A Beginner’s Guide to Enneagram and What Your Number Means
See what this popular personality assessment says about you.
I never met a personality test I didn't like, so I was surprised I had never heard of the Enneagram. But once I did, earlier this year, it seemed to be everywhere. A former coworker swore by it. People were getting daily Enneagram emails. And my mother-in-law studied it in the '90s with Helen Palmer, the best-selling author of The Enneagram and The Enneagram in Love and Work. So what exactly is the Enneagram? And what do its results mean? I started my research where many people begin: online, with the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI).Listen to this story on your smart speaker!
What is Enneagram?
The latest version of the RHETI, from The Enneagram Institute, costs $12, and takes around 30 to 40 minutes to complete, depending on how much thought you give to each set of paired questions (there are 144). Once you've finished, your answers are associated with a set of nine numbers, each related to different personality types.
Like any test, you might not like your results. And moreover, experts say test results may not be 100% accurate. For example, while taking the Enneagram test, I found myself struggling to answer questions about duty, harmony, anger, and spontaneity in a way that felt consistent over time. My 20-something self (single, self-centered) and my 40-something self (married, mothering) were at odds. Once I made my way through the Enneagram test, I was surprised to discover I’m a 9 (but more on what each Enneagram number means later).
“I like to shy away from calling the RHETI a test, as opposed to an assessment,” says Brian Taylor, vice president of The Enneagram Institute. “There are limitations. It depends on how well you know yourself, and how much you’re willing to acknowledge those things that you don’t like.”
And the RHETI isn’t the only tool out there, though it’s scientifically-validated and well-regarded. A quick Google search reveals myriad online tests and assessments, free and otherwise. The questions attempt to get at core drives and deep, internal motivations, with varying success. But the test is really just the beginning.
Anyone who takes an online Enneagram test, gets the result, and says, "Oh, I’m a 6," and moves on is perhaps missing the point, says Gina Gomez, an Enneagram coach and author of the forthcoming book, The Enneagram & You. “In my experience, there are two types of people who come into the Enneagram,” she says. The first group enjoys self-identifying and posting memes on Instagram; the other wants to do some inner-work.
The latter is who benefits most from the complex, nuanced exploration of core personalities, fears, desires, and how a personality can evolve, devolve and intersect with others. “This is a transformative tool,” says Gomez.
What Are the Enneagram Types?
I’m a 9. She’s a 2. He’s a 6. What does it all mean? Each Enneagram type corresponds to a fully-fleshed out persona, with recognizable external traits and subtle internal states. Each Enneagram type is genderless (though some, like 2s or 8s, can feel stereotyped). No type is better than another. Each encompasses both positive and negative traits.
An Enneagram type 1 is a perfectionist, highly rational, and idealistic. At their best, 1s are wise; at their worst, they can be self-righteous and cruel.
An Enneagram type 2 is a giver and caretaker. At their best, 2s embody unconditional love, but they can become bitter and resentful.
An Enneagram type 3 is successful, self-assured, and highly competent at their best, but narcissistic, obsessive, and vindictive at their worst.
Like artists, an Enneagram type 4 is sensitive, creative, and expressive, but also self-destructive, moody, and self-absorbed.
An Enneagram type 5 can be cerebral and perceptive, but can also slip into isolation.
An Enneagram type 6 is loyal—sometimes to a fault. At their best, they are committed leaders but can devolve into anxiety and suspicion.
An Enneagram type 8 is a powerful, self-confident leader, but one who can become ruthless and destructive.
Set around a circle, the nine Enneagram types are also interconnected. The types to the left and right of your number are called “wings,” which can be powerful influences. And the lines inside the Enneagram reveal how each type reacts under stress, or, conversely, how that type evolves into its best self.
Lisa Ling Fu, who first heard of the Enneagram two years ago as part of a work offsite and learned her Enneagram type from books, emails, podcasts, and a trained instructor, notes that all nine types matter, and not just your own. “We’re trying to become all aspects of all numbers," she says.
How to Utilize Enneagram Test Results
Many people who take the test feel seen, often for the first time. “There can be a feeling of being called out: ‘Oh no, you got me,’” explains Melanie Bell, Enneagram Institute certified teacher and co-author of The Modern Enneagram. For others, the experience is more like peeling back layers of an onion. The more I read about 2s and 6s, the more I am coming to accept that I might be a 9 after all. Says Bell, “The best way to figure out your type is to learn about all of the nine types,” Bell says.
And then there are layers, like how different types clash or mesh, types at work, types in love, and even how we evolve within our own type, which is why people, like Taylor study for decades.
“The Enneagram strikes a chord with people,” says Bell. “It tells us about ourselves and others with depth and insight.” And in our sometimes disconnected modern lives, it is, perhaps, just the type of understanding we need.