Today, the Enneagram is a global phenomenon. But 20 years ago when I discovered it, the Enneagram was, to put it mildly, obscure.
Despite my reservations, I was captivated. Never had I found a system that described me and how I experienced other humans more accurately and distinctly.
Now, as a certified practitioner and business owner with more than 50 Enneagram-fueled team trainings under my belt, I feel it’s time to address where our current understanding of the Enneagram is falling short.
I’m not saying that the Enneagream is failing us (far from it), but I do believe that we are consistently failing to understand the Enneagram.
There’s a lot about the Enneagram on the Internet, and a lot of overnight experts who mean well. However, more often than not, I see people using the Enneagram to justify their desire to stay the same. “I am a 7!” they say. “You must value me and treat me like a 7 should be treated!”
This is selling the Enneagram short. It’s an incredibly powerful and transformative tool that gives us a roadmap for growth, but instead there’s a tendency to use it as a way to stare at ourselves and feel good about it. A pint of ice cream for the soul.
This phenomenon is so common among my clients that I’ve started calling it “Nine Number Naval Gazing” — in other words, our instinctual desire for the Enneagram to tell us why we’re great and perfect just the way we are, and to leave out the part where we need to grow.
Before you think me overly critical, I will admit to being the Navel Gazer in Chief. For 15 years, I thought the Enneagram was a way to feel better about where I was and who I was. When I was around others who knew the Enneagram, we would start off with “What type are you?” as if our number was all the other person needed to know. And if I were ever criticized for a lack of empathy or a failure to work well with others, I would confidently justify my own actions by saying, “Well this is just who I am. Do you know the Enneagram?”
Identifying our motivational drive (or Enneagram style) is a tremendous accomplishment. But learning about our Enneagram type is just a stop on our journey.. What if?
Knowing your Enneagram number is Basecamp. It has a phenomenal view and is a great place to sit down and rest for a while, but we can’t just stay there. We have more mountains to climb and places to see.
I believe the next transformative moment in your life will not come from increased knowledge of your Enneagram type, but rather from exploring all Three Centers of Intelligence. The true power of the Enneagram is not the types it describes, but rather the map it provides–a map that shows us the path to being more fully human, more fully ourselves.
The three Centers of Intelligence are perhaps the most underrepresented part of the Enneagram. It only gets a few pages of attention in most Enneagram books despite being the most consistently transformative part of the framework.
And it is not new. The Three Centers of Intelligence are an ancient idea passed down from eastern philosophers such as George Gurdjieff.
It’s a pretty simple idea:
We all have Three Centers of Intelligence: a head center for thinking and perceiving, a heart center for emoting and intuitively relating to others, and a gut center for sensing an instinctive inner knowing in our bodies (hence the term, trust your gut).
You can also think of them like this:
Head Center = IQ or Intellectual Intelligence
Heart Center = EQ or Emotional Intelligence
Gut Center = SQ or Somatic Intelligence
It’s likely that your ego automatically engages with one of these centers when experiencing the world around you. You may be head-first, heart-first or gut-first. If you’re anything like me, you overutilize one of your centers and underutilize the other two.
My natural state is to over-rely on my head center: the stories I tell myself and the patterns of rational and irrational thought that define my inner world.
Never was this more clear than in 2014, when I suddenly found myself with a lot of things to think about. 2014 was the year I was diagnosed with cancer.
I was already in my head most of the time, and the feedback loops set off by a life-changing diagnosis were my everyday battle–even more than the debilitating effects of the cancer treatment itself. My head overrode everything. My relationships suffered (a failing of the heart), and I no longer trusted my body or my own instincts (my gut having been shut out of the decision-making process entirely).
I found solace in the Enneagram, and in the ancient theory of the three Centers, and I started to realize there was more to me than I had previously known.
I began to see my Three Centers as an internal board of directors I could call upon. I had given my head center more control and power over the other parts of me, but somehow I instinctively knew I needed to learn how to access these other sources of intelligence in order to survive cancer. I had to learn to catch myself if I was giving too much power to my thinking center, and pause and ask my heart center and gut center to weigh in.
