I am a Nine on the Enneagram. If you buy into this sort of thing, you may know that every Enneagram type is said to have a “childhood wound,” a message the person received explicitly or implicitly as a child. The whole personality type is a distorted lens through which we tend to see the world because of the wounding message that sunk so deeply in that we can barely even imagine it not being true.
For the Nine, the childhood wound is something like: You don’t matter very much. Your needs and your opinions are not as important as everyone else’s. Nines respond to that wounding message by becoming agreeable and numbing themselves to their own pesky opinions and needs, to avoid being a bother.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks as the pandemic is (as predicted) raging tragically, infuriatingly out of control in the United States. The moral thing to do is to behave as though our individual desires are less important than the health of the community. This means that my desires to see my friends and my family and to travel and to eat in a restaurant have to yield to the public health guidelines. We all have a duty to put ourselves second, to put our neighbors and strangers first, just as we hope they do for us.
It strikes me that this belief is reinforcing my childhood wound. You don’t matter. Who do you think you are, anyway? Why are you so special? But my personal “work” is supposed to be the opposite—learning how to put myself and my wants and needs and opinions first, even if others don’t like it.
It’s a puzzle! It’s a pickle!
Truly, even the most evolved, emotionally magnificent part of me believes in the truth that individuals must yield to each other in a pandemic—at least when it comes to their desire to engage in behaviors that put everyone at risk. (Of course, individuals matter a whole lot when it comes to their material needs being met, and their right to stay alive, which you really wouldn’t know from the way our leaders insist that we’re taking care of each other by buying beers in a bar that’s open only until 10, for safety, because, what, would you rather those bar employees starve? As though those are really the only two options, and if you can’t tell, I am livid about this, but anyway…)
Here’s where I’m coming down: waking up to the hell that is my own personality has involved learning to identify and express my own needs and wants and opinions, even when others might not like it. That work continues. But that in no way means it is my right to harm others. I grow to recognize that I matter as much as everyone else, but not more. And everyone else matters as much as me, but not more. We are equal in dignity and importance. We belong to each other. We must all sacrifice for each other. We must not live only to please ourselves.
Does this sound a bit like relapsing? Maybe.
But I’m still developing increasingly spicy opinions from the safety of online, so all is not lost.
As someone ever desirous of categorizing herself, allow me to introduce another category: misophonia. Sadly this is not a telephonic hotline leading to delicious soup. Instead, it is the hatred of sound.
Do you have misophonia? Here are some signs:
Glaring at loved ones and strangers alike when they make ordinary human noises, and then they either go “what?” or smile at you like you’re just saying hi, when actually you’re hoping they’ll understand from your look that you’d like them to enter a magical cone of silence;
Wanting to scream when people call using the speaker setting in public, especially when they for some reason decide to talk louder because of it, as though the phone can’t hear them even though they’re shouting directly into it;
Feeling physically itchy when you can sort of hear the TV through the wall you share with your neighbor’s apartment, and walking down the hallway a few times before midnight to try to get up the courage to knock on the door, which seems less passive-aggressive than just knocking on the shared wall, but ultimately not doing either one and just sighing loudly to yourself;
Nausea brought on by such daily occurrences as the scrape of a fork on someone’s tooth, the clank of plates going in or out of the cupboard, the rush of a car driving past, or that bizarre rumble that probably has something to do with construction but might be some kind of haunting;
Whipping open the bedroom curtains at 6:32 every morning when the horrible neighbor BEEP-BEEPs their car unlocked and then remotely starts the ignition, then staring at the car as though it will stop it growling in idle for ten to fifteen horrible low-frequency, high-greenhouse-gas minutes until Their Majesty the neighbor sees fit to actually get out of their house and get in the damn thing, as though it’s so hard to just start the car when you’re in it like a normal person, my God;
Passive-aggressive door closing when people dare to speak out loud in the hallway of the office (RIP);
This all sounds (no pun intended) fun, right?
There’s no cure for misophonia, probably partly because it’s not even really a medically recognized “thing.” The therapeutic advice comes in two flavors: (1) alter your environment to the extent you can, such as by investing in noise-cancelling headphones and using them to play nature sounds that drown out city sounds, and/or (2) practicing mindfulness.
I’ve done a lot more of the former than of the latter, even to the point that a coworker once taped a comic to my office door poking fun at my frequent use of giant headphones in the office. Well, maybe if you didn’t yell-laugh in the hallway, Kevin, you’d be able to see my ears more often, but here we are.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony of trying to escape sensory overstimulation by engaging my senses constantly. I have invited myself to kick this habit, and I have not yet done it. Perhaps someday. For the moment, yes, I’d rather listen to a song or podcast I chose than traffic noise I didn’t.)
Something I’m much less adept at is the mindfulness part. As anyone who’s ever struggled to meditate can attest, it’s hard. And avoiding mindfulness is, frankly, pretty fun for my ego: I suspect that part of my misophonia is the rather self-important desire to be unaffected by the world, the desire to be completely unbothered and at peace. Tough luck, says the world, you’re here with all of us, and you ain’t special.
Hm. Fair enough, I guess.
But here’s the thing: noise isn’t just something that I happen to dislike, the way I dislike Swiss chard but am totally fine with everyone else charding it up to their hearts’ content. It provokes in me an actual physical stress response, sort of like what I imagine an acrophobic person feels on top of a ladder.
And it’s not just me! No: noise pollution, like air pollution and water pollution, is an actual public-health and environmental hazard. According to a recent New Yorker article:
Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to many alarming problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, and all the physical, cognitive, and emotional issues that arise from being too distracted to focus on complex tasks and from never getting enough sleep. And the noise that we produce doesn’t harm only us. Scientists have begun to document the effects of human-generated sound on non-humans—effects that can be as devastating as those of more tangible forms of ecological desecration. Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vermont, told me, “What we’re doing to our soundscape is littering it. It’s aural litter—acoustical litter—and, if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out the window as we go driving down the road.”
