The Enneagram and the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler

by Jerome Wagner, Ph.D.

When I first read Adler, I was struck by how several of his ideas resonated with Enneagram theory.  In this essay I’ll give a brief overview of Adler’s take on personality and then  focus on those parts of his psychology that complement certain Enneagram dynamics and how I believe they differ.

Adler’s work has become so much a part of mainstream psychology that we forget he was the first to crystallize these ideas.  For example Adler has been called the father of ego psychology, the father of humanistic psychology, the father of cognitive therapy, and the father of family therapy.  He’s been a very fecund father!

Adler and Freud

Even though Adler’s approach was different from Freud’s, he was asked to join the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and became its president a year before officially breaking off from the group.

Actually, the differences between Adler and Freud were quite extensive.  While Freud viewed the mind as consisting of warring factions leading to inevitable conflict, Adler envisioned the mind as an integrated whole.  He chose to call his approach Individual Psychology from the Latin individuum, meaning undivided.  He also emphasized the individual person rather than types of people which would not make him too keen on the Enneagram.

Freud emphasized the unconscious mind and irrational thinking and considered biological motives to be primary.  For him the goal of therapy was to discover repressed early memories.  Hence Freud referred to his method as depth psychology.  Adler emphasized the conscious mind and common sense and thought social motives and relationships were primary.  He focused on family dynamics (such as birth order) and established the first child guidance clinics.  For Adler the goal of therapy was to encourage a lifestyle that incorporates social interest.  So Adler’s approach might be referred to as surface or context psychology.

While Freud was quite pessimistic about human nature, espousing a Hobbesian Darwinian philosophy, Adler was more optimistic, following a Rousseauian humanistic philosophy.

Freud thought that personality was determined by heredity and environmental factors.  We are influenced by our past. So if you want to know who you are and why you are doing what you’re doing, retrace your steps to see how you got here.  Adler believed that humans are free to determine their own personality; they have a creative self.   If you want to know who you are and what you’re doing now, look forward.  What are your future goals and ambitions?  Freud endorsed efficient causality that pushes us from behind; Adler (like Jung) emphasized final causality that pulls us from ahead.

Freud maximized the importance of sex; Adler minimized the importance of sex and — like Fritz Perls, another defector from the analytic tradition — accentuated the aggressive instinct.

Freud analyzed dreams to detect the contents of the unconscious mind.  Adler analyzed dreams to learn about current lifestyles.

Adler’s Individual Psychology

No doubt reflecting on his own life where he experienced rickets as a child and competition with his athletic older brother, Adler observed that human beings feel inferior and these feelings are the motivating force behind all personal striving and accomplishments.  We start small and work our way up.  I recall taking my daughter to the Taste of Chicago when she was a little girl.  Having ingested about 15000 calories myself and feeling quite content, I asked her how she was enjoying the day.  She remarked that all she could see was knees.  Adler may have been on to something.

To compensate for these inferiority feelings, we strive for superiority.  This doesn’t mean becoming better than others; it means going from below to above, from minus to plus.  It means expressing this great upward drive, this striving for perfection.  Eventually Adler enlarged this striving for an ideal self as striving to create a superior or perfect society to go along with it.

Adler’s striving for perfection or reaching for one’s ideal self is a positive healthy motivating force in every person.  It is based on the meaning and values we create for our life and then seek to live out.  This is the self we want to be and is on the resourceful end of the Enneagram style continuum.

This is in contrast to Karen Horney’s idealized self-image which is more a neurotic or default motivation.  In this case we don’t believe our real self is acceptable and consequently we fashion an idolized self we think we should be so we will be up to standard.  This idealized self is ironically on the non-resourceful low end of the Enneagram style continuum.

Adler’s ideal self also differs from the actualizing self of his humanist colleagues Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who saw the actualizing tendency as becoming who you are or becoming what your inherent potentialities actually suit you to be, Adler viewed individuals as becoming other than who they were, as overcoming real or imagined inferiorities.  So Adler has an idealist version of development while Maslow and Rogers have an actualization version.

