Enneagram Basics | Three Basic Elements

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Enneagram | The 3 Basic Elements

The Enneagram is in one sense a very simple concept, but in another the most complicated, sophisticated, adaptable, and potentially subjective profile tool out there. I’ve been using it for a couple years now and still feel like I’m only scratching the surface of what’s truly available to me with this tool. It’s absolutely brilliant and with the various complexities it contains, has an infinite number of possibilities (which is great for storytelling as you tailor your characters).

There are so many layers and nuance to the Enneagram but for a primer level discussion I believe there are 3 elements to understand:

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The 9 Enneagram “Types.”

I’ll be honest, I hate the term “type.” The Enneagram is intriguing to be because unlike many of its counterparts (such as DISC or Myers Briggs) it is not a personality profile. I want to make that clear. The Enneagram isn’t describing if you like to be around people or if you get details or if you’re artistic or live according to some objective moral code. The Enneagram is something entirely different.

I wish that difference was easy to summarize, but that’s what makes it beautifully philosophical. The Enneagram is rooted in an Eastern philosophy outlining the “9 fragments of the soul.” Each point on the Enneagram is a tension between a sin and virtue combination (anger and serenity; pride and humility; fear and courage; gluttony and sobriety, etc.). We Westerners love to take these ideas and say “what’s your type?” “I’m a ___.” That’s not exactly how it works. Every sin and virtue combination should be cultivated in one’s life. Every human on earth will have moments of anger or greed or envy.

It’s not about ever experiencing that emotion, it’s about the primary lens through which you evaluate the world around you. It’s how you react to your fears and insecurities (and more importantly WHY you choose to respond the way you do). It’s about what you need and how you’re likely to respond if you don’t get it. It’s about how we interact with people and what we believe about our potential, our future, and our survival.

Your “type” is the place on the circle you tend to sit at, much like King Arthur’s round table and that “type” probably makes sense to you, probably reflects how you see the world, and probably reveals the primary challenges you face in the deepest part of who you are.

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The 18 “Wings”

As you can see, the Enneagram is drawn in a circle. While each type is numbered, they’re not a hierarchy, they’re just… seats at the table. One of the fascinating elements of the Enneagram and how it’s laid out is that each type is influenced (maybe strongly, maybe subtly) by the two types on either side (the “wings”). It’s an important distinction because it can affect the flavor of the expression of the primary type or put another way, it can explain how it makes sense to you to address the sin of your primary type.

For example, the “1” type tends to be focused on the right and wrong, black and white of the world. There’s a “right way to do things,” but for the “1” they believe the failure to live righteously starts with them. 1’s tend to be hard on themselves, live with regrets, frustrations that they haven’t been good enough, and put their greatest efforts into disciplining and punishing themselves into right living.

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But a 1 with a 9 wing is pretty distinct from a 1 with a 2 wing. A 1w9 is likely to withdraw as they work out themselves striving for the serenity (the 1’s signature virtue) in peacemaking and even isolation.

The 1w2 however is much more likely to press into relationships. This type is more likely to see their penance played out in making the people in their world better (because helping people is the “right thing to do.”)

1w9’s pull away, 1w2’s press in. It’s a big distinction but at the core of it all is still a soul angry at itself and the world for falling short of ideal and striving for serenity in the midst of the darkness.

One last thought to consider, the wings are a great place to start in cultivating a healthy character. (A humanitarian superstar 3w2 would actually benefit a lot from having some of the artistic, creative 4 wing nurtured in their lives.)

The Paths of Integration

Once you’ve identified a type and the influencing wings, the last primary element to consider is how healthy is your character. The unique geometric figure (the “enneagram”) is more than an icon, it’s actually a traced path between the numbers connecting them in a web of unhealthy to healthy.

The Enneagram suggests that the primary type (in tension between its sin and virtue) is not the only journey the soul can take. The integration lines are the two numbers connected to the primary type and illustrate the sin observed when the character is in a dark, unhealthy emotional state and the virtue added when reaching a point of health.

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For example, the 3 type is about masks. Vanity or deceit are the signature sins and the battle for authenticity is the soul’s task for the 3. This type is inherently ambitious, wants the spotlight, tends to scoff at obstacles to achievement, success, or getting what they want. They’re the golden children, the perfectionists, or maybe even the dog-eat-dog business superstars. They can be the most inspiring of figureheads or the most offensively competitive of opponents.

The disintegration of a 3 is the 9 type. What that means is that 3’s rarely accept defeat, but when they do, they can go depressive and withdraw. They begin to take on the sin of the 9 which is “sloth.” 3’s who feel like there’s no hope, no way around an obstacle, or no way to win can shut down and escape. It’s the loss of ambition, a numbing, overwhelming sense of failure, and the sheer devastation that they simply cannot finish the journey even with the use of their best “masks.”

A healthy three, however, integrates to the 6 Type and begins to express the virtue of “courage.” They come out of the limelight they crave as a 3 and join the equality and community of the group as an average participant. They bravely begin to shed the masks (the persona’s they present to get what they want or to win people over) and let people start to see the real them (their real quirks, fears, weaknesses, insecurities, etc.) and wait to see if they will be accepted or rejected for those authentic attributes of who they are.


There are other elements of the Enneagram to consider that can affect the expression of a character or person’s make up, but these are the basics. Start with questions like: who is this character? What do they want? What will they do to get it? What will they do if they don’t get it? How do they see the world? And most importantly: who will this character become through the journey?

By using these evaluative tools you can begin to see the world through your character’s eyes. When something happens, how are they likely to react? How does it support or devastate their values? How does it prey on their fears? How does the event, challenge, or quest give or take away what this character wants most? Ask these questions to let your characters lead your story instead of having them react to the circumstances you hope to create.

Make your characters believable, then we can see a bit of us in them and go on the journey ourselves.

If you’re a nerd like me, here’s some more complex descriptions you could study:

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2 Replies to “Enneagram Basics | Three Basic Elements”

  1. I know you wrote this a couple of years ago – I just found it and am glad I did. I love how you describe things through metaphor and example. Well done, and thank you! I wonder if you are still using the Enneagram in your life – has it had staying power for you?

  2. Hi Drew! Glad you enjoyed the post. Appreciate the encouragement. You’re so welcome! I believe my life has been changed pretty definitively because of the Enneagram. Understanding the journeys people are on, the variety of things we value (and how they differ from person to person) and having some vocabulary to describe people’s emotions, thoughts, reactions, fears, etc. has been immensely helpful. It may not continue to be as prominent of a discussion, but I believe it’ll always be in the back of my mind as I continue to relate to others.

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