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.

A Shortcut to Self-Awareness

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you aren’t yet convinced that much of what you do is completely outside your conscious intentions and control, the Enneagram might change your mind. At the time I wrote the following introductory post (Know Thyself) for my Enneagram blog Nine Paths, I had yet to learn just how much of our lives we spend on autopilot.

When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling. It’s absolutely the best tool I’ve found for demonstrating how habitual and compulsive our behavior is and for expanding  self-awareness. Unless we develop self-awareness, we have little chance of changing or overriding our compulsive behavior.

Know Thyself

Was the ancient Greek sage who inscribed those words at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi exhorting us to understand ourselves? It isn’t entirely clear. But it is clear that Socrates, who insisted the unexamined life is not worth living, meant exactly that when he used the same words. But how do we examine our lives? How do we get to know ourselves?

The Enneagram is one means to that end. It is an apparently simple, yet rich and complex system that reveals our strengths and weaknesses, our deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our (unexamined) lives. We move through this world under the impression we’re making authentic choices, but most of the time we’re just blindly following our compulsions, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel.

Only after we become aware of our habitual patterns of behavior and responses can we turn the autopilot switch off and freelychoose what to do or how to respond. The better we know ourselves, the less likely we are to be ruled by our compulsions. The less we are ruled by our compulsions, the more open and authentic we are. Gaining this depth of personal knowledge and understanding has another benefit, also pointed out by Socrates: it helps us understand other people better, too. In fact, Socrates believed we have to understand ourselves before we can truly understand anyone or anything else.

At the simplest level, the Enneagram can be viewed as a personality typing system, but don’t think recognizing and accepting your Enneagram type will strip you of your unique sense of identity or individuality by lumping you together with every other person of the same type. Far from being a narrow one-size-fits-all box, each point has plenty of room for subtleties and variations.

Since it doesn’t simply pigeonhole people, but is a comprehensive and multifaceted system, it takes a bit of effort to fully grasp. Numerous books are now available on the Enneagram, written from various perspectives. Below is a very basic overview of the key elements.

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle.

enneagram_small

 

The resulting nine points represent nine basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. The theory behind the Enneagram is that we each polarize at one of the nine points. We then overdevelop the characteristics associated with that point, while leaving the characteristics associated with the other points undeveloped. So each point also represents a particular type of imbalance. Our core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as we become aware of our imbalances, we gain the ability to moderate them. We are no longer ruled by them.

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