For instance, my first thought as I was facing so many options for cancer treatments was to research the heck out of different potential solutions. This was natural for me, because I had spent a chunk of my career up to that point as a qualitative researcher. It just came naturally, and it felt good to pursue more knowledge.
However, the doctors made it clear that I had a rare and aggressive cancer, which meant I needed to start a treatment plan right away. Like, the very next week.
There was no time to investigate, to validate or to question. In the end, this may have been my saving grace. I didn’t have the time to risk getting stuck in a state of analysis paralysis. I decided that this was not about acquiring more knowledge, but about wisdom. It was about relationships. It was about trust.
My head had been my driving force for years and I knew it was endangering the entire system and threatening a total breakdown. So instead, I tried a new approach. I acknowledged my thoughts, fears, anxieties and stories (the hallmarks of the head center). I thanked them for their contributions and then turned to my heart and gut center to weigh in.
I survived cancer physically because of the work of skilled physicians. I survived emotionally and spiritually because I’m learning to take notice when my head center is trying to hijack the moment, and instead lean into the intelligence of my heart (relationships, connection, empathy) and my gut (instinct, trust, body awareness).
Integrating the Centers
Why is this important? Having ever-changing thoughts (head center), emotions (heart center) and sensations, and instincts (gut center) is part of being human and they are always in motion. If we are not intentional and aware, these ever-changing thoughts, emotions, and sensations can form their own narratives and drive us into greater conflict with ourselves and with others.
Even though our centers are diverse, they work together powerfully as an effective team.
We just have to learn how.
Since 2014, I’ve dedicated my career to teaching people how to strengthen and activate their Three Centers. I do this by helping people learn to hear the “native languages” of each of the centers, and to practice relying on their non-dominant centers. Through this training, my corporate clients become better able to bring the right energy (the right intelligence) to each situation they face, rather than trying to solve every problem with the same tools.
I call this process Integrative Intelligence™, and I believe it’s the key to becoming more effective, more powerful and more human.
“Why be only one-third of a person?”
The risk of not integrating our centers is to approach life with only one-third of our capabilities and continue to get stuck falling into our habitual patterns. As the Enneagram teacher, author (and my friend) Russ Hudson says, “Why by only one-third of a person?”
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who was grappling with his current job. After we had spoken for some time, I asked, “What does your head center say about the issue?” He said, “It says to start doing research on other companies.”
“What does your heart say?”
He said, “Continue to grow my relationships and spheres of influence inside and outside of the company.”
“And what does your gut say?”
With no hesitation, he said, “There is no clear career path for me here.”
My last question was, “How might you identify a strategy that honors all three?” He decided to devote time each week to investigating other companies while also setting up meetings with people he trusted, as well as key influencers inside and outside of his organization.
This is just one example of hundreds. Engaging your Three Centers is the key to bringing your whole self to the challenges you face, and moving through life with grace, power, and purpose.
And we have a lot to learn from neuroscience on this matter. Thinking about what we know about the prefrontal cortex (thinking center) regulates our thoughts, idea organizing, and concepts, our emotions reside in the limbic system (emotional center) and our reptilian brain (instinctual center) which regulates body function and fight, flight, freeze responses. How might we bring all three online to approach challenges and solve problems? This warrants an entirely separate article!
I’ll leave you with something I wrote a few years ago, from 9 Lessons Learned from cancer. This part seems especially relevant:
There is power in connection. Power is more effective when two or more come together. Something magical happens that doesn’t seem possible with just one. We have come to make power mean something very different. We use it in a way that means more about having control over others or over situations instead of “power with.”
One of my favorite examples of power comes from a cartoon I used to watch as a child, The Super Friends. The Wonder Twins were a brother-sister duo and could become something that seemed impossible when they touched their fists and connected to one another. They would hit fists and say, “Wonder Twin Powers Activate!” They would follow with “Form of… an ice crystal” or an animal that would inevitably get them out of the sticky situation they were in and move toward saving the world.
There is power when we connect. Imagine what might be possible and how we could change the world by bringing together these parts of ourselves…and bumping fists.
Questions for reflection:
Can you notice today which center you are more familiar with?
Which centers do you not know as well?
How might you engage with all three and give them a promotion in status and influence to your internal board of directors?
*This content was shared at the 2019 International Enneagram Conference in Cape Town, South Africa