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About the Enneagram
Nine Good Ways to Misuse the Enneagram
A marketing company that specializes in promotional mailing lists sent me a letter advertising their services. Markings on the envelope indicated that the letter had been returned to them once because they had the address wrong. The second time the address was fine but they had screwed up the postal code and spelled my last name “Condom.” Printed next to their business logo was the company’s confident motto: “We’re only as good as our information!”
One way your ego can react to the Enneagram is to yoke it into serving your defenses This leads to situations where you are doing two contradictory things at once – thinking you are breaking free while using the material to strengthen your trance. Some distortions of the Enneagram are more “style specific,” in that they come easily to people within the bias of their style and are expressions of its neurotic tendencies. Here’s a rundown of the most common:
Ones – Ones sometimes distort the Enneagram by turning it into the ultimate criticism. They may use the model as a basis for judging themselves and others, positing a new ideal self to strive for and become. They can see Enneagram styles in a too-negative way, overfocusing on what’s wrong and broken; not allowing people to be more than their type. They may also form blanket judgments about other Enneagram styles: “Nines are lazy, Threes are liars, Sevens are dilettantes.” Ones also fix their attention on others as a way of not looking at themselves.
Some Ones turn the Enneagram into an orthodoxy. They stop using their own words and adopt “Enneagramatically correct” adjectives to describe their personal experience, while imposing Enneagram terminology on others. Ones can also become literal-minded about the system, missing the metaphorical nature of personality styles, thinking they’re as real as tables and chairs.
Twos – Twos sometimes distort the Enneagram by turning it into an instrument of seduction. Knowledge of personality styles helps the Two better blend with other people’s criteria to create synthetic personal connections.
Some Twos are self-critical and can feel unnecessarily bad about their own style. They’ll hate themselves for being a Two, especially if others around them don’t like it.
Other Twos feel entirely too good about their personality style. They may take a subtle pride in their interpersonal powers and act exempt from the need to look at their behavior. Twos will sometimes also join Enneagram communities and lose themselves in a social context, evading the need for independent, solitary introspection.
Threes – Threes may distort the Enneagram by missing its depth, instead seeing people as two-dimensional stereotypes or walking bundles of information. Some Threes fix their attention on people’s surface behavior and are unable to recognize their individuality and souls. They may also get fascinated with the way the Enneagram “works,” seeing the system in an overly schematic, formulaic way.
Sometimes Threes use knowledge of the Enneagram to manipulate others in the service of achievement. “Just look for one of the tell-tale signs that places him or her into one of nine categories,” read an especially Threeish advertisement for the Enneagram, “then you’ll know everything you need to know about them and be able to change their behavior without them finding out!”
Some Threes get competitive about typing by trying to do it too fast; they may ask a person five questions and then confidently but erroneously announce the person’s Enneagram style.
Fours – Fours sometimes distort the Enneagram by believing its insights will cure them. They may use the system to pursue the one ultimate insight that will explain why they feel so flawed or alien. Study of the Enneagram becomes license to get newly mired in subjectivity, an excuse to postpone dealing with reality until the day they fully understand themselves.
Fours can find the model depressing and damning or feel insulted about being “just another unique person.” Some Fours convince themselves they are special for belonging to a “rare” species of the Enneagram, citing a invented statistic that claims there are fewer Fours than other personality styles. Groups of Fours may gather to celebrate their collective uniqueness, an in-crowd for those in the know.
Fives – Fives sometimes distort the Enneagram by holding it at an intellectual distance, enjoying it as an analytical system but not letting it personally touch them: “I could be a Five or at least one of the fear types. It’s very interesting to think about...” Like Fours, Fives can overvalue insight, believing that it automatically leads to personal growth, as if knowing about yourself is the same thing as knowing yourself.
If your defense is to avoid both intimacy and action by hiding in the study of complex subjects, then the Enneagram is a perfect refuge. Fives can get lost in the Enneagram’s study, mistaking a mastery of detail for depth, seeing the system as a set of esoteric principles that are divorced from daily life. Some Fives treat the Enneagram as a theory rather than a description of real people; the theory then limits what the Five can actually notice about others.
