It’s a kind of language — not a personality quiz.
Enneagram. If you’ve been online recently, you’ve probably seen this word floating around. While it might appear to be another trendy personality quiz, experts say it’s much more complex than that.
Originally known as the Enneagram of Personality Types, the Enneagram was first invented in the 1900s as a model of the human psyche. It was used to understand people through nine interconnected personality types, and has since been expanded upon by more modern thinkers.
While the most well-known Enneagram today is recognized as a personality typology, it would be more accurate to think of it as a dynamic system.
In short, it draws from many sources, including ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychology, to help people understand their own values and unique survival strategies.
According to Dr. Jerome D. Lubbe, functional neurologist, and author of “The Brain-Based Enneagram: You Are Not a Number,” the Enneagram goes much deeper.
While it can be a useful tool to understand your personality, strengths, and challenges in life, it can also help us to examine how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world.
In the Enneagram system, there are symbols that represent the “big picture” view of a person’s whole identity.
“[There] are three distinct yet united segments — instinct, intuition, and intellect,” Lubbe tells Healthline. “[These are] the gut center, heart center, and head center, respectively.”
The triad of centers can also represent a person’s body, soul, and mind.
Oftentimes, people attempt to take shortcuts to understand the Enneagram, the same way they do with other popular self-reflective tools. But learning Enneagram numbers can be complex, because the Enneagram is complex.
However, if you shift the focus of the Enneagram from being all about a single number to drawing from qualities in all nine numbers, its complexity becomes clearer.
The Enneagram is ultimately about nature and values, instead of a single type and reductive behaviors.
“For example, the number 7, traditionally associated with the title of Enthusiast, can instead be represented by the innate human capacity for enthusiasm as well as the value of experiences,” explains life coach Nicole McDonough.
“‘I am an Enthusiast’ transforms into ‘I value experiences,’ which allows more room for nuance, invites growth, and begs the question, ‘And what else do I value?’”
Using McDonough’s guidance above, we can reframe each of the Enneagram types to better understand our values and motivations.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by justice.”
The nature of 1 represents the innate human capacity for reformation.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by appreciation.”
The nature of 2 represents the innate human capacity for nurturing.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by creativity.”
The nature of 3 represents the innate human capacity for achievement.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by authenticity.”
The nature of 4 represents the innate human capacity for individuality.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by clarity.”
The nature of 5 represents the innate human capacity for investigation.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by guarantees.”
The nature of 6 represents the innate human capacity for loyalty.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by experiences.”
The nature of 7 represents the innate human capacity for enthusiasm.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by autonomy.”
The nature of 8 represents the innate human capacity for disruption.
|“I value, seek, and am motivated by serenity.”
The nature of 9 represents the innate human capacity for peace.
“It removes the idea that one size fits all for things like self-care or communication issues. Advice that works for one person might not work for you, even if you respect them tremendously,” McDonough tells Healthline.
“It would be like going to someone and saying, ‘Marcia said when I come to a bridge, I should cross it, so that’s what I’m going to do,’ because crossing a bridge in a forest worked for Marcia once,” she continues.
“So you spend all your time looking for this bridge, wondering why you can’t find it and what you did wrong, when your journey is actually taking place in a desert, not a forest.”
If you’re interested in diving into being a true student of the Enneagram, the best way to approach it is recognizing that it’s a long journey, and it won’t give you any simple answers about yourself, says Lubbe.
“I recommend treating the Enneagram like a new language you are learning. Begin with the basics. Learn the alphabet, the vocabulary, common phrases, and sayings. Every language has its own unique structure and use. The Enneagram is no different,” explains Lubbe.
This is why seeking out Enneagram teachers, mentors, coaches, colleagues, and friends who are well-versed in the Enneagram, if you can, is critical to understanding and doing the work.
The Enneagram is not designed to be an exercise in isolation, but rather a profoundly helpful tool for understanding ourselves and others. “I recommend that we seek to understand it before we seek to be understood by it,” says Lubbe.
Many other behavioral systems and personality typing models are heavily biased toward the “what” and the “how” of what you do, explains Lubbe.
However, by contrast, the most useful thing about the Enneagram is its “ability to succinctly and accurately describe what motivates you and why you engage the world in your unique way of being.”
According to therapist Lauren Hasha, MS, LPC, “The Enneagram is a useful tool for anyone to add to their toolbox when working on greater self-awareness of their personality type. Learning the key motivations of your personality type can be very helpful.”
