A Directional Theory of the Enneagram

This originally appeared in the Enneagram Monthly, Jan 2000.

The version below is revised and updated.

The Enneagram explains much about behavior. But what explains the Enneagram? Why are there 9 types, and not some other number? What are the first principles that define the types? Why do the lines of integration and disintegration point the way they do? How does the Enneagram relate to basic psychological ideas, such as emotions and motivations? Currently, there is no widely accepted theory that answers these simple questions. This article proposes a two-dimensional extension of Karen Horney's triad that may shed light on some of these questions, though many questions remain. This 2-dimensional structure is surprisingly good at generating the traits of the 9 types from first principles, and can also explain most of the lines of integration.  This article also highlights the connection between the Enneagram and basic motivations, whereas most 3x3 theories do not.

In 1945, the psychoanalyst Karen Horney proposed three personality categories, which were later used to categorize the Enneagram types. Horney described aggressive, withdrawn, and compliant personality types, which move against, away from, or toward the environment. This triad may have a biological root: aggression, withdrawal, and compliance are probably related to the fight, flight, or submit behaviors observed in a wide range of animals. However, Horney's triad cannot fully describe the Enneagram. For example, types 5, 4, and 9 all withdraw, but for different underlying reasons. The 9 withdraws to avoid conflicts with others, creating an illusion of peaceful unity with others. The 4 withdraws for a different reason - to enhance their feelings of uniqueness and emotional individuality. Finally, the 5 withdraws to consolidate their sense of mental control over the world. In other words, the 9's behavior moves away from others, but the purpose of this avoidance is actually to seek unity and belonging, a movement toward others. In contrast, the 5's withdrawal masks an underlying desire for control, which moves against the environment, while the Four withdraws to examine their inner selves, an ultimate goal that moves further away from the environment. Thus, withdrawn behaviors can mask three underlying motivations, which also move against, away, or toward the environment. Continuing this analysis for all 9 types leads to an unusually elegant 3 x 3 arrangement of the nine types. Figure 1 shows this arrangement (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: The surface and deep directions of the Enneagram compulsions

By now, there are many 3 x 3 theories in the Enneagram literature, all somewhat different from each other. Figure 1 is also different from the other theories as far as I know, although it is most closely related to the 3 x 3 theory of Hurley and Dobson (What's My Type, 1993, pp. 92-3). My work exchanges types 7 and 1 from theirs, and reinterprets both of the component triads as being Hornevian in structure, with one triad related to short-term drives, while the other triad relates to long-term drives.

The surface, short-term compulsions:

Horney did not distinguish between short and long-term motivations, but her descriptions are closer to what I consider to be short-term motivations.  These are the more consciously accessible drives, and they describe the tactics used to reach one's more long-term goals.  Horney's original triad was later re-interpreted by Hurley and Donson as describing one's approach to dealing with obstacles. I have further interpreted this triad as being related to emotional tendencies. Hence, the confronting types 8, 1, and 3 are the ones prone to the negative emotions of anger and competition, which move against others. These types pursue their long-term goals by directly changing the environment. Conversely, the embracing types 2, 7, and 6 are the ones prone to the positive emotions of affection and appreciation, which move toward other people or objects. Instead of eliminating obstacles, they prefer to change them into friends or allies. If the obstacles are people, their prefer to use charm or seduction, to defusing a hostile person rather than attack them. Finally, the withdrawn types 5, 4, and 9 are prone to detaching their emotions from the environment. This does not mean they lack feelings - just that their feelings do not translate into effective action quickly.  Figure 2 summarizes the polarity of the surface triad on a continuum, with the against and toward types at opposite extremes:

Figure 2: Polarity of the against-away-toward triad

Reversing types 7 and 1

The prevailing convention considers the 7 to be aggressive, while the 1 is compliant.  However, I think this is based on inconsistent usages of the terms aggressive and compliant.  For example, the term "compliant" connotes passive obedience to an outside force, whereas I have renamed the "compliant" group as the "embracing" group, to describe this group's actively and energetic movement toward their environment.  In this light, the 7 is clearly an "embracing" type, because 7s, like 2s and 6s, embrace people or objects around them, with a tendency to become dependent on them and to develop anxieties about being deprived of them.  Of course, 7s may seem aggressive because they fight against external limits, but this is secondary to their search for happiness, and most 7s prefer working around obstacles, e.g. "turning lemons into lemonade", rather than destroying them.  As for type 1, this type is usually considered compliant because they are compliant to their ideals.  But in this sense, every  type is compliant to something - the 8 is compliant to their need for power, the 5 to their need to understand the world, etc.
To be consistent, we must consider the mindís relation to the environment, not the relation of one part of the mind to another.  In this sense, the 1's desires to change, reform, and correct are clearly movements against the environment, particularly against elements that are wrong, disorganized, unfair, etc.