As is true with all kinds of pollution, those with the most privilege are best able to avoid the nuisance. Those without privilege are forced to suffer.
If you don’t have the money to go to The Hamptons, or the Catskills, or have a car, or anything like that, then, you can’t escape it. You’re stuck with it, and a lot of research has shown, it’s the people that are stuck with it that are affected the most. Unfortunately, that makes for a lot of poor, a lot of minority neighborhoods [in New York City] that are dealing with the most noise, and they’re the ones that can’t leave.
So think of me and those like me, those of us glaring at you and putting our hands to our ears like children on the platform when the train screams to a stop—think of us as the canaries in this noisy coal mine. You’re all stressed too, on a cellular level. You’re just not aware of it. Or you weren’t before, but now you are, because I’m staring at you and hoping that you’ll consider closing your mouth while you eat that carrot, and that car manufacturers will decide to stop making cars that honk other than in danger.
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.
To recap: I’ve been addressing the interesting but often unverifiable claims that the Enneagram is quite old. Often, this claim is equal parts squishy definition and wishful thinking.
Now I turn to my final chapter on this journey: why is it wishful thinking? Why is being old desirable, let alone desirable enough to get us all to do some dubious accounting?
There’s the undeniable romance of it, of course. Compare this snippet of a description of the Enneagram’s history:
Variations of this symbol also appear in Islamic Sufi traditions, perhaps arriving there through the Arabian philosopher al-Ghazzali. Around the fourteenth century the Naqshbandi Order of Sufism, variously known as the “Brotherhood of the Bees” (because they collected and stored knowledge) and the “Symbolists” (because they taught through symbols) is said to have preserved and passed on the Enneagram symbol.
Speculation has it the Enneagram found its way into esoteric Christianity through Pseudo-Dionysius (who was influenced by the neo-Platonists) and through the mystic Ramon Lull (who was influenced by his Islamic studies.)
On the frontispiece of a textbook written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit mathematician and student of arithmology Athanasius Kircher, an Enneagram-like figure appears.
With the pedestrian-sounding contention that it’s an amalgamation, created in the 1970s, out of bits of various ideas.
Wouldn’t you rather have that Indiana Jones trek through the sands of time, with a soupçon of a Da Vinci Code-style coverup, a conspiracy of ancient and esoteric brotherhoods?
Who wouldn’t? Especially when your alternative is that people in the 20th century, many of whom are still living, just sort of…made something up.
We have a deep craving for authenticity. This is good. We are naturally skeptical. Also good. So especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a system that will purport to turn a dark mirror on our subconscious motivations, we may well take a step back and demand to see some badges. Ancient brotherhoods are decent badges to flash, quelling at once our skepticism and our thirst for intrigue.
Or, those of us who have found this system helpful, and who also thrill to old stuff, get deeply excited when we see a glimmer of a comparison in something old: Look, the stops on Odysseus’s journey in the Odyssey appear to align with the Enneagram types! Look, there are seven or nine deadly sins, give or take! And we may skip over the task of actually finding a credible connection that goes beyond coincidence, flapping our hands instead at the unknowability of ancient wisdom traditions.
But here’s my theory: saying “it’s new” isn’t all that much more accurate than saying “it’s old.” Was it made up in the 1970s? In my opinion, yes: anything recognizable as the Enneagram of Personality was. But I don’t think we need to stop there, because those people in the 1970s (principally Ichazo and Naranjo) didn’t make up this system out of new cloth. They made it out of lots of bits of old cloth.
And new stuff out of old cloth is as close as we often get in this world to “old cloth.”
Here’s an analogy: even as the genetic testing industry continues to grow (and even though I very much enjoy genealogy), it’s clear that you don’t have to go back very far until the distinction between your-family and not-your-family breaks down.
One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.
Rutherford at 162.
Does that seem impossible–that every living person of European descent is descended from every European in the year 1000 or so who has any living descendants? He explains further:
[A]ccept that everyone of European descent should have billions of ancestors at a time in the tenth century, but there weren’t billions of people around then, so try to cram them into the number of people that actually were. The math that falls out of that apparent impasse is that all of the billions of lines of ancestry have coalesced into not just a small number of people, but effectively literally everyone who was alive at that time. So, by inference, if Charlemagne was alive in the ninth century, which we know he was, and he left descendants who are alive today, which we also know is true, then he is the ancestor of everyone of European descent alive in Europe today.
Rutherford at 162.
So all of us who have European descent are related to Charlemagne. All of us who have European descent are, equally, related to Kurt the Pig Boy who lived just down the hill from Charlemagne’s palace, as long as Kurt has any living descendants.
This kind of math takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of genealogy: those of us who are able to trace our ancestry back several generations often feel proud if we find someone notable in the genetic heap, perhaps forgetting how many hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of others also can claim the same heritage. Charlemagne is indeed in many of our bloodlines, but in menial quantities that it’s hardly worth mentioning. He belongs to history far more than he belongs to our genealogy.
Rutherford shows how this logic goes if we zoom out from Europe to the entire world: at least one researcher has estimated that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3,400 years ago.” Rutherford at 164.
If this sounds too recent, or baffling because of remote populations in South America or the islands of the South Pacific, remember that no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time, even in those remote locations. The influx of the Spanish into South America meant their genes spread rapidly into decimated indigenous tribes, and eventually to the most remote peoples. The inhabitants of the minuscule Pingelap and Mokil atolls in the mid-Pacific have incorporated Europeans into their gene pools after they were discovered in the years of the nineteenth century. Even religiously isolated groups such as the Samaritans, who number fewer than 800 and are sequestered within Israel, have elected to outbreed in order to expand their limited gene pool.
Rutherford at 164.
So go back less than 4,000 years, and there’s some anonymous man or woman from whom every person alive can claim descent. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
There is no simple, linear descent of humans. Human genealogy is inherently a net, a web, that reaches all around the world much more speedily than we tend to assume.
