What is the Enneagram?
The Enneagram is a powerful tool for personal and collective transformation. Stemming from the Greek words ennea (nine) and grammos (a written symbol), the nine-pointed Enneagram symbol represents nine distinct strategies for relating to the self, others and the world.
This symbol, while ancient (with origins possibly around 2500 B.C. according to some research), has over the years, been applied to various disciplines including sacred geometry, mathematics, physics, philosophy, spirituality, and most recently, modern psychology in the 1950’s. The Enneagram fosters greater understanding through a universal language that transcends gender, religion, nationality and culture. While we are all unique, we also share common experiences.
The modern version synthesizes the many elements of the Enneagram into a sort of typology for personality that we are all pretty used to now, however far transcends more traditional models as it is dynamic, fluid, a holistic gestalt that is incredibly practical for every day use.
It has revolutionized the way I see the world and move in it, not only in my clinical practice but literally every relationship in my life, and I dare say that loved ones are grateful for it!
In the most simplistic sense, the Enneagram classifies human behavior as being a function of 9 primary personality types. The types are on a continuum of healthy to unhealthy characteristics, the unhealthy being more neurotic or prone to certain mental health challenges, while the healthy exhibiting the best version of each type. As you will come to see though, this model also addresses the role trauma, operant conditioning, and outside influences etc. has on our particular struggles as individuals.
Determining our personality type through the Enneagram does NOT put us in a box, but helps us see the box from which we experience the world. With this awareness, we can step outside of our limited perspective. Ideally, personality is an effective way to express ourselves, but challenges arise when our point of view becomes rigid and we get stuck in automatic habits. By discovering these unconscious patterns, we can lead more fulfilling lives, enjoy healthier relationships, and connect to our true essence.
Click player to hear podcast episode where Havilah Seligman & I share why we love it so much:
Why is the Enneagram better than other personality typologies?
I love the way Sung Kim describes the Enneagram – as a map of the human soul.
However, unlike other categorizing typologies or theoretical models of personality, this one starts from the concept that NO ONE can ever be just one thing. We are all a unique and complex blend of all 9.
“The Enneagram can be compared to a map that has the purpose of facilitating the overview of the realm of the human soul. The study of a map never replaces the “experience” of the country itself.
And indeed, our individual experiences are described through various aspects of the Enneagram model (e.g., primary type, subtype, wing, tritype, center of intelligence).
Each Enneagram type has a home base in one of the three centers of intelligence – head, heart and body – that shapes our way of being in the world. Even within our own type, one of the three instinctual subtypes – self-preservation, one-to-one (sexual), and social – influences how we express ourselves in the world.
The diagram itself indicates the pathways that each personality type tends to follow during shifts of awareness and behavior in our daily lives. As we move around the circumference of the circle, our relationship to the Enneagram types on either side, known as wing points, further affects our type structure. The lines connecting the points show where energy flows in times of stress and security.
The Narrative Enneagram
Other models struggle to capture the dynamic, fluid nature of the psyche/ soul. The way you show up on a good day is often very, very different than on a stressful day! The Enneagram recognizes this and can predict your behavior with incredibly, often eerie accuracy. It’s like having a cheat sheet for what’s going on inside and why!
How can I learn my Enneagram type?
While some Enneagram teachers disagree with starting with an assessment, as a through and through psych nerd and researcher, I actually prefer it as a conversation opener (and if you ever end up working with me, chances are extremely likely I will ask you to take one!).
While there are free ones out there, I will warn you, in my very biased opinion, most of them are shit because – they either don’t explain the results to you OR they aren’t thorough enough to help you truly narrow down your likely primary lens. So with that said, my personal favorite and the one I use in my clinic is by esteemed Enneagram teachers Riso & Hudson – the RHETI ($12). It’s well worth every penny (… come on, you know you spend that on McDonad’s or Starbucks… so why not personal development and your relationships??)
The RHETI is scientifically validated and provides your scores for all nine types in a full-spectrum profile, in a downloadable pdf actually explaining them.
You can take the RHETI here.
If I haven’t convinced you to shell out the $12, then you might try this decently free version:
Once again however, assessments are just conversation openers. They’re an educated hypothesis based on the way you responded. Many people do not discover or feel confident owning a particular type/number until they have read more so don’t feel weird if that’s you.
Human behavior is complex yet sooooo worth the time and effort to explore in a deeper fashion! Why wouldn’t you want to know how you see the world and why??
What if I’m still uncertain or I’m torn between more than one type?
It’s not uncommon to feel like you might fit in several corners on the Enneagram. In fact, a few of my clients who have taken the RHETI or other assessments as a starting point, end up with scores depicting a tie among multiple Enneagram types. This can happen for several reasons:
- You second guessed yourself too much while answering forced pairings
- You grew up with very dominating caregivers (the bigger the personality, the larger the effect on the child). In fact, your highest score or primary type, is your nature if you will. Your second and third top scores are your nurture or operant conditioning from other primary influencers usually.
- You live a lifestyle that requires different sides of you (e.g., one way at church or work, and another at home). Many women for example, tend to mistype as a 2 (the Helper) or 9 (the Peacemaker) because of religion or cultural grooming… “girls should be sweet, kind, cooperative”…
- You have trauma in your background (the Enneagram is actually quite wonderful for this as it shows where we go in times of stress vs. when we are relaxed and at our best so it could be that you have gotten too used to your stress response).
