How studying the Enneagram can expand one’s empathy.
Last month, right after the New Year, on a day I was feeling distracted and listless at work, my friend Ella mentioned a personality-typing system known as the Enneagram over G-chat. She described it as Myers-Briggs but better, and though I was skeptical, I clicked around the Internet until I discovered a test at the Enneagram Institute that would produce my “full personality profile.” It had been independently scientifically validated in El Paso, Texas.
I didn’t take the test because it costs twelve dollars and consists of 140 questions. (It felt too early in the year for impulsive wastefulness.) But I became absorbed in learning about this theory of self-discovery anyway. I read the website, then I borrowed a book from Ella, then I gave in and ordered The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types, via overnight mail.
The Wisdom of the Enneagram vacillates between scientific analysis and spiritual fervor. It describes an origin story for the Enneagram that name-checks Sufism, Pythagoras, Plato, Taoism, the Kabbalah, and The Canterbury Tales, among other religious and philosophical texts. In an introductory passage, one of the authors describes the moment he began to believe in the path to self-actualization articulated by the Enneagram:
I saw clearly that everyone is made of light—that we are like forms of light—but that a crust has formed over it. The crust is black and rubbery like tar and has obscured the inner light that is everyone’s real, inner self.
It should have been easy enough to dismiss this as woo-woo mumbo jumbo, but I couldn’t stop reading.
The Enneagram’s theory of the human condition relies on a dualistic faith: that humans are essentially dissimilar from each other, but that their temperaments can be broadly categorized and thus provide unity among all people. (“The Enneagram can therefore be enormously valuable in today’s world to show white and black, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, Arab and Jew, straight and gay, rich and poor that if they search beneath the surface difference that separate them, they will find an entirely new level of common humanity.”) The word enneagram refers to a nine-sided geometric figure that charts the traits behind the personality typing system. Its shape, which resembles a pentagram, is numbered around its circumference from one to nine—like a clock with too little time. Each number signifies a different personality type, and each personality type is rooted in a different primal fear—or motivation, to think of it in another light. For example, type one—“The Reformer”—has a fear of corruption, therefore they are motivated by ideology and ethics. Type two—“The Helper”—fears being unwanted, which motivates them into affection and intimacy.
Each personality type comes with a road map for emotional development, with different “levels” representing psychological health. These are also numbered from one to nine, with level one representing the healthiest state of a type and level nine representing the least healthy. The least healthy state of a type three (“The Achiever”), is described as “Monomaniacal and Relentless”:
Unhealthy threes feel that there is nothing they can do to win the positive attention of the people whose approval they need, and may lose control of their repressed hostility and rage.
At average levels, threes can be “Self-Promoting and Grandiose” or “Success Oriented and Performing.” At their healthiest state (level one), threes are “Inner-Directed and Authentic”:
[Healthy] threes let go of the belief that their value is dependent on the positive regard of others, thus freeing them to discover their true identity and their own heart’s desire.
I pored over each variant, enthralled by the complexity and openness of each categorization. Most friends I’ve shared the website with have been able to identify their type quickly enough by scanning through the descriptions. And if not, there are pages devoted to disambiguation and helpful guides to the relational dynamics created within the combinations.
I should admit here that I might be more delighted than most when it comes to entertaining the absorbing and egocentric work of self-identification—I’m an Aquarius, an earth dragon, an ENTJ, a Shoshanna—but I’ve never found any practical application in these often entirely superstitious means of self-reflection. Unlike the zodiac, the sorting hat, or Jungian archetypes, the Enneagram’s philosophy is rooted in fluidity and growth. Even as the system categorizes a person by her essential qualities, it simultaneously urges her to challenge those traits by understanding the limitations of a fixed pattern. “It is meant to initiate a process of inquiry that can lead us to a more profound truth about ourselves and our place in the world,” the book says. “In short, knowing our type is not the final destination.” Wrangling our psychological impulses helps free our minds for the real work of self-discovery.
I identify as type six—“The Loyalist.” I have an inclination to draw out every worst-case scenario, distrust groupthink, and ice overly friendly strangers. But I’m also willing to take great risks on behalf of the people and ideas that I believe in. It does not hurt that Bruce Springsteen, a personal hero, also types as a six. Enneagram philosophy advises our people to push toward trusting others rather than remaining forever suspicious. (Sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road.)
And I’ve been surprised to find that even in the past month, it’s worked. I can’t have a conversation without part of my brain flipping through what I’ve memorized about types, and determining whether my ambitious colleague who is mouthing off on Twitter is a healthy three or an unhealthy one. I’ve found myself thinking about the fluidity not just of myself but of others around me, too. I am more curious about considering a person’s priorities as I interact with them, rather than dismissing them straight away, if, say, they’re visibly annoyed that I cancel a drinks date last-minute to have some alone time. Oh of course, I think to myself, classic two. Most often, we think of empathy in relation to pain—it’s the tricky work of attempting to understand another person’s experience by exploring why and how they were hurt. But lately, I’ve found it more rewarding to exercise my capacity for empathy in mundane interactions instead.
I called my mother for Chinese New Year last weekend—I’ve surmised that she’s type seven (“An Enthusiast”)—and sometimes I am hurt by her tendency to spend our time on the phone cataloguing every event she and my father have attended and every dish they have eaten since we last spoke. (Why isn’t she spending more of her time reinforcing our family unit? my six tendencies cry out). But even if she isn’t a seven, even if the Enneagram is bogus, even if I have been coaxed into a cult, completely brainwashed, now I’ll stay on the line and feel some joy in listening to her, in the understanding that perhaps she is telling me because it gives her pleasure to do so.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.