What is the Enneagram?

October 16th, 2018

Just another personality test?

The Enneagram is an ancient model of personality types that dates back a thousand years or more. Elements of it can be found in the wisdom teachings of several different cultures. Eventually, this model made its way into the Catholic Jesuit community in the 1960s, where it became a useful tool for spiritual direction. Father Richard Rohr learned about it from the Jesuits and was one of the first English-language authors to publish a book about it. In the following years, a growing number of teachers, both religious and secular, have written books expanding on their understanding of the Enneagram.

It’s possible that you’re skeptical, either about the Enneagram specifically or about personality systems in general. That’s certainly understandable! No one wants to be put in a box and reduced to a number, color or set of letters. We’re all complex individuals and want to be viewed as such. When I first heard of the Enneagram, I felt the same way. However, over the past several years, as I’ve taken the time to investigate this tool, I’ve found that it has helped me understand myself and others with a clarity that has honestly surprised me.

In the July 4, 2016, episode of their podcast The Road Back to You: Looking at Life Through the Lens of the Enneagram, authors Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile describe the Enneagram this way: It is “nine ways of seeing, nine ways of being, [and] nine ways of responding to what you see.” In this episode, titled “Discover the Enneagram!” Cron and Stabile say that by looking at life through the lens of this tool, you will have more compassion for yourself and others and better understand why each type behaves, thinks, and feels the way they do. The authors further explain that the Enneagram, unlike other popular personality typologies, accounts for our spiritual dimensions, along with “the fluidity and dynamism of the human personality.”

The Enneagram model

The Enneagram model is represented by a drawing that might look odd at first glance. In Greek, ennea means nine, and gram means points or figure. Each of the nine points on the circle represents a distinct personality type. Although you might find parts of yourself in all types, one of them will likely stand out to you as the one you connect to the most. This is your basic personality type.

The lines on the inside of the circle show how types connect to one another. For example, I’m a One. When I’m feeling stressed, I pick up aspects of the Four type. When I’m in a place of growth, I become more like a Seven. In addition, since my emotions and outlook vary daily like a normal human, I might embody a more healthy version of a One on one day and a less healthy version the next. Nevertheless, I’ll always be a One, even as other traits about me change.

Each type comes with a thorough description but can be summarized with a word or two. In his book The Sacred Enneagram, Christopher Heuertz lists some of the more traditional titles for each type:

  • One: Reformer/Perfectionist 
  • Two: Helper/Giver 
  • Three: Achiever/Performer 
  • Four: Individualist/Artist/Romantic 
  • Five: Investigator/Thinker/Observer 
  • Six: Loyalist/Devil’s Advocate 
  • Seven: Enthusiast/Dreamer 
  • Eight: Challenger/Confronter 
  • Nine: Peacemaker/Mediator 

Each type also belongs to an Intelligence Center that highlights your most “accessible emotional response,” explains Heuertz. For instance, Eights, Nines, and Ones fit in the Body (instinctive or gut) Center, while Twos, Threes, and Fours make up the Heart (feeling or emotion) Center. Lastly, Fives, Sixes, and Sevens comprise the Head (mind, thinking, or rational) Center.

It’s important to avoid placing yourself in a type just based on the title. Enneagram teachers encourage those new to this system to take a test as a starting point and then spend some time reading about and discussing it with others. The Enneagram isn’t something that can be easily absorbed in one sitting or even in several weeks. It often takes months or longer to understand your type and why you fit there.

Spiritual reflection

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a One, someone who “strives for principled excellence as a moral duty,” as described by Heuertz. Ones can be critical and judgmental, but at their best they’re great teachers who are compassionate and serene. They have a fierce inner critic who strives for perfection. Yes, I’m the writer who beats myself up if I turn in a manuscript with even a small mistake.

Fortunately, the Enneagram gives me permission to be gentle with myself and provides valuable insights into how to do that. For example, as someone who falls in the Body Intelligence Center, contemplative practices such as stillness and rest support my spiritual growth by focusing on the weaknesses associated with my type.

The Enneagram also helps me relate better to family and coworkers. I have a son who is a Seven —  that fun-loving person who’s always planning for the next adventure. When I observe him becoming critical and demanding (like Ones), I realize he’s feeling stressed. My daughter and husband are Fours—introspective artists who become more organized and goal-oriented (like Ones) when at the top of their game. As I recognize these patterns, I can offer more grace for stressed behavior and encouragement of growth.

Heuertz writes, “The Enneagram invites us to deeper self-awareness as a doorway to spiritual growth.” While it illustrates how we get lost, it also offers “a sacred map for our souls” that points us home and uncovers our true identity as children of God, he says.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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