5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

V Is for Vampire

More accurately, V is for choosing whether or not to become a vampire. (Stay with me.) It’s an example offered by philosophy professor L.A. Paul to describe the difficulty of making certain kinds of decisions—decisions that will, literally, transform you in some way. She asks, how could you make an informed choice about whether or not to become a vampire?

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear.

So far, so good. However…

You’ll also need to drink animal blood (but not human blood) and avoid sunlight.

Paul goes on to say that all your friends and family have already become vampires and they are crazy about it. They encourage you to become a vampire, too. When you ask for more information, they tell you that, as a human, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a vampire until you become one.

High Stakes (no pun intended)

Paul refers to such decisions as high-stakes transformative decisions. Once you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. High-stakes transformative decisions definitely alter your status quo, for better or for worse. Other examples are:

  • Becoming a parent for the first time
  • Being born deaf and getting a cochlear implant
  • Being in a war
  • Seeing color for the first time

Normally, Paul argues, experience helps us develop the conceptual or imaginative abilities we need to imagine things or situations that don’t currently exist. (It’s easy enough to imagine a vampire, especially these days, but it’s not so easy to imagine being a vampire.) When we go about trying to decide if we should take path A or path B or stay right where we are, the right kinds of experiences allow us to project ourselves into the future so we can make a rational decision about how to proceed. If we lack such experience, we have no basis for making a rational decision.

We Are Not so Rational

Paul says:

There’s a lot of value in introspecting. It’s important for us to try to think about who we are and who we want to become when we make these big decisions.

Of course that’s true for all kinds of decisions. And there are no guarantees that even the most rational of decisions will produce the results you want or hope for. Whether the stakes are high or low, even if you think you know yourself pretty well, and you think you know who you want to become in the future, and you have suitable previous experience, and you attempt to include all the relevant information, you can still end up choosing something that leaves you disappointed or far from where you thought you’d be.

Besides that, the vast majority of choices we make are non-rational (System 1, unconscious) choices. Rational decision-making isn’t even the norm for most high-stakes transformative choices.

Affective Forecasting

When we project ourselves into the future, trying out various potential outcomes, we may be weighing (consciously or unconsciously) numerous factors. But a primary consideration for most of us is how we’re going to feel as a result of a particular outcome. This is called affective forecasting—and we tend to be really, really bad at it.

In order to predict how we’re likely to feel about something, we need to be able to imagine the event. As Paul says, that’s easier to do if we’ve experienced it or something similar in the past. If we’ve been to a lot of parties, we can imagine—in general—how we’ll feel about attending a party on Saturday. If we’ve cleaned out the garage before, we can imagine how we’ll feel about doing that on Saturday, too. But if we haven’t experienced something, what we imagine or expect may not bear much resemblance to the actuality. Thinking we can predict the future leads us to believe in the veracity of what we imagine.

Even if we’re able to imagine an event because we’ve experienced it before, our memory of it—and how we felt at the time—may be faulty simply because it’s the nature of memory to be faulty. And the feelings we experience when remembering an experience from the past are not necessarily the same feelings we had at the time of the experience. (Daniel Kahnaman claims the experiencing self and the remembering self have very different agendas.) Additionally, when we don’t recall actual details of something, we may come to rely instead on our beliefs or theories about how that thing will make us feel in the future.

The Future Will Not Be the Same as the Present

There are many other variables that influence the way we make decisions, including how we’re feeling at the time, both physically and emotionally. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes how our attempts to imagine the future are based in our experiences in the present:

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

He adds:

We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

And our future world won’t be identical to our present world, either.

So if you want to improve the odds of having your decisions lead to positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes, you need to identify what’s really important to you and focus most of your attention on going after those things. Feelings are fleeting, but the things that are most important to you are also likely to be the most constant.

Trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire isn’t really so different from actual decisions you face. Making high-stakes transformative decisions will lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

So will not making them.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

O Is for Obstacles


An obstacle is something that blocks your path or prevents or hinders your progress. If there’s one thing that’s certain in life, it’s that things won’t always go the way you want them to or according to your plan. Like many people, you may think that’s always a bad thing. But obstacles and setbacks are part of life. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on you, but you’re the one who imbues them with meaning.

