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Why You Need This Powerful Self-Knowledge Tool

At psychology graduate school, I heard about the enneagram of personality, referred to as “the enneagram” for short, and I was initially very skeptical of it. The enneagram is a system for understanding personality. In geometry, an enneagram is a shape with nine points on a plane, and the enneagram of personality is a system of categorizing personality into nine main types. The enneagram not only describes those nine types, but also relates them to each other and guides psychological growth and development for each type. The nine types, as named by The Enneagram Institute, are:

  1. The Reformer
  2. The Helper
  3. The Achiever
  4. The Individualist
  5. The Investigator
  6. The Loyalist
  7. The Enthusiast
  8. The Challenger
  9. The Peacemaker

After I had become very skilled with the enneagram, I was able to demonstrate personality thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is a psychological term for the ability of highly experienced experts to find patterns in data using only very brief windows of perception. A classic example is when a fine-art connoisseur can tell a genuine Picasso from a high quality fake after only a glance at each. To learn more about thin-slicing in general, read the book called Blink.

I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend when I claimed that I was able to determine people’s personality style just by looking at them. She pointed at a customer who walked through the door and asked me, “What type is she?” I said, “Five.” Then she pointed at the barman. “Seven,” I said. Then a man sitting at another table, “He’s a two,” I responded. My friend pointed at several other people, and I gave my thin-slice response for each, ending with the host: “Six,” I said.

We then got up from our table and approached each person in turn. To rapidly determine their personality style, we asked them questions about what made them tick, particularly about what most scared them. In each case the result matched my original prediction in every case except one: for the host, who I had thought was enneagram type six, I changed my assessment as soon as I heard her voice. “She’s actually an eight,” I whispered to my friend after the host had said a word or two. I was right on that one as well. By the way, I think that a different host had seated us.

Of course, this little pseudo-experiment was not blinded and controlled, and the results could have been due to random chance or could have been unduly confounded by experimenter allegiance. The conclusion that I could thin-slice personality may have been simply wishful interpretation of the results. I’m capable of being as much of a skeptic, often more so, than the average doctor of philosophy. But to those with empirical, though anecdotal, experience with the enneagram, the effects generally seem to be very large. I believe that apparently large effects deserve extensive investigation. I have wanted to run a more robust experiment on enneagram thin-slicing ever since.

Personality is like a style of clothing that we wear all the time, every day. It shapes the way we move, our facial expressions, the way we talk, and our posture. Personality is the outer-layer of our identity, and we wear it on our sleeve for everyone to see. It also affects our clothing choices, the colors we wear, the way our faces and bodies age, our body composition, and how tidy and organized we look. Because I knew the enneagram types of so many people, and because I had observed those people extensively, I had become an expert at spotting subtle personality tells. I did this without thinking; I didn’t even know precisely what I was observing that revealed these people’s personality style.

Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) was a renowned psychoanalyst. Among other things, he studied character, which is the psychoanalytic term for personality. Reich developed approaches to unraveling the constrictions of personality by confronting and bringing to awareness physical manifestations of unconscious and non-adaptive personality fixations. He called the physical manifestation of personality “character armor”. He would ask a patient about some aspect of their physical presentation that seemed obvious to everyone who interacted with them, but that was accompanied by a subtle unconscious message that said, “don’t mention it.” In other words, he would point out their armor, like the child calling innocently from the crowd, “The emperor has no clothes!” Mentioning it usually poked at some shame, and often led to an emotional reaction, indicating that something that had been stuffed-away in the distant past was being brought into the light of awareness. I don’t think that Reich knew about the enneagram, even though he was fascinated by personality.

One of my beloved professors, Dr Charlotte Lewis (1947–2011), a highly regarded and skilled clinical psychologist, once told us that she didn’t know how she had been able to provide psychotherapy before learning about the enneagram. Since then, I have learned about the extensive use of the enneagram by people who practice psychotherapy. The enneagram of personality is a skeleton key that many psychologists, psychotherapists, and coaches use to understand and treat clients and patients. Anyone who interacts with other people (and that includes you) can benefit from developing skill with the enneagram. It’s useful in relationship, friendship, parenting, and business.

