Interview with Dr. Parsons on Enneagram

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gayle White

What’s your number?

In classes and retreats, the enneagram is being applied to matters of the soul and the mind. You’re Number One. Or Four, Six or Nine.

Whatever the integer, it may influence how you regard yourself, your friends, even God.

The numbers are points on a nine-part graph of personal attitudes called the
enneagram (pronounced ANY-a-gram). It’s been compared to the Myers-Briggs personality
tests, derived from the theories of Carl Jung, but enneagram advocates say
that whereas Myers-Briggs measures behavior, the enneagram describes motivation.

“It really helps people grasp the profound difference in how people see
things,” said Lynn Parsons, a former Chicago psychotherapist who operates
Morning Glory Farms, a retreat center in Mill Spring, N.C. “We all make
these little assumptions that other people sort of see things like we do. I
think the power of the enneagram is that you do come away realizing that people
see things differently.”

The enneagram is intended to be used as an instrument of self-understanding
and improvement, said Parsons, who recently led a weeklong enneagram workshop
at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. “It’s an inside job. This
is not about typing people. This is about giving people a tool to help themselves.”

A stack of books published during the past decade attests to the growing popularity
of the enneagram in work and love. Increasingly, through classes, retreats
and literature, it’s being applied to matters of the soul as well as the mind.

Each enneagram type has its gifts to be developed and its shortcomings to
be overcome. These positive and negative characteristics come into play in
people’s spiritual lives, said Parsons, a Six, characterized by fear and self-doubt.

“I had always depended on analysis to give me the truth,” she said. “If
I could figure things out, that would lead me toward God.” Now, she said,
she uses meditation to learn to rely more heavily on faith. “I feel like
my meditation practice is creating a landing field for God,” she said. “Sometimes
he lands; sometimes there’s no planes coming in. But the practice has to be
done because I realize I’m never going to get there through my head or through

The enneagram types have been linked to the “fruit of the spirit” outlined
in the New Testament Book of Galatians (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) and to the mortal sins
and virtues as defined by the ancient church. The enneagram also has been compared
to the 10 aspects of the divine personality recognized in the system of Jewish
mysticism called kabbala.

People seldom reflect the pure characteristics of a single enneagram type
but are influenced by the “wings” or the types adjacent to their
own. Under stress, they may exhibit negative traits of other types and through
spiritual maturity may develop additional virtues.

The origin of the enneagram is unclear. Some trace it to Muslim mystics known
as Sufis. Others say it goes back to ancient Mesopotamia.

The enneagram was introduced in its modern form by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff,
a Greek-Armenian who, with friends, formed a group called Seekers After Truth
to explore ancient wisdom and diverse systems of thought. In wide travels to
India and the Middle East, Gurdjieff ran across the enneagram.

He incorporated the symbol into spiritual and psychological work in Russia
until shortly before the 1919 revolution, when he moved to France and founded
the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

In the 1950s, Bolivian Oscar Ichazo, who had been raised Catholic, adapted
the enneagram to personality types.

Among Ichazo’s students was psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, who was developing
a program of Gestalt therapy at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. Back
in California, he began expounding on the enneagram types.

The theory of the enneagram is based on the principle that everyone constructs
defense mechanisms to deal with the real and perceived injuries inflicted by

“We make protection for ourselves,” said Jeannene Wiseman, who taught
the class at Columbia with Parsons. “There’s a way in which our woundedness
requires that we defend ourselves in a way that blocks the natural flow of
energy that would be more in harmony with God and the universe. For some people,
there’s more of a block, for some maybe less.”

By recognizing and getting past their own defenses, people are able to use
their gifts more effectively and feel more in tune with the Creator, she said.

As a One on the enneagram, Wiseman naturally strains for perfection and feels
anger when things are imperfect and when other people seem to care less about
details than she does. “Ones need to give it a rest,” she said. “A
spiritual practice that’s very important for Ones is having fun.”

The use of the enneagram “is not about a particular spiritual exercise,” Parsons
said. “It’s about how to work on your path toward God. Working to get
our bad habits out of the way so those gifts can emerge is really what spiritual
growth is all about.”

Several Catholic religious orders have adopted the enneagram for use in their
retreat centers, but not everyone in church hierarchy approves. Last year,
the U.S. Catholic bishops received a report cautioning them about the enneagram,
saying “the philosophical and religious ideas of its creators are out
of keeping with basic elements of the Christian faith.”

Among specific criticisms is that people might use the enneagram to justify
sin as the inevitable result of personality. “Personal responsibility
for sin becomes very difficult to explain in this theory,” the report

Wiseman, who has a theology degree from Princeton Seminary, takes issue with
the bishops’ report.

“I don’t see it as saying a person isn’t responsible for sin,” she
said. “In fact, I think the enneagram illuminates the territory where
we have responsibility.” By helping people to discover the areas of their
greatest weakness and temptation, the enneagram can put them on guard, she

Students in the Columbia workshop conducted by Parsons and Wiseman say understanding
the enneagram has helped them understand themselves.

