How The Enneagram Can Help You Understand Your Personality

April 9, 2018

Hey baby, what’s your number? Meet your new personality test obsession.

I’ve been fascinated with personality tests for as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, I found a beat-up old paperback book on my parents’ bookshelf called The Lüscher Color Test. Advertised on the back cover as “a deep psychological test developed for the use of psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians and those who are professionally involved with the conscious and unconscious characteristics and motivations of others,”The Lüscher Color Test came with brightly colored flashcards inside that you could punch out like paper dolls (another of my obsessions). You were supposed to arrange the cards according to what colors you liked best, then look up the interpretation of your choices to find out about yourself.

I loved that book. I could spend hours rearranging the flashcards and reading about what it all meant. Later, I graduated to taking multiple free versions of the Myers-Briggs test online and reading my horoscope, which both seemed to yield similarly accurate results: that is, sometimes spot-on and more often wildly off-base.

My latest personality test obsession, however, has proven to be more accurate and insightful than any I’ve ever taken before.

The Enneagram of Personality

The origins of the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram) have been traced back to Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century Christian mystic, who identified eight “deadly thoughts” and suggested remedies to each. However, it was Bolivian scholar Oscar Ichazo who first used the nine-pointed enneagram figure to symbolize nine personality types, or behavioral archetypes, that stem from our childhood traumas and represent our basic fears and desires.

Psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo learned about this “Enneagram of Personality” from Ichazo while studying in Chile, and developed his own course, which he taught in the United States in the 1970s. Jesuit priests became interested in Naranjo’s teachings and adapted his ideas for spiritual use; Christian authors such as Richard Rohr have published books on the Enneagram, which is why it is sometimes associated with Christianity. However, there is nothing inherently religious about the Enneagram itself.

In his book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Don Riso says we are like unguarded prisoners, locked away with the key hidden somewhere inside our cell. “We are prisoners of our own ego, enchained by our fears, restricted in our freedom, suffering from our condition. No one prevents us from searching for the key that would free us. We must, however, know where to look for it and be willing to use it once we have discovered where it is.” The Enneagram, he says, is that key.

Finding your type

If you’d like to know which of the nine personality types you fit best, there are several free online quizzes that offer a shortened version of the full test. I recommend coughing up the $12 to take the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI), which has 144 questions and takes about 40 minutes to complete.

Whichever one you take, you’ll be asked to choose between pairs of statements, indicating which one has been most true for you throughout your life. For example: “I prefer to be flexible and keep my options open,” or “I prefer to make a decision and boldly pursue it.” Some of them can be a little tricky to answer (do I focus too much on myself, or too much on other people? Can’t I choose both?), but the test advises people not to over-analyze the questions. For best results, you’re supposed to choose the one that feels most true, and to do it without thinking too long.

I’ve taken the test many times over the last ten years (multiple short free versions and long $12 one) and every time, I’ve come up with the same two numbers at the top, nearly neck-and-neck, no matter what mood I was in when I took it, or how much I labored over my answers. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come up as a solid Two (The Helper), and from reading the type descriptions, I’m pretty convinced that’s accurate. You can probably guess what you (and others!) are just from reading about the types, but it’s always better (and more fun) to actually take the test.

For better or for worse

One of the things I find most helpful about the Enneagram is that it gives you insight into how you tend to react in times of stress, and how you behave when you’re at your best. For example, as a Helper Two, when I’m feeling under pressure, I veer toward stressed Eight behavior. Eight is known as The Challenger; their biggest fear is being hurt or controlled, and their basic desire is to protect themselves. When they’re not doing well, they try to force things and tend to behave in a confrontational and domineering manner.

But let’s back up. Each type has a basic fear and a basic desire, a main vice and virtue, and an inherent temptation. As a Two, my basic fear is that I won’t be loved, and my basic desire is to be loved. My vice is pride, my virtue is humility, and my temptation is to deny my own needs and manipulate others to do what I think is best for them. (Twos are natural-born codependents.) When all is well and I’m being my best self, I move in the direction of a healthy Four, AKA The Individualist, whose virtue is calmness and composure.

An important thing to remember about the Enneagram is that it isn’t meant to put you in a box or pass judgment on you: it’s simply a tool for you to better understand yourself. None of the personality types are better or worse than the others. There’s no “good” or “bad” personality type to be. But if you’re a personality test junkie like me, you’ve probably already clicked away from this article and are busy reading up on yourself.

Image via tumblr.com.

Comment: What’s your Enneagram number?

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