The Enneagram is an age-old tool for spiritual transformation based on nine personality archetypes. It can cut to the quick of all our mental and emotional vices. It unmasks us. It’s so much deeper than a personality quiz or evaluation. The Enneagram digs deep, peeling back layers as we grow in our own self awareness, shining light on pieces of ourselves that lay hidden to us.
Popular culture has long played with the idea that we have a “good self” and a “bad self.” Whether it’s stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Fight Club, we’re enthralled with the idea that we contain within us competing voices. Peter Jackson’s adaption of The Two Towers portrays a powerful scene depicting the inner conflict of Gollum/Smeagol.
In spiritual formation, we call this the “true self” and the “false self.” This concept of true self/false self is crucial in rightly understanding the Enneagram and applying it to our lives. The Enneagram helps us wake up to our “false self” that can often be our default operating system, pulling the strings in the background of our consciousness.
When I teach the Enneagram, whether in groups or individually, it’s not an uncommon experience for someone who’s learning this for the first time to struggle in identifying with a single type. They relate to two, three, even four different ones and they can’t decide. There are numerous online tests you could take. Sometimes that’s helpful. Sometimes not. Your discernment with the Enneagram deserves more than a 5-minute online quiz.
So how do you figure out what you’re type is? Here are four questions you can use to slowly start discerning what your type might be. Sit with these. There’s no hurry. Be patient with the journey.
What’s your inner strategy for getting your needs met?
In other words, what’s your operating system running in the background of all your mental chatter to get what you want? Do you make demands to get what you want? Do you attempt to earn something to get what you want? Do you withdraw to get what you want?
Perhaps you make demands. You’re direct and assertive. You go after what you want. The false self of these types wants to go big or go home. This can be the experience of the Three, Seven, or Eight.
Perhaps you strive to earn. You’re looking for the right thing to do, what’s responsible and expected. You know the rules and work to figure our how to function within them. This can come across as people pleasing. The One, Two, and Six are marked by these characteristics.
Perhaps you withdraw and disengage. You have an “inner world” you can retreat to where you feel secure. You may feel more at home in the fantasy world in your head than the real world around you. You may walk into a room and hover around the fringes, more comfortable watching than participating. This can be the experience of the Four, Five, and Nine.
Where is your intelligence center?
In other words, from where do you make your biggest decisions? Do you use your head, analyzing and thinking things through? Do you use your heart, engaging your emotions and considering how others’ feeling will be impacted? Do you use your physical body, your gut or instinct, you just know that you know that you know?
Thinking types see the world through their heads. They think their feelings. They live in the land of ideas and are sponges for knowledge. Decision-making is a chess match of pros and cons. They’re also particularly tripped up by fear. This is the experience of the Five, Six, or Seven.
Feeling types see the world through their hearts. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’re often intensely relational. They thrive on connections with people. They’re natural in social situations. They also uniquely struggle with shame. If this sounds like you, you could be a Two, Three, or Four.
Intuitive types see the world through their physical bodies. All their physical senses are engaged. They make decisions instinctually. They can be impulsive. They are particularly tripped up by anger. These characterize the Eight, Nine, and One.
How do you respond to disappointment and loss?
In other words, what’s your coping mechanism when you don’t get what you want? How do you deal with conflict and difficulty? What’s your defense mechanism when you find you’re not in control?
You may try to spin a positive outlook. You turn lemons into lemonade. Put on a good face and make the most of it. Perhaps you focus on cultivating a positive self image. This describes a Two. Perhaps you focus on reframing it as positive experiences. This describes a Seven. Perhaps you focus on striving to see a positive environment. This describes a Nine.
You may put aside your feelings and be objective about the situation. You detach and disengage. You try to think your way out of it. There’s a logical explanation for this. Perhaps you strive for organization and correctness. This may characterize a One. Perhaps you respond with what’s practical and efficient.This may characterize a Three. Perhaps you respond by trying to be an expert with insightful information. This may characterize a Five.
You may respond reactively with your emotions. You may need others to mirror your emotions. You want your concern to be shared. Perhaps you just want to be understood and seen. This looks like a Four. Perhaps you want independence and, at the same time, need someone to depend on. This looks like a Six. Perhaps you keep your guard up and crave self-reliance. This looks like an Eight.
How do you listen to the wisdom of others?
Maybe this is less of a question and more of an exhortation to don’t try this alone. Do this journey in the company of a mature and experienced Christian, your pastor, a mentor, a spiritual director. How would they answer the above questions about you? How would your spouse or partner?
A very wise friend once told me, “Facing one’s dark side alone without a guide is like trying to give birth alone. You could do it, but seriously you’ll get better results doing it with a host.”
As Gollum might say, your false self is a tricksy thing. It doesn’t want to be found. It doesn’t want to be exposed. It will lie to you. It won’t go quietly or without a fight. You need a community on your side.
My kids are blissfully unaware of danger. It’s one of my jobs as a parent to teach them proper respect of dangerous things, like cars on our street. One piece of their growing up is growing in understanding of what’s dangerous in the world and why. Our false self is dangerous to us. It stunts our growth and sabotages our relationships. So ask for help.
These aren’t definitive questions. They’re meant to be a kind of preliminary sorting mechanism to help you find a starting place for your journey of self-discovery and growth with God.
A couple last disclaimers:
You are not your type. You are not a One. You are not a Four. You are not an Eight. You are a human being made in God’s image. You’re a human being characterized by the tendencies of a One, or of a Four, or of an Eight. The Enneagram types are more adjective than noun. They describe you. They don’t define you.
Don’t weaponize the Enneagram. This is for you. This is your journey. This is your work. Not everybody is ready to go tackling their shadow false self. And it’s not your job to do it for them or to shove them into it.
This is just the beginning. It’s not enough to simply know your type. Now there’s work to be done letting go of your false self and becoming all that God has made you to be.
Many of the ideas here have been inspired by reading The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. My favorite primer for beginning with the Enneagram—especially for the way she unpacks the false self/true self in relation to it—is Self to Lose, Self to Find by Marilyn Vancil.
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