It’s finally time for me to write about the role of the Enneagram in my life and work. It’s strange that it feels like a moment of coming out, but it does. I’ve been studying the Enneagram—a pathway of compassion through greater self- and social awareness—for several years now, through The Narrative Enneagram. Though I’ve been lightly weaving the Enneagram in my coaching and consulting work along the way, I’m committing to this tool as a cornerstone of my future work, and I’d like to share why.
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Why the Enneagram?
Dutch writer Henri Nouwen identified “three human lies” we believe about our identity—what he referred to as our False Self:
I am what I do
I am what I have
I am what other people say or think about me.
In his book The Sacred Enneagram, author and “instigator for good“ Chris Heuertz says of Nouwen’s lies: “they fortify the mythology of our personality.” Heuertz adds that as he grew older, he felt driven, even haunted by a slightly different and perhaps heavier version: “all that I had failed to do, that I still wanted, and the negative things people thought and said about me.” (Heuertz 20-21)
If these patterns of thought sound familiar, you must be human.
Though each one of us travels a unique path, we share a common human pursuit to develop our character—and one way we do this is by investigating who we are beyond the three lies. Nouwen called this the pursuit of our True Self, and Heuertz says it this way:
“A mark of spiritual growth is when we stop polishing the mask and instead start working on our character.”
Of all these terms: personality, identity, ego, False Self…, “mask” makes a lot of sense to me. It’s a tangible thing I can feel. And it is hard to stop polishing the mask. I still find myself with a rag in hand regularly. But nothing has helped me (and so many others I know) make progress more than the Enneagram. I see it as the singularly most profound tool for developing one’s character I have yet encountered.
What is it?
The Enneagram is a symbol and map of nine types of human character structure (often referred to as personality types) whose roots date back at least as far as Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BCE). The word comes from the Greek, ennea (nine) and grammos (something drawn or written). The Enneagram has a long, multicultural, fascinating history, but widespread knowledge of it in the U.S. dates back only to the mid 1970s.
Though often referred to as “a personality test,” I dislike this term in reference to the Enneagram. My experience with personality tests is that they limit rather than liberate, help us explain or excuse instead of get curious. On the contrary, the orientation of the Enneagram is to help us see our (often unconscious) underlying motivations - why we think and act in certain patterned ways.
It’s part of the human condition to have blind spots - things we cannot see about ourselves, things we don’t know we don’t know. How we grew up informed which blind spots we developed. As humans, we are wired to avoid pain, so we figured out ways to “make it” through whatever was difficult in our childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Those “make it” strategies shaped what we pay attention to in the world and how we make sense of it. They are connected to what we learned about how to survive and thrive.
The Enneagram reveals these strategies, increases consciousness, and forges bonds of understanding across people when studied or discussed in groups. It reveals blind spots that turn into pathways to grow and develop. It helps us see patterns of thought and behavior and realize we have choices. This is the opposite of being boxed in or leaning on “It’s the way I’m wired” excuses.
To illuminate with a personal example…
In my formative years, I learned that success meant earning recognition through achievement. Achievement became my “make it” strategy through some difficult emotional times in our family. I learned to be the good girl with good news. It took me a very long time to discover I had a blind spot when it came to delving into my feelings (not just my doings), especially the less than positive ones. Only once I noticed my unconscious motivation to curate my successes could I begin to make different choices about my thoughts and behaviors. I started spending a lot more time slowing down to notice and explore; to let myself feel all of my emotions, even the hard ones; and to share my inner world with others.
Several years into this work now, I am honored to be at a place in my learning with the Enneagram where I am confident in sharing it with others through coaching, teaching, and consulting. I’m in the final stages of my certification process, and I’ll share specific offerings later this summer, including typing interviews to help introduce you to the system and type yourself. If this topic interests you, let me know!
When others around us are “doing their work,” no matter where they are on their path of development, it’s motivating and refreshing to everyone they touch. There’s more space to be vulnerable, to give and receive feedback, to openly help one another make the unconscious conscious, to help us be better versions of ourselves as humans and leaders. Collectively, we can build our character instead of polishing our masks. Who are we beyond what we do, what we have, what others think? Here’s to the delicious exploration.