Humans are incredibly complex, wonderful, infuriating, flexible and baffling things. It’s as true about yourself as it is about the dozens of people you bump into each day. Every time you interact with others, you have to operate on the – often very limited – knowledge you have about them. Even your own friends and partner can sometimes appear like you don’t even know them. Oftentimes, the behavior of others seems strange to us.
And that’s the harmless part. It becomes less harmless when people’s behavior starts to hurt others and triggers them into hurting back. We do it all the time. And so much of it comes back to two fundamental problems:
We don’t understand others.
We don’t even understand ourselves.
This is why understanding personality can be so incredibly helpful. There are reasons why people behave the way they do. Having a method to put those reasons into a clearer system will give you the chance to grow your empathy and compassion for people.
But much more importantly, understanding your own reasons for why you do the things you do will grow compassion for yourself! And not just that, it will also give you the chance to do something about it.
Because you cannot change what you’re not aware of.
This is what has made the Enneagram such a helpful tool for self-transformation for millions of people.
What is personality?
When we use that word, we usually try to say something about what kind of a person someone is, which behaviors they show most often and how it makes them different from others.
But we also use it for other things, such as when we say that someone has a „colorful“ or „big“ personality, for example. In those cases we mean to say that that person has something like charisma or panache, which isn’t actually their whole personality, but rather traits of that personality.
So, what then is it?
Personality is a tricky thing. For our purposes, we are going to say that personality encompasses all inner qualities, behavior strategies, characteristic traits and thought patterns that make up the majority of a person’s presence in the world.
In simpler words: Our personality is who we are most of the time. The way we react most instinctively to stimulus, which is shaped by the unique way we see the world, different from everyone else’s.
Of course we don’t do the exact same things all the time. Sometimes we might say we act „out of character“. But there’s a default which we revert to naturally. To give an example, some people avoid conflict, others embrace it, other’s again handle it as an unavoidable duty. One person loves to be around people every waking hour, another can handle society for only thirty minutes before their systems shut down. There are a myriad of those characteristics, and all of them taken together are what we will call “personality” from now on.
The strongest instinct of human beings is survival. From our very first day, our bodies and minds are wired to scan any incoming threat and develop strategies to cope with it. For our body, that job is handled by the immune system. But for less material threats, it’s up to our minds to protect us.
We are all born into an imperfect world. As a consequence, every child will experience some form of trauma, some way in which its needs aren’t met as fully as they should be. To protect us, we start to build an armor around very early on. This armor is made from a set of behaviors, attitudes and perspectives with which we try to navigate the world: the relationships with our parents, the rules and expectations of society and the fulfillment of our own needs. Our strategies are random and experimental at first, but we quickly figure out the one that works best for us – and discard the others.
But what about genetics? Isn’t our personality already predetermined by our genes? The science is still out on how exactly personality happens. The current understanding is that it is a combination of prenatal factors – our genetic makeup – and our experiences in those earliest years of our existence.
In short: When it comes to how we acquire our personality, the Enneagram answers the question of nature vs. nurture with a resounding „Yes“. It’s both.
What happens next is that we start to identify with this armor. We forget the original self underneath. By acquiring a certain way to look at the world, one through which things make sense to us, we lose the knowledge that it’s just one out of many possible perspectives.
But the world is so complex, so it offers more than enough chances to validate our chosen perspective. We receive confirmation for our worldview often enough that we eventually get stuck in it.
In an ideal world, we would be able to take on any perspective at will and choose from the wide variety of options to react to different situations. But our personality has conditioned us from childhood to apply the same pattern over and over, until it doesn’t just become second nature – it is our nature. And as with every one-sided approach, this one comes with it’s fundamental flaws.
You’ve probably heard the saying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. It’s the same with our personality. Once we acquire that certain perspective, we start relying on it exclusively to solve all our problems, even if it starts delivering bad results.
In that way, personality is less like a beautiful suit of armor and more like a prison cell from which your true self can’t escape. You could also say it’s a mask behind which your true self is hiding. You might have heard that the English word „person“ actually comes from the Greek word „persona“, which literally means „mask“. We confuse this mask with who we really are.
You could also say the average person doesn’t have a personality – their personality has them.
This is why the Enneagram isn’t about putting you in a box. It’s trying to show you that you already are in a box so you can get out of it.
