Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Power of Negative Thinking

Note: This was originally published on 12/9/07.
Every so often, someone comes along to critique the Enneagram (or, at least, an interpretation of the Enneagram) on the basis that it is too negative. One such critic is Susan Rhodes. In her article "Let's De-Pathologize the Enneagram" in the October 2006 issue of Enneagram Monthly (downloadable, for free, here), she writes, "I never liked the idea of looking at personality as a way to measure pathology. I liked looking at personality as a way to explore individual differences. That's why the MBTI appealed to me so much.
When I encountered the enneagram, I tried to use the MBTI personality descriptions as a reference point for enneagram descriptions. But I found this almost impossible to do. It wasn't because the two systems had a different number of types or even a different way of determining the types. It was because the enneagram descriptions read more like 'neurosis types' than personality types. They seemed to reflect such a pessimistic philosophy of human nature."
I have a different perspective. I am a big fan of the Myers-Briggs system, but I think the Enneagram has a huge advantage over it, precisely because of the "pessimistic philosophy" which is, indeed, present within it. Here's an apt quote from The Enneagram: A Journey of Self-Discovery, by Maria Beesing, et al, "In the beginning of this Enneagramic journey into the self what is being asked is the willingness to acknowledge oneself as a sinner. Compulsions are selfish as is typical of sin. They amount to a distortion in being as one ought to be. All the nine types are sin types... If the Enneagram is to be useful, one must discover the negativity of one's personality. Only then can one begin the process of being freed from the compulsion."
This, to me, is the brilliance of the Enneagram. First, it lures you in with what seems to be a neutral to positive description of personality. To a five, it says, Would you agree that your mind is your strongest asset? Would you agree that privacy is something that you value? To the two it says, Would you agree that your personal relationships are of utmost importance to you? Would you characterize yourself as a helpful person? And so on for all of the types.
Next, it says, okay, if you agree, with that, Five, then how about this: Here are all the ways that greed manifests itself in your life. Two, pride is killing you. And so on for each of the types. This second piece is that much harder to dismiss because the first piece was so compelling, and with true realization of the cost of sin comes the willingness to change.
I remember being in Russ Hudson's Psychic Structures and the Superego workshop , learning to meditate, learning to cultivate Presence, growing in compassion, and thinking (as a skeptic and, until recently, an atheist), If it weren't for the Enneagram's precision as a psychological descriptor, I wouldn't even be here to listen to its spiritual implications. And, oh, how I needed to be there!


Anonymous said...

People's general dislike of "negative" thinking, of acknowledging their flaws, was my personality psychology teacher's thought on why the MBTI is used so much more than the Big 5 Personality Factors (think McCrae & Costa). They largely measure the same things with different labels. It's much "nicer" to say, "I am a thinker" than to say, "I am highly disagreeable." Also, the Big 5 discussed neuroticism, which many people don't like to acknowledge.

When you first told me that the Enneagram is centered around a person's negative traits/the deadly sins, I did wonder if there was a positive spin on this personality system. Your blog clearly states the positive in this: By understanding our downfalls, shortcomings, and weaknesses, we are better able to address them. After all, there is a healthy version (as well as the unhealthy) of all Enneagran types.


P.S.- If I create an account, will it stop making me do a "word verification?"

Mary Beth said...

To Amy: I think that regardless of whether you have an account or not, you still have to type the word verification. I believe the reason for the word verification is to make sure you are a person not a machine.

Also to Amy, and to whomever: I have only recently come to the realization that the Myers-Briggs and the BIG 5 (aka OCEAN) measure a lot of the same things (with the addition of neuroticism.) I think calling one pole of what is at least somewhat a value neutral scale Conscientiousness sends the wrong message, as opposed to J and P. I was initially surprised to realize I was not not at all conscientious (especially being a 6.) Come to find out, the opposite is flexibility, but who'd have thought the opposite of conscientiousness is flexibility? I consider the opposite of conscientiousness to mean "you are a complete f***-up," which flexibility doesn't evoke at all. So I think they should change their names.

cindi said...

And the opposite of flexibility is rigidity, which isn't quite the same as conscientiousness.

Mary Beth said...


And the opposite of Amiability is being a complete a-hole, except that I don't think they are actually measuring whether you're a nice guy or not, but something along the lines of T vs. F. (An Enneagram student should realize that being an extreme "nice guy" has its dark side, and I don't think the people who made the Big 5 REALLY intended a scale where all the nice people are over on one end.)

As for the O scale (openness to experience, versus, I guess closedness to experience) - I find this to be somewhat similar yet quite different from N vs. S: because I know people who are Ns, even strong Ns, who seek sameness when it comes to food, going out, personal schedule, etc.

Cindi said...

Yeah, I just took the Big 5 again and the openness category does seem to mostly correlate with N vs. S, but not entirely. And I wouldn't characterize Nness (or the traits they measure) as "openness to experience". N vs. S is more like comfortable w/ abstractness vs. prefers concreteness. And they put "adventuressness" in the openness category, and SPs can be quite adventurous.