Explaining the Enneagram, Part Two: Countertypes and Health

Let’s start by admitting something: the Enneagram is always evolving, and that makes teaching the “true” Enneagram a bit hard. One of the stumbling blocks to writing this post is that different authors have some different perspectives, particularly on the countertypes. There are three basic reasons why people might disagree, on the Enneagram or just about anything else.

  1. Two people have different perspectives on the same truth. The Enneagram was constructed in a school of interfaith philosophers, with some later additions by psychologists and anthropologists. There are modern writers who are Christians, atheists, new age neopagans, agnostics and people who are constantly questioning their beliefs. If you pick up one book, they might focus heavily on the connection between the Enneagram and the nine sins (the seven deadly sins plus fear and deceit). Another might avoid these terms like they have bedbugs, and instead focus on terms from evolutionary psychology and attachment theory. Another might avoid both, and talk about mindfulness and illusions. As different as these approaches sound, when you look past the jargon and listen carefully, it’s clear that they are just rephrasing the same concepts, like resetting Romeo and Juliet in New York to make West Side Story.
  2. Someone has information that someone else lacks. Because the Enneagram tries to describe things that are hard to observe directly, it can be easy to miss some important information. For example, I don’t think I have any close friends who identify as Sixes, and my experiences with anxiety (from the perspective of a Four) have lead me to really misunderstand some things about Sixes. I’ve also read some content made by Nines or Sevens that completely misunderstand the core motivations of Fours, which is understandable, because we are on opposite sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen some content made by people who have never met a healthy Three, or an unhealthy One, and they completely misrepresent those types based on those experiences. It’s important not to pass yourself off as too much of an expert, especially when it comes to experiences that you haven’t had.
  3. Someone is wrong. I suppose technically, in the above example, someone is still wrong, but it’s a forgivably unavoidable sort of wrong. Here I’m talking about a more frustrating sort of wrong, where, based on the books a person claims to have read or the experience they claim to have, they really should know better.

I think, of all the dizzying facets of the Enneagram, health and instinctual subtypes bring out these types of disagreements the most. I’ve had to work hard to tease out which type of disagreement is responsible for which contradiction. I’ll be honest: I’m still learning and while I do my best to double check, I may at some point have to come back and correct something I’ve said here.

One of the areas I am still learning about is the instinctual subtypes. Some books on the Enneagram omit them completely, because they don’t feel as integral to the theory. However, in order to use the Enneagram the way most people want to (understanding behavior), you have to study the three instincts. This is why I’m tackling them first, and hopefully if I got something wrong someone will point me right in the comments.

As human animals, we have a biological drive to provide directly for our own needs, to fit in with our social group so that group will take care of our needs, and to form a family (including chosen families, more on that in a second). These needs often compete with each other, and in each of us, one tends to be dominant, one tends to be secondary and one gets the scraps left behind by the other two. When you apply that idea to the Enneagram, you’ll notice that some of those biological drives line up with the core motivations of some types more than others.

  • Sevens, Eights and Nines clash a bit with the social instinct. Social responsibilities and “fitting in” don’t go well with the adventurous lifestyle preferred by Sevens. Eights would like to rule the world, but it’s a tall order and it can be just as satisfying to be monarch of your own little clan, or just go it alone. Nines can be happy hermits and peacemakers within their own chosen family, but world peace has, so far, proved unachievable.
  • Ones, Fives and Sixes all tend to be reserved, focused people who are concerned with questions (ethics, knowledge and security) that are easy to make relevant to both self-preservation and society. These are types that seek some kind of safety and certainty. But relationships make things murky, because no matter what you do, half the choices are up to someone else. In short, relationships equal risk.
  • Twos, Threes and Fours (all the “heart types”) are naturally going to focus on relationships and social connections. But according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s hard to worry about those things when you’re also worried about where your next meal is coming from. The typical style of these types goes poorly with the self-preservation instinct.

But of course, just because the problems of love, society or survival don’t go with your type’s natural mindset, that doesn’t mean you’re exempted from the human work of dealing with them. The types don’t just become helpless and incompetent when confronted with the drive that is a bit out of their wheelhouse. They just learn new behaviors. Sevens, Eights and Nines become more responsible and dutiful, working to take care of the group so the group can take care of them. Ones, Fives and Sixes get more intense. They can only control 50% of a relationship, but by god they will make sure they nail that 50%. Twos, Threes and Fours drop the parts of their acts that get in the way of getting shit done.

