The Enneagram is a personality system which groups people into Nine Types, partially based on their behaviors, but even more so based on their internal motivations for why they do what they do. There is a strong component for virtues and vices to which each type is especially inclined. The origins of the Enneagram are mysterious, but many are finding the Enneagram to be a useful resource for personal growth as well as for understanding the people in their lives. I would count myself among this number. It is the dimension for growth that sets it apart from many other personality assessments.
If you’d like to read more about the basics of the Enneagram, here is a ten-page overview I created.
I first encountered the Enneagram in early 2018 through the Cron and Stabile book The Road Back To You, and soon began consuming large amounts of resources about the Enneagram, especially for its implications for personal growth and relational health.
Those who find the Enneagram useful will generally experience a revelation of sorts where the Enneagram reveals some specific ways that your greatest strength may also be your greatest potential weakness. More specifically, it hurts to realize that some of the right things I have done in my life, I may have done for the wrong reasons.
To use myself as an example, I am an Enneagram Type Five, also known as The Investigator. I love learning as much as I can about as many things as I can. I tend to be introverted, and in social situations, I am likely to want to observe more than participate. A strength of Fives is that we can be enormously resourceful because of all that we know and perceive. An area for Fives to grow is that we tend to operate from a mindset of scarcity, especially with our energy and time for people.
The Enneagram system convicted me especially on the tendency of Fives to live out of a fear of being seen as incompetent. The good side of my drive for learning is that it helps me be resourceful. The uncomfortable darker side of this trait is that much of why I’ve been so drawn toward learning is that I often attempt to fully comprehend the world before I’m willing to engage it. My learning is partially for a love of knowledge, but it is also for a fear of being unprepared for life.
This realization is actually what led to the creation of this website. I committed to myself that I needed to start producing and sharing ideas, rather than always only consuming them. Blogging and writing make me feel vulnerable for fear that I don’t know enough yet to have an opinion. But my path for growth has necessarily involved me putting myself out there in the world of ideas, trusting that some of them might even be useful. And if they aren’t, that’s okay, too. The Enneagram helped me see a need in myself to engage the world around me more actively, allowing the vulnerability that I don’t have to know everything about everything before being a participant in life.
That’s a small part of how the Enneagram has been helpful to me. I want to share some ideas below for how the Enneagram can be useful, as well as some caveats for how it is not.
How It Can Help
Here are some of the ways I’ve found the Enneagram to be a useful model for thinking about people.
The Enneagram represents deep thinking about potential relationships between a person’s strengths and weaknesses. It has helped me be mindful of tendencies that feel normal to me, but might not be well received by others who are different than me. Some examples:
- Type Ones are Perfectionists who have a harsh inner voice. They are terrific at improving anything and everything. The down side is that they can come across as never being pleased or satisfied. It is hard for Ones to understand that when they talk to other people about ways they can improve, the One might believe they are being helpful while the other person might feel they are attacked.
- Type Threes are Performers who are great at reading a given situation and figuring out what they need to do to excel in that situation. Because their emphasis is on performance, they tend to be less worried about how people feel about them as long as people approve of what they do. This neglect of people’s emotional dimension is a potential blindspot about which Threes should be cautious.
It is not the case that everyone fits neatly into one of 9 categories. But it is the case that many people can find a Type that is close to describing the place from which they operate internally. The discussions we have had in our class have been insightful and nurturing. When I know that a person identifies with a certain type, it helps me know how to approach them. For example:
- Type Twos are Helpers who are wonderful to have around. They often know–and respond!–to your needs before you are even aware that you have them. A Two is nearly incapable of resisting the urge to respond when someone says “I need you.” The flip side of their helpfulness is that a Two who is in a less healthy place will help because they feel a need to be needed. Twos want to be appreciated. For the Twos in my life, this has made me very cautious about even hinting at what I’d like them to do unless I really want them to. They’ll pick up on any possible hints and respond. Likewise, I have made concerted efforts to say “Thank you” to the Twos and make sure I appreciate them specifically for the many ways they make things better.
I have shared my own story above, but it is the case that every type has an inner battle and a default pattern of behavior. It isn’t possible for another person to tell you what your number is. It comes down to you examining yourself and asking why it is that you do what you do. There are several types who have similar behaviors, but who exhibit these behaviors for different reasons. Twos are helpful, but so are Sixes. Twos might help from a desire to be needed, but Sixes might help for fear of all the ways something can go wrong with a desire to prevent catastrophe. Same behaviors, but different motivations.
The Enneagram does not provide the only possible path to personal growth, but it does provide some insight into what a fresh path for growth might look like. As long as you don’t take it as a tool of fate which dictates what you must do, it can be a joy to use the Enneagram’s suggestions as an adventure in broadening yourself. Try following the path it reveals and enjoy a healthy stretch.
