Last updated: June 2020
The Enneagram is by far the most useful resource I have found for my inner work. I just don’t think I’d be how I am now – in terms of my internal experience and the various external expressions of my being – without learning it and using it.
If you’ve only just heard of the Enneagram, it is used as a typology, like the more well-known 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, also known as the ‘lie of the type’.
Actually, 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 subjective experience with it. There are three specific aspects I want to talk to you about.
Before that, I’ve included a bit of background. This is nothing you can’t read elsewhere online, but I wanted to include it anyway!
How the Enneagram works
In tandem with figuring out your type, you also want a basic understanding of how the Enneagram works holistically. This is helpful for all kinds of reasons, which become clear as you use the Enneagram.
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 – or necessary to know! One of the top Enneagram experts David Daniels says its a combination.)
The Nine Enneagram Types (Riso and Hudson’s nicknames):
Type One: the Reformer
Type Two: the Helper
Type Three: the Achiever
Type Four: the Individualist
Type Five: the Investigator
Type Six: The Loyalist
Type Seven: the Enthusiast
Type Eight: the Challenger
Type Nine: the Peacemaker
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. Each type has a ‘stress point’ – a type that they resemble when under pressure. 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.
Update: I prefer not to use the language ‘stress’ and ‘integration’ these days. Instead, I use the language ‘lines’ or ‘movement points’. One of the reasons for that is because I have learned that each movement point has qualities that help to resource the main type. For instance, it can be a good and helpful thing for type Nines to take on some Six energy at times. It is not as simple as saying that the Nine has disintegrated!
Additional theories within the main theory
Within the main Enneagram framework of the nine types, there are several additional theories. The two I will focus on in this post are the Enneagram Centers of Intelligence and the Enneagram Subtypes.
Briefly, 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.
The Enneagram Subtypes set out three versions of each Enneagram type, which help to account for the vast differences you see in each type. I say ‘help’ to account because the Subtypes aren’t the only thing that accounts for why two people of the same Enneagram type can show up differently. Things like a person’s nurture matter, too. Hopefully, that is obvious…
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. What I would advise is getting yourself a good book like the Wisdom of the Enneagram and just patiently exploring the inner realm until you have clarity on your pattern of attention. I feel fortunate in that my introduction to the Enneagram came through an informed 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.
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. It is a shortcut to locating the psychological, somatic, and spiritual practices that will have the biggest impact on your quality of life and being.
This is not an aspect I focus on especially, but the Enneagram gives us a vision for how the healthiest manifestation of our types can look. 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. As I say, not important, but interesting to look at the descriptions every now and then and notice where I am.
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.
Onto how I use three aspects of the Enneagram to support my inner work.
1. The Enneagram Passions
Each type loses presence in a specific way – a way which is called a ‘Passion’ in Enneagram literature. The type Passion is a major thing to come to know and observe in yourself. It is not a good thing to be ruled by our type’s Passion – and we all are, until we become conscious of it. Personally, I have found a lot of freedom in being able to observe my type’s Passion and disengage with it. It is the equivalent of ‘starving the lie of your type.’
At first, you want to observe the Passion running you without doing anything else. There is much wisdom in being able to just observe it.Each type has a passion - an unconscious strategy they use to get their needs met Click To Tweet
Disengaging the Passion; Embodying the Virtue
Just as each Enneagram type is associated with a Passion, each is also associated with a Virtue. It is perfectly achievable for every one of us to disengage from the Passion and embody the Virtue over time, and much contentment happens in that process.
Here is the upshot: 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
2. Using the Centers of Intelligence
Onto the second major way I use the Enneagram for my inner work.
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 is associated with one of the centers – we say that they are ‘fixated’ in a center. Usually, it means there is some distortion in how that type draws on that intelligence in their life. The distortion might be a ‘too-muchness’ or a ‘not enoughness’, or perhaps a chaotic ness.
The Types and the Centers
The Body Types – Ones, Eights and Nines
The Heart Types – Twos, Threes and Fours
The Head Types – Fives, Sixes and Sevens
Interpreting and Processing Centers
Separate from the ‘special relationship’ center, your type has a primary processing and interpreting center.
Update: I just want to flag here that, although there is zero disagreement on which centers the types are formed in, there is some disagreement among Enneagram experts over whether each type follows a set sequence in terms of their Interpreting and Processing centers.
People like Leslie Hershberger say that types Seven don’t all repress feeling – some repress doing. Ginger Lapid Bogda believes that the order in which we use our intelligence depends on your subtype within the type (see the next section).
This lack of consistency makes it even more important to observe yourself to determine what your Interpreting and Processing centers are.
Identifying the 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 psychodynamic 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.
Again, your repressed center will not necessarily be apparent from the way you interact with people. Many 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 stimulating that side of you by (for example) 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 may incorporate a daily practice that supports you in reigniting your sense of wonder and adventure. If you repress the feeling center, you may have lost your capacity to let yourself feel vulnerable. You may grow by leaning into your natural discomfort around letting yourself experience your emotions, especially negative emotions.
These are just examples! It is important to figure out how you relate to the centers of intelligence and strategize on practices on that basis.
3. The Subtypes
The Subtypes, which are more nuanced descriptors of the nine types, are basically what happens when the Enneagram type’s Passion meets one of the three Instincts.
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
Generic descriptions of the three Instincts
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.
Instinct through the door of Type
Those are the generic descriptions of the Instincts. It is important not to try to determine which Instinct is the one you lead with without reference to your type – the Instincts need to be looked at ‘through the door of type’, as Beatrice Chesnut would say. That’s where the specific profiles of the 27 Subtypes come in.
Know that there is a unique growth path associated with each specific Subtype. I’m not going to discuss that in this post. If you are interested in knowing more, I recommend that you get yourself a copy of the Complete Enneagram. This book was written by the seminal teacher of Subtypes.
The 27 Substypes (Claudio Naranjo’s nicknames)
How to figure out your instinctual stack
The Subtypes should help you to locate the Instinct that you prioritize. In terms of working out how you relate to the other two Instincts, that’s where you are on your own!
What helped for me 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.
The work: Balance through inclusion
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.
Bonus work: Defense mechanisms
Although I wouldn’t include it in a core curriculum for using the Enneagram, I want to just quickly talk to you about defense mechanisms: the unconscious psychological strategies we all use to deal with uncomfortable and difficult situations.
As I discuss in-depth in this article, because the Enneagram is a map of how we all lose consciousness, you can’t really isolate it from Shadow Work. I think that becoming aware of our defense mechanisms and disarming them is pretty 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 Enneagram 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
You can read more about defense mechanisms in this article.
Hopefully you agree with me 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 loosening the pattern of my Passion and reintegrating my forgotten intelligence and repressed instinct through conscious and consistent practice. In the process, I have found that most (if not all) compulsions have fallen away. I find I have more clarity in navigating my relationships and issues that crop up at work. Not to mention, my levels of compassion and empathy for others are just totally on a different page.
I think the biggest impact has been my work on observing the Passion, which I believe is the main source of suffering for each type. The Enneagram has helped me to see when I am using my type’s 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. This means my sense of personal freedom is growing all the time.
I encourage you to make use of the Enneagram for your own inner work.
I’m currently developing an online course, An Integral Approach to Using the Enneagram, which includes some coaching support. To be notified when the course becomes available, register here.