"You’re a Five,” my mom told me. This was, obviously, a weird thing for a mother to say to her child. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means you like thinking,” she said. “You want to figure everything out, right? That’s why you do so well in school.”
This barrage of compliments sent 10-year-old me sobbing into the snow-covered woods. I don’t remember why we were having this conversation somewhere near the woods in the middle of winter. Nor am I entirely certain that this is the way it happened. But I do know why I took my mom’s remark as an insult: I interpreted it to mean that “overthinking” was my defining characteristic. I’ve since learned that the truth is a bit more complex than that. But after much self-conscious, anxiety-ridden overthinking, I know another thing: I am, indeed, a Five.
My mother was referring to the Enneagram. A paragon of New Age spirituality, the Enneagram is a personality type system that maps nine types onto a mystical symbol. The lines of the Enneagram allegedly indicate the directions of your spiritual growth and decay, offering invaluable insight into your development as a person. My mom learned of the Enneagram from her sister, my Aunt Theresa, the bringer of all things New-Agey into our otherwise spiritually-averse family. My mom and Theresa went through a stage in which they obsessively “typed” all the members of our family, often to our chagrin. “He could be a Six, but I could also see him as a Two with a strong Three wing,” they would gossip. (That’s the way the Enneagram gets you talking.)
This strange spiritual vernacular surrounding the Enneagram is confusing, so here’s the basic gist of the Enneagram: it categorizes people into nine primary types, which are distinguished most importantly by a set of basic fears and basic desires. The full description of each type includes a combination of general attitude, sets of behaviors, patterns of thinking, and life problems that the type tends to experience. But with the incorporation of “wings” (secondary types), instinctual variants, levels of development, directions of growth and disintegration, and triadic centers, the system gets so complicated that there are diagrams of the Enneagram entitled with such jargon as, “The Hornevian Groups with the Motivational Aims of the Triads.”
This diagram is my attempt to distill the many facets of the Enneagram system onto a single page. Most Enneagram followers would balk at this oversimplification, though, so if you actually want to know about it straight from the source, visit enneagraminstitute.com, the website published by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. Riso and Hudson are the “most reputable” Enneagram teachers alive today, according to Aunt Theresa. This is where I should probably issue a disclaimer: the Enneagram would not be taken seriously by most American psychology professors. Nor is it widely used as a psychological tool by therapists, at least in the U.S. So the Enneagram is not a hot-button topic that deserves a good dose of hard-hitting journalism. Rather, it was a personal conundrum.
The Enneagram differs from other well-known personality type systems like Myers-Briggs in that it doesn’t just claim to formulate a system for understanding differences between people’s psychological experience and behavior. It also claims to address the deep roots of our “spiritual essences.” According to the gurus of the Enneagram, the self-destructive habits of your personality inhibit your spiritual essence from properly guiding your life—you are prevented by yourself from being who you most fully are. At its core, the Enneagram aims to tell you what you’re really seeking from life and identify the primordial fear that drives your personality. Consider, for example, this frank statement from the Riso-Hudson type Five description:
“Independent, innovative, and inventive, [Fives] can also become preoccupied with their thoughts and imaginary constructs. They become detached, yet high-strung and intense. They typically have problems with eccentricity, nihilism, and isolation…but rather than engage directly with activities that might bolster their confidence, Fives ‘take a step back’ into their minds, where they feel more capable. Their belief is that from the safety of their minds they will eventually figure out how to do things—and one day rejoin the world.”
If you cringe at how accurately this describes you, thinking of times when you’ve become isolated from the real world due to your obsessive fixation on a certain pattern of thinking, increasingly panicked at your all-too-clear awareness of your own isolation, yet too afraid of the possibility of failure to really do anything about it, thus trapping yourself in a cycle of over-analysis and self-deprecation—well, you too might be a Five.
This sometimes startling accuracy can provoke hostile reactions. To provide a juvenile personal example, after I was informed of what I then interpreted as my sadly limited essential being, I spent a while lingering in the woods, contemplating like a typical Five-child. I came back out and accepted a pat on the back from my elders, successfully suppressing my feelings and avoiding confrontation. Like a good, investigative, neurotic Five, I then briefly joined my mom and my aunt in the Enneagram obsession, attempting to discover all I could about the inner workings of other human beings. But my interest waned when we lost the guidance book, “The Wisdom of the Enneagram,” and I found other debatably legitimate ways of understanding the world. An evangelical religious stage devolved into a radical devotion to the power of Nature, until my skepticism finally culminated in my college philosophy major.
I rediscovered the Enneagram only last semester, after a stressful summer job as an adventure camp counselor in which I rescued preteen girls from falling trees and cliquey drama, followed by a traumatic breakup and a subsequent pervading sense of meaninglessness in both my everyday activities and my life’s direction. Neither therapists, nor well-meaning friends, nor books of political theory seemed to give me what the Enneagram did: a startlingly accurate picture of the patterns of thought that were trapping me, and also, maybe, a path to liberation. But while the Enneagram held high promise, it also seemed ridiculous. I wanted to save myself with the Enneagram. But first I had to figure out if I actually believed in it.
