How to Use the Enneagram of Personality for Personal Growth

The Enneagram of Personality (the Enneagram for short) is a necessity for anyone interested in taking their personal growth and awareness levels to the next stage.

So what exactly is it?

The Enneagram is a psychological classification model like the more popular Myers Briggs. Where Myers Briggs is most helpful for bringing your awareness to your cognitive functions, the Enneagram brings your awareness, among other things, to your main unconscious strategy for getting your needs met. In fact, it offers a way for you to observe your personality (or ego) mechanisms closely. This is a very difficult thing to do without a lifetime of practicing mindfulness.

This post is about how to use the Enneagram for personal growth, based on my experience with it.

How the Enneagram works

Before you figure out your type, you want a basic understanding of how the Enneagram works. The Enneagram is a structure; a system. It is depicted diagrammatically as a circle, with arrows pointing in all directions.

The Enneagram maps nine personality types, or ego structures, and the types are interconnected in various ways. We each have a dominant type, established early on in life. (Whether our Enneagram type is established pre or post birth isn’t clear. One of the top Enneagram experts David Daniels says its a combination.)

The nine Enneagram types (nicknames):

One: Reformer – I do everything the right way
Two: Helper – I must help others
Three: Motivator  – I need to succeed
Four: Romantic – I am unique
Five: Thinker – I need to understand everything
Six: Skeptic – the world is a dangerous place
Seven: Enthusiast – I am happy and open to new things
Eight: Leader-  I must be strong
Nine: Peacemaker – I am at peace

In addition to our primary type, we all also have a dominant wing, which can only be one of two types: the types on either side of the dominant type. For example, type nine can be type nines with an eight wing, or type nines with a one wing. The wing flavors the type.

The Enneagram gives you a concrete way to observe your ego mechanisms Click To Tweet

That isn’t where the connections between the types end, by the way. Each type has a ‘stress point’ – a type that they resemble when under stress. Further, each type as an integration type – a type whose healthier characteristics they resemble once they have learned to manage the unhealthier aspects of their own type.

Don’t worry about retaining this for now. It is just for background.

Additional theories within the main theory

Within the main Enneagram theory, there are several additional theories. The one I will focus on in this post is the centers of intelligence theory.

Briefly (because we will talk more about it in a second), the Enneagram talks of three centers of intelligence: a head center, heart center and body center. Each of the nine types is created, or fixated, in one of the centers. The meaning of this isn’t immediately accessible, but the consequences of it are significant, as this post attempts to clarify.

Okay, that was quite a lot of information! But it was just to get you a sense of the complexity of the model. Let’s break down some of it.

Figuring out your Enneagram type

So how do you figure out which of the nine types is yours?

You could take an online test – if you answer honestly, your type should among your top scores. Bear in mind that it is normal, because of the way the Enneagram works, for you to have multiple high scores.

Alternatively, you could read a description of all the types, and try to decide which one is yours. You could try to identify your type through a song, but I probably wouldn’t advise it.

My introduction to the Enneagram came through a friend, who was able to identify my type for me.

Once you have figured out your dominant type, you should attempt to discover everything there is to know about the type. I recommend that you get yourself a copy of the Wisdom of the Enneagram, which also features on this list of personal growth books to read ASAP.

After or alongside that, figure out which wing is your strongest wing. Your online test might help you to identify your wing.

How exactly does the Enneagram help us to grow?

To put it simply, the Enneagram empowers your capacity for self-observation.

The Enneagram gives us a vision for how the healthiest manifestation of our types can look. With its detail, it sets out a roadmap for how to get to those higher levels of awareness.

You can view the levels of development for each type under your type’s profile on the Enneagram Institute website. For example, here is a sample of the stages of health for a type seven, which is my type.

Sample levels of development of type seven
(reproduced from the Enneagram Institute’s website):

Healthy: Assimilate experiences in depth, making them deeply grateful and appreciative for what they have. Become awed by the simple wonders of life: joyous and ecstatic. Intimations of spiritual reality, of the boundless goodness of life.

