What Is the Enneagram?

By Christopher L. Heuertz

Often misunderstood as simply a personality tool to describe quirks and traits of people’s individuality, the Enneagram goes much further than mere caricatures. The contemporary Enneagram of Personality* illustrates the nine ways we get lost, but also the nine ways we can come home to our True Self. Put another way, it exposes nine ways we lie to ourselves about who we think we are, nine ways we can come clean about those illusions, and nine ways we can find our way back to God.

The Enneagram is much more than just another popular formula to pair people to the collection of their personality foibles and eccentricities. It explains the “why” of how we think, act, and feel. It helps us come to terms with our gifts as well as the addictive patterns that tether us to our greatest interpersonal, spiritual, and emotional challenges. The Enneagram invites us to deeper self-awareness as a doorway to spiritual growth.

When we can find the courage to be honest with ourselves, we’re ready for the Enneagram, for the Enneagram exposes the illusions that have defined our sense of self. In this way, the Enneagram may be the most effective tool for personal liberation. By revealing our illusions, the Enneagram emphasizes the urgency of inner work—the intentional focus required to prioritize the nurturing of our spirituality by facing pain from our past, exploring areas where we’ve neglected emotional healing, and consciously examining our struggle to bring our best self forward in our vocation, relationships, and faith.

Unfortunately, we soon realize that most of the inner work is painfully mundane; there’s sort of a bland, everyday, humdrum monotony about it. In fact, much of the inner work can be boiled down to faithful contemplative prayer practice. Though it’s critical, there’s nothing exciting about quietly and faithfully making time on a daily basis for meditation. And so part of us always resists this important piece of our personal journey home.

Ultimately, though, for those willing to persevere, the Enneagram offers a sacred map for our souls; a map that, when understood, leads us home to our true identity and to God.

It reminds me of the opening scene from the film The Wizard of Oz, a classic American movie that many of us have seen more times than we can remember.

After the film’s initial credits scroll across the screen, the viewer is introduced to a young Kansas farm girl, Dorothy Gale, and her little dog Toto. They’re running away from home down a dusty old country trail cutting through the plains of middle America—a significant image that sets up the rest of the adventure on the parallel path of her unconscious dream: the magical Yellow Brick Road.

Like Dorothy, we’re all trying to find our way home. We’re all looking for ways to get back to our True Self.

As the opening scene unfolds we quickly learn that Toto has been on the neighbor’s property, chasing Miss Almira Gulch’s cat. Almira has had enough. She’s so fed up that she’s obtained permission from the county sheriff to euthanize little Toto. Flustered by it all, Dorothy takes an aggressive stance defending Toto, willing to put up a fight for his mischievous behavior.

Dorothy’s response is a lot like our addictive tendencies to defend our own illusions, enabling our ego to maintain its control over our sensibilities and emotional states.

I imagine Dorothy’s little dog Toto as a representation of her inner critic, always yapping about something, constantly snapping and trying to bite others, and perpetually restless. We all have it, this cardinal component of our subconscious. Our inner critic is that part of ourselves that we turn into the pet that needs our constant attention and routine feeding. The inner critic is what gets us in trouble from time to time and continually resists the invitation to the task of our inner work. It’s one of the many techniques we use to keep ourselves asleep or to help us cope with the pain we don’t want to face, ensuring we stay stuck in our addictive tendencies to remain tethered to our False Self.

And this False Self of ours doesn’t need more help in keeping us asleep in our illusions. Again, this is where the Enneagram is an aid to waking up. One of its most helpful aspects is how it exposes nine ways our human nature manages our ego’s collection of coping addictions that we have wrapped around our most intimate and deepest pain—our Childhood Wound. For many of us, these wounds go largely undetected for most of our lives, yet we live unconsciously into the trajectory they set us on. The mental and emotional scar tissues of these wounds form the nine different ways we cope with their pain, molding tragic character flaws we often overidentify with, aiding in the development (or malformation) of our personalities.

The Enneagram teaches us nine patterns of human character structure archetypes. These patterns fortify a kind of whole-person muscle memory (which includes the psychological or mental, emotional or spiritual, and somatic or physical) that shapes how we think, feel, and act.

Simply put, the Enneagram offers nine mirrors for self-reflection. These nine mirrors, if we choose to gaze into them directly, can help us shake loose of our illusions that get us lost from home in the first place.

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Adapted from The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz.

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