In order to better understand my Enneagram revelation, I purchased the long-lost “The Wisdom of the Enneagram,” 389 pages of Riso and Hudson’s invaluable wisdom. The book is bounded like an SAT test prep book (but for your soul). Its blue cover gradually fades into spiritual shades of gray, and it features an illustration of a majestic eagle transposed upon ethereal clouds, rising above a dark and stormy ocean. The book is dedicated to “The Ground of all Being, the One from Whom we have come, and to Whom we shall return” (capitalized exactly like that).
No dedication could better reflect the vague and disputed spiritual roots of the Enneagram. The book’s short chapter entitled “Ancient Roots, Modern Insights” makes the incredibly ambiguous claim that “the origins of the Enneagram symbol have been lost to history.” The chapter then somehow ties the basis of Enneagramic “triadic thought” to all three Abrahamic traditions, in addition to ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.
Wherever its roots truly lie, the Enneagram symbol was apparently “rediscovered” in 1875 by a young Greek-Armenian traveling through the Middle East in search of his true soul. In the 1950s, a Bolivian named Óscar Ichazo encountered the Enneagram and, in what the book describes as a “flash of genius,” he placed a wealth of spiritual and psychological knowledge onto the Enneagram symbol “in the right sequence” to develop the basic nine types. If you read this with a cynical, scientific perspective, yes, this means that the entire typology was thrown together randomly by an esoteric dude in the fits of some kind of transcendental frenzy.
Ichazo would later introduce the Enneagram to a Chilean psychiatrist named Claudio Naranjo, who noted that the nine types seemed to correlate surprisingly well with identifiable psychiatric categories. Naranjo then gathered panels of people to type them according to their psychiatric difficulties. He went on to teach the Enneagram to Jesuits in California, where it was picked up by Riso and Hudson themselves. Today, the Enneagram attracts not people who subscribe to the love, light, and undefined Oneness of New Age spirituality, but also Catholic priests (although with pushback from an unpublished Bishops’ council report that, ironically, discouraged its use because it wasn’t scientifically proven). Businesses looking for insight into employee dynamics have also picked it up. It is most popular in Spanish-speaking countries, but there are “Enneagram societies” all over the world.
Reading the Enneagram book as a perennial skeptic of the Enneagram system produced constant bewilderment. Every time I started to slide into cynicism about the whole thing, I would read a sentence that described me or someone I knew so precisely that I could almost feel the unnamed mystical power that the Enneagram bequeaths upon us. For example, upon reading that Don Richard Riso considered himself a Four with a Three wing, my first thought was, “That explains why he had the audacity to publish so much wacky, unfounded bullshit.” But this very insult validated Riso’s own teaching that “Fours” exist in the first place, and that Fours’ creative side is spurred by their desire to be unique, and that his Three wing motivated him to promote himself as an image of success.
Every time I had experiences like that, I’d start worrying: what if I really start buying into this? Am I going to start seeing people as walking, talking Twos and Fours? Am I going to lose the ability to think of myself and my social relationships in any other way? Or worse, will that awful Five pattern of isolation become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s the way I think I’m naturally inclined to deal with things? An Enneagram devotee would instantly peg this as the typical frustrated, withdrawn indecision of a Five. This is a common defense of the Enneagram: anyone who challenges its legitimacy must be doing so because of a quirk of their type. For example, a few months ago, Aunt Theresa and I sat in the kitchen, gossiping about the dynamics of toxic relationships between Fives and Sevens.
My dad, always an Enneagram skeptic, scoffed. “I just think human beings are more complex than that. You can’t lump people into categories.”
“What a classic Nine thing to say,” Theresa responded, rolling her eyes in my direction.
I laughed along with my aunt, but secretly wondered if my dad was right. I was still obsessed whether the Enneagram was “real,” and what it meant if it was. I was drawn to the mythical possibility that the Enneagram was both the key to better self-understanding and the metric by which I could finally solve all of my personal problems. But I was also terrified and repulsed by my own attraction to it. Because if I was wrong, it was just a system of stereotypes about people, organized to give the illusion of true enlightenment.
I decided to put the Enneagram to the test—specifically, by putting myself to the test. One of the potential flaws in the Enneagram is that it’s all based on self-reporting. Maybe, because of the way the Enneagram describes the nine types, a person would type themselves not according to what they are, but as the type that they want to be, or even as the type they’re afraid of being. Plus, the types might only seem to be specific. I reread the description of a Five with a Sexual instinct. “They are always experiencing some degree of tension between pursuing those they are attracted to and lacking confidence in their social skills.” Yes, this described me perfectly. But doesn’t that describe everyone, to some degree? (I hope so.) Maybe, looking back on the description, it was reductive and self-centered to think that this was the perfect description of me. There had to be proof that the specificity of the system was grounded—something to confirm my type from an objective standpoint.