The Enneagram, according to Hasha, has been more useful to her in helping people identify not only their personality types, but also understanding what mental spaces people hide in when stressed or traumatized, what coping mechanisms they use, and why.
But the Enneagram can also help people to identify strengths and look for opportunities for growth too.
The Enneagram, in that regard, can help us figure out why certain things trigger us, understand that we all react disproportionately to different dynamics or emotions, and why that is.
“It helps us identify our reactive behaviors in stress, and also gives us a choice. We don’t have to live in fight or flight; we can notice patterns, practice self-compassion, and make conscious choices we won’t regret,” McDonough explains.
Where it once used to be more convoluted and inaccessible, more contemporary books have helped a new generation of those seeking spiritual, psychological growth find comfort and wisdom in the system.
After discovering the Enneagram as a teenager, Hannah Paasch has spent the last 12 years researching and coming to understand it, which, they say, is a never-ending process.
Finding that it was often difficult to understand how the Enneagram works, Paasch came up with and wrote their book “Milleanneagram” to help people take interest in the system and more easily recognize themselves in the descriptions.
Paasch’s goal is to help people who turn to the Enneagram have an ‘Oh, that’s me!’ moment, which they say is more powerful than anything.
Each expert I spoke with recommended reading at least one or two books to get started on the path of truly understanding the Enneagram.
Some top recommendations include:
- “The Brain-Based Enneagram” by Dr. Jerome Lubbe
- “The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types” by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson
- “Millenneagram: The Enneagram Guide for Discovering Your Truest, Baddest Self” by Hannah Pasch
- “The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth” by Christopher Heuertz
“The most compelling part of the Enneagram for me has been the childhood wounds: how our current egoic thoughts and behavior point to where we hurt when we were young and impressionable,” says Paasch.
They add, “Enneagram teachers differ on whether the childhood wounds point to real trauma or perceived wounding, but I have to believe it can be both and either. A perceived wound is no less real because it was unintended.”
According to experts who have been learning and practicing for years, the Enneagram and the system of numbers won’t be useful if you approach it in simplistic terms.
If you expect that learning about your number will tell you everything about yourself, in a similar way that some people have come to think of astrological signs, you won’t get the most out of it.
“The most unhelpful mindset or approach to the Enneagram is to over-identify with a [single] type. It is very common for human beings to assign reductive labels in a way that creates boundaries for what is allowed in, what is not allowed out, and who and what we want to keep out of our lives,” says Lubbe.
Ultimately, the Enneagram is a tool and system designed for comprehensive understanding and integration, as well as for the purpose of holistic health (physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually).
“It is not designed to be a relational weapon we use against others or ourselves or an excuse to abdicate our responsibility to become a healthy human being.”
McDonough agrees about the danger of using the Enneagram system to flatten ourselves or others using types or numbers.
“The Enneagram should not be used to stereotype others, draw premature conclusions, put other people down, flaunt your knowledge of their flaws in an argument, fire someone, or any other action that would be hurtful or abrupt and conclusive.”
However, when we open our eyes to the entirety of the Enneagram system, we’re able to use it as a growth-oriented tool to be used for personal inquiry, compassion, and empathy.
Using an online tool like the EnneApp can help you get started if diving into books headfirst sounds intimidating.
If you’re using it correctly, as a tool to do inner work and not simply to label yourself and find an excuse to say, “That’s just who I am,” the Enneagram can illuminate many paths through which you can do inner child work and shadow work.
“The Enneagram can illuminate the act of seeing, recognizing, and making space for the parts of ourselves we see as negative or ugly and have therefore fractured off,” Paasch explains.
“For example, as a base Type 4 myself, I know that I move to 2 in stress, which means my codependency starts to come out,” they continue.
“I start to cling to others, giving them attention so they’ll give it to me, etc. Instead of punishing myself for these reactions to fear and unease, [though,] I can anticipate them and reparent myself compassionately when they show up.”
In their podcast of the same title, “Milleanneagram,” based on their book, Paasch spends an hour-long episode on each of the base types to help people become more familiar with the numbers and find themselves in the descriptions.
Above all, Paasch says that while it’s important for people interested in the Enneagram to understand that an Enneagram number can be useful in helping people understand, work on, and heal from specific wounds, you can never be boiled down to a number.
“Any practitioner that attempts to box you in or otherwise limit your expansiveness with the Enneagram is doing it wrong. You contain multitudes, and the Enneagram will help reveal those to you, if you let it.”