Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Enneagram Typing - Can It Slide Into Stereotyping?

The short answer is absolutely! Just because we know someone’s type doesn’t mean that they own and exhibit every characteristic of the type. They may not even relate to what might be considered major characteristics.

I remember one time some years ago attending a gathering of Enneagram aficionados. We didn’t know one another well, but we all shared our types. A group of 10 or so was over by the buffet table discussing intimate relationship when someone turned to me and said “Of course, you’re a Seven so you have a hard time making a commitment.”

Well, that’s simply not true for me. Maybe it was my childhood, maybe my Six Wing’s loyalty bias, maybe it’s my One-to-One subtype but for whatever reason, I actually commit deeply. I’ve been with my husband for 26 wonderful years. And it isn’t that I’m such a great or spiritual Seven, but that this just comes naturally to me. Commitment to work or a project: ditto.

Sure monkey mind, reframing, future-tripping,optimistic to a fault, pain averse - all these characteristics played a huge part in my personality. (Hopefully less so now.) But commitment difficulty; just not part of me. So it caught me off guard when I was so quickly and erroneously described vis a vis my Enneagram type. And when I attempted to correct the speaker, he smiled at me and said “Well, maybe you THINK you commit.”

Now I don’t think he meant any harm. Certainly I know that denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. And I will cop to all the annoying permutations of type that I have exhibited. But I felt dismissed. He didn’t want to know me - he thought he already did because he knew my type.

And I’ve heard countless similar stories from students. At work, a team tried to give a Four the responsibility for decorating an office because “Fours have great aesthetics.” She doesn’t. She likes beauty, especially in nature, but feels she has no color sense or ability in that particular area.

Or the One that was told that she must hold grudges because “All Ones do.” It wasn’t true for her. Although the rest of One, the inner critic, black and white thinking, even trapdoor activity she owned completely.

Or the woman who was lambasted by a coworker because she was an Eight and “could take it because Eights are tough.”

Stereotyping is hurtful. It hurts individuals and it hurts the Enneagram’s credibility. I have one friend who was stereotyped with the Enneagram by an ex and still shudders when he hears the word, Enneagram. He may never be open to it. And that is a shame.

The Enneagram is best used as an open inquiry; a common language to ask someone “What’s it like for you?” The minute we think we know someone because we know their type, the minute we name as it were, we stop ‘seeing’ them.

The Enneagram is only a starting place for our curiosity and delight in learning the inner terrain of another. It truly is like visiting another culture to visit another type, but then we must go deeper as we learn more about an individual who happens to live in that culture. And who may or may not follow all the customs in the guidebook.


Tess said...

Couldn't agree more. I'm a Three and for one thing I have changed over the years - I'm genuinely not nearly as status conscious as I used to be (although occasionally it still jumps up and bites me when I least expect it). But for example I've never been efficient. You should see my desk right now, I can't find a thing. And I have a strong Four wing which I think makes me softer and more reflective than some other Threes I've met.

But an interesting thing happens when I'm giving an Enneagram workshop. I find myself performing Three. Presenting the over-achieving, go-getting stereotype. I rationalise this by saying it will be easier for the group to "get", and perhaps it is. But really, it's a direct manifestation of several aspects of my Three-ness. I can often sort of observe while I'm doing it, and I do amuse myself! I generally share this with the group at some point, as a further layer of my type.

And another element of this is that I often think I'm not a good enough Three, because I haven't achieved enough, been successful enough. So I am personally judging myself by the stereotype, not by the underlying dynamics.

This is a long and perhaps self-involved comment, but you got me thinking how careful we have to be with stereotypes.

RevDave said...

I try very hard to avoid using it to make assumptions about people. Especially in my pastoral/spiritual direction work. My view of a person's type helps me frame some questions in a particular way that usually helps the person go deeper. And I rarely even tell people "oh, you're an Enneagram 1, so..." Unless someone asks, the Enneagram sits silently in the background.

Part of that comes from being an atypical 8. I can see clearly in the depths of the type description that I am there, but the surface attributes just don't fit me. So I don't assume that for others.

Jon Leland said...

The post is right on, but I especially like the photo!

Rachel Whalley said...

Love this post!

It's so true. We may be our types (or are they simply a part of what makes us us?), but we are each that type in a unique way.

I've heard similar stories to the ones you share, especially people who have been "typed" by an ex and now have a lot of resistance to the whole idea of the enneagram. (The sad thing is I often believe these people have been MIS-typed on top of it all!)

I find people are surprised by my enneagram type, Eight, and I do a lot of explaining about how I'm not a "typical" presenting Eight.

Part of why I think I'm called to put out the word about the enneagram is to change how Eight is described. A lot of the writings about Eight are so limiting, and Eight is rarely celebrated in our culture.

Would you consider cross-posting this article into our community site at Enneagram Lovers? I think our people would love to read it!

Lynette Sheppard said...

Thanks for your insightful sharing, everyone. Tess, my husband is a Three with a Four wing, definitely is not like a "typical" Three (and also not at all efficient by his own description.) I loved your story.

Thanks Rachel and Rev Dave for your atypical Eight reflections. I hope it makes us all think twice before deciding we know someone simply because we know their "type".
Glad you liked the photo, Jon.

And Rachel, I'd be delighted to cross post on the Enneagram Lovers site - I'll visit and find out how.

Anonymous said...

this is so true, I'm a 4w3 and I hear fours described quite frequently as emotional messes and an assumption no practicality or common sense. Just because someone is a four doesn't mean emotional expression is all there is to their personality.