The Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for A New Era

The Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for A New Era

I left Capitol Hill because I was angry.

But let me back up. 

There is a common theme in the journal entries of Liberatus: that Washington D.C. and the American political experiment it represents hold forth great promise and allure, but in the end we often find ourselves disappointed and disillusioned.  Nowhere is that theme more evident than in this current series.  After all, why write about A New Era unless we are searching for one? 

But what if the motivation to participate in American politics is often the same motivation that pushes us to leave?  What if the New Era we are searching for is impossible to find until we have first discovered it in our own selves?

“[I]t’s because of The West Wing that I started writing again and moved to Washington, DC…I wasn’t the only one whose life had been changed in some way by the show – a lot of people have been inspired to go into politics because of it.” writes Claire Handscombe in week two.  In week three, Sarah Savick McPeak writes “I was surrounded by some of the sharpest and most idealistic minds in the country…I was there, in the heart of it all. I was walking the same streets that every great leader of this country has walked.” 

Like these authors and so many more of us who moved our lives, our ideals, our dreams to the nation’s capital, I too recognized Washington DC as a place of promise.  In its colonnades I saw a grandness of purpose.  As I rounded traffic circles or strode purposely through the Capitol's Hall of Columns I could not help but feel the eyes of this Republic's leaders - famous and forgotten - ever watchful with their marble and bronze eyes.  I certainly felt the idyllic inspiration of The West Wing, but also the heavy weight of the Washington D.C. ominously portrayed in House of Cards - perhaps the fictional and emotional opposite of The West Wing.  (Confession: the House of Cards theme is my ring tone.)

I also understand the disappointment with Washington written about in the pages of Liberatus.  I rode – and cursed – the metro.  I fumed at the blockades to progress erected by tourists in cargo shorts and tennis shoes lounging, oblivious, on the escalator’s left side.  I struggled for nearly a decade to enact reforms important to my boss and me.  I crafted a bill, pushed for supporters, pushed back against detractors, battled my own party and the other one to win hearings, votes, passage, only to do it all over again the next day, week, year, Congress.  Ultimately, those Sisyphean exertions began to expose not just annoyance, but deep resentment.

One bright fall afternoon, I walked to the office of the Speaker of the House to meet face-to-face with two staffers I had been negotiating with for months.  I assumed the Speaker’s staff was there to mediate, but it quickly became clear he had already taken the other side.  Anger rose like an uncontrolled oil well.  I came close – too close – to reacting with physical violence.  I knew then it was time to leave.  I figured my anger would subside if I removed myself from the hyper-intense atmosphere of Capitol Hill.  I was wrong.  The truth, I’m only now discovering, is that removing myself from…well…myself, is a lot harder than packing up and leaving Washington.

In 1900 the Polish-British writer, Joseph Conrad, most famous for his work Heart of Darkness, wrote, "It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge." (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Chapter 7, paragraph 6) Perhaps Conrad's point is the most important lesson we can learn from our efforts to discover A New Era in American politics.  Our striving in Washington and the unavoidable disillusionment that follows might have more to do with our own motivations and our tendency to blame others for our disillusionment than it does with the failings of our current system.  In Congress we try to conquer our own internal needs for perfection, safety, strength, or what-have-you with right arguments that bolster right ideas.  We dodge the grim shadow by outdoing each other with talking points, one-pagers, and clever Dear Colleagues.  But as the spiritual director and prolific writer Richard Rohr writes, "Being informed is different from being formed, and the first is a common substitute for the second." (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert, The Enneagram, A Christian Perspective, pg. xxviii)

What an indictment of us Congressional staffers who know so much, but perhaps understand so little.  "Even Supreme Court justices...and heads of state are often informed with facts but not formed anew," Rohr continues, "They often have correct data, but not a new viewpoint or a new Self.  They are trapped inside the small self....They read the situation 'correctly,' but somehow it is all wrong and we know it."  (Rohr and Ebert, pg. xviii)

To truly understand a piece of legislation, one must know why it was written.  Anyone can read the text of a bill.  Most can understand the words on the page.  Very few of us - even on the inside - know the full context that sparked the drafting.  "Text plus full context equals genius," Rohr writes. (Rohr and Ebert, pg., xix)  To discover the true motivations of our adversaries, our friends, and ourselves is to possess the keys to advancing a legislative agenda.  If this is true for successful legislative endeavors, how much more so for deep understanding of our own selves?

If only we had a tool to help us discover this "full context" that would set us on a path to renewal, to discover A New Era in our own lives so that we can with compassion and clear-eyed motivation uncover A New Era in American politics.

Enter the Enneagram. 

Wait. The Any-a-what? 

In the most simplistic terms, the Enneagram (pronounced EN-ee-ah-gram) is a personality profiling system; an ancient typology that describes nine different human characters.  Taken from the Greek word ennea, meaning nine, and gram, meaning figure, the Enneagram is a 9-pointed, geometric figure that shows an interconnected circle of the nine personality types (See figure 1). The true origin of the Enneagram is unknown, but Rohr and Ebert argue that it evolved from the fourth-century Christian monastic order of the Desert Fathers.

I can hear your immediate protests.  I've already done the Myers-Briggs, you say.  I've done brain-mapping and those Buzzfeed which-reality-TV-star-would-you-be tests, you say.  I don't like being put in a box, you lament.  What could another personality test show me that I don't already know?  Stay with me, fellow searchers, because "the Enneagram is more than an entertaining game for learning about oneself.  It is concerned with change and making a turnaround, with what the religious traditions call conversion or repentance.  It confronts us with compulsions and laws under which we live - usually without being aware of it - and it aims to invite us to go beyond them, to take steps into the domain of freedom." (Rohr and Ebert, pg. 4)

The domain of freedom. 