To the people who use the enneagram extensively in their life and work, including myself and other coaches and therapists, it is clearly an accurate description of what we see in people from many different cultural backgrounds. The enneagram is a map of the terrain of personality. When I first became aware of this map, I could see how it described what I already understood of personality. The more I used the map, the more I was able to discover about personality, and the more I came to realize how accurate the map was.

The enneagram arose as a personality-typing system in different parts of the world, through different lineages of wisdom teachers, such as sages and shamans. The fact that the enneagram arose independently as a map of human personality supports, but doesn’t prove, the theory that it is a clear representation of an independent underlying reality.

I studied the enneagram formally under the guidance Dr David Daniels (1934–2017), a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford Medical School. He believed that people should only be typed by themselves, and that self-identification with the type descriptions, as opposed to taking a test, was the optimal way to determine type. I have often used and recommended his compact book The Essential Enneagram for this purpose.

While the qualitative scientific perspective is important, and unfortunately undervalued, the enneagram also has quantitative scientific support. In 1991, Don Riso (1946–2012) and Russ Hudson developed the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI), a psychometric test, currently consisting of 144 pairs of forced-choice statements. The scientific research on the RHETI is well summarized here:

The most recent validation study was done in 2009 by Mary Ann Giordano. It is the third independently conducted study of the RHETI and it corroborates the research done by Rebecca Newgent, Ph.D. back in 2001. Both studies concluded the instrument as scientifically “valid and reliable” as a test instrument with “solid psychometrics”. The internal consistency reliability scores show that the RHETI ranges from 56% to 82% accurate on various types; with an overall accuracy of 72%. Since everything above 70% is acceptable, 72% is a solid score for a forced-choice test.

Aside: wikipedia is not a reliable source of unbiased scientific opinion on certain topics that a small group of self-described “skeptics” consider to be pseudoscientific. This group appears to have decided that the enneagram falls into this category, and, ironically, is therefore the focus of their truly pseudoscientific campaign to suppress and distort scientific evidence. I suspect that the enneagram is the focus of their biased ire because it arose from wisdom traditions, of which they seem to be particularly suspicious. For example, the same people are derisive of acupressure, which was the focus of my doctoral research, simply because some forms of acupressure arose from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which posits theories of operation that they consider to be pseudoscientific. Their bias is then so strong that they discount solid scientific evidence that demonstrates efficacy.

I recommend discovering your enneagram type by reading the type descriptions in The Essential Enneagram (see link above) and by finding the one the resonates with you. There will probably be one type that you read and say, “Isn’t everyone like this?” and that’s probably your type. However, if you’re enneagram type nine (the peacemaker), you might say, “I identify with all of them,” and that would be a reflection of your type’s tendency to not know itself. I could write a whole article on how it’s possible to determine a person’s enneagram type simply by observing how they respond to the enneagram. For example, enneagram type four (the individualist), with its desire to be seen as unique and special, will often say, “I don’t think that people should be put into boxes,” after hearing about the enneagram.

You can also browse the types online at The Enneagram Institute. Clicking on the title of each type will take you to a long-form type description for that type, which includes both a brief and an in-depth description as well as levels of development and recommendations for growth for that type. Here is the brief description of type one (the reformer):

Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic. They typically have problems with resentment and impatience. At their Best: wise, discerning, realistic, and noble. Can be morally heroic.

Diagram from Arizona Enneagram Association

Inherent in each type is the characteristic of change both under low stress and high stress. Each type can appear like a healthy version of another specific type under low stress, and like an unhealthy version of a different specific type under high stress. For each core type, this set of relationships is different. Discovering how the enneagram types behave under low and high stress conditions, and relating that to our own experiences, can be a way to confirm that we have identified our type.

