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About the Enneagram
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” – Chinese proverb
“Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”– Kahil Gibran
“No theory is good except on condition that one use it to go beyond.”– Andre Gide
are all much more simply human than
– Harry Stack Sullivan
When people first learn the Enneagram, they often become intensely occupied with the system. New students buy books, go to workshops, and engage in a flurry of typing, working out the personality styles of their relatives, colleagues and friends. Suddenly, evidence of the Enneagram seems to be everywhere, the way someone notices Japanese cars after buying a new Honda.
This stage is perfectly appropriate to discovering something new and revelatory. Learning about ourselves and others is fun, fascinating and useful, and the best way to absorb a complex subject is to dive in and swim in its sea. Newcomers to the Enneagram often have a sense of dynamic enthusiasm, of making real progress, as if they finally have their hands on something solid. This might be called the Honeymoon phase.
Next comes the Sorcerer’s Apprentice phase, named for a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in which students get overwhelmed and confused by the Enneagram’s details while being carried away by a new power they can’t quite handle. Some students feel as if they are drowning in information, peering hard at something they can’t quite see. They can also grow “type happy,” seeing Enneagram styles as stereotypes or overusing the system by imposing their new knowledge on relatives, colleagues and friends.
The third phase of learning the Enneagram is True Mastery, which is an attitude as well as a mastering of the material. It comes as you integrate the knowledge and make it your own, really understanding the Enneagram while applying its insights with intelligence, respect and care.
There’s an old story about a man who has just found the Truth being followed by the Devil. Someone sees this procession and asks the Devil, “Why are you, of all entities, following someone who has just found the Truth?” The Devil strokes his goatee, and replies, “He may have just found the Truth, but I’m going to help him organize it.”
While it’s exciting to find a system that seems to organize reality in a useful, new way, personality typologies are notoriously double-edged. Just as they open you to a new view of human behavior, they can close you to experience in other ways.
Tools are value-free; a hammer can build a house or crack a skull, and it’s still just a hammer. The high side of learning about personality styles is that you can deeply comprehend the inner workings of yourself and others, something that has hundreds of uses. The downside is that you might apply the information too narrowly and reinforce and justify your biases, see a new set of stereotypes, or turn into one yourself.
The Enneagram doesn’t come with a manual that instructs people on how to use it properly, but perhaps it should. This article is an attempt to catalog the ways the Enneagram is most commonly distorted or misused. If you are new to the system, I want to leave you with some useful cautions; some may not make sense right away, but you might bookmark them for future reference. I can speak with confidence, as I’ve made a number of these mistakes myself; long-term students of the Enneagram will likely recognize at least one of the pitfalls described. In fact, if you have an intense response to something you read here, it would be highly fruitful to assume that it’s somehow true – like something has pushed your buttons or revealed a shadow – and work with it the way you would work with any such reaction. To the extent I’m able, I will also offer some constructive guidelines for using the Enneagram that point you toward the road to True Mastery.
People who object to the whole idea of personality typing often say that they dislike being labeled because it makes them feel trapped in a one-dimensional box. The irony is that the Enneagram aims to show you how you are already boxed. But it’s true that the system’s labels and categories can induce a mindset that is potentially limiting.
Part of the problem is words. We use language to describe our experience, but words tend to diminish and reduce. Among languages, English is more noun-based than verb-driven. It’s easy in English to talk about active, living, subjective processes – like people – as frozen, objective things. To some extent, this “thingifying” is inevitable, but it creates a distorting lens.
When you call a person by a number or a name that is related to a role – a “Three,” a “Performer” or an “Achiever” – you are talking about a thing rather than a person. It’s different to describe a Three as “someone who feels driven to perform and achieve.”
