Have you ever wished you had a guidebook to the people in your life that could help you understand them? Do you sometimes wonder what makes your coworker tick, what your partner or child is really feeling, or even why you are the way you are? If so, you’re in luck! A guide of this sort does exist. It’s called the Enneagram (pronounced ANY-ah-gram).
Many people have used the Enneagram to transform the quality of their work, family, and intimate relationships – and to deepen their understanding of themselves. Part psychological, part spiritual, the Enneagram is unlike any other personality typing system. It is by turns both practical and ponderous, straightforward and esoteric, simple and endlessly complex – and some have found it fascinating enough to make it the subject of lifelong study.
The term Enneagram comes from the Greek words ennea (nine) and gram (a drawn figure) and refers to the nine-sided geometric model that forms the basis for the Enneagram personality system. The relationships between the various points are subtle and complex (too complex to go into here), but the essential descriptions of the types can be understood quite readily (see Resources for suggested reading and Web sites where you can learn more about the Enneagram, and determine your Enneagram profile).
At its core, the Enneagram describes nine dramatically different ways of perceiving and behaving in the world. The types are different enough from each other that they could easily be likened to nine different countries, each with its own worldview or cosmology.
Unlike other personality typing systems, the Enneagram tends to focus more on the internal terrain of each personality, rather than external traits or characteristics. It gives us a chance to “feel” for a moment what it might be like to be inside another person looking out. This shift in perspectives provides the basis of a deeper, more complete understanding – an understanding that can help us assess ourselves more accurately and enable us to build more fulfilling and sustainable relationships with others.
Working Our Strengths
According to the Enneagram, each type has a natural gift – a strength – that springs from its internally held worldview. However, like all strengths, this gift can be overused and eventually distorted to the point that it becomes our greatest liability or weakness. Learning about the inner workings of your type (and the types of others) offers you a real advantage in identifying, adjusting and compensating for these imbalances while at the same time helping you to make the very best use of the gifts and special abilities you have been accorded.
Take a look at the nine Enneagram types below. You may immediately recognize yourself, your significant other, your boss, or your best friend from even these brief descriptions. If not, look a little deeper at some of the suggested resources at the end of this article. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for how many different kinds of people and core beliefs there are out there, and perhaps some ideas about how you can relate more successfully with those who might otherwise mystify you.
But be forewarned, the Enneagram has a way of sucking you in and making you want to know more – and with dozens of books dedicated to analyzing and dissecting each type, it’s surprisingly easy to get hooked. Before long, you’ll be annoying your friends by saying things like, “Geez, you are such a six.” Still game? Read on!
The 9 Types
1. The Perfectionist
Worldview: Life is about striving for improvement.
Beliefs: “Virtue is its own reward. People are their principles and ideals. It would be a better world if we all did our very best and worked to be all that we could be.”
Principled and hardworking, Perfectionists are driven by high internal standards and a relentless, demanding inner critic. They may take on too much responsibility, subsequently becoming resentful that others aren’t pulling their weight. While the rest of us may experience Perfectionists as critical or picky, this surprises them since they share only a tiny fraction of their ongoing internal critique. At their best, they are dependable, responsible reformers. At their worst, they may be inflexible judges.
2. The Giver
Worldview: (My) Love makes the world go around.
Beliefs: “I am an empath, I sense what other people need and give it to them. I am indispensable to my loved ones, employer, client, etc.”
Warm and caring, Givers enjoy nurturing others. Talented networkers, they facilitate connections between other people. However, they can be so busy attending to the needs of others that they drain themselves of all energy. They can feel overwhelmed by other people’s needs and become angry. At their best, they are caring altruists. At their worst, they can be manipulative and “give to get.”
3. The Performer
Worldview: Life is about appearing successful.
Beliefs: “I am my accomplishments. I can adapt myself to match the circumstances. Everyone wants to be known as a winner.”
Multitasking, high energy people, Performers are goal-oriented producers. They adapt to any group or situation with a chameleon-like ability to match their environment. Overemphasis on achieving can cause them to put other aspects of life on the back burner. Because they are so good at selling themselves, Performers can feel that they have faked their legitimate accomplishments. At their best, they are charismatic achievers. At their worst, they are self-promoting workaholics.
4. The Romantic
Worldview: Something essential is missing from life.
Beliefs: “I’m ‘different’ from other people. No one can truly understand me. Authenticity is found in deep emotional connection.”
Romantics crave emotional depth and connection. They have a singular ability to be present with life’s more intense situations such as grief, death, depression – modeling for the rest of us that we can and do eventually get through the most difficult times. Romantics also illuminate the riches to be found in the journey. They bring originality and creativity to any enterprise. Often blessed with creative abilities and a strong sense of the aesthetic, they are driven to make a unique contribution in life. At their best, Romantics are sensitive and authentic. At their worst, they may be dramatic and moody.
5. The Observer
Worldview: Life is a quest for understanding and wisdom.
Beliefs: “People (and things) can overwhelm you and deplete your energy. Knowledge is power.”
Observers have a natural ability to detach from feelings, need, and other people. Clarity and a cool head prevail for them in situations where others succumb to chaos. Independent, self-contained people, Observers exhibit a highly developed capacity for analyzing and synthesizing complex information. However, Observers can seem overly mental when a more feeling approach is required. Strong needs for privacy can extend into isolation. Observers can seem distant or emotionally unavailable, and under stress they may withhold time, energy, even themselves.
6. The Skeptic (sometimes also called the Loyalist)
Worldview: The world is a dangerous place.