If you’re still uncertain, do not fret! You’ve not broken the system, I promise. And YES, it IS worth the effort to continue pursuing finding your primary lens as it will show you your automatic reactions and WHY they’re there! This alone can unlock incredible untapped potential in you, not to mention helping heal from any difficult past you might have. As Riso & Hudson explain,
The Enneagram invites us to look deeply into the mystery of our true identity. It’s meant to initiate a process of inquiry that can lead us to a more profound truth about ourselves and our place in the world.
Furthermore, while only one type is your primary lens through which you see the world, the others you will come to see DO indeed play a role in how you navigate and cope with stress etc. It’s like saying you personally tend to see the world through a shade of blue, but which particular hue can be as nuanced as the 7 billion people on the planet.
As you read about the types, be looking not so much at the behaviors and traits listed but the motivations behind each. We all feel anxiety or fear for example, however the reasoning behind why we do the things we do to cope with those feelings will be very different.
Also be looking for which type most described you around age 18-25 …while you were still in the throes of beginning to really exercise your autonomy as well as who you are most like at home rather than at work since human beings tend to put more of a mask on in public or when trying to perform.
If you feel a clench in your gut or a strong uncomfortable feeling as your read about a particular type, then you are likely on to something. Most find their type through the shadow traits/ unhealthy behaviors or struggle spots rather than the strengths as that’s where the human brain is able to most differentiate between its conceptualization of self vs. other.
Narrowing It Down
A good place to start if you are new to the Enneagram is to read a bit about all 9 types and see which few you feel could be a possible fit for you: The Enneagram Institute’s descriptions of all 9 types.
Next, take a look at some of the common misidentifications between any types your torn between. You can do so by scrolling down the page of any of the type descriptions until you see this section which has clickable links for easy comparison:
There are also super helpful tie-breakers – what Riso & Hudson call attitude sorters (TAS; Type Attitude Sorters). These are common phrases someone from a particular type might say. By using a simple likert scale and giving each statement a score between 5 being very true of you and 1 being not at all true, and then adding up your total score for that particular type, you can compare your scores for any types you are torn between. The higher the total score, the more likely it is that this type is your primary type. You may access the 9 TAS assessments here:
Take your time. Read a few blogs, books, or listen to podcast episodes (I share some of my favorites below). One day it will all click and oh my dear, the glorious sensation that is when it all makes sense!!
My favorite books on the Enneagram:
This one is the grandfather of classics when it comes to understanding the Enneagram. It includes nearly EVERYTHING you can think of from history to philosophy to excellent material for clinicians/ coaches etc., which can be both a pro and a con as it can potentially be a little overwhelming at first. I recommend taking it slow and even perhaps skipping the intro chapters at first and getting straight to the types if you’re new to the Enneagram. For those who love depth and research and history, you’ll be in nerdy bliss.
I especially appreciate Riso & Hudson’s pluralistic lens and language as well as all of the many, many charts and tables which provide an easy and comprehensive comparison between the types. In my very biased opinion, it’s a MUST OWN.
The Path Between Us by Suzanne Stabile
Oh this book right here! Sweet mercy. Made me bawl my eyeballs out like a baby. In the BEST kinda way.
“Most of us have NO IDEA how others see or process their experiences. And that can make relationships hard, whether with intimate partners, with friends, or in our professional lives. Understanding the motivations and dynamics of these different personality types can be the key that unlocks sometimes mystifying behavior in others―and in ourselves.”
SO SO SO GOOD!!! For Enneagram newbies and advanced practitioners alike. YOU WANT THIS BOOK.
The Road Back To You by Ian Cron & Suzanne Stabile
I actually resisted listening to this one for over a year even though I loved his podcast with Suzanne Stabile because I was worried about potential for overly religious lenses. Kicking myself now. It’s REALLY good!
Pros: SUPER thorough; covering fears, wounds, parenting, relationships, and business as well as spiritual development, Lots of extra anecdotal examples, written by a Type 4 so plenty of intuitive descriptors, very very easy to understand.
Cons: A few Christian overtones …however I will say these are easily reframed in Omnist language and the author is progressive in theology and an LGBTQ ally.
The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut
I love that this one is written by a practicing psychotherapist, coach, and business consultant so it’s not just esoteric or a theoretical model as a lot of skeptics might fear, but actual applied psychology. Beatrice also includes the three different subtype forms each primary type can take (i.e., social, self-preservation, or sexual/ one-to-one), and the path each of us can take toward liberation.
This makes it an EXCELLENT tool for doing the hardest part of consciousness work: realizing, owning, and accepting your strengths and weaknesses. As a therapist, I love how it allows individuals to reconnect with disowned Shadow aspects, and come to manifest their highest potential.
Examples of one of the three different subtype forms a primary type can take:
Great social media sites on the Enneagram:
- The Enneagram Institute
- Enneagram Leadership blog (part of a dissertation project; I love her breakdown of the types. Use drop-down menu to navigate)
- The Enneagram BlogSpot
- The Narrative Enneagram
- Your Enneagram Coach
- Enneagram & Coffee
- Dr. Katherine Fauvre
- Type in #enneagram or #enneagramtype7 (or your number) in Instagram for a TON of amazing pages
- The Enneagram Journey (podcast; while the host is Christian, the show is not and is actually me favorite)
- Subscribe to the Daily EnneaThought to receive tips for your type and wing if you like (warning, not for faint of heart; it WILL kick your ass!)