Fives will sometimes use the Enneagram as a way of knowing about people without being involved with them. They may form once-removed, social affiliations to exchange information about the model. A few Fives will avoid deciding on their Enneagram number as a way to resist social definition; the fear is that admitting their style could give others a weapon of control.
Sixes – Sixes sometimes warp the Enneagram into an excuse to avoid responsibility for their actions. They may fatalistically overidentify with their style, pretending to be a victim of their Sixness in a way that absolves them of the need to claim their power.
Some Sixes reject the Enneagram or overreact to the fact of typing, growing preoccupied with the potential dangers of such a system. Other Sixes may romanticize it, deifying both the Enneagram and its teachers. A system that seems to explain everything makes for imaginary security in an uncertain world; Sixes can think the Enneagram is The Truth and get dogmatic in its defense. Sixes may also misuse the Enneagram in the service of paranoia, using it mainly to justify their suspicions of people’s hidden motives.
Sevens – Sevens sometimes learn the Enneagram intensely but quickly, acquiring a rapid overview of the model and then concluding too soon that they understand personality styles or dismissing the system as a set of restrictive categories. If they study the Enneagram further, they may try to stay noncommittal, refusing to be “boxed in” by their type, holding out for the possibility that they could have several personality styles.
Some Sevens get “trait happy” and stay fixed on people’s outer characteristics. They may be attracted to formulas and equations as a fast way to learn the Enneagram, hoping to avoid the struggle of ploughing through the whole field.
Other Sevens may understand the Enneagram philosophically and idealistically but not experientially. They may put a positive spin on the material, overfocusing on each style’s potential as a way to avoid the sting of the Enneagram’s diagnostic depth, skipping over selective details to evade it’s darker truths.
Eights – Eights often externalize their psychological conflicts, so they may see Enneagram dynamics in everyone but themselves. They are sometimes prone to deciding which styles they like or dislike, as if that’s somehow relevant. An Eight might locate his shadow in others but then take the realization no further, instead using the Enneagram to justify his uncharitable biases and limits (“I never could stand college professors and now I know why; they’re all a bunch of wimpy Fives”).
On the job or at home, Eights can use the Enneagram as a tool for blaming or punishing. Some can initially dismiss the system as meaningless; later they may warp it into a justification for why they can’t change. Eights can miss the system’s subtly and see personality styles as cartoons. They can also grow so enthusiastic about the Enneagram that they overapply it, seeing people only as their Enneagram styles – more educated bigotry.
Nines – Nines can allow the Enneagram to exist in an atmosphere around them while taking little responsibility for what it shows them about themselves. “Other people tell me I’m a Nine...” is sometimes the refrain.
Some Nines might be chronically “unable” to decide on their personality style. Others could admit to it but postpone facing the implications, focusing instead on how much work it sounds like or telling themselves that being a Nine is not as bad as some other numbers. There could be a quality of willfully missing the point, of adding the Enneagram to an already full plate of things that don’t matter.
Some Nines react as if the Enneagram has given them a suddenly documented identity. They may find false recognition from overidentifying with their style, brandishing their neurotic personality distortions as a badge of confused pride, as if to say, “See, this proves I exist: look how screwed up I am.”
Not Quite Getting It
Occasionally people study the Enneagram but fail to identify their personality style. There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with inexperience. Some people are unknown to themselves and simply are not accustomed to observing their behavior, thinking or emotions. They’ve had no framework or use for self-knowledge; it hasn’t been their walk in life. Maybe they’ve been busy raising children, or had a demanding career; things went relatively well, and they’ve not had the occasion or motivation to question their premises. Then, for whatever reason, they begin to.
Sometimes people don’t recognize their style because of the amount or quality of their exposure to the Enneagram. They mistype themselves based on their reading of a book or two. If you’ve not seen the Enneagram in action, it’s possible to misidentify yourself because you lack a living three-dimensional sense of the energy and real-world expression of each style.
A few people study the system for a long time but maintain they still don’t know their own Enneagram style. I’ve heard things like: “I’ve been exposed to many Enneagram teachers, I’ve read all the books; I know all about the Enneagram, but I still don’t know my style. This teacher says I’m a Seven, that teacher says I’m a Nine. What do you think?” There’s sometimes a small smile at the corner of the mouth, offering a silent challenge.