In a way, all generalizing about personality is akin to bigotry. Psychotherapists are paid to employ a professional form of bigotry each time they meet a new client – it’s called diagnosis. A therapist has to assess the client both as a stand-alone individual and as an example of selected generalizations drawn from various schools of psychology. Fortunately, therapists are carefully trained to discern a person from a type. If a client says, “I’m a Christian,” a therapist wonders what the statement means to the person. The therapist doesn’t immediately think, “Christian, oh sure, I know what that is.” “Christian” is instead taken as important information about the client’s identity and map of the world.
Even if the client believes he’s like everyone else, the therapist doesn’t. Instead, she tries to understand why it’s important for the client to see himself that way; how the belief is, paradoxically, an expression of his uniqueness. The therapist tries to see the client without comparing him to anyone else; she wants to know who the client is and who the client is trying to become. She compares the client to himself.
The advantage of diagnosis is that the therapist can generalize usefully and better decide how to work with a unique individual. An American therapist with a Japanese client would be crazy to ignore the cultural conditioning of Japan. Yet the therapist’s first job is to comprehend her client’s core individuality, and then factor in the significance of the client’s being Japanese.
Try to imagine instead a therapist who describes his current group of clients this way: “I have two Germans, a Kenyan, a Chinese, not to mention the Vietnamese couple. It’s good; I always get along with Germans, and Kenyans are easy to change, too. Chinese baffle me, of course, but at least I don’t have any French clients – God, those people get on my nerves! Next week I start working with an Egyptian. Now that should be a challenge.”
Strange as it sounds, I have heard people familiar with the Enneagram talk in the same way, saying things like: “Twos drive me crazy, they’re always invading me. I can’t stand Eights either – they’re so pushy. Fives are my kind of people, though; always so sweet and so shy. Of course, everybody loves Sevens.” I’ve met Enneagram enthusiasts who asked for my Enneagram number before they ever asked for my name.
There is a way to use the Enneagram that is much like bigotry. The two most important ingredients of common bigotry are seeing the other person’s identifying characteristic first and then continuing to see it in a way that eclipses the rest of them – mistaking a part of the person for the whole.
In Enneagram bigotry you look at someone, see their number first and then reframe all their behavior to fit your knowledge of their style. A complex individual then seems like a caricature, rather than a real person with a skewed point of view. His personality style becomes the most outstanding thing about him.
The Enneagram describes how we make ourselves one-dimensional, but it’s possible to see what the system describes in a one-dimensional way. If you don’t keep reminding yourself of the difference between a type and a person, then you will be deluded by the material. You’ll think you have people in a nutshell, but all you’ll have are nutshells.
If I’m white and I see a “Black person” first before I see my friend Roma, then I’m practicing a form of bigotry. Roma happens to be a Nine so I could also see a Black Nine. If, instead, I try to see Roma first, then her “Blackness” and her “Nineness” become significant parts of who she is that emerge in the way she expresses herself as an individual. It’s partly a matter of sequence, but mostly a matter of attitude.
Forging a New Identity
It’s not too far a slide from seeing others in a bigoted way to seeing yourself as some walking, talking type. As you learn about your Enneagram style, you can get caught up in the idea of it, fashioning a new quasi-insightful identity, a new self image to over-identify with.
Let’s say I discover I’m a Two. I now make sense of my experience in a new way and understand behavior that has baffled me for years. After the initial shock, I begin to think of myself differently and say things like, “Well, I do these things because I’m a Two,” or, “I’m a Two, so naturally I flatter people.”
It might not be so natural. Over-identifying with the description of your personality style is the same thing as being caught in its trance; you are simply replacing an old self image with a new one.
One expression of this is when people suddenly start to find their neurosis interesting. Enneagram periodicals will sometimes carry articles by people describing their experience of their style. Some of these articles are useful, but others are quite peculiar, recounting the ins and outs of the author’s personality trance in a way that sounds pleased, as if the writer is fascinated with the new world of “me.” Such articles can outline warped relationships, immature behavior and delusional goals, often in a tone of bragging, juvenile glee. It’s as if the writer feels endorsed or licensed by the Enneagram, not realizing that the system only describes his ego. The thoughts, feelings and behavior he writes about are what he’s supposed to overcome.
