Explaining the Enneagram Part One: Essential Types

This thing is confusing and I sincerely apologize

There are two aspects to your Enneagram – your basic nature, and the various ways that can be shaped by your environment, especially in early childhood. Too many Enneagram educators don’t explain that well. Part of the problem is that early educators tended to sometimes use “personality” to mean your type and sometimes to mean ego-driven, unhealthy behaviors that you learn as coping mechanisms. They also tended to write very long, very dense books, and of course when people read through those books they skip around to the most interesting parts and skim through the parts with important clarifications. The result is a shortage of content that is accurate but also newbie-friendly.

But in all fairness, describing the Enneagram to a complete beginner hits you with some serious catch-22s.

For starters, talking about the essential nature and the external behavior all in one go tends to result in one getting shortchanged. When the essential nature is neglected, descriptions of the external behavior tend to be confusing, chaotic messes. When the external variation is neglected, the essential nature seems incredibly reductive and stereotypical. At the same time, talking about the two separately is difficult. In Enneagram culture, we often describe types by referencing other types. “Fours act like Twos when they feel stressed and unsupported.” “A social Eight or Seven can easily be mistaken for a type Two.” “A Three with a Two wing is easy to confuse with a Two, because the motivation to act like a Two is so high.” None of those statements make any sense without first understanding what we mean by a Two.

At the same time, describing a pure type Two is like describing a pure triangle. It sounds simple. Triangles are polygons with three sides. Except, we never actually see a pure triangle, with no attributes other than having three sides. We see equilateral triangles, or isoceles triangles, or scalene triangles. We see big triangles and little ones. We see triangles with outlines or filled in, triangles made with wobbly lines drawn in blue crayon, triangles carefully traced in black permanent marker, and triangles sketched in pencil. We can’t visualize a pure triangle. We can only see multiple varieties of triangle and come to realize what they have in common. Similarly, you will never meet a pure, quintessential Two. You will never see a pure Two portrayed in fiction. You will never be a pure Two. Pure types don’t exist in the real world any more than pure triangles.

But of course, we can make it easy to identify the multiplicity of triangles by explaining that triangles are polygons with three sides and three angles. So what are the lines and angles of Enneagram types? A lot of people say they are the core fears and motivations, and this is close. When people make lists of the core motivations of each type (Ones try to be good, Twos try to be loved, Threes try to be successful, etc) they are generally right, but there are a few points that are left murky by those categorizations. For one thing, as humans we do tend to want everything on the list, and what we end up choosing can depend as much on the situation as our normal motivations. Just because you’re a Seven who values fun experiences, that doesn’t mean you’d leave someone dangling off a cliff so you can get to a concert on time. Also, what we think we should value isn’t always what motivates us. Our most primal, ingrained values often don’t come to us in words, but in feelings and almost physical compulsions.

Personally, I think the best place to start is with the three intelligences and the three stances.

I’ll tackle the stances first, just because they’re easy to explain. The stances are preferred modes of getting your needs met. These are attitudes you tend to fall into without even realizing it, like without even knowing what’s at stake you’re already poised to handle it in a particular way.

First is the assertive stance. This applies to people who prefer to be proactive, in positions of leadership and don’t mind being in the spotlight. They tackle their problems head-on and like to make their presence and status known immediately. Typically they identify as extroverts. Types Three, Seven and Eight default to this stance.

Next is the dependent stance. This applies to people who look to be collaborative, cooperative and part of a communal safety net. They can also enjoy positions of leadership, but it’s important to them to have a popular mandate (as opposed to those in the assertive stance, who are confident that if they don’t have it, they can earn it). They might identify as introverts or extroverts, and many will say they’re halfway between. Types One, Two and Six default to this stance.

Finally is the withdrawn stance. This applies to people who take a cautious, look-before-you-leap approach. They are also very aware of the need to protect what matters to them. They are not being inactive; rather, they know how to preserve the most important things by sheltering them within. They can be successful leaders but they are usually thrust into it rather than go seeking it. They typically identify as introverts. Types Four, Five and Nine default to this stance.

When you diagram these, you get the following pretty shape.

The assertive stance is in yellow, the dependent stance in blue, and the withdrawn stance in purple

Enneagram people love symmetrical groups of three threes. Sometimes we have to resign to not getting them, but we can make them we get super excited.

Next are the three intelligences, which correspond to the body, the heart and the mind. This doesn’t mean that all types in the body will be athletes, all types in the heart will be emotionally intelligent or that all types in the mind will be book smart. It’s about what the problems that have the most intense impact on you, and the type of intelligence needed to honestly grapple with those problems. Sometimes types are actually known for being disconnected with the type of intelligence in their triad, at least when they are unhealthy.

Types in the body relate strongly to the needs of the body. They want to be provided for and have those around them provided for as well. When they see someone deprived and are unable to stop this, they feel awful, as anyone would. However, for body types, this goes a layer deeper. Something in their essential nature feels almost called to care for the needs of the body, and having that calling blocked leads to an additional, almost traumatic layer to this particular type of awfulness. The typical reaction to deprivation, especially when it’s unfair, is anger, so the body triad is also called the anger triad because all types need to work through their anger. This is not always obvious from the outside, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Types in the heart triad relate strongly to their emotions and their relationships with others. When types in the heart triad are isolated, rejected or told not to express themselves, it is incredibly painful. Just like with the body triad, nobody likes being rejected or silenced, but for heart types this pain cuts to the bone because it is a rejection of their essential nature. The emotion provoked here is shame, and again this is another name for the triad.