To use a different image: Our personality is like an invisible pair of tinted glasses. Unaware that we are wearing them, we don’t see the glasses, but we see everything around us through them.
Wearing our glasses day in and day out, our world acquires a specific shade, depending on the color of our lenses. And since we don’t even wear them, we get confused by the behavior of those who are walking around with their own pair of glasses before their eyes.
The Enneagram, then, does little else than letting us know that we are wearing glasses and that we are invited to take them off for a second – maybe even try on someone else’s pair for a change!
This touches on another important point. The Enneagram shows us the fixation of our personality type in order to help us transcend it. However, this doesn’t mean we should try to change our personality type. Not that we could if we tried. But even trying would do more damage than help. After all, there is no one personality type that’s better than others. Personality is not a competition.
Every type comes with its own unique way of looking at the world and is therefore uniquely valuable. Seeing, understanding and learning the value of other personality types shouldn’t make us wish to be someone else. What it should do is offer us the benefits of those other perspectives and integrate them into our own life, helping us become free of the self-defeating patterns of our personality while keeping its strengths.
In that way, we can learn to embrace the full spectrum of the human experience. It’s like we regain all the options we had in the beginning, before our childhood-self decided to turn one of all available strategies into the hammer to end all nails.
There exists a fundamental problem any personality typing system needs to overcome if it wants to be of any use. The problem is this: How do you fit the unique personalities of billions of people into a system that is comprehensive enough to offer real value, while respecting the individual personality of each person?
The Enneagram solves this problem in a variety of very elegant ways. So elegant in fact that we think it’s the most helpful of personality tools ever created (if it weren’t, we wouldn’t have bothered to put up this site). Let’s start with the basics.
The Enneagram assumes that the human personality expresses itself in nine basic ways.
You could call them nine lenses, nine patterns, nine strategies, from which every person picks up one as their dominant perspective. This, then, becomes your basic personality type.
A couple of things result from this assumption:
All of us have something of every personality type in us. This is only logical. We were born with the capacity to express the full spectrum of the human experience, and just because we chose one of the nine types as our dominant one, doesn’t mean we completely lose touch with all the other types.
It’s therefore normal that you will recognize some traits in every of the nine personality types as part of your own personality. That doesn’t mean the Enneagram is too broad – it simply acknowledges reality. But on top of those shared traits, everyone will gravitate to one of the types most naturally.
That is why, in the language of the Enneagram, you never „are“ a personality type. This over-identification with your personality is exactly what the Enneagram is trying to help you overcome.It’s better to imagine yourself “having a dominant personality type“: The one you most strongly recognize yourself in. The pattern you fall back to most instinctively. It’s the type that simultaneously reflects your greatest strengths and your greatest weaknesses.
Since there are only nine basic personality types, you share your type with millions of other people.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that every person with the same Enneagram personality type has the same personality. Each type can express itself in an infinite number of ways. It’s a bit like colors. If you’ve ever tried to pick a color for painting your wall, you know you won’t get far if you tell the guy at the hardware store that all you want is „blue“.
Just as there are infinite shades of each color, there are infinite variations of each personality type. Yet still, when you say the word „blue“, everyone will understand what you mean and will know that blue isn’t red – even if they might not know the exact shade of blue you’re speaking of.
Similarly, the nine personality types help to distinguish between broad categories without neglecting the myriad expressions of any single type. You will find some people sharing your personality type who are a lot like you, while others don’t look like you at all.
To stay in the color metaphor: They might be a very dark petrol while you are a bright ice blue. Yet no one will mistake the two of you for being yellow.
Personality types are as equal as it gets. This means (we already mentioned this, but it bears repeating) that there’s no ranking between personality types. It’s not a „tell me how good your personality is on a scale of 1 to 9“ kind of thing. Personality types are not about being number one (pun intended). Every type comes with its special strengths, but also its necessary flaws.
And just to get it out of the way, neither do Enneagram types discriminate between gender, social class, income, age or any other external factor you could think of. If there’s one place where true equality exists, it’s the Enneagram.
It’s fine if you don’t agree with absolutely everything that you read in the description of your personality type right away. Not every single trait of a personality type will apply to every person of that type all the time. Again, that’s not because the system is vague, but because the Enneagram types account for people at different stages in their lives. Each type can express itself more or less healthily to some degree.
