4 Ways the Enneagram Is Changing My Life

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I’ve never been overly interested in personality tests, but this one—this one was different. Occasionally I heard friends discuss the Enneagram, speaking “numbers” and “wings” as fluently as a second language. 

Despite my skepticism toward “personality types,” curiosity finally motivated me to complete the personality assessment.

I like the term “assessment” because unlike a test, there is no way to fail; it simply tells you what’s there and what isn’t. As a nurse, I’m well versed in assessing. We assess lung sounds, pain, safety—even poop! 

As a nurse, an assessment is neither a moral ruling nor a categorization algorithm. It’s an observation: this patient has crackles in their lungs; that patient has C. diff. The body’s current strengths and weaknesses are documented, and a plan is formed to move toward optimal health.

Much like a nursing assessment, the Enneagram leaves room for growth and struggle. It helps me identify healthy and unhealthy tendencies so that I can make a plan to move toward health. I won’t get into the complexities of how the Enneagram works, but there’s a brief description below. You can find more at the Enneagram Institute Website.

The Enneagram involves nine personality types, conveniently labeled 1-9. Each person has a dominant personality type (their “number”) and a secondary type (their “wing”), which is one of the numbers directly beside their dominant type. For example, I am a “6,” so my wings could be “5” or “7.” As it turns out, I’m a 6 wing 5. As I’ve studied sixes and other numbers, here’s what I’ve learned.

Enneagram of personality

1. I’m learning not to take harsh comments personally.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve always struggled with taking criticism or hurtful comments personally. Conceptually, I knew other people viewed the world differently than I did, but I didn’t understand what those differences were. 

Here, the Golden Rule failed me. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” left me wondering why genuinely well-meaning people would use harsh language when I made a mistake or make insensitive comments.

Studying the other Enneagram types helped me move from just knowing the fact that others think differently to understanding examples of other perspectives and why some people have “thick skin” and some (like me) don’t.

2. I’m learning change is hard for me because relationships are so important to me.

In a podcast about Enneagram sixes, Sarah Thebarge commented, “Relationships are everything to me.”

This is when something clicked in my brain. Historically, moving cities (or countries) has been extremely difficult for me (see my ebook on reentry for the raw details). I’ve always wondered at the people who seemingly flow seamlessly in and out of cultures, countries, and cities.

Finally, it dawned on me why it’s so difficult or me. Relationships are everything to me. Any time relationships change (church, community, friendships, etc.), I feel lost and out of control. I feel like my life has been ripped from me because to me, relationships are the essence of a meaningful life.

This insight helps me in two ways: it helps me understand why I feel the way I feel (like I’ve been hit by a train every time I move), and it helps me embrace truth (my life is not over when I move).

3. I’m learning to identify fear-based habits.

My therapist often mentions something called my “pain cycle” and “peace cycle.” Essentially, a pain cycle alternates between feeling distress and reacting to that distress with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Those unhealthy reactions spark shame and more distress, and the cycle continues.

In contrast, a peace cycle involves experiencing distress and then recalling truth and acting on those truths. This leads to internal peace and healthy behavior.

As a 6, my main motivation is a desire for safety and security. Armed with this knowledge, I’ve been amazed at how many of my decisions in life are based on how I feel insecure or unsafe, whether physically or emotionally.

Remembering these feelings of insecurity are a major trigger for my pain cycle, I’m learning to cling to truth in those moments instead of numbing in unhealthy ways.

4. I’m learning to have grace for others—and for myself.

Recognizing others’ Enneagram numbers has helped me immensely to understand what I previously labeled quirks, incompetence, or even intentionally disruptive behavior.

Instead of instantly concluding people are being manipulative or immature, I’m learning to think about their personalities and try to understand what’s going on beneath the surface.

I’m not mentally “putting myself in their shoes” or trying to think like someone else—because the truth is I will never be able to see or understand the world like someone else does. 