Types in the head triad relate strongly to the mind. Understanding their environment and making predictions is key to their essential nature. This of course makes the mind their greatest tool but also their Achilles’ heel. When the world is confusing or understanding leads to troubling conclusions, the result is anxiety, so you can guess what the other name for this triad is.

The numbers divisible by three are in the center of each triad. They are the most purely influenced by their triad. On either side you have types that are somewhat influenced by the triad next to them. Here’s a picture.

The Intelligence Triads

So, let’s put all of this information together.

Nines are in the center of the body triad, and struggle with anger. However, getting involved in conflicts often leads to intensifying the problem, and as they truly want a fair, balanced solution for everyone, they suppress their anger, often to the point that they lose touch with their own needs. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, stepping back so that there is at least one point of calm in the room when everyone else finally calms down. They are simultaneously passive and stubborn: what they want is to preserve a point of harmony in the room, and they will stop at nothing to guard that fragment of peace.

Ones are in the body triad, bordering heart, and struggle with anger influenced by shame. They work to create more just systems that everyone can live under, and also fend off their undercurrent of shame by holding themselves to strict standards. This is why they take a dependent stance. They need a community to give them a frame of reference in order to check and re-calibrate their moral compass as needed.

Twos are in the heart triad, bordering body, and struggle with shame tinged by anger. By being caregivers, they meet their need for loving relationships while also taking care of the practical needs of those around them. This is why they take a dependent stance. They are happiest when they have someone to do something for. Without this, they feel a little lost.

Threes are in the center of the heart triad, and struggle with shame. They create a shield against their self-doubt and fear of rejection by stockpiling accomplishments that are tangible proof of their own value. This is why they take an assertive stance, not waiting for love but going out and proving that they deserve it.

Fours are in the heart triad, bordering mind, and struggle with shame tinged with anxiety. They cannot escape their fear that love is conditional and superficial, so they challenge their shame by creating a unique identity that puts the shadow self on display. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, trying to understand the darker sides of human nature and the quirks that society sees as unacceptable, refusing to deny their id just to make others comfortable.

Fives are in the mind triad, bordering heart, and struggle with anxiety influenced by shame. They are deeply aware of the mysteries of the universe and the dangers we face when we don’t understand them, as well as the way people reject those who are incompetent or failures. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, trying to fully understand something before going out into the world to make use of it.

Sixes are in the center of the mind triad, and struggle with overpowering anxiety. They genuinely try to foresee every possible threat, trying to construct a perfect safety net. This is why they take a dependent stance, choosing a community to remain loyal to but also questioning the community, essentially rocking the boat to make sure it’s seaworthy.

Sevens are in the mind triad, bordering body, and struggle with anxiety tinged with anger. They seek independence from anything that might cause them pain and distractions from their fears and frustrations. This is why they take an assertive stance, actively seeking fun experiences and new adventures at every turn.

Eights are in the body triad, bordering mind, and struggle with anger and an undercurrent of anxiety. They seek to gain enough power to deal with physical threats and control their space. This is why they take an assertive stance, working to establish dominance and control in order to know from the start that they can protect themselves and their people from harm.

Each type has a type of situation that they are well-equipped to handle, and other situations that are far out of their comfort zone. This is one reason that it’s important not to characterize any one type as “good” or “bad.” All of them exist in response to a world where they are all, at times, needed. Much of the discussion about variety among the types is really just a way of answering the question, “how do the types handle situations that are out of the comfort zones of their core values?” Enneagram literature describes four main factors that help answer this question.

  • Levels of health. When you are mindful of your situation and your own strengths and weaknesses, you can consciously learn to cope better with situations out of your comfort zone, while still protecting your essential gifts. If you simply react, you can find yourself falling into worse and worse habits, returning to the same bad coping mechanisms and making them worse over time. Most people don’t fall into the worst- or best-case extremes, but somewhere in the middle.
  • Wings, which are the types directly next to your type. These can help make up for some of the weaknesses of your core type while still being similar enough to feel comfortable. One of these is usually a secondary personality type that influences your overall personality expression.
  • Stress and Security Lines, which are ways that you can make a paradigm shift to a more distant type on the Enneagram. Sometimes this is an excellent coping strategy, and sometimes it just delays dealing with a problem healthfully. These are also called lines of integration/disintegration. (note: in the standard Enneagram symbol, seen at the top of the post, these are the lines inside the circle)
  • Instinctual subtypes, which describe how your core type responds to different types of stress, depending on whether the stress mainly threatens your sense of place in society, your ability to form a family, or your basic survival. These are less discussed because their impact is fairly subtle compared to the others. However, each type has one kind of stress that produces behaviors that are far from your stereotypical actions, and the type of stress you encountered most at formative points in your childhood does affect your overall adult personality. This means some are countertyped: your inner world matches one type but most people wouldn’t guess it because of your external behavior. I am fascinated by these because I am a countertyped Four (my dominant instinct is for self-preservation).

There is also a new theory going around called tritypes, which essentially proposes that everyone has a dominant type in each of the three intelligences. Your core type is your dominant type in your dominant intelligence, with the other two acting as secondary personality types. It isn’t fully accepted by the whole Enneagram community though, and I have some questions about whether the tritypes are a real thing, or just the result of people not understanding instinctual variants or stress and security lines. On the other hand, they might be a simpler, more accurate way to describe some of the more complicated variations. The Enneagram is a system that is open to evolution over time.

My next post will talk about variations in health and the instinctual subtypes, and I’ll wrap up by describing the wings and the stress/security lines. This means my approach is almost the opposite of the usual method of explaining the Enneagram, but I think it’s a lot more efficient and newbie-friendly to explain it this way.

Until then, thank you for reading!

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