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Enneagram Updates

As promised, I’m writing with updates on my reading about the Enneagram. On Saturday, I checked out two books: The Enneagram by Helen Palmer and The Wisdom Of The Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Ross Hudson. Completely unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d obtained books from the two major Enneagram schools: The Palmer School and The Riso/Hudson School. I’m so glad I did because there are definite strengths and weaknesses to each.

Let’s start with Palmer. . .

Strengths: I really admire how clinical and level-headed her approach is. She speaks with great specificity about the ways in which psychological research substantiates certain patterns in the different personality types. She provides helpful discussions of how certain Enneagram personality types correlate with different MBTI categories and certain mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, narcissism, sociopathy, etc. She also provides ample firsthand accounts of each personality type that allow us a window into the specific cognitive and behavioral patterns that are unique to each type. I love her explanations of how each type might pay attention and intuit. In order to explain this, she uses simple yet evocative visual metaphors for what each type looks for and takes note of upon entering a new environment. Perhaps my favorite part of Palmer’s book is how she maps hypothetical relationship arcs between different types. So, for example, when talking about 2’s, she’ll map out an intimate relationship between a 2 and a 4 and then an authority relationship between a 2 and an 8. As a playwright, I find these (admittedly hypothetical) descriptions incredibly fertile material. She talks about how different cognitive and behavioral patterns can cause different types to meet and miss under different circumstances.

Weaknesses: Palmer tends to focus on the unhealthy cognitive and behavioral patterns of each type to the point that each personality type can start to seem like a pathology from which a person must liberate him or herself. For example, whereas Riso/Hudson call Type 3 “The Achiever” Palmer calls this type “The Performer.” So you can finish her book without a very clear sense of the unique strengths each type might possess when healthy. And while she acknowledges that almost everyone possesses a “wing” type, she doesn’t clearly address how, for example, a 2 with a 3 wing might differ from a 2 with a 1 wing. She also isn’t clear about the specific traits each type adopts from other types when under stress or security. So, while she acknowledges that a 3 might adopt certain attributes of a 6 when feeling particularly secure, she doesn’t clarify which attributes.

Riso/Hudson. . .

Strengths: Riso and Husdon are very specific about how behavioral and cognitive patterns can vary within each type. They are specific about how a 1 with a 2 wing might differ from a 1 with a 9 wing. Riso and Hudson also break each type down into three different instincts. They explain that there are three basic human instincts: self-preservation (obtaining material security), social, and sexual. And they claim that most people privilege one of these three. This leads them to explain how the behavior of a 3 who privileges the self-preservation instinct might differ from that of a 3 who privileges the social instinct. These descriptions allowed me to more easily identify what I believe my type is. Finally, I appreciate how they map out the unhealthy and healthy attributes of each type and exactly which traits each type might adopt when under stress or security. So, for example, I can know exactly how a 3 might behave like a 6 when feeling secure and a 9 when under stress.

Weaknesses: I find the tone a little more precious and less level-headed, especially in the book’s introductory sections. I appreciate Palmer’s more sober stance. Also, Riso/Hudson include far fewer first-person accounts. Because of that, while Riso/Hudson paint a more varied portrait of each type, I find their portraits lack the depth and vividness of Palmer’s portraits. Palmer’s portraits might seem more twisted and pathological, but most compelling drama traffics in people who are relatively insecure and unhealthy.

Overal, though, I find each book a wonderful resource, and I plan to add each to my collection. I’m so glad I followed my impulse to begin reading about the Enneagram even if it has meant not doing much writing this week. It’s been an eye-opening experience to say the least–one I’m certain will yield tangible benefits in my future writing. Fictional characters whom I had found incredibly compelling yet enigmatic in the past suddenly make sense to me. I have a specific sense of how their environment has shaped their cognitive patterns, what emotional needs drive their behavior, and how those needs manifest in the different idiosyncrasies and tensions present in their behavior. For example, Palmer’s description of a 3 has really helped me understand Don Draper and her picture of an 8 allows me an insight to how Roy Cohn behaves in Angels in America.

It’s also been really eye-opening how some of my most vivid and compelling characters hew closely to particular types. Here are the characters of mine whose types I’ve been able to identify thus far. . .

Edward Moreno (White Tie Ball): 1 with a 2 wing

Margaret Spencer (White Tie Ball): 2 with a 3 wing

Renzo Rafaeli (The Making Of A Modern Folk Hero): 3

Julian Flores (The Solid Sand Below): 6

Each book states openly at the outset that its goal is to foster empathy and compassion between people of different types. They have definitely done so for me. Each books feels like a glimpse into the cognitive and behavioral patterns of people whose backgrounds and viewpoints are radically different from my own. I feel like my reading has the potential to greatly broaden the kinds of characters who might populate my writing while allowing me to render each character with greater nuance and empathy.