Likewise, to bring it back around to the Enneagram, there is no pure, arcane, secret tradition. People, and ideas, don’t work like that. There is change and exchange and learning and borrowing and mixing and syncretizing. And that’s generally good.
Just as “no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time,” ideas don’t tend to idle intact within secret brotherhoods, nor do languages sit immobile in faraway mountain hollers. Change, not stability, is the story.
And in my view, the fact of the Enneagram of Personality being relatively new is what makes it so valuable. If the system is fixed, then it is no one’s–it is unaccountable and inflexible to new insights and new generations’ shifting perspectives. If it refers back to an ancient brotherhood, who’s to say what it is? What it’s not?
Instead, I vote that we recognize–and celebrate–the new origins of this old thing. This new quilt made from various semi-old rags. It’s a solution that gives us some of the romance of the old, and some of the novelty of the new. That’s about as good as we can do.
Previously on Psychopomp, I ran through what I’ve learned about the history of the Enneagram. People often claim that it has ancient and mysterious origins, but my investigation of these claims demonstrated to me that this wasn’t quite true. Instead, it seems that a handful of 20th-century men created the system, then attached an ancient mystique to their teachings. In one case, this led to some rather interesting legal issues in the 2nd Circuit.
But as I said then, my investigation hit a bit of a roadblock. It wasn’t clear that all these sources were even talking about the same thing when they made their claims about the origins of the Enneagram. This meant it was hard for me to write the ancient origins off so quickly.
So, what is it, anyway?
Part Two: The Definitions
I am not the first to conclude that, essentially, the Enneagram as we know it now (a symbol marking the relationships between nine personality types of a given description) is a 20th-century innovation.
Riso and Hudson admitted as much, although their early book Personality Types (see previous post) had included its own mysterious set of Very-Old claims. Pumping the brakes on their own earlier breathless prose, they write in a later edition that “[u]nfortunately, the first edition of Personality Types was perhaps a source of the mistaken idea that there was a body of knowledge about the Enneagram which had been transmitted through an ongoing ‘oral tradition’ of some kind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Enneagram is largely a modern development.” Elsewhere, they wrote that the Enneagram is “a hybrid, a modern amalgam, from a number of ancient wisdom traditions combined with modern psychology.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19. “Various authors have speculated about its origins, and Enneagram enthusiasts have created a good deal of folklore about its history and development, but much of the information being passed around is unfortunately misleading. Many early authors, for example, attributed the entire system to Sufi masters which we now know is not the case.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19.
Although the origins and history of many of the ideas and theories associated with the Enneagram of Personality are a matter of dispute, contemporary Enneagram claims are principally derived from the teachings of Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo.
The Enneagram of Personality Types is a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions, but the person who originally put the system together was Oscar Ichazo.
But which is it? Is it from the 20th century, or is it old? Is it a new thing made of old pieces, or an old thing with new fittings?
One problem is definitional: we have the Enneagram diagram itself, and then we have the Enneagram of Personality, which is the system that overlays nine psychological types on top of that diagram.
So what are people talking about when they make a claim about the Enneagram’s history? The personality types, or just the diagram? Or something else entirely? It’s rarely clear.
But even if we adjust our search to just an Enneagram that has personality types attached, it is unclear how far we can reasonably go back: Gurdijieff, in the early 20th century, taught that “each of us had a chief feature that was the central axis around which the delusional aspects of our personalities revolved.” Tart preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he made some personality claims, in unconventional ways: he would hold liquor-soaked evening sessions during which he would excoriate everyone as a particular kind of “idiot.” Palmer at 13-14. You can see this as him exposing people’s Enneagram type (in Gurdijieff’s own very Enneagram-8 fashion) if you want…but need you?
It’s undisputed that he taught the Enneagram diagram. See Palmer at 10. But there is no evidence that he thought of mapping his personality “chief features” onto the diagram.
Tart hedges: “Gurdijieff clearly used the Enneagram of personality in his work with his students, but, to my knowledge, did not pass the system on in any detail to his students.” Preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he used the Enneagram of Personality, but in such a subtle way that his students had no idea that they had learned it.
To which I say…hmm.
Instead of learning a personality system, Gurdijieff’s students learned “through nonverbal movement exercises that were designed to give a felt sense of the stages that different processes go through when they begin and are played out in the material world.” Palmer at 10. In fact, “There was nothing written about the Enneagrams of personality during Gurdijieff’s lifetime, and the schools that continued his teaching were inclined to view personality preoccupations as something to be set aside in the movement toward higher consciousness.” Palmer at 11.
So you see the problem: we are tempted, when looking for the Enneagram in the past, to find it in its modern form in Gurdijieff. So we look back at a man who used the diagram, who also taught some concepts about personal development, and with the benefit of hindsight, we assume that he might have also secretly or nonverbally used the other things that we associate with the Enneagram of Personality today, even though it appears that he didn’t.
Or this leads to different, wilder hedges: that the Enneagram in Gurdijieff’s time was more pure than it is now, having been tainted by the masses obtaining access to it; or that Gurdijieff definitely knew the Enneagram of Personality, but chose not to teach it because his students could not handle it. See Palmer at 12.
But isn’t it more likely that the Enneagram as we know it now was just not around yet, and that’s why there’s no evidence that Gurdijieff taught it? Isn’t that why those little bits of the early Enneagram look so bizarre to us?
We essentially have to make a choice: between the notion that the Enneagram of Personality as we know it now has existed for thousands of years, transmitted through the Babylonians and Sufis and Kabbalists and the early Christian mystics, but that its full form was kept secret; or that it is a modern invention that draws on–or resembles–older concepts. I clearly vote for the latter.
So what are those concepts it draws on?
A huge one that is largely ignored in modern Enneagram circles is esoteric numerology. After all, the diagram–and the exact placement of the types on it–is not arbitrary. See Palmer at 46. The diagram consists of a circle in which lay two separate diagrams: an equilateral triangle, and an irregular six-pointed figure.
