That’s what I thought when I first heard someone mention the Enneagram.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system. Despite my gut reaction that it sounded weird, over the last year I’ve come to realize the incredible power of the Enneagram.
No other tool has been more helpful on my journey to grow in self-awareness and in care and empathy for other people.
Consider this to be a primer on the Enneagram, a case study on how it changed my life, and an invitation for you to explore it yourself.
For the newcomers out there, let’s start with what the Enneagram is and where it came from.
As mentioned above, the Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system. It distinguishes between nine different types of people. Its name comes from Greek: Ennea– (“nine”) and -gram (“type”).
Don’t just write it off as yet another personality test. The Enneagram is different from the Myers-Briggs, DiSC or any of the other popular personality tests I’ve ever seen. It attempts to get down into explaining what motivates you rather than simply explaining your actions or preferences.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to finally understand why you act the way you act? Now you can.
The origins of the Enneagram are a bit convoluted. It has ancient roots, tracing all the way back to the Desert Fathers (~200 CE). The first known appearance in print was a Franciscan friar in 1305, and in the last sixty years it has evolved significantly through the influence of modern psychology.
The nine types are as follows:
- Type One: The Perfectionist
- Type Two: The Helper
- Type Three: The Performer
- Type Four: The Romantic
- Type Five: The Investigator
- Type Six: The Loyalist
- Type Seven: The Enthusiast
- Type Eight: The Challenger
- Type Nine: The Peacemaker
While it’s probably impossible to say how much of our type is due to nature versus nature, each of us has a dominant type. Our type is something that cements itself when we’re young, typically as a coping strategy or protective mechanism to ensure our needs for love, connection and belonging are met.
As I’ve explored the Enneagram I’ve been amazed at how holistic it is. I tend to have a skeptical approach to new things, but the further I investigate the Enneagram, the more I find it just makes sense. It explains so much and speaks to so many of the questions I’ve always had about myself and the world.
7 Lessons Learned from the Enneagram
I’m going to use myself as a case study to highlight the valuable lessons I’ve learned from engaging with the Enneagram. Let me preface it by saying this: No five minute primer can fully explain the wisdom found in the Enneagram. You have to make the time to explore it for yourself to reap the benefits.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it will whet your appetite and encourage you to take the next steps on your own journey to self-awareness and a more kind and compassionate life.
According to the Enneagram, I’m a three. Threes are known as “The Performer” (which I cringe at) or “The Achiever” (slightly better).
Threes are the most image conscious type on the Enneagram. They are success-oriented and productivity-driven. Threes are motivated by a need to be (or at least appear to be) successful and to avoid failure. The primary emotion that Threes deal with is shame.
That barely scrapes the surface, but let’s get to the tangible stuff. Here are seven ways that the Enneagram has changed the way I see and live:
- It’s helped me see my motivation and understand my behavior. I’ve always been a person who wants to do things well; a people-pleaser to a fault. I’m good at adapting to different situations and conversations (to succeed or to make a good impression on others), but that’s also left me confused about who I am at times. I’m a pro shape-shifter, but the dark side of this is that I sometime struggle to maintain a clear picture of who I am and what I value/desire/need. Prior to encountering the Enneagram I didn’t have the words to put these feelings into a way that I could understand and share with people who love me.
- It’s helped me understand why I feel and act differently when I’m stressed versus healthy. Without going too deep, an aspect of the Enneagram is that when you’re under stress you take on the negative characteristics of another type. For me, that’s a Nine, and those characteristics are things like extreme apathy and disengagement. With this new self-awareness, I’m now able to step back when those apathetic feelings begin to surface and correct course before I derail.
- It’s given me a greater empathy for others. Oddly enough, not everyone sees the world the same way I do nor struggles with the same things I do (who would’ve thunk?) Of course we all “know” this, but the Enneagram made it far more tangible. It forced me to consider what motivates other people. What are they afraid of? What hurts have they experienced that they are trying to protect themselves from?
- It’s taught me to listen more and to make time for people. This is related to the above point. What’s on the surface doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on in someone’s heart. My friends, family and coworkers deserve to be heard and loved as they are. My team at work aren’t assets to be managed; they are brilliant, real people with stories, struggles and hopes of their own.
- It’s helped me understand and care for my wife. My wife is a Six on the Enneagram. Sixes are wonderful people and friends. They are supremely loyal and trustworthy. They are often driven by fear and want to feel secure and stable above all else. The Enneagram helped me to see the difference between how I view the world and how my wife views the world (big eye-opener!). It’s given me far more empathy for her and helped me know how to understand and communicate well with her. If you’re married or in a relationship, don’t miss out on this opportunity!
- It’s given me a picture of who I can be. One of the things I love about the Enneagram is that it is hope-filled. It not only helped me see my tendencies — positive and negative — it also helped me see who I can be as I mature and grow in self-awareness.
- It’s given me practices to help me get there. While I’m a long way from where I want to be, I now know my areas of struggle and have some tools that can help me overcome them. For me, this includes things like contemplative prayer, keeping a journal and making time to rest. All of these practices help me learn how to to just be and not do — a critical lesson for someone like me.
Beginning the Journey Yourself
Let me be crystal clear: You cannot rush this. There’s no hack and there’s no shortcut to mature self-awareness and genuine concern for others.
The journey to self-awareness is a long one. It’s filled with moments of joy followed by moments of disappointment. And it is well, well worth it.
Whatever your journey has looked like so far, the Enneagram is a great next step. Making the time and space to explore the Enneagram will help you better understand yourself and others. It will make you a more compassionate person and a better friend and companion. Lastly, it will help you to overcome barriers you’ve been putting in your way without even realizing it.
For specific recommendations, consider starting with:
In closing, consider these words from philosopher and author Eckhart Tolle:
“As far as inner transformation is concerned there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot transform yourself, and you certainly cannot transform your partner or anybody else. All you can do is create space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter.”
Take your next step towards inner transformation today. May it be a rewarding one!
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