Last Updated on November 1, 2022 by Jason Harris
A friend recently convinced me to read “The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery.” At first, I really resisted. Like Myers-Briggs, another very popular personality typing system, it has not been scientifically validated to clearly represent reality. Some personality researchers regard the Enneagram as “pseudoscientific at best” and somewhat similar in character to a horoscope.
I mentioned to him that “The Big Five” and HEXACO personality typing systems have FAR better evidence they represent true dimensions of personality. “Why then spend time learning about the Enneagram?” I asked. He insisted it had been very helpful in his own life and journey of self-discovery. Trusting and respecting his opinion and input, I agreed to read the book and learn more about it. I’m glad I did. And as I studied up on it a bit more, I also found the system isn’t entirely without evidence either.
The Enneagram is said by some to have originated from ancient wisdom traditions many thousands of years ago. However, as I studied a bit more about this, it seems major portions of it originated around 1920 with George Gurdjief and was further developed decades later by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo.
The Enneagram is a depiction of three basic ways we interact with the world and with those around us: In our “head” with our “heart” or with our “instincts/gut.” Within each of these three approaches, there are three main personality “types” or “mechanisms” that tend to be followed as depicted in the figure above, numbering 1-9. None of them are better or worse than any other. They just are.
The Enneagram shows (supposedly) how these personality mechanisms interact with each other, both when “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Narratives about the Enneagram stress the possible/likely unconscious drives behind many of these mechanisms.
A Method of Seeing Personality Shadows
As mentioned, I’m glad I read “The Road Back to You.” Learning the overall system was kind of fun. But more importantly, I saw aspects of myself strongly within many of the personality “types” listed in the Enneagram. Admittedly this could be primarily the “Barnum Effect” at play and similar to what I and others have experienced while reading horoscopes. But horoscopes can be fun too! But seriously though, studying the Enneagram, I found it helpful reading and reflecting on unconscious motives and fears that may be driving my different personality behaviors… I learned more about myself reading this book. I also found reading this book helpful to better understand and empathize where others might be coming from with their personality styles and approaches.
Based on my own experience (and those of many others), despite the way the Enneagram is viewed by some personality scientists, I think the Enneagram can be a useful tool to help us see “shadow” aspects of each type of personality approach or coping mechanism. It seems this might be best done learning about the Enneagram in “narrative form” such as the book my friend recommended (as opposed to just taking an online test).
Other personality typing systems don’t stress learning about the personality “shadows” nearly as much as the Enneagram.
Embracing Our Shadows
I believe if we are ever to fully love ourselves (and thus be able to love others as well)… we have to see that which is unconscious within us… our shadows or “blind spots,” and understand and even embrace them and truly love and accept them for what they are (not necessarily acting out on them in a negative way, though). This is something I’m increasingly striving to do since my own faith transition. Discovering and embracing all of myself. Even the shameful parts. I think studying the Enneagram can be one helpful way to do this.
My saying this should not be interpreted as a whole-hearted endorsement of the Enneagram. I personally think there is a very real danger of getting swept away with this system focusing too much on the various connecting “lines” and “system” of it all… Which system hasn’t been proven. And I think people are much more complex than the Enneagram suggests as well. Taken to an extreme… studying the Enneagram might serve to keep us in a box rather than becoming more liberated out of our current boxes.
Still… I believe the Enneagram IS a tool for both self-reflection and for better understanding others that many have found helpful… and that I also found helpful.
For those who want a more secular and comprehensive book on the Enneagram, “The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge” may be a good place to start.
Jason Harris lived as an orthodox Mormon for forty years. He writes about his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made, potentially helpful and harmful. He believes there is Divinity in all of them and everywhere.