Here are some thoughts on questions that people have asked about the Enneagram. It’s an overview of the system along with reflection questions to get you to ask more questions about the Enneagram.
The Enneagram is a personality typology that describes nine ways of being in the world. Some authors call them types, some strategies, I prefer styles which gives a little more wiggle room. There is, as they say in statistics, considerable inner-group variability. That is, there is a lot of variety within each style. There is also, of course, considerable inter-group variability. While there is overlap among the nine styles, they are also different.
Nothing in life is simple. Gordon Allport thought traits (personality generates behavior patterns that can be described as types) were hard-wired into the brain. They actually exist, we’re not making this up. Others say we are born with temperamental proclivities. We have a tendency to perceive and respond a certain way. Others (the behaviorists) would say what you are calling a type is simply a collection of behaviors. Still others (the constructivists) would say that type exists only in the mind of the typist. We are making this up.
I would lean toward the temperamental proclivities camp. David Daniels writes about “innate propensities” and “structural proclivities.” We are inclined to see the world and act in certain ways but are still free to choose what to think and do.
NATURE OR NURTURE
People ask whether we are more influenced by nature (what we are born with) or nurture (what we are born into). As Hegel would have predicted, psychology has swung from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. Biological psychologists said we are influenced mostly by nature (as high as 90%). Then radical behavioral psychologists said we are completely influenced by nurture (100%). Then interactionist psychologists said we are influenced by both nature and nurture (50/50%). So the answer to the question of whether we are more influenced by nature or nurture is “yes.”
The Enneagram describes traits, behaviors, and behavioral tendencies. It also describes motivations which most Enneagram teachers like to point out.
I like to think of the values we are motivated by. We usually have a hierarchy of values. Some are more important than others. You might ask yourself:
- What gets you out of bed at the beginning of the day?
- And at the end of the day, what made it
a good day? Or what made the day
- Did you learn something? Help someone? Make things right? Get things done? Have a deep meaningful interaction? Had fun? Survived the day? Didn’t get upset or upset anyone? Defended the downtrodden?
- What is your purpose, vocation,
mission? What are you here to do?
- Some say they are here to fix things, love things, complete things, make things beautiful, intelligible, safe, fun, tell the truth, make things agreeable.
- What aspect of humanity or the divine are you destined to manifest? Your presence reminds us of what it means to be human (good, loving, productive, creative, wise, loyal, imaginative, just, peaceful.) You reveal certain aspects of God to us that we otherwise might not experience (see above.)
- What is your legacy? In the tapestry of history, your cohort, your family, what piece does your thread add? Or what role did you play in the unfolding of being?
- What do you really desire? And where does your desire meet the world’s needs?
We want to promulgate or share our values with others since we think they are really great.
- What kind of world do you want to leave
- Better, more loving, more efficient, more beautiful, more intelligible, safer, more delightful, more just, more inclusive?
- What cultural institutions has your
style created to enshrine your values?
- Schools, libraries, science museums, art museums, symphony centers, hospitals, clinics, HR departments, CEO suites, banks to keep your money safe, investment banks to grow your money, court systems, entertainment venues, travel agencies, ecumenical organizations, accounting firms, sports venues for gladiators, computer centers for geeks. You get the idea.
REAL SELF / FALSE SELF
Many traditions, including the Enneagram, describe the true self (who we are born to be) and the false self (who we are conditioned to be). The true self is our core, given, authentic or gifted self. The false self is our defensive, distorted, compensating, exaggerated, caricature, idealized self.
If Carl Rogers were our parent and we were loved unconditionally for who we are or Heinz Kohut was our father who empathically mirrored us as we are, then there would be no need to be other than who we are because we’re OK as is.
Unfortunately, our culture, religion, educational system, parents, siblings, et.al. don’t think we’re so great as is. For our own good, they think we need to be educated or conditioned to be the way we should be. Not knowing any better, we go along with the program and construct an idealized self – the self we think we should be in order to be safe, loved, accepted.
So, what happened to your core self, your original goodness. What happened that you formed a personality around your core to protect it?
