When people ask me what the Enneagram is, I am immediately elated and nervous to give an explanation, because it feels like introducing them to a best friend who has saved my life. Any “elevator speech” is incomplete, and even a dissertation would still miss the mark, because this dynamic spiritual tool interacts with each person in a unique and individual way. My story will not be the same as your story, but our common humanity of brokenness, possibility, and innate hidden wholeness guarantees that this tool has something life changing for everyone. Let me (begin) to explain, and tell a bit of how the Enneagram has made me a kinder, wiser, and healthier human.
First, an overview.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system that is unique among its peers. While other systems put you in a box and leave you there, the Enneagram shows you all the parts of your “box” that you’ve been living in (even the parts that are subconscious and denied), and then gives you a path of transformation and healing to move outside of the box of your habitual thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can do this because the Enneagram looks at the motivations of each type, instead of the observable behaviors. It also shows us both our Light and Shadow sides, our “blessings and blights” as teacher Ian Cron likes to say. In its wisdom, the Enneagram shows us that “our personality type is not who we are, but instead what keeps us from being who we are.” (Quote from teacher Anne Muree). It points toward ego structure. However, it is a non-dualistic system (like any healthy spirituality), and includes this paradox: it also shows us exactly who we could be, and provides a path to our True Self/Essence (as opposed to our False Self/ego).
The Enneagram has nine personality types, which are actually habits and coping mechanisms built up over time in an attempt to feel safe, secure, loved, respected, in control, and happy. Each of these “programs for happiness” work for us for a time...until they don’t. They end up getting us into trouble, again, and again... and again. We get frustrated with ourselves, feeling defective, angry, ashamed, and afraid. (e.g. What is wrong with me that I just can’t seem to change?? I intend to stop reacting to people and situations in this way, but I just can’t stop myself!! I guess I’ll just have to suffer like this the rest of my life. Poor me, no one understands me!)
Here’s where the Enneagram steps in with the radical introduction to CHOICE. As the late and brilliant Enneagram master teacher Don Riso used to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” My own genius teacher Anne Muree says (and I paraphrase), “The Enneagram is about LOVE and CHOICE, and they are right around the corner from one another. First we choose to love ourselves. Then we love ourselves enough to make different choices. And through these healthier choices, our love for ourselves and others grows.”
I will give one example from my own life in how this process has unfolded for me.
I am a Type One on the Enneagram, which sometimes gets called the Perfectionist or the Reformer (both labels were easy for me to claim, even before I had much self awareness.). With a constant focus on what can be improved, Ones have a deep drive to make ourselves better, to improve and maximize others potential, and make the world a better place. Those are all great things, until we overdo them. As teacher Suzanne Stabile points out, “The best part of you is also the worst part of you.” And believe me, all my efforts to perfect myself, others, and the world led me into a place of dissatisfaction, frustration, and a near constant state of resentment toward others.
The funny thing about it, in hindsight, is that I never recognized myself as an angry person, even though I was walking around with irritation simmering right under the surface of my “good girl” facade at all times. Resentment was just the water I was swimming in. I’m sure others could see and feel it, and that’s why the people I loved avoided controversial topics with me, because I would always turn it into a black/white, right/wrong argument, and I had to be right. I always got the last word in order to fuel my sense of goodness and purity (a.k.a self righteousness). For example, when I couldn’t convince my father that his politics were wrong, I resorted to writing snarky counter-arguments in his political books while home on breaks from college. While that never changed him, it made me feel like I’d done my duty in setting the "truth" straight. I had still won. (But this was extremely damaging to our relationship, obviously).
Some of you may be wondering why I’m being so hard on myself. I’m not. It’s just the pure, unadulterated truth. After a lifetime of powerful denial, I’ve finally learned to trust that only the Truth will set me free. After years of working on this, I don’t feel much emotion in the re-telling of my version of insanity. If anything, it’s humorous to me. I’ve finally stopped trying to control things I cannot change. I’m also finding a sense of compassion for myself, for all the suffering I have created, for how difficult I’ve made my life out to be. That is completely new to me. My version of ego has always believed that self criticism and reprimand would be what would eventually whip me into spiritual shape, but thank goodness for the Enneagram, Love has now been given the decisive voice (on my good days!).
One more quick story.
I used to feel that anger was the only fuel that could keep me going. It was the motivation to make a difference in the world. This is the rhetoric in many activist circles, and even within many religions who speak of a righteous anger. While I would never say that this is completely untrue or that anger has no value, I know that anger was robbing me of sleep, shaming me into feeling like I could never measure up to its high bar, and causing pain and tension in my body, particularly in my jaw, neck, and shoulders.
I remember distinctly the first time I reacted to injustice with compassion instead of rage. I was traveling in the West Bank of Palestine, and parts of Israel, listening to people’s stories from both sides of the conflict. While I had very strong opinions about the devastation of genocide, military occupation, imprisonment of children, and the system of apartheid going on there, I suddenly knew with clarity that anger and hatred were not going to help. Only compassion for everyone involved (including the brainwashed oppressors!) was going to end this conflict. If I wanted the people there to love and understand each other, I couldn't ask of them something I was unwilling or unable to do myself. On that trip, I began to experiment with the possibility that Love was actually a powerful force for change, not a wimpy or fluffy emotion for pushovers.
When all is said and done, the Enneagram helps each of the nine types find their own much needed compassion for self and others. As a One, I happen to be in the “anger triad” along with Eights and Nines, and only compassion and kindness can counter this toxic reaction in our bodies. There are three types that find themselves in the “shame triad” and the last three types are found within the “fear triad.” For all of us, whether anger, fear, or shame is our go-to motivator, we can do better for ourselves and others. And compassion is the path for us all.
We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve been given, at all times. Only self acceptance, loving encouragement, and self awareness can move us toward greater freedom and toward our True Self.
If you have not looked into the Enneagram, but feel ready to face your "demons" and be given guidance to defeat them, I recommend reading the book “The Road Back to You” to help you discover your type. There are also trained Enneagram coaches (such as myself!) who can help you through this self discovery process, starting with a typing interview. For some people, finding your type can be difficult and may take some time. But it is worth it! Blessings on your Enneagram journey.
With deep compassion,
I'm a Spiritual Director, Enneagram Educator, and Liberationist-Buddhist-Universalist-Mystic-12 step-Queer-Christian. Playing with questions, answers, and surrender.