Language matters in the Enneagram


It isn’t that I’ve had a change of heart – I still believe it is important to identify your Enneagram type by number, not name, to avoid creating yet another layer of separation between yourself and reality. However. Language matters in the Enneagram, just like it matters everywhere else.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Toni Morrison
language matters in the enneagrambut fails to describe this waterfall in quebec canada
Words fail me when I try to describe a scene as lovely as this, but here are a few: powerful, dynamic, peaceful, autumn, contrast, humbling.

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks. It isn’t that I set out to do everything differently than I normally do, but that is what happened. For two weeks, I didn’t write or read books. I used my phone for navigation and photos but little else. Zero driving, only one yoga practice, little TV or radio – I couldn’t even tune into conversations the way I habitually do as so many of them were in foreign languages.

Symbols are especially useful when you’re traveling. The little stick figure in a skirt was always a welcome sight, as I didn’t have to second-guess my tired brain’s comprehension of unfamiliar words. It is less work to send a heart or smiley face emoji than to type a response. However.

The last book I read before our trip was The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. In the dystopian world of Gilead, women (other than the “aunts”) are not taught to read. Instead, symbols are used so the working class can “function” under the regime. I’d forgotten all about this story until, while looking for coffee in NYC, we walked right by a coffee shop several times before I figured out its logo (a bottle).

Symbols are simple – life is not

So yes – symbols are useful when you don’t know or speak the language. However, there in Rockefeller Plaza after attending mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, symbols suddenly struck me as dangerous, too. It wasn’t that long ago most people couldn’t read. They didn’t need to: the church took care of disseminating the word of God to them. Capitalism is a religion in its own weird way – and is more universal than any church these days.

symbol of the cross aerial view of St. Patrick's cathedral NYC
The symbol of the cross bigger than ever from this view – yet it is dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Being inside the cathedral creates an entirely different take on reality.

We accept the green and white mermaid, and blue bottle, as a representative of sugary and caffeinated beverages. We accept the ichthys and the cross as symbols of Christian faith, even though plenty of less than ethical business owners slap the sticker on their bumper because they know it implies trustworthiness.

My point – and I do have one – is that symbols are just symbols. They aren’t the real thing. The real thing – the real mystery of life and consciousness and identity and all that jazz – cannot be summed up by a symbol, or a number, or a name. They can’t be summed up at all. But we humans have to try. Language is the best tool we have, so let’s use it – but wisely.

Language matters in the Enneagram!

We all rely on symbols and habits in some areas. That’s not a bad thing. But the point of the Enneagram is to really get to know ourselves, and for that we need language: gloriously complicated, loaded, meaningful, constantly evolving, and imperfect language. An emoji will not suffice.

In Personality Types, the authors (Riso/Hudson) give nine different titles for each Enneagram type, for each of the nine levels of health. I find this to be really illuminating, as it explains the potential in each type and also guards against the tendency to see only what you want to see.

milk and milk by products truck by brooklyn bridge
Mmmm….by products. Somehow I wasn’t tempted to indulge.

For example, it’s easy for me to justify “going with the flow” as just being me, a Peacemaker 9. Yay Peace! “Accommodating Role-Player” at level 4 isn’t exactly flattering – but “Denying Doormat” at level 7 is a true wake-up call. Who wants to be a doormat?! No one. However. The potential clearly exists – unless I wake up to what it is I’m doing in this crazy little thing we call life.

I’ve moved Riso & Hudson’s titles for each type at their absolute best and worst to my main Enneagram page. Please check it out! I hope learning about the Enneagram types at different levels of health is as useful to you as it was for me.

Nine ways of believing I am enough

i am enough

I am enough: three little words that have great power. But how can you believe it when you coulda, woulda, shoulda? In the end, that’s up to you. But here are nine ways of believing I am enough to get you started.

First, it helps to recognize we all have our own way of defining “enough.” The Enneagram helped me identify my own specific way of feeling like I wasn’t enough, and to notice how my way is both similar and different than other people’s version of not enough.

I’ve had “i am enough” necklaces in my Etsy shop for maybe eight years (?) now. It remains one of my favorite affirmations because it is true on so many levels. Below are nine ways of believing I am enough, based on the Enneagram triads.

nine ways of believing i am enough silver necklace
I am enough, in my head, my heart and my body.

I am enough for Enneagram Heart Types (2 3 4)

2: People will always need more than I can possibly give – yet I am enough.

3: Win or lose, profit or loss, happy or sad – my circumstances do not define me. I am enough.

4: Emotions can feel overwhelming at times, yet I’m not “too sensitive” or “too dramatic” – I am enough.

I am enough for Enneagram Head Types (5 6 7)

5: There will always be more to learn- yet I am capable now. I am enough.

6: I see all the ways things could go wrong, yet trust I’ll handle whatever comes. I am enough.

7: I’m not missing out. I’m happy and I am enough, right here and now.

I am enough for Enneagram Body Types (8 9 1)

8: There’s nothing to defend against. I am enough as I am.

9: I can see everyone’s point of view and still maintain my own sense of self. I am enough.

1: The world’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, perfection is impossible – and yet, I am enough.