In a similar way, people experienced with the Enneagram will sometimes talk about their personality tendencies in a way that sounds strangely practiced. They describe themselves with insight and yet somehow remain trapped. They remind themselves that they should be working on themselves, but don’t sound as if they’ll bother.
Students can also use the Enneagram as an excuse for problem behavior that they have no intention of changing. Some will say things like, “Don’t blame me for being paranoid, I’m a Six!” or, “Don’t expect me to work in an office – I’m a Four!” You may as well say, “Of course I’m limited--I’m Brazilian.” The result is a weird reversal of the point of the model.
A related distortion occurs when people use their styles to create a new set of interpersonal limits, reflected in statements like, “I’m an Eight, so I can’t work with Fours.” Or “I don’t make dinner plans with Sevens – they’re always late.”
I once got a phone call from a prospective student who demanded to know my Enneagram number. When I asked why, she said she had been told to continue learning the Enneagram only from someone with a different personality style than her original teacher’s. The idea was that Enneagram styles are so influential that two teachers with the same style would teach the Enneagram in exactly the same way. Addled with their own personality biases, their rendition of the material would be principally an expression of their egos. Actually, that just sounded like bad teaching.
Groups of people who know the Enneagram can also slide into using it in a warped way. One function of community is to reinforce the identities of its individual members; everyone knows your story and expects you to act in a way that’s consistent with how they see you. On one hand, this is the basis of comfort and belonging; on the other hand, it means you’re stuck, typecast, expected to conform to the consensus image others have of you.
I’ve heard people in Enneagram groups say things like, “Oh, he’s our resident Five, ha ha!” or “Look: she’s getting him more coffee – just like a Two!” Though this seems like a harmless habit, it may result in group members feeling destined to follow the script of their style rather than individuating, identifying with the image others have of them instead of becoming their own person.
While connecting to a group that knows the Enneagram may offer a sense of belonging or can fulfill other needs, it’s important to be mindful of what you are reinforcing in each other, however fondly. A group can help its members evolve beyond their Enneagram trances or inadvertently support their immaturities, sense of victimhood and desire to hide.
The Enneagram invites misunderstanding. It seduces users by seeming static, by offering neatly bound categories that promise to contain and explain reality. It turns out the system points to something more profound and existential: the unnerving mystery behind everyday appearances, an invisible world to which we may feel unequal.
In the 1950 movie Rashomon, an incident in a forest involving a thief and an elegant, upper-class couple leaves the husband dead and the thief charged with murder. The film dramatizes the trial testimony of the participants, during which the witnesses present four absolutely different, equally plausible versions of what happened in the forest.
At the end of the film, you don’t know what to think. Each person could be lying, but all four are equally convincing in their retelling of the event. The story ends on a haunting note of ambiguity, leaving you suspended in a void between seemingly valid subjective realities. You’re forced to accept that there’s no right answer, no absolute truth.
Sometimes the Enneagram engenders this feeling in its users. It implies that when we are most certain the world is one way, we are avoiding ambiguity and uncertainty. But the system itself induces uncertainty, and the part of us that defends against those feelings in daily life also defends against the Enneagram.
Psychosynthesis founder Roberto Assogioli used to say, “You never kill the ego, you only find it living in a larger house.” In a way it’s your ego’s job to co-opt the new, to translate the unknown into the known. The Enneagram studies egos and presents a sometimes withering portrait of their efficiency, like a negative cost-benefit analysis.
Your ego can react to the Enneagram’s revelations by bureaucratically trying to hold onto its job, mutating to incorporate the new insights about itself while defending its basic position. Life is a series of openings and closings, and when we change or expand our model of the world, something in us won’t let us go too far.
