Robin Williams and the Sadness of Sevens

Robin Williams’ suicide has stirred a tremendous outpouring of love and sadness from millions who’ve been entertained by him.

Robin_Williams-EsquireHe’s long been the poster-child of Ennea-type Seven – the Enthusiast – the high energy, gregarious, optimistic, fun loving life of the party. At their best Sevens brim with a radiant joy that touches on the divine, energizing everyone they meet, making them glad to be alive.

He burst into the world of stand-up as a whirling dervish of jokes, impressions, characters and improvisational tangents – serving as a prime example of Sevens’ quick-mindedness, easily connecting one thing with another, enjoying the thrill of the high speed ride. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t write down his material, and early in his career his manager hired a court stenographer to transcribe an audio recording of him on stage, which he then used that to help build a consistent set.

Sevens are egalitarians. Williams spoke to minor cast members in films and up and coming comedians with no condescension. And he played local comedy clubs wherever he was filming, no matter how small or seemingly beneath his fame-scale.

But beneath the lightness of Sevens is a whole lot of pain and anxiety, unseen by many, and sometimes very powerfully kept from the Seven’s own awareness.

Robin-WilliamsA Seven’s basic fear, as described in The Wisdom of the Enneagram, is to be deprived and trapped in pain. This fear would have no purchase on a Seven’s soul if they weren’t already in pain at some deep level.

Stress and pain activate compulsions in every type, and the particular strategy of Sevens is enjoyment and distraction. This can come in the form of travel, of a busy social calendar, and in some cases, substance abuse.

Williams famously struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse for years, and underwent treatment. He readily talked about his excesses in his comedy, but never talked about the pain that lay at the root of his addictions.

Speaking of the very candid Richard Pryor, Williams once said: “He has this incredible ability to recognize the most basic human truths, to talk about deep-seated fears. I’ve never been able to talk personally about things…. That’s such a Pandora’s Box. Once you open it, can you deal with it?”

The ability to own up to our pain and sit with it is challenging for any type, but it’s a particular hurdle for Sevens. Their quick-minded approach can treat a surface encounter with their pain as having “gone there” when in fact there’s a great deal more personal work to do and profound, powerful sadness to experience and finally purge.

As Russ Hudson said in a post about Williams, and depression: “What does not help are exhortations to ‘cheer up’ and ‘get over it,’ to just ‘think positively,’ etc. Such suggestions when a person is in the grips of depression actually heighten the sense of being broken, flawed, and not worth saving, because at such times the individual WANTS to be free of their dark thoughts and moods with all of their soul but feels unable to do so.”

Robin-Williams-robin-williams-23183012-2000-1330A Seven is in a particular bind when facing depression. The protective mechanism of their personality chastises them to get over it and move on to something enjoyable. And if they do, their true pain remains, all the more powerful for being invisible.

I don’t know enough about Williams life to even hazard a guess as to where his pain came from. I wish he’d been willing to talk about it in his stand-up. I’m sure he would have provided a helpful light to millions who struggle with depression and addiction. And he’d have certainly found a way to bring even the darkest exploration around to a funny place.

His succumbing to the sadness inside can act as a invitation to all of us to be willing to open our Pandora’s Box. To do so isn’t to chain yourself to a ten ton millstone of pain and deprivation for the rest of your life. We’re already chained. Taking a long, honest look at our pain is the first step toward picking the lock.

2 thoughts on “Robin Williams and the Sadness of Sevens

  1. Melanie

    This is a great post! I especially like the invitation to open the Pandora’s Box. The phrase “we are already chained” has such a deep ring of truth. This takes courage for anyone but even more so for a seven who expends tremendous energy avoiding pain. Thanks for the food for thought.

    1. TJ Dawe Post author

      Thanks so much Melanie. A deeper layer to the Enneagram is that every one of us is suffering from a break from union with the infinite. Our personalities are strategies that try to achieve the particular aspect of Being that our type is most sensitive to. And these strategies work, to a certain extent, for a while. Ultimately though, any external thing, whether it’s a career achievement, the esteem of others, material acquisition, thrilling experiences – these are all shadows of what we really seek. They don’t truly satisfy. The fact that so many famous and successful artists seem unable to enjoy the fruits of their successes pays eloquent testament to that.


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