What Is the Enneagram?

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What Is the Enneagram?

The Enneagram is a typology system that describes human personality as a number of interconnected personality types. While it has become popular within spirituality and business disciplines, there has been limited research on its use and it is not widely accepted in the field of evidence-based psychology.

Enneagram of personality
 Verywell / Jessica Olah

The Enneagram consists of a nine-point diagram. Each point represents a personality type. The Enneagram figure or diagram is made up of three elements. The outer part is made up of a circle, which then contains a triangle and an irregular hexagon.

At its simplest, the Enneagram represents nine different personality types. Beyond the basic nine personality types, the system grows much more complex and includes 27 different subtypes as well as three key "centers" focused on action, feeling, and thinking.

How Do You Know?

Each of the nine personality types is characterized by a set of dominant behaviors, motivations, and fears. The goal of this system is to better understand your type so that you’ll be able to make the most of your strengths and address your weaknesses in order to achieve your full potential.

Your Basic Type

According to Enneagram theory, people are born with a dominant personality type that can then be shaped by environmental factors and experiences.

These two forces also tend to influence each other: While inborn traits and characteristics help shape how people respond to their experiences, their environment also plays a role in shaping how personality is formed and expressed.

Your Adjacent Types

The Enneagram system also holds that no one is simply a single pure type. Instead, personality is a mix of your basic type as well as at least one or two adjacent types known as "wings." These adjacent personality types may influence overall personality, but they do not change a person’s basic type.

According to Enneagram theory, people do not change from one basic type of personality to another. However, not all elements of personality are always expressed—people are always fluctuating depending on factors such as their health and habits.

You might identify with the traits of other types, but the Enneagram suggests that it is your dominant type that is the most important.

After taking an Enneagram test, respondents learn which basic type best describes their personality. Depending upon the test, respondents may also discover one or two additional types that also contribute to their overall personality. 

Types

Each of the nine types are known by both their number and their name. Each has its own set of potential strengths and weaknesses. 

1. Reformer

  • Highly principled
  • Can be judgmental and uncompromising
  • Perfectionistic, purposeful, and self-controlled
  • Strives for integrity
  • Fears corruption
  • Has a strong sense of what is the “right” and “wrong” way to do things

2. Helper

  • Generous and people-pleasing
  • Has a strong desire to be loved, sometimes denying their own needs in order to make others happy
  • Puts a lot of energy into their relationships, but this is sometimes interpreted as neediness
  • Genuine
  • Good listener
  • Tends to overlook own needs

3. Achiever

  • Successful, adaptable, and hardworking
  • May sometimes be overachievers or workaholics
  • Driven to excel
  • Image-conscious
  • Adaptable
  • More focused on success than feelings, but are good at communicating

4. Individualist

  • Creative, forward-thinking, and highly expressive
  • Sometimes self-centered
  • Strong sense of identity
  • Can be temperamental or self-absorbed at times

5. Investigator

  • Innovative and highly perceptive
  • Smart and logical and like to think deeply about things
  • Quiet and thoughtfulness
  • Objective and logical
  • Detached and unemotional

6. Loyalist

  • Tend to be responsible and committed
  • Have long-lasting relationships
  • Trustworthy and devoted
  • Tends to worry and dwell on the negative

7. Enthusiast

  • Spontaneous, fun-loving, and versatile
  • Extraverted—they are social and love to meet new people
  • Highly adventurous and are always on the lookout for fun
  • Easily distracted and unfocused
  • Quick thinking
  • Good at maintaining a positive attitude

8. Challenger

  • Bold, dominating, and confrontational
  • Decisive and self-confident
  • Often successful in leadership roles
  • Sometimes be seen as domineering and aggressive
  • Outspoken and action-oriented

9. Peacemaker

  • Agreeable and easy-going
  • Self-effacing and complacent at times
  • Avoid conflict whenever possible
  • Promote harmony in groups
  • Dislikes disagreements
  • May ignore their own wants and needs just to ensure peace

Uses

The Enneagram works by sorting people into these nine different types. The goal is to give insight not only into the individual’s own personality but also to provide valuable information on how to better relate to other people.