However, I can learn about the ways other people think, appreciate the things that are important to them, and set boundaries when those relationships start to turn toxic.

Overall, the Enneagram is helping me to appreciate weaknesses and strengths, my own and others’. It’s helping me to celebrate how I will never understand the way my friend Lindsay thinks  or the way Kris makes decisions. It’s turning frustration into interest, condemnation into curiosity.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing I’m learning from the Enneagram is this: not only do I need others, but others need me, too.

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Exposing Ourselves for the Frauds We Are

Sometimes when I write, I feel like a fraud because I know I am not the best writer out there. I am not the best writer or editor or nurse or friend or any other role I find myself in.

Every time I decide to show up in those roles, a tiny (or not so tiny) voice inside of me cries out that I’m a fraud.

“Watch out!” it warns. “If you do that, they’ll know you’re a fraud. If you write something crappy, they’ll know you aren’t a real writer. If you say something you regret in a conversation, they’ll know you aren’t a true friend. You’ll be exposed!”

It’s very hard to ignore. If I keep listening, the voice continues: “Better not hit ‘publish.’ Better file the document away and eliminate the risk of being found out. Better not call that friend back. Better avoid having to tell him you don’t know the answers to any of his questions.”

Other times when I write, I feel like my most authentic self. I don’t feel like a fraud at all. It’s just me, typing words from the bottom of my heart, to you. 

I’m guessing the same back-and-forth switch happens to you sometimes, too. Sometimes feeling like a fraud, sometimes feeling authentic, even if it’s the very same action in both scenarios. When we know where that persistent voice telling us we’re frauds comes from, it’s much easier to combat it. So what makes the difference?

When we dissect the voice telling us we are frauds, most likely we will find out the root of it has to do with shame. In one of her TED talks, Brené Brown explains how shame plays two tapes: ‘not good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are?’ Both try to convince us we are frauds.

Most of the time, buying into the lie that we are frauds only makes sense if we are, in fact, trying to put up a false front for other people.

I only believe I am a fraud as a writer if I am trying to come across as the best blogger ever to my audience. I only believe I am a fraud as a nurse if I believe I am supposed to be a super-nurse. It has a lot to do with what we think we should be or what we want others to think.

A while back, I met a woman who served overseas with the International Mission Board for a couple years. I had recently returned from spending the summer in Cambodia and was struggling with some hard things I had seen in Cambodia. She shared some of her struggles overseas and how she too had worked with a counselor when she re-entered the States. She shared how on one occasion her counselor said, “You feel weak? Good! You are weak!” This woman said she sat in shock at the blunt blow of the statement before dialogue began again, but the point was this:

We are weak. It’s good to realize that.

Because we really like to put up a front that we’re strong.

If we are brave, we will admit this truth to ourselves. If we are wise, we will admit it to others as well. We can choose not to admit it to others, but often outside forces unexpectedly reveal that we are not who we say (or want others to believe) we are, generally ending in embarrassment and a deeper shame spiral. Embracing truth, however, leads to freedom—and also just to feeling better in general because it means we can be our authentic selves.

I am a writer. I am not the best. Now that we have that out of the way, we can get down to what’s really on my heart that I want to communicate to you.

I am a nurse. I am not the smartest, most experienced healthcare provider there is. Now that we have that out of the way, we can connect and address what you need most right now.

I am a friend. I am not perfect, and I often forget birthdays. Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to deeper things—the imperfections that make us need friends and community in the first place.

That is the inner fraud exposed. And when the fraud is exposed…suddenly we are not frauds any longer. We are back to our authentic selves, speaking from the bottom of our hearts, one to another.

And that's a much better place to be.

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The Nurse Who Lost Her Super

At my alma mater, it’s a tradition for each graduating nursing class to design a t-shirt and wear it to the nursing convocation their last semester. The shirt my graduating class designed had the Superman logo on it, except with “RN” in place of “S.” Underneath the logo it said, “What’s your superpower?”

