5 Common Enneagram Errors
Having done them all, what I’m learning along the way.
Ahh, the Ennegram.
I struggled with the decision to write this post/essay because I inherently avoid jumping on a bandwagon whenever I can. And in certain faith circles, the Enneagram has become the bandwagon of all bandwagons. This is not without merit. The tool has insightful power at both the surface level and in the work of transformation. Because it draws from the wisdom schools of diverse religious backgrounds and captures some of the most timeless frameworks of the Christian view, it succeeds where others fail in helping us find both our individual uniqueness and our collective unity, something the world as we know it today desperately needs.
Perhaps that is why its proliferation can be so irritating. It’s usage in common forums can seem like a hyper-spiritualized personality test (which it most certainly is not) or a way to put people in the old familiar substandard boxes while standing high on our own. I recognize these tendencies both in the Interwebs, around kitchen tables, and most disturbingly in my own heart. Setting out to reawaken my own inner work, I began to see how I’d twisted the Enneagram to my own devices, dulling its scalpel-like ability to carve out the cancer in me. While the content of this essay is didactic in style, I hope you will recognize its personal origins. There are so few tools in popular parlance which light up our deeper selves, soften our defenses. Join me as we explore five ways I’ve misused the Enneagram and what I learned in the journey.
1. Treating it like the Myers-Briggs
Most introductions to the Enneagram go something like, “I’m a THREE so that means…” The paragraph which followed functioning just as well had you swapped “THREE” with “ENTJ” or “ISFP.” The Enneagram’s popular explosion has morphed it into just another personality psychometric, though one with spiritual overtones. It is likely that the spiritual language of the Enneagram, along with its inexplicable inherent power to expose our personalities have been essential to its rise in American Christian consciousness, (Richard Rohr helped, too.) though “typing” yourself or others was never the purpose of the icon.
The Enneagram was never meant to be a personality type indicator. Its origins lie in philosophic and mystical traditions and was intended to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of the modern personality typologies like Myers-Briggs (MBTI), DISC, Strengthsfinder, etc. Personality typing is about dividing people into usable subgroups, the Enneagram about drawing all people deeper into the unity of all things. Those who come to the Enneagram in Christian America are probably more comfortable with our cultural idea of productivity (and it’s corollary in the church: gifts-based volunteerism) than the spiritual idea of unity, though the second is far more prevalent in Scripture. Our comfort-levels notwithstanding, spiritual health and vitality in Jesus has much more to do with our unity with each other than it does with naming our productive differences.
For me, this distinction between typology and spiritual integration has been a necessary one. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life using psychometrics like MBTI, Predictive Index® and Strengthsfinder® to coach, train, hire and build work teams. As I have studied the history of psychological typing in America, its draw and usefulness to corporations and managers becomes obvious. Simplifying our division of labor responsibilities in the post-industrial workplace was a necessity, and tools to do so have proven their usefulness.
But the Enneagram has little use for bolstering our societally productive selves. If we are to take the ancient wisdom trapped in this little icon and its accompanying spiritual work seriously, we must see it as an abandonment of our productive ego-selves, and a sinking into to the spiritual whole, undefended essence which connects us rather than divides us.
2. Treating Type as Fixed
Let’s go back to the “I’m a THREE so…” conversation. The rest of that paragraph usually includes a litany of personality traits, behaviors, and (sometimes) excuses for ways of being that are now supposedly justified by an ancient “personality tool”. I know I’ve done this. Because I most closely identify with the EIGHT point on the Enneagram, my early experience “as an EIGHT” was in developing a whole bunch of rationale for my anger, my willingness to jump into a fight, my codependent beliefs about my role as protector and provider for those “weaker” than me.
I have come to believe that this first round of self-rationalization that comes with Enneagram awareness is a natural experience. Chris Heuertz (@chrisheuertz) suggests that the type which makes you the most defensive upon first reading about it is likely the one you most identify with. The Enneagram, when doing its true work, exposes us, not protects us. It shows us the darkness which we run to so easily, points out the chinks in our armor, and alights our vulnerability. In the long run it is our undefended selves which will enter into communion with God and others through the Enneagram work, but that is not how we begin. This initial exposing actually makes us grab for our defenses all the more, seeing our ego-characteristics in such living color triggers a passion for cover, and if the Enneagram can provide that cover by way of justifying our defense mechanisms, then all the better.
