Revealing Metaphors

Our actions reveal energies. One difficulty in discerning our own or our friends' type is not recognizing the metaphorical quality of the behaviors. Remember the distinction from grade school between metaphor and simile? "He is a like a bull" is a simile because it uses the word "like." "He bulled his way through" is metaphorical speech. It means that his going through revealed the qualities of a bull. How does this apply to the Enneagram? Our actions reveal certain energies while apparently hiding them. For example, a football game displays the inner manly spirit (of toughness, fearlessness etc.) or so the usual rationale goes. But it does so by playing a game, essentially a child's activity. Children play, adults work. But under the guise of childhood games the true spirit of the adult man is revealed.

So with the Enneagram. Let's take some examples. When you try to persuade an Eight of something, the first reaction is frequently negative. If you nod your head affirmatively, they shake their head negatively. What's going on here? The habitual negation is the Eight's way of revealing the Eightish belief that the world is a hostile place, a battleground, and people have to "prove" their point against resistance. Their supposition is that you are not on their side until you have rather forcefully convinced them. Eights don't fight "for nothing." They fight because fighting is a metaphor for the way they see the world.

Frequently when I start an Enneagram class after only a few minutes an Eight will challenge the whole notion of types "because it boxes people in." Eights hate to be typed because typing is experienced as a control mechanism and they don't want any control over them, it is a diminution of their power. Ironically, the Enneagram is a recognition of existing boxes and a means of getting out of them, but Eights often can't wait to see that play out.

Same Behavior, Nine Reasons

This becomes important when we try to type someone. Let's say someone is reading a book. What are they doing metaphorically? A One might be reading because reading is a metaphorical way of "doing the right thing." The book was assigned or recommended and they are just behaving well. A Two will be reading the book because she wants to please her best friend who loves this kind of book. A Three will be reading the book because it will enable her to do better work. A Four will be reading the book because of the emotional charge this gives him. A Five will read the book to gain control over his environment or to enjoy the story vicariously. A Six will be reading the book because it contains warnings about pesticides in the environment. A Seven will read the book as long as it is interesting. An Eight will read the book to increase her personal power. And a Nine will read the book because everybody in his circle of friends is reading it.

That seems fairly straightforward. Now watch what happens when you try to decide what type someone is because they read a lot. Or because you see them reading in an airport and you make a quick decision that they are a Five.

If someone is rebelling against authority, it may be for any one of nine reasons. The One (like Ralph Nadar) will do it because the authorities are perceived to be immoral. The Two will rebel because the authorities aren't treating people right. The Three will rebel because the authorities are stupid and are hurting efficiency. And on down the line.

You have to see enough behavior so that you can see what is common to much (not all) of their behavior. And you have to get enough information about their motives so that you can trust your assessment of what is common. If someone avoids high places, you may infer they are afraid of heights and are fear types (Five, Six, Seven). But on the other hand, they just may have a low self-image and feel clumsy so they avoid climbing. Or they are purchasing agents who know that these structures were built by the lowest bidder!

So when someone asks "What does it mean when she..." The question is important and impossible to answer. Our actions frequently do "mean" something in addition to what they appear to mean on the surface. On the other hand, it is impossible to assign an Enneagram understanding to an isolated action. "My mother always scolds me. Does that mean she's a One?" Not necessarily, it might mean you don't listen so she has to repeat, or that you listen so well that scolding works or she's too tired to spank you. Or that she was close to her mother who scolded her as a way of showing love.

That's why it is so hard to change our behavior. Our behavior is a metaphor for the way we see the world (in addition to being our way of making it through the real world). But that's also why changing behavior works. Precisely because it is metaphorical, it can change the way we see the world, and consequently the way we feel. "Acting as if" is a powerful technique, especially if we are carrying out behavior that is profoundly metaphorical.

    Discussion questions:

  1. What are the nine things sending someone flowers might mean?
  2. What are the nine motives for buying a car?
  3. What are the nine motives for getting married. Can you see any possible problems here?


  1. Make a "New Year's Resolution" only make it very small and symbolic. (For example, don't say "I'm giving up sugar." What does sugar mean to you? Now give up one sweet thing (probably a favorite) and give just that up.
  2. If you know your Enneagram style, go to your security point and do something in your life that troubles you and act as if you were your security number. (For example, if you're a Five, act as if you're a seven the next time you're at a party. Of if you're a Nine, act as if you're a Three at work for a week or so.)