Beliefs: “Expect the unexpected. If you plan for the worst case, you can keep yourself safe. Take nothing at face value.”
Skeptics have highly developed powers of imagination that enable them to see the pitfalls or dangers of any situation. Masterful planners, Skeptics visualize ways to deal with or avoid these dangers. Though they fear the worst, when the worst actually happens, Skeptics move into action, often exhibiting bravery and heroism. Their highly developed sense of danger can be activated when the potential threat is actually very low. The other types may feel that Skeptics are messengers of doom and gloom or excessive worriers. At their best, Skeptics are skillful troubleshooters. At their worst, they can be doubtful, over-analyzing pessimists.
7. The Optimist
Worldview: Life is an adventure with limitless possibilities.
Beliefs: “Life is about experiencing as much as possible. Wonderful options are unlimited. Closing down options is like being trapped.”
High-energy upbeat people, Optimists can sweep others up in their enthusiasm. Optimists are great idea-people, spinning out endless visions and potentials. Focus on the bright side can lead them to avoid pain or difficulty. Others may feel that Optimists cannot be counted on in times of crisis or even to address serious issues. Feeling trapped by limiting options can lead to difficulties with commitment to people or tasks. At their best, Optimists are fun-loving visionaries. At their worst they can be unfocused dilettantes.
8. The Straight-Shooter (also known as the Boss)
Worldview: The world is a jungle – only the strong survive.
Beliefs: “The truth comes out in a good fight. Life is to be lived passionately, lustily, with nothing held back. I protect my own.”
Straight-Shooters are decisive, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get people. They take charge and make decisions quickly. They are people of action, who inspire others by the sheer force of their will. Straight-Shooters are often protectors of the weak and promoters of justice. Ebullient, larger-than-life leaders, they give 150% in all their endeavors, but can be blunt, impulsive, and pushy. Decisions made quickly by gut instinct may not be adequately tempered with thought or feeling. At their best, they are decisive protectors. At their worst, they are steam-rolling controllers.
9. The Mediator
Worldview: Life is about harmony and going with the flow.
Beliefs: “Having one’s own agenda or preferences disrupts harmony, so it’s better to just go along with others. Nothing really matters that much anyway. Conflict is to be avoided at all costs.”
Mediators are the great receivers of the Enneagram: open and accepting of others without judgment. Able to sense others’ internal states, they are capable of merging into deep connections with people. Through this understanding comes an ability to see all sides of an issue and to act as peacemaker among warring factions. However, seeing all sides can make it difficult to prioritize or make decisions. The Mediator’s desire for peace can curtail healthy conflict and problem solving. Merging with others’ agendas makes it difficult for Mediators to know their own desires. At their best, Mediators are accepting peacemakers. At their worst, they are procrastinating fence-sitters.
Enneagram’s Mysterious Origins
Although the Enneagram symbol dates back to 2500 B.C., its exact origin remains somewhat uncertain. Pythagoreans and Neo-Platonists, Jewish mystics, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Sufi mystics are just a few of the groups who have been linked with the symbol’s discovery and teachings, most of which have been passed down through the ages – until very recently, somewhat secretly – by oral tradition.
Philosopher and spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1872-1949) is often referred to as the “pioneer of the Enneagram in the West,” and is responsible for the Enneagram diagram widely used today (learn more about him at www.gurdjieff.org). However, the initial public teachings of the Enneagram personality system are generally credited to Oscar Ichazo (b.1931), a South American philosopher and professor who lectured and wrote about the Enneagram during the 1960s and 1970s. The teaching of the Enneagram personality system spread to academic, spiritual and personal-growth communities in the United States about that time.
Particularly in the past decade, the Enneagram has seen a large resurgence of popular interest in both psychological and spiritual circles. It has ties to the Jewish Kabbala and Christianity’s seven deadly sins, and is seen by some as a precursor to the findings of more modern-day psychologists and behaviorists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Karen Horney.
The Enneagram system that we know today was largely developed and written about over the past 40 years by a handful of dedicated psychologists, academics and students of Ichazo, including Claudio Naranjo, M.D., a noted Chilean-born psychiatrist who in turn passed it on to a second and third generation students, several of whom (including Helen Palmer, Robert Ochs and Don Richard Riso) provided the foundation for most of the current writings and teachings on the topic.
Teachers of the Enneagram hasten to point out that its basis spiritual and psychological, not scientific. Most also suggest that individuals let their own intuition, skepticism and logic be their guide in employing those aspects of the Enneagram that they find meaningful, and disregarding the rest.
In his introduction to Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, Don Richard Riso articulates the sentiment this way: “In the last analysis, either the descriptions of the personality types in this book have ‘the ring of truth’ about them or they do not; either the Enneagram makes sense in your own experience or not.” It is, according to Riso, the “shock of recognition” that one experiences upon discovering ones own personality type that offers the “most important proof there is of the Enneagram’s accuracy.”
There are hundreds of books and Web sites covering the history, fundamental principles and applications of the Enneagram. If you are interested in learning more, visit www.enneagraminstitute.com. The site offers numerous articles, FAQs, links, a “Discover Your Type” online quiz, and a wide variety of other related materials.
The Essential Enneagram: The Definitive Personality Test and Self-Discovery Guide by David Daniels and Virginia Price
The Enneagram in Love & Work by Helen Palmer
The Everyday Enneagram by Lynette Sheppard
The Modern Enneagram: Discover Who You Are and Who You Can Be by Kacie Berghoef and Melanie Bell
Understanding the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso with Russ Hudson
This article has been updated. It was originally published online on March 2, 2002.