Stories We Tell Of Ourselves: The Enneagram, Eliot, Emerson, and Trump

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Whenever we talk politics, my mom reminds me that Trump is a very unhealthy Eight. This is indecipherable to anyone who doesn’t know the terminology, but I know she is pointing out his shameless bravado, his vengeful bullying, and the obvious inner weakness for which he tries to compensate with a fist of ham and iron. Maybe a president’s personality shouldn’t be a major point of concern, but of course it has become so, in the nation’s attempt to predict, strategize, and cope.

In fact, Trump’s erratic and dangerous behavior has led some to suggest he has a mental illness, which is too ableist a strategy to defend. It also feels like pathologizing shorthand for what might be better understood as extreme distortions of character. Perhaps we are not used to thinking of people as characters, at least outside of books or movies, but I believe it is actually useful to consider personality types, and the possible narratives that arise from them, in ourselves and those around us.

That is why I’m interested in a personality system known as the Enneagram. It was formulated in the 1960s, drawing on various mystical and religious ways of thinking — there are echoes of the seven deadly sins, for instance. But this mysticism is not necessary to it; nor would some kind of scientific “proof” justify its application. What’s important is that the system, with its ring of truth, is immediately useful. If I were, hypothetically, an alien attempting to mimic human behavior, the Myers-Briggs would be trash, astrology worse than useless, but with the Enneagram I’d manage to blend in.

Personality consists of the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving,” according to the American Psychological Association, which notes that this can refer to particular characteristics — “sociability,” for instance — or an understanding of the whole person. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it temperament, the unchangeable “iron wire” on which beads of mood are strung. In broad strokes, the Enneagram proposes that there are nine “types” of these inner wires, with several shades of difference within each type. The nine broad strokes are often enough to start, although if you’re interested, “wings” and “instinct variants” can provide further illumination.

There are also a number of ways to subdivide the nine types, but it’s most useful to categorize by head (thinking), heart (feeling), and body (behaving or doing). Of course everyone engages with all three of these, but the Enneagram suggests that people are often overdeveloped in one category, as a matter of compensation. In an old truth of human behavior, the strength of each type is also its weakness. The image-focused Achiever might win awards but lose touch with her inner desires. The self-absorbed Four might write a brilliant novel about his childhood but lose a job he isn’t in the mood to do. The loyal but over-thinking Six might be a union leader or a conspiracy theorist. The assertive Eight might fight oil companies in court or play power games with her employees. There is no best type to be, because every type can be great, or monstrous, in its own way.

The easiest way to discover your type isn’t through a quiz but by reading each of the descriptions and noticing which one you find most embarrassing: that’s probably yours. (Go figure it out — I’ll wait, and the rest of this will make more sense.) Because the system focuses more on inner terrain than outward manifestation, the only way a person can be sure of their own type is through self-examination. Attempting to “type” others can easily be inaccurate, and a reminder that we often see what we want to see. There is also a danger of pigeonholing and dismissing people based on type, which runs counter to the ethos of the system.

Even so, I use the Enneagram to organize the people in my life, to the extent of my insight, and I believe this is ultimately good. At the very least, it compels us to listen harder, to puzzle people out more intently. By defining distinct characters, with different inner motivations, the system can help us recognize not just similarities and differences but the inner selves that we can so easily ignore in others. At the very least the system suggests originating impulses for the absurd things people do and say. Indeed, if you know a person’s type you can’t help but make an empathetic leap. Whether it’s a friend, a partner, a boss, or a parent, the Enneagram provides an explanation for their behavior, helps you imagine how their experience might feel, and can guide how you act in response to them. The societal imperative to understand people who are unlike ourselves can be easier said than done, and the Enneagram provides a mechanism for practicing the intellectual and emotional paradigm shifts necessary to meaningful acknowledgement.

The system also allows a kind of radical self-empathy, helping us recognize our strengths even while exposing the limitations and dangers of our worldview. In espousing self-recognition it suggests ways to move beyond old habits of personality by providing narratives for growth. Once you can recognize your habitual ways of being, you can, with more self-awareness, choose how better to be.

This idea of narratives is key: in a sense, the Enneagram is just an organized and abstracted system of characters that already exist, in specific forms, in literature. And just like literature, it can give us ways to understand and mobilize our own stories and transformations; indeed, we can think of literature as a place where philosophies of personality are put into play. In novels with well-developed characters I often see clear, if unintentional echoes of the Enneagram. Hollow characters lack the inner distortions that most of us carry, while the most memorable characters, in possessing those inexplicable inner motivations, are as immediately familiar to us as neighbors. I imagine writers could even use the Enneagram to develop richer characters, especially those different from themselves.

