A Beginner's Guide to the Enneagram
The first time I heard about the Enneagram I was sitting around a conference table in a Spiritual Formation class. My professor walked in, lit a candle, and broke the news that there are nine ancient personality types and one of them was bound to fit us like a glove.
I don’t remember the original descriptions we received, but I remember taking some sort of test and getting classified as a two. Each of the numbers has a title that distinguishes it from the others and type two is “The Helper.” As a Christian woman who was raised to wash dishes and never, ever, ever say no, this seemed right enough so I accepted it and moved on.
A couple years later, the Enneagram fan club exploded in Nashville. I’m talking t-shirts and golden calves erected to honor the sacred personality typing system. You can’t go to a coffee shop without overhearing a conversation about how she’s a five and he’s a seven and they just totally don’t work well together. You can’t speak more than five sentences to anyone without it becoming a focal point, especially after you say/do/breathe something that is so [inset number here].
Upon this personality test, that was presumably nothing more than a fad, running rampant in my city, I decided to dig a little deeper into my own number. After much thought, research, and civil discourse, I decided that I am for sure not a two.
I took the test again—a free online version that definitely resembled one of those “find out the date you will meet your soulmate by answering these questions about pizza” quizzes on Facebook—and I got a four.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like somebody gutted out the contents of your brain like pumpkin seeds, but this was what reading the description of a four felt like. All the ways I felt I was so unlike every other human in the world—which is totally a four thing—are just a culmination of all the coping mechanisms I learned as a child that eventually developed into a personality that exists in a constant attempt to keep me safe in this cruel and uncertain world. (Fun, right?!)
And that is the story about how I became the president of the fan club.
Maybe you, like me, have become curious about the Enneagram because it is popping up everywhere in conversations and on your social media timeline. Maybe you know everything there is to know and have become quite fluent in Ennea-lingo (you even know that there are sub-types!).
Maybe this is the first time you’re ever hearing about this weird test and you’ve spent the last four paragraphs trying to figure out how to even pronounce the word “Enneagram” (In-ee-a-gram, for the record). (If this is you, first of all, congratulations on finding a sizable rock to take up residency under; second of all, check out my favorite Enneagram resource for a one-stop-shop for all things Enneagram, and to take the test.)
No matter where you’re at, we can all use some guidelines when it comes to personality tests, because none of us are immune to over-identifying, self-shaming, and becoming a walking personality-test-fulfilling prophesy. So, without further ado, here are my dos and don’ts of Enneagram-ing.
DO: Learn your type.
If it hasn’t already, I promise it will blow your mind.
Also, to be candid up front, this is not a warm and fuzzy kind of test. Your type description will mostly point out with the Enneagram calls “your shadow side.” Meaning, it highlights the things you probably like least about yourself (or have been denying exist in yourself). I have heard it said that if you’re reading the descriptions in the book, the description that makes you throw the book across the room is your type.
DO: Learn the types of the people you do life with.
People love talking about the Enneagram because it helps them understand themselves and others. When I learn the type of the person I’m having coffee with I feel like I get an instant download of the way they interpret the world. Oh, you’re a two? It’s really important I show you how thankful I am for all the things you do.
It breathes a lot of kindness into our relationships because we can put on someone else’s shoes and walk around for a minute.
Also, worth saying: learn the other type descriptions. Don’t only read about yourself and be satisfied, dive deep into all nine numbers so you can better serve the people around you.
DO: Use the Enneagram as a tool to help you grow.
Something the Enneagram does well is it points out our blind spots—it makes us really aware of our shortcomings (and this can be good and productive!). Fours have a tendency to put all of their stock in feelings and to not do anything unless they feel like doing it (talk about a moody artist amiright?). They also have vibrant imaginations. This results in a lot of dreaming and idea scheming and little-to-no follow through.
Being aware of this default mode in me has allowed me to put habits into place that require discipline. I have a morning routine; I keep a to do list; I work out and meal plan. You are not required (and for sure not encouraged) to stay stuck in your “shadow side.”
DON’T: Let the Enneagram tell you who you are.
When I first learned my Enneagram number my counselor challenged me to question it. Instead of saying, “I’m a four so I must not be fun,” saying, “It’s interesting that one four’s experience is that he isn’t called for fun experiences, but I love having fun.”
The Enneagram is all about motivation—why you do what you do—but what you do with that motivation looks completely different for everyone. There will be descriptions applied to your number that you don’t relate to and that’s okay. You know you better than a test knows you, and better than your friend who is so certain you’re a nine.
DON’T: Be afraid to admit when you have erected your own golden calf.
It is easy to become really obsessive about the Enneagram. I know because I’ve been there. The hope of the Enneagram is that it would be a tool of understanding, NOT that it would box you and all your people in.
DON’T: Use the Enneagram to judge other people.
The moment that knowing someone else’s number causes more judgment than compassion to arise in you is the moment that you should take a break from it. The point of learning the Enneagram is to better relate to the people around us, not throw the ways they are human back in their face.
Remember: you are growing and human, too. We all need grace as we become the healthiest versions of ourselves.
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