Have you ever heard of The Enneagram before? I had, years and years ago. Yet although familiar with the term I only had a vague idea of what it was. Then this last week while listening to a podcast interview by author Brene Brown she mentioned that she had taken the test. When asked what she learned from it she said, “It pissed me off!” She went on to say that it told her some things about herself that she didn’t really want to admit. So call me crazy, but the idea that a test can help reveal parts of ourselves to ourselves, captivated me. From there you can guess what I’ve been doing ever since. And once you know my “type number” you can easily see why I found it fascinating.
But before I go any further I’d like to offer a bit of background on what The Enneagram is and why any of us should care. As with many of the topics I explore here on SMART Living 365, I’m no expert. In fact, I’ve only taken the test a few times, listened to a dozen podcasts and read a ton of articles. Just enough to keep me interested. Again, once you know my “type number” you’ll see why that makes a lot of sense.
From what I can tell, The Enneagram has a rather hazy background. Some teachers claim it is over several thousand millennia old with ties to ancient Babylon. Others say it came out of early Greece—in fact, the word Enneagram itself comes from the Greek words, “nine points”. Supposedly there are also roots to early esoteric Christianity, Sufism, the Kabbalah Tree of Life and other wisdom traditions. The more recent use of it is tied to personal self-discovery, philosophy, psychology, mysticism and spirituality. Surprisingly, it is currently being embraced by many Christian Churches. Why? Apparently in spite of the fact that it sounds a bit “new age-y” even to me, it is growing in popularity among young Christians believers who see it as a path to becoming better people.
But what is it? The most obvious answer is that it is another “personality test” similar to the more well-known Myers-Briggs system. For example, according to The Enneagram Institute, the Enneagram is one of the “most powerful and insightful tools available for understanding ourselves and others.” The Narrative Enneagram says it is, “a powerful tool for personal and collective transformation.” Integrative 9 Enneagram Solutions claims it is, “an archetypal framework that offers in-depth insights into individuals, groups and collectives.”
However one of the most interesting definitions I found was by author Allegra Hobbs who claimed that calling it a personality test isn’t quite accurate. Why? Because according to her the “types” (there are nine of them) are “determined by motivations, not actions, so you can’t tell a person’s type by how they behave.” She also believes that the function of the test is, “not to prescribe a set of traits that can be used to fashion or describe an identity (as with other personality tests.) She says, “With the Enneagram, the personality is just a set of coping mechanisms built around a person’s true self. To find one’s type is not the end point, but the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.” Another way to explain it is not what you learn about your number, but what you do with it and who you become now that you know.
So how does it work? As I mentioned above you take a test (some are free online and some charge a fee) and discover your primary type out of nine. Each type describes the basic perspective of each, as well as the benefits and the challenges that each personality offers. In addition to the primary types, there are also three subtypes. These subtypes are powerful biological drives: the self-preservation instinct, the social instinct and the sexual instinct. Plus there are the “stances” of each of the nine types that reveal our default ways of moving in the world. These instincts and stances provide a profile that answers important questions like: How do we typically see the world? How do we spend our time? What is most important to us in life? What makes us feel secure? What do we resist and repress? Where are our greatest strengths and weaknesses? Obviously, by understanding these inherent motivations we can find greater awareness of our life choices.
In addition, each personality has a “wing” which touches and includes the personality on one side of the primary. Nearly every article and podcast I listened to went into claiming that these types, wings, stances and subtypes do not box us in. Instead, what they offer is a way of looking beyond (or enlarging) the “box” that most of us live in unconsciously most of the time. They help us discover our patterns, behaviors, joys and fears so we can grow and change them if that is something we want.
Another way it was explained was to think of each of the nine types as primary colors—with lots of variations. If you go to a paint store in search of the color blue, you will find dozens of different shades of blue depending upon the other added colors. Those other added colors are the wings, the subtypes, the different stances and the instincts giving all of us many variations. In other words, both you and I could be the same number—yet because of our other subtypes, stances and wings we can and do act and see the world in different ways. Also, one of us may be more in touch with our benefits, motivations and our challenges, and that can and will look very different to the outside world.
