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  • Annelisa MacBean

Introducing the Enneagram

Excerpted from The Enneagram Institute website:

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/how-the-enneagram-system-works



My next nine - twelve blog posts will present some fundamentals of the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a system of personality typing that describes patterns in how people interpret the world and manage their emotions. The Enneagram describes nine personality types and maps each of these types on a nine-pointed diagram which helps to illustrate how the types relate to one another.


The Enneagram reveals that all people belong to one of nine major personality types. The purpose of the Enneagram is not to put you into a box, but to help you identify both the strengths and the limitations of a preferred strategy and to give you guidance on how you may develop more capacity beyond it.


Stemming from the Greek words ennea (nine) and grammos (a written or drawn symbol), the Enneagram was borne out of ancient Sufi tradition. It was introduced to the modern world in 1915 as a human development system by philosopher and teacher George Gurdjieff.


From one point of view, the Enneagram can be seen as a set of nine distinct personality types, with each number on the Enneagram denoting one type. It is common to find a little of yourself in all nine of the types, although one of them should stand out as being closest to yourself. This is your basic personality type.


Everyone emerges from childhood with one of the nine types dominating their personality, with inborn temperament and other pre-natal factors being the main determinants of our type. This is one area where most all of the major Enneagram authors agree—we are born with a dominant type.


Subsequently, this inborn orientation largely determines the ways in which we learn to adapt to our early childhood environment. It also seems to lead to certain unconscious orientations toward our parental figures. By the time children are four or five years old, our consciousness has developed sufficiently to have a separate sense of self. Although identity is still very fluid at this age, children begin to establish themselves and find ways of fitting into the world on their own.


Thus, the overall orientation of our personality reflects the totality of all childhood factors (including genetics) that influenced its development.


Several more points can be made about one's basic type.


1. People do not generally change from one basic personality type to another.


2. The descriptions of the personality types are universal and apply equally across gender identification, since types are not inherently masculine or feminine.


3. Not everything in the description of your basic type will apply to you all the time because you fluctuate constantly among the healthy, average, and unhealthy traits that make up your personality type.


4. The Enneagram uses numbers to designate each of the types because numbers are value neutral— they imply the whole range of attitudes and behaviors of each type without specifying anything either positive or negative. Unlike the labels used in psychiatry, numbers provide an unbiased, shorthand way of indicating a lot about a person without being pejorative.


5. The numerical ranking of the types is not significant. A larger number is no better than a smaller number; it is not better to be a Nine than a Two because nine is a bigger number.


6. No type is inherently better or worse than any other. While all the personality types have unique assets and liabilities, some types may be considered to be more desirable than others in any given culture or group. Furthermore, for one reason or another, you may not be happy being a particular type.


7. As you learn more about all the types, however, you will see that just as each has unique assets, each has unique liabilities. The ideal is to become your best self, not to imitate the assets of another type.


The one-word descriptors generally used to identify each type can be expanded into four-word sets of traits. Keep in mind that these are merely highlights and do not represent the full spectrum of each type.


Type One is principled, purposeful, self-controlled, and perfectionistic.

Type Two is generous, demonstrative, people-pleasing, and possessive.

Type Three is adaptable, excelling, driven, and image-conscious.

Type Four is expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, and temperamental.

Type Five is perceptive, innovative, secretive, and isolated.

Type Six is engaging, responsible, anxious, and suspicious.

Type Seven is spontaneous, versatile, acquisitive, and scattered.

Type Eight is self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational.

Type Nine is receptive, reassuring, complacent, and resigned.


The Centers The Enneagram is a 3 x 3 arrangement of nine personality types in three Centers. There are three types in the Instinctive Center, three in the Feeling Center, and three in the Thinking Center, as shown below. Each Center consists of three personality types that have in common the assets and liabilities of that Center. For example, personality type Four has unique strengths and liabilities involving its feelings, which is why it is in the Feeling Center. Likewise, the Eight’s assets and liabilities involve its relationship to its instinctual drives, which is why it is in the Instinctive Center, and so forth for all nine personality types.

The inclusion of each type in its Center is not arbitrary. Each type results from a particular relationship with a cluster of issues that characterize that Center. Most simply, these issues revolve around a powerful, largely unconscious emotional response to the loss of contact with the core of the self. In the Instinctive Center, the emotion is Anger or Rage. In the Feeling Center, the emotion is Shame, and in the Thinking Center, it is Fear. Of course, all nine types contain all three of these emotions, but in each Center, the personalities of the types are particularly affected by that Center’s emotional theme.


The Dominant Emotion of each Center

Thus, each type has a particular way of coping with the dominant emotion of its Center. We can briefly see what this means by examining each type, Center by Center.


In the Instinctive Center, Eights act out their anger and instinctual energies. In other words, when Eights feel anger building in them, they immediately respond to it in some physical way, raising their voices, moving more forcefully. Others can clearly see that Eights are angry because they give themselves permission to express their anger physically.

