“The Enneagram is a compassionate sketch of possibilities and opportunities,
pointing us back to our True Self and back to the anchoring God whose name is Love.”
Christopher L. Heuertz, author, The Sacred Enneagram
This blog title may sound like a bold statement, but it is the absolute truth! I discovered the Enneagram when I was studying to become a Spiritual Director. The Enneagram is a personality mapping system that helps us find our True Self. It is not a conversation starter, a new fad, or the latest label to wear. It is a sacred map to our souls. It helps us figure out what makes us tick, why we struggle in certain relationships, and how to grow into a more well-adapted person. And like I said above, it has significantly changed my life. It has changed how I look at my past, my present, and my future. Let me tell you a little bit about my journey.
I was assigned to read the book, The Road Back to You, by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile, as part of my coursework to become a Spiritual Director. This book explores the ancient personality mapping system called the Enneagram (any-a-gram). I was already learning to pay a bit more attention to myself and how I engaged the world, and this book gave depth to my journey. The following quote from the book sums up this common dilemma well:
“It has to do with self-knowledge. Most folks assume they understand who they are when they don’t. They don’t question the lens through which they see the world—where it came from, how it’s shaped their lives, or even if the vision of reality it gives them is distorted or true. Even more troubling, most people aren’t aware of how things that helped them survive as kids are now holding them back as adults. They’re asleep.” (pg.14)
I was not awake to my True Self. I had learned over the years that the me that kept showing up was not the me that was acceptable in the circles in which I lived, so I crafted a more acceptable persona. I didn’t know I was doing that, of course. It was just a survival instinct.
My first memories of being “too much” were in childhood—being told I was too strong-willed and how it would be a just penance if I, too, had a child who was strong-willed like me. Or being compared to older sibling who did everything right and that I should try to be more like them—but I couldn’t. Too sassy. Too independent. Too much to handle. And then there was the time in my senior year of high school choir when the underclassmen handed out silly awards to graduates. I have no idea what anyone else received, but I got the “Miss Boss” award. It may seem like nothing to most people, but honestly, once that verdict was pronounced, it was all I could do to keep from slinking out of the room in utter humiliation. It was a label that hung around my neck for years and years, like a scarlet letter. I wasn’t trying to be bossy or demanding. It was just my nature to make things happen or to be in charge—or try to be, or think I was.
I got married straight out of high school and immediately entered the adult world. I was ready for it. I had felt like an adult for a long time. My husband was studying to become a pastor and every aspect of our lives revolved around church. It was in this environment that I ran smack into the stark reality of the unacceptableness of my personality. Here, women were to model submission, meekness, humility, and charity. Wives were to be the “helpmeet” to their husbands, and husbands were to be the head of the household, leaders in decision-making, money-managers, and overall climate controllers of the home. And if you were the wife of a pastor, the onus was on you to be the epitome of said submission, deferment, quietness, humility, and gentleness. This burden was further complicated by the era in which I lived. In the mid-70’s, women’s roles were well-defined, especially in the context of a religious community.
In several of our pastoral assignments, I received an unequivocal message that I was too much. Too loud of a voice. Too harsh. Too much up front. Too much energy. Too many ideas. Be more like Mary and less like Martha. Once, someone scolded me for doing a job so well that the person who followed after me in the role couldn’t measure up and felt defeated. On another occasion, someone told me I had a demon of control.
Honestly, I understand that I can be overwhelming to people—my energy and enthusiasm for something, my decisiveness, my know-it-all aura, my all-or-nothing frame of reference, my competitiveness, my need to be right, my get-er-done attitude. I understand that I can be exhausting. Sometimes I exhaust myself! So I am not saying there wasn’t justification for these past conversations, but I imagine I could have benefited from a helping hand to teach a young, enthusiastic 25-year old how to be a better leader. And there could have been a more open environment for a strong and capable woman in the Church.
I am not mentioning these instances to garner sympathy, but to set the stage for why the Enneagram was so strategic to me. When you’ve had your hand slapped over and over and over again, you eventually learn how to avoid the pain and embarrassment of the confrontations. And you begin to believe the words spoken over you. So I tried to be quiet and meek, sitting in the back of the church, staying out of trouble. I would succeed for a time, and then, like an erupting volcano inside me, I just had to do something—anything! I couldn’t contain the energy, so I would start a new project or plan a new event. Everything was well-intended, but this cycle just kept repeating itself over and over again. In time, I began to believe that I was defective. I didn’t understand why God had made me a woman and not a man (It wasn’t a sexual identity thing—it was a societal role thing). I began to believe that there was something inherently wrong with ME! I was bad. I was wrong. And I couldn’t be fixed unless I lived in suppression of all that was in me. So I tried another approach—be perfect, don’t make mistakes, make your world perfect, and you won’t get into trouble.
