Becoming Your Best Self

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By Leslie Hershberger

Save me from self help. I stopped getting Oprah magazine because the endless articles about self-improvement were missing something. I rarely read business or spiritual self-help books. I fast forward through any article that is about 9 Ways to Mend My Life.

When a friend suggested the Enneagram was self-help I cringed. Self-help often devolves into an inner dialogue of how much we all need to be fixed.

Or, on the other end of the spectrum, self-help can slowly creep across the line into self-absorption that masks as “I am living. my. best. life” or “we are interconnected” (which is ever so true), but downplays real world realities which can invite us into a more expansive, demanding ethic of care which requires we attune ourselves to the world in a way that stretches us beyond any small self that can be helped.

So, what is the Enneagram?

  • Is it a psychological typology?
  • Can it be used in secular organizations without using the word “spiritual?”
  • Can it facilitate spiritual maturity?

Yes, yes and yes. But mostly, it’s a way of seeing how you see the world. It is not a theory. Rather, it came from people who work with people who noticed certain human patterns of behavior. These patterns were rooted in how they paid attention.  In other words, it came from stories. It came from ways people get stuck and can’t seem to touch into something deeper.

That intrigued me. It felt alive. Organic. Breathing.

The Enneagram as a Psychological Typology

When I first learned the Enneagram, I learned it to understand my kids. They were so different from me and when they headed into school years, I began projecting my childhood all over them and ramped up expectations and parented from my own childhood experiences. The Enneagram as a psychological typology saved them (and me).

I learned how fundamentally differently we see the world. A teacher gave me the wise advice to quit trying to change them or “help” them and work on myself. She said when you become aware of your own type patterns, people notice. Something shifts. You. Them. The family system. The workplace.

As a psychological system, the Enneagram is unparalleled as it not only points to the distinct way we actually create our own internal suffering and project it onto others, but it also offers simple practices to live into a more expansive, compassionate view of self and others.

The Enneagram as Tool for Individual and Team Effectiveness in Business

Can the Enneagram be taught in business settings without highlighting the spiritual dimension? Absolutely. I’ve done it countless times and the experience is pretty impressive. I’ve Ginger Lapid-Bogda to thank for help with the translation. She’s one of the premier trainers for use of the Enneagram in business and she says:

“Organizations across the globe are using the Enneagram in a wide variety of business applications, with new uses constantly emerging. Most organizations begin using the Enneagram to increase communication, foster feedback cultures, respond effectively to conflict, and enrich leadership styles and then move to applications such as creating high-performing teams, developing 21st century leadership competencies, enhancing sales performance, creating cultures of commitment and engagement, and more.

"Once individuals identify their styles, they then use the system to understand and improve how they and others function at work. Although having the right skills is an essential ingredient of high-quality job performance, emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to accept and manage oneself and the capability to work effectively with other people – is equally important. In fact, people with high EQ tend to be more successful, more flexible, better learners, and more desirable coworkers.

"According to a Harvard Business Review study (June 2005), employees were asked what mattered most in a coworker: someone who was competent or someone who was easy to work with. Most replied that while they preferred coworkers with both attributes, they would pick someone easy to work with if forced to choose between the two.” (See More)

When I teach the Enneagram in organizations, we are not talking about spiritual development. Rather, we are working consciously with type as relates to increasing self-awareness and fostering cultures of constructive communication, feedback and conflict. In September of this year, I’m going to be partnering with a colleague and we’ll be offering a retreat for young women in business who are moving into leadership roles.

The Enneagram as a Spiritual Tool

When we start using the Enneagram as a spiritual tool, it gets particularly interesting as we are moving into more expansive and the elusive territory of mystery. In order to be clear about terms, I use the word “Spirit” as the animating, dynamic force of the Ground of Being.

Spirit evolves as we evolve.  We are conscious participants and create from the Ground. It is not separate from us and outside of us, but it encompasses more than just us. It is not static and fixed. It is ever changing. It can only be experienced first hand or otherwise it’s a concept. All the world religions use the word “breath” in describing our ability to consciously attune ourselves with this animating Life Force.

Here is where the Enneagram comes in: The Enneagram engenders consciousness. When we increase our awareness of ourselves and others, we evolve in consciousness. That’s the psychology part.