Average: As restlessness increases, want to have more options and choices available to them. Become adventurous and ‘worldly wise,’ but less focused, constantly seeking new things and experiences: the sophisticate, connoisseur, and consumer. Money, variety, keeping up with the latest trends important.

Unhealthy: Desperate to quell their anxieties, can be impulsive and infantile. Do not know when to stop. Addictions and excess take their toll: debauched, depraved, dissipated escapists, offensive and abusive.

In this post, I want to show you how I use three aspects of the Enneagram to support my personal growth.

The Enneagram passions

Each type does a certain behaviour (called a passion) in order to try to satisfy its needs and desires. This is the type’s chief strategy in life. It is driving much of what the type does.

However, it isn’t a perfect strategy. Repeatedly enacting your type’s passion will mean you are unlikely ever to embody those higher characteristics for your type.

The Enneagram can help us to spot when we are being run by our passions. The possibility then opens up for us to try to satisfy our needs in a healthier way.

For instance, the passion for type seven (my type) is gluttony. As well as the traditional meaning of overeating, that extends to an over consumption in general. Type seven’s seek experiences in an attempt to find fulfillment, which they secretly fear will remain elusive. Truthfully, they feel that nothing they do will ever bring them satisfaction.

Each type has a passion - an unconscious strategy they use to get their needs met Click To Tweet

I can tell you that in my own life, and from my conversations with other type sevens, this drives much addictive, compulsive behavior.

Now when I can feel myself clutching at stimulation, I take that as a warning to get quiet and connected. I remind myself that fulfillment is always accessible in the present moment.

How to transform your type’s strategy through awareness

Every passion transmutes to a virtue once mastered. The virtue on the other side of my passion is sobriety. The transformation from gluttony to sobriety is brought about through awareness.

The key takeaway: reflect on how your passion rules you in your life. Seek to become more aware of it as you go to do it. Here are the passions for the nine types.

The passions and virtues for the nine Enneagram types:

One: Anger/resentment – Serenity
Two: Pride – Humility
Three: Vanity/deceit – Integrity
Four: Envy – Equanimity (means acceptance)
Five: Avarice (means greed) – Generosity
Six: Fear/anxiety – Courage
Seven: Gluttony – Sobriety
Eight: Lust/intensity – Innocence/ surrender
Nine: Sloth/indifference – Engagement/action

Using the center of intelligence

Onto the second way I use the Enneagram for self-development.

Recall from above that the Enneagram states that we each have three forms of intelligence available to us (which is a little different to what Western psychology says!) In addition to the mind, there is the intelligence of emotions and the intelligence of sensations and movement/action. For short-hand, the three forms are referred to as the head, heart and body centers. 

Each type has a way of using their intelligence, which can be rebalanced with awareness Click To Tweet

Each Enneagram type has a primary and supporting intelligence, and a repressed or forgotten intelligence. Enneagram theorists state that reintegrating the forgotten intelligence is a major step in a person’s self-development. In practice, this means that the person’s inner and outer worlds have a well-rounded quality; evidence of all of the centers operating healthily.

How do we get unbalanced in the centers?

(Only read this section if you feel curious about how the imbalances are formed).

Really, this is the same question as ‘how are the Enneagram types formed’. They are formed at the first instance that our basic needs aren’t met. When that happens, we have one of three averse reactions:

  • Fear/anxiety
  • Distress/panic
  • Anger/rage

These reactions cause a preferred form of intelligence to step up in response to the adversity.

Fear/anxiety prompts the thinking intelligence

The fear reaction occurs when we experience a threat, challenge, or danger to our security. This reaction is driven by the thinking center intelligence. The thinking center figures out what makes life certain and secure for us.

Types five, six and seven were formed out of the thinking center.

Distress/panic prompts the feeling intelligence

This reaction happens when we experience the loss of connection and bonding. It is driven by the feeling center of intelligence, which is the center that innately pursues the need for bonding and love.

Types two, three and four were formed out of the heart center.

Anger/rage prompts the doing intelligence

This reaction occurs when we experience that we aren’t being treated right, are being violated, or that we are not getting/can’t get what we want/need at any given point in time. It is driven by the doing center of intelligence. This center senses what is wrong about the world around us and how we need to take action to correct it/fulfill ourselves.

