You may have heard of the Enneagram. It’s a personality typing system. I know, insert eye-roll here. If you’re like me, these things are fun, and a little narcissistic, and about as useful as the daily horoscope. It can sort of apply, but it’s not going to change your life.
Except this one has. For me, anyway.
I learned about the Enneagram from a psychologist friend who uses it as a tool in her practice. It’s so foundational to how she relates to her patients that she tests them in their first session. What drew me to the Enneagram is that it’s not just pop psychology. It has ancient spiritual roots in Sufism, the Christian desert fathers, and Kabbalah. So it has a soulishness that speaks to the shadow and glory side of every personality–the virtues of which we’re capable and the vices to which we’re susceptible.
It’s also complex and nuanced. It doesn’t just locate people on a series of spectrums; rather, each type is entirely distinct but interrelated with others. The nine types of the Enneagram describe core needs (or, to psychologize it, core ego messages) that drive our behavior and how we see the world.
1. The Reformer/ Perfectionist: “I must be/ do things right.”
2. The Helper/ Giver: “I must be appreciated.”
3. The Achiever/ Performer: “I must succeed.”
4. The Individualist/ Romantic: “I must be special.”
5. The Observer/ Investigator: “I must understand.”
6. The Loyalist/ Skeptic: “I must be safe.”
7. The Enthusiast/ Adventurer: “I must be free.”
8. The Challenger/ Leader: “I must be in control.”
9. The Peacemaker/ Mediator: “I must have peace.”
Some other interesting connections about the types:
2, 3, and 4 are the heart triad and operate most from their feelings
5, 6, and 7 are the head triad and operate most from their thoughts
8, 9, and 1 are the gut triad and operate most from their instincts.
These same triads have core emotional responses to trauma, pain, loss, and disconnection:
2, 3, and 4: shame
5, 6, and 7: fear
8, 9, and 2: rage
Another level of complexity to the Enneagram is “directions of integration and disintegration.” A healthy, growing person and an unhealthy, stressed person behave in very different ways, even if they have the same personality–or if it’s the same person! Me with coffee spilled down my blouse, my child having a breakdown, and urgent texts coming through my phone is very different than me with a glass of wine, a new book, and an empty house. The Enneagram predicts that under stress, each type will uniquely disintegrate to some of the worst qualities of another specific type. And in growth, it will integrate to the best qualities of another.
For example, my friend Sara is a 2–“The Helper.” 2s orient around relationships and are a nurturing, helpful presence in others’ lives. The shadow side is that 2s need to be needed, and when they are unhealthy or under stress, they can become controlling towards others, like an unhealthy 8. But 2s integrate to a 4–“The Individualist.” At their best, 2s are able to value and creatively express themselves as individuals as a balance to their other-centeredness. Sara is a musician, and she says that she knows she’s healthiest when she is nurturing her creative life and living into the healthy traits of a 4.
It may take a little while to figure out what type you are. The tests aren’t entirely conclusive. Some people say you can’t test for your type because of your own blind spots; only someone who knows you well can really say for sure what you are. Some have said that the experience of discovering their type has been uncomfortable. They feel suddenly exposed, found out. For me, I just couldn’t pinpoint myself because so many things resonated.
I tested strongly in the heart triad (2,3,4), but some of the others scored highly too. It took time, multiple tests, and conversations with people who know me and the Enneagram to figure it out. Turns out I’m a 3. But I have a very strong 4 wing–for awhile I thought I was a 4–which throws off my tests.
What’s a wing? This is one of the things I like about the Enneagram. It’s possible to pick up traits from one of the adjacent numbers to your type. So a security-oriented 6 might have an adventurous 7 wing that makes them take risks a typical 6 wouldn’t. For me, achievement-driven 3s are often out of touch with their true feelings, but with a strong 4 wing, I’m very aware of my feelings and the 4’s need to be unique makes my definition of 3 success highly personal.
The best test I’ve found online that’s free and doesn’t take forever is this one (choose the classic test). It takes wings into account and seems nuanced enough to make a good guess. Here’s my result from that site:
The Enneagram has been so helpful relationally. My husband is a 6–“The Loyalist.” (A 3 integrates to a 6, but I try not to remind him that I’m supposed to be striving to be more like him.) One of our major points of argument has been his difficulty to make decisions. As a 3, I have a very clear idea about how to achieve my goals. My problem is not having enough time to do it all. But when my husband needs to prioritize his time or make a big decision, he hesitates for what feels like a long time. This used to drive me crazy (sometimes it still does), but I’ve begun to understand that he needs a broader context than himself to make decisions. It’s part of being a 6. Their core need is security, and 6s want support and guidance to know that they’re making the right choices. To ask him to just be decisive would be like him asking me to stop writing to-do lists. It would expect him to be someone he isn’t.
The Enneagram has been taking me deep into my core self and bringing light and healing there. The driving message of my life has been “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” This has been laid down through pain and disappointment from childhood. But this also flows out of my own personality. I have ambitions and high standards, and I’ve learned that no one is more invested in them than I am. It makes me work very hard. It makes me an achiever–an Enneagram type 3. But it often leaves me alone and exhausted.
Recently my faith community was discussing sabbath–taking a full day to rest, play, connect relationally, and just be. Someone asked, “What do you find in yourself that is resistant to sabbath?” I realized that for me, the thought of simply stopping feels like the world would come crashing down. I realized how alone I make myself by doing so much and holding it all together on my own. I also realized that all the big “aha!” moments in my life have been about ceasing my striving and resting in the knowledge that I am loved just as I am, regardless of performance.
This is all 3 stuff! Having the Enneagram as a frame of context has helped me to make connections I couldn’t have before.
I started to think about what causes me the most pain: my failures. There are a couple of areas in my life that, despite all my effort and thought and strategizing, simply have not turned out as I hope. Usually when the pain of failure rises, I mollify it by telling myself I’ll try again and do better the next time. But on the heels of that sabbath reflection, I saw what a gift those places of failure actually are. They force me to recognize that I can’t do everything! Where I end is where grace begins–something I can never manufacture myself but gives me all that I need to be enough–just as I am. I’m trying to stop and listen to the pain. I’m trying to open the door to let grace come in and join me there. The failure is my holy ground.
For more information on the Enneagram, check out the Enneagram Institute site and the Enneagram of Personality Wikipedia page. Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert’s book on the Enneagram approaches it from a spiritual perspective and I have found it remarkably insightful. Enneagram experts Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile also use a spiritual approach as well as counseling style and have a book, a workbook, and a podcast entitled “The Road Back to You.” [Note: I am not compensated in any way for these recommendations.]
J.M. RODDY is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.