Looking at Our Shadows

The Enneagram, which I mentioned briefly in a post the other day, is a tool of self-understanding that identifies nine fundamental personality types. Although it is not linked to any particular spiritual tradition, many people involved in spiritual counseling of one sort or another have some familiarity with the system and find it a useful aid in their ministry.

For me, one of the most useful aspects of the Enneagram is how it helps me identify when I am falling into patterns that are unhelpful for myself and others. By that I mean that each of the nine types is characterized by certain behavioral tendencies, which manifestly differently depending on whether someone is operating in a healthy range, an average range or an unhealthy range.

Thus, for example, a 7 on the Enneagram (sometimes referred to as the Adventurer or the Enthusiast), at his or her best is fun-loving, spontaneous, charming and, imaginative. When the 7 veers into an unhealthy range, he or she tends to be narcissistic, unfocused, undisciplined and self-destructive. Or, a 1 on the Enneagram (sometimes called the Perfectionist or the Reformer), at his or her best is ethical, reliable, productive, wise, and self-disciplined. In the unhealthy range, a 1 tends toward being judgmental, inflexible, dogmatic, controlling and anxious. As these examples, suggest, a lot of the unhealthy behavior of a particular type tends to be an imbalanced or perhaps inside-out version of the strengths of the type.

Understanding these tendencies can be very useful. The reality is that none of us is always at our best. Various external and internal triggers affect the range within which we operate. There is value in beating ourselves up when we behave less “perfectly” than we’d like. There is, however, tremendous value in understanding what are the shadow sides of our strengths. What are the directions we tend when we are not operating in a balanced mode.

Whatever the value of the Enneagram in my work with others, for me, this has been very helpful. An Intimate 2 with a strong 1 wing, when I observe myself behaving in a certain way, I can recognize when I’m moving in a negative direction. The recognition of the behavior serves as a wake-up call to check up and see what is going on that is creating the imbalance.

The Enneagram may not be your tool of choice, and I’m not suggesting it needs to be. But the approach does suggest the value of establishing some means of looking not only at the positive side of our strengths, but where those strengths get out of balance, allowing their shadow side to emerge. This self-observation and self-awareness is extremely helpful to our growth.