Now, here’s where I have to admit to some personal ignorance, as well as some gaps in my research. First, different sources describe the behaviors of the different instinctual subtypes very differently. This seems to go deeper than just different perspectives. I think what’s going on is that there are so many varieties, it’s hard for even an experienced Enneagram coach to thoroughly understand every one of the 27 subtypes. Even if you’ve had a hundred clients, maybe your only Four with a self-preservation instinct was an unhealthy Four with a Three wing, and a healthy Four with a Five wing will express that self-preservation instinct in a completely different way. It’s also possible that there’s something wrong with the theory, and something other theory can do a better job explaining all these variations. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s worth acknowledging.

What’s less controversial is the levels of health. While there are differences in how people explain them, they are mostly superficial, based on jargon rather than real disagreements. All Enneagram experts agree there is no such thing as a good or bad type, just differences in how the basic type is expressed. Every type has a best case scenario where they are incredibly good people, and a worst case scenario where they are self-sabotaging towards themselves and abusive to others. Most people fall somewhere in between, and no one is incapable of growth, just as no one is immune to falling prey to some of their worst sides.

While health looks very different for each type, in general these things are true.

  • Health isn’t about selfishness or self-sacrifice. If you’re stuck in your own needs, you can alienate people who you need and end up hurting yourself in the long run. If you’re fixated on pleasing others, you can make them overly dependent, then let them down when you inevitably burn out. Either way, without balance you are going to self-sabotage.
  • Getting stuck in one way of doing things isn’t healthy. Life throws curveballs at you and no one strategy works all the time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a specialty, but when you keep doing your one trick over and over again, when the situation is clearly calling for you to do something different, you have a problem.
  • Mindfulness is essential to health. All types have their demons, but no type is bound to them. They are all possible to defeat, but only if you are willing to see them for what they are.
  • The flaws that are hardest to get away from are the ones that are slight distortions of your greatest gifts.

You can become an unhealthy version of your type through many avenues. Trauma can play a role, but self-neglect is more important. Trauma’s role is mainly to give you fears that you have to learn to reject, and this can be especially hard when those fears are rooted in childhood. Many common behaviors associated with a particularly Enneagram type aren’t inherent to their core nature at all. Rather, they represent common weak spots that you have in childhood, based on your core type, and unless you have several parents and guardians who really get you, odds are some of them are going to be hit. The same type of trauma can also shape different types differently. An Eight wants to be strong, and if they regularly hear “don’t be a crybaby,” they will suppress their emotions to avoid seeming weak. This can lead to being a hardass who is out of touch with their sadness. A Four, on the other hand, wants to be authentic, and they hear a challenge. They cry harder, or find another way to express their emotions, just to prove that they can’t be bullied out of self-expression. This can lead to the adult belief that they have to be dramatic in order to be heard, or have trouble distinguishing between healthy therapy and just another attempt to invalidate their feelings. The childhood wound is the same, but the overcorrections go in opposite directions.

Side rant: some pop culture Enneagram content creators have said that your type comes entirely from your childhood wounding, essentially portraying the Enneagram as falling on the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate. This is a misunderstanding, mostly because some Enneagram books use “personality” to mean your ego, aka your limited, unhealthy inner voice and average-to-unhealthy behaviors. You are not a One because your parents were overly strict, though you might be an unhealthy One because you haven’t yet dealt with the fact that your parents were overly strict.

The childhood wounding also ties back in with the instinctual drives. Remember, every type has two drives that line up well with their core motivations, and one that doesn’t. Most of the time, people come out of their childhoods with similar wounds based on their core type, and mostly those wounds will center around the drives that line up with those core values. However, once in a while, a kid’s life will be fine tuned to either hurt them in those misaligned instincts, or their parents actively taught them to focus on the instinct that they were inclined to neglect. The result is the countertype: Twos, Threes and Fours with a dominant self-preservation instinct, Sevens, Eights and Nines with a dominant social instinct, and Ones, Fives and Sixes with a dominant intimate instinct.

Countertypes can be a bit of a double-edged sword, when it comes to health. On the one hand, developing focuses that are outside of your normal wheelhouse can be good for you. It can add to that mindfulness and flexibility that is key to developing health, and help you avoid some of the pitfalls associated with your type. On the other hand, it can be a band-aid solution, making you think you’ve handled your demons when really you’re just being controlled by slightly different wounds. It can also make you fearful about the cost of tapping into your true gifts.

So, with all that said, here’s my simplified breakdown of the healthy and unhealthy variations of the nine types, with notes on the countertypes.

