IN 2011, I took a course at my Christian college about the personality type system known as the Enneagram.
The Enneagram is a system built around nine personality types, with each type providing a unique perspective on how we navigate our relationships, emotions, and the world around us. The Enneagram draws on both spirituality and psychology, which distinguishes it from many other personality indicators.
A primary question that emerged for me from that college class: Does the inner work that the Enneagram encourages manifest itself in the outer world through justice work, or is the Enneagram primarily a tool meant to encourage people to focus on individual healing, career, and spirituality?
Throughout history, questions about how and why each human has a unique set of behaviors, motivations, emotions, and cognitions have preoccupied philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, religious thinkers, and Buzzfeed quiz creators alike. Indeed, in the 21st century, “know thyself” is less of a thought-provoking ancient Greek aphorism and more of a cultural imperative lauded by the self-help industrial complex and career coaches. We are assured that by unlocking our “true selves,” we will ultimately be unlocking our true potential, which will drastically improve our fortunes.
But the Enneagram was never meant to simply measure our potential or provide a definitive answer to the question of human personality. This is contrary to some of the most popular personality indicators such as Myers-Briggs or CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder), which became popular because they promised to help employers tap into human potential and productivity. The Enneagram originated as a tool for contemplation but has come to emphasize how self-growth and inner work prepare us for the outer work of building community.
In their book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, Catholic priest Richard Rohr and Lutheran minister Andreas Ebert point to a 4th-century Christian Desert Father, Evagrius Ponticus, as the first to use, loosely, the nine-pointed symbol to highlight vices that he believed interrupted one’s inner peace and relationship with God. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, inspired by a theory originated by Bolivian philosopher Oscar Ichazo, used modern psychology to develop a theory of nine distinct personalities — or “enneatypes” — that highlighted the vices, virtues, and core motivations of each type.
The Enneagram is sometimes treated as just another personality test that can help us purchase the things that “match” our personalities, find romance, or unlock our “true potential” so we can make more money — part of our culture’s obsessive focus on self-improvement. But at its best, the Enneagram not only emphasizes making peace with yourself and a higher power, it also offers tools for learning how to be in community and build a more just society.
To help me sort through my questions, I interviewed three Enneagram experts: Chichi Agorom, an associate faculty member with The Narrative Enneagram and author of The Enneagram for Black Liberation; Jessica Denise Dickson, a life empowerment coach and Enneagram guide who uses the Enneagram in anti-racist workshops; and Abi Robins, a queer, trans Enneagram teacher, coach, and author of The Conscious Enneagram. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. — Josiah R. Daniels
Josiah R. Daniels: Is the Enneagram only for Christians?
Chichi Agorom: It’s not tied to any specific religion or practice. I know Buddhists who use it. I know Christians who use it. I know atheists who use it. For me, that is the beauty of it. I don’t think of it as tied to Christianity.
What are some trends you are noticing with the Enneagram?
Agorom: I’ve seen the Enneagram used as though it is a vending machine or drive-thru. It’s like, “Okay, cool, give me the SparkNotes on what I need to change to be the acceptable version of myself and still get power or applause, and I’ll do those quick things and then move on.” But the Enneagram is really about growth work. Healing work is slow work. Most of us in Western society do not want or appreciate slow work. We want it to be quick. The enneatypes are structures that provide strategies to navigate the world. But the types themselves are not who we are.
How do we use the Enneagram as a tool for ourselves and our communities?
Agorom: The Enneagram is a great tool because it brings us in, it meets a lot of people where they are. It also invites us to expand beyond just me. “What do I need to do to be a healthy version of my type?” and “What does it mean that we’re all held together in a whole?” — those questions can lead to a realization that the way I show up directly impacts the people around me, the people in community with me. I have more capacity for grace and compassion for myself, which means I have more capacity for grace and compassion for the people around me.
How do you feel about corporations using the Enneagram?
Agorom: Learning communication styles and conflict resolution styles — those can be helpful for a basic understanding that everyone is not like me. But I’ve heard from people about the Enneagram being used for team development, and it’s like, “Oh, this is exciting,” and then, after a month, there’s no continuation. If we just stay with the Enneagram on the surface, you get to the end of that quickly. It’s ultimately just a watered-down version that’s supposed to help with productivity and team retention. I’m not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think that it can be helpful in some circumstances. But the workplace is not necessarily the best or safest environment to dive deep into your enneatype because the corporate space isn’t necessarily built on the level of curiosity needed to do the work the Enneagram requires.
Is your book only for Black people? What is your invitation to white people who read your book or are interested in the Enneagram?
Agorom: Most of the other Enneagram books are written by white folks. These are the books I had to read through my training, even though they centered people and experiences that were not familiar to me. What I do in The Enneagram for Black Liberation is center Black folks — Black women, specifically. There’s something to be said about the discomfort that white folks feel when they are interacting with a book that does not center their experience. But even though it doesn’t center their experience, I explicitly say, “Yeah. This book is for everyone.”
I invite white readers not to perform. I don’t even want to say not perform “wokeness” — don’t perform a commitment to liberation that you are not willing to follow through with. We don’t want the words. Focus on holding awareness of, and then working to dismantle, the intersections of power and privilege ... spend more time exploring how your armor can be used as a weapon. I promise that if you’re spending time doing that and I’m doing my work, we will meet each other.
