What Didn’t Make Sense to me About the Enneagram of Personality until Now (Or: Sister Mary Francis’s Geometry Class Wasn’t Sacred Enough for You?)

I’ll admit I was a late convert to the Enneagram system. Having studied typology personally and professionally for about 8 years (focusing on Myers-Briggs), it wasn’t until about 2 years ago that I started coming around to really appreciate the Enneagram. While it has always been present and beaconing as a tempting tangent to my other personality and psychology studies, I found myself turning up my nose when I sniffed around at it. After dabbling and forsaking interest in it a few times I eventually ended up encountering a couple of professionally trained Enneagram practitioners who piqued my interest at a more intense level than before, and so after doing a deeper dive than before some light bulbs started to go off, answering some of the questions I’ll outline below. Even so, there were still some sticking points that I didn’t think would ever appeal or make sense to me… until now. I’ll assume I’m not the only one who has had these kinds of reservations so I’d like to share some of the things that didn’t add up for me and now do, leading to a big shift in my understanding of personality and personal development.

Questions in the back of my mind over the years have been:

  • Why 9? Why not 8, or 10, or 13?
  • These personality styles are the emergent of what exactly? If not cognitive functions, what is this map representing other than arbitrarily convenient collections of traits? Why not throw in a few more random types of people that aren’t listed among the 9, or combine others?
  • What is the deal with the funny shape? Why do you need that? Why not just list them out, what difference does it make?
  • Why the arrows? Sure, we grow or get stressed in certain ways but isn’t it kind of forced to superimpose those paths onto certain types? And if an unhealthy 5 looks like an unhealthy 7, and an unhealthy 7 looks like an unhealthy 1, why doesn’t an unhealthy 5 look like an unhealthy 1 etc.? Where does the merry-go-round of passing the personality stop and start?
  • “Sacred Geometry”? For realz? <eye roll>
  • Aren’t these descriptions a mess of contradictions and paradoxes? For example: Why would a type fear both being embodied and being disembodied? How can a type be both best and worst at the same thing?
  • What is with this system that tells you to be less like who you are? I’m a person who likes to invest in strengths rather than weaknesses, so why would I want to look to move away from my type and toward a type or types that are strong in things that I’m weak in?

Those are just a few of the things that I’ve finally made sense of over the last couple of years. A few of them were blown wide open by my recent reading of Riso and Hudson’s Personality Types. It was a more than a little shocking to me that after all my other studies of books and online materials that some of these questions were suddenly answered in a meaningful way so it has prompted me to share my breakthroughs here for the benefit of others who may be wondering why they aren’t catching the Enneagram fever that everyone else is rampant with lately.


9 Types, Complete with Funny Shapes and Arrows

Let’s start with the numbers 3, 6, and 9 – to me it is easiest to see how interesting these numbers are through “the law of 3s”. 3 has been a sacred number for time immemorial. The Christian trinity; the pagan goddess manifestations of maiden, mother, and crone; past, present, and future; celestial realm, earth, underworld; many traditions call upon the manifestation of things greater than our human understanding in triune form. If math is your higher power, you get to enjoy the principle that dividing one whole unit by 3 gives you an infinity of 3s (in a base 10 number system, originating from our given number of digits on our hands). 3 by 3 gives 9, that’s fun, who doesn’t like perfect squares? Representing that in 3 parts gives 3, 6, 9. Okay: fun, elegant, mathematically sexy. This brings us to the “law of 3s” embedded in the enneagram (which, by the way, is not just a sacred diagram for personality, but for triune principles of reality and divinity in general).

The 9 types/points come about by having 3 centers of wisdom, and 3 ways of being ruled by each of those principles. These centers described by the enneagram of personality are Gut/Instinct (innate impulses toward engagement with people and the environment), Heart/Feeling (emotional expression and ego identity), and Head/Thinking (thought process and critical analysis). Within each of these centers of wisdom there is one type that outwardly or over-focuses on this style of wisdom, one type that inwardly or under-focuses on it, and one that is ruled by their denial or disownment of it, thus giving us 3 triads of personalities. That is elegant enough to pique my interest as a structured model-fiend. We can go on to get 27 subtypes by applying another iteration of 3 in the form of 3 human survival instincts of self-preservation, sexual bonding, and social bonding (see works of Claudio Naranjo and Beatrice Chestnut for more on subtypes based on instinctual variants). So that is why 9, and this gives us the interesting, if not sacred shape of the triangle.

What of the arrows, and how are the other shapes and numbers “sacred”? Not being a math wiz, something I was never aware of until reading Personality Types by Riso and Hudson is that, in our base 10 number system, any integer divided by 7 yields a remainder of a repeating pattern of 7 digits: 142857 ad infinitum. The number 7 is held as a sacred number since ancient times, the most fundamental reason I can find behind this (besides the division trick) is that 7 references are used to specify one’s relative position in space: in front, behind, left, right (or North, South, East, West), above, below, and here (the starting reference point).

The beauty of the seven different digits repeating when any number is divided by seven is pretty amazing, especially considering that these represent all the other digits besides our triangle of 3, 6, and 9. So this is where the order of the arrows forming the rest of the sacred enneagram diagram come from. 1 is always followed by 4, 4 by 2, 2 by 8, etc. George Gurdjieff, a mystic guru of the late 1800s – mid 1900s seems to have been the one to bring all 9 digits together in the pattern we now know, and assign personality types to them not arbitrarily but in a necessary order of meaningful shifts in the way one would approach the challenges of being human.


