“Focus on the motivations, not traits and behaviours.” ”Anyone can do that, the important thing is WHY.” Sound familiar? Any self-respecting Enneagrammer at least tries to keep this in mind, and some of us frequently remind others of these things. So why, then, are type descriptions still packed to the hilt with descriptions of traits and behaviours?
If you’ve read my blog, it’s probably not news to you that I take some issue with how Enneagram types are sometimes carelessly described, in a manner that both, in the short term, leads to confusion and, longer term, erodes the model as a meaningful tool. Here are some new (sort of 😉) insights into how this happens and how we can avoid contributing to the confusion.
In some Enneagram forums, the “what type” entries are nineteen to the dozen. Memes, stories and quotes are posted, along with questions like “What type does this?”, “What type does this remind you of?” and “My friend did this, which type to you think she is?” And I’ll admit: it drives me bonkers. So often, I want to respond “ANY ONE OF THEM AND THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT!!” (Sometimes I do, too, but in a more civil tone and a more fleshed-out explanation of why I’m saying that 🤓.) Of course some examples rather point to one or a couple of types more likely than others, but that’s not really the point. The point is, the questions themselves reveal a poor understanding of the Enneagram. It’s not the questioner’s fault; he or she obviously can’t learn something that people don’t teach.
An expanded arena
As I’ve said before, wishy-washy teachings from teachers who aren’t really ready for the job probably comes with the territory when a model gains in popularity the way the Enneagram has done in recent years. (I wrote about this in the article When the Enneagram presence runneth over — the challenges and gifts of expanded reach.) The “Enneagram arena” has indeed expanded, and those side effects is not something we can really do much about. But the teachers who are ready to teach, then, who have perhaps been doing it for many years — what can we do to help preserve and communicate the true value of the Enneagram?
Well, I think we need to realise that the people coming to a seminar or workshop might hold a much more fleeting and shallow interest in the model than we ourselves did in the beginning. And before anyone takes offence, let me explain what I mean by that.
From game-changer to party game
Twenty of thirty years ago, you had to go a bit out of your way to find out that the Enneagram even existed. Anyone showing up for a class or a training knew what they were getting into — not necessarily the specifics of the Enneagram as such, but they knew they were entering an arena dedicated to increased awareness and inner growth. The model was indeed a game-changer: something that had the potential to change how you perceived yourself, how you grew and your awareness of your own energy.
While still possessing the same potential, by contrast, someone showing up today might have been “introduced” by reading a bunch of superficial type descriptions in a magazine and thought. They might think, ”Oh, cool, another typing system, I wonder what I am?” Today, chances are that your first introductions to the Enneagram is as a system for pigeonholing people, rather than a model for helping you wriggle free of your pigeonhole. So we might want to take extra care framing what we will be talking about, as an adaptation to our times. The difference between a behaviour and the motivation behind it is obviously important, but in my opinion there is a more central aspect that we need to keep in mind.
The true purpose of “type descriptions”
The central aspect I think is so often overlooked is clarifying what our “type descriptions” are actually there for. At first glance, you might say that well, obviously, they are there do describe types. And while that is certainly more correct than it would be to say they are describing people of these types, it’s still not the whole truth.
As I see it, type descriptions serve to paint a picture. They serve to point to something, circle something; to synergistically build a ”whole” that is grander than the sum total of its pieces. We have to look — and more importantly, have our students look — at this whole, rather than a set of pieces. Granted, we use the pieces to construct the whole. But it’s important that we also point to the synergy itself: the energetic atmosphere building up around the pieces, that contributes so strongly to the resulting whole.
A bunch of characteristics versus an energetic climate
So in one setting we are served up a bunch of traits, qualities and behavioural patterns that are statistically common for each type. In another, we are presented with a three-dimensional picture that we ourselves can step into, that we can experience as an energetic climate: the climate of a Four, or a Seven, or a One. This is something completely different.
When we talk about the types having a “basic fear”, or a “competency coping strategy” — or any number of characteristics that, among others, Don Riso and Russ Hudson have done such a precious job of collecting over many years — it’s not necessarily the case that you, as an individual, will recognise this in yourself. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, the whole point of the Enneagram is pointing to aspects of our psyche that we don’t readily identify with; stuff that our ego has disguised, suppressed, painted over or simply ignored for the better part of our life. Obviously, we won’t identify with all, or even most, of that. If we did, our inner work would pretty much be done already 😊.
And secondly, as I’ve said above, the traits, fears, patterns and features that are pointed to for each type are meant to paint a whole. That whole is the mail thing, that which we need to get. Saying, for instance, “We don’t operate from basic fears but from primal desires”, is missing the point: what the statement of basic fears (in this particular example) is saying about us, compared to people of another type. We need to not only get the synergistic whole of what makes up a type, but also see the entire spectrum of fears/strategies/fixations/patterns/priorities that’s out there. Then, we realise that even tough anyone can be envious/defensive/possessive/[you name it], it means something particular when we talk about envy in the Four, defensiveness in the Six, or possessiveness in the Two.
My invitation askers of “what type”-questions
So, if you have a funny/cute/wise/noteworthy meme, a story or something else that you are tempted to post in a group or forum with a “what type” style caption — it’s not that you necessarily have to hold off from doing it. But perhaps you can reflect for a bit first. What do you hope to accomplish by posting this?
If you just want to appear clever/funny/insightful, be aware that maybe you won’t (actually). If it’s a greater understanding of the types that you’re after, though, be mindful of what you ask for. “What type”-questions seldom lead anywhere useful. However, you might want to know how people feel about the meme/story, and you can ask them to tell you and then state their type. You still won’t get any watertight, exact references, but you might get a bit of variety and nuance that contributes to a deeper understanding.
But likely, you’ll get most out of it if you post about what you feel, how you react — perhaps with an angle that related to your type, or how you experience yourself to be a textbook specimen, or possibly an exception. That, in my opinion, opens up for a more meaningful discussion about type ❤️