The deep compulsion describes subconscious long-term motivations

In my view, the deep triad has the same against-away-toward structure as the surface triad, but operates over a longer time frame. Hence, the deep compulsion controls the ultimate purpose of the surface behaviors, and exerts considerable power over oneís life. These deeper desires are buried deeper in the subconscious, and are more difficult to appreciate.  I suggest the following intuitive names for this triad: I call types 2, 5, and 8 (moving against) the "power-seekers", who seek a sense of control over the world, while the 7, 4, and 1 (moving away) are the "ideal-seekers", pursuing their inner inspirations, and the 3, 6, and 9 (moving towards) are the "approval-seekers", seeking a sense of belonging. Each of these compulsions is a source of energy that carries particular strengths and weaknesses. The power-seekers have the strongest inner wills, making them self-reliant but also tending to become possessive and territorial over people (2 and 8) or knowledge (5). In contrast, the approval-seekers are best able to adapt and fit into society, but may also become persons entirely defined by that society. The 3, 6, and 9 feel most comfortable doing things that are already sanctioned by their peer group. Finally, the ideal-seekers have the strongest inner imaginations, which can see beyond their immediate time and place toward universal truths, ideals, and beauty. However, their detachment may also make them self-absorbed in an unrealistic fantasy world. The deep triad is summarized in Figure 3.

Many authors, have described the deep triad using different terminology. Hurley and Donson gave particularly detailed descriptions of this triad in their book "Whatís My Type".  As far as I can tell, they are the first writers to describe this triad within the Enneagram community.  Riso and Hudson use this triad to describe types that over-express, under-express, or are out of touch with their centers. My contribution to this triad is to describe its goal-seeking quality, its long-term nature, and point out its close relationship to the more well-known Hornevian triad.  It is my hope that my interpretation can help expand on prior descriptions.  For example, Hurley and Donson have noted that the 3, 6, and 9 take a "mediating" approach to life, while Riso and Hudson note that these types are most "out of touch" with feeling, thinking, and doing.  But these descriptions don't explain why these types mediate, or are out of touch with themselves.  I would argue that the desire for approval can explain both of these traits: seeking approval automatically requires adapting to become what others want, thereby losing touch with what one wants oneself.
Types Direction Motivation Strengths Weaknesses
2 5 8 Against Power-seeking Inner will, fighting spirit Authoritarianism, possessiveness
7 4 1 Away Ideal-seeking Passion for universal truths and higher ideals Self-absorption, fantasy world mentality
6 9 3 Toward Approval-seeking Likeability, ability to harmonize with life. Living life defined by others

Figure 3: Summary of the 3 deep compulsions

The next part of this article derives the traits of the 9 types entirely from the 3x3 motivations listed above. In the interest of space, we will focus mostly on average levels of health: (Each type has a symbol using -, +, or 0 symbols as specified by the chart in Figure 1.)

Type 1: the confronting ideal-seeker. -/0

The 1ís compulsion moves against others on the surface, but away from others underneath. This explains how the 1 may outwardly seem quite efficient and engaged, while underneath they are thinking more about some ideal world that they are trying to create in the long term. Ideals are descriptions of best possible worlds, and the 1ís ideals are filtered through their confronting exterior, which is proactive and practical. Hence, their ideals are active and practical, involving rules, principles, morality, truth and justice. Like all the inspiration-seekers, the 1ís ideals are essentially infinite. Everything, no matter how good, orderly, or just, can always be better, more orderly and more just. Like all the ideal-seekers, the average 1 can become extremely frustrated, because the world chronically falls short of the ideal. Although 1s could relax by setting reasonable limits, they resist this because they canít bear the thought that their ideals, the things they most live for, might be unattainable.

Type 2: the embracing power-seeker. +/-

The 2ís compulsion moves toward others on the surface, but against them underneath. This explains how average 2s can be warm, helpful, and even seductive on the outside, while harboring a hidden agenda and a strong will underneath. This willpower is masked by their embracing exterior; hence, they seek power through other people, rather than through direct force. The 2 may befriend powerful people, exerting influence as the "power behind the throne". All power-seekers have a strong sense of ownership, which often comes across as a possessive tendency. The 2ís possessiveness applies to people, analogous to the 5ís possession of information (hoarding), or the 8ís possession of physical resources (territorialism). The 2 often gets particular credit for the universal human need to be loved. This may be because 2ís use their inner will and exterior charm to make people love them, thus making their desire for love more noticeable than in other types.