The triangle represents the “law of three,” which is seen in many mystical traditions, and is also notable because the decimal of 1/3 is 0.33333, with a string of 3s out to infinity. This fact of numerology would have come about after the discovery of the zero, and the subsequent discovery of decimal places, in a base-ten system. On the Enneagram diagram, the triangle forms points 3, 6, and 9–all of the multiples of three.
It turns out that the irregular six-pointed figure is similar: it represents the “law of sevens,” because 1/7 also creates an infinite decimal: 0.142857. This pattern of six numbers repeats forever, never including a multiple of three. Students of the Enneagram of Personality will recognize that sequence of numbers as six of the Enneagram types arranged in order of their movements in stress: type 1 moves to type 4 in stress; 4 moves to 2; 2 to 8; and so on.
This explains the diagram, and why the nine numbers are arranged in a given order. It has to do with numerology. And on top of this numerology, some attach esoteric meaning: the law of threes is associated with the trinity, for example, and the law of seven “governs the stages of implementation of [an] event as it is played out in the physical world.” Palmer at 36. I’m not quite sure what that means, to be honest.
Some numerology goes a little further: if you do your math a little wrong, you can add .33 to .33 to .33 and get .99. That is to say, three of the decimal of 1/3 creates an infinite string of nines. Likewise, if you add .142857 to itself seven times (in other words, seven of the decimal of 1/7) creates .999999. Again, this is bad math, because 3 times 1/3 is 1, just as 7 times 1/7 is 1, but if you just add the decimals on top of each other and ignore the fact that you’re supposed to go to infinity, it looks like you get a lot of nines–which is significant in a system based on numerology about a nine-pointed figure. See Palmer at 37; Maitri at 27. Riso also does a little bad math to help us remember the 1-4-2-8-5-7 string: “1-4, or 14, doubles to 28, and that doubles to 57–or almost so.” Enneagram Transformations at 14.
I say this not to bore you to tears but instead to make the point that a big chunk of whatever the Enneagram is is numerology, which definitely goes back a little further than other chunks. And, importantly, it’s not the Enneagram of personality, is it?
You can also find connections between the nine-pointed shape in astrology and geometry, and it is clear that the Enneagram of Personality is just inherently a very different thing than all this. See https://nosmallthingpodcast.com/2019/05/27/050-the-enneagram-a-history/. There are also personality typing systems that are quite old: the four humors, the Seven Deadly Sins. There are mystical groupings of nine: the nine worlds that the Norse mythical tree Yggdrasil connects, for example. But no one now does just numerology, or just sacred geometry, or just the seven deadly sins, and calls it the Enneagram. That would be confusing at best.
At the end of the day, here’s the real history, as far as I’m concerned: a bunch of semi-related (and, in some cases, unrelated) ideas including numerology, religious transformation, psychology, astrology, esoterica, etc, floated around until Ichazo and Naranjo and later people (Riso, Hudson, Maitri, Palmer, et al) created what we now call the Enneagram of Personality in the ’70s. Searching before that for a single, intact system transmitted through the ages guarantees finding some false positives in hindsight, finding some loose resemblances and rounding them up.
Rather than finding the actual pedigree of a single idea, we’re instead identifying the universal appeal of a several separate things. Which is fine!
And the thing is, the Enneagram as we know it now is still evolving. It’s not done. Riso “discovered” the levels of health (the idea that each type contains nine levels of health, which shows how each type will look at different levels of well-being) in 1977. Wisdom of the Enneagram at 25. Riso and Hudson call it a “work in progress,” so that practitioners are “continually finding better terminology, making new discoveries, formulating more profound questions, uncovering new areas for investigation, and seeing more fertile connections with other bodies of knowledge.” Id.
For me personally, so much of what I’ve been enriched by in this system is rather new: the complexities of wings, arrows, subtypes, levels of health–none of these are attested back very far. All of the rather simple comparisons of the ancient Enneagram (such as the seven deadly sins) don’t have these complexities, because they are a different system. Even if the bones are old, you might say, the guts are new. Or something. (It’s getting late, and I’m tired).
To sum up: if you set your sights quite low, you can find a lot of things that look like bits and pieces of what we now know as the Enneagram all over time and space. You can cobble together an ancient esoteric history of the system. You will be able to gather bits of other sets of nines, or systems that generalize people based on a set of types. You will get some false positives.
I’m trying to break my own habit of wanting these false positives, wanting that charge of finding something really old as though in a brand-new archaeological dig. And even after all this rambling, I’m facing some disappointment, a kind of deflated feeling that I’m a joyless cynic, for trying to get rid of the perception that the Enneagram is ancient.
But why is that a bad thing? Why do we want the false positives? PART THREE is coming.
I’m often fascinated by the claim that something is ancient. You may hear, if you attend a yoga class, that the series of poses you are about to do have been transmitted through the centuries. You may have read that certain isolated people in the Appalachians or perhaps some island or other in the Chesapeake speak just like the English did in Shakespeare’s time. And, if you have done any reading about the Enneagram, you may have heard that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old.
These claims often hold grains of truth, but they rarely hold up to more scrutiny. Familiar yoga poses are largely a 20th-century phenomenon, even though yoga in very different forms goes back centuries. There isn’t any mountain holler containing preserved Elizabethan accents.
As for the Enneagram…I’m here today to get to the bottom of that one.
Let me begin, though, by acknowledging that I’ve been burned before. Since I was a kid, I’ve gotten my jollies from old stuff–historical fiction, old buildings, that kind of thing. And I hate being fooled about it, as I so often have been. This leads me to a reactive skepticism when I hear that something is Quite Old. I sense a disturbance in the force, assuming that something troubling and ahistorical has occurred. In my defensiveness, I insisted my parents buy a plaque that still hangs in their house: “In 1837 on this spot, nothing happened.” Because, so often, it didn’t.