Types eight, nine and one were formed from this center.

Knowing your primary processing and interpreting centers

Separate from the center that your personality type was formed in, your type has a primary processing and interpreting center.

It is important to be aware that in terms of how you interrelate with people, your centers might not characterize you.

Interpreting and processing centers for each type:

One: interprets with doing only; processes with feeling
Two: interprets with feeling/doing; processes with feeling
Three: interprets with feeling/thinking; processes with doing
Four: interprets with feeling only; processes with thinking
Five: interprets with thinking/feeling; processes with thinking
Six: interprets with thinking/doing; processes with feeling
Seven: interprets with thinking only; processes with doing
Eight: interprets with doing/thinking; processes with doing
Nine: interprets with doing/feeling; processes with thinking

Knowing these is useful background, but the key information is your repressed center.

Knowing your repressed center

Your repressed center is the one that you have repressed from conscious awareness from a very early age. For those of you familiar with psycho-dynamic theory, it is a part of your Hidden (or Shadow) self.

Being a part of your unconscious or suppressed side, your repressed intelligence sabotages everything by controlling the entire show from the unconscious. Externally, a repressed thinking center manifests as in a person who is rote and opinionated. A repressed feeling center may mean you are dominated by petty and misguided emotions. Finally, a repressed doing center might show up as misdirected actions.

It isn’t obvious from the preferred processing and interpreting centers which intelligence you repress. The Enneagram maps this out for us though. Here are each type’s forgotten centers:

The repressed centers for each type:

One: Thinking
Two: Thinking
Three: Feeling
Four: Doing
Five: Doing
Six: Thinking
Seven: Feeling
Eight: Feeling
Nine: Doing

Again, your repressed center will not necessarily be apparent from the way you interact with people. Type sevens repress feeling, but my characteristics are that I am warm and friendly. Similarly, repressed thinking centers are not stupid. In fact, often they appear to the world as thinkers.

This is about the person’s inner world. For instance, if thinking is your repressed center, then internally you may experience a stuck and stagnant quality to thinking.

Seeking to balance through reintegrating the lost center

Once we know our forgotten centers, the possibility for proactively trying to reincorporate them into our awareness opens up. This is a ‘balance by inclusion’ approach to personal development.

For example, if you repress the thinking center, then you grow by challenging that side of you by reading intellectual books, and forcing yourself to consider ideas that challenge you. These will help you to lose the inflexible quality to your thinking and embrace your lost curious, exploratory side.

If you repress the doing center, you’ve likely lost your sense of wonder and adventure. You grow by taking risks.

If you repress the feeling center, you have lost your capacity to let yourself feel vulnerable. You grow by leaning into your natural discomfort around letting yourself experience your emotions, especially negative emotions.

Instinctual variants

Instinctual variants is the third theory within Enneagram theory I want to talk to you about. It is probably the theory that I have spent the least time thinking about and using. But I have still found it quite useful to be aware of. It also helps to account for the personality differences you see within two people of the same Enneagram type (that in addition to more obvious factors, such as a person’s nurture).

The Enneagram identifies three basic instincts driving our behaviour:

The Enneagram instincts:

Self-preservation (SP): for preserving the body, and its life and functioning.

Sexual instinct (SX): for extending ourselves in the environment and through the generations.

Social instinct (SO): for getting along with others and forming secure social bonds.

According to Enneagram theory, each one of us is fixated on one of the instincts. There is no correlation with the personality types; for example, a type nine could have a dominant SP, SX, or SO instinct. This will affect how they behave and interact, and seek to get their needs met.

We each then have a second instinct that is used to support the dominant instinct, as well as a third instinct that is the least developed—a blind spot in our personality and our values. This produces our ‘instinctual stack’.

So there are six potential instinctual stackings (dominant/secondary):

  • SO/SX – repress SP
  • SO/SP – repress SX
  • SP/SX – repress SO
  • SP/SO – repress SX
  • SX/SP – repress SO
  • SX/SO – repress SP

More depth on each of the three basic instincts

Self preservation: 

If you are SP dominant, you care the most about physical safety, comfort and wellbeing. Your main focus is security, comfort, and environment (lighting, temperature, comfortable furniture, etc.).