We all laughed and joked about how nursing was a superpower. Secretly we believed it was true — it took extraordinary work, perseverance, and the grace of God to get through the nursing program. 

A few weeks ago, I sat in my bed contemplating an important realization and confession: I am a nurse. And I am not a superhero.

When I started my job, I had healthy expectations: I would have questions — a lot of them — and I would struggle at first, and I would have grace on myself, and things would eventually get better.

But somewhere along the way, perfectionism got the better of me. My desire to be a “good nurse” morphed into a desire to be a perfect nurse. I began to think it was possible not to forget a single thing in a day, for all my patients to like me, to be on top of things all day long. I wanted to be a perfect nurse. I wanted to be a superhero.

Outside of the hospital, I have been on a journey away from finding my worth in performance (the essence of perfectionism) to finding worth in who I am. I learned the reason I grieved so deeply for patients I saw in Cambodia (patients whose names I didn't even know) was that I believed they had inherent worth and value just because they were human beings; they were God’s creation. Through this I came to understand that I, too, have inherent worth and value for the same simple reason. This brought freedom from striving for worth and allowed me to embrace imperfections, grace, and Gospel anew.

Yet in the hospital setting, as stress set in, I lost track of my healthy desire to be a good nurse and bought into the alluring illusion of perfectionism once again. I began to believe it was possible to be a perfect nurse if I just tried hard enough or had enough experience. Of course, this led to a great big let-down when I failed to live up to my superhero standards. Things happened that I didn’t want to happen, things both under and out of my control. Family members got angry, patients fell, charting was delayed, meds were given late — just to name a few.

Thus I asked this question: if I could not be a super nurse or a superhero, then what was I as a nurse?

Here’s the definition I came up with: I am a human helping other humans.

I am no better than the sick patient lying in the hospital bed. I have no magical capabilities due to completing nursing school. I don’t have a 64 gig memory stick in my head to keep track of all the things I’m doing or am asked to do (maybe it would take 128 gigs, anyway). I forget things. I make mistakes. I say things I shouldn’t, or maybe I don’t say things I should. I have to fight to maintain patience or keep my cool. I give all I can, and sometimes that isn’t enough.

To my patients, I’m sorry when I fail you. That isn’t fair to you.

To my fellow nurses, we have unrealistic expectations set up for us from many different sources. In a way, we encourage these unrealistic expectations. We put “I’m a nurse. What’s your superpower?” on mugs and t-shirts and all kinds of nursing paraphernalia. We glorify nursing. I’m not talking about appreciating nursing; I’m talking about taking such pride in our work that we begin to believe that we are or should be more capable and intelligent than non-nurses.

Though this makes us feel special and important and needed, when we buy into the dangerous lie that we have superpowers, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

We may not even recognize this disappointment, but it steadily adds to the detrimental cycle of striving for worth. As nurses, we face massive expectations from those around us. Why add to them and sabotage our profession by becoming the frontline advocates for enforcing those unrealistic expectations upon ourselves? 

Are our actions important? Absolutely. Are there things we do that no one will ever understand except other nurses? Yes. Does what we do at work define who we are as people? No.

Though this post is primarily about nursing, the premise is true for other professions and roles. When we believe we can be perfect super-nurses or super-teachers or super-writers or super-______ (fill in the blank), we are guaranteed only one thing: failure.

When we identify ourselves as our profession before identifying ourselves as humans, we are bound to fall. As someone recently reminded me, we are human beings, not human doings.

When we identify first as humans rather than as nurses/accountants/managers/etc., we gain permission to fail and make mistakes and learn and grow and be enough all in the midst of our imperfections. Isn’t that the best kind of nurse, the best kind of professional? The one who isn’t perfect but who is always learning and improving?

So, let’s not be superheroes. Let’s not pretend we’re superheroes. Let’s not spend our lives striving to achieve superhero status. Let’s be humans. And let’s help other humans the best we can.


What are some unrealistic expectations you face on a regular basis?

How do you respond to these expectations?

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