And because I’m kind of a contrarian at times, and because I’ve made this little blog as a bully pulpit for myself so no one can stop me, I set out a few weeks ago to write a conclusive history of the Enneagram. It was bothering me, this not knowing. But as I’ll explain in this multi-part series (!), my investigation has gone a little sideways.
Part One: The Claims.
If you begin to look into the Enneagram’s history, you’re likely to find some Very-Old claims. You’ll soon learn that the Enneagram is centuries old, or millennia old, or simply “ancient.” You’ll learn that it is from an ancient Christian tradition, or an ancient Greek tradition, or an ancient Sufi tradition, or all of these together. You’ll begin to hear vaguely Dan-Brown-sounding whispers about the Enneagram being hidden in esoteric darkness for ages, passed between secret brotherhoods and the occasional mystic, until it burst into the light, quite mysteriously, right around 1970.
For example, take the Integrative 9 website‘s fuzzy history:
The roots of the Enneagram are disputed and unclear, but seem connected to different spiritual and oral traditions as well as specific mathematical and philosophical traditions. Some authors claim strong Sufi roots, while others point to connections to early esoteric Christianity. It should be noted, however, that it is definitely not common to all Sufi traditions….
Some authors believe that variations of the Enneagram symbol can be traced to the sacred geometry of Pythagorean mathematicians and mystical mathematics….Plotinus, in the Enneads, speaks of nine divine qualities that manifest in human nature….It may have entered into esoteric Judaism through the philosopher Philo, later becoming embedded in the branches of the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah (Nine-Foldedness)….
Variations of the Enneagram symbol appear in the Sufi tradition, with specific reference to the Naqshbandi Order (“Brotherhood of the Bees”)….Possible relationship with Christianity through medieval references to the Evagrius’ catalogue of various forms of temptation (Logismoi) which much later, in medieval times, was translated into the seven deadly sins…Jesuit mathematician Athanasius Kircher has an Enneagram-like drawing that forms part of a 17th-century text.
(Believe me, I’ve tried to find that drawing, and no one seems to ever want to actually show it.)
Helen Palmer wrote in her 1991 book The Enneagram that the Enneagram is simply “an ancient Sufi teaching,” and her website claims:
With a history of centuries, the Enneagram is arguably the oldest human development system on the planet.
Riso and Hudson, in their 1996 Personality Types, write:
One of the main problems with introducing the Enneagram is that its exact origins are lost to history. No one really knows precisely who discovered it or where it came from. Some writers maintain that the Enneagram first surfaced among certain orders of the Sufi, a mystical sect of Islam which began in the tenth and eleventh centuries; others speculate that it may have originated as long ago as 2500 B.C. in Babylon or elsewhere in the Middle East. But these are mere speculations….
Undeterred by the risk of speculation, though, Riso and Hudson go on to speculate that a “brotherhood of wise men” in ancient Mesopotamia “discovered the cosmic secret of perpetual self-renewal.” This was then passed down through the oral tradition in Babylon, where it encountered Zoroastrians and Greeks. Later it migrated to Uzbekistan, where Islamic mathematicians discovered the number zero and created the decimal system (which, as we’ll see later, is central to at least part of what we call the Enneagram.)
Christopher Heuertz, in his book The Sacred Enneagram, writes:
Versions of the Enneagram have been around for thousands of years, hidden away in wisdom schools and passed along orally within the mystic traditions of the world’s religions…I have been told of the Enneagram in prehistoric Korea as well as a version in folk Buddhism….Perhaps the oldest recorded hint of the Enneagram may be in what Beatrice Chestnut speculates to be evidence hidden away in Homer’s classic work, The Odyssey….
Pythagoras (who coincidentally studied in Egypt) fused mysticism and mathematics…. He is said to have used a drawing resembling the Enneagram symbol as his spiritual signature after learning of it in Heliopolis, which was the center of worship of the Ennead or the nine deities of ancient Egyptian mythology. Others point to the Jewish philosopher Philo (who also happened to live in Egypt), hinting that perhaps his esoteric Judaism and the Tree of Life, which is considered the key symbol of the tradition of the Kabbalah, root the earliest forms of the Enneagram in Jewish mysticism. Much has been written to suggest that the early Egyptian Christian monastic ascetics, the desert mothers and fathers, were the chief architects of the Enneagram, led by the fourth-century mystic Evagrius Ponticus. Ponticus’s writings are often cited to support theories on the Christian origins of the Enneagram, specifically as it relates to his work on his list of eight vices and virtues (in one place he names nine), which closely resemble the nine Virtues and Passions of the Enneagram as we have it today. Very commonly, many of today’s experts credit Sufi communities spread throughout Central Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, for developing the Enneagram between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
All of this basically makes me go, hmm.
So much for the ancient claims, which bear commonalities but rarely agree on much. As we saw above, the Christian writers emphasize resonances with the Christian tradition, including early Christian mystics and the seven deadly sins. Others emphasize the mysterious Sufi roots and other sources. A lot of sources kind of raise their hands and go, “it’s a mystery.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But where everyone begins to agree is in the 20th century. Even Heuertz, after his heady trek through ancient world history, concludes: “Regardless of whether the Enneagram has its roots in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, we do know that it wasn’t until the early 1900s” that the Enneagram showed up in the West through a man named Georges Ivanovich Gurdijieff (pictured below).
Gurdijieff was a “mysterious, somewhat diabolical figure from the Caucasus,” raised in Armenia and Turkey. Around 1912, he was working as a carpet dealer in Russia, occasionally inviting spiritual seekers to his “plush Orientalist” apartment. Dressed in a patterned silk dressing gown and turban, he would teach breathing techniques. He kept company with the many devotees of the occult and esoterica, which were immensely popular in Russia’s pre-Revolutionary Silver Age. That time “was saturated with spiritualism, Eastern religion, and esoteric magic,” including ostensibly ancient-Egyptian or Kabbalah-inspired numerology.