This quest for perfection spilled over into my relationship with God. I perceived Him as angry, distant, aloof, annoyed—you name a negative aspect, and I pinned it on God. I assumed He was tapping His foot, arms crossed, just waiting to slap my hand or point a finger in my face. I was ready for Him to reject my essence. Oh, I sort-of-believed He loved me. It was all part of the John 3:16 contract with the world. But I didn’t think He particularly liked me. I certainly wasn’t His favorite. Maybe you can identify with those feelings? I will come back to how He healed this skewed perception of Himself later.
So, on a late-night flight home from a family gathering, I cracked open the book I mentioned above and began to read about the nine Enneagram types. When the authors laid out the personality style of the Eight (the Enneagram numbers the types from One to Nine). It felt like on one hand someone had laid open my soul, and on the other hand had said, “You are you. You are misunderstood, not defective!” The description of how the Eight type sees the world and experiences relationships was HARD to read. I sobbed my way through the chapter, grateful that the gentleman sitting two seats over was asleep! I finally heard that I was not some strange anomaly, a weird alien who didn’t fit in the world, some rebellious non-submissive woman. I was a strong, capable, justice-seeking, truth-telling, hard-working person who made things happen! I was all these things and more. However, the Enneagram also showed me how I had used unsuccessful methods to take care of myself and make my world safe. I used strength and power to control situations and people. I used anger as my go-to emotion, all the while falling asleep to the real emotion underneath. My conversation style was confrontational. My ideas were always best, and the world was either black or white. The Enneagram was not a permission slip to continue perceiving the world the way I always had. It was a pathway to find the truth of the real, vulnerable, innocence-loving me hidden underneath the façade of strength. The Enneagram explained how childhood wounds had shaped how I viewed and experienced the world. It gave me compassion for myself! And as I read about all the other Enneagram types, it gave me a way to see them more compassionately.
The Enneagram is about discovery. For me, it was a monumental discovery! I have taken many other personality tests over the years, and nothing has ever touched my soul like the Enneagram. While it is about discovery, it is also about transformation. The Enneagram method does not leave you wearing a convenient label so you can stay in your self-constructed box. It teaches you to pay attention. For me, that was a significant hurdle. Type Eights are not known for self-awareness. Learning to listen to my heart, perceive my thoughts, and observe my reactions is something that requires deliberate action for me. I am learning to lay down the armor I hoarded for self-protection. I am learning to be less habitually reactive to people and situations, and I am learning to press into intentionality. I am becoming more at peace in my essence, more serene and gentle—all those things people wanted me to be in my life and I didn’t know how to do authentically. I am becoming more like my True Self; the self I believe God has made me to be.
On this journey to self-discovery and transformation, I have also been embracing a change of my self-constructed pictures of God. I am learning that I may not understand everything He allows in my life, but it doesn’t have anything to do with His infinite love for me. I am experiencing His love in silence and contemplation in ways that are beyond explanation. I no longer believe He is tapping His foot, waiting for me to make a mistake. Instead, I wholeheartedly believe His love is full of desire and invitation toward me. The following quote by Father Thomas Keating’s, “Open Mind, Open Heart” says it better than I can express:
This Presence is so immense, yet so humble; Awe-inspiring, yet so gentle; Limitless, yet so intimate, tender, and personal. I know that I am known. Everything in my life is transparent in this Presence. It knows everything about me—all my weaknesses, brokenness, sinfulness— and still loves me infinitely. This Presence is healing, strengthening, refreshing—just by its Presence. It is non-judgmental, self-giving, seeking no reward, boundless in compassion. It is like coming home to a place I should never have left, to an awareness that was somehow always there, but which I did not recognize.”
I have told you the story of how the Enneagram changed my life—how it continues to change me. I know there is so much more for me to learn about myself and the Enneagram. I am excited to walk with others on this same journey of discovery and transformation, and to that end, I will be spending 2019 on a quest to become a teacher of the Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition. I am very much in my Eight eagerness and energy to learn all I can about this method of encountering myself and others. And I am pressing into the vulnerability necessary to go on this adventure. Stay tuned for more of my journey. Perhaps it will become a journey you will want to go on yourself!