Updated: May 26, 2021
In a nutshell
Type 4s are characterized by the idea that what you feel is who you are. With a deep desire for authenticity and to be understood, 4s turn their gaze inward a great deal. There are inherent difficulties involved with trying to get others to understand what you're feeling (no matter what your Enneagram type is), and 4s try to overcome that by developing an exterior image that they believe others will understand. Unfortunately they hide parts of their true selves in order to accomplish this, and can become bitter and envious, believing that others don't experience the challenge of being different as they do. In order to grow and be satisfied in life, they learn to accept themselves, and accept the fact that others can never understand them as well as they understand themselves. By doing this they free themselves to change and be flexible in their approach to life.
Levels of Development
Each of the nine personality types are formed based on a Core Fear we develop at a young age. This fear keeps us from being our fully actualized selves and acting from Essence, the version of ourselves that exists when we let go of our fears and ego identifications and allow ourselves to simply be. In response to this fear, we develop a Core Desire, which can either lead us back to self actualization and Essence, or towards deeper fear and false identity.
The Levels of Development are an aspect of each Enneagram type discovered in 1977 by Don Richard Riso. They provide us with a map of how we degrade as we hold on more strongly to our Core Fear, leading us to progressively deeper and more complicated emotional defense mechanisms. There are 9 separate levels of development for each type (not to be confused with the 9 types themselves), starting with self actualization at Level 1 and going down to pathological thoughts and behaviors at Level 9. Each level represents what happens when a new fear is introduced, and a new desire emerges in order to defend that fear. These levels are grouped into the "Healthy Levels" (Levels 1-3), the "Average Levels" (Levels 3-6), and the "Unhealthy Levels" (Levels 7-9).
For a detailed understanding of what happens to each type at each level, I recommend reading the Enneagram books co-written by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. That said, it's important to have a general understanding of how each Type behaves at different levels, so I've provided an overview of the Healthy, Average, and Unhealthy levels below.
When emotionally healthy, 4s are expressive of their feelings and largely self-actualized. Rather than leaning into their feelings, 4s use their feelings as a guide to help them find their purpose. They can be truly self-actualized, finding meaning in every part of their life from relationships to work and hobbies. They may withdraw at times to sort out their feelings, but on the whole their emotional self is integrated with their daily life. By accepting the importance of their feelings, they paradoxically let go of the need to over-focus on them and are more able to deal with life's external challenges practically.
To remain healthy, 4s who operate in this zone should acknowledge their tendency to dwell on their feelings and choose to take action and resolve them instead.
As they move away from their healthy sense of balance, type 4s begin clinging on to their feelings and struggling to define themselves. Rather than seeking to resolve their emotions, they try to find meaning through emotional stimulation. They develop a romantic / fanaticized self image and try to live their life according to the image rather than their true self. They begin viewing others in fantastical way too. If they're romantically interested in someone, they may idealize them, regardless of whether they know the person or not. Similarly they may idealize someone who represents an image they wish they had, and become consumed with envy. In any case, they prefer to engage in a story of what's happening than reality, which allows them to experience emotional intensity while remaining withdrawn and self-absorbed.
To become healthier and happier, 4s operating the this zone should strive to stay grounded. Find healthy people and talk through your feelings with them, and begin to re-connect your feelings to positive actions rather than holding on to them.
Having a healthy self-image is a cornerstone of mental health, and the unhealthy 4 is engaged deeply in a negative self narrative. They become highly withdrawn from anything in the world that could give them a reality check, prioritizing maintenance of their self-story over their own happiness and satisfaction. Their inner experiences may vary wildly, but on the outside it is difficult to see anything but a highly depressed, angry, and inactive person. The part of them that is aware of their reality is genuinely ashamed and angry at themselves for getting to this point, and making progress would mean confronting those deep feelings. This feeds into their negative self-image, and they begin to believe they are fundamentally flawed. Sadly, self-sabotage and even self-harm are common. The deeper they allow themselves to despair, the deeper these feelings get, and they may end up destroying their lives through addictions or attempting suicide.
To get healthier, 4s operating in this zone should understand that there absolutely is a path to recovery. No matter what your life has been like in the past, human being are inherently changeable. Start taking steps today - seek professional help and begin solving the issues in your life one by one. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the rate at which how you feel can change.
