Meet the Enneagram — the Hardest and Best Test You’ll Ever Take

I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and in the perfect space to take a “typing” test that changed my life.

I first heard about the Enneagram from my friend Alison Adam while puttering about the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. Somehow we managed to get from whaling vessels to personality types.

“Oh, aye, ye should look into it,” Alison advised. Alison is a member of the Iona Community — they of the Celtic Christian spirituality combined with justice initiatives and innovative, folk-inflected worship. She is one of the wisest, most spiritually mature people I know.

So that night, my husband, Ron, and I googled “Enneagram” and landed immediately at the Enneagram Institute website. We took the free online test and started reading about the nine types, and it became instantly clear that he was a Seven and I was a Three. Huh.

Next, Ron decided to read about couples. What were Seven/Three couples like? That’s when we got that skin-crawly feeling, as if someone had been observing us with hidden cameras:

To this mix, Threes bring sensitivity to people and how to communicate with them, a sense of propriety, appropriateness, and social conventions, as well as the ability to focus on goals and get them accomplished. Sevens bring a sense of fun and adventure, resilience, and not being overly concerned with failure. Sevens can be spontaneous in ways that are helpful to more self-conscious Threes.

And then this:

Potential Trouble Spots or Issues

This is also an extremely volatile couple: there is almost too much electricity under one roof.

Yikes! How do they know all about us?!

At that point, we ordered the book.

***

Eliciting that thrilling/eerie moment of recognition is the first requirement for any decent personality typing system. Years before, Ron and I had each taken the Myers-Briggs test on a couple of occasions, and discovered that I am an INTJ and he is an ENFJ, or maybe an ENFP, or maybe on some days an ENTJ. Like just about everyone else in the 1980s who took the Myers-Briggs for work or school, we experienced the two obvious-in-retrospect epiphanies that personality type systems deliver: “I’m not alone” and “Some people are very different from me.”

Helpful as far as it goes. But as we started to learn about the Enneagram, we realized that this system promised a deeper challenge.

The book referred to above is The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, which many people consider the standard text. Before long, we had also ordered The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels and Virginia Price, and eventually we discovered The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Fr. Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert.

Putting these resources together, we learned that the Enneagram — the word simply means “nine-figure” — is a

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

modern development derived from ancient sources (as far back as Pythagoras) that are culturally and religiously diverse — though remarkably consonant. The Christian desert fathers in particular developed a similar typing system for guiding spiritual work among their adherents. Sufi mystics seem to have had their own version. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, modern proponents of the Enneagram blended in concepts and terms from the field of psychology, while Don Richard Riso is credited with translating the Enneagram into a contemporary idiom and popularizing it among spiritual seekers of all kinds.

As I read further about the Three type, I marveled at how exactly I fit the profile of “The Achiever.” Threes are driven by fear of failure and the need to prove their worth through achievement. So they get really good at success. And thus they are prone to workaholism, vanity, and anxiety. Even to deceit, if that’s what it takes to maintain their image. When feeling secure, they are great team players, upbeat, totally competent, creative, efficient, and hard working. When stressed, they collapse into a blob of helpless jelly.

Yup, that was me. Exactly.

But come on: isn’t all this true of everyone? Actually, no, not precisely. Each Enneagram type experiences a somewhat different primary fear and desire. Each type has different challenges on the path toward growth. My Seven husband, for example, matches “The Enthusiast.” His tendency is to move on when things get hard, avoid facing loss and grief, and focus on fun and the cool new project. His basic fear is pain. Well, everyone fears pain, right? Not really. Threes don’t. Pain is what it takes to achieve, baby. Bring it on!

After the initial amazing-recognition stage, we entered the fun stage. Some Enneagram books helpfully list celebrities under each type. Emma Thompson: One (“The Reformer”). Abraham Lincoln: Nine (“The Peacemaker”). Richard Rohr offers examples of Bible characters for each type. Turns out the Virgin Mary is a Five (“The Investigator”). And guess what? Jesus is all nine types rolled into one! Or how about fictional characters? Harry Potter: Six (“The Loyalist”). Hamlet: definitely a Four (“The Individualist”).

As with any typing system, a little knowledge makes one dangerous. The whole thing can devolve into an entertaining but useless parlor game. You can figure out your “instinctual subtype” and which “wing” leans you toward one or another neighboring type. You can note the type you go to when you’re stressed and the type you go to when you’re secure. But if self-anatomizing is as far as you go, you’ve missed the point. The point is to change.

Gaining awareness of your type is only the first step to discovering your particular blind spots and unhealthy coping patterns — and then finding your path toward growth. There are nine paths to wholeness — and nine paths to madness. If you are in an unhealthy state, your basic fear and desire will drive you unconsciously, and you will be susceptible to your besetting vice or passion. As a result, each type has a different task, a different challenge, a “holy idea” to strive for. The trick is to become aware of your basic fear and desire (and temptation), and then start walking your path in the right direction.

That’s why, since discovering it ten years ago, the Enneagram has transformed my spiritual life.

***

It probably helps that it hit me, so to speak, at a low point, when I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was an Achiever in burnout mode. I remained “strong in my faith,” as we say, with plenty of prayer and worship and Bible reading, but it all felt like treading water.

The Enneagram has . . . translated the standard Christian phrases and metaphors into specific things for me to pray, say, and do.

I believe it was through the Enneagram that God, at this low point, led me to perceive the fundamental spiritual challenge I was at last wrecked-up enough to face. I had to admit my need to achieve and the fear that drives it — failure — and then delve beneath that to the deeper issue: a “works righteousness” at complete odds with my actual theology of grace and God’s unconditional love.

While I profess this theological truth all the time, I don’t truly believe it. That’s why I’m so doggone dutiful in every way. In religious practice, in relationships, at work. I’m convinced I have to earn every inch of approval I get from other people and from God. Success becomes an inescapable treadmill and, at heart, a failure of faith. Behold, there it is: the trailhead of my path toward growth.

I shifted into the present tense because, ten years later, I still struggle with that bedrock issue. Of course there’s much more to my midlife spiritual journey than what I’ve described here. But I will say at least this: it’s hard. The Enneagram, if you take it seriously, requires brutally honest self-awareness — which is difficult and painful — and change — which hurts and takes time. If this sounds a lot like repentance and conversion, that’s because it is repentance and conversion.

For lifelong Christians like me, it’s not always easy to understand what conversion is. What does it mean to “work out your own salvation” or “deny yourself and take up your cross”? What does it mean when Jesus says “follow me” or “abide in me”? It’s easy to imagine that these imperatives entail a set of moral do’s and don’ts and a life of Christian service. They do. But the call to salvation is at heart a call to inner transformation: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But…how?

The Enneagram has been a useful tool for me because it has translated the standard Christian phrases and metaphors into specific things for me to pray, say, and do. It has taught me that the pilgrim journey is not a one-size-fits-all deal, and thus has helped me be more patient with other people, whose outward behaviors seem less bizarre or aggravating when I imagine they might be struggling to battle their own besetting fears and passions. And for this Three, with my tendency to turn everything into a project at which I can succeed or fail, the Enneagram has given me “work to do” that essentially amounts, counter-intuitively, to “let God do it.” God is already doing work in me. My awareness simply makes me more pliable to that divine action.

***

Apparently the Enneagram’s increasing use among Catholic spiritual directors has led the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to caution against it. They are concerned, basically, that the Enneagram smells New Age-y, Gnostic, narcissistic, and self-helpish. I understand this fear, but I don’t share it. In its contemporary non-religious iterations, the Enneagram does use modern psychological terms like “self-actualization” and “essence” but these are easily translated back into the Christian ideas with which they correspond: “redemption” and “the image of God,” for example. To me, the Enneagram’s ancient, cross-cultural roots and current cross-cultural popularity simply point to its resonance with something genuinely universal.

At the heart of every great religion’s mystical traditions is a dynamic of self-denial that paradoxically allows an authentic self to emerge — a self that is authentic insofar as it communes with the Divine. This is the essential human task, in all times and places. Naturally, I believe that my own Christian terms are the best way to describe this dynamic — sin, repentance, conversion, redemption, salvation, being conformed to the image of Christ — but if people are invited into this process with other terms, well, hey, then they’re just that much closer to getting it “right.” Anyway, who wouldn’t want more people striding purposefully away from their path to madness?

Enneagram teachers warn that it’s not for everyone. Do not try this at home, they say. They want you to come to a workshop. I’m too cheap to pay for spiritual direction or a workshop, so I have learned from reading and from discussions with pastors I know who work with the Enneagram, and that’s given me plenty to chew on. (Besides, what would workshop leaders think of me? Would they like me and be impressed with me?) I don’t think about it every day, but over the years, I do believe that even my do-it-yourself approach with the Enneagram — I mean my “let God do it” approach — has yielded some life-changing insights and perhaps some initial results. It has helped me slowly and deliberately live the mysterious truth that “for those who are in Christ, the old has passed away. The new has come.”

Image via Jim Pennucci.

Debra Rienstra
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  • http://about.me/vvanspengen/ Valerie Van S

    Well that was wonderful – I found the Enneagram less than a year ago and it has changed my life! Thanks so much for sharing your heart on this. I will be sharing it around. I am a “2″ so just being helpful!

  • http://midwestministry.org/ Chris

    Thank you for sharing. I found it very helpful myself when I discovered as I joined the Staff at Midwest Ministry 14 years ago. We use it regularly with candidates for ministry and vocational ministers and many find it very helpful in understanding their motivations and strivings in life. It is also a good way to look at how to focus on the positives of our personality style and how we can work more effectively with others. Many ministry staffs or teams have looked at how they can be more productive in collaborating and complementing one another’s style. It can be very helpful to have a professional process this with you so that it does not become a competition and people are not tempted to use what they know about one another in an abusive manner. In good SEVEN fashion – Wishing you all a day full of celebration and exciting opportunities and adventures!!!!