Getting Out of the Box with the Enneagram

by Barry Ahern

“An unexamined life is a life not lived.” Socrates

Working with people in the personal development and business worlds I never cease to be surprised at how quickly participants can discover something of their inner experience that they have never articulated before.  The human development model used is a nine point personality system commonly called the Enneagram.

Before meeting any group each participant is asked to complete a little homework which involves reading nine paragraphs, each of which describes a particular world view in snapshot form. They are asked to choose their preferred option. When they meet and share their paragraph of preference it can be quite startling to the participants to discover how much they have in common with some people and how strikingly different others are. It can suddenly throw light on the motivation underlying behaviours which previously caused misunderstandings.

It all sounds suspiciously simplistic. However, each short description has been distilled from the direct experience of thousands of individuals who have observed their own patterns. You are also relying on people identifying what makes sense to them.

The Enneagram offers profound psychological insights into the nine different ways people organise their patterns of perception. It presents a road map where you can discover how you think and feel and relate to other people. Each of nine personality types has a distinctive pattern of thought, feeling and action. They are rooted in a specific viewpoint or belief structure that largely determines what is important to you and how you interact with the world to fulfil your hopes and dreams. In short it looks at the driving force that motivates you in everything you do. It deals with the structure of your personality.

The role of counsellors and psychotherapists is about helping to sort out what happens when the structure isn’t able to function healthily. Knowing about the structures of the personality is, however, a big advantage as it will provide you with clues as to how best to guide the client towards healthy interventions that will restore them to healthy functioning.

When we look at public personalities such as politicians it is interesting to note how some observers and commentators form a consensus as to their traits. What they are noting is a certain predictability about their behaviour. People often comment that the present Taoiseach seems to procrastinate when it comes to making decisions and prefers to sit on the fence. You might remember that when asked if schools should close for the funeral of the late Pope he said it was fine by him but that the schools themselves should make up their own minds.

In one sense this was a predictable response and the public has seen this pattern repeatedly over the years and has adapted to it too. However, the Enneagram model shows us how predictable we can all be if we operate on automatic all of the time. The characteristics of whatever profile we identify with becomes part of a strategy that on the one hand is used to help us get along in the world and on the other can keep us in a box.

The possible profile (I use this example reservedly as ultimately it is up to individuals to identify the profile that makes sense to them) that might illustrate the Taoiseach’s personality structure, commonly known as the Mediator, illustrates the psychological laziness of one who shies away from interiority. Instead they become other referenced and over adapt to the concerns, demands and opinions of others that results in a structure that is resigned, self-forgetting, convivial and conforming. There is a desire to avoid conflict at all costs as this would invite them to take a stand. However, this is what they avoid. Marge Simpson, the mother in the cartoon “The Simpsons” illustrates the need to find a non-conflictual approach to solving disagreements.

The DSM III describes the personality profile of the Mediator as a ‘dependent personality’ that manifests such syndromes as the inability to make decisions without an excessive amount of advice or reassurance from others. They can also agree with others even when they believe they are wrong for fear of rejection and have difficulty initiating projects or doing things for themselves.

All of us inhabit aspects of the personality styles at any one time. To a large extent we as a nation inhabit the mediator profile at the moment. This can be seen in the way we have tolerated the endless stories of corruption in high places and the waste of public money which is endemic in the society. We have acquiesced and colluded with the conditions meted out to patients in the A & E departments of our hospitals. This attitude masquerades as ‘tolerance’ but in fact it is going along with the kind of treatment that is far inferior to that given to animals in this country today.

The task of a therapist who is presented with a client with this profile would be to assist the client in discovering their anger, to help them reach a position where they can make a stand for themselves by giving the same importance to their own opinions as they give to others. It is then that you can start to work on the resistances.

Another of the profiles focuses on error. For them standards are important their attention is geared towards righting that that 5% that isn’t up to standard. This can turn into a neurotic style that is well intentioned but resentful, correct and formal and has an orientation to duty rather than pleasure. They are particularly demanding and critical towards themselves and others and could be called perfectionistic.

Most of us like to think we are totally free to do anything we wish but if we are honest with ourselves we know that we too have a predictability about ourselves. If you don’t believe this writer ask those who are closest to you, who you know will be honest and upfront with you, to list off your predictable behaviours.

Three Centres of Intelligence

While nine individual profiles are illustrated in the system each of them is biased towards one of three centres of intelligence. These are: the head, the heart and the body groupings. These would correlate with current opinion in terms of the grouping of DSM III syndromes.  The three head or mental type personalities have an orientation towards thinking. It is the centre that we most commonly associate with understanding and “intelligence.”  Those with this orientation have a need to predict what lies ahead as they lacked trustworthy guidance when they were young so there is a preoccupation with authority issues. They think that if they put the mind to work for them anything is possible. They have a natural propensity to see what is going on around them and can take in this information and put a conceptual structure on it.  This can result in an overly objective approach to life that can result in a discounting of the importance of one’s personal emotional experience and activities.

