Personality Tools: Understanding the Enneagram (from a Myers-Briggs expert)
I’ve been studying Myers-Briggs for about 15 years. It is the backbone for the Genius Assessment and one of the most persistently useful tools for understanding humans I have come across. It’s the ‘idea’ that I can’t stop making love to.
And then I got introduced to the Enneagram about three years ago. I have to admit, I’ve been having an affair. Let me tell you why.
When studying what makes people tick, there are a lot of angles from which to come and lots of models from which to choose. There’s how people were raised (the Birth Order), their level of development (the Graves Model), how they understand information and make decisions (Myers-Briggs), what motivates them (the Six Motivations), etc. We tend to erroneously place things in the “nature” or the “nurture” compartments, but since we’re only beginning to understand how grafted those two things are it’s still helpful to separate them. Some of what we study comes from an understanding of what’s intrinsic to us (“nature,” or our natural proclivities and talents) and what’s extrinsically influenced us (or, “nurture,” the context and experiences that have influenced how we see reality).
And then there’s this awesome thing called ‘strategy.’
Strategy isn’t just how we learn, evaluate or see ourselves in terms of life experiences. Strategy is how we decide we’re going to navigate the map, what tools we’ll be bringing and how we’re going to ‘auto-respond’ to threats.
Two people could be the same Myers-Briggs type (they learn new information and make decisions similarly). They may both be, say, firstborn children. They could both be in an achievement period of their lives, and both feel motivated by gaining power. Yet, if their primary strategy for navigating the world is different, they might argue with you if you were to say they’re the same personality type in all of those other models! That’s how powerful strategy is.
That’s where understanding the Enneagram comes in.
Now, as with everything, there’s some disagreement about ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ – are we born with our Enneagram type, or did we discover it? While I’m more in the camp of ‘born with it,’ it’s way easier to explain as something that we discovered.
The Enneagram is a 9-pointed system. Each of the nine types is a different strategy for dealing with trauma. Some argue that you discovered your Enneagram type at your first childhood trauma, and it’s been with you ever since. Considering side-stepping, mitigating, handling and dealing with trauma is a big deal for the psyche, your mind created a ‘go-to strategy’ for navigating it, and so your Enneagram type – your “trauma navigation tool” – is born and subsequently becomes an influential part of you. It’s with you all the time, and since your brain is an ecosystem of self-referencing concepts which get folded into other concepts, your Enneagram type impacts you in a number of ways you may not be able to predict.
To state that more simply, your brain isn’t built with tidy compartments, so everything gets jumbled together, and your Enneagram type informs more things than just ‘trauma.’ (So many times when understanding the Enneagram [my type is 3, by the way], I’ve said “Oh, THAT’S why…”)
Here is what the 9 points look like:
Here’s an overview of how it works.
The 9 Types are divided into 3 triads that are hyperfocused (in an unhealthy way) on one of three emotions: Fear, Anger, and Shame.
The triads share other components, as well. The Fear triad is also called the “thinking” triad, Anger is “instinctual” (or, “gut”), and Shame is “feeling.”
8-9-1 is in the Anger triad, 2-3-4 is in the Shame triad, and 5-6-7 is in the Fear triad. It looks like this:
What does that mean? Depending upon your Enneagram type, it means you run toward one of these three emotions as your ‘go-to’ emotion. Things get tough, things get frustrating, things don’t go your way – there’s an inner ‘default’ setting that triggers one of these and says, “What you’re ACTUALLY feeling is [anger/shame/fear].”
Now, obviously all of us can feel all three of these emotions, and part of the theory behind the Enneagram is that all nine types dwell within us. However, one is our favorite, go-to tool in our toolbox (like Myers-Briggs!), and thus our preference – or, ‘type’ – is born.
That’s the most zoomed out layer. One more zoom in and we see that there are three numbers within each triad. These also have a pattern they follow.
The first number in each triad “expresses” the emotion upon which it hyperfocuses. So, 8-2-5 is what I call ‘externalized.’ That is, 8 ‘externalizes’ anger, 2 ‘externalizes’ shame and 5 ‘externalizes’ fear. (I’ll explain further in a moment.)