Yet, psychology has its limits. We can get into patterns such as beating ourselves up, over-using the Enneagram to control or manipulate other people or working harder and harder to be better and better and forgetting our connection to the world outside of ourselves. It’s a zero sum game and ultimately quite defeating. It’s back to the limits of self-help and self-absorption.

The Spirit part is in our ability to surrender to something larger than ourselves. Call it what you like. I call it Love. My friend calls it divine energy. Another calls it Presence. I’m less interested in how we define it than in how we engage practices which cultivate spiritual qualities like forgiveness for self and other, compassion, gratitude and ethical care.

With practice, our type loosens its hold on us and we open more fully to this Reality. Each type actually has within it a virtue…virtue is Latin for virs which means life force. As we gradually grow in awareness, we tend to free up stuck energy in our body. The virtue of our type comes online.

For example, I am an Enneagram Seven. My attentional style is scattered. It takes a lot of energy to compulsively come up with new ideas. It takes more energy to be disappointed when they don’t come to fruition because I didn’t maintain steadiness. Spiritual practice cultivates a greater capacity for focus. The virtue of my type, constancy, is what remains when I let go of my addiction to ideas and fantasy. The greater focus, the more energy is available to me to do some decent work in the world.

It’s not an easy walk. It helps listening to the panels as we experience our shared humanity.  We feel less tightly bound in our anxieties, fears, resentments and desires to “even the score.”

The Narrative Tradition offers a communal component. We step into the story of another and listen. We feel less alone. We laugh a lot because we’re in this together. I’ve often noticed my Enneagram friends feel called to serve the wider world in some way. It’s almost as if the freed up energy calls for something beyond our small, individual selves. My friend Susan runs a Prison Project, another friend helps families navigate the morass of immigration while another uses the power of the Enneagram to assist global health agency officials who must collaborate on a day-to-day basis to actualize global programs for the treatment and prevention of HIV-AIDS.  Another cares for her aging mother differently. The difficult situation didn’t change. She did.

No Arrival Point

We aren’t jackhammering our way to enlightenment. We’ve no control how this all will go. There’s no arrival point where we won’t feel anger, ache or fear again.  It’s a walk in awareness. It a deepening and an opening. It’s sometimes unsettling, so patience is helpful.

I continue to be surprised. But know what has struck me more than anything in 15 years of working with the Enneagram? We have a more difficult time receiving authentic kindness, gratitude and love than in giving it. At first pass, this is encouraging as we tend to be a rather generous species.

But it’s kind of sad. It’s like we’re exhaling like crazy without taking the time to pause and receive fully the lives we are living.  No wonder we’re exhausted and feeling empty.

So, maybe it’s about opening ourselves and another. Stepping into our vulnerability. Being a little more real. Letting go. Receiving with gratitude what’s in front of us. A conscious person is the midwife of a new creation.

When used skillfully, the Enneagram helps us be and act like grown ups and the world needs more grown ups.

This isn’t to say self-help and goals are never valuable. I  finished this blog, after all. Classes are scheduled. Workshops are on the books. Clients are booked. The newsletter is finished.

The increasing ability to finish was born in an awareness of my type which scatters easily and loses focus. I am able to be with my grandson with a greater quality of presence. I teach differently than in the past as I am able to more fully available to participants as I trust a Love larger than myself to do the heavy lifting. I’m more aware of the very different stories of each of the people sitting in the room regardless of their type so I’m less inclined to project my assumptions all over them.

So maybe I help myself after all…AND…I can’t do this alone. It is a deeply communal endeavor to grow up. My family, my community and this world draws me outside of any silly notions that I could actually help myself or them without attuning myself to the unpredictable ebb and flow of real life.

My house is still marked by three unfinished projects: the deck is half pressure washed, the photos are almost organized and the bush trimmings are on the front lawn. It’s also marked by a conscious awareness born in a realization that help is received and the opening is to keep saying a “yes” and an “Amen” to life as it continually reveals itself.

Reprinted with permission from Leslie Hershberger’s blog at lesliehershberger.com.

Leslie Hershberger’s work as a facilitator and teacher is an ongoing integration of inner contemplation and compassionate action in the world. She first used the Enneagram to better understand her children, which led her to working with it to deepen spiritual practice and relationships. S


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