The Enneagram is a Jerk

I remember my first experience with the Enneagram. A few friends had been talking about it consistently and they encouraged me to take the test myself. I completed the quiz, looked up my number, and began to read. I found myself scoffing and huffing more with every page I read, until I finally threw the book across the room. 

I treat my books as my most valuable possessions and I have never thrown a book before or since. The things that book was implying, though, lit up my outrage like fireworks. The Enneagram doesn’t mince words and it doesn’t pull punches. It has a lot of nerve. 

For example: 

Sevens end up anxious, frustrated, and enraged, with fewer resources available to them physically, emotionally, or financially. They may end up ruining their health, their relationships, and their finances in their search for happiness.

Ones can be highly dogmatic, self-righteous, intolerant, and inflexible. Begin dealing in absolutes: they alone know “The Truth.” Everyone else is wrong: very severe in judgments, while rationalizing own actions.

Sixes become sarcastic and belligerent, blaming others for their problems, taking a tough stance toward “outsiders.” Highly reactive and defensive, dividing people into friends and enemies, while looking for threats to their own security. 

Granted, the Enneagram does try to balance the weaknesses with strengths but those strengths don’t seem nearly as convincing. It took me a number of years of healing to be able to encounter the truth of the Enneagram and not be overwhelmed by its insights. It probably already knew that. 

My experience with spiritual gifts tests presented something different though. You’re required to choose a description that best resembles you but, of course, all the choices are fairly positive, you just plot it on a scale from 1 to 5.

For example:

I believe everyone needs encouragement in this life, and I love to give it.

I live a simple lifestyle so that I can give a larger portion of my income to The Lord’s work.

I have great empathy for those who are facing difficult life challenges.

God has given me a message for an individual or group and compelled me to speak it to them.

I spend large amounts of time studying the Word of God knowing that my effort will make a difference in someone’s life.

And the outcome is always glowingly positive:

#1 Discernment

#2 Mercy

#3 Pastoring

These results don’t tell you that I may also be prone to criticism and jealousy, that I hold people to too high a standard, or that I am impatient with people who are slow to change. Although I do find these tests helpful, I don’t trust them nearly as much as I do the ones that show me my dark side when I need it. 

I did however, find one spiritual gift test that I have trusted far more than any other. In Discover Your God-Given Gifts, (they even have a book for kids!) Don and Katie Fortune add something that is invaluable. For each spiritual gift they add a chapter that is titled, “Problems of the (insert gift here).” For example, I’m a Perceiver, which is commonly called a prophet. In the chapter on “Problems of the Perceiver” it lists five challenges.

  1. Tends to be judgmental and blunt
  2. Forgets to praise partial progress due to goal consciousness
  3. Is pushy in trying to get others and groups to grow spiritually
  4. In intolerant of opinions and views that differ from her own
  5. Struggles with self-image problems. 

Taken alone, this list can be disheartening, but when connected to the gift, it illuminates the dark side of it. I can easily feel hopeless. But when it is explained that this is what occurs when Perceivers are not walking in the Spirit, it gives me a deeper understanding of my flesh and sin patterns.

The authors state, “We have found it helpful for people to know that their gifts will bring specific challenges. One woman said to us, ‘It’s a relief to know that my problems are typical for my gift. I thought I was the only one in the world wrestling with these things. Now I have hope and direction.’ ” 

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community and author of Community and Growth uses the word anti-gift. However strong your gift is, when not used rightly, that same gift can be your undoing, your anti-gift. Someone who has seemingly endless stores of compassion may also get caught up in a savior complex or become entangled and dependent. That’s the anti-gift of someone who cares deeply. 

Awareness of this shadow side of gifting can help us see more quickly when we’re going off the rails spiritually. As a Perceiver I should be praying more than talking. The Fortunes write, “We have yet to find an adult Christian with the gift of perception who has not been called to intercession.  . . . They may be given revelations about other people’s problems and needs. If they don’t take it to prayer they can become negative criticizers or obnoxious meddlers.”

Obnoxious. Meddlers

I’ve never forgotten that phrase since I read it 14 years ago. It showed me that I was operating out of common sense and my own conviction of what the right thing to do was. In short, I was living in the flesh. I wasn’t praying and I wasn’t giving the Holy Spirit room or time to work. I had dishonored the people in my life who came to me for advice and support. In order for our gifts and types to shine, we need to be committed to abiding in Jesus, feeling his gentle nudges when we’re tempted to stray, and embracing the humility necessary to experience transformative growth.