Obstacles can be external or internal. The external ones can range from a traffic delay on your way to an important meeting to an uncooperative family member or co-worker to serious illness or a natural disaster. My temperament is such that it’s easy for me to experience life itself as one giant obstacle. In Enneagram terms, I resist impact from the environment and there’s a lot of environment to go around. So I have considerable experience coming to terms with the nature of obstacles, including the fact that my attitude is not always helpful. Maybe you can relate.

A few other ways you can be your own biggest obstacle are by:

  • failing to get all the information or acting on unverified assumptions
  • dropping the ball (not following through on something)
  • communicating or behaving in a manner that results in an undesirable outcome
  • having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others

Of course the major obstacle, at least when it comes to behavior change, is your own brain, which is intent on maintaining the status quo. If you fail to recognize this particular obstacle, you’re in for a rougher ride than you need to be as you try to figure out why you keep doing what you’re doing when what you want to do is something entirely different.

One Interesting Thing about Obstacles

Imagine reading a story or watching a movie in which the protagonist faced no obstacles. Would you read a novel or enjoy a movie like that? People who write for a living are betting you wouldn’t. A rule of thumb for writers is there should be some element of conflict on every page. The more conflict, the better. The more obstacles the characters have to deal with, the better.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell: “Plot twist!” and move on. —Anonymous

Conflict and obstacles make things interesting because they’re unexpected. They also force you out of your comfort zone. You can be proceeding through life on autopilot (System 1), driving along a familiar route, when suddenly you notice a mudslide has closed the road ahead. System 1 calls on System 2: What should we do now? If what’s on the other side of that mudslide is something you really want or someplace you really want to go, you’ll try to figure out another way to get there. Which brings us to…

One Useful Thing about Obstacles

I’m not going to claim obstacles are opportunities or tell you they’re gifts or blessings in disguise. You can interpret them that way if you like, but obstacles are just obstacles: things that get in the way of what you want to do or where you want to go. I’m also not going to insist that obstacles (or overcoming obstacles) make you stronger or tougher because maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

There is one significant benefit obstacles can provide, however, although not everyone benefits equally. Experiencing an obstacle can help you think globally—step back and see the bigger picture—not just about the obstacle you’re facing but in regard to other unrelated situations or unrelated tasks. As a result, you’re more likely to come up with creative solutions in a variety of different settings.

The basic cognitive processes elicited by obstacles help people to find more creative means towards their goals. —Janina Marguc, University of Amsterdam

But there are two caveats.

First, in order to reap this benefit, you have to be motivated to follow through with what you’re doing. If you’re not already motivated, you’ll be more likely to see an obstacle as an excuse for slacking off or giving up than as a spur to action or invention.

Second, you’re more likely to think globally as a result of encountering an obstacle if you have what is referred to as low volatility. Art Markman, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today says:

People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult. Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.

For the latter group, encountering an obstacle does not make them more likely to think globally. That makes sense, given that volatile means excitable, unpredictable, or irresolute. If you’re highly volatile, you prefer to move on rather than stick around feeling uncomfortable or temporarily discouraged.

But even if you tend toward high volatility, you can make it more likely you’ll achieve a goal or create or change a habit if you do the legwork up front to make sure you really want what you’re going after—that your desired outcome is extremely desirable. The more motivated you are, the less likely you’ll be to give up in the face of an obstacle.

The most practical and realistic approach to take when you want to achieve something is to assume the path ahead won’t be a smooth, straight line. Then you can figure out ahead of time how to respond to the twists, turns, and bumps you’re bound to encounter.

If you get as many of your ducks in a row as you can, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the obstacles you will inevitably encounter. And if you encounter one that’s an actual deal-breaker, it will be easier for you to identify it as such, stop beating your head against that particular boulder, and scrap your plan without guilt or regret. That’s worth a little upfront effort, isn’t it?

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

I Is for Intention

Junge Frau beim Bogenschiessen

An intention is something (an act, speech, or effect) you plan or decide to do. An intentional act isn’t accidental or unconscious. That’s pretty straightforward, but intention has become a buzz word, so some clarification is in order.