Nines deny their anger and instinctual energies as if to say, “What anger? I am not a person who gets angry.” Nines are the type most out of touch with their anger and instinctual energies, often feeling threatened by them. Of course, Nines get angry like everyone else, but try to stay out of their darker feelings by focusing on idealizations of their relationships and their world.

Ones attempt to control or repress their anger and instinctual energy. They feel that they must stay in control of themselves, especially of their instinctual impulses and angry feelings at all times. They would like to direct these energies according to the dictates of their highly developed inner critic (superego), the source of their strictures on themselves and others.

In the Feeling Center, Twos attempt to control their shame by getting other people to like them and to think of them as good people. They also want to convince themselves that they are good, loving people by focusing on their positive feelings for others while repressing their negative feelings (such as anger and resentment at not being appreciated enough). As long as Twos can get positive emotional responses from others, they feel wanted and are able to control feelings of shame.

Threes try to deny their shame, and are potentially the most out of touch with underlying feelings of inadequacy. Threes learn to cope with shame by trying to become what they believe a valuable, successful person is like. Thus, Threes learn to perform well, to be acceptable, even outstanding, and are often driven relentlessly in their pursuit of success as a way of staving off feelings of shame and fears of failure.

Fours attempt to control their shame by focusing on how unique and special their particular talents, feelings, and personal characteristics are. Fours highlight their individuality and creativity as a way of dealing with their shameful feelings, although Fours are the type most likely to succumb to feelings of inadequacy. Fours also manage their shame by cultivating a rich, romantic fantasy life in which they do not have to deal with whatever in their life seems drab or uninteresting to them.

In the Thinking Center, Fives have fear about the outer world and about their capacity to cope with it. Thus, they cope with their fear by withdrawing from the world. Fives become secretive, isolated loners who use their minds to penetrate into the nature of the world. Fives hope that eventually, as they understand reality on their own terms, they will be able to rejoin the world and participate in it, but they never feel they know enough to participate with total confidence. Instead, they involve themselves with increasingly complex inner worlds.

Sixes exhibit the most fear of all three types, largely experienced as anxiety, which causes them to be the most out of touch with their own sense of inner knowing and confidence. Unlike Fives, Sixes have trouble trusting their own minds, so they are constantly looking outside themselves for something to make them feel sure of themselves. They might turn to philosophies, beliefs, relationships, jobs, savings, authorities, or any combination of the above. But no matter how many security structures they create, Sixes still feel doubtful and anxious. They may even begin to doubt the very people and beliefs that they have turned to for reassurance. Sixes may also respond to their fear and anxiety by impulsively confronting it— defying their fear in the effort to be free of it.

Sevens have fear about their inner world. There are feelings of pain, loss, deprivation, and general anxiety that Sevens would like to stay clear of as much as possible. To cope with these feelings, Sevens keep their minds occupied with exciting possibilities and options— as long as they have something stimulating to anticipate, Sevens feel that they can distract themselves from their fears. Sevens, in most cases, do not stop merely at thinking about these options, however. As much as possible they attempt to actually do as many of their options as they can. Thus, Sevens can be found staying on the go, pursuing one experience after another, and keeping themselves entertained and engaged with their many ideas and activities.


Typing Yourself and Others

You may be able to figure out the types of a few close friends rather quickly, or you may find it difficult to categorize people and not know where to begin. Either state is normal. It is not always apparent which type someone is, and it takes time and study to sharpen your skills. Remember that you are like a beginning medical student who is learning to diagnose a wide variety of conditions, some healthy and some unhealthy. It takes practice to learn to identify the various “symptoms” of each type and to see larger “syndromes.”


Despite the subtleties and complexities involved, there is really no secret about typing people. You must learn which traits go with each type and observe how people manifest those traits. This is a subtle undertaking because there are many subtypes and quirks to each personality type. Different types can sometimes seem similar, particularly if their motivations are not taken into account. This is why it is not sufficient to focus on a single trait in isolation and make a diagnosis based on it alone. It is necessary to see each type as a whole— its overall style, approach to life, and especially its underlying motivations—before you can determine someone’s type reliably. Many elements must come together before you can be sure that you have typed someone accurately.


Moreover, when we diagnose others, we are always on thinner ice than when we use the Enneagram to deepen our own self-knowledge. It is, of course, more appropriate to apply this material to ourselves than to type others while we avoid looking at our own lives. Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to think that anything as interesting (or as insightful) as the Enneagram will not be used for better understanding others. In fact, we categorize people all the time. No one approaches others without some sort of mental categories. We automatically perceive people either as male or female, black or white, attractive or unattractive, good or bad, friend or enemy, and so forth. It is not only honest to be aware of this, it is useful to have more accurate and appropriate categories for everyone, including ourselves.


Although the Enneagram is probably the most open-ended and dynamic of typologies, this does not imply that the Enneagram can say all there is to say about human beings. Individuals are understandable only up to a certain point beyond which they remain mysterious and unpredictable. Thus, while there can be no simple explanations for persons, it is still possible to say something true about them. In the last analysis, the Enneagram helps us to do that—and only that. The Enneagram is useful because it indicates with startling clarity certain constellations of meaning about something that is essentially beyond definition: the mystery that we are.


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