Bad Enneagram Content

Imagine your Dad walks up to you and says “I’m worried for the calendar. It’s days are grouped into segments of 28 to 31.” He stares at you, and you force a laugh, then spend hours afterwards wondering if that was a joke. It had the structure of a joke. He told it like it was a joke. Was there some obvious point he was getting at, or a pun that you missed? Then, after thinking about it way too long, you realize, “numbered! Dad meant to say the calendar’s days are numbered!”

That’s how I feel after reading 98% of popular Enneagram content online, and I’m going to rant about it.

The Enneagram is a personality system, kind of like Myers-Briggs except not at all. Myers-Briggs was developed by a mother-daughter team and based loosely on Jungian psychology, while the Enneagram just sort of evolved after a bunch of religious philosophy students in Chile threw ideas at the wall like so much half-cooked pasta, until they stuck together in this shape.

Then an anthropology student joined their school and was like, “has anyone copyrighted this? Is it kind of an open source public domain situation? Cool. I’ll… be right back.” He took it to a community of psychologists and counselors back in the States, all of whom tweaked it a bit more, and fifty years later it’s all over Instagram.

Unlike the orderly grid of Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram is chaotic and messy because no solely invented it and everyone has their own little twists and interpretations. Broadly speaking, it groups people into nine types based on their core values. Ones seek morality, Twos seek relationships, Threes seek achievements, Fours seek personal authenticity, Fives seek understanding, Sixes seek security, Sevens seek experiences, Eights seek strength and Nines seek harmony. (See here for a more detailed description of the types.) Obviously, all of these are good things to want, but life rarely lets us have all of them at once. When you’re deprived of one of those things, which one really guts you, regardless of whether or not you think it “should” be the most important to you? That probably corresponds to your type.

The rest of the Enneagram is about how people completely misapply those core values and make their lives a mess that is neither what they wanted or expected. It’s fun, especially if you like sitting up at 2:30 AM thinking, “I keep trying to piece together an identity made of hobbies and hairstyles and traumatic memories, but the reason I don’t know who I am is because the question itself has no meaning. The self is fluid and all attempts to contain it are but illusions. Who am I? Who is anybody????”

At least that’s what it’s like if you’re a type 4. Seriously, it’s good shit.

Anyway, I was into it way back before it was internet semi-popular, and I’m actually glad to see it getting more love. I’m glad to see it gaining popularity because A. it’s a good system and deserves to be better known and B. now I have more people to talk to about it.

I just, you know, wish the jokes were better.

I think the core of the problem is that people are rushing the jokes. So much of the content is clearly coming from people who built a platform off of Myers-Briggs jokes, then tapped that well dry, and now they’re looking to keep things going so they’re just copypasting Enneagram types into their old joke formats. This doesn’t work. The two systems talk about completely different things and have strengths and weaknesses that are exactly opposite each other.

For example, the format “how each Myers-Briggs type reacts to [situation]” works great, because Myers-Briggs is based off of observable behaviors, decision making and communication style. This means you can make some weirdly specific predictions about how an ENTJ will react to a situation, because if a person doesn’t react like an ENTJ, they don’t consider themselves an ENTJ. But the Enneagram isn’t based on behaviors at all. It’s based on motivations. If you ever read an Enneagram book, they will almost never say, “Fours do this” or “Eights act like that.” They will always qualify statements, saying things like “when stressed, Fours tend to do one of the following things” or “as they become more healthy, Eights tend to channel their anger in these ways” and so on. This makes the Enneagram a better system for self-development and personal exploration. If you evolve as a person, your Myers-Briggs type might change, but your Enneagram won’t. So naturally, when you start a joke with “how each Enneagram type reacts to [situation]” you have a big problem. Half your audience won’t know enough about the Enneagram to find it funny. The other half won’t find it funny because they know the Enneagram doesn’t work like that. Sure, you might catch a sliver of people who know a bit about the Enneagram but not enough to realize how inaccurate your video/gif/meme is, but they will either learn enough to no longer find your content funny, or just lose interest in the Enneagram because they think it’s all paper thin stereotypes.

Similarly, trying to predict mundane daily behavior based on the Enneagram is never going to be all that funny or satisfying. The Enneagram doesn’t affect things like your sleep schedule or what streaming service you will prefer. It can affect bigger things, like your preference of partners and your ideal job, but even there people can miss the mark. I saw a post on the nightmare job of each Enneagram type. A couple of their ideas were pretty good, but mostly they just picked jobs that would be awful for anyone (nobody dreams of being a toll booth attendant). Then, for Fives, they decided the worst job would be an event planner. This struck me as stereotyping all Fives as lonely, eccentric academics, and the more I thought about it, the less sense it made.

