonds with them.  And if they build strong bonds with their parents, odds are they are going to feel secure enough to build strong bonds with their friends, coworkers, and spouses as well.

If, on the other hand, something has short-circuited our bond with our parents (which is true of many if not most human beings), then we may struggle in our attachments to our friends, spouse, and children in similar ways: Anxious-Ambivalent, Dismissive-Avoidant, Fearful-Avoidant, Preoccupied-Codependent, Secure-Dependent, etc.

Anxious Avoidant Secure

According to attachment theory, children grow into “secure” Connectors only if they develop a healthy view of both themselves and their primary attachment figures. In essence, children need to come out of their childhood with at least two stories functioning in their micro-worldview: 1) “It is safe to for me to autonomous,” and, 2) “It is safe of me to depend upon others.” If you are overly dependent and/or overly independent your value and belief system will inevitably lead to a life strategy subconsciously designed to protect yourself from further harm in line with these powerful internal realities. (Click here to take a Relationship Attachment Style Test.)

Counselors Milan and Kay Yerkovich describe how “For fourteen years our marriage was stuck in the same old frustrating patterns. When we looked at our first lessons in love from our families, we immediately recognized the unseen forces governing how we loved.” Milan and Kay have since identified six types of relational patterns tied to the stories of our life:  Avoiders, Pleasers, Vacillators, Controllers, Victims, and Connectors.

Kevin's MicroworldviewFor instance, Avoiders like Kevin (above), grow up in families who rarely discussed personal problems or negative emotions. Their highest value becomes making others happy and situations peaceful. They therefore make unspoken rules for themselves to avoid conflict, get over things quickly, and never talk about their feelings (even and especially at the expense of honesty and problem solving.) Exploring which relational pattern dominates your life can be extremely helpful in discerning the various levels of your micro-worldview. (Click here to take the How We Love quiz and find out which style fits your worldview.)

Attachment to God

Psychologist Todd Hall takes attachment theory one-step deeper by using it to study the association between human attachment patterns and our attachment to God.  He has identified various types of spiritual attachments functioning in the lives of professing Christians:  Secure and Engaged, Distant yet Engaged, Anxious and Disengaged, Insecure and Disengaged, etc. (See, Five Spirituality Types and College Students.)

For instance, people who are Anxious and Disengaged in their God attachment are highly insecure in their connection to God and therefore moderately low in their spiritual engagement. According to Hall, these people need help “developing what attachment theory calls a secure base; that is, a deep, gut-level sense that God is consistently responsive to their emotional and relational needs.

Other people grow up in families where they felt love and affection from their parents, but their sense of safety and security was somehow compromised due to factors beyond parental control, such as a childhood illness, an injury, a car accident, a house fire, civil unrest, non-parental abuse, parental unemployment, or military deployment, etc.

Such children grow up knowing “in their gut” that the rug can be pulled out from under them at any moment. If the child becomes convinced that that this reality is their fault (and most children normally do), they may develop a micro-worldview value and belief system wherein they have a positive view of God, but a negative view of themselves.

Jeannie's WorldviewThey become preoccupied by their fear that there is something wrong with them that caused God to reject them or they wouldn’t have had to endure this tragedy. And of course, they do everything within their power to develop a life strategy to prevent God from ever rejecting them again. They have a taste for intimacy with God due to their intimacy with their parent(s), but they are convinced that they need to “perform well” or something horrible may happen to them again.

This is the world Jeannie dwells in. Even though her mind has repressed the abuse to protect her soul (for now), she “knows” something is wrong with the world and that it is her fault.  She strives to maintain a life of the “perfect” Christian, seeking God for intimacy all the while fearing that she will do something to cause her world to fall apart again. (To explore further, take The Spiritual Transformation Inventory.) 

The Enneagram

One final tool that often proves helpful in exploring our micro-worldview is known as the Enneagram.  Derived from the Greek words ννέα (‘nine’) and γράμμα (‘written’ or ‘drawn’), the Enneagram catalogs nine basic personality types interrelated to each other by a drawing (See figure below).  Spiritual directors such as Richard Rohr and Don Richard Riso use the Enneagram to marry modern Freudian conceptions of the Ego with the ancient Christian tradition of categorizing types of sin in order to better combat temptation (e.g. “The Logismoi” of Evagrius Ponticus, “The Seven Deadly Sins” of Gregory the Great, etc.) As such, it can greatly help people discover their core false beliefs and strategies.    

Enneagram ChartEach enneagram “type” is marked by a root fear, which gives rise to a primary desire (Value), which in turn makes each type particularly susceptible to certain temptations (Strategies).

For instance, Type 2—Helpers, like Kevin, fear being unloved, and therefore build their value and belief system around being loved at all costs. Their great temptation is to develop a life strategy that either denies their own needs and/or manipulates others to give them the love they feel they’re missing.

Jeannie is a Type 3—Achiever.  Achievers fear worthlessness above all else. They therefore build a value and belief system centered on “success” (however their family, peer group, teachers, coaches, and/or supervisors measure success). Their temptation is build a life strategy of driving themselves to always “be the best” in their chosen fields of achievement, and/or studiously avoiding situations where they might fail. For Jeannie, her Type 3–Achiever pattern focused achieving her idealized checklist for being a perfect Christian and a perfect wife.

Enneagram teachers disagree on the role of Story in the personality types. Some see our personality types as set at birth, so that a Three-Achiever will always end up living a Three-Achiever story. According to this view, the only question is how family/environmental factors determine which areas she will strive to achieve in: violin, cheerleading, football, business, politics, ministry, character, etc.

Other experts assert that our personality Type is often determined by family/environmental factors more in line with the predictions of attachment theory rather than hard-wired at birth. According this view, someone becomes a Three-Achiever when their family gives them more affirmation for their successes than affection for their personhood.

It is easy to see both factors at work in Kevin and Jeannie’s micro-worldviews. Since there is no proven way to extricate these two approaches, it is probably helpful to consider both factors when exploring your own micro-worldview. Plus, to make things even more interesting (and personalized), most people have both a primary and a secondary Enneagram personality type–known as a wing–so there is a lot of room for exploration. (Click here to take a free Enneagram Test.)[1]

The Healing Journey

Dionisio and Paula Pulido survey their once tranquil backyard.
Dionisio and Paula Pulido survey their once tranquil backyard.

Here’s the good news. The Pulidos survived their backyard volcano. Their near-death experience made them mini-celebrities in the scientific community and they lived to a ripe old age far from Parícutin. (Although Dionisio never did put in that fire pit Paula always wanted.)

Even more encouragingly, Kevin and Jeannie survived their honeymoon. In fact, their horrific experience was painful enough to get them to seek the kind of help most couples don’t realize they need until they’ve been married for years. Over time they were able to discern their hidden micro-worldviews, name their backyard volcano, and find healing.

Ten years later they are happily (if not perfectly) married and more madly (and honestly) in love than the day they said their vows. They live with their two children as far from the south of France (and all nude beaches) as they can possibly can.

How is such healing possible?  Well, that will take another series of posts to come.

Next: Why I am Giving Up Prayer for Lent, by Margaret Feinberg

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[1] See also, http://www.eclecticenergies.com/enneagram/test.php and http://www.9types.com/rheti/index.php, or pay for a more reliable full length test at http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/Tests_Battery.asp#FullLengthTests