TRADITIONALLY, the Enneagram refers to a personality-typing system that helps people cultivate self-knowledge. (To learn more about the Enneagram, and to take a test to determine your Enneagram type, visit my website, ianmorgancron.com.) Through the years. I’ve learned that it is a remarkably helpful tool for understanding myself and others. When I was first introduced to it during a difficult season in my life, its ability to describe my way of moving through the world amazed me. I became a devoted student of this ancient, uncannily accurate system of personality.
Several years into my study of the Enneagram, I had an Aha! moment that boosted my appreciation of its wisdom even more. Not only does its description of nine different types accurately describe our personality, but the Enneagram reveals the nine broken stories that each type adopts and inhabits in childhood to make sense of the world — destructive stories we continue to tell ourselves in adulthood about who we are and how the world operates. The self-defining stories we invent in childhood later wreak havoc on our lives, psychologically and spiritually, because the underlying premise of each is in direct opposition to the grace-filled Larger Story God wants us to enter into and enjoy.
The Enneagram also shows us how to escape our type’s broken story by getting off the treadmill repetitions of self-defeating behaviours and misperceptions that often leave us frustrated, confused, and heartbroken. What separates the Enneagram from other personality typing systems is that it helps us craft and live a better, truer story than the one we’ve unconsciously settled for.
HUMAN beings are incurable storytellers. From the time we enter this world, we begin crafting a story that helps us make sense and give meaning to the painful things that happen to us. According to many therapists, we actually build our lives around this self-told story. It forms our identity and personality; [but] once we tether ourselves to these stories it never occurs to us that we can interrogate or rewrite them. We can’t change the facts of what happened to us in the past, but we can change how we show up for life in the present.
Most of us are reading off old scripts, parts of which we wrote and parts of which have been handed down to us by the important people in our lives. In many cases, those scripts helped us navigate the rocky terrain of childhood and early adulthood. But, at some point, the stories stopped serving us, and we started serving the stories. This is how we mortgage our futures.
Some of us have become vaguely aware that we’ve outgrown our old stories, but we don’t know how to break out of them. Some of us are even less self-aware, mindlessly engaging in recurring cycles of the same old same old, wondering how we got into this mess again.
As James Hollis says, “No one awakens in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says, ‘I think I will repeat my mistakes today,’ or ‘I expect that today I will do something really stupid, repetitive, regressive, and against my best interests.’ But, frequently, this repetition of history is precisely what we do, because we are unaware of the silent presence of those programmed energies, the core ideas we have acquired, internalised, and surrendered to” (Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to finally, really grow up, Penguin, 2005).
THE Enneagram gives us clues to who we are, both trapped in our false stories and freed to rewrite them. It presents a remarkable constellation of nine archetypal stories, common to all human experience, which we adopt and inhabit in childhood to make sense of who we are and to figure out how this strange new world works.
Enneagram fans will often express amazement at how well it describes them. But is that all it has to offer — a static description of our personality type that we can chat about at cocktail parties, or post brainless memes about on Instagram? Heck, no. The Enneagram is a prescription for deep change.
The sum of what I’ve learned as a psychotherapist, Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and as a person on my own journey of transformation boils down to one simple fact. All transformation begins with story transformation. You won’t change if you don’t break free from your old, self-defining childhood story. This is the work we have to do, and the Enneagram can help us.
THE work begins with recognising and deconstructing our old story to make room for a better one. Then we start to deal with our type’s Passion. An Enneagram Passion isn’t something you feel “passionate” about: it is . . . the ever-present, unconscious emotional force or motivation driving the self-defeating behaviours that, despite your best efforts, you haven’t been able to stop. It is the “lie” of your type, perpetuating the old, weary story as a doomed strategy for satisfying your needs and desires, like love, safety, or a sense of control. Ironically, it prevents you from realising them.
(If you don’t believe that your Passion is the root of your pain, remember that the very word “Passion” comes from the Latin root for suffering, as in Christ’s Passion and death.*) The Enneagram’s built-in escape route is the corresponding Virtue of each type, which can overcome its Passion and dismantle its false story
Your path to liberation charted in the Enneagram starts with recognising the ways your life has been limited by your type’s Passion — and, through your Virtue, recognising who you truly are when your Passion is no longer unconsciously running the show. The genius of the Enneagram is that not only does it reveal what needs to change, but also how to change.
RE-AUTHORING your narrative is a not a matter of one-and-done. It is the task of a lifetime. As you move away (oh yes, you will) from your type’s default Passion and closer to its Virtue, you learn the power of doing the opposite of what you would normally do, responding to difficult situations (and people) in new and creative ways.** The goal is to challenge the old, taken-for-granted beliefs of your false narrative to help you get unstuck.
As you rewrite your narrative, ask yourself: Who was I before the world told me who I was supposed to be? Who would I be, and what could I achieve, if I pushed back against the false story about who I think I am and the nature of the world? What decisions can I make today to inhabit the new story that will help me become the highest and truest expression of myself?
On my office wall I have a prayer written by George Appleton that I like to say from time to time. Perhaps it will help you as you embark on this journey of entering into a new story: “Give me a candle of the spirit, O God, as I go down into the deep of my own being. Show me the hidden things. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow so that I may become my true self — the fulfilment of the seed which you planted in me at my making.”
This is an edited extract from The Story of You: An Enneagram journey to becoming your true self by Ian Morgan Cron, published in Great Britain by Form, www.spck.co.uk, at £17.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16.19); 978-0-28108-686-3.
*The Enneagram teacher Christopher L. Huertz also makes this point in The Sacred Enneagram: Finding your unique path to spiritual growth (Zondervan, 2017).
**I’m a big fan of Gail Saltz’s book Becoming Real: Defeating the stories we tell ourselves that hold us back (Riverhead Books, 2004), and employ some of her ideas here, along with those of various wise Enneagram teachers, and some of my own.