Type 3: confronting approval-seeker. -/+

The 3ís surface compulsion moves against people, while the underlying compulsion moves toward people. This explains why the 3 seems pushy and competitive, while underneath they paradoxically want the approval of others. These conflicting surface and deep compulsions make the average 3 seem deceptive, as they claim to be a bold, aggressive leader, while denying the deeper compulsion that makes them follow the leadership of the society around them. This is analogous to the 2, who is deceptive in the other direction Ė the average 2 claims to only be helping others, while denying the aggressive motives hidden underneath.

Type 4: the withdrawn ideal-seeker. 0/0

The 4ís surface and deep compulsions both move away from the environment, making them the most introspective, individualistic type of all. This doubly-withdrawn compulsion gives the 4 an unusual freedom; they are psychologically less bound by the real-world constraints that other types feel. This freedom makes them highly original and creative, and highly attuned to the emotional nuances that other types block out in order to deal with practical life. However, this freedom also gives rise to the average 4ís self-absorption and alienation from ordinary life. Like the other ideal-seekers, the 4 seeks a utopian ideal that makes reality forever seem inadequate. All the ideal-seekers feel a chronic sense of "something missing", which in the 4 applies to their inner life. The 4ís ideals are withdrawn and intensely personal, making the 4 the romantic idealist as opposed to the 1ís practical idealism.

Type 5: the withdrawn power-seeker. 0/-

The 5 moves away from others on the surface, but against others underneath. Hence, average 5s may seem apathetic and laconic on the surface, but underneath they are not as detached as they act. The power-seeking drive seeks control, and is fearful of being overwhelmed and losing control. The withdrawn types by definition conserve physical energy, and so 5s prefer intellectual or strategic endeavors over active labor. Like all power-seekers, the 5 often acquires a "sphere" of influence and a strong sense of owning this sphere. The 5ís sphere is usually mental, as opposed to the 2ís social sphere and the 8ís worldly sphere.

Type 6: the compliant (embracing) alignment-seeker. +/+

The 6ís surface and deep compulsions both move toward others. This doubly-embracing nature makes 6s more attached to their surroundings than any other type. Unfortunately, sooner or later 6s attach to a person or organization who is selfish, incompetent, malicious, or neglectful. When the 6 realizes they have done this, they often feel betrayed and afraid of their own instincts. Because their own trusting nature led to being hurt, they may develop defense techniques to mask their own compliance. Skeptical thinking, counterphobic lashing out, are examples of type 6 tactics which had their root in their doubly-compliant drives.

Type 7: the embracing ideal-seeker. +/0

The 7 embraces the world on the surface, but moves away from it underneath. So while the 7 seems focused on enjoying the real world, their mind is actually attending to a glorious fantasy of how things could be even better. Like the 1 and 4, the 7ís unbounded fantasies make the real world seem forever inadequate by comparison, leading to a chronic feeling of "something missing", or in the 7ís case, of having "missed out" on something. However, the 7ís disappointments are often hidden behind their embracing exterior, which has a large capacity for positive, appreciative emotions. Like the other ideal-seekers, the 7 is satisfied only with the best of whatever they become interested in. However, because they have so many positive feelings for so many things, they may start to define "best" in terms of quantity rather than quality. The 7ís inspiration-seeking qualities are under-recognized, because many view the 7 as a glutton, seeking merely to consume everything in sight. However, the 7ís higher aspirations are evident in creations such as Mozartís extraordinary music, or the "Camelot" ideals and lunar mission inspired by President Kennedy.

Type 8: the confronting power-seeker. -/-

The 8 moves against others in both their surface and deep compulsions, hence is the most aggressive type overall. The power-seeking compulsion is hence most obvious in the 8, with their willpower, self-reliance, and possessive tendencies quite evident to others. Also, all the power-seeking types tend to acquire a "sphere of influence", and in the 8ís case, this sphere tends to be physical and worldly, unlike the 5ís intellectual sphere and the 2ís social sphere. The terms "aggressive" and "moving against" often carry hostile connotations which really only apply to unhealthy or average 8s. In healthier states, the 8ís doubly-aggressive compulsion makes them particularly able to rise above incredible obstacles, giving them an unusual ability to acquire a heroic stature.