For you, bigger stresses in life are money and sustenance (Where is the food? When will it come? Will we like it? Does it fit with our diet?).

Your coping methods when unhealthy may include over-stocking, overbuying and overeating (although as with any behaviour, this could be born of other reasons too of course).


If you are SX dominant, then you have a strong need for intense experiences. Your main focus is people, and attractions promising intense energy and charge. Your stresses might include a lack of intense mental or emotional stimulation, or a lack of an intense connection or experience.

When feeling unhealthy, your coping methods might include a scattered attention, lack of focus, sexual promiscuity, intensely avoiding intense experiences and connections, and possibly a fearful and dysfunctional attitude toward sex and intimacy.


If you are SO dominant, then you care the most about building a sense of personal value, accomplishment, and security of place with others. Your main focus is status and approval, and being admired by others. And your stresses include being able to adjust to others and be acceptable, hyper-awareness of being accepted or not, and avoiding intimacy.

Your coping methods when unhealthy include antisocial behavior, detesting or resenting society at large, displaying poorly developed social skills, social resentment and avoidance.

How to figure out your instinctual stack

For me, it was quite hard to work out what my ignored instinct is. But I did work out that I am probably SX dominant, supported by SP. I know that because I relate most with the unhealthy aspects of the SX and SO (the supporting variant is the most ‘free’). 

What helped was learning that the third instinct is the least used and often, there is shame and a sense of deficiency associated with it. Subconsciously, we think that this area is uninteresting and unimportant, and that we can do without it. Because we secretly feel a sense of deficiency about it, the traits riles us when we see it in others. For example, SO-last people such as myself might feel frustrated by needing to confirm socially or meet obligations, and judge social kowtowers as inferior.

The Enneagram's instinctual variants helps explain why we get along better with some people Click To Tweet

It has been written that our stacks wind up playing a pivotal role in our relationships: we get along better with those with similar stacks.

Can we rebalance our instincts too?

We can seek to balance by inclusion our least used instinct area the same way we do with the forms of intelligence. The most significant application of it might be when it comes to getting along with our partners and other people.

Enneagram experts recommend that when we feel anxious, depressed, or frustrated due to inability to satisfy the needs of the primary instinct, we can try devoting attention and effort to the third instinct. Doing that may alleviate anxiety and compulsive behaviors prompted by fixation on the primary instinct.

Defense mechanisms

Finally, I want to just quickly talk to you about defense mechanisms, which are the unconscious psychological strategies we all use to deal with uncomfortable and difficult situations. Defense mechanisms are a major way we keep the repressed intelligence…well, repressed. I think that becoming aware of our defense mechanisms and disarming them is key to each personality type’s growth.

There are always going to be exceptions, but the use of specific defense mechanisms is associated with each personality type. Sevens, for example, use rationalization to avoid confronting their pain. The behavior is symptomatic of their repressed feeling center.

Defense mechanisms associated with each Enneagram type:

Ones: Reaction Formation
Twos: Repression
Threes: Identification
Fours: Introjection
Fives: Isolation
Sixes: Projection
Sevens: Rationalization
Eights: Denial
Nines: Narcotization

You can read more about defense mechanisms in this article.


Hopefully we are in agreement that the Enneagram and all its theory has the power to be quite transformational for each of us. And the primary reason for that is it empowers our self-observations.

Learning the Enneagram has improved my self-awareness significantly Click To Tweet

I am still on my journey with the Enneagram – and I feel like it will be a long one. But I have already begun reintegrating my forgotten intelligence through practicing acceptance of emotions I used to avoid through distraction. This has been quite powerful for me, and I have found that most (if not all) compulsions have fallen away.

The Enneagram has helped me to see when I am using my passion to alleviate my anxiety that I’ll never feel satisfied. Often but not all the time, I have developed the ability to take different actions. Which means my sense of personal freedom is growing all the time.

I encourage you to make use of the Enneagram for your own personal growth.

The Enneagram is discussed in my new book, My Own Guru. Check it out