Possible Applications

  • Personal growth and development
  • Interpersonal communication, team building, and leadership development
  • Creating successful relationships at work and in other life areas

While the theory needs further research to validate its use, it has gained some popularity as a tool for building better relationships. By gaining insight into individual strengths and weaknesses, people can look for ways to better relate and communicate with their partners.

The Enneagram is also sometimes used within the field of industrial-organizational psychology to help improve employee motivation and productivity. Businesses utilize the test to help their employees gain a greater understanding of group dynamics and interpersonal communication.

The test has also become popular on social media as people share more about their results and explore their strengths and weaknesses.

Impact of the Enneagram

While critics note that the system is rooted more in a semi-mystical ancient philosophy than in scientifically valid research, there is some evidence that the Enneagram has a use as a personality tool:

  • A study published in the Journal of Adult Development found that participants who took part in an Enneagram training program showed improvements in ego development and personal growth.
  • A year-long investigation carried out in 2004 by researchers Saville and Holdsworth found that the Enneagram was comparable to other well-known and more accepted theories including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Big Five.
  • One case study published in the journal Contemporary Family Therapy suggested that the Enneagram could be a useful tool within the context of counseling, helping to facilitate therapy and promote awareness in the counseling relationship.

While promising, further research is still needed to explore the Enneagram’s applicability and usefulness.

Tips for Using Enneagram Results

The Enneagram has become better known in recent years thanks in part to the rising popularity of online personality tests. Because the Enneagram addresses faults and weaknesses as well as strengths, it is often thought of as a tool for self-analysis and self-improvement. By recognizing these areas, people can work toward becoming more self-aware and achieving greater self-actualization.

There are a few important things you should remember when taking these tests:

  • Personality is complex and a simple online test is not enough to tell you everything about your personality, motivations, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • Such tests can be fun and interesting, but be careful not to take your results too seriously.
  • This sort of test can be a way to gain insight into your own personality and might be a starting point for gaining greater personal insight and self-awareness.

If you are interested in taking the test, the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI) can be found at the Enneagram's Institute's website. You can purchase a single-use code for $12 to take the test.

Potential Pitfalls

There are a few pitfalls to watch for when taking an Enneagram test or reading more about your type:

  • The Enneagram has gained popularity in some areas but has also been criticized for being pseudoscientific. It is often described as being overly vague and difficult to test scientifically.
  • Type descriptions have been criticized for being too general, almost Barnum-effect style statements that can sometimes seem more like horoscopes rather than empirically tested descriptions of personality. (The Barnum effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people rate personality descriptions as being highly accurate and individualized, even when they are so vague they can apply to almost anyone).
  • Not everyone agrees on how the system works. Some Enneagram theorists believe that personality is composed of a dominant type and one adjacent wing, while other theorists suggest that there are two wings. The official Enneagram site suggests that this is an area in need of further research.

It is also important to remember that the Enneagram does not suggest that any type is better or more desirable than another. Whether the traits associated with each type are seen as a help or a hindrance depends on the individual and their culture.

History of the Enneagram

The origins of the Enneagram are something of a mystery. It may date back to the time of the ancient Greeks, although its exact history is disputed. It is a synthesis of a number of different spiritual traditions, including elements of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

A philosopher and mystic by the name of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff is credited with bringing the Enneagram figure to the attention of the world, although he did not use it to categorize personality types. Oscar Ichazo, the founder of a school for human potential and self-development, assigned different personality types to each of the nine positions in the Enneagram diagram.

Later, psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo expanded the theory to expand the nine types in psychological terms.

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  1. The Enneagram Institute. How the Enneagram System Works. 2017.

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  3. Matise M. The Enneagram: An Enhancement to Family Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy. 2018;41(1):68-78. doi:10.1007/s10591-018-9471-0