How to use the Enneagram (and how NOT to)

Learn from my mistakes, friends.

Am I the only one who’s introduction to the Enneagram was being dumped? About a decade ago, my then boyfriend and I were in our early twenties and having difficulty understanding each other. A couple in our community lent us their Enneagram book, to help our confusion. I read the book first, and completely flinched when reading about the Enneagram 2. That’s how I knew my type, I felt like my brain was printed on paper.

I was so relieved to have the language to explain my motivations to my boyfriend. After he read the book — finding his type and reading mine — he realized he didn’t want to be with a 2. Harsh, but we were young and had very different visions for what we wanted in life.

So at that point I had a choice: curse the lineage of spiritual teachers and authors who created, passed down over generations, and put to print the Enneagram personality system OR fully immerse myself in it and befriend my 2 self. I’m really glad I did the latter.

I share this not only because it’s entertaining, but it’s an example of why I’m cautious about the Enneagram being popular now — the capacity for it to be used in ways to cause harm — to yourself or others.

For example: a few Enneagram 4s I know have internalized a message that the vast, beautiful feelings they have is a bad thing. That the goal is to keep a rigid schedule in order to not feel their feelings at all. This denies their spiritual gift: of being a type who can often go deeper into their feels than others and show the rest of us how to explore that sometimes intimidating landscape. Where would many creative industries be without these brave hearts?

This is why I don’t follow many of the Enneagram meme accounts (except for the Enneadog, it’s my favorite) — it dilutes or pokes fun at the very gift and vulnerable story of each type. I can make a joke at my own expense, but it’s a different experience when someone else makes light of something so personal to me. It can feel shaming or limiting.

It’s because of this that I try to refrain from telling people that their actions “are such a (insert number) thing to do!” I’m certainly guilty of this in the past and have seen first-hand how much harm that has done. Learn from my mistakes, friends.

Learn to let others self-identify — not just their type, but what ASPECTS of their type they see in themselves. Not all Enneagram 8s are loud and extroverted, but a couple of close 8 friends have explained the exact kind of control they need in certain situations to feel protected.

This is why trusted Enneagram teachers emphasize the importance of focusing on your own type and journey — and not on those around you. It’s a lot easier to stay at the surface with the Enneagram by focusing on others. But this is first and foremost a system for practicing self-understanding and self-compassion. Particularly for those of us who developed this personality pattern as a way of survival when we were children.

But going deeper into your particular number will help befriend the parts of the self that are your greatest strengths, and begin to release the rest. I will never stop being a 2, but I can see how being a healthy 2 who takes care of herself first means I can be a spiritual director who is truly helpful to my clients without strings attached.

This Enneagram language also helps in communicating your motivations and needs to those around you. Different types can have similar actions and behaviors, but sometimes the motivations and needs depend on the individual’s type. Having this language can help bridge the divide that leaves us feeling misunderstood or not seen.

I appreciate the focus on growth that the Enneagram publications teach, but often the language used is focused mostly on challenging your type and highlighting each type’s shortcomings. Which is one way to motivate people to get out of those cycles of personality. But what I’ve come to see recently, is that kind of focus on the shortcomings can add to the intensity of the inner critical stories we tell ourselves. I’ve definitely been there and have physically hidden my Enneagram books under my bed. Sometimes, the spiritual invitation is to be with our natural gifts. So for this month the suggested Enneagram practices below are focused on doing just that — embracing the gifts of our personality. Can you take some time this week and rest with the strength you already embody?

Enneagram Suggested Practices for Embracing the Gift of Your Type

Don’t know your Enneagram type? Then head over to the Enneagram Institute and read through the 9 type descriptions to see which resonates for you (for some, that may be the one that makes you flinch).

1: Rather than reflecting on the ways you’re falling short of your ethics, spend time this week recording how you HAVE used your gifts of justice, organization, and process to contribute to the vision of the better world you want to bring into existence. Bookmark this page in your journal or hang the list somewhere you can see it regularly.

2: You can at times feel conflicted about your motivations with helping. Reflect this week on a recent time where you read someone, understood what support they needed, and gave that help with no strings attached. Take time to feel your abilities and strengths in that situation — where in your body do you sense it? Take that with you.

3: When a project is completed, it’s tempting to move with lightning speed onto the next project. How can you this week take some time to celebrate and savor what you have already completed, achieved, brought into existence? Enjoy looking at the analytics and results of a recent project, you earned it! Remind yourself that you, in fact, have done a lot!

4: A common internal critical story you tell yourself is your feelings are a weakness, or are “too much.” Like I mentioned in the above reflection, this denies your gift of going deep with your feels and showing the rest of us how to do the same. This week celebrate your gift by exploring the lineage of 4s who paved a new way in the field of your choosing: art, technology, etc. Reflect on your feelings when you see the brave hearts you belong to.

5: While you may think you are less capable or skilled than those around you, your gift of curiosity, deep searching, and ability to test assumptions makes your insights invaluable! This week write out a list of times when you experienced yourself as deeply competent. Add to this list the instances that respected people affirmed your abilities. Look over this list, see what arises for you.

6: While you may feel immersed in a sea of self-doubt, you are, in fact, one of the best-equipped types to make complex, informed decisions. Think back on a recent time where you were able to weigh all the factors of a particular problem and arrive at solution that produced great results. Pat yourself on the back for it (seriously, do it).

7: Sometimes, the limitless possibility of ideas and experiences can feel overwhelming. But your generosity and ability to curate meaningful experiences and connections for others is a great gift to the world. Think back on an experience or project you created that you savored alongside your loved ones. Savor it again now, notice where in your body you feel that sparkle.

8: You may feel like your strength and direct communication can come off like “a bull in a china shop,” but this week can you embrace your high capacity for making real sustained change happen? Reflect on a time you spoke truth or created something that made a mark on a community or organization for the better. Tell a friend and let them celebrate you (this may make you squirm a little).

9: Sometimes you may feel like you fade into the background. But you are, in fact, visible and have impact on your environment. This week look around your home — notice the colors, patterns, and textures of your sacred space. Look at your people, how much you see and understand them. The care you bring to your home and people are a very tangible part of who you are, and give glimpses at your gift of compassion for others and artistry. Find an object from your home or photo of a loved one and “show and tell” about that artifact to a friend.

Recommended Resources

My Enneagram Starter Kit:

  1. The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Ross Hudson (Book to have as a reference on your shelf and a solid place to begin the journey).

  2. The Road Back to You: Looking at Life Through the Lens of the Enneagram by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile (Podcast of interviews with different folks describing how they experience their particular Enneagram type. Warning: this is a Christian podcast, so there’s religious language. If that’s not a trigger for you, there’s great content in there no matter your spiritual identity. They aren’t creating new episodes anymore, but the archived episodes are worth it.)

  3. Know Your Type (Phone app that has kind of an outdated design, but the “excel at interactions” section is worth the $3 in my opinion.)

Some resources by yours truly:

  1. For women and nonbinary friends in the Bay Area, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to the Enneagram workshop at the Ruby in the Mission district of San Francisco on Wednesday, June 5, 6:30-8pm. Sign up for the workshop here!

  2. I was on an episode of Radical Advice on talking about my journey in therapy, spiritual direction vs. coaching vs. therapy, and what song I’ll knock people over to get to the dance floor. Listen to the episode here!

  3. I am taking more spiritual direction clients (which includes via Skype and other video chat platforms)! Want to learn more about my practice? Visit my website for more details.

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