When this is as far as we get with the Enneagram, we miss any of its transformative power. When George Gurjieff first brought the Enneagram into the modern western awareness in the 1960s, he taught it as a dance, a movement among the points, all as extreme distractions from our eternal center in God. This idea of the points (and our identification with them) as armored escapes from intimate union with God and others has been lost in much of the public discussion of the Enneagram, and along the way, the power of the tool to transform us to our deepest spiritual selves lost as well.
3. Focusing on the Negative
If the exposure of our defense mechanisms is one of the early powers of the Ennegram (the ONEs’ perfectionism, the FOURs’ moodiness, the NINEs’ absenteeism, etc.), we can sometimes find it only shines a light on our broken places. But because the Ennegram is deeply connected to the truth that light comes from within, this shining of light on our cracks is not an interrogation, but a breaking free.
The Ennegram is often paired with centering prayer as a way of releasing these long-held defenses. As we begin to identify with one primary type (though we all express elements of all nine types), we first recognize its ego structure. Ego structure is the repeatable patterns of thought, feeling and action which we use to defend ourselves from being hurt, exposed, crushed or abandoned. Depending on which type (what Gurdjieff called your “Chief Feature”) you most identify with you may not feel any connection with a need for these defenses. That’s not important right now. What is important is to reverse the tendency that begins our Enneagram journey.
Because this is not a stereotypical typology used to put us in a box, our instincts on it are likely misguided. When we find out we are ISTP or People-Oriented on the DISC, we hold onto it as a way of justifying our existence in the world. “This identity, this way of being, this personality, is my place in the world. It justifies my need to be here.” And this is EXACTLY how a well-formed ego structure feels: a warm blanket on a cold night, a beautiful artifice of mirrored glass in a windy city, a uniform of importance in a world of shabby clothing. It feels as if this external thing, this point on the circumference of the circle can define us and keep us safe, but DIFFERENCE is not our home, UNITY is.
It is strange that even though the Enneagram’s description of our ego structures is often inherently “negative,” most people still seem to find their home there. Perhaps we hold onto the virtue of our type (Humility for TWOs, Truthfulness for THREESs, Sobriety for SEVENs, etc.) as something aspirational, or at best, moments of affirmation when we “achieve” these virtues. But virtues are never achieved by force. They are released from the Spirit of Christ within us, unleashed from the cage of ego, by the undoing of our defenses. This is a work that cannot done be force but letting go, which leads us to #4.
4. Type as a Box
Let’s start with the basics here (and a rule that I have one million times failed): Don’t type other people. NO seriously, I mean it. Don’t type people. Don’t type your mom, or your friends, or your kids, or (God forbid) your spouse. I say this, because I have done all of these. EVERY SINGLE ONE, to my detriment. Typing others undermines the most essential elements of the Enneagram journey: self-discovery and surrender. If invited, we may support each other who are aware of the Enneagram material by saying, “That seems like a SIX-like behavior to me.” Or “I love learning from the FIVE idea of Transparency in you.” This is the closest we should get to saying, “You are a FIVE” or “You are a SIX.” I am even increasingly resistant to the ENNEAGRAM “quizzes” which type you through some kind of algorithm. As I’ve said, this is NOT the Myers-Briggs. If you choose to take a typing quiz, do so with humility and curiosity, not with passivity. A quiz cannot tell you who you are, and the journey of identifying your “Chief Feature” is a critical part of facing your ego structure and releasing your inner light. We are “hidden with Christ in God” and “Christ in us” is the light of the world. The Enneagram is a tool for this release if it is anything useful at all. Ego structure is already a confining box you and the people you love live in, the last thing you need is me pointing out my limited view of that box and putting a name to it.