We already mentioned that it’s impossible to change your personality type. This has nothing to do with us not believing in you enough or something. It’s the kind of “impossible” that also prevents you from growing wings or traveling back in time. It’s just not how human personality works. An Enneagram Type One will not become a Type Four (or any other type), no matter how hard they try. Besides, that’s not what personality work is about. Honestly, you shouldn’t change your type even if you could – it’s what makes you you.
For many people, finding their basic Enneagram type is a huge eye-opener: They can’t believe how spot-on their own inner worldview got described. It feels like someone finally gets them.
But that’s not where it stops. In fact, it’s only the starting point. After all, we already agreed that nine personality types can’t explain the individual personalities of eight billion people.
You remember that we compared different personalities to different shades of color. Now, we need to look at how the Enneagram accounts for the different shades in those nine base colors of human personality.
First things first: Does the Enneagram include chicken? We need to tell you that sadly, it doesn’t. But since we’re here, let’s talk about wings. To acknowledge the wild complexity of human behavior, the Enneagram can’t stop at identifying your basic personality type. That’s why it also looks to the sides. If you line up the nine numbers of the Enneagram like hours on a clock, beginning at 1 and ending at 9, you will notice that there is always one number to the left and right of each type. Both of those adjacent personality types complement your basic personality type. The Enneagram calls them wings. Usually one wing has much more influence on you than the other, which is why we generally just speak of “a” wing – your dominant wing.
Your wing adds important and sometimes even contradictory elements to your personality. In a way, it’s your „second side“ or, in literary terms, the stuff that makes a character go from being one-dimensional to being two-dimensional. While we carry a little bit of every type in us, our neighboring types are the ones that have the strongest influence. How does this work? The best metaphor is to think about your type as being illuminated by a flashlight that shines on the circle from the outside. While it has a clear center of illumination, the light cone always frays at the edges, creating a soft transition to the sides.
Usually, the light isn’t one hundred percent centered on the middle of one type, but slightly moved to the left or right. The segment of the circle that it illuminates will still be mostly one type, but there will be a bigger or smaller part of the adjacent type visible, too. For example, a Type Three who’s light cone is shifted to the left would be a Three with a Four wing, and someone with the cone slightly shifted to the right of the Nine would be a Nine with a One wing.
Let’s employ the color metaphor one more time. Just as there are infinite shades of every color, there are also smooth transitions between them. If you imagine the circle of the Enneagram as a color wheel, each color isn’t cut off precisely but bleeds from one into the other. In the same way, some people are almost purely one type, while others are a strong mixture of two types, sometimes to the degree that they are both types almost to the same degree. You will always keep your dominant personality type, but your wing can have a powerful influence on you.
This is rare, but not unheard of. A few people report that they are influenced by both of their wings equally, while others seem to have almost no wing at all. We won’t claim to have an opinion here, so let us just add this interesting piece of information: While we don’t know how often the two-wings-at-once-thing occurs, there is lots of evidence that many people discover their second wing in later stages of life. How or why that happens is up for debate, but if you feel like both your wings speak to you, ask yourself if one might speak more to your past, while the other speaks more to your present. You wouldn’t be the only one. If you want to find out more about wings, we have put together a section where you can read a detailed description of each type and its wings.
Let’s quickly recap: The Enneagram says there are nine core expressions of human personality, and the way we visualize them is by lining them up on a circle.
Now, the way these nine types are positioned isn’t random. They follow the idea that there are three core aspects of human consciousness that group these nine types together:
The head, the heart, and the body.
Just as we carry a little bit of each type in us, all three aspects play a role in every person’s life. And similarly to your basic type playing the main role in your life, these three aspects play the main role in each group.
Heart, Head and Body – if you were to use popular words for those aspects, you could say they represent feeling, thinking and doing. You could also talk about emotional, analytical and instinctual approaches to life.
No matter which terms you use, these concepts need a bit of explanation if they don’t want to stay vague.
The first thing that’s important to note is that belonging to any of the Groups doesn’t mean that you possess a bigger amount of its core aspect. Heart types don’t have more feelings than the rest, Head types aren’t outthinking everyone else, and Body types aren’t automatically more intuitive than others. Sometimes it can even be the opposite of what you would assume.