Part of what this means is that if you’re going to work with the Enneagram in depth, it will take honesty each step of the way. The model itself won’t keep you on track. No matter how powerfully the Enneagram impacts you, it’s still possible to warp it into a new version of the same old thing.
The Trap of Traits
The Enneagram is easy to learn but difficult to master. For practical purposes the essentials of the system can be grasped quickly and applied to daily life in myriad ways. But it is a complex matter with subtle depths, and it takes time to absorb.
Surfing is like that: you can become a passable board surfer rather quickly, but it takes much practice to become skilled. You need to develop a depth of experience to integrate the skill, to make it unconscious and reflexive. Until we make knowledge our own, it’s like a rumor about something real.
Because the Enneagram is complex, many students search for shortcuts to simplify its usage. The most common one is trying to equate people’s outer behavior and their inner personality styles. This is implied in questions like, “My husband drives too fast, what does that mean?” It means he should slow down, but the questioner is actually asking: “What’s the connection between observable external traits and a person’s Enneagram style?” The answer is: just about none.
I have known many Twos, for instance, who tailgate while driving. If you think about it, that’s logical within the Two script – somebody who avoids being alone and needs to stay connected to people drives too close to them in traffic.
Are all tailgaters therefore Twos? No; the external behavior isn’t proof of anything. If you realize – through other means – that a person is a Two, then the fact that he tailgates makes sense against the deep background of his personality style. The behavior may combine well with a dozen other things a person says and does, but in the end you’ll need another strategy altogether for discovering someone’s Enneagram style. To assume each tailgater in your rear view mirror is a Two would be more bigotry.
Another question runs, “I’m a Nine. What would be the best type for me to marry?” The correct answer is: a healthy type and one that loves you. There’s no magic equation, nothing in the Enneagram that could possibly advise about such a decision. Nines and every other number in the Enneagram fall in love. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – it depends on the individuals. The Enneagram can precisely describe a likely dynamic between two individuals – what happens when the relationship works and when it doesn’t. But it won’t give someone a reliable formula for finding a mate.
It’s probably only a matter of time before Enneagram dating services spring up. Author Helen Palmer once described her horror at seeing newspaper ads soliciting romance with particular styles: “Nine seeks Seven for fun and romance.” Again, imagine an ad that says, “Handsome Bulgarian looking to make beautiful music with that special someone. Only Cubans need apply.”
Some people practice face reading. The claim is that you can look at someone’s outer features, either in person or from a photograph, and determine the person’s Enneagram style. This would be a fine thing if it worked, but I’ve not met a practitioner of face reading who was accurate with any consistency. The technique ignores the influence of genetics, as well as how a person’s immediate mood might influence his appearance the moment he was photographed.
Face reading is symptomatic of a broader mentality. I’ve heard “trait happy” people say things like, “you can’t be a Six, you have Seven hair,” or “you may think you’re a One but you’re not – Ones always make eye contact.”
It’s not that there aren’t some physical and behavioral expressions of Enneagram styles; they just aren’t rigidly constant. Over-generalizing any part of what you learn produces an illusory, simplistic view of human behavior and turns the Enneagram into something stupid. The paradox of this material is that when you apply it loosely it will lead you to a more precise diagnosis. Think of holding a small bird in your hand. If you squeeze your hand too tightly the bird will die; if you hold the bird too loosely it will fly away.
A last typical question runs something like, “Don’t Eights always fight with authority?” The answer is: nobody always does anything. The Enneagram is not describing a set of predestined limitations or rigidities. There is great variety in the way people express Enneagram styles just as there is within nationalities. I can meet Americans from other regions of the country and find them vastly different; yet we still share associations and underlying references that come with being American.
The same is true with different individuals with the same Enneagram style. If you heard a group of Threes talk about their lives, it would be clear that each person had a similar central worldview and set of core assumptions. At the same time, each would plainly be his or her own person with an obviously independent identity, unique personal history and soul of their own.
