Greater Insights

Using the Enneagram to decode yourself and others.

Illustrations by Megan Gilman

As a designer and researcher‚ my interest in creating solutions to life’s problems reaches far beyond the walls of my office. When I have disagreements with my friends and family‚ I try to understand their points of view in the same way I might approach a design challenge for a client. I look for patterns and influences‚ and I try to define insights from my discoveries. But is it possible to put people into an easily understandable observation? As I recently discovered‚ it is—especially if you know them well.

Not too long ago‚ I hit a wall with my best friend since the third grade‚ Meg. She has been a significant figure throughout my life‚ coming and going as our circumstances changed. Our friendship rekindled during my divorce. I needed a nanny so that I could go back to work‚ and she was a nanny in need of a job. Perfect‚ right?

Meg has a very strong personality and lots of experience with kids. Our long friendship combined with her role as nanny meant that she became more like a second mom to my son. It was such a great relief during my time of crisis. Eventually‚ however‚ it began to feel like I had unwittingly gotten into another marriage—one I didn’t want to be in—and I had to have a very difficult conversation with her about why I could no longer use her as a nanny. After the dust settled‚ I felt like I really needed to do some soul-searching. Did I do the right thing by essentially firing one of my best friends?

While looking for answers‚ I came across the Enneagram as a lens through which I could view myself and the people around me.

About the Enneagram

The Enneagram is way of typing personality. With it‚ you can identify the predominant patterns of thinking‚ feeling‚ and behaving that can be used both to observe others and to take a close look at yourself.

Carl Jung was the first to use personality typology and archetypes as a way to understand why we are the way we are. Although the Enneagram did not factor into Jung’s theories‚ both Jungian psychology and the Enneagram suggest that our personality types are born out of our unconscious minds‚ which were formed during early childhood as a way to cope with the dynamics of family‚ school‚ friends‚ and other relationships. Typology practices also refer to “blind spots” (Enneagram) or “shadows” (Jung) inside us — the dark insecurities‚ failures‚ or weaknesses that lie behind our dominant traits. “Everyone carries a shadow‚ and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life‚ the blacker and denser it is‚” Jung wrote. In other words‚ if we don’t acknowledge our shadow selves‚ the more pain and unhappiness we will experience. Therefore‚ if we can understand our weaknesses‚ we can understand our personalities‚ and vice versa.

Jung wrote the book Psychological Types in 1921‚ but the roots of the Enneagram run much deeper and can be found in the ancient traditions of Sufism‚ Kabbalism‚ Christianity‚ and Buddhism. A more recent interpretation of the Enneagram is credited to the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff developed the Fourth Way‚ an integrated practice that encourages followers to glean insight from self-work in addition to understanding personalities. Like Jung and his contemporary Sigmund Freud‚ Gurdjieff believed in relieving unconscious blocks and defense mechanisms‚ but instead of exploring them through the help of a trained analyst (as Freud believed)‚ Gurdjieff posited that they could be explored through self-observation. The Enneagram’s classical Western form as a psychological tool was introduced by Oscar Ichazo in the 1960s.

Since the 1980s‚ authors Don Riso and Helen Palmer have popularized the Enneagram. Riso founded the Enneagram Institute in the San Francisco Bay Area. Today the Enneagram is used as a tool in clinical therapy‚ organizational coaching‚ and spiritual workshops.

The Framework in Action

The Enneagram describes how nine archetypal forms are connected: Each one has a different blind spot‚ or personal delusion‚ to work through‚ which corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins—lust‚ gluttony‚ greed‚ sloth‚ wrath‚ envy‚ and pride—or two other core human drivers‚ fear and deceit. After studying the Enneagram (see “What's Your Personality Type?” at right)‚ I was able to see that my friend Meg is an Eight‚ The Challenger‚ which has a blind spot of lust. A strong-willed protector‚ she would take care of me in my needy‚ recently divorced state and fend off all the hovering relatives who were trying to direct my life from the sidelines. The challenge comes in that she has to be first‚ dominant‚ and powerful. There isn’t a lot of room for the less-sure opinions of a new mom recovering from a breakup.

Applying the Enneagram to myself‚ I learned that I’m a Six‚ The Loyalist‚ with a blind spot of fear. Sixes are blessed and cursed with a powerful imagination. I can think of all the possible pitfalls and like to plan before I act. One reason I felt so comforted by Meg during my divorce is because Sixes seek out protective figures when they perceive themselves to be in vulnerable states.

The Enneagram also helped me to see how forces in our personalities interacted to create potentially stressful situations. Had I known about these ahead of time‚ I would have been able to establish clear boundaries and create a better “working” relationship with Meg.

Getting Results

A couple of months ago‚ my friendship with Meg came full circle. She had her first baby. No longer a nanny for others‚ she is now a mom and her own boss. True to my personality‚ I persisted on resolving things with her‚ and we patched things up. She sees how important it was to me to find my own voice as a mom‚ and now she has her hands full doing the same for herself. We’ve agreed that the best way to rekindle our friendship is to keep our relationship as peers—not employee/employer‚ not wife/husband‚ just friend/friend.

Since what happened with Meg‚ I’ve used the Enneagram to assess other close family and friends‚ analyzing our relationships and thinking through areas that could be improved. It takes a certain level of intimacy to know a person’s inner world‚ so this framework works best with closer relationships. I keep a running list in the back of my mind about how to work best with friends‚ family‚ and co-workers. Some people already do this intuitively‚ but the Enneagram adds more explicit details for those still exploring how.

Celine Pering is a senior design researcher at frog design’s San Francisco studio.

Work – Life

Issue 12

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