I've been obsessed with personality tests and psychology since high school—anything to better understand both how I and how other humans work, think, and function. But I've often been disappointed in the inadequacy of personality assessments to fully grasp the holistic complexity of human nature—until the Enneagram.
There are so many reasons why people from all different backgrounds and mindsets have fallen head over heels for the Enneagram—here are my personal reasons why.
1. It's a fascinating system.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typology system, drawing from roots such as Sufi mysticism and early esoteric Christianity, and has seemingly been around for almost two thousand years.
The Enneagram is a nine-sided figure representing 9 distinct ways of relating to the world, the self, and others. Rather than saying "here's how you're born and here's how you act," common to many other personality assessments, the Enneagram takes a far more complex approach: it posits that although we are born with certain personality inclinations, the way we react to early childhood traumas and events condition our behaviors and responses into our personality.
The Enneagram stands out by focusing not on our behaviors, but on our deepest motivations: our darkest fears, intimate desires, and greatest struggles. This complexity leads us into the first reason why the Enneagram can transform your life:
2. The Enneagram's vantage point: Human motivations.
The Enneagram isn't a "personality test". There are tests available, but the best way to find out what number you are is to get books and listen to podcasts and really dig in to the numbers that seem most like you. The focus is on the building blocks of our human psyche: the fundamentals of who we are as humans collectively and as our own selves individually.
The Enneagram cares far less about how you respond and far more about why you respond. It distills all humanity's complex fears, desires, and motivations to 9 key ones. So the same action could be performed by each number, each for different reasons.
If I offer to buy a friend a coffee, am I doing it because I think it's the right thing to do (that's a 1), because I want them to like me and want to be friends with me (2), it helps me feel valuable and impressive to them (3), or so on? Every number might do the same thing, each with a different motivation.
I am an ENTJ and my friend is an INFP—you could not have people who are more opposite each other in their outward behaviors. But we're both 2s on the Enneagram. We both have incredibly different behaviors that are motivated by the same essential fears and yearnings of wanting people to need us and fearing being abandoned.
3. The complexity allows for the nuances of humanity.
Humans are incredibly complex—we can be intimately acquainted with someone and they could still surprise us. As Gandalf said, "You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month—and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you."
Have you ever met someone who was the exact same Myers-Briggs as you, yet behaved so differently it was like they were a different species? If there are only a small number of personality types, how can we all be so different? How can the same "types" be so distinct—and different types be so much the same? The Enneagram accounts for this.
There are 9 numbers on the Enneagram—9 different types. But each number has a "wing"—being influenced by one of the numbers on either side of them. (So a 2 has either a 1 or a 3 wing—and a 2w1 is very different than a 2w3). Each number moves toward behaviors of a different number when it is in a state of stress (or disintegration), and another number when it is in a state of growth (or integration).
There are 9 Levels of Development for each number: a Healthy 5 is very different from an Average or Unhealthy 5. There are also three Instinctual Variants—Social, Sexual, and Self Preservation—that prioritize the way we respond to the world (So a 2 with So/Sx stacking is far different than a 2 with a Sp/So stacking).
The Enneagram distills its 9 numbers into three Centers of Intelligence: The Body/Instinctive, Heart/ Feeling, and Head/ Thinking; these are formed as a response to anger, shame, and anxiety respectively. And lastly, the Enneagram has Tritypes: no matter what a person's number on the Enneagram is, they use all three Centers of Intelligence in a particular order that gives each person a unique defense strategy and coping mechanism
Now, you certainly don't need to get into all these layers--you will benefit immensely just by staying with the 9 numbers, if you wish. But these nuances lead to thousands of possible combinations.
This is one of the critiques of the Enneagram: by providing ways to say something about every gradation of human behavior, it ends up saying nothing about any of it. (A la The Incredibles' Syndrome's: "When everyone is special—no one will be.") This leads to another of the critiques: that people often mistype themselves (thinking they're one number when they're really another), and a typing system that's so convoluted that people can't even figure out what they are is worthless.
However, I think this complexity is the Ennegram's greatest strength. Humans are complex, and the Enneagram gives us a blueprint for understanding our confusing human nature. We as people don't often figure out who we truly are for decades: people (who are committed to self-growth) are often discovering things about themselves and their behavior for all of their lives. The value in the Enneagram is a map in the hands of the person who has the best chance of figuring you out: you. It's not a magical genie that will instantaneously answer all your questions, but it provides a way to ask questions and probe answers you might not otherwise have thought of. And it explains the question that so often bothered me: how can so many people be so similar and so different? Because even the same numbers can have drastically different wings, influences, instincts, thinking styles, etc.
4. The Enneagram explicitly encourages transforming OUT of the number you were "born" into.
The Enneagram doesn't say, "Congrats, you're a 9! Here's how you'll be for the rest of your life." Numbers are meant to move around the Enneagram and learn from and become the best of all the numbers. I am a 2 with a 1 wing, so I'm already influenced by and learning from the 1—and when I respond to stress in a healthy way, I'm becoming more like a 4.
So the idea behind the Enneagram is that as I grow as a 2, I'm also growing in the positives of 1 and taking on the positives of 4. Ultimately, we move around the Enneagram and take on the best of all numbers. Probably no one except maybe Jesus or Gandhi ever actually achieved that level of self-actualization, but that's the goal. That's the moon we're shooting for, even if we miss and land among the stars.
The Enneagram isn't about finding the box you fit into and staying in it, it's about moving beyond that. It doesn't encourage an 8 to say, "Oh, that's just how I deal with conflict, I'm an 8!" Rather, it shows 8s how they deal with conflict with the intent that, once the 8 sees and understands, the 8 can be empowered to make a different (more healthful) choice.
5. It creates an opportunity for heightened self-awareness.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. The Enneagram provides an incredible blueprint into looking at each number: the ways that person developed in response to trauma, the way that person is responding now, and how they can alter their automatic responses to be more kind, loving, and grounded in the future.
It encourages personal growth and holistic unity between all facets of one's self. Its blunt and detailed descriptions of a vast variety of possible motivations creates a space for us to ask ourselves questions and figure out who we are, how we are, and who we want to be.
One of my good friends said that the Enneagram gave her the language to understand things she already knew, but didn't know how to pinpoint. There are so many things that I grasped on the periphery of my understanding, but when I began reading about myself in the Enneagram, I knew that I knew this. I fully saw with clear understanding the ways in which I loved, and fought, and struggled. The Enneagram was like handing me a lantern instead of a candle when walking on a dark path. It's still up to me to do the walking and the seeing, but it's much clearer now.
6. We can't move past our demons without first seeing them--and then being empowered to let them go.
The Enneagram encourages self-awareness and realization: honestly, painfully so. In fact, if you're not prepared to look into the darkest recesses of your soul, you shouldn't try to figure out your number. The running joke on how you best discover your number is that your number will be the one that makes you cringe the most. "Ugh. I'm not like that. …am I?"
The Enneagram frankly and openly lays bare our deepest human motivations—which means our nastiest defense mechanisms, our most selfish coping behaviors, the way we most manipulate ourselves and those around us. These are incredibly difficult to look at, let alone admit. But we can't fight our demons without seeing them. We can't overcome our flaws if we don't even know what they are.
Knowing what we already have and what we're already doing gives us the opportunity to accept that this is a part of us—and only when we know, understand, and accept, can we actually begin the transformation into making a choice beyond our conditioned instincts and responses.
An equally Enneagram-obsessed friend says: "The Enneagram makes me feel validated in the things I struggle with on a daily basis, and like someone out there understands and sees me in my struggle." Yes, the Enneagram reveals to you the slimiest corners of your soul, which is a great way to make you feel like the worst of all humanity. But realizing that we're all in this boat together—that there are millions of other people in the world who struggle with these exact same things—can help you bring grace to yourself and give you the courage to look at these shameful secrets you've kept stuffed away, validate your struggle with your darkness, and give you that first step to overcoming it.
7. It gives you the tools to deeply relate to other people.
Why does your loving friend who normally bends over backward to please become combative and confrontational at times? Why does one of your friends shrug off your changing of plans as no big deal, whereas another friend might be devastated? Sometimes treating someone just the way you would like them to treat you actually makes them upset or withdrawn—why? Understanding just our own selves seems difficult enough—how are we supposed to understand other peoples' responses when they're sometimes the exact opposite of ourselves?
Having a knowledge of the nine basic fears and desires of all humans can lend you incredible insight into why your loved ones behave the ways they do when it's different from you.
If you are a 1, you are driven to do the right thing and are devastated if you do something that you think is corrupt or wrong. A loved one criticizing your actions as being bad would be devastating—whereas an 8 wouldn't give a shit if you thought they were good or bad, but if they allowed themselves to become vulnerable to you only for you to hurt them emotionally by rejecting them, they would be crushed to their core. But a 1 doesn't care as deeply if you reject them, so long as you don't think they're an evil person.*
The Enneagram tells us that we all have different core motivations, and none of these are any more or less valid than any other number. This egalitarian method of leveling the playing field opens up greater acceptance in us for others' differences. There's no way to justify using the Enneagram to look down on someone else's deepest fears or personal demons; our own demons are what we become most cognizant of when we read the Enneagram, and if you read it feeling superior to all the other numbers** then you're entirely missing the point.
The Enneagram is about getting out of our own boxes; it's for us to use on ourselves, not for us to use to judge others. But the more we accept the darkest recesses of our own souls—the things we hate the most about ourselves—and the more we understand, accept, and transform ourselves into our healthiest holistic self, the more we are able to in turn extend this awareness, acceptance, and love towards others.
*Elemental human fears are a part of all of us. We all fear being bad, unloved, worthless, identity-less, helpless, etc—the nine universal fears that the Enneagram distills all human fears into. But some of these fears resonate more deeply for us than others, and that's where each number's basic fear comes in.
**Unless, perhaps, you're an 8. Presumably every single other number cringes the hardest when they come to their number except for 8s, but that's a separate article.
8. It actually tells you HOW to grow
Lastly, the Enneagram doesn't just tear you down to your core and leave you wallowing in the muck of your most vulnerable, awful secrets—it gives you a clear path for how to grow beyond this. How to use this revelation to become a healthy, vibrant, at-peace person, rather than becoming crushed by all your selfish unkind habits.
The Enneagram shows you how you instinctively respond to external (and internal) stimuli, bringing things to your awareness that you might not have realized at all—or you may have known, but didn't know that you knew, or what you knew.
Before the Enneagram, I had realized I was drawn to toxic relationships, but I didn't fully understand why—and since I didn't understand it, I wasn't adequately equipped to make different choices. But the Enneagram straightforwardly and clearly explained that 2s are driven by a "savior" complex—believing their love can change the world in general, and can change this person in particular; and a 2's weakness is needing to be needed, which makes 2s a sucker for being manipulated and trapped in emotionally abusive relationships. Understanding these elements transformed the way I looked at my relationships. Without awareness of what's actually going on with ourselves, we can never make a change.
Each number also has a direction of integration, or another number you move toward when you are becoming healthy. 4s move toward a 1 state when they are growing positively; 8s move toward a 2 state. Learning about the qualities of your number's growth state is a clear blueprint of ways in which you can grow.
Additionally, there are nine levels of development for each number, and at each stage there are descriptions of the struggles in that stage and the way to grow to the next stage. So if you're a 4 and you discover that developmentally, you're in the average category, you can see clearly the traits you would focus on in order to become healthier.
I found out about the Enneagram a year ago and I'm still discovering new things about how it works and how it relates to me and the lives of those I love. But that's just like life: I'm constantly discovering things I don't know about the world, others, and myself. I've fallen head over heels for the Enneagram and it's been one of the transformative influences in my life. I hope you fall in love with it too.