To get a feel for the actualization version, remember a time when you had a clear sense of who you were and then attempted to function consistently with that sense.  On the other hand, if you remember a time when you were dissatisfied with your talents and actively tried to transcend them to reach a higher level of functioning, you get the gist of Adler’s perfection version.

Adler borrowed from the “as if” philosophy of Hans Vaihinger to support his idealist vision of development.  Vaihinger’s epistemology said we can only be certain of the subjective conscious elements provided by our sensations; and since we experience the physical world only indirectly through our sensations, to make sense of these sensations we invent terms, concepts, and theories to give them meaning.  The world we live in is the world that appears in our consciousness, our phenomenal world, not the physical geographical world.  This epistemology is also the basis of Kurt Lewin’s Gestalt “field theory” and Carl Rogers “phenomenological field” theory.

The criteria for this “as if” fictional world is not whether it is true or false but whether it is heuristic, practical and useful.  According to this approach, the Enneagram is a “useful fiction”– as the practitioners of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) would assert.

Adler took Vaihinger’s theory and applied it to personality.  From the interpretation of early experience, various worldviews can result.  For example, the world can be perceived as an evil or dangerous place to be avoided, or as a pleasant or loving place to be embraced.  For Adler subjective reality was more important than physical reality.  It is the child’s perception of the major events in his or her life that determines his or her worldview, not actual reality.  This is what makes Adler one of the founders of cognitive theory.  If the child perceives the world to be a harsh, unpredictable place, he or she will adjust by creating life goals that incorporate those facts.  If the child perceives the world as a warm, loving, predictable place, then those perceptions will be important in his or her adjustments to life.

Some Enneagram authors would say our current Enneatype is the result of our trying out many different behaviors.  We kept those strategies that were rewarded and that contributed to our physical and psychological survival; and these clusters of attitudes and behaviors are what we call our Enneagram style.  This is a behavioral approach.

Other authors, myself included, would say there is a temperamental contribution to our Enneagram style as well as environmental conditioning.  We are born with a temperamental disposition that leads us to value some things over others; that turns our attention to some phenomena and not to others; that influences us to interpret events a certain way; and that inclines us to act in some ways but not in others.  For example we might value efficiency, scan for things that work, see opportunities in the world, and take them.   Our temperamental proclivity (what we value, look for, construe, and do) then interacts with the environment we find ourselves thrown into (a la Heidegger) to produce our personality style — in this example, Enneastyle Three.  This is a bio-social-behavioral approach.

While Adler would say our creative self is free to make up any world it wants, the “as if” part of his theory, I would say our creative self is influenced by our temperament, a component of our Enneagram style, to shape our world the way we do.  Our worldview, our particular take on reality, is built-in to some extent – like Jung’s notion of archetypes which organize our subjective responses to perpetually recurring human experiences. Our Enneagram style provides us with patterns or templates for understanding our experience.  That doesn’t mean we are completely determined by our style.  We can expand our outlook by taking on other points of view and by uniquely crafting our own viewpoint.  We possess all the archetypes to live by.  It’s just that some of them become dominant.  So our personality appears in the interaction among our Enneagram a-priori structures, our environment, and our creative juggling of our nature and nurture.

Because the important early experiences that mold a child’s personality are those most vividly remembered through the years, they are the ones most likely to be reported as the person’s earliest recollections.  It was for this reason that Adler believed that one’s earliest memories provide important information about one’s life goals and one’s lifestyle.

Coupled with feelings of inferiority, a child’s worldview will determine his or her final goal (Adler’s fictional finalism), and his or her lifestyle.  If a negative worldview develops, the child will believe that he or she must do battle with the world or escape from it in order to gain superiority.  Here the goal will be to dominate, to defeat, to destroy, or to withdraw.  If a positive worldview develops, the child will believe that he or she must participate in the world in order to gain superiority.  Here the goal will be to join in, to create, to love, or to cooperate.  Either type of worldview can manifest itself in a number of lifestyles.