What individual work does the Enneagram ask us to do? What is the collective work?
Jessica Denise Dickson: I don’t think the work is different. The Enneagram is this beautiful system or tool that helps us understand our internal experience, the things that we’re motivated by, and the things that trip up our reactivity. If I’m doing inner work and I’m only concerned about my own experience, that’s not true Enneagram work. True Enneagram work says, “This matters because it impacts how I show up in my community.” But I do think that there have been a lot of teachers who have taught it as this solo individualistic thing where it’s just about you doing your own personal work. I say, “No, it’s about who you are in relation to other people.” Part of that is because of how whiteness shows up within Enneagram teachings — the individualism that comes with whiteness has said your experience is the biggest thing.
Do you incorporate a critique of whiteness in your anti-racist Enneagram work?
Dickson: I talk about whiteness both as a social construct that was created to uphold the power of wealthy white men, and I also talk about it as a culture — that is, the values, attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and rules of a society. I often say, “If you’re a white-bodied person, you have to be cognizant of the ways that you may have been socialized into whiteness,” because socialization into whiteness is a structural advantage. It’s a viewpoint from a certain location that causes you to see the world a specific way. It’s going to shape you in ways that you are not conscious of.
What does it mean to “do the work” when it comes to the Enneagram and anti-racism?
Dickson: “Doing the work” is this beautiful process of understanding that we’re not a disembodied Enneagram type. There are the core fears, desires, and reactivity of each type — the passion, which is this energetic side of your enneatype — the fixations, which are the mental habits of your type — and then your defense mechanism. They’re all expressed through our embodied realities. Understanding that, for example, as a Black woman eight type, the expression that I have in general is seen by white men as a power move. If I’m not doing the work of understanding how my socialization and my enculturation in white evangelical spaces have shaped my perspective, then how I express myself is going to skew the work that’s possible. You can’t have self-awareness without cultural awareness.
What are some concrete ways the Enneagram can help us achieve a society of liberation?
Dickson: One is for people to really understand what their inner defenses are. Looking at the combinations of our socialization and our Enneagram type, it’s important to look at our defenses, because if you are a white-bodied person socialized into whiteness, there is this aversion to conflict and a belief in your right to comfort. Things that are uncomfortable are going to make you feel unsafe because your nervous system has been socialized a certain way and can’t tell the difference between discomfort and actual danger. That means when something justice-related comes up — maybe you’re called out by someone — and you feel this defense, you start to think, “Oh, I feel shame.” But shame is kind of beautiful because it relates us to our inherent interconnectedness — I did something that hurt you. Instead of shame becoming an identity like whiteness wants it to be, we learn to move through it toward liberation. So, when we’re doing the work, it becomes this beautiful, connective experience rather than something that separates us and makes us feel that we have to hide. We become more likely to be able to move toward liberation together as a collective.
What is the modern Enneagram’s relationship to religion?
Abi Robins: What’s interesting is that as the Enneagram developed into this personality system, religiosity was kind of removed from it — not because religion is bad, but because it became more about psychology than spirituality. In some ways, it blended the two as well. It’s like we’re using Western language to describe a more Eastern experience. There are Christian roots, but there are not exclusively Christian roots to what we know and work with today. I think of the Enneagram as a tool. It is not a Christian tool. That’s like saying, “A Christian used a hammer one time, so all hammers are now somehow Christian.” That makes no sense and isn’t helpful.
What does it take to be an Enneagram teacher?
Robins: There are an astounding [number] of “Enneagram professionals.” On their websites, they say nothing about who they trained with. Where did they learn the system? Did you just read a bunch of books? That does not make you an Enneagram professional. You need to know where these people are getting their information and training. If you know who you’re learning from and where they learned it from, then you understand their inherent biases. It’s not just, “Oh, let’s sit and chat about this cool thing and let’s talk about the types.” It really should be, “How are we using this to transform our lives and our world?”
What does that transformation look like?
Robins: The Enneagram invites us into the work of seeing and understanding ourselves — to literally become more conscious of what we’re doing. It’s also about understanding how the world is colored by our unconscious biases. And these are the things that are necessary for collective work to take place. This points us to the fact that we cannot experience wholeness without each other. I can also speak to how I’ve seen it play out in the lives of people who have really committed to this work: As we start to see reality more clearly, we become more compassionate, we become more loving, and we become more caring.
What would you say to people who see the Enneagram as more individualistic to coax them into justice work?
Robins: Our society has really doubled down on this idea of individualism. That ethos is a function of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. All these things keep us separated and distant from each other. Without being connected to other people, we’re lost. How do we move toward more collective action? We need people to wake up. A lot of people are actively being disenfranchised by our government.
Why is it so important to understand the Enneagram’s emphasis on interconnectedness?
Robins: Your individual work cannot take place if you are not in community. If you are not present to and aware of the communities that you’re a part of, your work will always be stunted. There is nothing individual about Enneagram work except that, like, your s--- is your s---. This applies not just to your intimate relationships, but to all your relationships — your friendships, your communal relationships: We cannot exist without each other.
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