The second number in each triad “represses” the emotion that it’s hyperfocused upon. So, 9-3-6 attempt to repress their emotion. 9 ‘represses’ anger, 3 ‘represses’ shame, and 6 ‘ represses’ fear.
The third number in each triad “internalizes” the emotion that it’s hyperfocused upon. 1-4-7 attempt to internalize their emotion. 1 ‘internalizes’ anger, 4 ‘internalizes’ shame, and 7 ‘internalizes’ fear.
It looks like this:
The types that ‘internalize’ tend to turn the emotion in on themselves or experience the emotion inwardly, those that ‘externalize’ experience the emotion outside of themselves or project it outwardly, and those that repress the emotion do what they can to pretend the emotion doesn’t exist for them at all.
This gives birth to these 9 strategies for dealing with trauma in life:
8 – “The Challenger”
Externalizes, or expresses, anger as the primary strategy for getting what they want and for dealing with stresses/challenges. There’s a tendency to bulldoze through life, and let you feel their anger if they don’t get it. 8’s tend to be self-confident, decisive, willful and confrontational.
9 – “The Peacemaker”
Represses anger as the primary strategy. They don’t like showing or even acknowledging anger, and so tend to ‘smolder’ underneath. Of course, they don’t let on to the self or others that they’re stewing. 9’s tend to be receptive, reassuring, complacent, resigned.
1 – “The Reformer”
Internalizes, or focuses their anger, inwardly. This leads to a perfectionistic streak. Since they give themselves no mercy, they tend to be judgmental of others, as well. 1’s are principled, purposeful, self-controlled and perfectionistic.
2 – “The Helper”
Externalizes, or focuses their shame, outwardly. Their shame is your problem, and thus your problem to solve. If you can give them enough feedback that they’re of value to you, it soothes their soul. They’ll do whatever they can to get that feedback and so are often totally focused on getting others needs met and neglecting their own. 2’s are generous, demonstrative, people-pleasing and possessive.
3 – “The Achiever”
Represses shame as a primary strategy. Just like 9’s who have a distaste of their own intrinsic anger, 3’s are forever running away from their secret fear of having no value or worth. In order to quiet the thought, they do whatever they can to “prove” such a thing is ridiculous. 3’s are driven, adaptable, excelling and image-conscious.
4 – “The Individualist”
Internalizes, or focuses their shame, inwardly. There’s no way anyone else could possibly understand what they deal with, and they are wholly unique. The desire for uniqueness and emotional depth gives a feeling of artistic melancholy in average 4’s. They tend to be intuitive, unique, self-absorbed and temperamental.
5 – “The Investigator”
Externalizes, or experiences their fear, outwardly. The world is a scary place, and preparation is the key to dealing with it. 5’s are forever in strategy mode, knowing if they could just hone their skills enough they’ll be ready for the scary world ‘out there.’ 5’s tend to be perceptive, innovative, secretive and isolated.
6 – “The Loyalist”
Represses fear as a primary strategy. Like the 9’s and 3’s, 6’s are just as good at pretending there is absolutely no reason ever to feel fear. They repress it by surrounding themselves with safety/security systems (often in the form of people), and by being suspicious of the unfamiliar. Since they can neither trust themselves or the outside world, but they can’t actually experience it as ‘fear,’ there is a Janus-like quality to 6’s. They are engaging, responsible, anxious and suspicious.
7 – “The Enthusiast”
Internalizes, or experiences their fear, inwardly. The outside world is filled with fun, but inside… There be dragons. So 7’s flee from the inner world and gorge on the outer world of pleasures and possibilities. 7’s tend to be versatile, acquisitive, spontaneous, scattered, a total blast to be around – but tough to pin down.
Did you find yourself in any of these strategies?
If you could identify yourself in more than one, that’s because you are in more than one. However, your primary Enneagram type is well worth discovering, as identification is just the first step.
