Nosce Te Ipsum -or- The Curse of the Nines

03/19/2011

“Know Thyself.” This is the fist step toward enlightenment. Or as a twelve-stepper would say, “the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.”

Having been formerly married to a counselor who spent many years in counseling herself, I picked up a pretty healthy appreciation for this idea. The most influential thing I have been exposed to are the Enneagram personality types (see also: Fourth Way). More than anything else, learning about the nine types has opened my eyes not just to the way my own mind works, but to they way others around me think as well. The Enneagram is an ancient system for understanding personalities; what drives people, what influences their decisions, how they manage love, fear, anxiety, spirituality.

My type is 9 (the Mediator) and I’ll probably be making a lot of references to it in future posts, so I thought I’d give a brief overview of my nineness, and where I see it kicking in in my life.

Signs you might be a 9:

  • You can see all sides of any issue, no matter how controversial. You can justify any position, and the result is often paralysis or simply indifference. Frankly, you just don’t give a damn. This makes you a great mediator and conflict resolver.
  • It’s difficult to make choices. When you ask a friend or partner where they want to go for dinner, it’s because you can see the good in all the options, and therefore can’t decide, or just don’t care. You can stare at a menu all day, because faced with many choices, it’s difficult to make the best choice. You’re likely to simply have what you had last time that you know is good.
  • You’re easily distracted and pulled off task. You’ll be in the middle of something, see a dirty glass on the kitchen counter, and then start doing dishes. Then you may get pulled into something else, and half an hour later remember you were in the middle of something earlier that you still need to finish.
  • You avoid conflict at any cost. If pressed, you’ll concede an argument even when you know you’re right because you feel like it’s just not worth the fight.
  • You have a hard time knowing exactly what you want, or exactly who you are. You go with the flow, and can be happy doing anything if it’s with people you like.
  • Your temperament is almost completely flat. You’re rarely sad or down for long, and conversely you’re rarely elated or excited for long. There are very few things you would describe with words like “hate” and “love.” If someone asked you what your true passion is, you honestly wouldn’t know.
  • You love to bond with people. If anything gets you excited, it’s building relationships, sharing experiences, and making others happy. People generally like to be around you, and consider you genuine.
  • You have a hard time ending relationships. You stay in them way too long, because you’re avoiding the inevitable conflict of breaking up (though once you do reach that tipping point, you’re swift and sudden). You absorb other people’s pain, so inflicting pain on others inflicts it on yourself as well. You may be very selective about who you start relationships with because you want to minimize the chance of that pain.
  • You were in the middle of reading another post of mine a minute ago, but got distracted by the link to this page.

One of my complaints about describing the various enneagram types is that it tends to come off as a caricature of a person. All of the above is true for me, but those who know me may not see me that way. These are the processes in my mind, but it would require a keen observer or a very close friend to spot these characteristics from the outside. Most of this is an internal struggle which most people don’t even realize they’re having.

One of my best friends from high school is a fellow 9, and we have often talked about how the indecisiveness, and the lack of a single passion is like a curse. Life would be so much easier if we could be one of those people who has one thing they really love, and who can build a career around it. Both of us have more or less fallen into what we do now, and aren’t completely happy with it. But we haven’t found anything else to do that’s particularly better, so we soldier on (though in my case, I’m placing a lot of other bets).

It’s easy to get caught up in how things are easier for other people. A 9 may be envious of a 5 at the office who seems to be able to focus on a task for hours at a time every day, or envious of an 8 who has no problem saying ‘no’. Or conversely a 5 may be envious of a 9’s ability to relate to anyone and win over a room full of people. When we recognize why others have traits different from our own, however, and recognize why we are the way we are, it’s much easier to accept, adapt, and improve ourselves.

When my ‘nineness’ pops up and I’m tempted to go along with something I’m not really into, I now recognize that and force myself to consider what I really want, not what others want, and I grow a stronger backbone. I know how my brain reacts to a long menu, so I force myself to pick something new – anything new. Flip a coin, whatever it takes. When I see my mind straying off-task in the middle of work (Facebook is a huge problem for me!), I go back to my to-do list, which is always open and prioritized, and remind myself what needs to happen in what order.

Studying my Enneagram type has been like holding up a giant mirror to myself, and been a big help in getting my life realigned. Pretty much all the big quits from the last year have been a result of me recognizing an unhealthy behavior in myself, and making a correction. Those corrections have been difficult, but I have no regrets and feel like I’m on a much better path now. The hardest question for a 9 to answer is “what do YOU really want.” Simply recognizing the difficulty in the question is a good start to answering it.

Learn more about the Enneagram:

There are many sites online with information and quizzes for determining your type, but none of them are really great. There’s lots of hokey spiritual stuff surrounding the Enneagram as well – try to see past that. I would recommend looking at some of the books that have been written, as they are much higher quality content. Some of the more popular authors are Riso and Hudson and Helen Palmer. I’ve also attended a couple of workshops from Life in the Trinity Ministries in Dallas. They obviously are approaching it from a Christian perspective, but I found Suzanne to be an excellent teacher.