Sacred Sundays: Where Do Our Personalities Come From?

Written by 

Where do our personalities come from? What function do they serve? And what limitations do they impose?

book cover of the Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram, by Sandra MaitriIn her book The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram, Sandra Maitri offers some answers. Here's a condensation.


We come into this world at one with Being, with Essence (anyone thinking "pre/trans fallacy," feel free to voice your disagreement in the comments, but it'd be a good idea to read Maitri's book first - I don't pretend to have mastered her complex and nuanced ideas, much less to have given a complete explanation of them in this brief article).


We're born predisposed to develop one personality type. We're not exclusively the product of our environment, although environment is very important.


In this early, undifferentiated state, a part of us understands - on a preverbal level - an essential truth, specific to our type. These truths are called the Holy Ideas. 


Over the course of our first four years, we lose contact with Being. It's unclear as to why. But this loss can play out for the rest of our lives. 


This makes us see ourselves as distinct from Being. Separate. Lacking something. Our personality develops to cope with this loss, fashioning itself around its conception of Being, referred to as that type's idealized Aspect. Of course, we get it wrong. And our limited view of reality crystallizes into a fixed belief, specific to our Enneagram type. This is known as our type's fixation. 


a man worryingFor example, an Enneagram Six's fixation is doubt, worry, anxiety. Sixes look for and idealize the feeling of being supported. They'll strive to feel the inner solidity they lack, displaying rebellious or defensive behaviour, by rushing toward their fears, or by endlessly playing out worst-case scenarios. But no matter how many brave things a Six does, she'll still feel that inner uncertainty. Only contacting the depths of who they really are will give Sixes that feeling of certainty and direction that seems to evade them so relentlessly.


The Holy Idea for Sixes is that Being is our inner foundation, our true support. Lacking this, life seems full of threats and looming disasters. As Maitri says,


"If we knew that we had this inner foundation, we would experience a sense of support, confidence and courage - the qualities of the idealized Aspect. So, the Sixes' attempt to feel courageous and fearless is an attempt to embody experientially what the Holy Idea of Point Six refers to: the fact that Being is what supports our existence."


Each type does this, enacting and embodying their type's idealized Aspect, believing if they did such and such, if they were like so, they'd be complete. Maitri says,


"This state of ego deficiency, which can feel like a sense of being valueless, worthless, small and weak, of feeling complete helplessness, impotent, inadequate, ineffective, and suspended without support, forms the deepest layer and therefore the deepest experience of the personality. It cannot be otherwise, since the personality is a sense of self - lacking its ground - Essence - and so can only feel deficient."

a cartoon man writing the word "personality" on a big board

As long as we seek fulfillment through action, through accomplishment, through attainment of the image and qualities we value, we'll keep right on scrambling in our personal hamster wheel, wondering why we aren't getting anywhere. But the Being we seek is already within us, and all around us. It never left. And that subtle and simple experience of genuinely realizing this allows us to transcend the trappings of our personalities and embody the Holy Idea some part of us knew, deep down, was with us the whole time.

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Leah Adams Tuesday, 20 March 2012 03:57 posted by Leah Adams

    It is an interesting idea. Since we speak about the Enneagram often, my children want to know what type they are. I have a pretty clear sense my eldest is a 1, like me and my mother but my 9 yr old son is a mystery. I tell him he is too young, still unformed. Maybe I don't know him very well, or he is highly evolved.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 20 March 2012 16:54 posted by TJ Dawe

    Richard Rohr, in his book on the Enneagram, says a person is most clearly their type at age twenty. I can imagine all sorts of reasons why a child might not be a blatant exemplar of a type.

    I'm a Four, inclined away from the crowd. And yet as a kid I loved Coca-Cola, and resented Pepsi for trying to belittle them in their commercials. I loved McDonald's, and resented Burger King for doing the same. I loved network television, and even though I wasn't allowed to watch much of it, read the TV listings from start to finish every week, getting at least that much out of what was on offer to the masses, wishing I could partake.

    This is, on the surface, hard to square with my Enneagram type, but I was a kid, and caught up, quite naturally, in the attachment drives of the young. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be a part of the big world.

    By the time I was twenty, I'd swung quite radically into Four-ish alienation. Eating McDonald's was unthinkable, since I was a vegetarian by then - in itself a way of being different from the masses. I'd never have ordered a coke - I was pretty faithful to cranberry juice. And if roommates were watching TV, I'd leave the room in a huff, and go feel separate and superior in my room.

    I was certainly a Four back when I when I was pining for McDonald's, Coke and episodes of Knight Rider, but I hadn't developed enough independence and enough of a sense of myself to behave in a way that's easily identifiable as my type.