OK, so now that we’ve stopped all that typing each other (trust me, I know how hard this is) we have to go a step further. As many people have now laid claim to their Type, Enneagram has become an easier thing to chatter about it common conversation. This turns into a “my husband’s a SEVEN so…” or “my boss is a ONE so…” Our cursory knowledge the types become a way of judging or accusing the behavior of others, thus spiritualizing our distaste for them or their behavior. Instead of owning our own pain: “When my boss exhibits X behavior, like an unhealthy TWO, I feel suffocated” we jump to “As a FIVE, I hate working for a TWO.” Here the Ennegram becomes its exact opposite: a weaponized tool for division, judgment and self-protection. I don’t have to feel the pain my boss’s behavior causes because I can label him, separate myself from him, and use type to magnify our differences and justify my judgments. I have done this so many times. So familiar with the psychometrics like MBTI, I have mapped their toolkit onto the Enneagram types. Because the types can express our most extreme ego defensiveness, the Enneagram is capable of being used in this way, but in doing so, I’ve—over and over—wounded its ability to transform my fragile heart.
5. Miss Opportunities for Empathy
It took me many years of familiarity with the Enneagram to realize its power for compassion and to get there I needed some help. Ryan O’Neal, who performs under the name “Sleeping at Last,” (@sleepingatlast) writes and performs a song for each type as well as records a podcast discussing the process of writing the song. (I highly recommend both.) It was Ryan in his partnership with Chris Heuertz who taught me to see the beauty of our types. The historical Enneagram includes deep material about the “Holy Ideas” and “Virtues” of each type, and while these allow us an inspiring glance into the inner light making its way through the cracks of each, there is more.
Each of the nine types exposes a journey from our wounded external self (our ego structure and the wounds it’s defending) back to the integrated center where we express a broader spectrum of the colors of the Spirit’s light. As we journey we begin to release our firm identification with type, see the strengths in our wings (the types on either side), find energy for transformation in our paths of stress and awakening (e.g. EIGHTS stress to FIVE and awaken to TWO) and most importantly, reveling in the contrasting colors of light in others. When we start to recognize the debilitating weight of our ego structure, when we begin to feel the inner longing of the virtue blowing deep within us, and when we savor the infinite grace of God which allows us to sink safely beneath the wars with self and others, a magnanimous power within us emerges. Understanding our own self-made suffering and violence (as expressed through our unique type), we can see with compassion the struggle of others.
I remember when first listened to Ryan and Chris describe the ONE’s struggle against their own perfectionism. I thought carefully about my friends who exhibit the strongest ONE behaviors and realized how often I’d seen them crumble under the weight of their own self-judgments and demands. I wept listening to Sleeping at Last’s song “ONE” as I thought about the goodness the ONE longs for and the suffering s/he self-inflicts in trying to reach for it. I imagined what it was like to be a small child with ONE tendencies, longing for the world to be right, and taking it so personally when adults found you wrong.
And though I have never felt ONEish, I saw in myself shades of this longing, a want for a deeper and wider transformation of myself and the world, of the want to make a contribution, a reformation of the way things are.
The beauty of the Enneagram bears little resemblance to most of the popular conversations we have all read and been in about it. My rule of thumb has become that the more I could replace the Enneagram type in a sentence with a Myers-Briggs type, the more I’ve missed the point. The history of psychological typology in America is deeply connected to the industrialization of work, the commoditization of ability and the normalization of monochrome middle-class suburbia. It was designed to avoid human engagement, casually turning complex souls into reliable formulas so that governments, companies and even churches could avoid the work of investing in their all-too-human contributors.
Is there place in our offices and volunteer organizations for these shorthands of human personality? Probably. As I said, I’ve been using them for years. But the Enneagram does not belong among them. This tool, embued with the spirit of millennia of spiritual attunement and transformation will perform as a divider of persons if you demand it to do so. Like all tools imbued with spiritual power, it can be weaponized if you choose it so. I know I have. But that sword cuts both ways. Instead of helping us on the gentle and humble road to our deeper heart-forward lives, it will lead us down one more ego path of self-defense, needless differentiation and identity gamesmanship.
I have wrestled with the Enneagram for some time, but more so it has wrestled with me. Claiming my identification with the EIGHT type was—to a degree—humiliating for me, a sign of its accuracy. But this was only the beginning. Even the hope of the EIGHTs valor and self-sacrificial heroism is not my real home. I, like you, will only be at home in the center of all things, released from the demands of my uniqueness, in the radiant hope of God’s eternal light.