Enneagram basics

Right out of the gate, let’s talk Enneagram for a second. I can tell already, based on my inability to not bring it up at inopportune times in meatspace, that I’m going to have a hard time not inserting bits of it here with some frequency. We may as well get squared away about it.

The Enneagram is a particular nine-pointed figure, from ennea- (nine) and -gram (shape). Compare it to an ordinary nine-pointed figure (nonagram) here.

The Enneagram of Personality is a personality-typing system that maps nine core personality types onto that figure. In addition to the nine core types, it includes many subtypes and dynamic movements between types of sometimes-Byzantine complexity. On a basic level, the types are as follows:

  1. The Idealist, Perfectionist
  2. The Helper, Lover
  3. The Achiever, Performer
  4. The Individualist, Romantic
  5. The Observer, Investigator
  6. The Loyal Skeptic, Loyalist
  7. The Enthusiast, Epicure
  8. The Challenger, Protector
  9. The Peacemaker, Mediator

Each of the nine types is especially distinguished by its core motivation and its core fear, not by its behavior. As a result, the Enneagram is intensely personal and internal. It is a cardinal sin in Enneagram circles to try to type someone else, no matter how well you know them and what makes them tick. (This stops almost none of us from doing it.)

And because the Enneagram is so personal, people of the same type can have dramatically different behaviors. They may have little in common. They may dislike each other. What is making them tick similarly to each other on the inside will make them act very differently, depending on their upbringing and environment and whatever other things make us all unique.

Like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI), the Enneagram is not scientific. As far as I’ve heard, the Big Five is the only research-based personality analysis. (Fun fact: although the Big Five is primarily directed merely at describing each person’s individual endowment with each of the five traits, recent research has begun to show four main grouping types: “role model, self-centered, reserved or the rather uninspiring ‘average.'” Query whether these types will continue to develop through research.)

But despite the Enneagram’s lack of scientific basis, for me and many other people it has been a tremendous tool for self-understanding, self-improvement, self-compassion, breaking unhelpful behavioral patterns, understanding others, improving relationships, and (in my case) writing fiction. So I’m into it.

I heard of the Enneagram years ago from my mother, who was and is very interested in the work of Fr. Richard Rohr. But I didn’t begin to investigate it further until last year.

It was a very difficult time. Life was throwing me for all kinds of wild loops. I didn’t understand what was happening to me or why I felt powerless over my future. In times like these, many of us (myself extremely included) seek solace in numbing agents. These can be television, video games, drugs or alcohol, shopping, oversleeping–

–and in my case, often, online content aggregators, the Hot Cheetos of the brain. I felt most sedated in front of a long row of tiny unopened browser tabs of Wikipedia articles or Buzzfeed listicles and quizzes. During some idle Twitter scrolling, I came across a quiz. Great joy! I took it. It said I was a 9. Luckily, this presented another opportunity to delay my return to my life: I opened a few more tabs to read about what 9 meant.

And, for the first time in my life, I had words to answer a question I didn’t even know I needed to ask. Among all the other aspects of being a 9 that I do (and often don’t) identify with, one knocked me flat: I am conflict-averse to the point of utter dysfunction. As the Enneagram Institute summarized (and as I read like someone had smacked me directly in the face): Nines “are usually creative, optimistic, and supportive, but can also be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace. They want everything to go smoothly and be without conflict, but they can also tend to be complacent, simplifying problems and minimizing anything upsetting. They typically have problems with inertia and stubbornness.

So it goes for some of us when we first read about our true Enneagram type: we hear someone putting words to forces we thought were just universal features of being human. In my case, this included the fact that I had been contorting myself into various shapes to suit what I assumed were the agendas of people in my life, often to the point that I didn’t remember who I’d been before, and not everyone does this. It’s optional. It’s not even recommended. Imagine!

Then, once that shock wore off, once the feeling that someone had been reading my diary passed, once the slight energizing rage that someone knew I might be doing these silly things and didn’t tell me had settled, I spent some time learning what else might be true. What other patterns was I acting out blindly? Where else was I weak where I could grow strong? How was my neighbor, my friend, my sweetheart, my coworker seeing the world (and themselves, and me) through very different lenses?

Then, you can begin to practice it. In my case, I practice letting myself figure out what I want (often, in my past, a hopeless task best not attempted, best left to others with stronger, knowable preferences). I practice being clear with myself about the fact that I want it. I practice saying it out loud. I practice feeling freer to take up space in the world and maybe even doing things people might disagree with. I notice when I start to feel frozen or paranoid, which are warning signs. I find ways to do fewer of the things that make me feel that way. I chase down the things that make me feel vibrant and noisy. I do more of those things.

More later, probably, on other related topics of interest:

  • the history of the Enneagram (and, more generally, my investigation into the past of things that claim to have no past (or an immeasurably long past, which is roughly the same thing));
  • the complexities of the Enneagram (wings, subtypes, arrows, countertypes, childhood wounds, relationships);
  • my fear that as it gets too complex it’s just like detailed astrology that gets so individualized that you’re just acknowledging, quite wordily, that everyone is different.

But for now, if you’re at all interested in doing some self-growth (or numbing procrastination), I recommend reading with an open mind about each type here, perhaps after a detour through a test to narrow down your most likely types: this one and these two are free to take.)

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