More About the Enneagram

While the MBTI is squarely rooted in modern psychology (specifically Jung's writings about cognitive preferences), the enneagram is rooted in mystery--and that raises questions about its true aim.  The enneagram symbol itself supposedly came via George Gurdjieff (an early, 19th-20th-century self-help guru) from an ancient Sufi tradition.  But in modern times it has been reinterpreted largely by Jesuits who have infused it with esoteric Christian concepts while also trying to connect it with modern psychology (especially DSM-III, which is a handbook on personality disorders).

Early enneagram descriptions (e.g., by Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo) are based on the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, lust, envy, avarice, gluttony, anger, and sloth).  But since there are nine personality types in the enneagram, two more "sins" were added:  deceit and fear.  These "sins" are at the very root of human personality, according to mainstream enneagram theory. That is, each of us has "strayed" in primarily one of these nine ways, and that's what's causing all our problems in life.

Richard Riso & Russ Hudson, in their book Personality Types : Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, also bridge the enneagram to Freudian and Jungian psychology.  But in my opinion, the links are pretty thin (e.g., since Jung offers only eight function-attitudes, Riso & Hudson say that enneagram type 3 does not correspond to any of them).  The links to the DSM, however, are more credible:  various personality disorders do seem to match up pretty well with the nine enneagram types.  This is not really surprising, since the modern enneagram is based on the Seven Deadly Sins plus two; i.e., it is a personality-typing system based on pathological patterns.

Essentially, enneagram theory holds that most people are mentally or psychologically unhealthy.  The enneagram purports to be a map showing unhealthy people how to become healthy.  Unfortunately, it is just a map; there are no guidelines or exercises or practices that help an individual become healthier.

So, in order to find your enneagram type, you first have to admit that you're unhealthy in some way or other.  It's like going to your first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and saying, "My name is ____, and I'm an alcoholic."  If you're a type 1, you're prideful; if you're a type 2 you're lustful; and so forth.  Declaring your enneatype is equivalent to announcing which psychological disease you've fallen prey to.

Right away, we see a sharp contrast between the enneagram and the MBTI.  While it's true that Jung was a psychiatrist whose work was mainly with unhealthy patients, his model was nonetheless based on healthy people.  Isabel Myers took Jung's eight "cognitive preferences," separated that model out from the rest of his  writing, and constructed an instrument designed to categorize these healthy personalities.  The MBTI has long been used in the fields of business, education, and day-to-day life as a means of codifying ordinary people's personalities.  There are no value judgments; no type is better than any other type, nor is there a "sinful" or "diseased" component to any personality type.

The whole thrust of the MBTI (and likewise of Keirsey's temperament theory) is to identify personality types and thus facilitate communication and understanding between people.  It can be--and sometimes is--misused to label people and foster bigotry; but that's just a misuse of the system that arises from ignorance.

The thrust of the enneagram is to identify fundamental human weaknesses or failings (sins or personality disorders).  Presented in its best light, the aim might be to point unhealthy people in the direction of greater health.  But in any case, the starting point is, "There's something wrong with you."  Buying into that is sure to make a person feel defective. Moreover, it's sure to make the enneagram practitioner see everybody else as defective too.  On the plus side, that may help people accept their own and others' foibles and aim for self-improvement.  But on the downside it calls attention to people's darker qualities; it accentuates the negative.

Just as most good Christians avoid preaching fire and brimstone, most enneagram enthusiasts avoid publicly discussing the darker side of the enneagram. Enneagram books and discussion groups are full of humor and friendly anecdotes.  Some enneagram writers come across as upbeat as Dr. Phil.  But both Dr. Phil and the enneagram basically focus on unhealthy attitudes and behavior.  The logic seems to be, "if you're not sick, we can't fix you; so first you have to pick one of nine kinds of sickness."

It could still be a good thing if the enneagram were able to fix people--but it can't.  It's little more than a diagram with accompanying descriptions of personality at varying levels of health.  It might provide useful yardsticks for recovering schizophrenics or people with other personality disorders; but even those people are still going to need more help than this to actually recover.  The enneagram is not a recovery method; it's merely a diagram--a sort of road map to recovery.

For me personally, it's not a very useful road map. Overall, I'd say I'm pretty darned healthy.  So for me (unless I'm hopelessly in a state of denial), the enneagram is actually counterproductive.  I'd have to stretch my imagination and assume some trace of disorder, then start looking for a way to cure that problem. Meanwhile, I'm apt to become even more self-absorbed, which is likely to keep me from communicating with and understanding other people as they really are.

Hang around an enneagram discussion group for any length of time, and you'll soon feel you're in some kind of recovery group.  A few people take pride in their enneatypes, but most admit they have problems and are looking to recover from those problems.  And if they do recover, many of them feel the enneagram will no longer serve any useful purpose.  Once a person becomes healthy and balanced, the enneagram becomes irrelevant.

But in my experience, enneagram enthusiasts don't usually recover.  Instead they tend to revisit and re-analyze themselves, working their way through two, three, or more of the nine enneatypes.  When I was dabbling at it, I tested as type 4 and called myself a 4 for a couple years; but then I "woke up the fact" that I'm really a type 9.  That sent me back to the books and into further self-reflection, because I was seeing my whole personality in a new way--and I now had a whole new set of problems to recover from.  This process of changing types (i.e., mistyping oneself and later discovering one's true type--only to perhaps later find that was also a case of mistyping) is common in enneagram circles.  There is no definitive test to determine one's type.  Even the best questionnaires are unreliable.

So, why don't I like the enneagram?  Let me count the ways.  It's based on pathologies:  it's of dubious use for healthy people, and it's unclear how it can help unhealthy people recover; and yet the very act of determining one's enneatype is tantamount to identifying with one or more personality disorders.  That accentuates the negative, prompting the individual to engage in self-analysis, searching for the roots of problems which may or may not really exist.  In my opinion, putting  a lot of attention on problems (even on overcoming them) is likely to feed those problems rather than lead to recovery.

For those who may want to use a personality-typing system to improve communication and understanding, the enneagram can also prove counterproductive.  The moment you decide your spouse or friend is such-and-such an enneatype, you've essentially branded that person with a particular personality disorder.  The enneagram description will lead you to believe you now know which twisted drive is really motivating the other person--which of the Seven Deadly Sins (plus two) the person is guilty of.  I wonder how that "knowledge" is likely to improve communication or mutual understanding. Digging skeletons out of closets usually doesn't improve matters. You end up with something like, "Oh, I see.  You're inclined to cheat on your taxes, while I'm inclined to cheat on my spouse.  We're both guilty in different ways."  Such "revelations" don't lead to liking one another.  On the contrary, they undermine relationships by fostering distrust.

The MBTI/Keirsey systems sort personalities into types without making value judgments or considering psychological disorders.  We end up with sixteen different-but-equal types of people; and learning the types can facilitate communication and lead to better understanding.  Revealing your type to someone is not at all like airing your dirty laundry.  On the contrary, it's like telling an acquaintance what kinds of things you like and dislike.  It's a natural (albeit tersely codified) way of getting to know people--a common language for discussing what kinds of people there are in the world.

(Informal correspondence, used with author's permission, all rights reserved.)

courtesy Patrick Carroll
Moderator of the Temperament Talk List