The Groups simply mean that their aspect plays a more central role in the lives of those types, in one way or another. The way this expresses itself is very different from type to type. To give you an idea of what we mean, let’s look at each group in detail.
The types of the Heart Group are connected to the area of feelings and emotion. Their issues revolve around questions of identity, and the feeling they most struggle with is often some kind of shame.
Twos tend to neglect their own emotional needs. They are great at showing other people love while being in danger of forgetting their own needs and wellbeing. They ask themselves: “Who am I if I’m not needed and viewed as a good, loving person by anyone?”
Threes tend to ignore or are asleep to their emotions. They are masters of giving people what they want most but often don’t know who they are behind their successful persona, being the most estranged from their feelings. Their underlying question is: “Who am I if I’m not a person other people admire?”
Fours tend to get lost in their emotions. They love to dwell inside their rich inner life of imagination, emotion and expression that gives them a beautifully unique perspective on the world. But they struggle to connect with the rest of the world which they often feel estranged from. They secretly ask the question: “Who am I if I’m not singularly unique in this world?”
The types in the Head Group rely on their mind to understand the world and find their place in it. Their issues are linked to questions of security, and the emotions that play a big part in their lives are different kinds of fear.
Fives use their mind as a fortress to withdraw into. They try to gather information and knowledge which they hope will make them feel safe against a world that is perceived as overwhelming. Their question is: “How can I be safe if I don’t have all the necessary skills to master the world?”
Sixes use their mind as a warning system to anticipate danger and prepare for all situations. They stick to people and concepts that give them a sense of security, trying to cover all their bases at all times. They ask themselves: “How can I be safe as long as there is still potential for unanticipated disaster?”
Sevens use their mind to anticipate joy and avoid pain. They don’t see why every single moment shouldn’t be filled with as much enjoyment as possible, creating inspiring lifestyles on the cost of hiding from the unpleasantness of life. They secretly wonder: “How can I be sure I will ever be happy if I allow the darkness into my life?”
The main mode of being for the types of the Body Group arises from an instinctual level. Their worldview is connected to feelings from the gut and the visceral, body-driven part of us. They have a special bond with questions of control, and the associated feeling of anger or rage.
Eights freely live out their instinctual side. They are bold, charismatic leaders who readily express their anger and move in force. Inside, they ask: “How can I be in control if I’m not strong enough to beat every opposition?”
Nines on the other hand are asleep to their instincts, especially their anger. They have the unique ability to assume every of the other eight perspectives while forgetting that they have a voice of their own. They say: “How can I stay in control if I haven’t ensured peaceful harmony all around me?”
Ones try to repress their instinctual side. They know what’s right and wrong, and any emotion that goes against that – especially feelings of anger and rage – must be kept at bay at all cost. Their inner critic constantly asks them: “How do you want to be in control of your life if you’re not in control of yourself?”
As with anything else in the Enneagram, the Groups are neither static nor absolute. Your wings, for example, will usually introduce aspects of personality types from other groups and their associated themes.
Apart from that, our heart, head and body of course play a part in all our lives. We all behave emotionally, rationally and instinctively in different measures and different situations. The Groups only point out that one of those areas plays a more pronounced role in our lives.
Have you ever noticed how you can be a wildly different person than usual when you’re really relaxed or really stressed? These psychological changes occur in our behavior when the usual coping mechanisms of our personality type are either overextended or not needed for a change.
The Enneagram explains these changes by showing the two types each personality starts „borrowing“ from during stress and peace. They basically become our backup-strategies for when things go really right – or really wrong.
This is where the actual „Enneagram“ symbol finally appears. It consists of a triangle that connects types Three, Six and Nine, and a pretty wild shape called a hexad (the Greek word for “six”, because the shape has six points) connecting Types One, Two, Four, Five, Seven and Eight.
Together, they make up this interesting looking symbol:
Even though you won’t be able to summon any demons with them, these lines have some pretty good uses. Let’s have a look at those arrows to see what they mean.
During situations of high pressure and overbearing stress, when our usual coping mechanisms start to fail (aka your typical Christmas family dinner), we “run” to a different type. That’s why each type is connected to it’s stress point by a line that points away from itself.
Because we are stressed, we usually don’t borrow the best traits of our stress point, but rather behavior of its unhealthy version. As you will see, adopting the behaviors of our stress points can bring some of its benefits, but mostly their less charming traits.