Wings / Subtypes
Every person has some degree of every type at work in their personality, but in addition to their primary type, Enneagram 4s are more likely to draw strongly from one of the adjacent types, 3 or 5. Because of this, we treat them as distinctive subtypes known as “Wing Types”. Not everyone has a strong wing type, but a majority of people do, so we generally describe a 4's type as either "4 wing 3" (4w3) or "4 wing 5" (4w5).
4 wing 3
In the 4w3 subtype, the inward facing tendencies of type 4 and the outward tendencies of type 3 lead the individual to be more engaged and active compared to the 4w5.
In healthy 4w3s, this blend of inward and outward energies yields an individual who is introverted in thought but motivated to engage with others. More personal than their cousin, the 3w4, healthy 4w3s listen to their hearts and extend their inner selves into the world. They may be social or successful, and are good at reading others and presenting themselves honestly but in a way that others will understand. They are motivated by the idea of bringing their ideas into reality, and compared to the 4w5 they are more willing to tailor their creations to others' expectations.
In average 4w3s, the desire to withdraw of 4 and the desire to impress others of 3 combine to create conflicting, somewhat volatile tendencies. They begin to withdraw into an inner world where their reality is defined by their emotions, like all 4s. But the 4w3's feelings, and hence their inner warped reality, revolve around what others think of them, compared to the average 4w5 whose feelings are even more withdrawn and internally defined. They feed their feelings of superiority over others, and try to project this superiority by living in line with an image that they believe others will covet.
Unhealthy 4w3s, having more influence from 4 than 3, will become further withdrawn at this stage, compared to the 3w4 who becomes more aggressive. Their hostile feelings towards others will grow to be quite strong, but they will direct most of it inward at themselves, convinced that they are to blame and are somehow defective. Given the 3 wing they will certainly display narcissistic behaviors, but will be more content to keep their grandiosity to themselves, feeling that they had some kind of tremendous potential but loathing themselves for wasting it.
4 wing 5
Types 4 and 5 are both withdrawn types, and they combine in the 4w5 to make an individual who is more introverted and individual than the other subtype.
In healthy 4w5s, influence from 5 leads to a high level of realistic and grounded thinking which combines with the type 4's innate depth of feeling sense of self. Compared to the 4w3, the 4w5 cares much less about input from others, and has a self-motivated creativity that can lead to profound and truly innovative places. They channel their creativity in many different fields, and tend to focus more on being true to themselves than commercial success.
Given both types' tendency to shut the outside world out, average 4w5s become self-absorbed and avoidant. Rather than engaging with others, they begin to remove themselves from normal activities to engage with their personal thoughts and feelings more. While their "world" is primarily emotional, it has strong intellectual tones as well, and the 4w5 may identify strongly with an area of study and use it to express themselves to others, connecting through mutual interest but taking the opportunity to try to have their individuality appreciated and understood. Where 4w3s become increasingly narcissistic, 4w5s become increasingly nervous and self-defeating. As their anxieties increase, they find it harder and harder to productively engage in the world outside their minds.
Unhealthy 4w5s become trapped in their minds, intensely fearful of anything in the real world, and tormented by the inner world they occupy. Given their depth of self-reflection and insight, the nature of their own problems may be apparent to them, but they are trapped nonetheless. Their strong negative self opinions and intensely negative overall outlook lead them to not try to solve their problems, and to resist those who try to help. They are more fearful than the unhealthy 4w3, and experience their fears intensely, potentially developing strong phobias as the fear distorts their thinking.
-Accept the true role your feelings play in life. Their purpose is to teach you and guide your actions. If you learn from an emotional experience and take action to resolve it, its role is complete and you can let it go.
-In some ways, dwelling on and defining yourself by your feelings is simply a way to avoid taking actions your afraid to take. Sometimes, resolving our feelings requires having difficult conversations with loved ones, or making tough decisions like leaving a secure job. Being emotionally healthy requires courage, and courage is something that you can choose to have at any time.
-Life is more beautiful than any fantasy world can be. But the more you engage in your own mind, the less of that beauty you can experience.
-Try to view others and yourself realistically. Nobody has superpowers, and nobody needs special advantages to have a good life.
-We are all designed with strengths and weaknesses, yet we all face the same challenges in life. Accept that you have faults, and don't feel ashamed to ask for help. Everybody needs help, no matter who they are and what position they're in.
-Grounding yourself will always be beneficial for your because you have a cognitive preference for imagination. Develop a self-care routine that allows you to connect with your body, and make sure to share your deeper thoughts and feelings with others on a regular basis.