For example, I am a three (the achiever). This means that I tend to be very focused on being productive and successful by the metrics of the environment in which I reside. Under high stress, I can become overwhelmed and give up, like the negative attributes of enneagram type nine (the peacemaker). In low stress conditions, I tend to become more cooperative and committed to others, like a healthy six (the loyalist).

Another way to determine your type is to take the RHETI test that I wrote about above. It costs $12 via the link to The Enneagram Institute, but I don’t think it’s necessary to pay for this, at least initially. The test results will present the top three most likely types, sorted with most likely first. Once you’re more familiar with how the types are related, and which types can look similar to other types, it’s possible to use this list to help narrow down on a single core type, or to confirm or challenge your selection from the type descriptions. Once you have become an enneagram aficionado, you may find taking the RHETI both interesting and useful.

There are several well-known personality typing systems, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is based on the characterological studies of Carl Jung. There is also the Big Five personality traits, also known as the five factor model (FFM), which is often used by industrial and organizational psychologists. I have found both of these systems to be significantly inferior to the enneagram. The main reason is that these other systems focus on measuring levels of traits, whereas the enneagram identifies clear overall personality fixations. In so doing, the enneagram provides a general map for each personality fixation. This map can guide a therapist or an individual on a path of increasing self-awareness and integration. Overall, singular personality fixations do seem to be an aspect of human reality, and this fact can be leveraged to increase wellbeing and effectiveness for many people.

The MBTI selects between two possibilities for each of its four different traits, introversion-vs-extroversion, intuitive-vs-sensing, feeling-vs-thinking, and perceiving-vs-judging. This produces sixteen different combinations, with each combination relating to a personality type. For example, I am an INFJ (introverted-intuitive-feeling-judging) on the MBTI, a personality style that is also called The Advocate and that I share with less than one percent of the population. While the MBTI does have overall personality types, they don’t seem to match an underlying reality like those of the enneagram, and therefore the guidance for growth is not as compelling. With its one-or-the-other selection of each of the four traits to produce one of sixteen personality types, it also feels like a cognitive theory into which reality is being shoe-horned.

As I have said, on the enneagram I am type three (“the Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious”). Can you tell that I’m proud of being type three. The basic fear of the three is “of being worthless,” and the basic desire is “to feel valuable and worthwhile.” This is absolutely true for me. Everything that I do in life, to the extent that it is done automatically, is fundamentally driven by this fear and this desire. As someone who has spent enormous amounts of time digging around in the psyches of others, I can state categorically that this is absolutely not true for everyone. In fact, there’s probably close to an 89% (8/9) chance that you don’t share this core fear and desire with me. It might even be greater than 89% because many type threes would not be reading this article; it’s not readily evident that this article is relevant to them achieving their goals.

We all can behave in similar ways in certain circumstances, but what determines personality is the core driving wound. From the perspective of the enneagram, it turns out that, by default, all of us are strongly driven by a specific fear and desire like this. This quality of personality fixation is abundantly clear to any therapist who does deep work with their clients or patients.

Our personality is egosyntonic, which means that we think that it’s fine as it is and we don’t think that there is anything about it that can or should be changed or improved. Our personality is the water we swim in, and most of the time we’re not even aware that it exists. Our personality is the lens that we see the world through, and the lens that we assume that everyone else sees the world through.

When we first become aware of our enneagram type, and discover that much of what we thought was unique to us is shared with roughly 1/9 of other humans, our attention moves deeper to discover what really makes us unique. This leads to a deeper and more fulfilling self-knowing. We also become aware of the implicit biases we have in assessing what we perceive in the world. Often, relationships improve because we can finally understand why others do apparently strange and non-sensical things: others are looking through different lenses, and have totally different internal drives and motivations from us. Knowing the enneagram and our own type can be of enormous benefit in intimate relationships, and all other forms of relationship. For a deeper dive into the enneagram, I recommend The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson (the folks who created the RHETI).

The enneagram is one of the most powerful tools you can have in your toolkit as you move through life. It costs nothing, and it’s a lot of fun to acquire. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.