The Price Of Personality

Mar 28, 2008 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This January, I joined my family just outside of Portland, Maine for a week long vacation. Being that I live in the dorms at University, I don't get to spend much quality time with my entire nuclear family, so this was a very rare and special experience. As happens when you're separated from the group for extended periods of time, I was unaware of the tides of thought that had been circulating around the dinner table in my absence. It did not take me long to figure out, however, that the newest topic of discussion was the concept of the Enneagram of Personality.

For those who are unfamiliar with this term (as I was), the Enneagram is a model of personality types. First popularized in 1916 by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, this method of human psyche analysis is traditionally attributed to the teachings of Oscar Ichazo, the Bolivian-born founder of the Arica School. The Enneagram seeks to explain certain repetitive thought and behavior patterns by outlining the nine different ways in which the ego can become embedded within a person's psyche during his or her youth. The individual will develop a psychological personality around this 'ego fixation,' and this personality type will be bolstered at the emotional level by a particular love or fear associated with each ego fixation number (1 through 9). It is believed that, by understanding which of the nine cores a person manifests, it is possible to comprehend (and hypothetically, predict) all of his or her future actions and choices. The hope is that the individual who understands the inclinations of his own ego fixation can transcend this predicted behavior and the suffering it often causes. Thus, the Enneagram serves to indicate what parts of our lives need attention and fixing. Or so I gathered from a cursory reading of the Wikipedia article.

Now, before I go any further with a discussion of what sets the Enneagram apart from other forms of astrology, typology, etc., I think you should know that I do, in fact, enjoy checking my horoscope from time to time. I often buy into the ridiculous stereotypes for Aquarius. I've even played around with that numbers thing at the back of magazines where you add your birth day, month, and year until you get a single digit that represents you, with a fortune to go along with it. But when I start reading about how I should "watch out on the 17th as Saturn drifts into my 5th house, which could lead to drama in the workplace," my belief in this sort of personality prediction wanes. Still, the semi-occult nature of these sorts of constructs, and particularly the hold they have over people who subscribe to them, intrigues me. I decided to read more about the Enneagram because it seemed to be an equally fascinating philosophy, only based on a bit more of the logic my student brain is used to digesting.

What I found by taking an online Enneagram test ($10 on my MasterCard) and reading through Richard Rohr's The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective ($18.95 on my MasterCard) is that, not only has the Enneagram been around for ages, but I am also most definitely a type six (priceless). While I won't ruin the surprise for those of you interested in this topic by summarizing what classification as each of the nine personality types means, what I will say is that the accuracy with which every individual conforms to a particular number's "root sin"--fear, deceit, emptiness, etc.--is astounding. Depending on your type, this one innate personality trait will dictate how you behave in nearly every situation.

What is even more fascinating is the utter depression that sinks in upon discovering your personal type number. Having to confront, in lucidly written prose, the root of all the self-imposed suffering in your life, the counter-productive behavior, the absence of growth...this is the unveiling process. This how you figure out where progress can be made.

While discerning my Enneagram grouping into the type six category allowed me to recognize my root sin as fear--which, among other things, means that I easily succumb to self-doubt, long for certainty in everything, and set myself up for failure (because success is never guaranteed)--it also showed me the path to "redemption". Redeemed sixes are those people who ultimately come to know a balance between what is real and what isn't, learning to master their fear of the unknown and to replace it with a confidence in what is.

What I outlined above is the particular cycle a type six must endure, and it varies for each number grouping. What doesn't vary is the fact that we all have something to work on. If we ask ourselves honestly, we probably already know what this something is. The Enneagram can help us figure out what our root insecurities are, but the most important thing is to realize how they drive us to behave in counterproductive ways. This is the first step to figuring out the redemptive pattern. Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with is the fact that you are not, in fact, unique. You are a cliché of your number. But this can be a good thing too, since it means you are never alone: there will be many other people out there struggling with the same issues you have on their own life journeys.

The redemption process is your life's task, so this blog is not meant to get you running out there to "fix" yourself. Hopefully it gets you interested in thinking about how the way you behave in one part of your life is generally how you'll behave in all parts, such that changing the root of the problem in one area will have benefits across the board.