We hear a lot about understanding the Enneagram, as such — the system, the types, the arrows, the instincts, and so on. But we hear less about understanding the teachings about these things, in themselves. The expression “it’s not rocket science” is very true here, but not in the conventional meaning. Rather, what we need to realise is, it’s not like maths. It’s not logic. It’s humanity — and sometimes, it’s life itself.
Because of this, we need to approach learning about the Enneagram (and everything in connection with it and around it) differently from how we would approach, say, learning a new language, or physics, or even psychology. Sure, just like these other topics, there’s tons of of information about the Enneagram. Even if we subtract the misunderstandings, the bad teachings, the flattened-out-and-packaged bits tweaked to fit into modern personality typing, it’s a lot. If we’re fascinated with the model, we might, quite understandably, want to cover as much as we can. And that’s absolutely fine.
What we need to understand, though, it that is not enough that we learn what we’re being taught in books, courses and teachings. It’s also imperative that we get it. And this hinges on us understanding the purpose of what is being taught.
Often, we regard learning something and getting it as being the same thing. When we learnt that two plus two equals four, we instantly got it. The process was so automatic and so immediate that we probably didn’t even realise that learning something and getting that same something can sometimes be quite separate processes — and, occasionally, vastly different ones.
So what does this look like in the Enneagram context?
With the explosion of popularity of the Enneagram model, increasingly I notice people getting caught up in handfuls of traits, or zoomed-in pieces of descriptions of the different personality types. Maybe they are fairly new to the Enneagram — they might have been to a workshop or read a book or two — and they are trying to make out their (or someone else’s) type. And then they say something like: “Well, so-and-so says that X is typical for Twos, and I’m really X — so likely, I’m a Two.” Or, “In the teaching from so-and-so, it’s clear that Sevens typically have the perspective of Y — and that’s so me, so I’m a Seven for sure.” Or even just ask, “What type would do/think/feel Z?”
This is an example of what I’m referring to — and it just doesn’t work that way. We can’t focus on bits and pieces and expect to get it right. And, as it turns out, when you take a step back and see the bigger picture, a lot of well-founded, thought through stuff is actually only pieces of a much bigger puzzle. A big part of this puzzle is you, of course; learning about the types is only half of the equation (if that). I’ve frequently written about this inner work, and I’m sure to return to the topic. (At the end of this article, there are links to some of these previous posts.) But another part of the puzzle, and the one that’s relevant to this article, is realising that collecting lists of traits or learning teachings doesn’t suffice. It doesn’t matter how rich and detailed they might be — you also need to understand what it is that they are actually saying.
An example: “Orientation to time”
One example that caught my attention quite recently has to do with the use of the types’ various orientations to time as part of their descriptions. For instance, Suzanne Stabile has discussed this, and in her descriptions the Three, Seven and Eight all are future-oriented — as these types are focussed on doing something to affect the outcome of what’s going on. You can’t change the past or what already happening in the present, but you can affect what’s going to happen (at least in theory 😉). So, these three types look to the future as a way of their personality’s expression. As for the Six, One and Two, they all want to do the right thing in the current situation and make sense of what that is (for them), which makes them oriented towards the present. And Nines, Fours and Fives spend a lot of time with themselves, inside themselves, relating to their inner worlds, thoughts and feelings — which spring from the past. (Needless to say, this summary is nowhere near enough to get what she wants to convey, so if you’re interested, look her up and explore further. Here, I’m just using it as an example.)
These descriptions are all relevant as part of the personality features that are being described. But does that mean Ones are never caught up in the past, or that Fives don’t prepare for the future? A quick look around the Ones and Fives we know personally immediately reveals that this is not really the case at all. The categories of time-orientation are describing a broader tendency about the psychology of these type groups, not saying that Fives live in the past or Twos don’t plan for tomorrow’s lunchbox.
Then we might go on to read Don Riso‘s and Russ Hudson’s classic The Wisdom of the Enneagram and get really confused. In this book, the personalities of the instinctual triad, i e the Eight, Nine and One, are decribed as relating to the present, while those of the emotional triad (Two, Three and Four) relate to the past and those of the intellectual triad (Five, Six and Seven) to the future. What gives? Is Stabile wrong? Are Riso-Hudson wrong? Aren’t these people all Enneagram experts?
