You know the feeling. You’ve just read the description of the Enneagram number you identify with. You’re a bit shaken. It feels like someone read your journal and spilled the contents onto the Internet for all to see. Maybe you want to crawl into a cave for the next few days while you contemplate how someone – something – could know you so well. You might feel delighted, disturbed, depressed, or decidedly all three.
Once the dust settles, your anxiety at being “found out” may be replaced with a fervor to bestow the same enlightenment you’ve received upon everyone around you. You might start guessing which number best explains your partner, your parents, or that grumpy neighbor you can’t get along with.
This is a crucial part of the Enneagram Journey, because while you don’t have enough information to make a deep dive into the murkier waters of self-observation, you do have enough to cause some trouble. As a wise poet named Alexander Pope said: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
The Enneagram is seasoned. It’s been around since ancient times, and stands as the oldest version of human psychology we can point to. As someone who cares deeply about human development and emotional intelligence, I use the Enneagram in my coaching workshops – both with teams and individuals – because I’ve found it to be the most accurate personality assessment theory I’ve come across. It is truly a wonderful tool.
But just like any other tool, no matter how specific or well-intentioned, the Enneagram is often misused. So misused, in fact, that I’m devoting the next section of this article to exploring a few ways people are wielding this theory in unhelpful and even damaging ways. As Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
So, take a deep breath. Relax your grip on the Enneagram Sledgehammer. Stop trying to figure out what number best fits your boss. Let’s lean into some well-established wisdom – and see where it takes us.
Below are some some common stages folks experience on their journey.
To have a healthier relationship to the Enneagram, here are some "do's" and "don'ts".
Don’t use the Enneagram as...
… A badge
Many individuals interact with the Enneagram on a shallow level because they feel gratified in some way by identifying with it. The ego falls in love with it easily. The more the Enneagram experiences popularity, the more you see people proudly sharing their Enneatypes on their Instagram bios next to their star signs and Myers-Briggs, embracing their Enneatype’s traits with unwavering gusto.
Christopher Heuertz, author of “The Sacred Enneagram” and a 20-year student of its ways, observes, “it is clear that the Enneagram does...expose repeating patterns in human character structure archetypes that are sort of observable. But...if you don’t really understand the essence of what’s behind it, you’re just fueling your own narcissism. You might be super interesting at a dinner party, but that’s not the point, you know?”
Indeed. The point of the Enneagram is getting yourself out of your own way. There is definitely a level of fulfillment many find staying in the shallow waters of Enneagram knowledge, but there are much richer ways to engage this tool sustainably.
… A box
No wonder you can’t sit still...classic 7!
That’s exactly something a 4 would say – so dramatic.
Stop being such a 9 and just make a decision.
Sound familiar? It seems like the more the Enneagram grows in popularity, the more it’s being used to typecast and limit people, when instead it should be used as a tool to promote freedom and growth.
People may have good intentions when they utter phrases like these above, but tactics like this limit the growth of those they’re talking about, rope relationships off in the shallow end, and ultimately reveal their own limited understanding of the Enneagram’s potential.
… A weapon
This is probably the darkest way the Enneagram is used: as a way to discriminate.
In my coaching practice I interact with many people who have varying levels of Enneagram familiarity. Some of them know just enough to say things like this:
2’s can never be managers.
I don’t hire 6’s or 3’s.
See how a little learning really can be a dangerous thing?
“No type is inherently better or worse than any other,” notes the Enneagram Institute. “While all the personality types have unique assets and liabilities, some types are often considered to be more desirable than others in any given culture or group...If some types are more esteemed in Western society than others, it is because of the qualities that society rewards, not because of any superior value of those types” (emphasis added).
People who know the Enneagram well are acutely aware that the ultimate goal is to not “look like” your number, but rather, to take on the best qualities of all nine numbers. The Enneagram clearly teaches that no type is inherently better or worse than another. The ideal is always to become your best self, not aspire to be someone else completely.
DO use the Enneagram...
… As a way to discover your truest self
Take some time to reflect on the Enneagram, just all by yourself. Be alone with your thoughts. Meditate. If you find journaling a helpful thinking exercise, jot down some observations you’re making along the way. Embrace Silence, Stillness and Solitude as special practices encouraged by Chris Huertz.
… For honest self-reflection alongside a mentor
There are great benefits to exploring the Enneagram with a coach or mentor you trust. A good coach will lean into what you’re saying, listen well, and guide you in unearthing and harnessing the wisdom you already possess. If you want, you could even begin exploring today by hopping on a call with me for a few minutes to get started.
… To better understand others in safe community
Imagine I’m at a casual community happy hour peppered with acquaintances . Someone makes their way over to me, bright-eyed and smiling, drink clutched in hand. “Hey! You’re the Enneagram girl! What’s your type?” Pause. Yikes. On the one hand, their question makes total sense. I feel an involuntary impulse to blurt it out. On the other, my gut tells me I don’t know this person very well, and this happy hour isn’t my ideal place to answer their question.
As anyone who knows the Enneagram will tell you, it’s extremely personal. Asking someone to pinpoint their Enneagram number at a casual happy hour surrounded by people they hardly know, is simultaneously asking them to share their deepest desire, darkest fear – and that’s just scratching the surface!
I rarely share the Enneagram number I identify with (although that is changing as I begin to instruct more – a tradeoff I must make as a teacher) because I want people to get to know me on their own, not assume they know me because they know which number I connect with. I share my number with safe people because I trust them to handle the Enneagram, and me, a certain way. Safe people know you, and they know your story. Safe people have demonstrated trust to you in ways that you value.
I created Nine Shapes: Conversational Cards Around the Enneagram specifically for these types of settings. The cards are designed to help folks have more meaningful conversations, using the Enneagram as a framework. Each question unlocks deeper understanding and connection, and yet is general enough for anyone to get something from playing the game. It's a helpful way to invest in your closest relationships or begin to form new ones. And trust me: there are enough questions to learn more about someone else (or yourself) than you ever thought possible.
Use helpful, healthy language around the Enneagram
No one belongs in a box. That includes you. Remember: You are not your number. So rather than say things like, “She’s a 1” – opt for language like, “I identify with Type 5,” or “I am dominant in Type 8.”
Resist the urge to type people right away
Instead, listen to their journey and offer to explore with them. Ask them how they learned about the Enneagram, what their experience with it has been like, or how they’ve utilized it in their life. Preface any personal questions with a comfy caveat: “...if you feel comfortable sharing.” They’ll appreciate the thoughtfulness.
Remember that the Enneagram is one lens with which to view the world
It’s a powerful lens, yes, but it is one of the many, many lenses that make up the kaleidoscope of helpful theories knit into our world. There’s no need to over-identify with your type. Find the uniquely shaped beauty in all the numbers. Explore. Be curious and compassionate. Embrace Enneagram virtues internally, and nurture them within safe relationships you value and trust. We need each type as we need each other.
Wishing you both truth and courage in your journey,