Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom,” and Miguel de Cervantes said, “Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.”
Interpersonal therapy is, of course, one way of getting to know yourself and your triggers. Personal retreats are another—whether they involve an outdoor adventure like those of Outward Bound, or a more meditative experience with a spiritual director. And there are personality models—like the Myers-Briggs personality test and the Enneagram.
While I have taken the Myers-Briggs a few times to help direct me in career choices, I have never used a personality test for personal or spiritual transformation: to identify unhealthy patterns of behavior, to learn how my childhood baggage interferes with certain relationships, and to recognize certain vulnerabilities of my personality.
Then I read The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile and feel as though someone was eerily describing me and trying to help me better balance my strengths and weaknesses. I also guessed what numbers my husband, sisters, and close friends were. After reading their personality descriptions, I better understood why they react in certain ways to various events, which was immensely helpful.
What Is the Enneagram?
The Enneagram is a model of human personality that involves nine interconnected personality types. Each personality, or number, is represented by a point of a geometric figure (called an enneagram) that indicates some of the connections between the types.
Each type touches two points (or personality numbers) on either side, as well as two others indicated by arrows pointing to or from each number. The numbers on either side of your type are “wing numbers.” You may learn towards one of these numbers and pick up some of the personality’s traits. The “stress number” is the number that you move toward when you’re unbalanced or stressed; the “security number” is the number you move toward when you’re in a good place.
It all seems a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite fascinating once you understand how the relationships with other numbers “specialize” your type and once you recognize your personality traits in the descriptions.
The Nine Types
Here are the nine personality types as described by Cron and Stabile:
Type One: The Perfectionist. Ethical, dedicated and reliable, they are motivated by a desire to live the right way, improve the world, and avoid fault and blame.
Type Two: The Helper. Warm, caring and giving, they are motivated by a need to be loved and needed, and to avoid acknowledging their own needs.
Type Three: The Performer. Success-oriented, image-conscious and wired for productivity, they are motivated by a need to be (or appear to be) successful and to avoid failure.
Type Four: The Romantic. Creative, sensitive and moody, they are motivated by a need to be understood, experience their feelings and avoid being ordinary.
Type Five: The Investigator. Analytical, detached and private, they are motivated by a need to gain knowledge, conserve energy and avoid relying on others.
Type Six: The Loyalist. Committed, practical and witty, they are worst-case scenario thinkers who are motivated by fear and the need for security.
Type Seven: The Enthusiast. Fun, spontaneous and adventurous, they are motivated by a need to be happy, to plan stimulating experiences and to avoid pain.
Type Eight: The Challenger. Commanding, intense and confrontational, they are motivated by a need to be strong and avoid feeling weak or vulnerable.
Type Nine: The Peacemaker. Pleasant, laid back and accommodating, they are motivated by a need to keep the peace, merge with others and avoid conflict.
Each Type Has a Deadly Sin
What I found most helpful in reading about my personality type and the types of friends and family members is identifying what Cron and Stabile call each type’s deadly sin. For example, As a Two, I’m inclined to think that always helping people is a positive thing. However, my deadly sin is pride—I think I know what’s best for others and that I’m indispensable. I also avoid meeting my own needs, not necessarily for a selfless reason, but because I don’t always know how to address them or it’s too painful to go there. Instead I lose myself in helping others.
A friend of mine is a Six. She is extraordinarily practical and wise. However, her deadly sin is fear. She often imagines worst-case scenarios and is always striving for the kind of security that life doesn’t simply doesn’t offer.
Your Type in Childhood and Relationships
In addition to describing your type’s limitations or dark side, the authors discuss each type in childhood—where some of these personality traits were formed. They motivate us to move beyond childhood behaviors. For example, I think part of my need to rescue people developed when I was a young girl because my mom was going through a very painful divorce, and I was there to comfort her and listen to her. However, I’m not locked in that role should I decide that nursing someone back to emotional health isn’t good for me.
The authors also describe your type in relationships and at work. It’s helpful to be aware of certain motivations that lurk somewhere in our subconscious, or of destructive patterns that might get in the way of a healthy marriage or another relationship. While reading the work section, I realized that I need more people contact during the day—maybe even just working out of a coffee shop. Community is important to Twos, and working from home is probably more difficult for me than the other types.
Using the Enneagram to Become a Better Person
Finally, Cron and Stabile offer pointers for spiritual transformation for each type. They include a quote from Flannery O’Connor, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better,” to prod you to take your self-knowledge and use it to evolve.
“The purpose of the Enneagram,” they write, “is to show us how we can release the paralyzing arthritic grip we’ve kept on old, self-defeating ways of living so we can open ourselves to experiencing more interior freedom and become our best selves.”
I’m not sure if I’ll be my best self tomorrow, but familiarizing myself with the Enneagram was a helpful exercise in self-knowledge, and perhaps, as Aristotle said, the beginning of more wisdom.
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