  • Comment Link Gregor Bingham Wednesday, 21 March 2012 18:05 posted by Gregor Bingham

    I work with the Enneagram as a coach, and I was most impressed by this idea of the 'essence' when I went to a weekend workshop by Russ Hudson on the spiritual dimension, the holy truths of the Enneagram. It gave me a way into the Ennegram, like 'oh that's why'! Which then brings in the other aspect of Enneagram work, if it wash't complex enough, that we all have many flavours of types within us. We have multiple sins! :-)
    I don;t think too much about child personalty typology, there is way too much brain development in the teenage years for it to be too specific. But I like the idea of bringing into focus our brains activity, and relating that to what we do to get reward, to cope, to relate etc. This really helps me understand what isn't working and what is from a brain perspective. Who are we right now when we are 'out of essence'? Reptilian? Mammalian? Cortex? Reactive in what way? What needs are not being met? Are we scattered/focused on past and future?
    All of these point to the whole concept of 'getting out of our interpretations', back to essence. The ground of being, or the ground of being OK.
    Russ says this succinctly here (and if you get the chance and are inspired by the Enneagram, Russ's workshop is something else - he doesn't work from notes and he is engaging for the whole experience in a very grounded and present way).

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 21 March 2012 20:07 posted by TJ Dawe

    Gregor, I agree about Russ's workshops - and thanks for that clip - he says a great deal in a little more than a minute. I took part one training with Russ as head teacher last Spring, and I'm still unpacking a great deal of what I learned. And I recommend his workshops to anyone, whether you plan on using the Enneagram in a business or therapeutic capacity or not. It's fascinating stuff, about our relationship with the divine, and why we do the things we do, why our vision is clouded in the particular ways it is. And what we can do about it.

    In the training, Russ spoke about the directions of integration and disintegration, making connections that were entirely new to me, and to my knowledge weren't talked about in this way in any of the books he co-authored. Lynda Roberts, one of the other teachers, recommended the Sandra Maitri book from which I drew this piece, and I've found many of the ideas Russ discussed in that book. It's rapidly becoming one of my favourite books on the subject, and I look forward to continually writing about it on various Sacred Sundays, thus helping imprint a few of its ideas that much more on my consciousness. And spreading them to others as well.

  • Comment Link Gregor Bingham Thursday, 22 March 2012 18:12 posted by Gregor Bingham

    TJ, I look forward to more sunday discussion around this, it's fascinating and a very effective tool for opening up our perspectives on ourselves and others... where all the hard work really is!

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 22 March 2012 20:55 posted by TJ Dawe

    Gregor - absolutely. One of the ways the Enneagram really hooked me was that it prompted me to see from different perspectives, and respect different perspectives, even those that seemed radically different from my own.

    Something I forgot to mention is that I recently posted an article that's entirely an extrapolation of something Russ Hudson said at the Part One training, in relation to Fives: that he can count on one hand the number of people he knows who can "actually think" - In the article I quote from a DVD set of Russ speaking at the conference with Richard Rohr, called Laughing and Weeping. I highly recommend this. You see Russ at his Russiest. Richard Rohr has plenty of great stuff to impart as well.

  • Comment Link Gregor Bingham Friday, 23 March 2012 23:38 posted by Gregor Bingham

    TJ - Apparently Ken Wilber is a five, so I can see what he means. Oh, and I'm a five too! :-)
    As to your previous article, which I remember enjoying, it reminded me of one thing the Jungian's believe strongly in, as Louise Von Franz said, is 'learning to live with uncertainty'. This was explained further by my analyst as the capacity to live with a dilemma where you neither fixate on the issue working out one way, or another way. e.g.. I will get this woman I want, or, I will never get this woman I want. This tension of the opposites is, in their mind, the antidote to reaction to fear and complex, and having gone through it I can agree. Though its a very painful process as there is no safety net of ignorance or solution. Just the mental alchemical process of some final aha. The bliss of killing the dragon by suffocating it slowly...

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 26 March 2012 18:45 posted by TJ Dawe

    Gregor - I'm a Four with a very strong Five wing. Wilber describes himself as "having a lot of Five qualities" in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, but stops short of actually saying he's a Five! My friend Jill, who also did the Part One training, asked Russ Hudson about Wilber, and Russ actually believes he's a Seven. the synthesizer of many disparate fields of knowledge. tons of energy. And in the interviews he's constantly cracking jokes - not that Fives aren't funny. But if he is a Seven, he's got plenty of Seven going to Five action going on...

    Learning to live with uncertainty - that's excellent. There's the semblance of safety in certainty, in absolutes. And being in that state can stave off the terror of actually being Present, of seeing what is, beyond the filter of the personality, of the past, of reacting in the moment to what's really happening, to not attaching to outcomes. For some reason, those things terrify our personalities.