Healing comes through the enneagram “as we recognize a truth that is
bigger and greater, that is more loving, that is safer, than anything we have
believed,” said Jenny Felder, a spiritual director who uses the enneagram
in her work.

“We are created and we come into the world with a core that reflects
the image of God,” said Deborah Willis, who is educated as a pharmacist
and is considering becoming a spiritual director. “I believe we come into
the world healthy and good, but as we grow older and we are influenced by people
who are wounded, though they love us, or we make mistakes and wound ourselves,
we build up a shell of personality that is not God’s best intention for us.
The enneagram gives hope that God can work in our lives to begin to dissolve
this shell and that, as that happens, we know more peace in our lives.”

“One of the most important things to realize about Christian spirituality
is it’s never a solo endeavor,” said Liz Forney, associate director of
Columbia’s spirituality program. Different people working in community make
a whole, she said.

“Each of us is an image of God,” she said. “By knowing all
the aspects of the different personalities, you get a glimpse into the many-faceted
nature of God.”

Photo: Jenny Felder shows off colors she made at an enneagram class at Columbia
Theological Seminary. / PHIL SKINNER / Staff

Photo: Ray Mendenhall (left) jokes during a panel discussion with Liz Forney
and David Eaton at enneagram class at Columbia. / PHIL SKINNER / Staff

Graphic: The enneagram is expressed as a circle with nine significant points,
each representing a primary personality type. Each primary type is connected
to four other types:

Two connections are to “wings” (the types on each side). A person
can be influenced by one or both wings. For Nine, the wings would be One and

The other two connections are to a stress type and a security type. In times
of difficulty, a person tends to shift toward the stress type (represented
by an arrow away from the primary type). In times of relaxation, people exhibit
traits of their security type (represented by an arrow toward the primary type).


  • > Need: To be perfect
  • > Gifts: Energy, ambition, loyalty, vision of balance
  • > Temptation: Anger
  • > Defense mechanism: Repression
  • > Image of God: Wisdom
  • > Famous examples: Martin Luther, theologian Karl Barth, Jerry Falwell, Mary Poppins


  • > Need: To be needed
  • > Gifts: Sensitivity, kindness, warmth
  • > Temptation: Pride
  • > Defense mechanism: Repression
  • > Image of God: Understanding
  • > Famous example: Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley, Mary Magdalene, Dolly Parton


  • > Need: To succeed
  • > Gifts: Confidence, efficiency
  • > Temptation: Deceit or vainglory
  • > Defense mechanism: Identification with role or performance
  • > Image of God: Love
  • > Famous examples: Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Walt Disney, John F. Kennedy


  • > Need: To be special
  • > Gift: Creativity
  • > Temptation: Envy
  • > Defense mechanism: Sublimation — expression of feelings only through art
  • > Image of God: Power
  • > Famous examples: T.S. Eliot, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Joan Baez


  • > Need: To perceive
  • > Gifts: Inventiveness, gentleness, politeness
  • > Temptation: Avarice
  • > Defense mechanism: Isolation or compartmentalization
  • > Image of God: Beauty
  • > Famous examples: The Buddha, Greta Garbo, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Aquinas


  • > Need: To be secure
  • > Gifts: Cooperation, reliability, warmheartedness, wit
  • > Temptation: Fear
  • > Defense mechanisms: Projection of negative motives onto others, denial
  • > Image of God: Endurance
  • > Famous examples: Woody Allen, Oscar Romero, Jane Fonda, Sherlock Holmes


  • > Need: To avoid pain
  • > Gifts: Idealism, enthusiasm, curiosity, generosity
  • > Temptation: Intemperance
  • > Defense mechanism: Rationalization
  • > Image of God: Majesty
  • > Famous examples: Epicurus, Mozart, Francis of Assisi, Groucho Marx


  • > Need: To confront
  • > Gifts: Instinct for justice; perseverance; loyalty to friends and family
  • > Temptation: Shamelessness or lust
  • > Defense mechanism: Denial
  • > Image of God: Foundation
  • > Famous examples: Martin Luther King Jr., John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway,
  • Pablo Picasso


  • > Need: To preserve
  • > Gifts: Affability, honesty, common sense, fairness
  • > Temptation: Laziness
  • > Defense mechanism: Avoidance
  • > Image of God: Presence
  • > Famous examples: Gerald Ford, Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Gustav Jung, Pope
  • John XXIII


  • “The Enneagram –Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life,” Helen Palmer;
  • “My Best Self” and “What’s My Type?” Kathleen Hurley and Theodore Dobson
  • “Are You My Type, Am I Yours?” Renee Baron & Elizabeth Wagele
  • “Discovering the Enneagram,” Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert
  • “Emotions and the Enneagram,” Margaret Frings Keyes