The adaptive, resourceful, high side of our Enneagram style goes with a positive worldview; while the maladaptive, less resourceful, low side of our Enneatype accompanies a negative worldview.  Why do some choose the high road and some the low road?  For some it might be due to faulty wiring — or neurological misfirings.  For others it may be due to faulty family dynamics — or environmental deficits.  Or, if you eschew either/or positions and prefer a double whammy, it’s both.

The concept of fictional finalism, or guiding fiction, gave Adler’s theory a strong teleological component but didn’t ignore the past altogether.  Adler viewed the person as pushed by feelings of inferiority or imperfections toward perfection using his or her unique lifestyle as a means of attaining some future goal.

Adler emphasized that these future goals or ideals are convenient fictions invented to make life more significant than it otherwise would be.  Healthy people change fictions when circumstances warrant it.  Neurotic persons cling to their fictions at all costs.

In sum, the individual invents a worldview, derives a final goal or guiding self-ideal from that worldview, and then creates a lifestyle as a means of achieving that goal.

Earliest Memory

Dan McAdams (2006) in his textbook on The Person writes that: “Human beings are fascinated with beginnings.  We want to know ‘how it all started,’ ‘where things come from, ‘what the ‘origins’ of a particular event or phenomenon are.’  We tend to believe that we can understand something fully only when we know its beginnings.”  So we are fascinated with creation myths, the theory of evolution, the “Big Bang” theory, etc.

The same fascination holds for our own lives.  We want to know “where we came from,” and what our “roots” might be.  Adler’s interest in earliest memories expresses this primal quest.  Adler believed that the earliest memory reveals major themes in a person’s style of life, the person’s unique mode of adjustment to life — particularly the person’s self-selected goals and means of achieving them.  Adler thought that each life was patterned according to a unique style, the central features of which are outlined through early relationships in the person’s family.  According to McAdams: “Adler viewed the earliest memory as something like a personal creation myth or scene that implicitly foreshadows and symbolizes the overall tone of the person’s subsequent life story.”  (p.461)  Earliest memories reveal the beginnings of a general orientation toward life.

What is the earliest memory you can recall?  What was the dominant feeling? sensation? Were you active in the scene or was something happening to you?  Were you alone or with others?  parents? siblings? friends? foes? Were you cooperative or not? Are there any foreshadowing’s in this scene between what was happening then and what course your life has taken?   Any parallels in your life now to what was going on in that scene?  Were there any intimations of your career path?   Is there anything about this scene that reminds you of your Enneagram style?

I can remember being around 5 or 6 and my friend and I were rooting around in the trunk of my father’s car, looking at some tools and a fire extinguisher.  In the course of examining said fire extinguisher, we set it off.  Once you started fire extinguishers in those days, you couldn’t turn them off.  And when the foam got in your eyes, it really burned.  I remember my father appearing on the scene in response to the crying and screaming and washing out our eyes with water and, miraculously, not threatening to kill us.

So where is this curious little kid today who rooted around in trunks of cars?  Well, he’s a psychologist who’s still researching into things and more specifically a therapist who’s looking into psyches.  Fortunately any fire extinguishers going off have only been brief and not life threatening.  I must admit that signs that say “For members only” or “Stay out” present invitations to explore what’s behind those signs.  Also should I get myself into trouble, I still have the fantasy that my father (i.e., lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, department chair, physician, dentist, etc.) will step in and rescue me.  I can see a little bit of the Enneatype Five in that little and big kid.

It doesn’t matter whether these memories are accurate or not.  They reflect the individual’s interpretation of early experiences and that interpretation shapes the worldview, life goal, and lifestyle.

Life Goal

The early events in our life are organized in light of our final goals.  These final goals are our subjective expectations about what might happen in the future.  What each of us perceives to be the final goal of our lives is a fiction that we create to give our lives direction and purpose.  If these fictional final goals are adaptive and realistic, they organize our strivings and provide ultimate explanations for our conduct.  If these fictions are impossible to realize, they may become the root of much neurotic misery.  Either way, people strive for narrative unity and purpose as their lives evolve over time.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (1990) recommends that we begin with the end in mind.  Composing a mission statement is one way to place the end at the beginning.  To get in touch with your fictional final goal, you might ask yourself these questions.