- Was there one traumatic hurtful event? Or a series of minor assaults? What was the hurt or wounding, or vulnerability that you wanted to make sure wouldn’t happen to you again?
- What are you afraid of? And how do you
protect yourself from this?
- Are you afraid of criticism, rejection, failure, being abandoned, looking foolish, being betrayed, limited and bored, being weak and taken advantage of, conflict?
We develop an idealized self-image to present ourselves the way we think others want to see us and how we want to see ourselves. You will love me if you see me as good, helpful, successful, special, wise, faithful, upbeat, strong, accommodating.
BLIND SPOT / AVOIDED SELF / DESPISED SELF
As we over-emphasize a certain part of ourselves (think of a caricature with big ears, chin, nose, etc.), we overlook or minimize opposing parts of ourselves. These are distrusted, disliked, despised parts. Our shadow. We repress these characteristics and then project them onto others. Fortunately, there are nine recycling bins in which to put our discarded personality parts.
DEFENSES AND VULNERABILITIES
We can use a variety of defenses to wall off our unacceptable parts. They keep them out of our awareness and they keep others away from us. Think of a turtle’s shell, a porcupine’s quills, a skunk’s odor, a dear’s camouflage, a lion’s roar. Sometimes our defenses are a little over-kill and can stay around longer than we really need them. (Think of skunks, again.)
- So, what do you fear? What makes you anxious? And what happens when you feel anxious? That’s when your defenses pop up. If we avoid what makes us anxious, our anxiety goes down. That’s called negative reinforcement. Afraid of dogs, avoid them. Afraid of heights, stay on the ground. Afraid of girls, boys, math, avoid them. So, what do you avoid thinking, feeling, doing?
- What are you afraid will happen if you let your unacceptable parts out? What do you do to keep that part of you locked up and out of view?
- You might want to make friends with your demons, monsters, and isolated parts. There are all kinds of myths about doing so: Beauty and the Beast, Tame Your Dragon, Schrek, Donkey, and the Dragon, the Furies and Eumenides in Greek mythology, the Seven Samurai in Japanese film, and the Magnificent Seven in the Western version. Befriending our supposed enemy turns them into our ally.
IDOLS AND IRONY
Idols and idealized self-images have much in common. Both promise to save us from what we fear; both exact a certain price (give me your first fruits, first born, true self, etc.), and both renege on their promises. They don’t deliver.
- What is your idol or addiction? Perfectionism? Co-dependency? Workaholism? Uniqueism? Intellectualism? Fanaticism? Hedonism? Vindication? Pacifism?
- What does your idol promise you? Protection from criticism, rejection, failure, etc.?
- What do you have to sacrifice and give up for your idol? Pleasure? Your own needs? Relaxation? Being ordinary? Your feelings? Your inner authority? Being rooted? Being vulnerable? Being assertive?
- How does the strategy of your idol get
in the way of what you really want?
- For example, if you really want to be known and accepted for who you are, how does not revealing yourself get in the way of this?
- And, ironically, how does your defensive
strategy bring about the very thing you are trying to avoid? The damnable thing about neuroses is they
engender the very thing we are trying to escape.
- For example, if you want to avoid criticism, does being pedantic or judgmental of others bring about their being defensive and then critical of you?
- Or if you want to avoid rejection, does being smothering lead others to push you away?
- If you want to be accepted for who you are, does being too slick, polished, and accomplished encourage people to admire your accomplishments instead of loving you?
- If you want to belong and be understood, does being special lead people to misunderstand you since no one is like you?
- If you want to avoid emptiness, does being too intellectual lead to feeling empty since you misplaced your emotions and body?
- If you want to feel safe, does being paranoid lead to people talking behind your back and wanting to put you away?
- If you want to avoid pain, does surrounding yourself with too many balloons lead people to want to pop them, thus raining on your parade?
- If you want to be invulnerable, does being aggressive lead to others ganging up on you and attacking you?
- If you want to be noticed and cared for, does being in the background lead people to overlook you?
I like the Enneagram because it provides a framework on which to hang the various pieces of the personality puzzle. It is, indeed, a useful fiction. Stay tuned for more reflections.