What’s important to know about your stress point is that it not only helps you see why you show some unusual (and at times a bit nasty) behavior when stressed, but also how those „borrowed“ personalities can help you expand your tool set.
Not all stress is bad, and similarly not all the traits we borrow from our stress points have to be from their unhealthy side. A Two can make use of the assertiveness of Eights, a Seven can benefit from the precision of a One, and a Four can use the focus on other people to become less self-absorbed – just to name a few examples.
As with stressful situations, something similar happens on the other side of the spectrum: When we’re relaxed, at peace and fully in the moment, we take on traits from yet another type.
These sets of behavior “come to us” to help us overcome the limitations of our main personality type. That’s why the Enneagram symbol shows these types pointing towards the main type they’re connected with.
Just as we tend to borrow more unhealthy traits from our stress point because we are stressed ourselves, our peace point provides us with healthier, more integrated traits of its type.
There are a lot of personality typing systems out there. They are all similar in that they will tell you one out of a number personality types with varying degrees of accuracy and allow you to recognize yourself in them or not.
But what happens many times with these systems is that it feels like something is missing. There might be negative traits in the description of your type that you don’t feel you’re showing, or positive traits that you wish you had but don’t.
This is because none of us has a static personality. We are also continuously switching between healthier and less healthy modes of our type – sometimes we’re very mature, sometimes less so. We all have bad days.
But not just on a daily level are these differences felt. Maturity is also a lifelong process. Depending on how far we are on it, our personality will express itself differently.
Those who started working with the Enneagram over extended periods of time recognized this, which is why the system was improved upon by adding so-called “Levels of Development”. This way, the Enneagram stopped being a static system and could accurately trace the path of growth each of us is on, on a daily basis as well as on a long-term trajectory.
The American Scholar Don Riso was the first to introduce nine of these levels in the 1970s and elaborated on them with his colleague Russ Hudson in the 90s. In our opinion, their contribution added one of the most important aspects to the theory of the Enneagram. It makes the Enneagram truly unique among personality systems out there.
To help you understand the concept of levels, let’s look at it this way: While your wing acknowledges that you’re not a one-dimensional, but a two-dimensional person, the levels of development turn your personality 3D: It allows for your behavior to change between less mature and more mature levels, while still retaining your basic personality type. Just as there are nine Enneagram personality types, there are also nine levels of development within each type. These levels range from very unhealthy to very healthy behavior that we all have the capacity to display.
The levels of development can be read in two ways. On a daily basis, each of us can shift between the levels quickly. One moment you can be the healthiest, most self-aware person – the next moment you get blindsided by an unpleasant phone call and revert to very unhealthy behavior – based on the standard strategy of your personality.
That’s normal. We all do it. None of us is perfect, and especially not all the time.
But the levels of development also show us a bigger picture of personal freedom and maturity. Just like each of us might show different aspects of the other nine types from time to time but revert back to our basic type eventually, we all are on one of the nine levels most of our time. Sometimes we dip into higher levels, sometimes into lower, but we mostly act from the level we are currently on.
And as much as we hate to break it to you: Most of us start out somewhere on the average side of the spectrum.
This explains why people with the same type can be wildly different in real life. Someone on the lower average levels will look very different from someone who finds themselves on a mature level of their type.
It also explains why not everything you read in the description of your type applies to you all the time. When you are in a mature place, the unhealthy aspects of your type don’t apply to you right now (or not at all, if you have learned to stop that behavior for good), as well as the other way around.
But the Levels of Development don’t only show us where we are right now, but much more importantly, they show us a path to who we can become. They call us to take the stony but incredibly rewarding path towards maturity. By showing us the specific pitfalls and dangers of our type, they can help us see the unique chance for transformation open to us.
Are you willing to take it?
You made it all the way through our extensive introduction to the Enneagram! Very impressive.
But, of course, there is a lot more to discover.
If you already know your type and want to know more about it, you can read up on it here. Or you can take a look at the other types and find out more about them.
Our tip: Start with the ones next to you – they are your wings and are the second most important types besides your main type.
And if you want to learn more specifically about the wings of your type, you can read up on it here.
If so, you can take our free Enneagram personality test and check out our definitive guide to how to find your main Enneagram personality type.