(Interestingly, many of those details about Gurdijieff come from The Goddess Pose by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, which is a fascinating biography of Indra Devi, the Lithuanian world traveler who was in large part responsible for introducing yoga to the West. As it turned out, my research about yoga as a comparison to the Very-Old-claims of the Enneagram led me right back to the Enneagram, in the person of Gurdijieff.)
Gurdijieff eventually began teaching students in a group called Seekers After Truth. Among his teachings was the Enneagram–kind of. The symbol, at least, was central to his teachings, but he never really said what it meant. He was secretive about where had learned of the symbol, occasionally claiming that he had learned about it from a secret brotherhood somewhere in Asia. See Heuertz.
Now, my hackles are up. The trouble is, the very existence of this secret “Sarmouni Brotherhood” of Sufis appears to trace right back to Gurdijieff, who I don’t necessarily trust as a historian or ethnographer. So now we might start to scratch our heads whenever we hear about Sufism and the Enneagram, because all the citations about this link appear to flow through Gurdijieff. Even Palmer, who gives credence to the Enneagram as an ancient device, admits that “[w]hat the West knows of the Enneagram began with [Gurdijieff]…who alluded to the Enneagram as a Sufi oral teaching device.” Enneagram at 10.
In any event, Gurdijieff used the Enneagram symbol to teach his students, but his system bears very little relationship to any Enneagram information you would find today. He appears to have seen it as a universal source of wisdom–a “key to all mythologies” fit for Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon–and he taught it as a set of transcendental dances, but not really as the psychological tool most of us know it as today.
So at this point, I’m suspicious that we haven’t yet really found the beginning of the Enneagram.
After Gurdijieff, a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo pops up next, around the early 1970s. By this point, the Enneagram is starting to look more like how we know it now. Ichazo taught “nine-pointed figures, enclosed in a circle, with straight lines connecting each point to two others. Each point corresponds to a given ‘ego fixation.’” Arica Institute, Inc. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1070 (2d Cir. 1992). That sounds decently close to what is now recognizable as the “Enneagram of Personality.”
Ichazo “claimed to have learned [the Enneagram] from a secret mystery school, the Sarmouni Brotherhood, who had also taught it to Gurdijieff.” Charles T. Tart, Preface to Palmer Enneagram, at xii. Ichazo also attributed his learning “to a seven-day vision in which he claims an angel visited him with the teaching of the Enneagram,” (quote from Heuertz) and to his “own channeling of the information..” Sandra Maitri, The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues, at 4.
Hmm–what are the odds that Ichazo also encountered the Sarmouni Brotherhood (who, I repeat, are somewhat likely to be an entirely fictional or allegorical invention of Gurdijieff’s?)
But although he mentioned the Sarmouni Brotherhood at times, Ichazo struggled to maintain a consistent stance about where the Enneagram came from: his Arica Institute attempted to copyright his ideas, including his enneagrams or “enneagons,” (Enneagram diagrams with certain labels), and the single-word labels themselves. The attempt to copyright these elements implies that they were Ichazo’s invention. And they defended this copyright: when Palmer wrote her 1991 book, the Arica Institute sued her for copyright infringement for repeating the Enneagram system and its nine personality types laid out on the Enneagram diagrams.
The Arica Institute lost the case against Palmer, and its loss was affirmed in the Second Circuit, in no small part because the Arica Institute and Ichazo could not get their story straight as to whether they had invented the Enneagram of Personality (which would give it a chance of being copyrightable) or whether it were an ancient tool, or–even worse for their copyright claim–objectively true.
As the Second Circuit explained, “Arica publications repeatedly assert that Ichazo has ‘discovered’ the ego fixations, which are scientifically verifiable ‘facts’ of human nature. ” Arica Institute, Inc., 970 F.2d at 1075. (Oh, no!) This hamstrung the case, and for this and other reasons, Palmer won; she did not owe damages to Ichazo or the Arica Institute for writing about what we now know as the Enneagram of Personality. (If she had lost, this whole Enneagram thing might still be under lock and key at the Arica Institute).
But, freed from copyright constraints, let’s continue our journey through Enneagram history: one of Ichazo’s students, Claudio Naranjo, soon split with Ichazo and brought his Enneagram of Personality teachings to America (specifically, where else?–Berkeley, California, in the 1970s). Naranjo began to teach, and he styled his student group the Seekers After Truth (SAT)–just as Gurdijieff had in Moscow over fifty years before.
“Naranjo knew and recognized the power of the enneagram as a psychospiritual tool, and its potential and place as part of serious spiritual work, and so he swore all of his students not to teach the enneagram without his permission.” Maitri at 5. But “[g]iven its potency, it was perhaps inevitable that the enneagram would begin to leak out. The enneagram found its way into the Jesuit community and has since become an accepted part of its training,” and corporate training soon followed, teaching it in secular form.” Maitri at 5.
And the rest is–not history, actually–the rest is the present. Enneagram information is everywhere. It’s so hot right now.
So, to sum up PART ONE of this investigation, I’ve read the books, I’ve got the receipts, and I am completely unconvinced that the Enneagram is ancient. I basically think it was invented, in any meaningful form, in the 1970s.
But stay tuned, if you can bear it, for our next installment, wherein I’ll zoom out. Because if you’ve been reading closely, you might be wondering, like I was, what are we even talking about? Are we talking about a diagram or a personality system or both or something else? How can you say how old something is if you don’t even know what the something is?
Conflict has been on my mind a lot recently, and not just because the world seems to be so full of constant knives-out energy (although that doesn’t help.) The very idea of conflict is central to my Enneagram type: 9s are among the more conflict-averse types, and my own conflict aversion was a huge wake-up call when I started learning about the Enneagram.
