Introducing Our New Series: Fundamentals of the Enneagram

I was first introduced to the Enneagram while contracting for a company on a change project. They said “Our organization is mostly Sixes. That will make change harder. Here is Helen Palmer’s book. Go.” 

As I cracked open the book I was thinking, “Six what?” And so I began my journey to determine my type and try to grasp how to apply this knowledge to the organization. 

Well of course, it was way too early in my Enneagram journey to do so. Like many people, when I first started learning about the Enneagram, I was quickly overwhelmed by all the elements - the wings, the arrows, the types and subtypes, the levels of health and all the different growth paths and ways to apply it to your life. So many descriptions and aspects!  It was overwhelming and I didn’t know what to make of it all.

To help others in the same situation, we’re writing a Fundamentals of the Enneagram series to explain all of these elements, and show you just how practical and useful this model could be. 

Personality in a nutshell

In essence, your personality is a combination of the strategies you developed to manage the pain of not getting your needs met in childhood. As you grow up, the strategies have become so ingrained, so habitual, that you forget you now have the capacity and capability to handle the hurts and pains without them. 

So you keep using them. 

And what was once a healthy adaptation becomes a series of limiting beliefs, used to defend against and avoid revisiting the pain from your most vulnerable years. 

How Enneagram helps explain the unexplainable 

The many facets and nuances of the Enneagram make it an excellent tool to help us label our own weird unexplainable behaviour. It helps us recognize and label our responses to different stressors, and provides us with a framework for understanding the less conscious motivations that drive them.

But that understanding goes far beyond knowing your primary type, wings or arrows. Depending on where you are in life, and what challenge you're facing, you’ll want to lean on different aspects of the Enneagram. 

That’s where it gets confusing. Because there are just so many elements to the Enneagram model — more insights than we could fit into a single article or do justice with a quick overview. 

And so we are doing a series on the Fundamentals of the Enneagram, taking each small aspect in turn and helping you to understand it more deeply, so you can apply it’s insights in your daily life.

What we’ll cover

The main areas of the Enneagram we’re going to look at include:

  • Defences
  • Centers of intelligence
  • How personality develops in childhood 
  • The nine archetypes
  • The 27 subtype
  • The instincts
  • Arrows and wings
  • Growth pathways
  • Passions, fixations, virtues, holy ideas....and more! 

Let me give you a brief overview of a few of these areas so you can know what to look out for as we dive into each in this series. 

What are defences?

Defences are the healthy strategies we adopted as children when we experienced the pain of our needs going unmet.​​ Think of it like a bandaid. As kids we got all sorts of cuts and scrapes, and someone would dutifully cover it with a bandaid. Sometimes that fixed it, sometimes it didn’t. Think of defences as bandaids for your mind. They are covering up a wound that never quite healed and no one took the band aid off to check it. And it’s been there so long, you have forgotten you put it on in the first place. 

These defences hold our personality in place. Think of them like the glue that keeps reinforcing our patterns of feeling, thinking and acting that we repeat. The more we can become aware of these defences and watch them in action, the easier it is to start to break the habitual patterns and start to turn off autopilot. 

These are not bandaids we can rip off, but they need to be gently reviewed, peered under, so maybe one day we can take the bandaid off, little by little. 

What are centers of intelligence?

All of us have three centres of intelligence, our three brains, our head, our heart and our gut. All three centres have different uses and strengths. 

We make the best decisions, and life choices, when we are using the correct centre of intelligence for the situation. That is, the heart for connecting with others, the head for analysing information and the gut (or body) for taking action and listening to our “gut knowing.” 

The problem is, our personality has developed a bias. It believes it needs to use only one of these centres to navigate life. Which you can imagine leads to more than a few problems, with head types overthinking and not taking action, heart types seeing everything through the lens of emotions and body types acting first and thinking later. 

How does personality develop in childhood?

Our personality is a combination of nature and nurture. We are both born with personality traits but it also develops in response to childhood challenges. 

As small children, we have not yet learnt how to ask for our needs to be met or know how to respond to the pain of the losses we go through as we grow and develop. The pain around separating from your mother, of discovering the world is scarier than you realised and that navigating relationships and staying connected to people is harder than you appreciated. 

Our personality rises up and develops around these early wounds aiming to protect us from further hurts, by defending against anything that comes too close to these. As a child you can think of personality as a helpful knights aiming to defend your honor. As an adult they have become more like an angry mob armed with pitchforks and spears, ready to attack anything that comes too close. 

The series

We are going to deep dive into all of these and more. But doing so in a way that is practical and applicable, that you can apply to your relationships, career, everyday decisions and big life choices immediately. 

And if there is an area of the Enneagram you would like to learn more about, or have a question you would like us to explore for you, please mention it in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Comments

Mark (not verified) says...

Presumably our personality shapes our responses  to stimuli in an our environment. But does it actually shape the lens through which we see the world. In other words, is there a 'baseline' functioning of personality that governs whether we see or perceive anything as threatening before we cognitively process a healthy response, and then another level of personality that reacts to that response.

I have worked with the 16PF, and OPQ instruments but see the Enneagram as a great tool to describe why we might behave as we do.  I'd be interested to know if it is reliable predicting personality behaviours. I suspect it is but we would need to be clear about the stimulus. For example if someone's boss called out a worker to question them about an incident, the different numbers may react according to their well-established defensive mechanisms for their type. But whereas those other tools are useful for describing traits, they also tell users the extent to which that trait might be 'applied' compared to other people. In other words they use instruments that imply there are a set of all personality behaviours and traits common across all humans. From there they use data to compare and predict how any one individual reacts to a cohort of individuals (norm group) on the same trait.

I don't see the Eneagram as doing that. This suggests it is not a tool you could use in selecting personnel but could be valuable in developing them e.g. coaching. Which brings me back to the first point. Humans will find this acceptable if they can see there basic needs and fears but the question is will they understand how any one stimulus moves them toward or away from their basic needs.

Samantha says...

Hi Mark, you are right, this is more of a tool for development and coaching. It looks more to the why, and underlying motivation. And in your workplace example, you might see people externally responding in similar ways, but internally, there could be very different motivators at play.

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