The impact from knowing yourself and your motivations better is that you can navigate the world in a more meaningful and profound way. After all, when we know ourselves better, we can make choices that lead us in the direction we want to go rather than sabotage ourselves through unawareness. It’s also beneficial to know the color variations of our spouses, children, close friends and even the people we work with because the more we can estimate motivations, the smoother our relationships. It would also help us to explain how some people see the world in dramatically different ways than we do. While we are all connected through the Enneagram, we each hold different aspects of the whole.
So in case you are wondering what my type number is, it is a seven. If you google Enneagram #7 you will see over and over that my primary desire as a 7 is adventure, optimism and anticipation. My mottos are “There is always a silver lining” or “See the good!” I prioritize enjoyment and am in constant pursuit of new opportunities and experiences. I avoid negativity, pain and I have built-in FOMO (Fear of missing out!) I can think fast and creatively, juggle multiple tasks, make plans and change them just as easily. Oh, and I love to tell stories too—with happy endings of course!
But make no mistake, there is a downside—and yes every type has them. As a 7 I can get bored and restless far too quickly. Remember how I was madly in love with James Hollis two weeks ago? Now I’m on to the next thing. I’m constantly projecting myself into the future which makes me really good at making plans—but I can easily miss the good right in front of me. I frequently become impatient with myself and others. I like to be right, and I can get downright cranky if someone attempts to limit my freedom or options. Plus, apparently I’m not very good at taking criticism. What? And because I spend so much time seeking and focusing on the positive, I often miss the benefits that a little realism or pessimism brings to any experience. And yes, I suppose I can be insensitive to anyone dealing with real pain or struggle. Ouch!
Fortunately, because I fit so many of the Type 7 traits, it is fairly easy for me to see how I can embrace the benefits and temper my weaknesses. It is highly recommended that a Type 7 learn to slow down and become more mindful. (Why do you think I write so many articles about that?) It is also to my benefit to learn to be more present in the now. Meditation is extremely helpful. And because I spend so much time in my head, I need to utilize practices that ground me both to my body and the world. When I remember what some of my deepest motivations are, I can gradually become more and more conscious of them and make choices that help me grow and become the person I want to be.
So it is now clear to me why I continually seek out avenues of learning that help me discover more about myself. I’ve taken dozens of online tests, even more workshops through the years, read hundreds of books and now enjoy podcasts of all variety. My Type 7 personality is almost compulsive (okay, definitely compulsive!) about new and positive input—and this blog allows me to share what I’m learning along the way. It’s also likely that my writing a book titled, You Get to Make it Up! is a natural expression of how I see the world. The good news is that I truly believe my perspective offers people options, but it is important for me to remember that not everyone sees, thinks or appreciates like I do.
And isn’t that one of the best gifts that greater self-awareness offers us all? By making us more aware of our often-automatic actions, choices, motivations, fears, desires, hopes and dreams we can see that in some ways we are similar, and in others very different. We can hopefully become less judgmental and more understanding and loving to others and yes, ourselves as well. We can shine some light on our own unconscious patterns and decide if we want those to continue or find more healthy ways to move forward. And perhaps we can just rest in knowing that deep down we are all doing the best we can with what we know.
I’m so intrigued by the idea of The Enneagram that I’m going to do my best to resist my Type 7 urge to move on to the next best thing—so I’ll probably write more about it in the future. And if you want to take the test yourself, there is a link at the bottom of this post to a test I took (I actually took about five of them to make sure my number was correct but I found this one to be one of the best.) Again, I’m just a beginner with The Enneagram so there is a lot more for me to learn. But I’ve always thought the SMART approach is one of growth and learning, and The Enneagram certainly offers both for those of us who see the value.
Free online Enneagram Test
Flickr photo Credit: Anne Ruthmann who is also a #7