The core of a Five is a desire to gain knowledge and understanding that is useful. They fear being incompetent, so they like to have some skill to fall back on. Social skills don’t operate by the same kind of regular rules as botany or combustion engines or the Dewey Decimal system, so Fives tend to be a little uncomfortable in social situations. They often deal with this awkwardness by developing a skill that puts them back in their comfort zone. They might study fashion so the popular kids have to consult them as an expert, or get really good at bowling and join a club. Event planning is a great example of this kind of skill. It takes all the unpredictable parts of social interactions and turns them into skills that can be mastered; cooking, decoration making, guest lists, dietary restrictions, schedules for setup and post-party cleanup. Then, when the party is happening, they can use their event planner duties as an excuse to take a break from the socializing and avoid getting overwhelmed. I’ll bet some of the best event planners are Fives.

I also see a lot of content that’s based on the premise that some types are bad and some types are good. This one is like watching someone say, “I am the best omelette maker. Watch me make an omelette!” and then smash a carton of eggs with the back of a frying pan and walk away proudly, leaving you to clean up the kitchen. What I’m saying is this is a total failure to understand the tools you were given or their proper end result.

We tend to be taught that being, say, ambitious is always bad, while wanting to be loved is always good. So, when Threes are characterized as the ambitious, success and achievement oriented type, they must be bad, right? And Twos want to be loving caregivers, so they must be good. But there’s a difference between wanting love and having a healthy relationship. Unhealthy Twos are often emotionally abusive. They do favors that weren’t asked for and then guilt trip people who ask for boundaries, because they perceive that as an attempt to leave them. They can gaslight people by saying, “I didn’t do that bad thing. Only bad people do bad things, and I’ve done so many favors for you, how could I possibly do that thing?” This isn’t how all Twos act. It’s just a way that some Twos act, when they don’t have their shit together at all. Similarly, the corrupt executives who put profit ahead of human well-being are not representative of Threes, just unhealthy Threes. Healthy Twos aren’t good people because they value love, but because they understand that the only love that will satisfy them is the kind that is freely given. Healthy Threes recognize that it’s the joy of accomplishing something real that satisfies them, along with being admired by people whose good opinion is genuinely worth having. Their desire for success motivates them to create wonderful things that help everyone.

Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is Healthy Threedom personified

This is what makes the Enneagram so cool. It teaches counterintuitive ideas, like how fighting too hard for the thing you want can be exactly what stops you from getting it, or how the people-pleasers and the advantage-takers both tend to end up miserable for similar reasons. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook, but it also gives you a framework to see the best in everyone.

In conclusion, here’s some tips for making Enneagram content that is genuinely entertaining.

  • Go in-depth on one type, rather than making a post that covers all nine. I already laid out why you can’t say “How Each Enneagram Type Acts In Quarantine” and expect it to be good. But try making a post the equivalent length about just one Enneagram type, and try describing a spectrum of healthy and unhealthy behaviors. It’s going to be more accurate and therefore more funny. I’ve also seen content like “Gift Buying Guide for a Six” or “Ten Behaviors That Fours Will Relate To” and they are so much better than those that try to cover all nine types.
  • Be more abstract. The Enneagram is a lot less precise and literal than Myers-Briggs, and the flip side is that it’s much more poetic and philosophical. So go nuts with the creative interpretations. Which trees symbolize the strengths of each type in the Enneagram? Which dog breed? Can you make a soundtrack for each type’s coming-of-age-during-high-school movie?
  • Type fictional characters. The Enneagram and storytelling go together beautifully, because motivation is absolutely central to both. It’s not recommended to type other people in real life, because you never know what’s really going on in someone else’s heart, but fictional characters are designed to let us in on the intimate secrets of their life, so have at it! The worst thing you can do is mistype a fictional character, and I’m betting they won’t mind.
  • Poke fun at the Enneagram itself. It’s heavy and a tad pretentious and is basically six different religious philosophies standing on each other’s shoulders in a trenchcoat pretending to be psychology. I love it and I think it’s useful, but I’m also firmly a member of the “there’s no better way to show love than to poke fun” school. It’s why Galaxy Quest is objectively the best Star Trek movie.

And that seems like a good note to end on. I apologize for not having a very thorough explanation of the Enneagram, but I figured this title will mostly draw people who are fairly familiar with the system anyway, and it does take a long time to explain properly. However, I will be posting a better explanation soon, along with more Enneagram related content. But for now, thank you for reading, and take care!

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