The Enneagram

The significance of personality typologies

Ancient civilisations paid great attention to personality type. The ancient Indians proposed that the world is made of three elements – sattva (clarity), rajas (energy), tamas (obscurity), and so are our temperaments. Human beings were classified according to the element that was strongest in their temperamental constitution and it was understood that the three elements can combine in different intensities to make an infinite number of personalities.

The importance of a system of personality type was derived from the idea that each person is gifted with certain potentialities. The manifestation of these potentialities allows that person to shed off some of his karma and be closer to the spiritual ideal. Hence, the idea of a vocation – doing the kind of which that one is inwardly predisposed to do, rather than the kind of work one may be attracted to. From one perspective, the entire Bhagavad Gita is a treatise on this conflict between doing what one deeply is, and doing what feels more comfortable.

In modern times times personality typology is a part of the discipline of psychology that tries to understand the various types of psychological motivations each of us has. Of these, I shall write about the enneagram, a system which is perhaps the most subtle and nuanced of these typologies.


Origins of the enneagram

The word ‘enneagram’ means a diagram with nine points, from the Greek ‘ennea’ (“nine”) and gramma (“diagram”). Historians are unclear about where the enneagram emerged, but in its current form it has been publicly taught for about 50 years by a number of teachers, beginning from South America, then North America, and thereafter, several other countries. It has its sources in Sufism but what precisely these origins are has not been demonstrated.

The notion of a ‘type’

My purpose in this write-up is to explain the enneagram as a systematic study of the essence of the human personality. This explanation is based on the idea that every human being has certain unique potentialities that he is born with. One’s life, especially the first 16 years or so, enables the actualisation of these potentialities to various degrees, and in various expressions.

While some enneagram authors may not agree with this, I state this view as a contrast to the Freudian notion of personality being caused by experiences in childhood. In my view, the child already brings a potential to all the significant experiences of childhood, and reacts to them in his unique way. The place of childhood experiences in the formation of the personality, then, seems to be not one of causation but of providing opportunities for the manifestation of this personality, opportunities that determine not the personality’s constitution but its levels of health and the particular areas of life in which these potentialities are directed.

The enneagram and other typologies

The enneagram differs from other systems of personality type in an important manner – the enneagram type of a person is not what is observed. Rather, observation enables us to infer the core motivation that is behind the person’s way of living. This core motivation is his enneagram type. For instance, A and B are both type 4 people. But A might be a flamboyant person while B might be reserved. A might love fashion while B might disdain it, and prefer to spend his life in a library. Hence, it sometimes takes months, or years, to know one’s own enneagram type and that of others.

The nine types

And now, let us look at each type. I shall try to explain each type in one word and three sentences. The word will attempt to convey what is most important to people of this type The first sentence will elaborate on this word and hence define the ‘core motivation’ of the type. The second sentence will describe how these people are when emotionally healthy, and the third how they are when emotionally unhealthy. Most of us exist somewhere between these two extremes of health and un-health.

Type 1: ‘Righteousness’. Those who want to be and do what is ‘right’. At their best, they make selfless, idealistic workers towards a worthy cause. At their worst, they bicker about small mistakes and obsess over insignificant details.

Type 2: ‘Care’. Those who want to care for others. At their best, they are warm, nurturing persons who would do anything for an important relationship. At their worst, they compulsively need people around them to feel secure and complain about how others have not been as nice to them as they have been to others.  

Type 3: ‘Success’. Those who are strongly driven to be successful. At their best, they are highly energetic persons, inspired and inspiring others towards accomplishing goals that will make a better present and future for several people. At their worst, they ignore, or use the feelings of those around them in order to get where they want to get, even at the cost of hurting them.

Type 4: ‘Meaning’. Those who are seeking what is meaningful. At their best, such people have a profound vision of life that they may convey in art, in thought, or in their way of life. At their worst, they depressively withdraw from outer realities into their own world, obsessed with their individualism and uniquenesss.

Type 5: ‘Understanding’. Those who want to understand life. At their best, they perceive life with a deep, penetrating perception and are often masters in their area of knowledge. At their worst, they become absorbed in obscure intellectual projects and end up being distant and uncaring about any kind of emotions – their own or others’.