As you apply what you learn to your life, you might remind yourself that an Enneagram style is more than the sum of someone’s visible behavior. The Enneagram describes the inner strategies that drive behavior, the “machinery in the basement.” It’s not what people do, it’s why they do it. A person has only one core habit of perception; when you identify that, you’ll see how their external traits logically flow from it.
after studying the Enneagram for a while,
it’s wise to pull back and realize how
little of you it really describes. Also,
when you talk about people and their
personality styles, remember the most
important words to use: can, may, might,
could, possibly, often and
I once had a cat who was prone to amnesia for the contents of her food dish. The dish could have been in plain sight and piled high with food, but Kitty-San would approach the nearest human and plaintively cry to be fed. Sometimes a well-meaning family member would try to remind Kitty of her food by pointing a finger at the dish. Kitty always stared intently at the person’s finger, never at her food. If the Enneagram points to the location of our true nourishment, there are still a number of ways to mistake the finger for the food, to grow overawed or distracted by the system itself.
Broadly speaking there are two versions of the Enneagram: one is the Enneagram of Personality – the psychological system and its correlates – while the other might be called the Enneagram of Everything, which encompasses the Enneagram of Personality but places it in a broader philosophical and spiritual context. The Enneagram of Personality is a psychological description, a compact, detailed rendition of what’s called ego psychology. The Enneagram of Everything (also called the Enneagram of Process) has a more theoretical quality. It presents the Enneagram as a purveyor of universal law, a “Symbol of All and Everything,” a skeleton key that unlocks and explains fundamental cosmic principles. This law is thought to govern all human behavior and contexts as well as things like musical scales. The result is a sort of metaphysical Theory of Everything derived from Gnosticism, Neo-Platonic philosophy, the works of George Gurdjieff, J.G. Bennett, Oscar Ichazo, Claudio Naranjo, A.H. Almass, as well as Theosophy and Transpersonal Psychology. It is also partly Christianized, incorporating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, and in some cases advocating Christian love as the main way past personality dilemmas and defenses.
Using the Enneagram of Personality against the spiritual backdrop of the Enneagram of Everything is a meaningful way for some people to approach the system, and they get considerable value from the effort. The Enneagram’s psychological insights are especially helpful in gauging how you get in your own way and thwart your spiritual goals, but the Enneagram of Everything also encompasses a range of very useful spiritual practices that can produce powerful reactions. The purpose of most of these practices is to help us waken from the trance-like dream of our lives and open to realms beyond our personality and worldview.
The Enneagram of Everything can give the Enneagram a theological cast, turning it into a kind of mini-religion, which brings up the usual challenges for the users of any religious system. Every major religion offers mandates and guidance for becoming more compassionate, less ego-bound, ceasing to vilify others, seeing through our illusions and opening to what is beyond ourselves. Most followers fall short of manifesting these capacities, mistaking the finger for the food in several typical ways.
First, participants in spiritual systems sometimes confuse the form of the system with its experiential and behavioral goals. The former becomes a substitute for the latter. People can respond to a spiritual system as if it were real, a physical object, a Truth, a something to believe in, imbuing its doctrines, symbols and leaders with a spiritualized aura. They may then stop using the system to grow and instead fall in love with its inspirational promise. Taking comfort in a group, mastering a system’s tenets, and adhering to its rules can become more preoccupying than working towards one’s direct, personal spiritual unfolding.
This is compounded by those who invent and sustain such systems, who often portray their spiritual body of knowledge as coming from On High and exclusively true. The inventor(s) may sincerely believe that their inspirations are divinely sourced, and that the conclusions they extract from their own experience apply to everyone else. To back this up, however, they tend to use unspecified language, offer information in large, abstract chunks and make unverifiable claims based on the authority of unattributed sources. They could claim to know what happened to you before you were born, or what will happen after you die. Or offer dictates that emphasize what you should believe in lieu of your own instincts. They might even proffer the double-bind that is built into the structure of cults: You don’t really need this leader/system. All capacities are within you. To discover that all capacities are within, you really need this leader/system.