  • Ones: at their healthiest, they are advocates for what they believe is right while also maintaining the humility to listen to another point of view. When unhealthy, their rigidity causes them to lose perspective and go to ugly extremes over their own point of view. The self-preservation and social instincts cause them to be reserved, constantly self-monitoring and reluctant to act unless they have double checked their response against their internal moral compass. The intimate instinct causes them to fight hard for relationships, to be the ideal friend and partner, and also to put particular pressure on their loved ones to live up to their ideals.
  • Twos: at their healthiest, they are genuinely kind people who naturally attract a healthy support group. When unhealthy, they engage in “kindsharking” and other forms of emotional manipulation to stop people from leaving them, and can become dangerously out of touch with their own needs. The intimate and social instincts cause them to adopt a “team mom” or “team dad” persona. They like to be the person who other people go to for help. The self-preservation instinct makes them try to attract stronger people who will look after them in exchange for assistance.
  • Threes: at their healthiest, they are engaged in accomplishments that bring real worth to their communities. When unhealthy, they can be corrupt, deceitful con artists. The intimate and social instincts cause them to focus on the polish and the presentation. The self-preservation instinct makes them efficient, willing to shed the dead weight of external appearances to get ahead.
  • Fours: at their healthiest, they are honest, insightful, and exemplify the wounded healer archetype, making use of their own demons to help others through art, teaching or therapy. When unhealthy, they are moody narcissists who attract rescuers and then drag those rescuers down, because actually letting themselves be saved would mean giving up the victim mentality. The intimate and social instincts make them express their emotions dramatically. The self-preservation instinct makes them scrappy, able to put up with a lot of crap and come out grinning.
  • Fives: at their healthiest, their drive for knowledge makes them sought out for their insights. They are incredible teachers, guides, problem solvers and innovators, and willingly share what they know. When unhealthy, they are consumed with the need to be competent in their particular field, knocking down those who might compete or scornfully withdrawing from others. The self-preservation and social instincts drive them to focus on practical, definable, solvable fields of study, where they can come up with a clear answer or obvious skill. The intimate instinct creates an interest in more complex, open ended, psychological issues that can help them keep others in their lives.
  • Sixes: at their healthiest, they are the loyal friend who watches your back but is never afraid to call you on your shit. At worst, they are paranoid and volatile, lacking the discernment to separate their real friends from people who would take advantage of their insecurity and need to belong. Self-preservation and social Sixes are extremely cautious. Intimate Sixes are most often counterphobic – doing the thing that scares them precisely because it scares them.
  • Sevens: at their healthiest, they work to uplift others and bring about positive changes in their own lives. At worst, they are blindly hedonistic, chasing superficial and temporary pleasures regardless of the long-term cost to themselves and others. Self-preservation and intimate Sevens are focused on their own sense of fun and pleasure. They enjoy sharing it with others but move on from those who aren’t feeling it. Social Sevens feel the need to get involved in other people’s lives and become fixers. Fun shared is fun doubled and so if someone is miserable the world is at reduced happiness capacity. Therefore, they must make sure everyone is happy.
  • Eights: at their healthiest, they are solid, reliable and courageous leaders who can be as fierce or as gentle as the situation requires. At their worst, they are aggressive tyrants and bullies who are completely out of touch with their own emotions. Self-preservation and intimate Eights are practical and a bit clannish. They want to save themselves and their chosen tribe. Social Eights want to save the whole world.
  • Nines: at their healthiest, they are able to understand conflicts without being drawn into the drama. When it is time to take a stand they can do so, stubbornly and patiently, refusing to cave but ready to compromise or mediate, fairly. At their worst, they ignore the pain that exists in the world by retreating into fantasies, and confuse these optimistic interpretations with reality. The result is that they neglect themselves and gaslight or subtly victim-blame those who are trying to solve problems (“if you just had a more positive attitude…”). Self-preservation and intimate Nines are private, quiet people who keep their lives simple and minimalist. Social Nines are busy and involved in projects, often trying to fix everyone else’s problems to make sure no one has a reason to fight.

Of course in between the extremes of the behaviors I’ve described there is a whole spectrum of average behaviors that are mixtures of both. These are very quick and dirty shorthands, but hopefully they provide a clear image of the variety that exists when a person is acting within their core types. Things get even more complicated in my third and final post in this series, where we talk about situations where the nine types might act like of the others.

Thank you so much for reading! Please leave likes, comments, all that algorithmic good stuff that helps me crank out the next post sooner.

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!

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!