The Good, The Bad, and the Holy Ideas

The most beautiful thing I’ve come to understand and appreciate about the enneagram is how each type represents both the worst and best of the principle that rules it. This is where I did a total 180 from seeing this as a system that tells you not to be who you are, to seeing the transcendent principle within the Enneagram personality system that outlines the ultimate in personal growth. Every type, in their growth to overcome their fixation, gains an appreciation of that principle in a way and to a degree that other types can’t – for the very reason that it is their fixation. It is theirs to fully transcend, and it is an extraordinary gift that our fixations yield as we do so.  Only a recovered addict knows completely the power and impact of a drug and the nature of transcendent freedom from it.

A fixation represents a shortcut to a goal, a holy idea, that rules each type. Taking the shortcut only gets you farther into the weeds, but doing the harder thing gets you closer to your actual goal. The goal isn’t to “be less like you”, it is to be more like you in the sense of moving toward your goal by leaning into your fears. It isn’t just “don’t think so much and just trust your instincts like a good 8 would” if you’re a 5 who over-relies on thoughts at the expense of practical action. It is waking up to the fact that over-relying on thoughts doesn’t actually relieve the underlying fear that builds an ever more formidable barrier between you and the life you want, a life in the real world.  The path to relieving that fear through 5’s holy idea of omniscience is not by having absolute knowledge of everything in an intellectualized way. Rather it is in trusting that what you know now is always enough to enter the world with to do *something* and find more to learn by merging experience with insight. On the other hand, what you know now is never enough to be a stopping point. Total omniscience is never attainable so there is always motivation to keep examining (and actively exploring) the world. In essence, at any given moment we know all we need to know to be who we are and keep becoming more by experiencing and learning more.

As a person who prefers to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses this has been the puzzle piece that has made this system infinitely more worthwhile. I don’t appreciate a message of “be less like you” in any personal development system, so seeing how a type’s unique strengths arise from transcending the “fixations” the hard way is what allowed my appreciation of the enneagram to fully blossom.  I’ll try to illustrate more briefly how this plays out in each type as I understand it below:

Heart Center

  • Type 2 (emotion outwardly focused/over-expressed): How is 2 both the best and worst at selfless love? In overcoming the inclination toward a selfish version of love that is a means to an end to meet their unspoken needs a 2 embodies truly selfless love in a way that no other type can.
  • Type 3 (emotion disowned/out of touch): How is 3 both best and worst at passionately pursuing excellence in their own priorities vs. others’ standards of achievement? Once they go beyond executing a hollow façade of what others reward, and instead put extraordinary effort into mastery of what they themselves value, they reach heights that others have only dreamed of in meaningful pursuits. They inspire others toward excellence with authenticity that is unmatched by any other type.
  • Type 4 (emotion inwardly/under-expressed): How does 4 identify with what is most rejected as well as that which is most exquisite in our nature as humans? When they conquer narrow identification with emotions that are painful and alienating which allow them to feel unique, they appreciate beauty in the universality of the full range of emotional experience from the intense to the mundane. They bloom in expression of what is connective in the nature of being human rather than what separates us, tapping into meaningfulness that other types can’t hold a candle to.

Head Center

  • Type 5 (thinking inwardly focused/over-expressed): How is 5 both best and worst at being embodied and potent in the world; navigating the relationship between thought and reality? When they can forgo the trappings of their own mind through actual experiences they perceive reality with insight that might seem like insanity to those who can’t grasp the depth of the patterns they identify, uniting the material and the abstract with purpose.
  • Type 6 (thought process disowned/out of touch): How does 6 make for the highest degree of trust in themselves and righteous loyalty as well as most doubting of themselves and others? They are able to grasp the most sincere spirit of self-trust and commitment through conquering their inclination to outsource their ideology.
  • Type 7 (thinking outwardly/under-expressed): How does 7 comprehend otherworldly spiritual and emotional ecstasy like no other type can while also having the potential for eternal distraction through empty gluttony? By living fully, deeply, meaningfully in every moment they experience a joy of life on a transcendent level along with a centered acceptance of the less pleasurable elements of existence.

Gut Center

  • Type 8 (instinctive impulses outwardly/over-expressed): At what point does the most aggressive domineering type become the most heartful of them all? When 8s realize that vulnerability and service to something greater than themselves is what makes for true empowerment, they are able to epically empower not only themselves but also others.
  • Type 9 (instinct disowned/out of touch): What can lead the most self-forgetting detached type to connect more deeply with themselves, others, and the world than others can fathom? Fully embracing their own sense of being and the passion within allows them to demonstrate the most unpretentious form of wisdom and unity.
  • Type 1 (instinctive impulses inwardly/under-expressed): How does ultimate appreciation for the universe exactly as it is arise in the type most known for criticism of both themselves and others? When 1s embrace integrity in the form of acceptance of every facet of themselves and others rather than rejection of parts seen as un-ideal, they achieve joy in the surprising ways the universe reveals its perfection.

Thus, the message of the Enneagram of Personality as I understand it now is not to just “not be you”. It is to move toward who you really want to be by taking the path that you resist, using your strengths in ways that scare you. This is somewhat similar to the strategy I subscribe to in Myers-Briggs typology via my training with Personality Hacker: to grow by leaning into the discomfort that often is present in execution of the Auxiliary/Copilot function. Taking shortcuts feels like the right way to go in the moment, especially when we are stressed. But that leads to a self-defeating loop in Myers-Briggs terms, cutting us off from a realm of feedback that we need. In Enneagram terms, it is sliding deeper into the superficial comfort of fixation which again is self-defeating, actually moving us farther away from achieving what our deep-seated fixation yearns for.

If you’d like to explore your personality with me, don’t hesitate to book a consultation today to resolve your questions about your path of growth.

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