Strategy As Tendency

Some folks, when they see a description of an Enneagram type, react with horror or disbelief, saying, "Well, I know three Eights and they aren't like that at all." Or you hear them say, "The Enneagram is so negative, I'd sooner look at things positively."

A number of solutions wait for these kind of people. One solution is to read all 500 pages of Don Riso's revised version of his first book -- Personality Types. He has nine levels of development for each of the nine types. You can pick out the one you think fits you or your friends and then you won't feel so bad. (This advice is especially helpful to those who tend to take any typing as a description of themselves.) A similar confusion comes up when people say, "Well, then what's the good side of being a Three (or Four or Nine or Two)."

I make no effort to make the Enneagram either nice or nasty. I take an alternate route. When I describe a number's characteristics, I'm not describing people, I'm describing the usual or frequent results of a specific energy. I've already praised Riso's book and I'll go one step further - it is brilliantly described, with more nuance than we have a right to expect. But I do take issue with one word he uses repeatedly. I mean the word "is." (Or any form of the copulative verb "to be.")

I would prefer to think of the Enneagram energy as a strategy we do, not something we are. I have a number of reasons for this choice. The first is that an Enneagram style or strategy is not a cosmic condition, a state of being or a characteristic that is co-extensive with who we are. If a Three is deceptive in some areas, he is not in others. To say a person "is" deceitful is not only an exaggeration, it ain't true. One sees this mistake in people who use their Enneagram style as an excuse. "Well, I know I'm late, but I was so depressed. I can't help it though, I'm a Four." Once you start thinking of your number as a condition of existence, like being American, tall or female, then you start on that slippery slope.

My choice

That "is" will deprive you of a lovely fulcrum for personal change and growth, too. If I "am" aggressive because I'm an Eight, there's nothing I can do. By definition, it's just the way I am. But if Eightness (in-your-face aggression) is a strategy I do, and this approach is getting me in trouble, I now have a choice. True, it is a hard choice, but assessing it as a major source of energy for change makes it worth while. Now I can close in on my reasons for being aggressive, my evaluation of how well this serves me, what it may or may not cost me in a new environment and I know what to work on for personal change. I'm not just a feral force turned loose in a civilized environ, I'm a person with an entire smorgasbord of strategies, resources and capabilities, one of which I use too much and gets me in trouble at times. I am this person of many sides who can choose to show or develop another side.

You might think of your Enneagram style as an overdeveloped muscle. Because I've always thrown a baseball with my right arm, I'm better that way. But if it's broken, I do have an alternative. And if I'm a Seven running from intimacy, I'm really good at it. But, if it's breaking my or someone else's heart, I have another alternative.

Our Enneagram "high side" is the compensatory muscle we get from doing something too much. So we get good at it. So when we describe the "nice" Enneagram, (to return to our starting point), we are describing people whose strategy is working, or who have learned other parts of their rich treasure of human potential and are using them, also.

But when I describe the Enneagram compulsion, I describe the distortion itself, not a person. For example: Ones tend (and I try always to say tend, that's not hedging, it's an accurate description. Nobody does anything all the time.) to be critical. Now this tendency is an action. It can be corrected, modified, derailed, sublimated or denied. But it is not who they are, it's what they do. Usually. Until they wake up and catch themselves and make certain adjustments.

So when you watch the movie Cobb, you'll see that he tries to hide his weakness by not letting people see his cane. That's typical behavior and rather standard Eightish motivation. The motive is to deny weakness and focus on power. But not all Eights are like Cobb. Cobb is such an exaggerated case, he is a good example. It's hard to diagnose someone who is just barely sick. But if they're bleeding from the eyes and nose, you know where to look. Cobb is bleeding. He's awful and I know several lovely Eights, one my sister. She is wonderful. But she does not like to acknowledge weakness and diplomacy is not nearly as important to her as honesty. So it is with Cobb. They are alike in that they do a similar strategy. But to say they "are" power hungry is too sweeping and too static.


  1. Karen Horney's Our Inner Conflicts has a keen sense of neuroses as something we do to accomplish certain self-preserving ends.
  2. Watch the struggle and the vacillation in Tom Cruise who acts out the Three energy from within himself in Jerry McGuire. (He's a Three playing a Three and does it well). It's not acting, but it's self revelation which suits our purposes just fine.
  3. Any friend or group who will graciously and gently point out when you're doing your thing is an incredible asset. They should do it right while you're in full flight. It's bracing.

    Discussion Questions:

  1. Name several people who have your strategy that you identify with and some you don't. That way you can isolate the energy and not get bogged down in traits. Detail why you are the same and why (how) you are different.
  2. List your greatest gift and your worst fault. Do you notice any relationship? (I can't imagine someone saying their greatest gift was analysis and their worst fault impulsiveness).
  3. What does it mean to say we try to understand the energy, not the traits?