An Introduction to the Enneagram

I’m guilty of something. 

I have turned into the person who can’t help but bring up the Enneagram with, well, anyone who will listen. 

And I’m not alone. 

I recently spent five days with 48 other people who understand the compulsion to discuss this personality typing system at every turn. 

Last week, I attended the Fundamentals of the Riso-Hudson Enneagram run by the Enneagram Institute® in Stone Ridge, NY. 

And I’ve noticed two questions keep popping up when I tell others about the training:

  1. Ennea-what? What did you just say?
  2. What is it?

Even crossing the US/Canada border provided the challenge of trying to explain succinctly why I was driving 7 hours to learn about this thing most people haven’t ever heard of, and usually can’t pronounce. 

So, this post is an attempt to answer some of the most common questions I hear and why I believe this system is so powerful. 

ENNEA-WHAT?

The structure of the Enneagram is represented by a circle divided into nine with connecting inner lines. 

Each number represents a distinct personality type. And while we all have traits from each of the types, we have one dominant personality type. Think of this as our temperament. 

A few key points about the types:

  • Your basic, dominant type is yours for life. In times of stress and security, we can act more like another type, and we may look different depending on how healthy we are. 
  • No one number is better than another, and there is no ranking. One is not better than Five, etc. Each type has its own strengths and limitations. 
  • The types are evenly distributed across genders – there is no inherently masculine or feminine type. 

The use of numbers to distinguish the types is neutral and universal, regardless of language. However, names have emerged to help identify the types and capture the essence of each one. 

The names in the above image are from the Enneagram Institute® and may differ from other names that have emerged over the years. But, even if the names differ, each type is fundamentally the same. 

A very quick overview of the types from the Enneagram Institute® helps expand somewhat on each basic personality type:

  • Type One is principled, purposeful, self-controlled, and perfectionistic.
  • Type Two is generous, demonstrative, people-pleasing, and possessive.
  • Type Three is adaptable, excelling, driven, and image-conscious.
  • Type Four is expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, and temperamental.
  • Type Five is perceptive, innovative, secretive, and isolated.
  • Type Six is engaging, responsible, anxious, and suspicious.
  • Type Seven is spontaneous, versatile, acquisitive, and scattered.
  • Type Eight is self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational.
  • Type Nine is receptive, reassuring, complacent, and resigned.

HOW DO YOU FIGURE OUT YOUR TYPE?

There are two main ways to discover your type. 

  1. Take the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI®)
  2. Read the full descriptions of each type until you discover the one that hits home. 

In my experience, you will know you’ve found your type when you feel a bit exposed. This typically comes less from the positive aspects of the type and more from the areas of growth. When you hit on the parts of your personality you aren’t particularly proud of sharing with others, then you are likely closer to landing on the right one. 

When I first explored the Enneagram and read the brief four word descriptions, I was led astray. At first glance, I presumed I would be a One, Three, or Five. So when I took the RHETI and it said I was a Seven, I actually disregarded the results.

I literally closed the report without reading it. 

It wasn’t until six weeks later that I finally took the time to read the full, detailed report and realized I was absolutely a Seven. And I knew it because I felt exposed. On paper, I was reading about my unhelpful patterns of behaviour as if someone had been observing me in secret. 

“How does it know?!?”

The lesson I gained from this experience is to avoid slipping into the trap of using the four word descriptions above, and instead dig deeper until you strike a nerve. 

WHY DO SOME PEOPLE WITH THE SAME NUMBER ACT SO DIFFERENTLY?

It’s important to understand that how you show up in the world largely depends on your level of health. The Riso-Hudson Enneagram includes a continuum of health, called the Levels of Development. 

LEVELS OF DEVELOPMENT

Don Riso discovered a range of behaviours, attitudes, defences and motivations within each type. He identified nine different levels divided into Healthy, Average, and Unhealthy. 