Who do you want to be?  What do you want to do?  What are the values and principles upon which you want to base your being and doing?

In my never-ending quest to boil everything down to its essentials, I would say that:

Enneatype Ones value goodness and want to make the world a better place.

Enneatype Twos value love and want to make the world a more caring place.

Enneatype Threes value competence and want to make the world a more efficient place.

Enneatype Fours value authenticity and beauty and want to make the world a more  beautiful place

Enneatype Fives value knowledge and want to make the world a more enlightened place.

Enneatype Sixes value fidelity and consistency and want to make the world a more safe and secure place.

Enneatype Sevens value joy and want to make the world a happier variety-filled place.

Enneatype Eights value power and equity and want to make the world a more just place.

Enneatype Nines value peace and want to make the world a more harmonious place.


Once we fashion a worldview and then develop a final goal or guiding self-ideal from that worldview, we then invent a lifestyle to help us achieve that goal.  For Adlerians there are as many lifestyles as there are individuals.  For Enneagrammars there are nine broad classes of lifestyles that accompany the nine worldviews and life goals – though within those nine categories there are as many variations on those themes as there are individuals.

Even Adler illustrated with a sweeping brushstroke four types of people based on whether their social interest was constructive or destructive and whether their striving for perfection was done in an active or passive manner.  He didn’t elaborate much more on his rudimentary typology.

Adler believed we all inherited a social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, a feeling for community.  What Adler had in mind by this social sense was that the interest we take in others is not just to serve our own purposes but directs us to develop an “interest in the interests” of others.  Though we are born with an innate need for belonging and fellowship, we must practice this kind of cooperative behavior to actualize our social feeling, otherwise we will become neurotic.

The socially useful type, for Adler, is the healthy lifestyle.  The ruling-dominant type, getting-leaning type, and avoiding type all have faulty or mistaken lifestyles because they lack proper social interest.

Karen Horney was influenced by Adler and you might recognize her neurotic moving against (aggressive), moving towards (compliant), and moving away from (detached) trends in Adler’s three faulty lifestyles.

Striving for
Social Interest
Constructive Destructive
Active socially useful dominant
Passive getting avoiding

In the Enneagram system, the socially useful type would be any healthy Enneatype; the getting type might be an unhealthy two or three; the ruling type looks like an eight; and the avoiding type could be a five or nine.

To get a sense of your lifestyle in relation to your final goal, ask yourself these questions.

Having written out clearly and in detail your central life goal, what are you doing or planning to do in order to attain this goal?  What steps are you taking or have you taken towards your fictional final goal?  What are some obstacles to attaining your goal and how have you tackled them?

Has the lifestyle you have developed helped you achieve your life goal or is it somehow interfering with your getting what you really want?  Faulty or maladaptive lifestyles prevent us from meeting our needs and wishes.  Adaptive lifestyles facilitate our achieving our goals and dreams.  The high side of each Enneagram style is the high road to our destiny; the low side of each Enneatype puts up roadblocks or detours us to some cul-de-sac or endlessly circling drive.

Birth Order

Whereas Freud focused on fathers and his attractive youthful mother towards whom he could have Oedipal fantasies, Adler (whose mother apparently was more a middle-aged hausfrau) chose to pay attention to his siblings.  His interest in birth order was a unique contribution to theories of personality formation.

Empirical research on the effects of birth order on personality traits has not produced many clear-cut findings.  There is some evidence that a child’s position within a family influences the personality he or she develops within the family.  However when the child leaves the family, the coping strategies and other personality characteristics learned within the family may not be relevant outside the family so there may be little transfer of training and behavior to other settings.

On the other hand, Frank Sulloway (1996), a proponent of birth order, says that first borns are more similar in personality to first borns in other families than they are to their own younger siblings; and youngest children are often more similar to the youngest child in another family than his or her own elder siblings because the family is not as much a shared environment as a set of niches that provide siblings with different outlooks. Perhaps those niches and outlooks are also shared by various Enneatypes?