In the world of magical thinking, intention is touted as a highly potent element. Or is it? One high priest of magical thinking describes intention as a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create. (A simpler way to say it would be you have a thought or an idea.) You must then release your intentions into the fertile depths of your consciousness (aka the ground of pure potentiality) so they can grow and flourish. How or why you would need to release an impulse of consciousness into consciousness is unclear. But it’s the escape clause that really gets me. After releasing your intention, you are advised to relinquish your rigid attachment to a specific result because the outcome that you try so hard to force may not be as good for you as the one that comes naturally.

Hold on! The one that comes naturally sounds suspiciously like the very status quo your intention would serve to change. So what was the point of that directed impulse of consciousness? And who or what directed—or, more accurately, misdirected—it?

In a nutshell, you have a thought, you release it, and then things do or do not proceed as you intended. It appears that a directed impulse of consciousness is neither relevant nor powerful after all.

Intention Really IS Powerful

If you want to do something deliberately, as opposed to habitually, you defiinitely do need to start with an intention. Without one, you’re likely to succumb to the siren song of the path of least resistance: that thing that comes naturally. This is just the way we’re all wired.

An intention is more than wishful thinking, a good idea, or a thought released into fertile ground. Creating and acting on an intention requires your conscious (System 2) thought and attention. If you want to break away from the path of least resistance—no easy task, given your brain’s desire to maintain the status quo—you need to be both committed to following through on your intention and willing to do whatever that takes, including feeling uncomfortable.

You also need to get very, very specific. Many ideas begin as vague or general aims, but if you want to give yourself a fighting chance at changing the status quo, you need to spell out the what, when, where, and how of what you intend to do. Acting deliberately and thoughtfully is the opposite of running on autopilot. It takes practice. It requires energy and effort.

Creating an Intention

Although creating an intention is not complicated or difficult, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for.


alphabet-changeYou probably have some concepts about the way things should be, as well as how you should be and what you should be able to do. When you’re creating an intention, banish the word should—and even the concept. It isn’t helpful, and it sets you up to have unrealistic expectations. Why start out by pitting your actual self against an idealized self who can easily do whatever it is you’re currently struggling with?

If you have created an intention to do something because you think you should do it or you should be able to do it, let it go. You’re less likely to fully commit yourself to something you should do, and you’re probably not willing to do whatever it might take to accomplish it since you think you should already be doing it. If you prejudge yourself as somehow lacking, you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

Giant Steps

Maybe there’s an entire area of your life you want to revamp, so you create an intention to do just that. No baby steps for you; you’re going for the gold! But trying to tackle too much all at once is another recipe for failure because the chance of succeeding is miniscule at best.

When you try to do many things at the same time, you give yourself many opportunities to fail. So if, for example, you want to develop a habit that involves doing something multiple times during the day, start out by creating an intention to do it once or twice a day—or even every other day. Once you’ve succeeded with that, you can expand on it.

Aiming to do too much and missing the mark only reinforces any existing feelings of ineffectiveness or inadequacy. When you take baby steps, you have a much better chance of accomplishing what you set out to do. You can then build on your success.

Wiggle Room

As indicated above, a common mistake to make when creating an intention is to be vague rather than specific. Maybe you aren’t consciously trying to give yourself wiggle room, but that’s what vagueness does to intentions: it paves the way for you to wiggle right out of them. Maybe you believe just creating the intention is sufficient. Or your schedule is too variable for you to be specific. Or you want to maintain your flexibility.

It’s important to be specific when creating an intention because vagueness simply doesn’t work, so creating a vague intention is a waste of time. If you want to do something twice a week, decide on the days of the week and the time of day you will do it. If your schedule varies, make appointments with yourself and write them on your calendar or in your planner. Treat your appointments with yourself the same way you would treat an appointment with someone else. Give yourself a little respect. If you know the result (desired outcome) you want, think through the steps you’ll need to take to achieve it. Make the steps your intention and the result is more likely to follow.

For more on intentions and the IAP (Intention/Attention/Perseverance) process, see Make It So!

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.