Nine ways to understand yourself and others

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HAVE YOU EVER wondered why people are so different? Why they can’t all be like you? Why people don’t understand where you’re coming from or what makes you tick?

Welcome to the human race – questions like these have preoccupied us for centuries, and no doubt will for generations to come.

There have been many attempts to explain the diversity of personality, but few as enduring as the Enneagram (from the Greek for ‘nine ways’.)

For the last two years, a group of us from the local Anglican church have met monthly to explore different aspects of spirituality, for our own development and the growth of a spirit of community among those who are regular participants in the life of the parish, so the church can fulfil its aim to be ‘Creative, Progressive, Inclusive’.

Yesterday this group attended a workshop with David Mahon, author of Full Face To God – An Introduction to the Enneagram.

The Enneagram of Personality is a model of  nine interconnected personality types, represented by the points of a geometric figure called an enneagram, which also indicates some of the connections between the types.

The origins of the Enneagram have been traced to early Christian and Islamic mysticism, but it has acquired new meaning in popular psychology and spirituality since the 1950s. In business it is used to gain insights into workplace dynamics; in spirituality it is presented as a path to enlightenment. In both it is used as a method for promoting self and mutual understanding and self-development.

David Mahon, a counsellor and former editor of  the Catholic Pictorial, the Archdiocese of Liverpool’s monthly magazine, writes that some Enneagram scholars claim it was originally a Sufi (charismatic Muslim) insight that there were nine constant aspects of personality that could act as a gift or a restriction on individuals as they opened up psychologically and spiritually. The Sufis called their model of guidance the Face of God. They saw each of the nine personality types as a refraction of the one divine image of God in which we are made. Hence, using the Enneagram to understand ourselves better can be a tool to enable us to become more fully ourselves and, as the title of his book say, reveal our ‘Full Face To God’.

The types are normally referred to by numbers, or sometimes their ‘roles’, or distinctive archetypal characteristics. David Mahon characterises them as follows:

One = The Perfectionist

Two = The Giver        

Three = The Achiever

Four = The Artist

Five = The Observer

Six = The Supporter

Seven = The Optimist

Eight = The Leader

Nine = The Mediator

In this blog there is not space to explain the entire model. As an example, I’ll share the insights it has given me, to give you an idea of how it works.

Before you can discern your type it is helpful to reflect on where you feel your ‘centre of energy’ lies – Head, Heart or Gut. We all dip into these parts of ourselves at different times, but which is the one that dominates? Discerning this narrows my personality type from nine choices to three:

HEART = Two, Three, Four

HEAD = Five, Six, Seven

GUT = Eight, Nine, One

While I can be very analytical (Head) or respond by instinct (Gut), my primary focus and driver is emotional (Heart). This narrowed my choices to types Two, Three and Four.  Reading more closely about all the types, I felt some identification with other types. I can be a Perfectionist (One), or a Giver (Two). But reading about only one type led to a Eureka moment.

David Mahon analyses each type under ten different headings to help with self- identification. The one that resonated most with me was type Four, which he calls The Artist, known in other versions as The Individualist or, my favourite, the Tragic Romantic!

My way: Seeking to create
My statement: ‘I am unique’
My centre: Heart
My passion: Envy
My compulsion: To be different
My fear: The ordinary
My avoidance: The mundane
My method: Creative expression
My need: Sense of reality
My virtue: Equanimity

As you can see, this is not merely a list of affirmations. The types are intended to enlighten our strengths and reveal our shadows. As much as I consider myself to be sensitive and expressive, I know myself well enough to know I can be self-absorbed and temperamental! The invitation is to expose the shadow side, understand its source and work towards the goal of transformation.

One of the reasons I could see so much of myself in types One and Two is because the nine personality types are not static: they reflect how we change over time, indicated by the lines which join the numbers in the Enneagram. Different situations will evoke different responses from each personality. We adapt in different directions, as indicated by the lines of the Enneagram linking to or from our basic type.

Two lines connect to each type, and each type connects with two others. One line connects with a type that shows how we would behave as we move towards health and growth, called the Direction of Integration. The other line goes to a type that represents how we are  likely to act under stress, when we feel we are not in control, called the Direction of Disintegration.

When moving in the Direction of Disintegration (stress), aloof Fours suddenly become over-involved and clinging like an unhealthy type Two (The Giver). However, when moving in their Direction of Integration (growth), envious, emotionally turbulent Fours become more objective and principled, like a healthy One (The Perfectionist).

The Enneagram theory also states that we can be influenced by traits from neighbouring types on the diagram, known as ‘wings’. Adjacent to type Four is Three (The Acheiver) and Five (The Observer). While I don’t share the ambition of a type Three, I can be moved to a passion which drives me to achieve, sometimes due to a sense of inadequacy, sometimes from a desire for things to be better, for myself and others.  And I can be head centred and detached like a type Five (The Observer) when the need arises, sometimes as a defense against challenging emotions.

But the real moment of recognition came for me when David Mahon shared prayers he has written for each personality type. As he read the prayer for Type Four, I experienced a deep emotional response that is hard to express, a moment of recognition from myself and God with ‘sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26):

Lord God, I thank you for giving me a keen eye for beauty, and a special sensitivity for the human heart. Show me how even the most ordinary things are filled with the wonder of your presence. Help me to live in the present moment and to appreciate that my tears and laughter, joy and pain, are part of your loving plan for the world.

Other type Fours might feel the same way – the rest of you will need to do your homework to find out which type you are.  The Enneagram Institute offers an online Enneagram test which costs $10 (about £6). Or you could read David Mahon’s book.

David Mahon is a leader in the Tumble Trust, which takes its inspiration from the Christian contemplative tradition provides innovative relaxation retreats at some of the most affordable Christian centres in the UK.

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