Home | Blog | Enneagram Theory: The Arrows

Enneagram Theory: The Arrows


A Guest Blog by Peter O’Hanrahan

At Ginger’s request, here is a blog about the “movement on the lines/arrows” from our home personality type to our “security and stress points.” I will try to address her criteria for the use of a theory: 1) What is it? 2) Who is the source; is that source reliable? 3) Is it a true enough model or theory that describes some aspect of reality better than other models? 4) Is it practical and useful; does it help us do something we can’t do as well without it?

History of the Arrows

About the Enneagram diagram – it has intelligence! It illustrates the universal laws of energy, the forces that are necessary for the movement of life at all levels, including human beings with our intra-psychic and external activities. This is what Gurdjieff taught in his school of human development during the first half of the 20th century. The source of this knowledge is unclear. Was it the early mathematicians at the time of Pythagoras? Was it from the mystery schools of Egypt and Mesopotamia? Gurdjieff, at times, referred to his travels in the Mid-East and his contact with an esoteric monastery of the Sufi tradition – the Sarmoun Brotherhood; not what most people would consider a reliable source!

In the July 2009 IEA Journal, Helen Palmer and Virginia Wiltse investigated the origins of the Enneagram as evidenced in the work of Evagrius of Pontus and the Christian monastics in the fourth century. In their book, The Enneagram – A Christian Perspective, Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert refer both to Evagrius and to Ramon Lull, a Franciscan friar (1236-1315) who used an Enneagram symbol composed of three equilateral triangles to describe the nine names of qualities of God. But our modern Enneagram with the familiar lines connecting points 1-4-2-8-5-7-1 arrived with Gurdjieff. It’s this diagram that informs our understanding of personality type and the psychodynamic shifts that we experience, even though Gurdjieff did not speak about the nine types we know and love.

According to Gurjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and John Bennett, energy moves around the lines of the diagram based on the Law of Three and the Law of Seven. Personally, I find the Law of Three quite useful – affirming/initiating force, opposing/developing force, and reconciling force. This is the dialectic of Hegel and Marx: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; it also corresponds to the great Trinities of Christianity and Hinduism. It makes sense to me. But the Law of Seven is beyond my grasp; I understand the concept, but do not understand how to apply it in daily life. Yet there are a number of schools and teachers who use it as a central framework. Sounds pretty esoteric! Richard Knowles was a top manager for the Dupont Corporation and has written about his effective use of the “process Enneagram” in that company (The Leadership Dance). He is not the only leader/consultant using the Enneagram in this way. But for now, I’m sticking with the Enneagram of Personality!

What we can say is that there is something very useful about a number set which is based on three-ness and multiples of threes – nine and twenty-seven. Oscar Ichazo had the brilliant insight to place the varieties of human type around the diagram. Where he got this insight is unclear – at one point he talks about the archangel “Metatron,” but we may assume this is metaphorical and that his early study with Gurdjieffian groups in South America had something to do with it. It was Claudio Naranjo who combined Ichazo’s matrix of human experience with modern psychology and the character types described in psychological literature. In Berkeley in the 1970’s, we first learned about the nine personality types and the movement on the lines from Kathleen Speeth and Helen Palmer, who both passed on and further developed Naranjo’s work.

Is the Theory of the Arrows True?

It’s bad enough that we have such an “unscientific” system of nine types, although as lists go, why not a list of nine if this proves useful? When we begin to talk about the intelligence of the diagram and the movement along the lines, we face even more difficulty in justifying the theory. It’s easier with the transpersonal psychology community, but have you ever tried to explain this to a business audience?

How do we justify this wild theory? We do this through empirical evidence, the reported experience of hundreds of thousands of Enneagram students over the past 35 years. It works, it’s practical, and it helps people with their personal growth, their relationships, and yes, even their effectiveness in the workplace. From a sparse set of class notes to what is now an abundance of books and materials, the theory has evolved and is still evolving. What is most important is to keep the theory closely tied to the lived experience of individuals and not get too carried away by fascinating concepts and intellectual adventures.

Is the Theory of the Arrows Useful?

So here is what I know based on my own personal work, the reports of people in hundreds of Enneagram workshops and training programs, and most importantly, my experience of working with clients and the Enneagram model in my counseling practice since 1978. We have a core personality type and character structure. Our external, social “persona” changes quite a bit to adapt to different situations and groups. However, our deep character structure does not radically change to a different one. What is possible is to develop flexibility, to loosen the grip of our fixated way of seeing the world and to access deeper, and wider, ways of being in the world. In one view, our task is to empathize with and access the intelligence of all nine points of view. However, there are particular and predictable ways that we move around the diagram according to the lines and arrows.

These movements, in contrast to our wing points that are close by and easier to visit or incorporate, are psychodynamic. Meaning there is a big change in our internal state and outward appearance when we move in the direction of the arrows. On the inner triangle, personality types Three, Six and Nine share a movement to each of these same points. On the other internal diagram (that pesky Law of Seven), personality types One, Two, Four, Five, Seven and Eight move on their own set of lines. Each subset has a different flavor, so sometimes we may get a sense that someone is “on the triangle” or not.