Truth from different perspectives
Well, yes, they are, and neither side is “wrong”. The types of the instinctual triad is relating to the present, in the sense that their common issues centre around resisting being affected by reality — something which can only happen in the present. The types of the emotional triad is relating to the past, in the sense that their common issues centre around self-image, the material for which we get from the past. And the types of the intellectual triad is relating to the future, in the sense that their common issues centre around anxiety and worry, which is always relating to something we anticipate happening in the future.
So, the Wisdom descriptions relate to the commonalities of each triad and spring from their shared issues and focus. The Stabile descriptions relate to what Wisdom would call the Hornevian groups (and what Stabile herself calls stances), and spring from these groups’ shared strategies for getting their (perceived) needs met. Both descriptions have merit — but if we just sort the information into our set of mental information cards, these two sets of descriptions will look contradictory. And consequently, however we ultimately choose to store the information, we’ll come away with a skewed picture of the types. If we get how they are meant to contribute to describing the types, however, both descriptions enrich our understanding.
Two perspectives meeting — as they are wont to do
Also, if we just probe a bit further, not only are they not contradictory — they are actually in agreement, and they build upon one another. Stabile doesn’t only say which time-direction each group is oriented towards, but also which one it’s repressing. According to her teaching, the Nine, Four and Five repress the present, the Three, Seven and Eight repress the past and the Six, One and Two repress the future. If you look at these three in terms of Hornevian groups, we see that each group has a somewhat challenged relationship with a certain centre — specifically, the one that the primary type belongs to. So the Nine, Four and Five all have challenges in relating to the instinctual centre. And if we turn back to the instinctual centre and the Riso-Hudson teaching, then — violà — we find that there’s a connection to the present. And so on, and so forth, for all the groups.
This kind of observation, where seemingly opposite perspectives join forces, happens all the time when you are studying the Enneagram, illuminating the richness and complexity of the model.
And one quirky observation and a wink to our dear Nines
Something I find a bit funny about both these descriptions, by the way, is the Nine’s orientation in particular. Most Nines I know, personality-wise, aren’t overly strongly relating to either the present or the past. Nor are they, in fact, really looking to the future. Rather, they like to hang out in a not-now, not-then time — their own, special outside-of-actual-time time-zone. So maybe we could use an additional set of descriptions 😉
Zooming out and getting the whole picture
So, just like most other groupings in type descriptions, the orientation-to-time based descriptions are only relevant as part of personality descriptions if you get for what purpose the are given — from which angle, if you will, they are coming, and where in the teaching they are meant to land. All these categories, wherever we find them, aim to describe a certain aspect of the personality. They are not meant to describe the whole personality, nor do they mean to say the naked words of each description won’t be applicable to other types as well. And they are certainly not meant to describe how one individual of that type will always function, or be. No — they just serve to describe a particular twist in the personality, that, together with other such twists, will paint a picture that no list of words, or even a full chapters’ description in a book, could ever convey.
This goes for so much of the Enneagram information, and for type descriptions in particular. We need to listen to the bits of information, be mindful of not just what they contain but also what kind of information they are meant to convey about the personality, and in what context. Metaphorically, we need to zoom in on various teachings, take them in and digest them — but then we also need to zoom out again, so we can see where these new clusters of information fit into our overall understanding.
And yes, this is indeed much harder work than memorising traits 😉. But then, to quote Russ Hudson from another Enneagram context, “this material was never meant for casual viewing”. It’s not made to fit into one-hour workshops or easily-accessible models for corporate team-building. When bits of it are used that way and still help someone, great. Obviously, anyone can use this material however they see fit. But learning it, it helps to keep in mind that it’s likely to take some time before it comes together — and that you are never really meant to stop expanding your understanding of it ❤️
Did you want to read more about inner work? Here are a few tips from this blog:
- ”Whip-and-carrot” or self-compassion? Critical aspects of working with the instincts
- Why understanding and awareness of instinctual drives is integral to inner growth
- What inner work and self-discovery is really about
- Identifying and neutralising the inner critic
- When the answers don’t help you – look closer at the question you asked
- Get curious about your you-nique expression of consciousness