  • Comment Link Jeff Bellsey Monday, 26 March 2012 19:06 posted by Jeff Bellsey

    One of the beautiful things about the Riso/Hudson Enneagram studies (and I also did their Part One week-long training) is their descriptions of level one of each type, or its liberated state. They don't go into Holy Ideas in that course, but they do open up some exciting and compelling descriptions of the transformed experience of each personality type after the ego's distortions have been removed.

    For instance, a liberated Five (dear to my own heart :) would not be seeking knowledge, which is how we think we will understand reality. Even the desire to understand reality is born of the ego's conviction that we are separate; freed of that illusion, a liberated Five would be in direct contact with reality, which means in profound relationship with other people. Rather than avoiding relationship (because you're distracting me from figuring it all out), a liberated Five is transparent and fully accessible, wise and intuitive (rather than filled with abstract knowledge), and inherently compassionate. The detached and cold quality that many Fives have is the ego's distortion of the Five's true gift: non-attachment.

    Buddha. He's my homie :)

    By the way, this discussion is the essential part 2 of Chris' piece on the Authentic vs. Unique Self ( Are the differences between us all ego? How would enlightened people differ? In my own view (and it seems to be borne out by the data), enlightenment simply frees up the natural gifts of your TYPE. So the hunt for uniqueness is in fact more an issue of freedom from ego, removal of the ego's grip on the natural drive that propels us. Nothing unique needs to be "sought" or "created" -- it's already there, just masked by your insistence on being separate.

    It's not hard to see the differences between the Buddha, Ammachi, Adyashanti, Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama, Rumi. Are these differences an issue of different levels of development, as some teachers would propose? Or are the differences sourced in different personality (Enneagram) types -- not our ego types, but the unfettered and natural differences that arise before our ego twists them into knots?

    I find it interesting when people describe the Enneagram as a map of what you're *not*. It's a true statement, but incomplete; it's also a map of what you can be at your very best.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 27 March 2012 00:47 posted by TJ Dawe

    Jeff, your description of a liberated Five paints a good picture of Russ. He might have been different if I'd met him outside of Enneagram training, but I found him completely accessible, warm, funny, open, willing to answer any question and listen as well. And yet he also had the Five's love of his chosen subject, and it's quite clear he's done plenty of intense research on it and maintains a passion to keep knowing more.

    And thanks for this: "it's also a map of what you can be at your best" - the dynamic nature of the types is a central part of the Riso/Hudson approach, and looking at a type through the levels, it's clear how much variation there is within a type. People at different levels of health might be very difficult to identify as being the same type.

    This element, in fact, is one of the things that really drew me to the Enneagram. In the descriptions of my type at the various levels I could see where I'd been, where I was right at that point reading the book, and where I could be. If the Enneagram comes into a person's life right when they're ready for it, it can be the real kick in the ass toward growth they need.

  • Comment Link Gregor Bingham Thursday, 29 March 2012 02:09 posted by Gregor Bingham

    Hey Jeff,
    I'm smoking what you're rollin'!
    The territory of overcoming the ego's obstacles is such a huge relief, and release of energy, all the possibilities seem to be more manifest and less abstract these days. It is an usual place to say the least.

  • Comment Link Erin Thursday, 05 July 2012 05:48 posted by Erin

    Russ Hudson is a Five?? So is Don, isn't he? I'm thinking of taking the Part 1 Training next month, so this discussion is helpful. I wonder if Maitri is a Four. Do you guys know?

    I'm starting an Enneagram consulting practice, but after weeks of writing and contemplating each type, I have just realized tonight that each description I've painstakingly written is of the negative, diparaging side of each number. I need to get more in touch with the positives of each type! Although I do have a certain amount of cynicism about the positive traits of each number- if they're all foils for our desperate situation as beings separated from Essence, I'm struggling with why I should feel compelled to write glowing reports of a Two as gracious and giving and a One as responsible and hard-working, for example, when we can clearly see their dubious motives for what they are.

    On another note, as a Four myself, I find that the Enneagram serves the healthy purpose of helping me understand myself at my deepest level, which is what I crave, but I am finding recently that I'm also using it as a weapon. I think... I mean, I have told people before that the highest compliment I know how to pay them is to try and understand them, and I believe that to be at least half true, but I do believe the insatiable need I have to type everyone also comes from my envy; it's my way of arming myself against the people who threaten me... those who are close enough that they could hurt me. If I can find their weakness, I can feel more comfortable about myself. (although not superior, but perhaps more superior in my level of development.) I'm just finding that I'm using whatever insight I can get into my loved ones' psyches as protection, something I'm quietly storing away for later. HELP! Will Part 1 training help me wield this powerful system with a bit more grace??? and detached kindness? I heard Fours can be mean and I can attest to that... Don't want to be that way though.

