Making the Enneagram Small: The Danger of a Single Story
Lately, I find myself increasingly bored when talking about the Enneagram or listening to others talk about the Enneagram. I still belong to a few Enneagram forums on Facebook but I have turned off notifications from them. When I’m at a conference with other Enneagram aficionados, I look for reasons to talk about almost anything else.
Don’t get me wrong–I still think the Enneagram is the most powerful tool there is and it is a foundational part of my professional and personal work. I enjoy teaching workshops about the Enneagram to people who don’t know the system because I get immediate satisfaction at seeing the impact it has on them. But while the Enneagram at its best is a model of the diversity and complexity of human nature, too many people seem fixated on using it to reduce themselves and others down to simple, one-dimensional characters.
“The Danger of a Single Story” is the title of a Ted Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that illustrates the danger of such simplistic thinking. Adichie talks about stereotypes about Africa she encountered outside of her native Nigeria, such as people asking her where she learned to speak English so well–not realizing that English is an official language of Nigeria. She also admits to stereotypes she held about others and describes how those stereotypes were punctured by deeper experience with different cultures and immersing herself in the literature of a place.
Most telling, perhaps, is the story with which Adichie begins her talk. She describes being a precocious seven year-old writer weaving tales about white, blue-eyed children eating apples and talking about how wonderful it was that the sun had finally come out. She didn’t tell these tales out of a remarkable ability to visualize experiences vastly different from those of her home country; she told them because they were the topics of the only books she knew and she simply assumed that those were the things that writers wrote about.
Adichie beautifully describes how our narratives can be traps, and these narratives need to be challenged over and over again and rewritten constantly. Every writer knows that “writing is rewriting” (to make the point, I added this sentence in the third draft of this blog); the best writers also know that life is the single true book we get to write but that we get to rewrite as we go, as frequently as we wish.
Like sloppy writers, we can fall into using of the Enneagram in a way that holds in place our simplistic and limited stories about ourselves. We can become fixated on our “type,” even seeing it as something Essential or archetypal from which we cannot escape. This is referred to as the fundamental attribution error and it is a cognitive bias that results in
Spending time around Enneagram aficionados can become a numbing cacophony of the voices of people racing to point out their fixations, often with a self-satisfied chortle. Every action is put under the Enneagram microscope and described through rote language. These descriptions are often rationalizations–except that today it wasn’t the devil that made me do it; I did it because I’m a One or a Two or a Three…
I even sometimes see people wearing jewelry and clothing with their Ennea-type emblazoned on it. Talk about taking pride in your shackles…
It is natural to become fixated on a new toy, and I know first-hand the excitement of discovering the Enneagram and the enthusiasm one feels for using it at every opportunity to help make more sense of the world. At some point, however, we need to start letting go, to be less quick to draw the Enneagram from our holster and shoot it at everyone we see. We have to let go of our fixation with our fixation.
This fixation on our fixation actually makes the Enneagram smaller than it can be. Rather than being a model of what we habitually do, think, and feel and the internal motivations that drive our habitual patterns, it is reduced to a model of what we are. It assumes that we do what we are, rather than assuming that we are what we do.
This is an important distinction: Assuming we do what we are carries the implicit message that we won’t or can’t change; assuming we are what we do implies that we are in the ongoing process of becoming, and that we can change what we become by working to change our patterns.
The irony is that a sign that the Enneagram is having the desired effect on us is that we talk about it less and less. We no longer need it as an explanation for all of our behaviors because our behaviors become less and less “type-related.” We get freedom from our fixations and start to see ourselves and others as complex and multi-dimensional creatures. We become freer from the danger of a single story.