This edges close to idolatry – elevating the productions of the self to a God-like status – another reason spiritual systems don’t always work as intended. Idolatry, commonly associated with “worshipping false idols,” also occurs when someone spiritualizes their personal opinions, conflicts and shadows. This mimics a state of psychological defensiveness in which a person distorts his or her spirituality to manage untended wounds and quell personal anxieties. Although leaders and followers do this in different ways, both might think they’re being spiritual when they are actually reinforcing their personality defenses. Idolatry, in other words, is ego and it can take many covert forms.
Along with arcane, esoteric packaging, some versions of the Enneagram come with a legend that dates the system back to ancient Babylon. It is only in the last few years that attempts have been made to trace the system’s true historic origins. While studies indicate that something about it is old, the results are still somewhat inconclusive. Part of the Enneagram’s mythos is that its nine-pointed circle is a universal symbol that stands for various cosmic laws. But symbols don’t ripen and drop from trees; people make them up. The Enneagram’s nine-point design does go back centuries, but there’s little evidence that it formerly meant what it is said to mean now. The point is that the symbol is not what it symbolizes just as the finger is not the food.
Idolatry also underpins fundamentalism, since making human qualities into divine ones usually leads to embracing absolutes. This can be seen in how people hold their religious, political or philosophical beliefs or in social causes they embrace and with which they identify. We embrace theologies and ideologies in absolute terms, hoping this will secure our standing worldview.
It is also possible to use the Enneagram of Everything to bolster a fixed idea of the world and acquire a new set of rules and rigidities. Enneagram author and former priest Clarence Thomson says, “New rigidities are part of the history of religious orders. They start out proposing a new lifestyle based on some powerful experiences and/or a charismatic leader. The leader then tries to replicate the experience by giving instructions to his/her followers. When this doesn’t work as well as desired, the leader multiplies the instructions.”
A related tendency is to see inherent spiritual wisdom in Enneagram teachers, as though their mastery of the material makes them personally evolved or spiritually enlightened. While it’s fair to expect a high degree of congruity from a teacher, you should not be surprised when you encounter a teacher’s inevitable blind spots. Enneagram teachers are prone to the same psychological distortions as everyone else. Simply mastering the system is not enough to change someone, unless they are otherwise motivated to grow beyond their limits. If a teacher, Enneagram or otherwise, seems to believe they are a guru, you’d be right to wonder what it means about their personal trance and unresolved childhood issues.
Ancient Egyptians saw great spiritual power in domestic cats, partly because of the cat-habit of staring at people with a clear, steady, enigmatic gaze. My cat sometimes looked this way, but she was usually thinking about tuna. Spiritual experiences are compelling, but they need to be integrated with the plainness of day-to-day existence. In a sense, there is no greater mystery than daily life, no better guide than your own inner promptings, especially when they are shaped and sustained by an honest, appropriate spiritual practice.
If you use the Enneagram for a spiritual or theological purpose, the usual questions apply: Does doing so make you more compassionate? Kinder? More self aware? Less dogmatic? Less self important? More directly connected to what is beyond yourself? More capable of thinking for yourself? More personally free? More able to discover and follow your own inner truth?
If you are a member of a group: Does the group encourage you to make your own discoveries, or does it offer ready-made, plug-in answers? Does it deliver on its promises, or keep making new ones? Does the group have a shadow, a rival group with whom it feuds or competes? Does it ask you to believe things you can’t verify with your senses? Does the context foster dependency? Does the leader speak in absolutes or vague abstractions? Is the leader portrayed as infallible? Can you leave the group when you want? Without opposition or retribution?
Copyright 1998, 2013, 2017 by Thomas Condon www.thechangeworks.com