Is I am enough not your style?

I get it. Maybe it is just my Eight wing talking, but some days I feel the need for something with a little more punch. That’s why I have my FYeahJewelry Etsy shop – to house messages like these:

just fucking be kind necklace
Be kind, be kind, be kind.

The message is the same. I am enough, you are enough, we are all enough. So let’s be kind to each other. It feels a lot better than the alternatives.

Personality Ping Pong

life is like a game of ping pong

A few weeks ago, I was journaling about the Enneagram (what, like you weren’t?) and made a list of how it is like ping pong. Personality ping pong. Each one of us has a certain something we express in the world – a ping. And we get something back – a pong. Actually, there are millions of things we put out in the world (ping ping ping!!!) and at least as many pongs coming back at us.

personality ping pong
I got schooled. It was fun.

But, we all have filters: our personalities. You might see all those balls flying at you and think: what fun! Or, how terrible! You might have forgotten that you sent that ping out in the first place, so why now are these pongs showing up at your door? Or you’ve being pinging desperately and not finding any pongs.

You never really forget how to play

This weekend, I got to play ping pong for the first time in ages. It took me a minute to get up to speed with my opponent – but just a minute. Then I felt the old conditioning kick in. I spent hours of my childhood in my best friend’s basement, playing ping pong against her and her older brother. I learned to flick my wrist to give the ball a little spin, to watch for opportunities to knock a high ball down hard and fast. Aware of it or not, I carry within me some strangely specific skills and pattern recognition software.

But my skill or habits are only half the equation. The person across the table has their own habits, their own strategies. My friend wanted to keep our volleys going. She also wanted to have fun – so any chance she had to turn up the speed, she took. When I played against her husband, our tempo was more lackadaisical. Same game, same me: different experience.

The idea of personality ping pong is silly, I know. It is also easy to understand and therefore useful as a metaphor. Ping pong is an individual sport (game? I don’t know. I was sweating by the time we were done.) A fun game of ping pong also requires two players who have, if not the same skill level, enough overlap so as to keep the ball in play. It is also pretty easy to see where your skill or lack thereof interrupts the game and sends you crawling under the table to find the missing ball. You can alter where you stand, how you shift your weight, etc.

Personality Ping Pong by Enneagram Type

So, here is my assessment of what each Enneagram type pings, and the pongs they receive back, which serve to reinforce their existing world view. It is how each of us end up believing that our reality is the same as Reality. I love how the Enneagram illustrates how we create our lives – even if we think the idea of “creating our own reality” is woo-woo nonsense.

Public Art in San Francisco.

Feeling/Heart Types:

2: Twos have learned that self-worth comes from helping people. When others refuse their help or assert their independence, the Two fear of not being lovable is triggered, which makes them try harder to prove how essential they are.

3: Threes are out of touch with their feelings, but reflexively know how to present themselves in the best possible light. They mistake the trappings of success for the real thing, then assume they’ll stop feeling empty and dissatisfied when they achieve their *next* goal.

4: Fours get caught up in their emotions to the point that it doesn’t matter what people pong their way – they only see the negative. Eventually, people give up … and Fours take this as more proof that they are different and flawed, just like they feel.

Sculpture by Robert Arneson, San Francisco MoMA.

Thinking/Head Types:

5: Fives like to figure things out. The world looks crazier every damn day, so back into their minds they go. Fives withdraw to analyze, but it is impossible to amass enough knowledge. Meanwhile, Fives miss out on the experiences that would give them confidence in their ability to thrive.

6: Sixes are aware of all contingencies and possible problems. When others don’t share their level of concern, Sixes become even more hyper-vigilant since obviously, the rest of us flakes can’t be trusted.

7: Sevens only want to feel positive emotions – and genuinely see happy possibilities everywhere – but even their greatest plans don’t satisfy them. They are already (mentally) off planning the next one instead of experiencing the present moment. Panic sets in – but that’s a negative feeling, so Sevens spin it as more, better, faster, instead.

The Salvador Dali Museum.

Instinct/Body Types:

8: Eights are so determined to make sure that they are never at another’s mercy that they make everything a battle…which pisses people off, and proves to Eights that their aggressive behavior was necessary. Good thing they are tough: it is the only way to be in a dog-eat-dog world.

9: Nines tend to check out and merge with others. It is easier than getting mad or fighting for their way, since what does it really matter at the end of the day? Their own thoughts and feelings are less real than those of other people … so of course Nines don’t feel like anyone special or important. They barely exist.

1: Ones see all the ways that things could be better, or how they really should be. However: people don’t like being criticized (shocker, eh?) and most people don’t share Ones attention to detail. This makes Ones angry – they know they are right! Their anger turns inwards and they resent having their perfect plans foiled.

One giant personality ping pong game

All nine Enneagram Types fail to see the whole picture. These short descriptions are meant to help illustrate the patterns of how we do so, not to define or limit anyone. We are all just doing the best we can at this crazy game of life. You hold your own paddle. When you learn to use it wisely, personality ping pong becomes a lot more fun!

Don’t know your Enneagram Type? Start figuring out what kind of player you are at The Enneagram Institute.