Credit for the inspiration for the title goes to this fantastic tweet:
Whitney Houston. https://t.co/mhF8K7Qldy— Relato (@Leighratoh) October 22, 2019
Something I find interesting about the Enneagram is that it’s not—and doesn’t claim to be—just a diagnosis of what you are and always will be. The Enneagram isn’t there to tell you that you are only, say, a 9. It’s dynamic, instead.
Allow me to be your guide on a little trip through the features:
On any given day, even at any given hour, a person of any type might be at a given “level of health.” Each type has 9 levels of health, ranging from 1 (total debilitation) to 9 (inhabiting the very best qualities of the type). For my type, 9, the highest level of health looks like actually earning the peace I seek—not by avoiding conflict by making myself small, but by using my gifts to unite opposing points of view within myself and for those around me.
This might be an answer to anyone who looks at the Enneagram skeptically: how could there only be 9 types of people? Well, there aren’t. Everyone is a unique combination of their innate nature, their experiences, their adaptations to those experiences, and the complexities of the Enneagram might get us close to having language for quite a lot of this variation.
But wait, there’s more: there are wings. Being a 9 means I have two wings: 1 and 8, the two numbers on either side of my number. These are the rules: your wings are only the numbers next to you. (Address your complaints to Oscar Ichazo). I, personally, have a much stronger 1 wing, but my 8 wing is making itself known more and more.
On top of that, we have our “arrows:” the lines connecting the numbers on the Enneagram diagram represent how we take on aspects of other types in times of stress and security. For me, when I am in stress I access certain characteristics of 6, which looks like becoming increasingly anxious and suspicious. By contrast, when I’m feeling more secure, I access certain characteristics of 3, which looks like becoming more aware of my gifts and sharing them with the world.
It gets even more complex, depending on who you read (remember, the Enneagram is a work in progress). Some say that our wings also move along their arrows of stress and security. So let’s look at my 1 wing: in a time of stress, my 1 wing would begin to look a lot more like 4, focusing on perceived missing pieces in my life. In strength, my 1 wing would go to 7, more able to relax and feel joy. Same for my 8 wing: it would move to 5 in stress, growing withdrawn and stingy, and to 2 in security, able to give freely and joyfully to others.
Are you still with me? On top of that, we add subtypes. This is the theory that there are three main existential drives: self-preservation (survival), sexuality (reproduction), and social (group bonding). We need all three of these to make it at the species level, and even at the individual level. But each of us is going to be motivated more or less by each of these at different times. Applying this theory to the 9 types results in 27 subtypes, representing each basic Enneagram type’s three subtypes depending on the individual’s focus. For example, there are “self-preservation 9s.” This means that the basic 9 type (focused on peace, fearful of separation) collides with the desire to be comfortable and provisioned. A self-preservation type might be a homebody’s homebody, creating a cozy lair full of comfort food and entertainment where there is little to bother them. On the other hand, a “self-preservation 8” would respond to the basic desire for physical provision differently: they might be prickly, spoiling for a fight if anyone threatens their satisfaction, attuned to any threat to their autonomy.
So take a look at all of this: 9 basic types; the levels of health; the possibility of having one of two wings or equally balanced wings; the arrows; the wings’ arrows; the subtypes. If you tried, and God bless you if you did, you might be able to create hundreds of types out of this. We might, in doing this, create a Byzantine description of who we are. I, for example, am a social 9 with a dominant 1 wing who is currently in a season of security, making me look a good deal like a 3 a lot of the time. Nice to meet you.
When it gets this complex, and you insist on a hyper-detailed profile for each person wherein the system can explain literally everything, all you’re saying is that we’re all different. If that’s the case, you might not be getting any value out of consulting the system in the first place. So returning a bit to the simplicity of the basic types, even if it feels reductive, makes sense.
Even though all models are wrong, some are helpful, and a lot of us have found the Enneagram helpful. It’s a tool to help us understand why we might do what we do. What drives us? And why do others do different things than we’d do? Because they, too, are living with their own motivators. It’s at once overly simplistic and terribly complicated. I think those of us who get into learning about it are sometimes at risk of overdetermining it, finding several Enneagram explanations for every little thing. If we can’t find the explanation in our basic type, we can find it in our arrows or our wings’ arrows or our subtype stack or what have you.
But on the other hand, the Enneagram is not here just to make us a nice little custom description in Enneaspeak for why we do all the things we do. It’s here to give us compassion for ourselves and each other when we don’t understand why we’re stuck in behaviors or feelings that are causing us to stumble. And it’s here to show us the way out: give us a model of what it might look like to grow (the “security” arrow is shorthand for this.) And it’s here to show us what the warning signs of when we might need support and grace (the “stress” arrow).
At the end of the day, it’s all shorthand, and we’re all people. For me, all 9 of the types are tremendously sympathetic. In fact, I’ve thought I was all of the types at some time or other (except for 8. That one has been easy to rule out since day 1). I strongly identify with the following aspects of each of the types:
- Judgmental inner critic voice. The word “should” is in frequent rotation.
- Needing approval from others, and sometimes giving what I don’t want to give in order to get it.
- Striving for recognition, doubting my self-worth if I don’t do something impressive.
- Craving the elusive “missing piece.” Settling into melancholy. Looking at negative emotions as authenticity. An intense need for personal space.
- Craving deep and unconventional understanding of concepts.
- Worst case scenario thinking. A push/pull relationship to authority.
- Attraction to big thinking and novelty, gluttony, trouble with focus and follow-through.
- Contempt for lazy thinking. Contrarianism as a way to avoid being trapped.
- Pretty much everything: the conflict aversion, peace-seeking, vacillation, comfort focus, inner fuzziness, attunement to nature, difficulty identifying myself. I don’t really see myself as lazy but I do find being vertical extremely challenging. #horizontallife
What does this mean, the fact that I can identify with all of them? Two things: it means I’m definitely a 9, because we notoriously see everyone’s perspective easily except our own. A typical 9 experience is going down the type lists and thinking “that’s me!” eight times until you get to 9 and go “…oh. I get it now.”
But I think it also points to the fact that these types are just archetypes. We tend to get stuck into one of them more strongly than the others, but we all contain all of them. The work, for all of us, is to move out of our ruts and explore new ways of showing up in the world that don’t rely on the old stories that we thought protected us from pain. This lets us create new stories that are a little closer to true.