We seem to follow the movement of energy described by the “process Enneagram” or arrows. In the “forward” direction we move to what is commonly called the stress point. When we get stressed, we often become more fixated and reactive from our type structure. But certain kinds of stress, or too much stress, will take us (push us) along the line to this stress point. Now we’ve made a big shift in our point of view and our emotional state. What is the benefit of knowing this? Because we face different challenges here. We are more like this other personality type, having temporarily left our usual position on the Enneagram. It’s not a comfortable place to be and it can be dangerous to our well-being. We are not our best selves at our stress point, and in fact we may become disassociated from our real selves and our true goals. Counselors and therapists, now business coaches, report that when people come for help they may well be operating from their stress point. Of course, we try to meet them where they are. However, if our initial work is successful, the client will gradually relax back to their home base, which is where much of the real work needs to be done.

But the stress point is also a “resource” point. We can move there to access some important quality or resource in a given situation. Consider the advantages for Sixes in moving to Three: now they can move quickly into action and get out of their heads! Eights benefit from going to Five, thinking things over in a more detached way, using their private time to calm down. Twos travel to Eight to develop their assertiveness and personal power. The question is this: Are we paying attention and managing the shift well? If not, Twos may explode hysterically in anger, Eights may isolate and close down, and Sixes can exhaust themselves while losing contact with their talent for thinking things through and strategizing. Even with good self-awareness, being at the resource point can become stressful. We don’t want to stay there too long.

In the other direction (backward?) on the lines, we move to what is called our heart point, security point, or relaxation point. This direction has a very different feel to it. Here we are letting down our defenses and relaxing our type structure. An underlying presence emerges along with a new set of issues and possibilities. (Sandra Maitri calls the security point our “soul child,”; a theory I don’t entirely agree with but there is something useful in this idea). In the early Enneagram work, this was referred to as the “decompensation point.” In psychology it’s not considered a good thing to decompensate, it’s like falling apart. Perhaps this is why we changed the name. But in our Enneagram work, some falling apart holds great promise for our development, even though it can be scary and confusing.

When people feel safe and secure, often in an intimate relationship or therapeutic situation, they naturally tend to move to their heart point. I have seen this over and over, even with clients who don’t know the Enneagram. I like calling it the heart point because it means encountering our feelings; it’s an emotional journey. This is true even for the types who relax into a point that is not part of the feeling triad. We must go through the emotional habit of our type, whether this is a version of anger, fear, or sadness/shame. This is why people may find it stressful (and it’s not what we call the stress point).

For example, when a Seven moves to their heart point of Five they must come to terms with the fear and frustration normally hidden inside their type structure. Although, what a great thing for a Seven to make contact with their interior space, to be able to calm their racing mind and become more focused and centered. When Fives go to their heart point of Eight, they will drop down into their belly center and instinctual life opens up in them and before them. Of course, they may also get angry and excessive, so there’s work to do from the perspective of Eight. When Eights go to their heart point of Two, they find their vulnerability as well as more emotional intelligence. I can say from personal experience that for me as an Eight, my life and type structure has been completely changed by going to Two and developing my heart center. So I would agree with Don Riso and Russ Hudson that moving to the heart point is a process of integration. (I don’t agree that going to the stress/resource point is necessarily a process of disintegration).

I won’t describe the movements by the arrows for each type since they can be found in many Enneagram books (and there is an article available on my website. What I have seen, and what people report, is that movement by the arrows varies a lot depending on the individual. Some people make these shifts often, others not so much. How does it work for you?


To sum up: this is an Enneagram theory that is very practical. It not only explains what’s going on, it helps us manage movement back and forth, as well as helps us access the strengths and intelligence of these connecting points.

In addition to the big shifts we make along these lines, there is another way of seeing how they are all connected, all the time. Many years ago I had the opportunity to hear Stuart Sovatsky, an experienced psychologist and Enneagram teacher, speak about the dynamic quality of the Enneagram in people, revealed by the constant oscillation of energy between the main type, the wing points, and the arrow points. An astute “observer,” he gave me a quick reading of how my own state was shifting back and forth in the moment with subtle shades of affect and body movement. I had to admit that they were all happening within a few minutes, although I was very uncomfortable with how much he saw in me. Here I was thinking I’m firmly planted in Eight, but my Nine and Seven, my Two and Five influences were apparent – at least to Stuart. It was one of those revelatory moments. This experience has come back to me many times as I speak with individuals about the Enneagram or when I conduct typing interviews. You may know this: if we pay close attention, we can see and hear the presence and influence of the connecting points in the course of a conversation.

(We often experience people as a combination of types connected by the lines – they seem like both a Six and Nine, a Two and Four, or an Eight and Five. Each line has a certain flavor to it).

Peter O’Hanrahan is a seasoned Enneagram teacher, counselor, and business consultant with special expertise in the 27 Enneagram subtypes as well as somatics and the Enneagram. Contact Peter via email at pohanrahan@aol.com.

Comments are closed.