One of the authors I most admire, George Eliot, had an undeniable genius for describing the psychological truth of character. She balances a remarkable array of well-developed characters in Middlemarch, all the more remarkable for the fact that they are absolutely distinct from each other, are not simply shades of her own ego, and do not read as clichés, despite being immediately recognizable. My favorite example is Causabon, a type Five who is interested solely in his dusty old Key to All Mythologies research. (I, too, am a Five). Dorothea, a One, finds her idealism dashed upon the rocks of Causabon’s intellectual preoccupation. Causabon is an old man; he does not change. But Dorothea, forced to rethink how she brings her fixations to bear upon the world, has the opportunity to transform. This makes it her story; this makes it a story at all.

I’m an obvious fan, but Eliot had her critics. Shortly after her death the Transcendentalist George Willis Cooke criticized the implications of her personality theory: “The more her characters cling to their individuality the more they fail in reaching happiness or peace. If they are noble characters, they are finally obliged, through their very nobility, to surrender all their ideals, all their personal hopes, all the individual ends they hoped to develop; and they reach peace finally only through utter surrender of personality.” Funnily enough, the Enneagram suggests that positive personal growth happens exactly through surrendering habits of personality. Cooke insists: “This lack of faith in personality saddened all the work done by George Eliot.” Given his philosophical biases, he is loathe to accept Eliot’s worldview. But her novel has endured longer than his Transcendentalism because she was not preaching but describing. She saw that our personalities are often traps for our lives. She had a piercing talent for seeing people not how she believed they ought to be, but how they are.

Perhaps personality theory is not the most intellectual nor even the most urgent lens through which to analyze life or literature. But as even this small literary quarrel suggests, there are philosophical and practical questions at stake in how we understand human behavior. Assumptions about personality — its immutabilities, its implications — do influence our society, perhaps most obviously in work, love, and politics, and I suspect that the lenses of personality we gaze through even influence the philosophies we create or follow.

Indeed, writers have long noted the influence of character on perceptions of reality. Another Transcendentalist, Emerson, says thus:

Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see. There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. In truth, they are all creatures of given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass: but we look at them, they seem alive, and we presume there is impulse in them. In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play. Men resist the conclusion in the morning, but adopt it as the evening wears on, that temper prevails over everything of time, place, and condition.

The Enneagram, at its heart, is a way to see beyond our own illusions. Like Emerson, it suggests there is something in a person that does not change, but it offers a way to make the most of that orientation. People can grow and shift over time, of course, but as Emerson observed, and science confirms, we do have relatively fixed traits, and it seems to be in our best interest to acknowledge them.

If the Enneagram, like the best literature, can help us understand ourselves and others, it can also guide us — forgive the self-help phrasing — toward reaching our greatest potential. That is, our own potential, not someone else’s. I think often of an interview I saw at Michigan Theater, with Anne Carson, who had translated the play Antigone, and Juliette Binoche, who was the lead actor in its production. Although they are both great artists, the difference in their energy and approaches was obvious from their presence during the conversation. While Binoche, undeniably heart-centered, rhapsodized at length about how, in a performance, she must accept and inhabit an emotion fully in order to release and move through it, head-centered Carson explained with dry humor how her translation process consisted of using a dictionary to examine each word. I imagined the comic possibilities in asking them to exchange places for a day. It wouldn’t do; each would fail utterly. I think often of the lesson in this, both in art-making and life. The self-recognition inherent in the Enneagram, while not an excuse for determinism, is an opportunity for each of us to find greatness within our own dispositions.

Perhaps this is worth remembering while we have a president whose campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, makes us shudder. He is making American “great” in his own image, reflecting — if he is an Eight — the inner world of a schoolyard bully who has never met his comeuppance, a controlling and temperamental man desperately afraid to show any vulnerability. Eights have the potential to be powerful and good leaders — FDR fits the type — but they can also be exactly as grotesque as we’re seeing now, in a Henry VIII sort of way.

It’s an unfortunate truth that presidents set the tone for the national character, and become part of the story America tells about itself. Some of us feel freshly alienated from this story, others always were, but the sentiment of #notmypresident speaks to everyone’s current disenchantment with this narrative. Even now, given vast power, he clamors greedily, absurdly, for more — and we can expect nothing else from him. Make no mistake, he will not learn, he will not transform. We are the ones who must self-examine, and reckon with a new way to live. This is not his story; it is ours.


Lead image: Bacon, Francis. “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” 1944. Oil paint on 3 boards. Tate Britain, London.

Inset image 1: Pieter Brueghel the Elder. “Netherlandish Proverbs.” 1559. Oil on oak panel. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Inset image 2: Jalabert, Charles. “The Plague of Thebes: Oedipus and Antigone .” 1842. Oil on canvas. Musée des beaux-arts de Marseille.

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