Everywhere I went—podcasts, blogs, articles—I kept hearing about the Enneagram. Pastors and staff announced themselves by a number on their websites: “I’m a three!” What did it all mean? I pulled in a few books to find out.
The word Enneagram comes from the Greek, ennea for “nine” and gram for “a drawn figure.” Hence this nine-pointed diagram:
It looks like some kind of an occult symbol, but it’s just a tidy way to picture the nine types of personality. This diagram shows the names that Riso and Hudson created for the types, but there are variations.
Understanding the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, was the first book that I read on the subject, and it’s a great one to demonstrate the history and depth of this ancient tool. No one agrees on the origins of the Enneagram, but around the turn of the 20th century, spiritualist George Gurdjieff brought it into modern times, and since then, psychologists and others have refined the ideas into a usable model for business management and spiritual counseling.
My husband and I took many of the online tests for personality typing, and the Enneagram Institute– Riso and Hudson’s organization– has one of the best and most secure. You can find it here. There is also a test in the book.
Each of the nine personalities has particular characteristics with strengths and weaknesses. For example, Type 2, “The Helper,” loves to give to others, but could become resentful if he doesn’t receive love in return. Number 4, “The Individualist” may have great artistic sensibilities, but also has lots of emotions that can lead to major drama. Number 6, “The Loyalist,” is an excellent friend and parent, but may spend her life worrying about every little thing. In a healthy state, each type can make magnificent contributions to the world. Most of us live in an average state, with positive and negative effects of our type showing up according to life’s circumstances, but when we are in a psychologically or spiritually unhealthy state, our types have particular pitfalls that could cause personal, relational, or workplace problems.
Riso and Hudson’s book is suitable for deep study, and indeed, I borrowed it through interlibrary loan from a college library. For anyone who thinks that the Enneagram is a party topic, the research and attention to clinical use in this volume will prove them wrong.
The Essential Enneagram, by David Daniels and Virginia Price, is a slender volume containing a pared-down explanation of the instrument. On the other end of the spectrum from the Riso-Hudson book, it gives a quick background with a simple method for typing. If you are curious to find out your type—and the types of all your family and friends—The Essential Enneagram will do it for you. Accurate and accessible.
Not a horoscope. Human beings are always seeking to find out more about themselves. Our lives are busy, and we find ourselves using certain behaviors and giving the same responses without thinking too much about it. Why does one person respond to taunts by running away, another by yelling, and yet another by a punch in the nose?
Astrology assigns personalities to people according to how the stars and planets were aligned at a person’s birth. In this case, everyone born in a certain month would have the same personality controlled by forces completely external to oneself.
Myers-Briggs is a personality typing tool used by many businesses that measures only four psychological characteristics: introversion or extraversion, detail-oriented or not, etc. They use it to help a work team to understand one another, or, more controversially, for hiring people into a certain position. It considers a personality to be fixed. “This is me. Get over it.”
The Enneagram teaches that we are all born as our true selves, but within the first three years of life, we develop behaviors that help us to cope with what life throws at us. Our parents, siblings, and environment affect each of us in different ways. Number Ones, for example, find out that being good and doing everything perfectly makes other people like them. They grow up to be dependable, responsible people who want to make the world a better place. They are cause-oriented individuals who can be critical perfectionists driven by quiet, seething anger. Number Nines, on the other hand, find out that keeping the peace makes them feel better. They grow up to be excellent compromisers, bringing warring parties together, and they are always the pleasantest person at the party. Because of their inability to confront, their anger can become passive-aggressive, and they easily become depressed and withdraw from life.
The point of the Enneagram is to help people to recognize and strip away the coping mechanisms we’ve accrued, especially when they begin to hurt us. We can learn from the other types and take on the strengths of all, moving each of us closer to the true selves we were born to be.
The Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, is a thorough yet conversational guide that is geared toward spiritual healing. Coming from a Christian perspective, Cron and Stabile present an explanation of the Enneagram and a test to find your type, followed by a deep dive into each of the personality types, beginning with a list of characteristics, a description of the best features of that type, the most unhealthy possibilities, the type as a child, the type at work, and the ways that type can heal.
The Road Back to You is the most personal of all of these works, with the authors identifying their own types, the way they interact with their spouses and children within their types, and their interactions with friends or relatives of still more types. They are vulnerable about their own weaknesses and give a hefty dose of grace to difficult matches. For example, type 8, the most powerful type on the Enneagram, who never back down from confrontation and never hesitate to say exactly what they think, not realizing how they affect the people around them. One might think that Type 8’s are terrible people, but healthy 8’s can be heroic and natural leaders. Cron’s daughter is also a Type 8 who was in law school when the book was published, and he witnessed her response when her younger brother was bullied by an older man. She completely and calmly obliterated him verbally, and then went on with her dinner. Cron was simultaneously terrified and proud. For reference, President Trump is a Type 8.
For the layperson who wants to use the Enneagram in counseling and spiritual healing, The Road Back to You is probably the best resource I have found. Cron and Stabile were guests on The Liturgists podcast shortly after the publication of this book, and they go through each of the nine personality types on the show. You can find that recording here.
There are professional counselors who use the Enneagram in their practices, so if you were startled to find yourself neatly tucked into a type, or if you see yourself as a type with certain wings—we won’t even get into that here—the Enneagram may be very useful as a shortcut for healing. In any case, remember that the point is not to find out your type and then revel in your weaknesses or even your strengths, but rather to use your gifts to do good in the world and to work to reverse your weaknesses and return to the “real you” that God created.
As they say in Enneagram-Land, now go and do the work.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else, although they should, since I am a Type One. The Enneagram diagram was taken from www.enneagraminstitute.com.