But most Enneagram-oriented personality tests I found online completely mistyped me. (There was no way I am a Six with a Seven wing and a Social variant, as a website called “Eclectic Energies” told me.) I decided these must be faulty sources, so I turned to the real deal: the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI). Because you have to pay $12, I delayed taking it until Cipher agreed to reimburse me for it as “research.” (One of the characteristics of a Five is stinginess.)
The long-awaited test seemed frighteningly oversimplified. I fumed, trying to decide if I had been, in general, “a bit cynical and skeptical” or “a bit mushy and sentimental,” and whether anyone was actually just one or the other. As I finished the test, I was sure I had answered so many poorly-worded questions so inconsistently that it would also mistype me. But it didn’t: I was rechristened as the same thing—a Five with a Four wing.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I soon found myself in the bowels of a fairly active Reddit thread called “The Enneagram of Personality,” where internet users obsess about typing themselves and random people they’ve encountered. (“4 w 5 wing having problems getting out of myself?” and “suuuuuchhhh a two” were typical-sounding posts.) I found Pinterest boards filled with the speculative typology of public figures and favorite fictional characters. Donald Trump is an unhealthy Eight; Harry Potter is the epitome of a One.
Perplexed and unsure of where to turn next, I called an Enneagram coach, hoping that someone who worked constantly with the Enneagram could explain my skepticism away. Alvaro Cortes, who lives in Spain, discovered the Enneagram through my very own Aunt Theresa, whom he befriended years before I was born. He found it so compelling that he entered a three-year course of study at the Enneagram Institute in Madrid, and now uses the Enneagram as a tool for his coaching and teachings on cross-cultural connection.
Though I had never met Alvaro, he already knew a lot about me because Theresa had told him the typology of my parents. Other than his eerily accurate descriptions of my dad’s tendency to avoid making hard decisions, our conversation was reassuring.
Alvaro, a peace-driven Nine like my father, didn’t seem to wrestle with the same deep doubts about the Enneagram that I did. “You should move away from being too obsessed with the theory and focus on using it as a tool that is going to help you move forward,” he told me. In Spain, the Enneagram is more widely accepted—it’s used by therapists and taught in psychology courses in major universities. Alvaro described patterns of confusion that people face in typing themselves. Women, for example, often want to believe that they are Twos because society teaches us that women should be focused on love and caring for the needs of others. But Alvaro didn’t share my suspicion that this frequent confusion indicated a flaw in the Enneagram system. He warned against obscure Enneagram blogs created by “everybody and his aunt,” but he didn’t see the Enneagram itself as dangerous or misleading. (Still, I was tempted to remind him that we both literally found out about the Enneagram from my aunt.)
Up until this point, all of my swirling questions and doubts about the Enneagram had been distilled into a single worry: was I the type of person that believed in the Enneagram, or not? But maybe this was the wrong question. I asked Alvaro: “Do you think the Enneagram is something that one believes in?”
He said, “To be honest, I don’t. The Enneagram isn’t going to resolve your life. It can help you deal with life, so you don’t fall into the same potholes. But this is not a religion.”
That perspective suddenly made sense to me. Yes, it seems that the Enneagram only holds together as a coherent system for describing human interaction if you make constant modifications to the type descriptions, allowing for such a wide range of behaviors that the typology ceases to mean much. But maybe it doesn’t matter that the Enneagram isn’t capital-T true, and isn’t backed up with either the proof of science or the logical rigor of philosophy. It might still be a better alternative for figuring ourselves out than being left to our own devices.
If anything, the Enneagram at least gives its adherents a shared way of understanding ourselves and other people—a set system to tell you why others might react to a situation in a different way, hurt you, or fail to treat you how you’d want to be treated. Often, when reading the material and taking the test, I had to look up the words used to describe people. What exactly does it mean to be earnest, standoffish, brooding? I had never talked about people like that before. Our culture doesn’t give us a common language through which to talk about other people. Instead we just call them “bitches” and go about our days.
My Aunt Theresa advised me that this understanding of the Enneagram would serve a much deeper purpose. “I have exited the place where typing justifies my criticism of someone,” she wrote in an email. “This Enneagram understanding has made me more compassionate and forgiving to myself and others. I see it as a guide out of personal pain, because we have a way to name that pain.”
The hope within the Enneagram is that we do have the power to address our own pain. According to the Enneagram, I’m not living up to my full potential, but maybe there is a way of being where I could feel okay, and be okay to others, too. If you don’t believe me, identify your type and read the description of the highest level of type development. It describes you at your spiritual stride, where you are able to shed the confining aspects of your personality and embody the positive ones. This was always the awe-inspiring aspect I returned to amidst my Enneagram cynicism.
Or maybe you shouldn’t take my word for it. I am, after all, a Five with a Four wing and a Sexual instinctual variant. Only that type would write this article.