I’ve been in the Enneagram arena for a really long time now…

I was introduced to the Enneagram in 1994 and started using it in my work as an executive coach and consultant in 1997. I presented at my first IEA conference in 2006 and have attended Enneagram conferences in more countries than I can remember. I served on the IEA board of directors for five years and as the Board’s president for two. And, I now realize that with this article I have officially gone from the fiery young(ish) guy with the heretical ideas about the subtypes and “Essence” to the cranky old(ish) guy complaining about how things ain’t like they used to be…

Or maybe my complaint is that things are exactly like they used to be…

Let me explain.

There seems to be a burgeoning interest in the Enneagram, which is a good thing. This is due, I believe, to the hard work of people who have been teaching the Enneagram all over the world for decades and to the accessibility to new voices and the ease of access to those voices provided by the internet. (Back in my day, I actually had to get on a plane—or at least drive a few hours—to hear an Enneagram guru share his or her ideas; kids today just need to watch a YouTube video…)*

Because there are more and more people talking about the Enneagram, I see more and more people talking about it in exactly the wrong way—gleefully identifying with our “number” rather than focusing on the Enneagram as simply a map for dis-identifying from our habitual patterns.

It happens to all of us—we are introduced to the Enneagram and immediately start to see ourselves as a “type”—that I, for example, am an “Eight” and you are, say, a “Nine” and Mary is a “One.” We become so enamored of this newfound identity (the ego loves to latch on to identifications!) that we can’t wait to tell the world “Hi, I am an Eight.” We can’t wait to tell other people what number they “are,” and we run around “Ennea-typing” dogs, cats and trees. We may even go so far as to buy a coffee mug, a t-shirt, or jewelry emblazoned with our Ennea-type number. This is natural, and forgivable for beginners to the system, and I did my share of it back in my day. It is the way humans (especially children) learn—we discover an exciting new toy, we obsess with it abuse it and wear it out until we learn a mature and measured way to appreciate it.

When working with the Enneagram, our goal should not be to tell the world what our type is, it should be to let the world see us mature into rounded, flexible, and (more-)free human beings. I should not be announcing to the world that I am an Eight (oops, did it again), I should be working to become less and less “Eight-ish.”

One of the reasons we can struggle with this transition from immature to mature use of the Enneagram because we are “Essentialists” by nature. We see objects as having some ontological, innate, unseen, and unchanging element, and we often assign some Essence to objects whether they have them or not. This, for example, is why Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is priceless but an exact replica is not, or why we would happily wear George Clooney’s sweater but not a mass killer’s. You can’t give me a rational explanation for either of these—it is just something we intuitively feel because of innate tendency to impute an essence to objects.

I’ve written about the problem with Essentialism elsewhere in great detail, so I won’t rehash the argument here. I will say, however, that seeing our Enneagram type as something we “are” is a problem, and anything we do to proudly display our Ennea-type renders us akin to a prisoner bragging about the beauty of the bars that keep us in our cage.

This is not to suggest we should feel shame about our fixations or awkwardly contort our syntax in order to avoid using the word “type.” When asked, I have no problem saying “I am a Type Eight.” Other constructions always just seem awkward and clunky to me. But we should be very clear that when we talk about a “Type Eight” we are talking about the things a person does, not what he or she is in any sort of ontological or metaphysical way.

We should take a cue from how biologists think about “species.” The term is misleading, but also a linguistic convenience made necessary by the limitations of language. There is no way other to communicate the concept, but it also gives the impression that something exists that doesn’t actually exists—some essential element that is the determinant of whether the individual organism being considered falls into a particular fixed category. Biologists know that such essential elements do not exist, and any talk of “species” is a reference to a group of individuals that are very similar to other individuals in a given population. Biologists know that there is no single identifiable biological line between a dog and a wolf, that some dogs are more wolf-like and some less and some wolves are more dog-like and some less, but also that it would be silly to act as if we could not say “Fido is a dog, but Lupo is a wolf.”

So, the problem, to me, is not identifying as a particular Ennea-type–it is doing so proudly, and through our actions reinforce our innate and problematic essentialist tendencies. The greatest sin, in my mind, is to see our Ennea-type as an ontological category depicting what we ARE rather than what we tend to DO. We can become more flexible in what we do; we can never become free from what we believe we are.

My approach to dealing with the essentialism trap is to focus on verbs when talking about the nine Ennea-types and three instinctual biases. I am a Navigating Eight, which means that I am someone who has an instinctual bias toward Navigating more than toward Preserving or Transmitting, and I habitually and maladaptively use the strategy located at point Eight of the Enneagram—striving to feel powerful—more than I similarly misuse the other eight strategies.

I should not use this knowledge as a badge of honor or embrace it as my identity. Rather, I should use it to remind myself to do the painstaking work of developing the self-awareness to realize when I am falling into these patterns in a way that causes me (or those around me) to suffer and to develop the flexibility to act in another way when necessary.

I frequently encounter people who can’t wait to tell me their Ennea-type, or even worse, who want me to guess their type—as if they are proudly acknowledging that they are so stuck in their fixation that I should be able to see it in the 90 seconds I have known them.

I always tell them that I don’t care, and that their Ennea-type, to me, is the least interesting thing about them. Tell me what is unique about you. Tell me what brings you joy and what brings you sorrow. Tell me how your heart has been broken or how you got that weird scar. Tell me a joke or just tell me to have a nice day. But, for the love of all that is sacred, please don’t tell me about the traits you share with precisely one out of every nine people of the planet.

There are two sayings from Zen Buddhism that are useful here.

The first is: “The first mistake is to believe that there is a self; the second is to believe that there is not.” In other words, it is a mistake to believe that there is an essential core “you” in there somewhere—a little homunculus working the levers and pulleys of your psyche. In reality, there are only sensations, arisings, fallings away. At the same time, we are deluding ourselves if we think we do not fall into observable conditioned patterns of thinking, feeling and doing that can be identified and consistently grouped by others. We can’t be put into fixed boxes, but we can be put into nine messy piles.

The second is: “Zen is like soap”—we should use it when we are dirty and then rinse it off. We should not go around all day covered in Zen any more than we should walk around all day lathered in soap to proudly announce to the world that we took a shower that morning.

The same should apply doubly about our Ennea-type: We should see it as a fact that we fall into habitual patterns of behavior—thinking, feeling, and doing—without thinking that these patterns define our “essence” in some way. We should use the knowledge of what these specific patterns look like for us to help loosen the bonds of those patterns.

But if I walk around telling everyone “I am an Eight” while wearing a t-shirt with a big “8” on it and wearing a “Type 8” bracelet while drinking out of a “Type Eight” coffee mug, I look as silly as someone walking around covered in soap suds and whistling the theme of an Irish Spring commercial.

*By the way, you can find my videos at www.EnneagramVideos.com

Mario Sikora is an executive coach and consultant. Find more at www.mariosikora.com.