For all the frustration, embarrassment, humiliation, discouragement these tests have produced in me, there is another area I find them to be invaluable and that is the context of relationships. I find it helpful when someone discovers their Number or Type or Gift and shares it with me. I like the camaraderie of knowing a fellow ENFJ writer, celebrating our extroversion while at the same time being mostly surrounded by introverts. How do we get anything written when we’re so busy extroverting?

On the other hand, knowing a new friend is an introvert can help me measure my approach and expectations in a way that gives that person space to be themselves and honors their extraordinary contribution to the friendship. 

The Enneagram and I are finding our way back to each other and I’m ready for its brutal truth, the wounds of a friend. I don’t believe any personality or spiritual gift test on its own can reveal to us the incredible complexity of our giftedness and brokenness, but I do believe they give us a starting point to help us navigate the profoundly elaborate labyrinth of our being. 

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Tammy Perlmutter

Writer at Raggle-Taggle
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog. She founded The Mudroom to make room in the mess and create a space for people to be heard. Tammy guest posts a bit, writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion. She will has an essay included in the book Soul Bare: Raw Reflections on Human Redemption, by Inter Varsity Press.
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  • I’m from the old-school tests (old school everything!) Myers-Briggs, Sanguine/Melancholy/Phlegmatic/Choleric, and the generic spiritual gifts type tests. I’ve read about the Enneagram but never got into it. I appreciate the distinctions you make between the ones you’ve mentioned and find them most helpful. And I think I recognize myself in the list of “problems” for the perceiver. 😉

  • I love this, and when I read my first book about the Enneagram, I kept waiting for them to say, “And if when you read the faults of any type you think you ARE that type, then you must be a ____” because that’s what happened for me. (They didn’t say that — ever.)

  • Janna Lynas

    Personality, spiritual gifts tests, DISC profiles, they all intrigue me. I have learned to put words to the things I’ve known about myself for years, but never took the time to set down to call it out. Admittedly so, I have never took a hard look at what an Enneagram would so blantantly point out – seems a little painful, but I appreciate your other resource mentioned. All in all, on the quest to know yourself, they serve a purpose, the good, bad and the ugly! Thanks for being vulnerable here.

    • Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your results if you ever venture to take the Enneagram:) Have you ever done Strengths Finder?

  • This title made me laugh. I had exactly the same reaction to my enneagram. And I love Vanier’s insight–that every one of our gifts has a shadow side. It’s easier to understand and steward our strengths if we’re really honest with ourselves about their limitations.

  • I love this! I took the Enneagram and felt very “meh” about my results. A friend suggested taking it again. I’m a big StrengthsFinder fan because the idea that we all have strengths is something I can connect with…. Looking forward to this month’s topic!

    • I love StrengthsFinder! I only know one other person who’s done it. My top 5 are Input, Intellection, Connectedness, Strategic, and Activator. What are yours?

  • I like to think of all personality typing indicators as layers – helping me understand the mystery of who I am and how I can thrive. To allow any of them to be authoritative has only been detrimental to me. But to allow them to open an opportunity to grow and find healthy ways to exist in the world and relate to others existing in the world explains why I have such an appreciation for all of them. The truth about myself is only brutal if I see it as a sentence on my being rather than an escape hatch from the things that bind me or weigh me down. (Am I giving away my type? 😉 )

  • I really like your description of the Enneagram as “wounds from a friend.” I have found it such a helpful tool. I read Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s The Road Back to You recently and really appreciated their balancing of the good and not-so-good aspects of each type (plus the humour). I definitely do think it depends who/what you read on the Enneagram, and what those writers emphasize. I’ve read Hurley and Dobson and found them a little woo-woo; I’ve read Riso & Hudson and been a bit freaked out by the descriptions of the unhealthy types (psychopaths are everywhere!!!); etc. But I found The Road Back to You very down to earth and accessible.

  • I love love love this. I much prefer anything that has the gift alongside the weakness. Creation came before the fall – we never start with sin, we always start with value and ‘good’. That’s where I’m at, anyway… (But you can see how my enneagram post compares!)

    AND ENFJS 4EVA!!