While birth order may exert some effect on personality, this effect is mediated by demographic factors such as gender, social class, ethnicity, and other variables.  However, Enneatypes do not seem to be mediated by these demographic factors.  They show up anywhere!

Given those caveats about the validity of birth order theory, here are some descriptions of these various niches in the family.

First borns are said to be more conscientious, ambitious, and aggressive than their younger siblings.  First borns are over-represented at Harvard and Yale as well as disciplines requiring higher education such as medicine, engineering, or law.  Every astronaut to go into space has been either the oldest child in his or her family or the eldest boy.  More than half of all Nobel Prize winners and U.S. presidents have been first born.  Famous eldest children include: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling, and Winston Churchill.

If I were given to speculation, I might hypothesize that Enneatype Ones might be found among first borns with maybe some Eights and Threes sprinkled in as well.

Middle children are more easy going and peer-oriented.  Since they can get lost in the shuffle of their own families, they learn to build bridges to other sources of support and therefore tend to have excellent people skills.  Middle children often take on the role of mediator and peacemaker.  Famous middle children include: Bill Gates, J.F. Kennedy, Madonna, and Princess Diana.

Empathic Enneatype Twos and Fours and mediating Nines might be found in this group.

Youngest children tend to be the most creative and can be very charming – even manipulative.  Because they often identify with the underdog, they tend to champion egalitarian causes. (Youngest siblings were the earliest backers of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Successful in journalism, advertising, sales and the arts, famous youngest children include Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Rosie O’Donnell Eddie Murphy, and Billie Crystal.

With this group of comedians and comediennes, can Enneatype Sevens be far away?

Only children have similar characteristics to first borns and are frequently burdened with high parental expectations.  Research shows they are more confident, articulate, and likely to use their imagination than other children.  They also expect a lot from others, hate criticism, can be inflexible, and are likely to be perfectionists.  Well-known only children include Rudy Guiliani, F.D. Roosevelt, Alan Greenspan, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

This might be a good breeding ground for Enneatype Fives.  As an only child who also happens to be a Five, it’s not a stretch to see why I would head for my room and be accustomed to and content with being alone.

Because they hold equal status and are treated so similarly, twins turn out similarly in most cases.  Consider advice columnists “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” and Harold and Bernard Shapiro who became presidents of Princeton University and McGill University respectively.

A correlation study done in South Africa by Brooks (1998) found that identical twins were the same Enneagram type ninety five percent of the time.  On the other hand the twin study conducted by David Daniels and Betsy Maxon published in the Enneagram Journal (2008) found only a five and a half percent correlation between identical twins and Enneatypes.  We need a two out of three additional study to break the tie.

It remains to be determined whether birth order causes one’s Enneagram style; whether it simply aggravates or ameliorates one’s Enneagram style; or whether it has nothing to do with one’s Enneastyle.

In my informal data gathering about birth order and Enneagram style, I haven’t found any conclusive correlations.  Apparently any Enneatype can hang anywhere on the family tree.  It would be more useful to pursue more formal research than a simple show of hands to see if there are any significant relationships between birth order and Enneatypes or, perhaps, with subtypes.

In the meantime you might want to poll your friends, neighbors, and fellow Enneagram cognoscenti to determine whether there is any relationship between their birth order, Enneagram type, and subtype.

Adler’s theories about early memories, worldview, final goal, lifestyle, social interest, and birth order have their resonances in Enneagram theory.  While some of the notes may vary and the themes can be interpreted differently, one can hear a similar melody in both pieces.


Brooks, D. (1998).  Are personality traits inherited?  South African Journal of Science. Vol. 94.

Covey, S. (1990).  The seven habits of highly effective people.  New York: Fireside.

Hergenhahn, B.R. & Olson, R. (2007).  An introduction to theories of personality.  (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson.

Maxie, B. & Daniels D. (2008).  Personality differentiation of identical twins reared together.  The Enneagram Journal 1: 66-76.

McAdams, D. (2006).  The person: a new introduction to personality psychology.  (4th ed.). New York: Wiley and Sons.

Sulloway, F. (1996).  Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives..  New York: Pantheon.