If you’ve been around the Christian blogosphere circles for the past five years, you will know that the hottest test of the moment is something known as the Enneagram. Everyone’s talking about it, finding their type, using it as an explanation for their behaviour, and guessing other people’s types.
I’m a huge fan of personality tests. Not just Myers Briggs, DISC, Belbin – I will also gladly participate in such important surveys as ‘Which Harry Potter creature are you?’ (a Phoenix), and ‘how accident-prone are you?’ (not very – which I knew before I took the test). I confess to being a navel-gazing reflective-type who believes there are always more depths to be fathomed in the endless complexities of my personality.
However, while the enneagram is a helpful tool for self-discovery, I get decidedly twitchy when anyone claims to know the enneagram type of anyone they don’t know well. In many of the the enneagram books and websites, you see something like this:
“Type 2s are motivated by a deep desire to be loved, and often help people in order to feel validated. Their deadly sin is pride, because they believe they are above help. Examples of this might include Mother Theresa and Elizabeth Taylor.”
(Mother Theresa and Elizabeth Taylor seem like such a natural pairing, wouldn’t you say?)
Here’s three reasons why you should avoid claiming to know others’ enneagram types and their wider motivations:
1) The enneagram is based on motivation, not behaviour
Related to the ’seven deadly sins’ , the enneagram’s nine profiles seek to evaluate motivation more than behaviour. According to the enneagram institute, these are the basic motivations or desires for each type (with additional titles in brackets):
- Being good – (The Reformer)
- Being loved – (The Helper )
- Feeling valuable and worthwhile – (The Achiever)
- Finding themselves and their significance – (The Individualist)
- Being capable and competent – (The Investigator)
- Having security and support – (The Loyalist)
- Being satisfied and content – (The Enthusiast)
- Protecting themselves – (The Challenger)
- Having inner stability and peace of mind – (The Peacemaker)
Additionally, there is significant difference between the ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ versions of each type. Some of us are very good at compensating for their inner need, and don’t operate out of that core insecurity. The enneagram is complex.
I pride myself on reading people well, but I’ve been unable to predict even some of my best friends’ enneagram types. A friend who is both wildly successful and creative, I guessed as a Type 3 or 4, but she’s a Type 5, commonly associated with academics. A friend who is a bold, pioneering leader in the charity sector, I guessed as Type 1, the desire to be good, but she’s Type 6, motivated by security.
Unless someone – even a very good friend – tells us themselves, we cannot know another’s inner motivation.
2) To label someone is to reduce them
It’s hard to guess a friend’s enneagram type, so we can’t presume to know the hidden desires of famous people we’ve never met.
(But it doesn’t stop us guessing, does it?)
As humans, we like to predict people’s behaviour. An unpredictable person is a frightening person. We particularly want to label famous people, who have power, so we can feel closer to the ones we love, and protect ourselves from those we hate. It’s a natural instinct.
(If you clicked on this post because of the title, then you’ve proven my point.)
Labels function as a predictor of behaviour. But all they are is guesses.
We show our bias in the way that we guess people’s motivations. If we like them, we assume a good and noble motivation; if we don’t, then we assume a baser motivation. For example: if a friend cancels at the last minute we think, ‘probably she’s really struggling right now’; if an enemy cancels, we think, ‘it’s because she’s selfish’.
We like labelling others, but we don’t like being labelled ourselves. This should tell us something. Labels are for museums, not people. Humans are not specimens in a jar. We have a habit of wriggling out.
3) People can change
The enneagram itself allows for growth and becoming a healthier person. But we often forget that in the way we label people.
If we’re not careful, the label we give someone prevents us from seeing the real person. We assume that if someone has a tendency to be selfish, they will always be selfish. We can then overlook the times that person is subsequently generous. Even if they change, we may not notice, because we’re so predisposed to reading our label of them rather than who they are now.
Just because people have a tendency towards one of the nine desires listed above doesn’t mean they will always have that tendency.
In other words, I reserve the right to wrestle with more than one deadly sin over my lifetime. During my lifetime, I reserve the right to be motivated by a desire for safety, or to be satisfied, or to be seen as competent, or a tenth, different desire.
I’ve heard (and had) conversations like this:
“What type are you?”
“Me too! Fours are the best!”
And that’s it. Once we have the label, we’re satisfied, and we don’t need to discover more. We’ve categorised them in our head.
We use labels to shut people up and shut conversation down, but the enneagram should do the opposite. The enneagram should start conversations, not end them. It should raise questions for ourselves: ‘what is motivating my behaviour in this instance? Is that healthy?’ It should cause us to ask others: In what ways does this motivation govern you? To what extent do you struggle with this label? In which ways does it characterise you and in which ways do you defy that characterisation?’
It’s better to discover than assume.
What enneagram type is Jesus? I couldn’t know for sure, but I like to think that if I asked, he’d simply reply with a wry smile.
Over to you:
- How comfortable do you feel with the enneagram? What caveats and explanations would you want to accompany people knowing your ‘type’?
- Which questions do you find helpful to ask yourself when evaluating your enneagram type?