In the Shadow of Type 4: Ordinariness

ordinary people

ordinary people (Photo credit: wader)

Tap into the psyche of a 4 and you will find a person who sees him or herself as original, aesthetic, self-reflective, deep, sensitive, intuitive, creative, romantic, passionate, expressive, and of course, special. On the face of it, these are some wonderful characteristics to possess, but in fact, they are a lot to handle. 4s want to be understood by others, but at the same time they want to be seen as unique (different from others). This is a set-up for interpersonal conflict.

Riso and Hudson call 4s “deep-sea divers of the psyche.” Of all the types, 4s may be the least suited for or appreciated by current Western culture, which tends to value the quick, the productive, and the superficial. 4s can get so caught up in their inner worlds that other types sometimes wish they would get over themselves and get with the program. Getting with the program, however, is antithetical to 4s, who would rather create their own program, cast aspersions on the current program, or bypass programs altogether.


In The Spectrum of Personality Styles, published in 1996, Jerome Wagner describes the defense mechanism of 4s as introjection, but in the workshop he led at one of the IEA conferences I attended in 2000 or 2001, he identified it as artistic sublimation. Trust 4s to be the only ones with two defense mechanisms.


Instead of simply grieving, letting go of the past, and getting on with your life, you carry your suffering and loss around inside of you. This melancholy is a familiar companion, and it makes you feel special. Yearning and longing are constantly in the background of your experience.

Artistic sublimation:

In order to avoid experiencing the common and ordinary, whenever anything seems bland you turn it into something extraordinary or dramatic.

Both ring true to some extent for the 4s I have known well. But although hanging onto the past and the melancholy it arouses is part of the compulsion for 4s, they are generally aware of and will admit to it. They are much less willing to accept being ordinary. Ordinary is boring, shallow, bland, common, and dull. Ordinary is following the rules. Ordinary is going along with what everyone else is doing. Ordinary is doing things the usual way, meeting other people’s expectations, being just another blip on the radar screen. Same old same old, as my partner, RC–a 4–used to say.

The reality is that no one is completely unique. 4s focus on their uniqueness because everything about them that is ordinary has been consigned to the shadowland.


Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.

–Blaise Pascal

4s’ intense fascination with aesthetics, passion, romanticism, and the contemplation of their inner worlds can sometimes be nothing more than escapism. If they spend enough time in such rarified air, they might be able to convince themselves that those are the things that really matter rather than the mundane things everyone else is concerned with. But this not only distances them from other people, it actually distances them from themselves—at least from the parts of themselves they don’t want to acknowledge.


In The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Riso and Hudson suggest 4s develop routines:

Set up positive, constructive routines for yourself. Fours tend to wait for inspiration to strike, but inspiration has a better chance of getting through to you if your daily schedule and living space are arranged in ways that support your creativity, your physical and emotional health, and above all your active engagement with the world. In your case, a little structure can go a long way in freeing up your creativity.

This seems like excellent advice. In fact, all of the healthy 4s I’ve known have followed it, and as a result, have been more productive and have seemed happier than the ones who haven’t. Routines can be grounding for 4s, creating a kind of interface with the external (commonplace) world and the people who live in it.

Routines are also a way for 4s to recognize their own ordinariness and to intentionally be ordinary, thereby lightening the load of their very heavy shadow.


10 responses to “In the Shadow of Type 4: Ordinariness

  1. I enjoy your posts. And it’s true that 4s may be the least suited of all types to our productivity-oriented, superficial, happy-face Western culture. But I take issue with some of this discussion.

    Your comment “trust 4s to be the only ones with two defense mechanisms” feeds the already-existing negative stereotype of 4s. As does your comment that the though characteristics of 4s may seem like nice ones on the face of it, they’re actually a lot to handle. Ditto for the idea that instead of “simply grieving, letting go of the past, and getting on with” our lives, we prefer to carry our suffering around with us because it makes us feel special.

    I understand how difficult it can be to understand—really understand—the way others approach life. But negative judgments and stereotypes constrict the world rather than expand it.

    Eighteen months after stoically making my way through the horrors of a cancer diagnosis, major surgery and chemotherapy, I’m dealing with the reality of PTSD. People are suggesting I simply need to choose to let it go (and implying that, should I be unsuccessful with letting it go, I’m enjoying hanging on to it.) I’m not enjoying it. PTSD is real unpleasant, and, no matter what our type, properly dealing with grief can’t be approached and finished on command. If only life were as tidy and simple as that.

    It is true that 4s don’t generally like to have to put on smiley faces when we don’t feel them, and that we’re more comfortable than most types with life’s inherent sadness. But does this need to be portrayed as a negative thing? Can the world not embrace more than one way of being without judging those ways we don’t understand? Why are those among us who are less afraid to be emotionally honest viewed as “a lot to handle”, or as hanging on to our grief because it makes us feel special?

    • Hi, Connie,

      I’m sorry I struck such a nerve with you with this post. Some of it is meant tongue-in-cheek, but I can see how that may not come across. And let me say, too, that the world would be a damned sorry place without 4s in it.

      I’m also sorry I didn’t respond to your post about the culture of positivity, which is still sitting, red-flagged, at the top of my email inbox–because it really resonated for me. I read “Bright Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich last year and have been recommending it to everyone. And I just started “The Van Gogh Blues” by Eric Maisel. He makes a direct connection between creative types–many of whom are 4s–and depression as a result of their search for meaning. I would really like to know what your take is on that.

      Each type has something extremely valuable to contribute to the rest of us, but it’s all too easy to get lost in whatever that is–to lose our very selves in it–and then it becomes a prison. From reading your posts, I’d say you are more self-aware than most people and not in danger of losing yourself. However, there are 4s who do hang on to the past and to their grief about the past, ruminate over it, and refuse to let it go. There’s a broad range of behavior from self-aware to self-deluded among each of the types.

      As for the phrase “a lot to handle,” I meant that all those characteristics I listed can be a lot to handle for 4s–especially in the Western world. That seems reflected in some of the experiences you have written about.

      Would you consider writing a guest post for Nine Paths from a 4’s perspective–on the topic of your choice?

  2. Thanks, and you don’t need to apologize; I just wanted to add my perspective to the discussion. And thanks for clarifying about 4s being “a lot to handle.” It can be a lot to handle, for us and for others, especially in our modern world, which values bubbly happy exteriors and many other traits potentially antithetical to 4s—it’s just that I weary of and am sensitive to other types (not you, as you’ve clarified), suggesting 4s are hard for the world to handle, while their types are nothing but delightful. ☺

    Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright Sided” resonated with me too, especially of course her chapter on cancer—very much so. It was a stark contrast to what is communicated by cancer professionals and basically almost everyone, everywhere. I’ll have to check out “The Van Gogh Blues”, after which I’d be happy to offer my take on it.

    I’m aware that our personalities can become a prison—all of ours. I guess my complaint sometimes is that, being self-aware and honest about the shape of my own prison, so many are quick to agree that I have indeed allowed a prison, while they carry on blissfully and self-righteously unaware of their own prison. (Or often, that they don’t have a type, because typing in itself, they say, is a prison.)

    I’d be honored to write a guest post for Nine Paths from a 4’s perspective—just as soon as I get inspired, of course. ☺ (Be in touch.)

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  5. Another thing I’ve noticed is the special friendships I have with fellow 4s

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