Knowing myself, knowing others: my uncomfortable – but revealing – afternoon with the Enneagram
I’ve always been a sucker for personality evaluations. I’ve taken Myers-Briggs tests at least two dozen times (ENFP. Always, always ENFP) and as a girl, would always turn first to the “Who’s your style icon?” and “What’s your friendship quotient?” type quizzes in any new issue of Seventeen magazine.
As a person who’s fascinated by personality, psychology and the way the human brain and heart work, there’s something tantalizing about the idea of being a little more in touch with my psyche, or – let’s be honest here – sometimes, just having a flattering assumption validated.
So when I stumbled across the concept of the Enneagram via Jennifer Loudon, I figured it would be just more of the same: an analysis telling me how essentially creative, enthusiastic, and optimistic I am. Sign me up!
Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over- extended, scattered, and undisciplined.
“Yep,” I thought, “That’s me!” Playful, high-spirited, extroverted, optimistic, spontaneous…these are all words I’ve used to describe myself for years. I took the quiz, fully expecting it would validate my 7-leaning assumptions.
But instead, the results told me I was most likely to be a type 2, The Helper. (In fact, The Enthusiast wasn’t even the second possibility…it came in as a distant third.)
The Helper? From the initial description, Twos sounded, frankly, boring.
Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing.
Empathetic, sincere, warm-hearted…I mean, that’s nice and all, but where’s all the spirit and playfulness? And hey…what’s this about people-pleasing? It all sounded so needy and martyr-y, exactly the way I do not want to think of myself.
For a few moments I considered just clicking away and declaring the test a failure. But then I read further.
Twos are most interested in what they feel to be the “really, really good” things in life—love, closeness, sharing, family, and friendship.
Well, yeah…this all seemed pretty spot-on. I kept going.
When Twos are healthy and in balance, they really are loving, helpful, generous, and considerate. People are drawn to them like bees to honey. Healthy Twos warm others in the glow of their hearts. They enliven others with their appreciation and attention, helping people to see positive qualities in themselves that they had not previously recognized.
Okay, all good – and on-point.
Twos’ inner development may be limited by their “shadow side”—pride, self-deception, the tendency to become over-involved in the lives of others, and the tendency to manipulate others to get their own emotional needs met.
….Eesh. Not so flattering anymore, huh? And also, I realized, familiar. To me, an unhealthy Two sounded like an attention-seeking, manipulative train wreck, the kind of person I’d generally avoid. But it also hit a little too close to home. Reading the description, I felt exposed.
By contrast, I didn’t feel any particular connection with the description of an unhealthy Seven, which included words like flamboyant, erratic, excess, impulsive. And that’s when I knew the test results declaring me a Two were spot-on.
I felt uncomfortable reading the description of the unhealthy Two because I knew that, without being constantly self-aware and working to keep my impulses in check, I could very easily start walking down the path toward excessive neediness and manipulation. That maybe, in some ways, I’ve gone there already.
In the end, what made the Enneagram more revealing – and more meaningful – to me than the scads of other personality tests I’ve taken over the years is that, rather than focusing on the trappings of personality – the way a certain type is projected either outwardly to others, or inwardly to oneself – the Enneagram focuses on the deep-down motivator that inclines us to take on those characteristics.
In other words, the fact that I’m an ENFP tells me a lot about the way I relate to the world, but my Enneagram type tells me more about who I am and why I do things.
A Two’s key motivations: Wants to be loved, to express their feelings for others, to be needed and appreciated, to get others to respond to them. Biggest fear: to be unloved or found unworthy of love.
Yep. Can’t deny it, even if it initially made me wince. It doesn’t mean I don’t have some of the same characteristics of a Seven or Four or Six – and I really am optimistic, fun-loving, and enthusiastic – but simply isolates and defines my primary motivating need.
I’ve been more emotionally vulnerable than usual over the last year or two. I’d consider my baseline to be secure, steady, even no-nonsense at times, but recently I’ve tipped toward more needy, more emotionally on the edge, less secure.
I could chalk it up to a lot of things: the fact that I had life-changing surgery, life transitions, getting older, upheaval in some important relationships, or simply the fact that my kids are now all in school for the first time and I’ve actually had a lot more time to sit quietly with myself and think.
Either way, there it is, and maybe the blessing of where I’ve been lately is that it allows me to see myself more clearly and through less of a façade.
And one important effect of thinking through my Enneagram results, and those of other people I’ve strong-armed – errr, gently persuaded – into taking the test (thanks, dear) is that it’s allowed me to more clearly see the effect I have on others, where our differing motivations and needs intersect…and where they can collide.
Maybe this is just the Two in me talking, but I believe a big part of self-awareness is learning the effect you may have on others and vice versa. While during times of strength it’s easy to mesh with all types of people complication-free, it’s during the more vulnerable times that you start seeing your real motivations and how they can clash with those of other key people in your life.
After all, if during times of stress a Two’s psyche is screaming “LOVE AND AFFIRM ME!” it’s easy for that to butt up against someone whose essential motivation is “I need to solve this problem,” (a Five) “I need to distinguish myself,” (a Three) “I need peace and stability,” (a Nine) or, as in the case of my husband, an Eight: “I need to be strong and in control.”
Some wonder what the point of taking a personality test like the Enneagram is. We are who we are, right? Why do we need a test to tell us what we already know? Doesn’t it just excuse bad behavior, or keep us from making positive changes?
I see it differently.
My Two-ish-ness, or your Six-ish-ness, or his Four-ish-ness aren’t things to use as excuses for bad behavior. But our tendencies also aren’t things to fear, avoid, or suppress, even though the “bad” end of the spectrum can sound pretty scary indeed. (Just read the “level nine” description of Eights: vengeful, barbaric, murderous? Yikes!)
No one’s primary, motivating need is a weakness; it’s simply who we are. We don’t need to prove ourselves right, to keep score, to conform, or to wear another “number” like a protective mask.
Instead, we have to make sure we find ways to meet our own needs (and knowing what they are makes that a lot more possible,) keeping an eye on that healthy end of the spectrum…while also working to meet other’s needs (again, a lot easier to do when you understand them.)
Really, what my Enneagram result did was – through some cringe-inspiring self-examination – encourage me to know myself better, to know others better, and ultimately, to be more wholly – but also, healthily – me, while helping others be more essentially, healthily themselves.
An uncomfortable experience? Yep. But one that turned out in the end to be very, very worthwhile.
What do you think about personality tests? Have you ever been surprised by the results of one? Did it teach you anything about yourself?
If you’re curious about your own Enneagram type, I recommend taking this test to get your type, but then reading type descriptions at The Enneagram Institute website – they’re much more in-depth and cover different levels of healthiness within each type comprehensively.
image credit: arch’educ on Flickr