Emotional wellness has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few years. Our culture has slowly shifted to making emotional health a priority, and there’s more tools and resources available than ever before. There’s apps, therapists, medication, and even tools like personality tests.
This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
Enneagrams are a popular personality test that explain nine different personalities people falls under. Dr. Ian Morgan Cron has is one of the leading experts on Enneagrams, and he sees it as a tool that can help people behind emotional wellness, but actually in every aspect of life. Cron sat down with RELEVANT to discuss what the Enneagram is and how it can be used to improve your life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first get started in your own Enneagram journey?
I was in graduate school working toward a degree in counseling psychology and I was on a retreat one weekend to a monastery in the mountains of Colorado and I was in the monk’s library. On the shelf, there was a book about the Enneagram. I pulled it down and I started to read it and I was like, “Wait a minute where has this been?”
I’ve been studying personality theory and personality development for a whole year. Of course, all that stuff is terribly important, but this is so uncannily accurate and accessible and relatable to people who don’t go to graduate school. I love the spiritual dimension to it. That began me on a journey.
Then about 10 years ago I just really threw myself into a deep dive study of it. It’s been a wonderful unexpected journey.
You mentioned studying other personality theories. What was it about the Enneagram that stuck out to you?
Well, a couple of things. One was that the Enneagram not only reveals that which is best about you, but it also reveals the shadow aspect of each of these nine types, and the journey of transformation each of them has to take in order to become the highest expression of themselves.
I also liked that the language was so easy to grasp. It feathered well with my own particular spiritual word worldview.
What is the purpose of The Story of You?
When I first began working with the with the Enneagram, I recognized that these were personality types right but the more I read them, the more I realized that not only were they personality types, but they were really stories nine stories — one of which tells each of us about ourselves, about who we are and how we think the world works. These stories begin to craft a narrative. And as people, we find that these stories in psychology are absolutely necessary. They’re not always very positive, but they’re necessary because they help us make sense of our experiences, of the world around us.
Unfortunately, these stories are largely made up of internalized messages that we’ve picked up from the important people in our lives and in the environment — you know, like family, friends, coaches, teachers, ministers, etc. Whatever these different voices can kind of get taken for granted. There’s false beliefs that get woven into us in this story, and then unfortunately we take that and we drag it into adulthood. And that story begins to define us.
And each of the nine stories of the Enneagram are really problematic right because the underlying premise of each of those stories is in direct opposition to the story of grace. For example, the Improver One, they have this compulsive need to perfect themselves or others in the world in order to be loved. Where, anywhere, in our tradition does it say that in order to be loved you must be perfect and cannot make mistakes? Or for Twos, the Helpers, where does it say in our tradition that if you want love you must meet the needs of other people? All of these stories are conditional.
So my thing is, if you want to experience transformation, you actually have to attack the underlying premise of your particular type’s story.
I’ve seen a lot of people take the test and then not do anything with their results. They don’t really try to dig deeper and see how they can better understand themselves. How does understanding your Enneagram, or even your personality in general, affect our day-to-day lives?
It has tremendous influence over how we move through the world. Do we move through the world reacting to life or do we move through the world responding to life? It helps us as we understand our type’s story and that of others. It arouses tremendous compassion and empathy for the stories that other people find themselves stuck in.
There’s nothing, in many ways, more important than being able to move through life with conscious awareness of what you’re thinking, acting and feeling in any given moment so that you can make healthy choices about how you’re going to move through the world. Are you going to move through the world on autopilot or are you going to move through the world with emotional wisdom?
My hope is that people can become the highest expression of who they are as human beings. And to me, that’s kind of what the spiritual journey is all about.
A lot of people try to argue that they don’t have any childhood trauma to work through, but the older I get, the more I realize we all have something to work through. What would you say to someone who feels as if they don’t have anything from their childhood they need to address?
I have an old joke among a group of therapist friends of mine that people like that suffer from “reality resistance disorder.” I don’t care how charmed or wonderful a childhood you had, all of us pick up messages about who we are that are really self defeating and self limiting in adulthood. All of us carry scars. All of us carry trauma. You don’t have to be afraid of that word. All of us carry trauma. For some of us, it may be “little t trauma” and other people have “capital t Trauma.” But everybody has suffered trauma.
I think for people like that, there’s often an avoidance happening. They’re thinking, “I don’t really actually want to look at what’s happened in the past, so I’m just going to pretend that nothing happened.” That’s just not even humanly possible. Everybody’s a recovering child.
How can something like the Enneagram help someone professionally or in some area we may not always think about?
The same way it can in your marriage or your parenting skills or in your relationships with friends. Self knowledge is absolutely critical in human life. You need self knowledge. You need self awareness. I think they’re key predictors of success and happiness in life. It’s difficult to accrue, to get a lot of self knowledge and self awareness. But one of the great things about the Enneagram is it can save you time. It can give you a lot of self knowledge pretty darn quickly. Exhaustively? No, but it gives you a really good start on the journey of developing self knowledge.
[John] Calvin once said, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” That’s an amazing statement, and I’m always wishing more people would take that seriously and try to gain self knowledge. It’s really a crucial part of the spiritual journey to begin to address areas of brokenness in our lives. And we can move through the world with more emotional wisdom, living consciously of what’s happening in any given moment and being able to observe ourselves in the moment and how we’re predictably and habitually acting, thinking and feeling so that we can make better choices. I think if you want to look for a new you, you’ve got to get a new story. That’s what The Story of You really is about.
There’s a great psychologist and researcher at Northwestern University, Dr. Adams, and he puts it this way: “all transformation is story transformation.” If you want to experience transformation, you have to take responsibility for re-authoring your story. Let go of the old story of childhood with all of its mistaken beliefs and bad messaging about who you are. Really rewrite and embrace a brand new message for you as an adult.