Type 9: the withdrawn approval-seeker. 0/+

The 9 moves away from others on the surface, but toward others underneath. Hence, the 9 is caught between wanting to detach from others while still wanting to identify with others in the long term. Their habitual solution is to withdraw in non-threatening ways, to allow themselves to reconnect later. Average 9s seem calm on the surface, but their underlying feelings resonate with the atmosphere that surrounds them, making 9s fairly sensitive to the emotional states of people around them. Like the 3 and 6, the 9 is prone to the mistake of unquestioningly taking on the values of others around them. In the 9, this behavior often takes the form of passive acquiescence.

The descriptions above show that a two-dimensional against-away-toward structure can explain a great deal about each Enneagram type. Of course, these traits are already known, but it is gratifying to see them related directly to first principles. But can this theory also explain dynamic changes, such as the lines of integration between types, or the levels of health within a type?

Figure 4: Security points

A directional basis for the security and stress points:

On the traditional circular Enneagram symbol, the stress and security points of each type form a complex pattern of lines that is difficult to explain. This pattern becomes much simpler on the 3x3 grid in Figure 4, where every type's security point resides exactly one column to the right, and each stress point resides one column to the left. Most of these lines (with only 2 exceptions) point to another type in the same row. Thus, movements toward stress/security are largely horizontal movements in the 3x3 table, in which the surface behavior changes while the deeper compulsion remains the same. This makes intuitive sense, because the deep motivation is less accessible, and less easily modified by conscious processes. The deep motivations are analogous to hungers Ė deciding not to seek power, ideals, or approval, is as difficult as deciding not to be hungry.  It can be done, but takes much more discipline than modifying the surface compulsion.

But why are the security points to the right?  Why not the other way?  The security (or stress) directions seem to form a cycle, as shown in Figure 5:

Figure 5: Cycle of security movements (stress moves in opposite direction)

Steve Romer has pointed out that this cycle is related to the Hegelian trialectic, in which historical processes move from thesis (an idea), to antithesis (idea moving against its rivals) to synthesis (idea moving to embrace the best part of its rivals, generating a new idea in the process).

Here is another way to look at this cycle: Two of these arrows reflect the idea that becoming more secure often produces a greater sense of self-reliance. For example, when the embracing types become more secure, they no longer depend on the outside world for happiness, thus appearing more withdrawn.  When the withdrawn types become more secure, their new confidence allows them to take a stand and impact others, empowering them to confront others.  Finally, the confronting types start out feeling confident of their abilities (perhaps too much so).  Only when they are secure, do they recognizing that there are limits to their abilities, and that they really must depend on others because they cannot control or defeat everything. The confronting types learn by appreciating what the opposing side may offer, instead of trying to defeat it.

Types 2 and 7:

Two of the lines of integration are not horizontal: the 2->4 and the 7->5 lines cross between the power-seeking row and the ideal-seeking row. The 2 and 7 still integrate by changing from an embracing stance to a withdrawn stance. However, they switch between power-seeking and ideal-seeking. I have not found a satisfactory explanation for these two exceptions, although one possibility is that the centers and the types may integrate independently. Hence, a feeling 2 would integrate to a feeling 5 (a non-standard type who would superficially resemble a 4) and the thinking 7 would integrate to a thinking 4 (who would superficially resemble a 5).

Levels of health and the golden rule:

So far, this article has described average types, but the directional theory can also explain the types at healthy or unhealthy levels. When healthy, the "power-seeking", "ideal-seeking", and "approval-seeking" types are more accurately called "empowering", "inspiring", and "approving". In other words, healthier types are more able to give to others and follow the classic golden rule: "do unto others what you would have them do unto you". Hence, the healthy 8 becomes the "leader" because they empower others, lifting them up to help them use their own strength. The healthy 3 becomes the "motivator" not by seeking approval, but by approving and encouraging the impressive qualities they see in others. The healthy 1 not only pursues their inner inspirations, but also inspires others with the justness and virtue of their cause. Conversely, unhealthy types do the opposite; they jealously take away from others what they wanted to have themselves.

In summary, a directional Enneagram theory has been developed which defines the 9 types using two triads that both have a Hornevian against-away-toward structure. This theory is symmetric and elegant, defines the 9 types from first principles, and also explains most of the lines of integration. Furthermore, it links the Enneagram to basic psychological concepts of emotion and motivation. Hence, this theory may provide new insights into the underlying structure of the Enneagram, as well as possibilities for better integrating this system with other areas of psychology.