The three heart type personalities could be called the hysteroid group and have an orientation towards feeling. The heart types are concerned with personal identity & value and the need for affirmation. There is a preoccupation with narcissism and behind the exterior image there can be a rage that is expressed towards those who don’t approve of them. They are preoccupied with how they are seen by others and the image they convey to the world. The strategies they employ are through seeking recognition for supporting others, being applauded for what they achieve or for being sensitive and special.

They have a fear about being ignored as they felt they were actively rejected in a personal way. Attention goes towards getting the approval of others and being personally validated. There is shame about their sense of incompleteness. They take action to redress the neglect so the sense of self is split in two with the false self very much to the fore.

The body or gut centre have a ‘can do’ approach to life. The gut centre is the instinctual and sensate centre. Gut types base their actions on visceral knowing. It has to do with will and confidence with oneself. This centre instinctively knows the ‘best” way to do something.  The gut ‘senses’ conflict vs. harmony in the environment even when no words are spoken.  This is the centre of our power, our strength, impulses and our instincts.

The concerns of the body types is around holding one’s ground and there is an intolerance towards anyone who tries to interfere with their autonomy. For them there is a fear of neglect that might have been deliberate or benign, it’s about losing the sense of the right be or to exist in the world. They have a sense that their concerns were not taken on board. Anger is to the fore and is located around a desire to assert the self.

Where does it originate?

While the exact origins of the Enneagram are unknown it can be traced back to the ancient world. It is only in the last thirty years that it has been written down. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras who lived around 500 BC placed great importance on paying attention to the inner workings of the psyche. He used geometric figures to explain his teachings orally and he developed symbols of the first ten numbers. One of his seals is used to illustrate the structure of the system. The desert fathers c. 400 AD, Sufism, Dante and Chaucer also showed knowledge of the system. Most writers describe the patterns of the profiles without knowing the core motivation of their subjects. The Enneagram unlocks this code, called the motivating passion in the system, that provides the key to understanding human behaviour.

The system was known in the Russian court where the philosopher and one of the leading exponents of the material, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877 – 1949), transmitted it.  Oscar Ischazo ( 1931 – ), a Bolivian, taught it at the Arica Institute in Chile and in 1970 he brought together a group of 50 people from around the world and taught them the material. One of those present was Chilean-born psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, M.D., an honorary faculty member at Harvard and Berkeley, who further developed the system and began teaching it in Northern California. From these sources others have made major contributions to our understanding of the Enneagram system, among them, Helen Palmer and David Daniels, Tom Condon, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, and Jerry Wagner to name a few.

Why only nine profiles?

An interesting piece of work by Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess has been uncovered in recent years and reported in their book Temperament and Development (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1977). Their studies, which date from the early 1960’s, resulted in the publication of their research on infants beginning in their second and third months of life. In it they came across nine patterns of temperament. As far as is known they had no knowledge of the Enneagram. They also remarked that none of the temperaments are more or less positive or negative than any other, just different. They also remarked that no pattern of temperament resulted in any form of malfunctioning disturbance.

As an Enneagram teacher I know the proof is in the pudding and all you have to do is gather a group of people together who have never met each other before but who know their Enneagram style and, through interview, facilitate an inquiry into their commonly held world view. To witness this shared pattern of behaviour emerge from people of diverse backgrounds does not take away their individuality and has nothing to do with their belief systems, or the kind of relationships they find most satisfying or what kind of work they prefer etc.

The Enneagram in it’s everyday usage is an excellent model that provides a sophisticated but very accessible structure that enables normal and high functioning people to develop a process of healthy self management. It provides profound insights into the motivations that determine a lot of how we approach our world. The work of counsellors and psychotherapists could in its broadest sense be seen as assisting people to engage in a process of self-observation or self-management.

However, it also gives accurate clues to psychologists and therapists alike as to the various modalities and interventions that might apply to clients who are in stress.  Those in the profession who are familiar with the model speak of it being a tool that can speed up the therapeutic process because of the accuracy of the descriptions which arise from lived experience.

Barry Ahern teaches the Enneagram in business to private clients.


Daniels, D & Price, Virginia “The Essential Enneagram: The Definitive Personality Test and Self-Discovery Guide” Harper SanFrancisco (2000).

Palmer, Helen, “The Enneagram – Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life” Harper SanFrancisco (1991).

Palmer, Helen, “The Enneagram in Love and Work” Harper San Francisco. (1993).

Naranjo, Claudio, “Character and Neurosis – An Integrative View”

Gateways/DIHHB, Inc. (1994).