Why Study the Enneagram?

At first glance, the Enneagram seems to be just another system for pigeon-holing people. But look twice and you see it’s describing something central: your core strategy for making sense of reality, your basic life stance, the axis of your flat earth. As you investigate the system and compare its insights with your own experience, you may be amazed at its depth and accuracy. 

When people initially identify their Enneagram style, they often feel stunned that the core of their psyche has been so vividly exposed. Sometimes in life there are moments of creative breakthrough – what are called “Ah Ha!” experiences – when you suddenly see the familiar in a new way. The typical early encounter with the Enneagram is more like an “Oh, my God!” experience, a mixture of enthusiasm and horror.

  Like motel room lighting, the system seems to first highlight our less attractive features. The Enneagram is uncomfortably specific about stories we tell ourselves, masks we wear for others, excuses we have for not getting what we want. It shows us how we trap ourselves with habitual responses, overlook our blind spots and actively defend our illusions and vanities. We have expectations, we make assumptions; we’re certain of the world that we have in our head. But, sometimes we get things all wrong.

While not for the fainthearted, the usefulness of these insights quickly emerges. As you learn about your Enneagram style, you can see clearly why you think and act the way you do. You’ll uncover deep beliefs that have colored your perceptions and formerly baffling aspects of your behavior will suddenly make sense. Right away, the Enneagram will help you stand back and observe yourself dispassionately, to take your own behavior less personally, to get out of your own way.

You may see how your everyday actions are guided by a central pattern, like a thought you think all day long. Your Enneagram pattern is composed of habitual feelings, beliefs, attitudes, personal myths and memories, old-but-familiar self-images and, behind it all, an unconscious map of “the world.” To some degree, this pattern acts like a shadow government, unconsciously driving your behavior, sometimes usefully, sometimes in ways that confound your best intentions. 

Getting to know this pattern in detail is an important step towards making meaningful change. Learning about your personality style can help you loosen rigid stances, shed old defenses and create new patterns of thought, feeling and action. The Enneagram offers a dynamic framework in which to understand your behavior, especially enabling you to identify any stuck points, vulnerabilities or psychic knots that you tied early in childhood.     

The Enneagram will also reveal your higher capacities, the talents and aptitudes natural to your style, the resources that are present when you are happiest or at your best. Some of these you may already be conscious of, while others might surprise you; the Enneagram can work like a treasure map, offering many clues and directions about where to find your gold.

Socially the Enneagram has dozens of positive uses, from understanding relationships to improving communication to handling difficult people. The same depth of insight that you apply to yourself will reveal the central patterns of people close to you: your mother, father, spouse, children, colleagues, and friends. The system will help you understand current and past relationships and make it easier to avoid conflicts at work as well as at home. It will also clarify a lifetime of intuitions and lessons you’ve learned about human nature and explain why you’re at ease with some people and have trouble with others.

It’s sometimes shocking to realize how sincerely different our maps of reality are. When two people do or say the same thing, it’s not the same thing at all. If you have friends from other cultures, you may, on one level, be quite conscious of how different their culture is from your own. On another level, you and your friends understand each other in a deeper way that bypasses your cultural differences.

The gulf between cultures, like the gulf between Enneagram styles, points to what might be called “the paradox of true difference.” In daily life you are connected to the people that you know and love, and yet there are fundamental differences in your worldviews. The Enneagram shows you these differences clearly, but how you choose to react to them is crucial. It’s possible to use a knowledge of personality styles in a bigoted way, to simply reinforce your biases. But, if you accept that personality differences are genuine and involuntary then you can usefully anticipate the way they will arise in your relationships; you can “budget” for how they might crop up, rather than being surprised or offended by them. The more we accept each other’s differences, the less they matter.

With the Enneagram’s depth and accuracy you can change places with other personality styles and compare your inner outlook with people from other “nationalities.” When you understand what motivates the behavior of someone with another personality style, their actions and behavior will seem less foreign or hostile – more understandable in basic human terms. Learning the Enneagram can enhance your capacity to forgive or, at least, help you better comprehend what you can’t forgive.

Once while sitting at an outdoor cafe on a beach overlooking a quiet, placid bay, I looked up from my breakfast to see a large gray whale break the water’s surface, breathe and then disappear. Astonished, I looked around at the cafe’s twenty or so diners and realized that no one else had seen the whale. If I hadn’t looked up from eating I wouldn’t have seen it either. The whale, however, would still have been there.

Evidence of personality styles surfaces all the time, passing us on the street, in the workplace and at home. Whether we realize it or not, psychology rules the human-made world, and as you learn about the Enneagram you’ll see a deeper hidden logic to private and public events.

When I was in college, it was often said that psychology majors were only interested in the subject because they were “trying to solve their own problems.” The idea was that people without problems would study something completely unrelated to their psychological makeup. But no human creation or enterprise has an objective existence. Our interests, intellectual and political opinions, career choices, whom we marry and befriend, are all influenced by our personal psychology in both obvious and subtle ways. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is a confession of character.”

We intuitively know that ego plays a role in what people do, invisibly shading objective events. The Enneagram will give you a “secret decoder” of human behavior, an extra dimension of insight that will even help you make sense of the evening news.

Copyright 2020 by Tom Condon