Misidentifications of Enneagram Personality Types

Whenever we teach the Enneagram, we inevitably encounter people who have misidentified their type—Twos who are convinced they are Fours, Nines who think they are Fives, Threes who are persuaded they are Ones, and so on. This chapter has grown out of the need to clarify similarities and differences between the types.

It is time to be more precise about both the similarities and differences so that people will be able to understand them more clearly, and so that teaching about them will be more accurate. After all, deepening self-understanding is the primary aim of the Enneagram, and if people misidentify themselves, the Enneagram will do them little good. It will be no more than a fascinating curiosity—or, worse, a way of obtaining insight into others while avoiding insight into themselves.

Even so, it is admittedly easy to misidentify people, and there are good reasons why aspects of virtually all the types can be confused.

First, the Enneagram is complex—and human nature is even more complex. People are extraordinarily varied and ever-changing. Unless we see individuals in different situations over a period of time, it can be difficult to have confidence in the accuracy of our diagnosis.

Second, it is inherently difficult to identify others since we must infer their type based on less than complete information about them. In fact, determining personality types accurately is something of an art in itself, although it is actually a skill that anyone can become proficient in, given time and practice. Moreover, the fact that some people misidentify themselves or others is to be expected, at least at the present time, considering the state of the art of the Enneagram. There are different interpretations in circulation, some containing significant contradictions, as well as misattributions of traits from type to type. This is why it is essential to think critically and independently.

Third, since the Enneagram can accommodate more than 486 variations of the types (PT, 425), it is inevitable that some of them will be similar. For example, Sixes (at Level 6, The Authoritarian Rebel) can resemble Eights (at Level 6, The Confrontational Adversary) in that both are belligerent and authoritarian, although in noticeably different ways, as we will see in this chapter.

Fourth, types are easily confused when they are thought of as narrow entities—as if Nines, for example, were always peaceful and serene. If this is our idea of Nines, then when we encounter someone who is occasionally irritable or aggressive, we may automatically conclude that the person cannot be a Nine. While peacefulness and serenity are two of the principal traits of healthy Nines, there are also times when Nines can be angry, aggressive, and anxious. However, they virtually always think of themselves as peaceful and return to various forms of peacefulness (for instance, passivity and complacency) as their “home base.” And just as important, when Nines are aggressive, angry, or anxious, they manifest these traits in distinctively “Nine-ish” ways. For example, they express anger as a “coolness” toward the person they are angry with—while denying that they are at all angry. Even rather severe outbursts of aggression can erupt suddenly and subside quickly. To make subtle distinctions such as these, we must learn to discern the overall style and motivations for each type rather than see individual traits in isolation.

Fifth, other variations can color our impression of a person’s type. The wing, for instance, can significantly affect the person’s behavior. Similarly, the Instinctual Variant can powerfully affect the way the person expresses her type (PT, 426-30). If the person has been under stress for a period of time they may strongly behave, and even feel like, the type in their Direction of Disintegration. Also, people who are extremely high-functioning can be more difficult to identify because they are less identified with the patterns of their type and can freely express a much wider range of coping styles. Clearly, the Enneagram types are not static or simple: many factors can influence a person at any given moment, and it takes time and dedication to really understand all the subtleties and variations of the nine basic types.

Sixth, we may confuse some types because our exposure to the full range of all the personality types is limited. It may be that because of our individual experience, we simply do not know many Fives, or Eights, or Twos, or some other type. Until you have correctly identified (and thought about) a wide variety of examples from all the types, it is likely that some of them will remain vague.

Furthermore, even if you do know examples from every type, it is important to keep in mind that no one manifests all the traits of his or her type. It is probably exceedingly rare for an individual to have traversed the entire Continuum, and even more unusual (if, indeed, it is even possible) to manifest the full range of the traits at one time. Each of us moves along the Levels of Development around a certain “center of gravity,” varying by no more than a few Levels. Or, to put this differently, there is a certain “bandwidth” of Levels within which our own center can be found. (For example, someone might be fundamentally healthy, and the range of his or her behavior might be characterized as being within Levels 2 and Level 5, inclusive. Thus, the person would not manifest Level 1 traits, or, at the opposite end of the Continuum, traits from Levels 6 downward into the extremes of unhealth.) We simply do not act out the entire range of all the potential traits of our type since to do so would mean that we are simultaneously healthy and unhealthy, balanced and neurotic, integrating and disintegrating—an impossibility.