Almost every time people have issued this challenge, it has turned out that they unconsciously knew their Enneagram style but were reluctant to admit it. Lurking in the refusal was an intelligent, self-protective objection; they either sensed that the revelation of their style was going to be overwhelming, or they feared getting stuck and trapped in a way that is resonant with their personal history. As one woman said, “My father used to call me names all the time, and this seems like calling myself a new name.”
A person could know his or her Enneagram style deep down but not like it. I’ve known manipulative, dependent Twos who thought they were self-sufficient Fives, and this belief was an expression of Twoish pride. Some Sevens initially believe they are Eights, because it’s more flattering to think of themselves as aggressive than afraid.
Sometimes people ask, “It’s not exclusive, is it? Aren’t we all nine styles to some degree?” While that may be ideally true, people often ask that question when they are avoiding the implications of their core style. If I’m connected to all nine Enneagram styles, then the one that unnerves me the most is not as potent.
Occasionally I’ve heard stories about people who believed for years that they had a particular Enneagram style and then realized it was an error. Often the person had accepted the diagnosis of a teacher or friend more experienced with the Enneagram.
If you discover that you have accepted someone’s mistyping, you might ask, “What has been the secret benefit of allowing others to define me?” Perhaps it reflects a power you gave away to a teacher or someone you wanted to please. Often this is a veiled replay of a past relationship with a parent.
A woman once brought her grown daughter to a workshop. She was convinced the daughter was a Four, but during the course of the workshop, the daughter realized she was a Six. This was startling and upsetting to the mother who, for some reason, still needed the daughter to be a Four. She later asked me, “Are you really sure that she’s a Six? Don’t you really think she’s a Four?” I replied, “You know, in the end, it’s probably none of our business what her Enneagram style is.”
The Enneagram is not for everyone. If a person is reluctant to acknowledge their Enneagram style, maybe they aren’t quite ready for this kind of self-examination. There’s no point in forcing the issue prematurely.
If you are ready, it may be important to let the unsettling part of it touch you, to have an “Oh my God!” experience. The Enneagram is not arbitrary; if it hasn’t made you uncomfortable, you may not yet completely understand its purpose. The most consistently reliable physical sign that you’ve “got it” is an upset stomach.
Using The Enneagram Clearly
Discovering someone’s Enneagram style is ultimately an act of inference, a kind of educated intuition. While there is no single right way to do it, there are some helpful pointers and guidelines.
People familiar with the major star constellations sometimes report growing confused when they venture into the wilderness. Away from civilization’s competing streetlights, so many more stars are visible that the most obvious constellations become harder to see.
If you are a beginner it’s especially important to restrict yourself to searching for one thing: someone’s central pattern, what they do the most. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by too much information and too many secondary distinctions.
Those who are good at identifying Enneagram styles often begin their assessment of someone by seeking an underlying feeling. Fives, Sixes and Sevens are fundamentally fearful, while Eights, Nines and Ones react from anger. Twos, Threes and Fours often display an absence of feeling or a quality of drama without depth. If you sense that someone is fundamentally angry, it might mean that they are an Eight, Nine or One. Choosing from three possibilities is then easier than choosing from nine.
Another way to winnow down the possibilities is to mentally cycle through the Enneagram as you try to diagnose someone’s style: “Not a One, not a Two, not a Three, maybe a Four, maybe a Five, not a Six, not a Seven, not an Eight, maybe a Nine.” Even if you’re not entirely sure about the person’s core style, you may find that others can be clearly ruled out.
Confusing one Enneagram style with another is possible because some can outwardly look alike. Threes and Sevens can seem similar because both are often externally organized and tend to lose themselves in activity. Ones and Fives may seem alike when the One is introverted and shy. Nines and Twos both tend to put the priorities of others before their own. Adding subtypes and other fine distinctions can confuse things even more. Again, even when outer behavior is similar, it’s crucial to know what’s motivating the person. Internally these styles see the world in vastly different ways.
Sometimes it’s difficult to identify the personality styles of people close to you. It took me years to identify the Enneagram style of one of my best friends; we had too much history together, and I just couldn’t see him clearly. When I first met him he was prone to judgmental rages. For years I assumed he was a One, although that diagnosis never quite felt right. In the end, the only solution was to show him passages from an Enneagram book. Gradually it came clear that he is an occasionally explosive Nine with an Eight wing.
