How the Enneagram Can Change Your Life

You think you’re a personality junkie. You’ve taken DISC, StrengthsFinder (1.0 and 2.0), the Meyers-Briggs, etc.

then, enter the Enneagram.

and everything you thought you knew about yourself dissolves in the midst of its glory. seriously. that ENFP personality profile you thought perfectly described you? child’s play.

based on ancient personality identifiers, the enneagram has had thousands of years to develop in nuanced, subtle complexity. but we’ll start with the basics.

the basics

this personality indicator has nine basic types.

(for grounding, they’re briefly described by the enneagram institute as such:

  1. the reformer — the rational, idealistic type: principled, purposeful, self-controlled, perfectionistic
  2. the helper — the caring, interpersonal type: demonstrative, generous, people-pleasing, and possessive
  3. the achiever — the success-oriented, pragmatic type: adaptive, excelling, driven, and image-conscious
  4. the individualist — the sensitive, withdrawn type: expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, and temperamental
  5. the investigator — the intense, cerebral type: perceptive, innovative, secretive, and isolated
  6. the loyalist — the committed, security-oriented type: engaging, responsible, anxious, and suspicious
  7. the enthusiast — the busy, fun-loving type: spontaneous, versatile, distractible, and scattered
  8. the challenger — the powerful, dominating type: self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational
  9. the peacemaker — the easygoing, self-effacing type: receptive, reassuring, agreeable, and complacent)

the most obvious feature of this diagram is that each type is connected. you’re connected to each other type in a particular way. specifically, you’re closely connected to the types called your “wings,” “stress type,” and “security type,” which makes up 50 percent of the rest of the enneagram.

much of this will be explained later, but for instance, if you’re a 1 (like me), your “wings” are the 2 and the 9, your stress type is the 4, and your security type is the 7. this means that, while you’re generally principled and perfectionistic, you lean toward being a perfectionistic peacemaker (an idealist) or a perfectionistic helper (an advocate), or both. then, when you’re stressed, you become like the individualist — withdrawn, temperamental, self-absorbed. and when you feel safe, you become like the enthusiast — fun-loving, spontaneous, and scattered.

this connection to the other types helped me understand how — while i normally identify with the INTJ personality type — i also see myself as an INFJ sometimes (the 4) and an ENFP other times (the 7).

thus, this “connectedness” among the types allows you to look at yourself through various lenses at different times in your life. you start to understand that the real reason you identified with a certain type earlier in your life wasn't because you “were” that type, but it was because you were stressed, or secure, or healthy, or unhealthy (we’ll get to the health levels in a bit).

finally, one of the most vital differences that the connectedness creates between the enneagram and other personality indicators is that the enneagram recognizes that — while you have a basic personality type (or tendency) — you also have within you the potential for all personality characteristics. all of them.

in fact, the most emotionally, intellectually, personally, and spiritually mature people should test more evenly across multiple types. and this points to another difference between the enneagram and other indicators: while other tests have the goal to situate you within a particular type, the enneagram’s goal is to help you become aware of your type for the precise purpose of transcending it.

for instance, the 1 (reformer) is known for having a basic “sense of mission” in life. this leads them to desire constant improvement — in themselves, those around them, and the world around them. sounds great, right? plato was (supposedly) a 1, as was joan of arc, thoreau, and ghandi. however, ones are also plagued — haunted, even — by their superego, feeling that they must reduce disorder, justify their actions, and suppress their instinctual drives, which leads them to overwhelming repression, resistance, and (often) aggression. they (in unhealthy stages) become ruled by their perfectionism. thus, the enneagram’s goal is to help the 1 see this intense superego as a facet of their personality, which, when transcended, will leave them with the freedom to live in the healthy levels of their 1-ness, being wise, discerning, humane, inspiring, and transcendentally realistic.

basic fears and desires

the foundation of the enneagram is vastly different than the foundation of any other test i’ve come across: it focuses on your basic fears and desires. while most personality indicators focus on describing and celebrating your type, relegating any “tips” for growth to a small sub-section, generally at the end of the description, the enneagram puts your weaknesses front and center.

for example, the description of the 1 states that the basic fear is of being corrupt, evil, or defective. conversely, their basic desire is to be good, to have integrity, and to be balanced. when seen in this light, the 1 is forced to see that their perfectionism isn’t something to take self-righteous pride in, but it’s actually a reflection of their basic fear of being corrupt.

and, at least according to psychologists like carl rogers, any thought/action that stems from fear is unhealthy.

the 1, then, is forced to learn how to overcome their fear, and in overcoming it, the self-control, wisdom, and sense of mission they feel becomes increasingly more healthy, motivated by true desire and love instead of inherent fear.

one last reason why this focus on the basic fear is important: when other personality indicators overlook a type’s basic fear, it feeds a celebratory idealism surrounding most of their actions, which, in turn, feeds a type of (dare i say it?) vanity. this seems to lead (at least in my experience) to a sense of comparison, competition, and value judgments on other types, deeming some better than others, rather than deeming all equally depraved.

(i’m ashamed to admit that i (INTJ) and my very good friend (INTP) often deliberately ignored and discounted most ENFJs or INFJs, since they held many contrasting characteristics. now that i recognize the basic fear of most ENFJs is that they’re not valuable or worthwhile, and the basic fear of most INFJs is that they have no personal significance, i’m able to generate much more compassion for the types.)

stress/security types

i’ve mentioned this before, but i’ll delve a little more deeply here. each type moves in a certain direction when they become stressed or when they feel secure. for instance, these are the stress/security types for the 1:

stress/security types for type 1

as i mentioned before, this explains why you can look back on different times of your life and think, “but i seemed like an ENFP then… and i seemed like an INFJ then…” while your basic type never actually changes, you do function in another type’s characteristics.

how does this work? most of it is based on the levels of development:

as you grow into higher levels of health, you may experience certain characteristics of your growth type. for me as a 1, this means that when i feel most liberated, i am also at my most spontaneous and fun-loving.

conversely, if you were to delve into deeper, unhealthy levels, you will oftentimes “punt” down to your stress type, rather than reaching dangerous levels of destructiveness.

the 1's unhealthiest level, for instance, looks like a perfectionistic personal who becomes condemnatory, punitive, and cruel (towards themselves and others), and who experiences severe depression, nervous breakdowns, and/or suicide attempts. instead of reaching that unhealthy level, when i’m stressed, i often punt down to average levels of the 4, which look more like feeling different from others, being disdainful, decadent, sensual, self-pitying, unproductive, etc.

most importantly, now that i’ve been given the chance to recognize that the self-pitying thoughts are a result of my stress and particular personality type (rather than a reflection of my true reality), i have much more ease in quickly dismissing them and moving toward the truth. again — in becoming more aware of yourself, you are much more easily able to transcend yourself.

a half-baked conclusion

while there is much more to the enneagram (all of which you can read here), what sets it apart from others is its foundation and its goal: understanding your basic fears and desires, and learning to transcend them to become a more whole person.

when you immerse yourself in this personality indicator, you don’t just come up with another set of letters or numbers or words to describe yourself — you embark on a journey of transformation to understand and transcend yourself.

if any of this has whetted your personality appetite, take the short personality indicator quiz here.

(and leave comments below on your type, and how you see that type manifesting in your life, because i’m fascinated by that.)