These days, it seems everybody has advice on how to live better and be more successful. Much of this “help” seems centered on correcting something about ourselves or acquiring some book, drink, diet, or machine to “fix” our problems. But, in this series, we will explore accessible, thought-provoking ways to cultivate a deeper sense of ease and clarity of purpose by drawing from methods rooted in both scientific and spiritual traditions from East to West. Click here to learn more about goals, values, and intentions by reading Part 1.
How we cope with the world reveals as much about our personalities as it reveals about the things we value in our lives. Our personalities comprise a complicated mix of genetics, experiences, emotions, values, and the ways in which we perceive and process the world around us.
In this second installment of “Know Thyself,” we will use a personality test called the Enneagram (pronounced IN-ee-uh-gram) to explore the ways in which we filter our values through the lenses of our personalities. Variations of the test’s geometric symbol date back to Plato, and its arithmological influence is seen in medieval Judeo, Sufi, and Christian philosophies. Today, the Enneagram has a broader appeal as a tool for recognizing and understanding our personality type, interrupting conditioned patterns of behavior, and taking advantage of our inherent strengths.
By scoring a series of statements, the Enneagram sorts into nine personality types how each of us perceives our world. Participants are asked to grade how closely statements reflect their typical response, such as “I often refrain from acting, as I’m afraid of being overwhelmed.”
While each of us exhibits aspects of each of the nine personality types, in the Enneagram model we are innately dominant in one type — the main lens through which we view and react to our experiences. Prominent scores in other types are referred to as wings. Wings can be thought of as “wingmen” of sorts. They support and influence our dominant type. Some results will indicate one wing, a balance of wings, or no wing at all. Each type has a set of common characteristics, but not every characteristic is common to all people in that type. It is also normal to not identify with certain aspects of your personality type.
No personality type is better than another or is more inherently “good” or “bad.” Each personality type has maladaptive, neurotic, and self-defeating behaviors that highlight our unhealthy patterns. We can become overwhelmed by focusing on the negative qualities of our type, which means it is important to remember each type also embodies adaptive, resilient, and resourceful behaviors and reactions.
Jerry Wagner is a practicing clinical psychologist and faculty member at Loyola University in Chicago, who has extensively researched and written on the Enneagram system. In his article “A 3-V View of The Enneagram: Values, Visions, and Vulnerabilities,” Wagner admits, “When I was first introduced to the Enneagram, we got only the bad stuff — the distortions, fixations, compulsions, exaggerations, vices, bad breath, etc.” However, he believed any imbalanced state could be traced back to an original state of balance. Much of his exploration of the Enneagram system seeks to put the distortions of our personalities into perspective.
Simply put, each of our personality types has assets and liabilities. When we are in a balanced state, our personality type is resourceful and a reflection of our values and character. If our values have been threatened and we feel vulnerable, we may fall into our maladaptive state, which moves us into a protective, defensive mode. Understanding both the distorted and healthy states of our personalities gives us the power to recognize when we are in our maladaptive states and move toward balance.
When we feel threatened, we resort to evasive or defensive behaviors: We avoid, numb, deny, resist, compensate, please, or conform to avoid discomfort. Common to all types, these strategies of self-preservation manifest differently in each person. Helpers (Type 2) become people pleasers fearing rejection, whereas Achievers (Type 3) may work themselves to death, and Investigators (Type 5) may withdraw from society all together.
To put this in perspective, a Type 2w1 personality — Helper with a Perfectionist wing — has a primary drive to be helpful, or to caretake, with a secondary emphasis on perfectionism or high standards. These are arguably noble qualities when in balance.
Imagine, however, that in a maladaptive state, this Helper/Perfectionist (whom I can neither confirm nor deny is the author of this article) begrudgingly volunteered to run the cakewalk at their child’s school carnival. Said person may have noticed an annoying lack of organization and tried to control and improve every aspect of how the walk was run. When relating their experience to others, said person even notes the other volunteers’ clear inability to see obvious common sense in the way they organized the event. And, let’s face it, said person may have even saved the cakewalk from certain disaster (in other words, failing to give out the estimated 400 cakes, 22 of which were baked by said person)!
The more we rely upon our maladaptive strategies, the more we separate from our true intentions and other people. Understanding both our healthy and unhealthy strategies for interacting with the world helps us more readily identify when we are in the throes of a less-resourceful state. This awareness allows us to choose a different behavior or reaction to the situation.
For example, Helpers (Type 2) may over-meddle and end up driving away people they care about, which is what they fear most. When balanced, Helpers allow their needs to be met along with the needs of others (in other words, after researching their personality type, they realize they were trying to save something that didn’t really need saving and possibly sucked the joy out of the cakewalk for the other volunteers all in the name of helping and perfection).
Achievers (Type 3) may become workaholics, worrying too much about accomplishment and, ultimately, losing themselves. When Achievers are balanced, they can embrace doing less, knowing they are enough. And when Investigators (Type 5) feel inadequate, they rely heavily on their own intelligence, becoming contemptuous of others instead of reaching out for help. When balanced, Investigators are able to set boundaries to avoid feeling intruded upon without completely withdrawing from others, and they can move from thinking to feeling more easily.
There is strength and resourcefulness in each of our personalities. Attending to and embracing these aspects of ourselves allow us to quiet our inner critic and let go of patterns that reinforce our insecurities. This self-knowledge allows us to avoid falling into defensive patterns and to nurture the spaces within ourselves needing attention. These rejected parts of our inner lives are our true selves — sometimes strong, sometimes wounded. We are conditioned to protect against anything that challenges who we are deep down. Each time we choose to rely on the empowering and adaptive tools in our respective personalities, we move toward living our lives based upon our values and our true essence. As our choices accumulate, our positive qualities are reinforced, naturally reducing stress and disease in our lives, irrespective of challenges.
Taking the test
Samples of the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI) tests are readily available online. It is suggested that one take the test before reading about each personality type to avoid undue influence.
When you take the test, your answers should reflect how you are most of the time. Sample tests provide a good start to identifying your personality type. While the samples often give takers a good idea of their likely type, they are not comprehensive. Results from sample tests can be inconclusive or one can be “mis-typed.” Remember, these tests were originally used in the clinical setting and in context with in-person interviews and other relevant information.
Full length, independently verified tests are available for those wanting to explore the Enneagram in depth (RHETI or the Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales (WEPSS)). For those facing challenges of addiction, destructive behavior, or active trauma, seeking the help of a professional counselor or psychologist is advised.
Understanding and researching the results
Once you have your results, books and online resources can provide an in-depth understanding of your Enneagram type, including:
- An introduction to the Enneagram
- A breakdown of the nine types or “styles”
- How our values and vulnerabilities work within each type
- Ways we can get stuck in our less resourceful patterns
The challenging work of knowing ourselves on a deeper level can pay off in wonderful ways. When we are in tune with our strategies for coping with life, especially the ways in which we resist and protect ourselves from its harshness, we can fully embrace our natural balanced states.
None of us exists in a vacuum. Self-knowledge grows when we accept our interconnectedness — mapping relationships, life events, disease, addiction, families, education, and more.