But lately, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are close to me that they don’t see me as particularly conflict-averse, or prone to merging with others to the point of disappearance, or unwilling to state an opinion, which are all ways that I have described myself. This might mean a few things:
First, I might be falling into the confirmation bias trap that lurks in all models, and certainly in the Enneagram. Especially when people talk about the Enneagram in a way that focuses on behavior rather than motivation, it can become simplistic to the point of pure falsehood. If you believe the memes, 9s are always buried under a blanket watching TV and tipping over into a fugue state when someone requires them to make a decision. So I may well be ascribing habits to myself that aren’t really as consistent as all that, falling into the gravitational pull of the stereotypes.
(I don’t think that’s the reason that I come across as less conflict-averse than I profess, though. I suspect the others:)
Second, I might have a more developed 8 wing than I realize. Like many 9s, I identify with nearly every type, often thinking I am all of them–except 8. Reading about 8s is, for me, like reading about aliens. That’s not me, at least, I can say defiantly. But don’t I have lots of rage, often internalized? Uh, yeah. And like to poke at people’s lazy thinking? Yes. And don’t I deeply resent being controlled (even if I am more prone to react passive-aggressively than proper aggressively?) Totally. But I’m only recently seeing these traits, because I think ordinarily I suppress noticing them. They don’t fit with the shallow version of myself I historically tried to inhabit: the unobtrusive, kind, peaceful, dreaming sort. (Some other time I might tell the story of intentionally throwing the Myers-Briggs test to empirically be as wood-nymph-like as possible.)
Third, and most important, at the end of the day the fear is not so much of conflict itself, but of disconnection. Conflict is a quick ticket to disconnection in a weak relationship, so avoiding it can be a shorthand for avoiding disconnection. I still get a little stomach ache thinking about the driver with whom I exchanged fingers a few weeks ago: I was walking; she nearly ran me over then flipped me off; I lost it at her quite impotently then fretted for a full day about how someone who doesn’t know me at all could have such malice toward me, and whether she’s out there thinking I’m the asshole, as though it really matters.
The thing is, instinctively, I’d rather hang on to the hollow shell of a relationship than risk losing it. So that’s when the hiding, the aversion to difficulty, is helpful.
But in a strong relationship where connection is plentiful, where I feel secure that conflict won’t lead to disconnection, I can let myself show more. I can be a bit of a pain. I can needle people into refining their opinions. I can feel, and show, my frustration. This allows me to work through it, get past it, rather than simmering internally. The phoniness drops. And it’s simplistic to call all of this “conflict,” and to say that I hate it, because it’s a part of the big complex tapestry that any relationship is.
All that to say, your girl is still trying to get comfortable with the idea that not everyone has to like me, especially if it comes at the cost of having been myself. And this is the kind of stuff that the almighty models can do well, at their best: show us the ways we might be hiding from the truth about why we do the things we do. This is when we have a chance to change those things, if they’re not working out for us.
When I was young, my parents occasionally threw what they called an “Ugly Food Party.” The concept (patently my father’s brain child) was a potluck, to which each guest should bring a dish that was both delicious and ugly. The more delicious, and the uglier, the better. At the end of the evening, a first, second, and third-place winner would be announced. Memorable dishes ranged from the cartoonish (bean dip served in a diaper) to merely unusual-in-my-neighborhood (a whole sheep’s head). One was an opaque greyish jello served in a brain mold.
It was the jello brain mold that got me here, because this is how my actual brain works: I came here to write about neuroplasticity, which is to say, brain molding, hence brain mold, hence ugly food party. My brain did this little hopscotch in about four seconds. This is, perhaps, why I am almost constantly distracted.
Speaking of habits of the mind, neuroplasticity has been on my mind lately because I just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself, which I would highly recommend. Dr. Norman Doidge writes accessibly about how the brain works, and the history of our growing understanding that the brain is constantly changing and adapting. Our thoughts and behaviors quite literally physically change the brain, because the brain adapts the tasks we put it to frequently. Thoughts we often think together become physically linked, until we make a conscious effort to disentangle them.
The book is full of fascinating examples of people who have been through tremendous physical or emotional trauma, and whose brains have adapted incredibly to overcome it, often with the help of therapy. The final chapter is about a woman who was born with literally only half of her brain (the other half never developed, after some unknown trauma in utero), and yet she was able to read, speak, and socialize, and was excellent at some kinds of math. Her half-brain had adapted to work as a whole one, finding space for all of her needs.
To summarize the conclusion of the book: you get better at what you practice. This is not what you might call groundbreaking. But to understand that it is true on a physical, neurological level is pretty amazing. Like a muscle, the brain becomes competent at, and then efficient at, doing what is repeated–whether these habits are harmful or helpful.
The book came out over a decade ago, and straddles the market between popular science and self-help. It offers very little in the latter category, but it is popular in those circles no doubt because it provides such a clear illustration of what needs to be done to improve oneself. Self-improvement on the order of increasing positivity, decreasing anxiety, or improving at an artistic task, begins to look like a physical reality, like straightening one’s posture or practicing piano scales. The prescription may remain the same as before (do more of the thing you want to do; do less of its opposite), but the explanation for why this helps makes it feel a little more tangible.
Even as I’m writing this now, I’m imagining my brain getting just that much better at associating the motor skills and verbal skills together that are needed to type while I think. And on a larger scale, I think back to a few weeks ago when I first decided to start this blog. At first, I had one or two ideas. Then, as soon as I articulated the thought to myself, “I will have a blog,” before I knew it I had quite literally dozens of ideas listed in a document. The neuroplastic explanation for that might be that even in imagining writing in this format, my brain strengthened the pathways between thoughts. I’m drawing connections between things, and drawing connections between those things and the ideas and actions of writing them down, more quickly and efficiently. It’s just practice. It’s picking what you like, and seeing how it grows, on a neurological level. It’s pretty neat.
Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of the “Typology” podcast, which is about the Enneagram. The guest was Dr. Richard Lindroth, a 5 who was willing to come on the show. (Type 5 is the “observer” or the investigator.” They are typically introverted and analytical, both of which traits might explain why it would be the rare 5 who would want to come talk about him- or herself on a podcast about something rather woo-woo like the Enneagram). Dr. Lindroth quoted the famous statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and that is precisely how I think about the Enneagram. I decided I quite liked him.
