Two months ago, I posted on my YouTube channel a short video clip addressing the question “What Type is Barack Obama?” which drew over 400 views (to see the clip, click here). While I’ve received many e-mails of agreement that he is most likely a Nine, this e-mail came from a viewer: “Barack Obama is a 3 wing 4, hands down. He has nothing, I mean NOTHING of a 9. Nines are either: Big, Fat, Visceral, Slow. Barack has nothing of that.”
It’s not the disagreement about his Enneagram style that bothers me because discussions and differences in opinion about the Enneagram styles of famous people can be constructive and healthy, particularly given that we don’t know them personally and they haven’t identified their style themselves. At the same time, the reasons for why we believe a person is a certain style – as well as the logic and intuition behind it — do matter, and this particular e-mail motivated me to write this blog. My intention is to question if not to debunk the stereotypes that can be a hazard of working with systems such as the Enneagram.
Are Nines big, fat, visceral, and slow? Actually, Nines can be large or small, slim or heavier. And many Nines are average in size. The Dalai Lama, for example, is most likely a Nine, and he is neither “big” nor “fat,” and neither is Sandra Bullock, also a likely Nine. And while Enneagram style Nine is a type formed from the Body Center of Intelligence (hence, the term “visceral”), Nines are often referred to as “anger that went to sleep,” which means that they can easily be out of touch with their anger, and they do this partly by being less in contact with their Body Center or visceral responses. In fact, many Nines initially identify more with being from the Heart Center of Intelligence (Two, Three, or Four), and some Nines are highly intellectual and may mistake themselves for Fives, a style that resides in the Head Center of Intelligence. Finally, while some Nines can be slow in terms of taking action, many Nines are highly active. In fact, social subtype Nines in particular can work themselves to exhaustion on behalf of groups or organizations without even noticing that they are depleted. The “slowness” for Nines may be confused with not paying sufficient attention to their own wants, intentions, and opinions, but would not at all relate to being slow in any other sense.
We can all be part of this confusion when we stereotype the Enneagram types rather than understand some of the nuances involved with the nine different styles. Ones, for example, may be inaccurately stereotyped as lean, rigid, and cold. The problem is that some Ones carry more physical weight, some perceive things in more flexible ways – for example, believing that the world is best understood in terms of shades of gray – and many Ones are quite warm, particularly if they have a Two wing.
How might Twos be stereotyped – sugary sweet, continually smiling, non-intellectual, and lacking in personal or organizational power? While some Twos act extremely sweet and smile frequently, others do not and are far more serious. In addition, social subtype Twos are more intellectual and emit more personal power than do the other two subtypes of style Two, but other Twos may also have these characteristics – that is, intellectual and personally powerful – depending on their level of self-mastery and their cultural/family backgrounds. Understanding a person’s context, level of development, and subtype is so important in identifying a person’s Enneagram style.
Are all Threes limelight seekers, lacking in depth and honesty? Are they all successful, svelte and attractive, with adroit interpersonal skills? Some of these attributes may be perceived as positive and some as negative, but none of them describe all Threes accurately. Some Threes are uncomfortable front and center stage (social subtype Threes most enjoy this); others have great depth and would never perceive themselves as being anything other than direct and honest (however, the lack of honesty refers more to self-honesty about who they really are); and some Threes are not particularly attractive (though this is in the eyes of the beholder), often displaying a lack of nuance in their interpersonal interactions.
The stereotype that is common for Fours is that they are drama queens or kings, like a great deal of attention, tend to be weepy all the time, and are great artists. In other words, if they are not involved in the arts in some way, how can they be Fours? The truth is that many Fours do not like to command attention, nor do they engage in outright drama. One-to-one subtype Fours may do this more than the other two subtypes, but not all one-to-one subtype Fours create such drama. In addition, many Fours do not feel sad or depressed any more than individuals of the other styles, and they are not all artistic. In fact, self-preservation Fours often appear more like Threes in their constant activity and sophistication, or they can be look-alikes for Sevens because they are constantly seeking new experiences.
Would it be fair to say that you can tell who is a Five and who is not by the lack of emotional response or social engagement, the intellectual orientation, or the lean physique? This would be a gross stereotype that does not take into account subtype, self-mastery level, culture, and wing. When Fives engage in self-development work, they often become even more emotionally expressive than others, and social subtype Fives can engage easily with others, albeit more about ideas than feelings. For them, mental engagement feels intimate. In Brazil, the Seven cultural overlay is so strong that Brazilian Fives can appear extroverted and social, even if they prefer not to do so. Fives with a Four wing can have deep and rich emotional lives, and there are many Fives who have larger physiques.
Sixes are complex and determining if someone is a Six by external characteristics is especially challenging. What if they don’t look fearful? Counterphobic Sixes can appear fearless, even invincible, sometimes like Eights and even like a combination of Three and Nine – that is, driven like Threes and mellow like Nines. The “fearful” stereotype that often goes with Six more often describes the highly phobic Six, but even then, when a phobic Six has a strong Seven wing, the person may appear far more carefree and fun-loving. And some Sixes have a very strong link to their arrow lines Three and Nine, making them appear less doubtful and/or more mellow, respectively. Of course, the drive or motivation underneath the personality of all Sixes is fear, but it can be difficult for some Sixes to recognize this in themselves and since we can all be fearful or anxious at times, it can be highly misleading to perceive an anxious person as a Six or non-visibly anxious person as not a Six.
Are all Sevens unfocused, scattered, non-empathic, and superficial? While many Sevens struggle with maintaining their focus, many have learned to do so. For example, a Seven who works in information technology describes it this way: “I learned how to focus at an early age because a teacher I admired told me I had to do this. So I focus and get everything done so I can reward myself afterwards by doing whatever I want.” What about Sevens being non-empathic? In fact, many of them work very effectively in hospice settings because they do care so deeply and can also bring a positive point of view to a difficult situation. Superficial? Many Sevens do deep dives into areas that interest them, and this is especially true when they have a strong link to their Five arrow line.
Are all Eights tough, dominating, and unwilling to show their tender vulnerable side? Are they all ”big?” Not at all! Eights come in a variety of sizes. I know a female Eight who is 5 feet tall and weighs 100 pounds. Many Eights are sweet and strong and don’t try to dominate others – though they do want things under control. And the one-to-one subtype Eights can be highly emotionally expressive, cry easily in front of others, and appear quite vulnerable. Inversely, both males and females can get mistyped as Eights. For example, a Korean colleague once told me this: “In Korea, all men are expected to act like Eights, and all females are supposed to be like Nines. Many men mistype themselves as do many women.” In the US, many Eight women do not initially identify as Eights because the US female stereotype is that women should be less assertive and less powerful. As a result, Eight women may mistype themselves (or be mistyped) as their wings Nine or Seven, or as their arrow line of Two. Inversely, some women perceived to be assertive can get mistyped as Eights.
Enneagram style is so important in uncovering who we are, determining the best development approaches to take, and in the creation of a more conscious and compassionate society. To do so, it is equally important to really understand the Enneagram systems and the nine styles in non-stereotypical, nuanced ways and to take into account arrows, wings, culture, gender, self-mastery levels, and subtypes. In Obama’s case, it can be challenging to identify his Enneagram style since he appears to be at such a high level of personal development. When individuals are high in self-mastery, their Enneagram styles tend to be less apparent externally because they are less reactive and more relaxed.
In the coming days, Beatrice Chestnut Ph.D, Enneagram teacher, therapist, business consultant and coach — with a forthcoming book on Enneagram subtypes — will be writing a guest blog on the importance and nature of the 27 Enneagram subtypes as they relate to mistyping and stereotyping.