Since no one manifests the full range of traits at any one time, it is worthwhile to discuss the types (and their many variations) with others. It will be interesting to see what traits others discern in someone you are trying to identify and to see if your perceptions agree. When they do not, it will be even more helpful to debate as you search for the best available evidence to determine the person’s type. Remember, however, that the most we can do is discern a person’s type based on the traits they manifest in their long-term behavior. Observation over a period of time (and under a variety of circumstances) is the best way to come to a sound conclusion.

Seventh, it is helpful to know personally the individuals you want to identify, although this is not absolutely necessary. We can identify people at a distance, without direct contact with them—either because they manifest their personalities so clearly or because a great deal of information is available about them, or both.

For example, former President Ronald Reagan seems to be a personality type Nine. He is genial, unassuming, optimistic, and easygoing; he has also sometimes been detached, passive, inattentive, and forgetful. These and many other traits evidenced in Mr. Reagan’s behavior belong to the healthy and average Nine, and so it is reasonable to assume since Mr. Reagan has manifested them so clearly and consistently during his lifetime that he is a Nine. And, of course, while it remains possible that he is not a Nine (and that another type might better explain his personality), given the evidence, the probability is high that Mr. Reagan is a Nine. We can therefore be justified in having some confidence in our diagnosis of him.

The diagnoses of other famous people given in Personality Types have been made on the same basis, as educated guesses, based on reading, intuition, and observation over a period of years (PT, 52-53). While no claims for infallibility have been made, virtually all of the diagnoses seem to have been accurate and were therefore helpful to give an impression of the range of each type, since people of the same type (particularly those with the same wing) are noticeably similar to each other. For instance, it is not difficult to see the similarities between Steven King and Gary Larson, both Fives with Four wings—or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, both Sixes with Seven wings. While we can never be entirely certain about these assessments—some of these exemplars may be markedly different in their private and public lives, although this is unlikely—we can say that the public personas of these individuals serve as excellent examples of the type in question.

Eighth, one of the most important ways to distinguish similar traits of different types is to try to discern the different motivations behind their behavior. Different types can act in virtually identical ways although their motives are quite different.

For instance, every type gets angry, but the anger of Ones is differently expressed from that of every other type and also has different causes. It is essential to try to be aware of underlying motives rather than deal solely with the more superficial behavior.

Ninth, the longer you are familiar with the Enneagram and the more you practice using it, the more perceptive you can become. In the last analysis, however, learning how to identify people depends on knowing how to match the traits of individuals with those of the personality types. Thus, two areas must be learned: first, which traits go with which types, and second, how to recognize those traits in individuals. Even though there are hundreds of traits for each type (and scores of subtle distinctions that must be made), the first area is easier to learn than the second. It is admittedly very difficult to perceive the true behavior, attitudes, and motivations of others, especially since they often do not recognize those things in themselves, much less want them recognized by anyone else. As difficult as it is to become more perceptive, however, it is a skill that is certainly worth acquiring since so much in life is enriched by it.

Even after we have taken into consideration all the difficulties that stem from misinformation or misunderstanding—as well as from the inherent difficulty of the undertaking itself—the fact is that there are legitimate similarities among the personality types. It is precisely these similarities that contribute to mistypings and confusion.

The following comparisons and contrasts are based both on similarities between types and between Levels from one type to another. Thus, some familiarity with the Levels of Development is necessary (PT, 45-47, 421-26, 465-93 and Chapter 4 in this book). Unless stated otherwise, the comparisons and contrasts made in this chapter are between average people of each type.

As you will see, the length of the following comparisons for each mistype varies greatly, from one paragraph to over ten. The reason for this is that some mistypes are so unlikely that little needs to be said (for instance, Types Eight and Nine). On the other hand, other mistypes are so common that we needed to make further distinctions and clarifications (for instance, Types Five and Nine). Please remember that these discussions are not about Type Compatibility, but are about type look-alikes and how to distinguish the types from each other.

This material is adapted from Chapter 6 of the revised second edition of Understanding the Enneagram (Don Riso and Russ Hudson, 2000).