He also struck me by mentioning neuroplasticity in connection with the Enneagram (about ten minutes into the interview). As a 5, one of his struggles is in allowing himself to feel his emotions. His inclination is to tamp them down and think them, rather than to feel them. Since learning about the Enneagram, he says:
“One of my practices for the last couple of years has been to reduce that distance [between myself and my emotions]…When I am experiencing an emotion [I] take the time and really experience it in the moment, hold it in my head and really experience it for 20 seconds. That’s my neuroplasticity rule…If I can engage with this thought or engage with this emotion for 20 seconds, it’s going to help rewire my brain to accommodate emotions probably in a more healthy way.”
The imperfect model of the Enneagram can hold up a mirror, showing us aspects of ourselves that we had no idea were unusual. Learning that we do these things (and not everyone does, and we needn’t keep doing them), can point out some areas where we can constructively change and grow. Thinking about this in the context of neuroplasticity, one might say that the brain of someone deep in their Enneagram type has grown and adapted and developed efficient patterns of that type: Dr. Lindroth has learned to distance himself from his emotions, and I have learned to associate conflict with danger, and to shut down at the first sign of it.
But by noticing that our brains have that habit, and by imagining doing things differently, and by engaging for 20 seconds with an emotion or by staying mentally present when interpersonal things get rough, we can start to weaken the associations our brain has made, and to strengthen new ones.
This is one of those things that comes with being a 9, and in my case it goes so deep that I wasn’t even conscious of it until shockingly recently. All I knew is that I basically wanted to wither and vanish when anyone was angry or oppositional. I couldn’t imagine why anyone else felt differently. Facing down someone who was saying or even declaring what they felt was utterly incomprehensible, just as it would be incomprehensible to see someone burn all the cash in their wallet or something. Why on earth would you do such a thing? Why would you want to ruin everyone’s day like that?
(You see, if I were to do the same, it would ruin everyone’s day. No question.)
But part of learning about myself has been learning that not everyone is wired the same way. Most people are far more comfortable with conflict than I am. What’s more, there is so much to be gained from conflict deployed well. You can ask for what you want. You can confront an important issue. You can highlight what’s not working, and have a chance to change it. Amazing. (Am I there yet? No. But closer than before.) And best of all, it’s generally not a day-ruining kind of situation.
Thinking a lot about conflict in my own life has gotten me to think more about conflict in the political news. Specifically, how it’s basically a win-win for those who engage in it. This has been blowing my mind to realize, having thought for so long that conflict was basically a glitch in the Matrix.
Let’s first consider the case of Nancy and the Squad. It’s from a few weeks ago, which is basically decades in 2019 time, so I’ll recap: Nancy Pelosi, often a subject of critique from the left wing of her party, made some dismissive comments about four progressive Congresswomen, suggesting that they should be more pragmatic. Those Congresswomen’s supporters got fired up against the moderate part of the party, represented by Pelosi. (I assume the moderates also got fired up at some point, but that wasn’t evident from my Twitter feed at the time. [I disclaim, now and forever, any claims of responsible research on this site.])
Then, Trump started tweeting racistly about the Congresswomen, saying they should go back to their countries (even though they’re all American citizens, and three of four were born here.) Pelosi and all the Democrats came to their defense. Pelosi and Rep. Omar are good now.
On a large scale, what happened? Everyone benefited. “The Squad’s” stars rose. Pelosi maintained her credibility with the older and more moderate Democrats. Trump made racists happy, which is his thing. Pelosi came in to defend the congresswomen against the racist attacks. If you were conspiracy-minded, you might even say that that was her plan all along.
But the point here is: through this conflict, everyone made happy those they sought to make happy, and isn’t that sort of what politics is, as distinguished from actual policy- and law-making? You’d have to call it a success, start to finish.
This is what blows my mind. But I’m seeing it all over the place now. Adam Scott vs. Mitch-McConnell-being-Darth-Vader (which, I surmise, is what Republicans like about him: at least he’s their Darth Vader?). Democratic candidates for President strategically seeking conflict to stay in the race longer. Trump “feuding” with Rep. Elijah Cummings (again: making racists happy is his jam. They find it hilarious when he’s monstrous. Meanwhile, everyone else can rally around an embattled Democrat.) These are win-win situations for the parties. There’s no evident downside to participating, even if you didn’t “start it” in Kindergarten terms.
This may all seem obvious to people with less broken relationships to conflict in their own lives, but it’s all new to me.
And I’m left wondering if this conflict is a win-win all around, including for those of us on the outside. It does help clarify and crystallize our positions. It can show people’s true colors, even if we’ve already seen them many times too many. It can bring issues to the fore that would otherwise fester unspoken.
But in the long run, I’m worried that we’re stuck. The incentives all point toward increasing conflict in an increasingly politically polarized (or ideological) environment. The more polarized the public is, the more it benefits the parties to a conflict to engage in it, and to even prolong or heighten it. The further apart one is from one’s enemy, the more upside and less downside there is to opposing the enemy publicly. After all, everyone loves seeing the other guy get owned, even if no one is ever quite as owned as the owner expects. So there is no end in sight, and I’m not sure that the outcomes of clarified positions and increased transparency are worth it.
Basically, the incentives for public figures are to engage in conflict to satisfy the people who agree with them already. Everyone enjoys the spectacle. No one’s mind is changed. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a “let’s understand Rust Belt America” essay. This is not centrist sighing. I’m not even much of a centrist. I’m trying to get more comfortable with healthy conflict, but all of this just makes me sleepy.
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:
The Idealist, Perfectionist
The Helper, Lover
The Achiever, Performer
The Individualist, Romantic
The Observer, Investigator
The Loyal Skeptic, Loyalist
The Enthusiast, Epicure
The Challenger, Protector
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 mefor 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.)