If you are trying to type your friends, it’s best to approach the matter respectfully. Sometimes this means encouraging a dialogue. You might open an Enneagram book and say: “This friend of ours, she really fits this description right here. I fit this description here; this one seems like you. See what you think.” Your friend or acquaintance may surprise you by the style they choose. Then as you think about it you might realize, “Of course! I’ve been staring at that all along but haven’t been able to see it.”
Sometimes a context will confuse things. If you think your father was a Five but there were twelve children in your family, you might have to ask, “Did he withdraw to his study for days on end because of his Enneagram style or because he had twelve kids?” Even an extraverted Two would need time away from a family that large.
Often it’s hard to identify someone’s style because they are especially healthy. The person is less obviously caught in a compulsive pattern. In the end, though, they will still have one particular orientation and not another. Studying healthy people can also teach you about the gifts of each Enneagram style.
There are many published Enneagram tests that seem to work equally well. While none are 100% accurate, they at least stimulate discussion about what the Enneagram describes. Offering someone a test is another tactful way to get them involved and relieves you of the interpersonally sticky task of deciding your friend’s Enneagram style for him. It is probably wise to avoid that.
Enneagram enthusiasts sometimes try to precisely identify the correct adjectives that best define each type. Behind the idea is an assumption that somewhere there’s an “objective Enneagram” as real as tables and chairs. Actually, Enneagram authors offer distinctly different versions of the system. Some contradict each other or slice the same pie in different ways. Some are clearly writing about people first while others are describing a theory through which they filter people.
There are incompetent renditions of the Enneagram but even its acknowledged experts will disagree about the personality styles of particular famous people – which means someone must be wrong. Enneagram experts are like blind people describing an elephant; each is clued into a different aspect of the same animal. Partly this means is that there is no complete certainty to be had outside of yourself. You eventually have to make the Enneagram your own and take the different versions of it in stride.
The Enneagram is a model. The value and effectiveness of a model is in how precisely it matches what it describes and allows the user to apply the knowledge. But a model is only a model. No one has ever photographed an ego; it’s just a way of talking about something. It’s just a description.
There is something about the Enneagram that allows people to think they understand it before they do. Unfortunately for the system’s reputation, this sometimes means that a student will decide to teach it before they really know it, possibly in a shallow, stereotypical way.
The Enneagram will meet you where you are, at your best depth, so to speak, but it will not tell you what you don’t know about it. During the first 10 years I worked with the model I learned it anew four different times. Each time I thought that I fully understood the material, a trapdoor opened, and I was dropped into a new and unsuspected depth.
I’ve now worked with the Enneagram for 38 years; sometimes a new person’s Enneagram style is instantly obvious to me. With others it takes time and patient attention before their style comes clear. Someone will manifest Nineness in a way I’m not used to, but it’s eventually evident that Nine is their true style anyway. It’s often wise not to make up your mind too soon – determining someone’s personality style isn’t a contest and grabbing prematurely at certainty will often steer you and others wrong.
Whenever you have a clear success, pay attention to your internal experience and memorize both the feeling of being certain and the sensory cues that led to the correct diagnosis. Be sure to distinguish this from the desire to be certain. In the future, you can then use the experience of true certainty as a touchstone, a guide to whether you are on track or not.
As you might imagine, people who are good at identifying Enneagram styles practice a lot. They read biographies, watch interviews on television and look for the Enneagram in movies, novels and real life. They also work to get out of their own way – to see past their personal likes and dislikes, avoiding snap judgments and projections in favor of paying attention to what is plainly emanating from others.
If you use the Enneagram personally or professionally, it might be helpful to stay open-minded, alert to what people reveal about themselves, trying to see the whole person even as they manifest a specific personality style. The Enneagram is always deeper than it seems to be; as a system it can be worked with for years and still yield secrets. It is both comprehensive and incomplete, alive in a way that won’t lie flat on paper.
might also ponder the words of
hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Late in his
life, Erickson was often asked the question,
“What is hypnosis?” Typically he would
pretend to think for a moment and then say,
“I’ve only studied hypnosis for 50 years.
It’s too early to tell.”
Copyright 1998, 2013, 2017 by Thomas Condon www.thechangeworks.com