Sound familiar?  If the effort of Liberatus is to discover Truth and Beauty, and if that discovery is what leads to true freedom, then I submit that the best way to enter the domain of freedom begins with recognizing the masks we have put in place to protect ourselves and instead work (and it is work!) to lay them aside in favor of our true selves.  As a follower of Christ, I do not view this as some new-age mumbo-jumbo, but an intentional effort to discover the best self which God always intended for me to discover.  The Enneagram pushes me toward compassionate acceptance of my own worldview and motivations.  As a result I have found that a deeper understanding of others' motivations and worldview is nearly unavoidable.  We have all been told to walk a mile in another's shoes, to love our neighbors and our enemies.  I admit that I have never quite known an intellectually honest way to accomplish that.  Almost inadvertently, perhaps by the mysterious work of the Spirit, the Enneagram has provided a path. 

Understanding the Enneagram and finding your type requires more time and reflection than can be accomplished in this journal.  However, to get you started, reprinted here are the briefest of descriptions of the nine types written by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile from The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery.  If you find yourself intrigued to study more, I highly recommend their book for an introduction to the life-changing work of the Enneagram.

Type 1: The Perfectionist. Ethical, dedicated and reliable, they are motivated by a desire to live the right way, improve the world, and avoid fault and blame. (Your humble author is a One).

Type 2: The Helper. Warm, caring and giving, they are motivated by a need to be loved and needed, and to avoid acknowledging their own needs.

Type 3: The Performer. Success-oriented, image-conscious and wired for productivity, they are motivated by a need to be (or appear to be) successful and avoid failure. (I believe, without evidence, that Capitol Hill likely boasts a very high number of Threes).

Type 4: The Romantic. Creative, sensitive and moody, they are motivated by a need to be understood, experience their oversized feelings and avoid being ordinary.

Type 5: The Investigator.  Analytical, detached and private, they are motivated by a need to gain knowledge, conserve energy and avoid relying on others.

Type 6: The Loyalist.  Committed, practical and witty, they are worst-case-scenario thinkers who are motivated by fear and the need for security.

Type 7: The Enthusiast.  Fun, spontaneous and adventurous, they are motivated by a need to be happy, to plan stimulating experiences and to avoid pain.

Type 8: The Challenger.  Commanding, intense and confrontational, they are motivated by a need to be strong and avoid feeling weak or vulnerable.

Type 9: The Peacemaker.  Pleasant, laid back and accommodating, they are motivated by a need to keep the peace, merge with others and avoid conflict.

I began this journal entry by confessing to you my anger.  I blamed it on DC, and on all those people who couldn't or wouldn't see the rightness of my oh-so-perfect arguments.  The Enneagram has shown me both how right and how very wrong I was.  As a One, I am strongly motivated toward fixing what is imperfect and acting on what is right.  My very being is bent toward those goals, which certainly isn't a bad thing and in fact can play a role in moving our system toward "a more perfect union."  But underneath lofty motivations, Ones like me, and Eights and Nines, live with an ever-present anger that simmers just under the surface.  It is up to me to channel that anger toward productive and helpful enterprises, to recognize that Capitol Hill - indeed the world - needs all types to thrive.

(There isn't room here to discuss the Enneagram triads, but while Ones, Eights and Nines are driven by different manifestations of anger; Twos, Threes and Fours are driven by shame; and Fives, Sixes and Sevens by fear.)

In this series we have explored several means to welcoming A New Era in American politics, from art, to finding God's will, to physical activity.  Richard Rohr writes that "The Enneagram can help us to purify our self-perception, to become unsparingly honest toward ourselves, and to discern better and better when we are hearing only our own inner voices and impressions and are prisoners of our prejudices - and when we are capable of being open to what is new." (Rohr and Ebert, pg. 21)

Here's to being open to what is new - in our world, in our politics, in our hearts.

Pete Obermueller is just a Wyoming kid, who came to DC with big ideas and a nerdy love of politics.  In Washington he served as a Graduate Fellow in the Senate, an LA and LD in the House, and as Executive Director of an active House caucus.  In 2013 he returned to Wyoming to work at the county level of government.  He still has big ideas and a nerdy love of politics.


You can find Enneagram tests by simple online searches.  Take a moment this week to see which direction these tests take you.  However, be warned, most of the Enneagram teachers believe that unlike other personality types, discovering one’s number is not best accomplished by taking a test.  That is because, as Suzanne Stabile teaches, the Enneagram is more about learning who you are not, and a test cannot easily show that.  If you want to dip your toe in the water without purchasing the book recommended above, try reading the nine descriptions written by Enneagram teachers Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson at  Many people find they are closer to discovering their number when the description causes them some embarrassment to read.  As Richard Rohr warns, “The Enneagram does not have the intention of flattering or stroking the empirical ego.” (Rohr and Ebert, pg. 23)

Liberatus is a weekly journal about bringing Truth and Beauty to American politics, written by people on the inside. You can join the adventure by applying to writesubscribing to the journal, or by contributing monthly.

What would connecting professionals in American politics with a local refugee community change about the way we communicate? By contributing $25 a month, you can be part of the creation of Issue 017:  Refuge . Click the photo for details. 

What would connecting professionals in American politics with a local refugee community change about the way we communicate? By contributing $25 a month, you can be part of the creation of Issue 017: Refuge. Click the photo for details. 

Journal Entry #102