By Susan Olesek with Elam Chance
A Look into the Enneagram Prison Project
Thirty-seven years ago my mother took her life and my world turned upside down. I would spend the next thirty years telling myself some version of "...if I was better, bad things wouldn't happen." Little did I know that a roomful of supposed “hardened criminals,” in a little Texas prison, would be the ones to school me in self-acceptance. Over the years, my early childhood trauma translated into an unconscious obligation to improve myself, and the world, enough so that I might be deserving of a place in it. This became my own personal prison. It was in working with 100 incarcerated men using the Enneagram – a psychological system that explains why we do what we do with astonishing precision – when I began to recall that self-worth is inherent, not earned. The experience would change the personal and professional trajectory of my life forever.
“Teach what you need to learn,” the saying so aptly goes. The Enneagram describes the nine different habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving to which all of us revert when we forget ourselves, or what we call our “true nature.” For over a decade, before “going to prison,” I used the Enneagram to identify and come to terms with so many ways in which I had hurt myself, and people dear to me, by carrying around unconscious, self-sabotaging beliefs. Ironically, however, before I even arrived, I found myself projecting my latent lack of self-worth all over the class of men who had self-selected into the program. In the anxiety of feeling “not good enough,” so characteristic of my own Type 1 personality, I imagined that I would be too white, too female, too educated, and too inexperienced a teacher to make a difference.
Instead, I experienced a profound appreciation for my visits by the incarcerated and their own genuine curiosity to self-reflect. In fact, they took a collective leap of faith and did the vulnerable work of lowering the defenses they’d so carefully honed prior to being imprisoned. These “students” taught me that people who happened to be behind bars were able – and willing - to take a hard look at themselves. While acting out the “fixated” version of their personality types, a majority had somehow retained the belief that they, too, were more than the behaviors that had gotten them locked up.
Among the first students I met on the inside was a man to whom my family and I would become deeply connected in the years that would follow; his name is Elam Chance. As a Type 7, Elam drives from an unconscious worldview that says: “I need to be free.” Given this belief, his default survival-strategy – better known as “personality” – is to avoid painful circumstances, at any cost. For Elam, the freedom he sought started with “smoking weed with the cool kids” and quickly turned to partying, not paying parking tickets, avoiding warrants and eventually running a fast-and-furious life of drugs and alcohol.
Despite having spent three, nearly consecutive terms in the Texas correctional system, however, Elam had yet to connect the dots between how his personality contributed to his incarceration and subsequent recidivism. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to change, he absolutely did. But, in the U.S., the incarcerated are not given adequate tools to understand why they did what they did, and when I met Elam on the inside, he was furiously frustrated with himself.
Elam began applying the Enneagram to his self-discovery with an alacrity that literally stopped him in his tracks. In so doing, he developed the capacity to do what hundreds of inmates (indeed, many of us) rarely choose to do – change. Along the way, he found a freedom, unlike anything he’d known before or since. In February of 2013, after serving nearly a third of his life behind bars, Elam was released from prison. He was 34 years old.
Upon re-entry, with his paradoxical pattern now clearly highlighted in his self-awareness, Elam continued “doing life” in much the same way that he had learned to “do time,” by staying with himself. In a steady move that defied the old logic of his habitual Type 7 mindset, he signed himself up for child support, landed a job, and went to work – literally and figuratively. This “ex-con,” who returned to prison every three months for the last nine years, has spent his last eighteen months on the path “doing transformation.” He has kept the same job, just regained custody of his daughter and is on track to certify to be an Enneagram teacher in February of 2015.
Elam’s personal development has forced me to deal with myself. My own Type 1 story of not being “good enough” has long since lost its believability, even for me. In watching his remarkable transformation, I have been compelled to confront the prison of my own mind by considering what kind of leader I would possibly be if I couldn’t take my own teaching to heart. I now understand my draw to return to prison. Like the men and women there, I have a choice. I can continually resurrect my painful past and rail against the “unfair” things that happen to me. Or, like Elam, I can see that liberation is a matter of how you perceive things.
In witnessing the tenacity with which people like Elam hold out for their own personal promise, I have become downright convinced that the benefit of self-understanding through the lens of the Enneagram is a critical missing piece for real and lasting criminal reform. A vision for making a radical paradigm shift seriously took root in me and, in 2012, I founded the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP).
EPP is about bringing the Enneagram to jails and prisons across the world in order to help people remember who they really are, apart from who they were or whatever they might have done in their past. Each day I work “on the inside,” I consider the potential divine reciprocity that manifests when others join us in this hopeful vision. For I now know that validating the inherent worth of a person is nothing short of a transformative conversation — no matter on which side of the prison walls we happen to stand.
Somewhere deeply embedded in the heart-of-hearts of the men and women on the inside, I see that what I had only dared hoped to be true for myself in the beginning is actually the case for all of us: We are all in a prison of our own making, in the ways we suffer our personalities. Therefore and most importantly, we each hold the key to our own personal freedom.
Support the "Key to Freedom” Campaign - A contribution of $500 or more to EPP makes it possible for one incarcerated man or woman to participate in an eight-week intensive Introduction to the Enneagram, the first of a series of programs that are taught by EPP in county jails and statewide prisons. To learn more, click here.
Susan Olesek - With unwavering compassion for the human condition, Susan Olesek brings her profound appreciation for the Enneagram System to those living behind bars – both literally and metaphorically. After working with hundreds of inmates, Susan witnessed the powerful influence ego has on the choices people make and realized that, “We are all in a prison of our own making in the way we suffer our personalities.” Seeing firsthand how the Enneagram systematically explains not just what we do, but incisively unearths the reasons why, Susan began to appreciate the Enneagram as the “missing piece” to criminal reform and founded The Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) in 2012. Certified in two schools of Enneagram Studies (Palmer-Daniels and Riso-Hudson), Susan also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Occidental College. She teaches across the US, in corporations, in her private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, and to her favorite audience – inmates. Susan’s driven by a wholehearted conviction that anyone brave enough to take an honest look at themselves is deserving of the personal liberation possible as a result. Susan particularly holds the space for those previously disregarded to take that first critical step towards themselves and the potential for a more fulfilling life.
Elam Chance - Raised in Deer Park, Texas, Elam Chance grew up with a baseball in one hand and a defiant, independent spirit in the other. As he made his way in the world, a series of unfortunate decisions landed him in the Texas prison system for a total of nine years. While incarcerated, Elam was introduced to the Enneagram and as a result began confronting the "why" behind his choices. His growing self-awareness led to a newfound compassion that unearthed his deeply held feelings of unworthiness. Since his release from prison 18 months ago, Elam has realized the profound potential in himself and has turned his focus towards giving back to society. His particular interest is in working with the children of the incarcerated, of which 50% of them alone wind up incarcerated. On track to complete Enneagram teacher certification in February 2015, Elam has become an Ambassador for the Enneagram Prison Project. He resides in Dallas, Texas where he works, continues his Enneagram studies, and is the proud father of two daughters.
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This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 12: Summer of Peace is Here!