One thing I love about the Enneagram Narrative Tradition is the emphasis on allowing people to describe their own experiences. Though it’s possible to have a person get up and talk about what each type is like, it is especially insightful for people to tell their stories about what it is like to be them.
We have absolutely loved doing an Enneagram study in the young families class that I teach at our church. In each class, I include several components:
- A type overview
- Questions to help people know whether this type might be them
- Scriptural examples of people who might represent the type
- Pop cultural examples of the type
- Ideas for growth for the type
- Ways to show love and kindness to people in your life who are of this type
I had my class take a free Enneagram test to get a broad idea for what type they might be. In some cases it worked. In other cases, they are a different number than the test suggested. But for each step of our discussions, I invite the people and their spouses of the type of the day to weigh in.
- What sounds like you?
- What doesn’t sound like you?
- Are there examples you would share where this has been true in your life?
What I love about this class is that we went from being a homogenous group all looking together at a topic to being a group where the members of the group themselves are the topic. It has deepened friendships. It has increased empathy. It has helped us understand parts of why we are the way that we are. The more they’ve been willing to be vulnerable, the richer our discussions have been. As a leader, it has also been insightful for me to have a good idea about how to involve different people in our initiatives, based on what I know to be their strengths and inner motivations.
How It Can Be Misused
Despite the many ways the Enneagram is useful, there are some ways that it can be misused.
Stop Typing People
While you can’t help but wonder what type another person might be. It is really obnoxious for you to always try and tell other people what they are. After all, people’s behaviors can share great similarities across types. It is for a person to decide which type best describes their inner thought and emotional processes. You shouldn’t type people. If they decide to share their number, thank them and use this information wisely. But if they don’t reveal it, it isn’t your place to assume it.
Don’t Make Excuses
In my case, I have a type with which I strongly resonate. But even though I’ve found something that describes me with a good degree of accuracy, that doesn’t excuse me from taking ownership in the ways I need to change. Sure, as a Five I don’t always have a lot of people energy. The wrong way to handle this would be to excuse myself from engaging people by citing my type. The right way to handle this is to take responsibility for the places where I can see that people need me to be more generous with my time and energy. The Enneagram provides insights into how you might grow, not excuses for where you don’t have to.
Don’t Apply Labels Or Make Assumptions
Even if a person does let you know what type number they are, they deserve to be treated and respected as an individual. You should never say to someone, “Oh, that’s just you being a Type (Number)!” You shouldn’t make excuses for yourself, but neither should you make them for other people. All of us need to grow and be accountable for how we are in the world. Don’t try to force people into a preconceived mold because of an assumed model you have in your head for them. It’s offensive to do this to people of various races and genders, and it really isn’t helpful to do this with Enneagram types, either. Use what you know responsibly to be gentle and empathetic, but always allow people to be who they are and to tell you what they think and feel.
It’s Just A Model
Something I dislike about the uses of the Enneagram, even among many of my favorite books on it, is that people tend to speak of the Enneagram as a way of discovering your “authentic self.” I find this language unhelpful. Sure, it is insightful when some tendencies identified by the Enneagram correspond well to the way you actually are. But each of us is uniquely created in God’s image, with gifts God has given us, in a situation where God has placed us. As George Box once said wisely, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.”
Of course it’s not true that there are only nine types of people. Of course a little personality system cannot give you your authentic self or true identity as a person. These are things that come from walking with God, allowing God to shape you through your life’s experiences and choices. The Enneagram is just a model. I believe it is an immensely useful model. But do not lock yourself into an imperfect system, assuming too much about what it is able to give you. True growth comes with the help of the Spirit in accordance with the will of God. You can’t achieve it on your own, no matter what path or system you follow. If the Enneagram opens you up to the ways God may be working on you, then this is as much good as you should expect from it. It isn’t the only possible path to growth.
If you are curious about the Enneagram, I’ll be sharing a post full of categorized resources, but my three favorite “first reads” for the Enneagram are:
- The Road Back To You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. This is generally considered the best overall starting point, especially for those of a Christian slant.
- The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey To Healthy Relationships by Suzanne Stabile. This is an enormously useful book for understanding how the different types may interact. If you have a basic grasp of the Enneagram, this is probably my favorite overall book for how to apply the Enneagram.
- The Modern Enneagram: Discover Who You Are and Who you Can Be by Kacie Berghoef and Melanie Bell. This book doesn’t merely walk through the nine types, but provides several lenses through which you can use the Enneagram and explains how each type fits that lens.
Mark, I appreciate your perspective on the Enneagram and its usefulness–for yourself and potentially for others
Thanks for reading, Leonard, and for your comment.