The levels are dynamic, meaning we are continually moving along this range. Sometimes we show up as more grounded, clear and together, while at other times, we are more reactive, volatile and anxious. As we respond to life stressors, we shift along this spectrum. 

As someone moves up to the healthier levels (1, 2, 3), they exhibit the positive qualities of their Enneagram type. In the average levels (4, 5, 6), individuals start to show some of the less healthy traits of their type. In the unhealthy levels (7, 8, 9), a person is experiencing a deterioration of their type and a psychological breakdown. These unhealthy levels are where we see serious mental health struggles, like depression, severe anxiety, and substance abuse. 

CAN YOU CHANGE NUMBERS?

As I noted earlier, you do not change your basic personality type, but the Enneagram does include important elements that can shift how we show up in the world apart from the levels of development described above.

THE WING

In addition to your dominant type, you also tend to exhibit traits from one of the adjacent types – this is called the Wing. For example, a Three will have either a Two-wing or a Four-wing. Your wing influences your type, which is another reason two people with the same type may show up quite differently. 

I have a few friends who are also Sevens, but unlike me (a Seven with a Six-wing or 7w6), they have an Eight-wing (7w8). We share the underlying traits of the Seven – enthusiastic, optimistic, spontaneous, distractible – but the wing explains some key differences. My 7w8 friends tap into their Eight-wing qualities and exhibit more drive and are more direct with others. Whereas with me, a 7w6, I am drawn a bit more to cooperation and connection, and I may struggle more with follow-through than my 7w8 friends. 

DIRECTIONS OF GROWTH & STRESS

The Enneagram depicts lines between the numbers, which represents the directions of growth and stress. In other words, one of the lines reflects the direction a person moves as they are moving towards health and growth, and the other line reflects the direction a person moves as they are experiencing stress. 

For example, as a Seven, in times of health and growth, I can start to take on the qualities of a Five. Whereas, in times of stress, I start to take on the qualities of a One. Realizing this connected a lot of dots for me about my patterns of behaviour. 

As a Seven, I tend to be spontaneous, flexible and value freedom. But, when stressed, I start to exhibit some of the average or unhealthy traits of the One – orderly, self-critical, perfectionistic and impatient. As my former boss once said, “I know you are stressed when your desk is completely clear”. 

IS IT USEFUL? DOES IT WORK?

These are the questions I was asked at the US/Canada border – in both directions. Each border agent had never heard of the Enneagram, and once I described what it was, the next logical question is whether it’s actually helpful. 

As you have probably gathered, I absolutely believe the Enneagram is useful. 

Just like other personality typing frameworks, I feel the value is in the insight. If a system can help you better understand yourself and others, then it’s worthwhile. If it inspires inner reflection or a deeper understanding of others, it’s valuable. 

As a personal development enthusiast, I have completed a lot of personality typing systems and found insight from many, but for me, the Enneagram does stand out above many others. 

UNDERSTANDING & APPRECIATION

On the surface level, learning your type provides insight into the driving forces behind our patterns of behaviour and how we show up in the world. Each type has a unique basic desire and basic fear that motivates us and influences our personality. While the basic desires and fears are universal and shared by all types, our type’s desire and fear has a stronger pull than the others. 

So, knowing your Enneagram number can help you become more self-compassionate as you start to recognize unconscious reactions and habits motivated by your type. 

And, knowing the Enneagram type of others can provide insight into their behaviours and help you better appreciate the qualities those in your life.  

PRESENCE & GROWTH

At a deeper level, the Enneagram is a tool for personal growth. 

As explained in the book The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson, “…the Enneagram does not put us in a box, it shows us the box we are already in – and the way out”. 

In order to do this, we need to be present. 

Presence means we are observing our behaviour. 

Presence means we are paying attention. 

Presence means we are in the moment. 

Presence means being awake.

This may sound simple enough, but we spend most of our lives on auto-pilot. Going through the motions day after day. Our personality is the one running the show. 

In order to change and grow, we need to wake up to these patterns and programs that are keeping us stuck. 

And the Enneagram helps us do just that.