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Unlocking the Enneagram

The real power is in personal growth

In the scope of things, my time with the Enneagram has been short. Considering it has existed in society in one form or another for several centuries (some think perhaps as far back as Pythagoras), my five years reading about and working to understand the Enneagram is pretty tiny. But because I've seen it popping up again in more professional spaces, I want to share what I've learned.

What is the Enneagram?

Oof. This is a big question. Let's start with this. The Enneagram is not a personality sorter.

Most of us have taken the Meyers-Briggs (MBTI), StrengthsFinder, or other personality sorters that tell us about ourselves. They all come with pseudo-scientific surveys that place attributes on you based on how you answer their questions. These are big-business and have only been around for the past 100 years or so.

The Enneagram is so much more than a personality sorter. Where most of these tools tell you what you are, the Enneagram helps you realize what your core tendencies are — good and bad — and then invites you to do the work to become someone more whole.

So, where do we start? First off, we need to understand what the Enneagram is and how to approach it. And while it does share the reductive qualities of classifying our behaviors into a limited number of types, there are some differences from your typical sorters.

The basic gist is this. Everyone has one of nine types. While you may see character traits in multiple types, the goal is to recognize the one that is the most like yourself. This is because the Enneagram takes into account the crossovers in various patterns of behavior. The more "scientific" personality sorters give you a combination of attributes — 5 core strengths (even though everyone has all of them) or 4 types in your character index — the Enneagram doesn't because it's not concerned with telling you what you are.

Actually, the Enneagram wants you to discover who you are. Remember how I said it's not a scientific framework? Ever taken the Enneagram test and been tied for certain types? When I first started on this journey, I did. And coming from an academic background, I didn't understand why I needed to choose. But the Enneagram is more closely tied to the ancient mystics.

Did I lose you? I hope not.

The Enneagram diagram
The Enneagram Diagram

Figuring out your Type

To be truthful, figuring out your Type can be difficult. The best way to start is to read about each Type. Then decide which one sounds the most like yourself. If you get stuck, the various tests out there can be helpful. But as I told my friend Mallory, these tests are just one piece of information.

The true power of the Enneagram is in its potential to change your life. The whole point of this, from my perspective, is to recognize the core tendencies or behaviors you have, why you have them, and whether they are helpful or not. From there, you can find balance and personal growth to be who you want. There are two sides to every coin, and each Type has a good (healthy) side and a not-so-good (unhealthy) side.

For instance, I am a Type 8. Eights are often perceived (and recognized) as being angry, dominating, and powerful. In our default state, we seek power to insulate and protect ourselves. If you look at that chart up a bit, you'll notice the Eight has lines connecting it to the Two and the Five. When Eights are healthy, we integrate to a Type 2 — we become caring and use our power to protect those that need it. When we're unhealthy, we disintegrate to a Type 5 where we become closed off, detached, and dismissive of other people's feelings.

We are always on a spectrum between healthy and unhealthy, and the goal is to recognize that and find stability.

Where do you land? If you can recognize the difference in your behavior when you're stressed out versus when everything is excellent, that can help you figure out your Type.

Mistyping

One of the more common things to happen when using the Enneagram is mistyping — thinking you (or someone else) is one Type when you are really another. While I'd like to blame the tests for this, I know it's been a challenge for a very long time. And this underscores why it's so important to have an open mind at the beginning of your journey. Really be open and vulnerable with yourself.

When I first started looking at the Enneagram, I also took a test. And I was so confused. I was tied for Type Eight and Type Five, and a few others were close by. But I was also very stressed out by work at the time, and I was a little skeptical of this whole new "personality sorter" because I was perfectly happy with StrengthsFinder, thank you. I could've easily mistyped myself as a Five. Friends who didn't know much about the Enneagram could've easily mistyped me as a Five or something else.

The trouble is that you then start to look at your life and your behavior patterns through a distorted lens, and everything becomes more confusing until you either realize you were mistyped or do something worse like blow up a job or a relationship. This happens. I've heard stories through Enneagram counselors and trainers.

But it also points to the importance of not typing others. I've heard one Enneagram trainer call this "the ultimate party foul" — you start learning about the Types and think you know your stuff, so you type all your friends. And yeah, it can be fun, but it can also cause some damage.

First, you may have mistyped your friend, and they'll start this journey thinking they're one thing when they're really another. But worse, you've deprived them of the start of their journey. They haven't been properly introduced to the Enneagram or dug in deep enough to understand the different Types.

My wife and I have been studying this long enough to be pretty good at typing people. But we're careful to keep it to ourselves unless asked, and even then, we want the person to discover it for themselves.

What society gets wrong

The biggest mistake people make with the Enneagram is in using it as an excuse for their bad behavior. "Oh, I'm just angry all the time because I'm an Eight" is not a good excuse for hurting people. I've learned this and done the internal work to keep that in check. Do I still blow up on occasion? Definitely, but I'm not making excuses for myself.

Type 7s can be easily distracted, always wanting the next thing. This doesn't mean it's an excuse to leave someone high and dry because something more interesting walked by.

And I think that's the point. The Enneagram isn't a box that you're trapped in. It's a lightbulb that lets you see the pain, trauma, and circumstances that made you put up this coping mechanism to protect yourself while showing you ways to grow and develop mastery over those behaviors.

Yes, it can help us recognize the core motivations and fears of others around us, too, but the real power is in knowing our true selves better. And maybe at that point, we can be empathetic with our colleagues and friends while trying to help them recognize they are not stuck either.

So much more

The Enneagram is deep and wide, and this post is just the basics. I recommend picking up a book about it. If you have a faith practice or consider yourself at all spiritual, I can recommend a few good books to check out. I'd be careful about taking too seriously all the Instagrams and fluffy things that popped up over the past couple of years. They're fun but very surface-level.

I do recommend checking out the Sleeping At Last podcast and their episodes on the nine types. The first one is linked in this post for you.

And if you ever want to talk, let me know. I love nerding out on this stuff.


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