Type 6: ‘Blending’. Those who want to blend in with others and with life. At their best, they make solid, dependable friends and workers who can go a great length to live up to their commitments. At their worst, they are extremely conforming, terrified of sticking out and vouching for that which might be better for them and for others.

Type 7: ‘Joy’. Those who want to experience the joy of life. At their best, they live with an uncommon grasp of the little blessings that make life worthwhile, inspiring others with their natural delight and enthusiasm for what they commit themselves to. At their worst, they are flippant and preoccupied with their selfish projects.

Type 8: ‘Mastery’. Those who want to master all experiences of life. At their best, they are courageous people who can accomplish what others may not dare to try, breaking new paths and being a source of strength to others. At their worst, they can break tradition just for the sake of breaking it, and are hurtful and challenging towards others for the sake of their own sense of being in control.

Type 9: ‘Harmony’. Those who seek harmony and peace. At their best, they are relaxed in the face of matters that may cause a great deal of stress to others, and lend some of their ease with life to others. At their worst, they become lethargic and oppressed, unable to voice their opinions.


The wings

When you are a particular type, the types immediately before and after yours are called your wings. Often, but not necessarily, one of these two wings will be your second most strong motivation out of the 9 types of motivation. This makes for great variety within the enneagram system. For example, a 4 may have a strong 5 wing, giving his existential search an analytical streak. Or, he may have a strong 3 wing, making him a more an inspirer and performer. Occasionally, the wings are balanced, in which case the individuals have a bit of the characteristics of both wings. 9 types and 3 possible wing-combinations for each type make 27 distinct types. The wing is connoted by the alphabet ‘w’. So, if you are a 4 with a strong 3 wing, you write your type as 4w3.

The rare types

The types that become interested in personality typologies such as the enneagram are often those who find themselves to be a misfit in the world and have rarely known other people like themselves. In the enneagram, the rarest types are perhaps the type 5, and then the type 4. The enneagram can act as a source of support for these types, helping them know that they aren’t just retarded versions of ‘normal people’, but have their own unique strengths and potentialities.

Why the enneagram?

Contrary to what some might think and teach, the enneagram is – unlike some other typologies – not meant to categorise people and then look at them through these limited categories.

Rather, it is a set of descriptions of nine kinds of motivations. Each of us has all the nine motivations in us and they blend together in varied ways to create the unique hues of a person’s being. Usually, to use a visual metaphor, this blend of the 9 types is dominated by one particular colour, and secondly by another, but still, each blend is unique. Two people who are type 2w3 (“care” with a wing in “success”) can be totally different, if, for example, one has a strong 8 (“mastery”) and the other a strong 9 (“harmony”).

The enneagram, then, is not a categorisation from ‘above’, but a nuanced appreciation of the forces that drive us from ‘below’. Typically, when we meet a person a few times, we see certain parts of them but not others. Their personalities are like a ball submerged in water, with small parts of it showing above the surface. The ball rotates occasionally, so over time, you get to see newer parts. Knowing the enneagram helps one to tell the person’s enneagram type, and then understand the rest of their personality in its basic motivations, but not in its personal details.

The enneagram and personal growth

Several enneagram teachers promote it as a tool for personal growth. For me, the enneagram is a map of growth, but not the vehicle that will take you down the paths inscribed in the map. The vehicle would be a life of meditation, prayer, psychotherapy, or even a life lived with thoughtfulness and honesty. Its quality, as a map, however is fundamentally significant on the journey.

Further readings

If you find the above knowledge interesting, you might want to figure out your enneagram type and understand the enneagram system better. The best way to do both is to study the enneagram online and through books.

The best book on the subject, perhaps, is Claudio Naranjo’s Character and Neurosis. For those who are looking for something very simple, the works of Helen Palmer and Riso-Hudson may suffice. The Enneagram Institute’s website ( is a useful online resource.

For those who do not want to spend much time on the subject but are still curious, the same linked website has a short, free test which might indicate your possible enneagram type

Test results, however, must not be taken very seriously. Only study and introspection can help us understand our enneagram type.

~ by tdcatss on June 8, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Enneagram”

  1. Very interesting, kaif. I found this write up meaningful and it re triggered interest. Thank you for sharing.

  2. thanks pankaj

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