  • Comment Link Lindsay Robertson Thursday, 05 July 2012 07:13 posted by Lindsay Robertson

    Hi Erin, thanks for joining the conversation.

    I highly recommend the Part 1 training. It’s valuable to anyone, but if you’re starting an Enneagram consulting practice, it’s invaluable. Russ Hudson was still teaching Part 1 (he only does Part 2 and 3 now) when I took it. It’s hard to imagine it without him, but all the teachers are great. It’s very comprehensive, and your questions will be answered.

    I wonder if it would be helpful for you to think of the Types as having healthy or unhealthy behaviors, instead of positive and negative aspects? Something that’s taught in depth at Part 1, are the ‘Levels of Health’ for each type. I found it really helped to illuminate the true essential gifts of each type and what that looks like when we’re at our best, and how is hindered and overcompensated for, when we’re at our worst.

    Russ said that ‘instead of saying, I’m a Type Five, it more accurate to say, I’m a person with a Type Five personality”. Our personalities/types/egos are constructed coping mechanisms that are separate from our true Essence, and our divine gifts. These are always there, they don’t move or change. We don’t earn or deserve them, they’re essentially, just there. Our “Health” is how present, or not present, we are to our Essence and gifts.

    So yes, like you said, a Two can be gracious and giving, and a Ones can be responsible and hard-working, while their motives are unhealthy. A Two can be giving and doing for people in an attempt to feel loved and needed, and a One can be highly productive for a good cause, while feeling shamefully imperfect and not good enough. But a healthy/present Two can genuinely intuit or anticipate what someone actually needs and provide it unselfishly. A healthy/present One is impartial and can lead people to real change and real good in the world.

    I hope this helps.

    What you described does indeed sound like it could be the protective, envious side of the Four. I don’t really know specifically what to suggest for you, (and I’m Four too). I found that a deep understanding of my personality was helpful, and necessary, but the Enneagram also gave me the language and ability to express myself in way that allowed me to feel more understood. Maybe instead of using the Enneagram as way to type your friends and family so that you know something they don’t, see if you can find a way to use it to develop some real understanding between each other. Also, some of that stuff you described does sound a bit like the Five, and the Six actually. Maybe take those shoes for a walk and see if it helps!

    Good luck, and I really hope you make it to the training. If you do, please report back on your experience.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 05 July 2012 19:45 posted by TJ Dawe

    Don Riso is actually a Four - with a Five wing. Russ is a Five with a Four wing. Or, as Lindsay mentioned, a person with a Five personality.

    And I second Lindsay's recommendation of taking the Riso-Hudson Part 1 training. The Levels of Health are the major focus of it, and (god, Lindsay said everything already), that addresses so much of what you're wondering about.

    A big danger with describing each type in primarily, or exclusively, negative terms, is that many people won't see themselves in such a picture. Certain types are more disposed to see themselves only in a positive light, and can get turned off of the Enneagram if it tells them something about themselves they don't want to hear, or that doesn't fit their self-concept. The Enneagram profiles I've read generally describe people at the average level (which makes sense, given that most of us are at the Average level), which entails an equal measure of healthy and unhealthy characteristics. Riso/Hudson's focus on Levels of Health is a very important part of the picture, since a Healthy, balanced Two (or any other type) might seem to have nothing in common with an unhealthy, compulsive Two.

    Some other books I'd recommend:

    -Sandra Maitri's book, referenced in this article. She's got a second one as well: The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues: Finding the Way Home. This book has a big focus of helping us identify with all of the types. She's an excellent writer, and very insightful.

    -The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. Richard Rohr co-facilitated a workshop retreat with Russ Hudson called Laughing and Weeping, and there are DVDs of this available in the Enneagram Institute's store, and the lectures Rohr and Hudson give elucidate the true purpose of looking into the Enneagram better than any I've ever encountered.

    -The Enneagram, by Helen Palmer - she's one of the leading authorities on the subject, and very insightful.

    -Understanding the Enneagram, by Riso & Hudson. This is a book Lindsay and I frequently use to enrich our understanding.

    With all of the books I've read, with all of the conversations I've had, and with the Part 1 training under my belt, I'm continually surprised by how much more there is to learn. The layers get deeper and richer the more I look into the subject. It's a lifelong pursuit, and certainly worth taking, if you're drawn to it, as you seem to be. And there's a great deal to be gained from in person interaction, at any kind of training, and at workshops. Tremendous amounts are transmitted in person that don't come across in print. 

  • Comment Link Erin Monday, 30 July 2012 06:23 posted by Erin

    Hi TJ and Lindsay, thanks for your replies. I signed up for the Part 1 training. I'm sure it'll be good!

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions