Welcome to the Enneagram: A Tool for Transformation
As an employee for 14 years at a Christian non-profit that values spiritual growth, I’ve had the benefit of training, seminars, and assessments to learn more about myself. I know my Myers-Briggs. I’ve done StrengthsFinder and SIMA. I’ve learned about my Emotional Intelligence. All of them have been useful in growing my self-awareness, certainly, but also in growing me spiritually, relationally, and professionally. By far, however, the most useful tool I’ve encountered for growth is the Enneagram.
What Is the Enneagram?
At first glance, the Enneagram might look like another “personality test,” and personality factors significantly into it. But it goes much deeper than that. It helps us see core fears, motivations, desires, strengths, blind spots, stressors, and sins that most often trip us up. When used in Christian contexts, it shows us aspects of God’s character and connects us more closely to the truth that we are made in his image and meant to reflect him in the world.
As you can see from the symbol, the Enneagram contains nine spaces or types, with each number representing a dominant personality and mindset. Each space also has a primary strength or gift that reflects an attribute of God and a primary struggle that emerges in insecurity or unhealth.
Sometimes the language of “true self” and “false self” is used for the gifts and blind spots of each type, with the true self representing who we are when we are self-aware, healthy, rooted in our identity in Christ, and living from a place of freedom in being fully who he created us to be. The false self comes out when we try to prove our worth by exploiting our gifts—using them in ways other than they are meant to be used—or taking control of people and situations instead of finding our security in the truth of God’s unconditional love for us. The Enneagram thus gives us a picture of the really valuable gifts we have to offer each other when we are living as our true self, healthy and whole, as well as makes us aware of the unhealthy places and habits we are prone to depending on when we’re stressed or afraid.
All of us fit into one of the nine spaces, though it often takes time to discern which one is our dominant number, and we may have characteristics of several numbers. And of course every person is also unique and thus will experience their number and the world a bit differently. In addition to the individual types, numbers have connections to each other. One of those connections is the triads of the Enneagram. The nine spaces create three triads that also have distinct characteristics, with Eight, Nine, and One forming what’s often called “The Gut Triad,” Two, Three, and Four forming “The Heart Triad,” and Five, Six, and Seven forming “The Head Triad.” You can guess from the names what each triad tends toward, but this helpful chart from Alice Fryling’s Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram will give you a closer look.
How Do I Figure Out Which Number I Am?
Some of you may already know your number, or may immediately be able to identify yourself when you read a bit more about each space. But part of the distinctiveness of the Enneagram is that it is meant to be discerned over time through prayer, conversation with others who know us, reading, and attention.
Tests do exist that might help you figure out what number you are, but if you don’t already know your blind spots, you may not be able to provide very accurate answers to the questions, and thus the results can be misleading. Again, it’s much better to pay attention to what parts of what types seem to resonate most in the way you see the world and live out your days. Good friends and family members can be invaluable helps in this process, reflecting back to you what they see when they think about what motivates you, what you react to, what you struggle with, and what gifts you bring to relationships and situations.
Fryling suggests even just looking at the triads as a starting point, to narrow down the possibilities. One overall triad often resonates more than the other two. You may have already seen yourself clearly in one of the columns above, so the three numbers in that triad may be where you want to start your learning.
A Few Words of Caution
First, it’s true—a cursory glance at the Enneagram could make it seem like one more narcissistic tool that gives us permission to naval-gaze. On the other end of the spectrum, it could lead us to a place of despair or paralysis as we see our blind spots—and the ways those blind spots hurt others and keep us from God’s love—exposed and called out (especially, ahem, if you are a One and prone toward perfectionism). It is not uncommon for people to wish they were a different type as they begin to discover the many ways the false self comes out in their daily life.
But the Enneagram is meant to be a tool that frees us from the false self and opens us up more deeply to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. And, from there, it becomes a tool that allows us to love others more effectively, with more compassion, understanding, and intention. Fryling writes, “Our blind spots are powerful deterrents to our spiritual growth. To the extent that we remain unaware of what is motivating us, we are not free. . . . If I am hiding behind a blind spot, I am unconsciously trying to keep God, others, and myself from the love that God offers. Knowledge of the Enneagram has led me into a self-awareness that has drawn me closer to the heart of God.”
Doesn’t that sound helpful??? Like any tool used for change, action is required; knowledge about ourselves is not enough. The Enneagram leads to deep soul work. But, in highlighting our false-self tendencies and blind spots, it gives us direction for our action and provides invitations that lead to growth and freedom.
Second, the point of the Enneagram is never to stereotype others or judge them. Each person is unique and thus will live out of their space in different ways than others of the same number. And we are all in process, struggling to move toward health. Knowing someone’s number as they are willing to share it with us tells us some things about them, but we still always have to get to know them without making assumptions, and see them as an individual who, like us, is constantly moving back and forth between their false self and true self throughout any given day, and thus needs grace. The Enneagram, when used as intended, helps us have compassion for others and love them better as we learn to own the (sometimes ugly) truth it reveals about our own hearts and receive Christ’s compassion for our struggle as well as his transformation. No one has mastered their number (nor can we), and we are all, always, in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing.
Third, the Enneagram is not a one-stop-shop or a quick-fix tool (read: Learn to deal with your anger in just TWO WEEKS or your money back!). It’s not magical or mystical. It is, as I’ve said, simply a tool for growth, developed by ancient and contemporary wisdom, that, like other discipleship resources, can lead to deep insights about ourselves, our relationships, and God by opening our hearts in new ways to the Spirit’s work of moving us from the “old self” to the “new self” Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians. The framework helps us see ourselves as we are and as we could be if we allow God to continually renew us and form us into people who are healthy and whole, and who reflect their Maker in glorious ways.
Over the next nine weeks at the blog, representatives of each number will write a post on their space, giving some of the general characteristics, gifts, struggles, and opportunities for growth. The triads will guide the order of our series, so we’ll start with posts on Eights, Nines, and Ones, and then move on to the Heart Triad. Keep in mind, however, that this series is a very light look at the Enneagram—not even the tip of the iceberg, but perhaps an ice chip resting on the tip of the iceberg! Think of it as a chance to try one bite of nine different ethnic cuisines—say, a dish that represents the flavor of that cuisine overall—so that you get the tiniest introduction to the textures and flavors of each, and can decide which one(s) you want to try more of. There are so many layers to the Enneagram and so many resources to take you deeper; we’ll be suggesting several here for you to start in on. One in particular that I have found helpful is the aforementioned Mirror for the Soul by Alice Fryling. A spiritual director and longtime studier and teacher of the Enneagram, Alice is a wise, gentle guide in helping us see the potential the Enneagram holds for transformation.
And that really is the point of the Enneagram: transformation. It has been an invaluable tool for me, helping me find freedom from anoriexia in my twenties, healing in broken relationships, and understanding and perspective in seasons of grief, in addition to making me a better sister, daughter, coworker, friend, and disciple of Jesus.
Whether you have never heard of the Enneagram or use it daily in your work, in parenting and marriage, or in relationships with family and friends, I invite you to join us at the blog over the next nine weeks as writers give a glimpse of the ways they experience life in their space. Since we all live out our types a bit differently, hearing others reflect on their lives can lead us to deeper insight about ourselves and our communities. How could our current (often divisive) cultural climate—including conversations on social media!—shift if we were all a bit more aware of our blind spots and our need for God’s grace, as well as a bit more aware of the gifts we can offer others? Let’s find out together.
Spiritual director (and former InterVarsity staff member) Alice Fryling introduces the Enneagram with questions and meditations to lead you into deeper self-awareness. You'll learn how you can experience God's love more abundantly and extend God's grace to others more fully.