The second step is growth. Which is why I love understanding the Enneagram system. While I personally believe that Myers-Briggs (and the Personality Hacker take on MB, the Genius System) has personal development built into the system, I know most MB enthusiasts are comfortable just understanding the system. However, with the Enneagram, the stated purpose is to grow to a place where your go-to strategy is no longer a hyperfocus, no longer something that can hurt you by being a one-trick pony.
There are nine levels of development for each Enneagram type, with three levels of ‘unhealthy,’ three levels of ‘average’ and three levels of ‘healthy’ development.
That’s a little deeper than we’ll be diving into in this post. Suffice to say, acknowledging that our strategy may not be the end-all, be-all in dealing with life, and to surrender to our ultimate fear is powerful stuff.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an Enneagram 3. That means I repress shame, and I do everything I can to pretend there’s no reason ever to feel valueless. Except, of course, when the feeling rushes over me and I suck my thumb while in the fetal position, believing no one can ever love me. (Okay, it’s been a while since I was there, but believe me – I’ve been there.)
In unhealthy 3’s, the response is to be a chameleon of value – no matter what you want me to be (or what I perceive you want me to be), I’ll be! Give me a mountain to climb, pat me on the head and tell me I’m oh so worthy! YOU set the tone, and I’ll follow you… until, for some reason, you withhold approval from me, and suddenly I’m collapsing in on myself.
To be a healthy three is to find self-worth and self-value. Not to dance to other people’s fiddles, but to be self-directed and hold strong in my own identity and sense of value. As in, I’m valuable just by being me. I have intrinsic worth. Anything else I give is gravy.
Holding that understanding has been massive in my personal development. And, of course, there’s one for every type.
8’s realize… there is no contradiction between being sensitive to the hearts of others and being a force in the world. In fact, the more they connect with others, the more they become a powerful force for good in the world. Healthy 8’s can become the kind of leader for which others fall on their swords.
9’s realize… that staying with the discomfort of the moment, being present and being willing to engage even if there’s confrontation, is the key to true inner peace. When 9’s stay present and don’t retreat from anger or other negative emotions, they can become their best selves, helping others feel truly loved and accepted with limitless patience and a true creator of peace.
1’s realize… that they aren’t responsible for fixing everything. That accepting a situation isn’t the same as endorsing it, and they can still accomplish a higher good while having patience with ‘what is.’ When 1’s are at their peak, they are conscientious, accepting, serene and inspiring missionaries for a just cause.
2’s realize… that getting their own needs met doesn’t mean they’re neglecting everyone else. It is, in fact, the opposite. When the needs of the self go unmet, the result is exhaustion and manipulation. When 2’s finally see that their own needs are neither more or less important than others, they are sincerely generous, nurturing, unconditionally loving, gracious, and humble.
3’s realize… as I mentioned before that they have intrinsic value. They don’t have to ‘be’ or ‘do’ anything. And since there’s already a focus on the preciousness of life, 3’s are at their best when they’re Bigger Game contributors.
4’s realize… there is richness and depth in ordinary experiences. They don’t have to be exotic to be unique. 4’s are at their best when they move away from emotional indulgence and move toward being authentically connected to their heart. 4’s see beauty everywhere when at their best.
5’s realize… they have all the information and understanding they need to truly engage in and live life. There is a host of inner resources, and there’s no need to simply sit by observing or being a spectator in life. When 5’s stop being the chrysalis and start being the butterfly, they are visionaries with groundbreaking insights.
6’s realize… that courage is found from within. They have an innate capacity for courage, which allows them to trust their own judgment and take on new challenges. At their best, 6’s are what Roxanne Howe-Murphy calls “Spiritual Warriors.”
7’s realize… that there is wonder in each moment. There’s no need to flee unpleasant feelings or feel trapped. Being here and now is the only true freedom. Healthy 7’s inspire others with their deep gratitude and wonder of the world.
So, what do you need to realize? How can you meditate on your strategy, and better yet, remember it’s just a strategy? And, powerfully, how can you both accept and love yourself and your strategy fully? What would you look like at your best and at your healthiest?
There’s a great deal of wisdom in the Enneagram. I’ll be writing more and more about the topic as my fascination and love grows. Keep your eyes peeled. 🙂
Want to Learn More About the Enneagram? Check out: