Unless you are a social media Luddite, you’ve probably heard at least a little bit of online chatter about the Enneagram and its personality types lately. This personality typing system has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years, and you might have wondered whether it’s biblically or psychologically sound.Unlike the Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory, or the Big Five Personality Theory, the Enneagram personality test claims to be more than simply a typology system—according to the Center for Action and Contemplation, it’s a dynamic system:
“A ‘dynamic system’ is one that recognizes that humans are far too complex and nuanced to fit easily into simple categories; it supports the evolving, maturing human journey.”
Recognizing that the Enneagram is complex is a good first step to understanding it. There’s nothing wrong with a surface skim of the system just for interest’s sake, but you’ll miss the benefits if you don’t understand its nuances and intricacy.
Let’s introduce some of the foundational concepts of Enneagram personality types, and take a look at how it evolved historically.
Origins of the Enneagram
The true origins of this personality typing system are a bit murky and surrounded by mystery and myth. The Center for Action and Contemplation (associated with Richard Rohr, author of The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective) emphasizes that this system was passed down by oral tradition, communicated from teacher to student.
Some adherents believe that aspects of the Enneagram date back to the fourth century A.D., while others have found similar concepts in the traditions of many major world religions, including Christianity.
But most evidence for the beginning of the Enneagram as we know it today points to the work of philosopher Oscar Ichazo, who founded the Arica Institute in Chile in 1968. Claudio Naranjo, a student of Ichazo, learned about the Enneagram at the Arica Institute. He brought the system to the United States and has become a well-renowned expert on the subject.
Naranjo began teaching about the Enneagram in the 1970s. One of his students was Helen Palmer, who wrote The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life, which was published in 1988. In 1990, Richard Rohr’s Discovering the Enneagram was published. Many more books have been written on the subject in the 2000s, and in recent years, there has been a proliferation of Enneagram-themed books, blogs, and podcasts.
Is it Legitimate?
Like other personality typing systems, the Enneagram has its fair share of critics and naysayers, perhaps more so because of its association with various religious traditions. Thus far, the system has not been backed by much peer-reviewed research.
Also, there are multiple angles and explanations for the system. Some people believe that its origins are related to the occult, while others view it as a helpful tool and nothing more.
Evidence-based psychology has not yet fully accepted the Enneagram in the same way that the MBPI and Big Five personality theory have been widely accepted. A handful of studies have pointed to the Enneagram’s potential for helping in personal growth, or being as reliable as evidence-based personality typing systems like the Myers-Briggs.
What about the Christian perspective? The Enneagram has proven controversial, especially in evangelical circles. In Catholic and progressive Christian circles, it tends to be more quickly accepted, perhaps because of its contemplative, mystical nature.
Christopher Heuertz, author of The Sacred Enneagram, suggests that evangelicals may have grown weary of a more closed mentality, which is why millennial evangelicals are finding the Enneagram’s contemplative approach so appealing.
Evangelical Enneagram coach Beth McCord says that the Enneagram is not contradictory to the gospel—rather, it is simply a method that can be used in conjunction with Scripture to help Christians grow in their faith and walk with God.
The Enneagram is not a replacement for Scripture, but it can be a tool for believers to grow spiritually by helping them learn how they can grow and how God has gifted them to bless others.
In case you’re not familiar with the basics of the Enneagram, let’s go over the foundations of the system. But first, a caveat: there are a lot of different sources on the subject, and many of them would explain it differently. For a comprehensive discussion of this typology system’s roots and basic tenets, see the books The Wisdom of the Enneagramor Understanding the Enneagram.
It’s important to note that with the Enneagram, as well as with tests like the MBTI, no type is superior to another. All of the numbers are neutral.
The Enneagram also offers names for each type, as well as basic virtues and vices (for example, number 1 is the ‘reformer’, with the basic virtue being ‘serenity’ and the basic vice being ‘anger’).Each type also points toward one another number in growth and a different number in stress. For example, an emotionally healthy 4 (the individualist) takes on many characteristics of a 1 (the reformer). In stress or when unhealthy, a 4 tends to become more like a 2 (the helper).
Therefore, your level of spiritual and emotional health can make identifying your type more difficult. There are various free online assessments available, as well as a paid assessment at the Enneagram Institute online.
Besides knowing each basic type and where they tend to gravitate in growth and stress, there are a few other concepts to note. The numbers immediately adjacent to each type are called “wings.” (For example, a person who is a 2 could have either a 1 wing or a 2 wing.) Your “wing” is your strongest secondary type.
You can read more about wings, as well as subtypes (there are three) and centers at the Enneagram Institute online, but let’s focus on the basics of each of the nine types for now.
Enneagram Personality Types
For the most basic explanation, here is an overview of each personality type. Simply learning about your type, where you tend to go in growth and in unhealthiness, and how you tend to relate to people around you can be very helpful, even if you don’t want to do a deep dive into all the nuances of the Enneagram personality test.
These explanations are based on those from the CAC and the Enneagram Institute:
1. The Reformer
Rational and idealistic. Finds fulfillment in doing what’s right. Basic virtue: serenity. Basic vice: anger. Basic desire: to be good.
2. The Helper
Caring and interpersonal. Finds fulfillment in helping others and meeting their needs. Basic virtue: humility. Basic vice: pride. Basic desire: to give and receive love.
3. The Achiever
Success-oriented and pragmatic. Finds fulfillment in success and accomplishments. Basic virtue: authenticity. Basic vice: deceit. Basic desire: to feel valuable.
4. The IndividualistSensitive and withdrawn. Finds fulfillment in having a unique sense of identity in the world. Basic virtue: equanimity. Basic vice: envy. Basic desire: to be uniquely themselves.
5. The Investigator
Intense and cerebral. Finds fulfillment in knowledge and learning. Basic virtue: non-attachment. Basic vice: avarice. Basic desire: understanding.
6. The Loyalist
Committed and security-oriented. Finds fulfillment in a sense of safety and support. Basic virtue: courage. Basic vice: fear. Basic desire: to have guidance.
7. The Enthusiast
Busy and fun-loving. Finds fulfillment in adventure and new experiences. Basic virtue: sobriety. Basic vice: gluttony. Basic desire: to be happy and content.
8. The Challenger
Powerful and dominating. Finds fulfillment in being in charge of his or her own life. Basic virtue: innocence. Basic vice: lust. Basic desire: self-protection.
9. The Peacemaker
Easygoing and self-effacing. Finds fulfillment in a sense of unity and peace. Basic virtue: decisive action. Basic vice: sloth. Basic desire: wholeness and harmony.
How to Use the Enneagram
Many Enneagram experts, including Richard Rohr and Christopher Heuertz, recommend using the Enneagram in conjunction with contemplative prayer as a tool for self-understanding and spiritual growth.
Here are three simple concepts to keep in mind if you want to become more familiar with this tool:
It’s important to use the Enneagram as a tool for understanding yourself and not just to label yourself and others. Self-awareness is powerful because it can help uncover the motives behind your actions, struggles you’ve had since you were a child, and why you act in certain ways when you’re stressed or happy. In The Sacred Enneagram, Heuertz suggests that understanding your type can help you understand how you personally relate to God in prayer.
Not only can you become more aware of yourself, your hidden motives, and your struggles, you can use that information to find out how to best move in a direction of growth and take steps towards becoming a healthier person. Using the Enneagram as a guide, you can identify the tendencies you have when you’re healthy and when you’re stressed, and work to become healthier.
For a Christian, this might mean recognizing what specific temptations entice you based on your personality type, as well as what your natural giftings are.
3. Relationship improvement
Growing as a person also means growing in your relationships with others. It’s essential to have the ability to identify toxic, dysfunctional, or abusive dynamics in relationships so that you can set boundaries. But it’s also important to identify unhealthy patterns in overall healthy relationships so that you can change your own part of the dynamic and hopefully improve the relationship overall.
In these three areas of life, as well as in others, the Enneagram can be a tool for personal growth. If you’re interested in learning more about yourself, your relationship with God, and your relationship with people around you, you might be interested in learning more about the Enneagram.
“Concept Man”, Courtesy of Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Julia M Cameron, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Enjoying the View”, Courtesy of Christopher Sardegna, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Mountaintop”, Courtesy of Matheus Ferrero, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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