In psychology, there persists an almost 200-year debate about the influence of “nature” and “nurture” on a person’s development: to what extent are you pre-programmed, and to what extent are you unbounded potential?
The nature camp asserts that a person’s genes are remarkably influential, perhaps even deterministic of a person’s temperament, preferences, behaviors, and life outcomes. The nurture camp believes that people are malleable, especially in their early childhood years, via the presence and impact of their parents and through lived personal experiences. Most reasonable psychologists seem to agree that both nature and nurture play a significant role in a person’s development.*
The Enneagram likewise walks a middle path. It postulates that by an early age, you become “you,” embedded with certain hardwiring that lasts a lifetime: your demeanor, focuses, fears, and behaviors become relatively consistent.** The Enneagram accounts for the everlasting features of one’s character, giving rise to a useful, predictive, and informative model for how people think and behave.
No personality system in existence can explain the full cocktail of environmental factors that influence your behavior (What percent of it is your culture? Your diet? Today’s weather?), so instead the Enneagram focuses on what we can know: those core parts of you; your blueprint.
Your Enneagram type doesn’t change over time, because the Enneagram system purposefully categorizes people based on personality traits that are immutable. The Big Five , the most famous personality taxonomy in psychology, is governed similarly, classifying people via traits like extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, which remain consistent throughout a person’s life. It’s just the way the system works.
You could of course create a typing methodology that buckets people by job title or “what type of oatmeal are you” (hey, BuzzFeed!), but in order to create a valid system that clearly distinguishes between people across time, it’s necessary to minimize fuzzy features that people can change on a whim. Hence, the Enneagram is built around nine types whose distinct traits remain fundamental to who they are, from a frisky toddler up until they’re old maids.
People undoubtedly change over the course of their lifetimes. You are a vastly different person than you were when you were three years old.*** Over years or even decades, you’ve grown physically and mentally. You’ve become older and likely wiser, received some form of education, endured hardship, experienced joy, and built and bowed out of various relationships. All of these things have shaped, molded, and perhaps even battery-rammed you into a vastly different version of yourself.
There is a strong element of truth to the statement that people grow and change—because in certain ways, they do. The Enneagram allows for flexibility in how Enneagram types can change within the parameters of their own type. These evolutions can be explained by changes in someone’s 1) growth, 2) instinct, 3) wing, and 4) experiences.
The Enneagram theory of “growth” (or “levels of development”) posits that each person is distinguishable not only by their type, but also by their level of psychological health. A person will look markedly different when they’re feeling free, open-hearted, and self-confident, versus when they’re insecure, un-self-aware, or stressed.
All of us have this variance within us. In high health, your type’s best traits tend to reveal themselves: you’re more comfortable in your own skin, the best, most self-aware (and usually, most pleasant to be around) version of yourself. In low health, your insecurities and negative behavioral patterns reveal themselves more often, disrupting your well-being and that of your surroundings.
For example, Eights in low health tend to be dominating and vengeful, while in high health they’re self-confident and compassionate. Your level of health can change throughout your life, unveiling a modified version of yourself that exhibits massive internal and external changes.
Within the Enneagram framework, every person possesses a unique stack-ranking of three “instincts,” or biological drives:
- The Self-Preservation instinct is generally focused on survival, the body, the home, material possessions, safety, and protecting one’s resources.
- The Relational instinct is generally focused on deep connections with one person or small groups, feeling intensity, exuding energy, cultivating a sense of aliveness, seeking pleasure, and expressing passion.
- The Social instinct is generally focused on group activities and inclusion, upholding and expressing important values, acting responsibly, engaging others, building bonds, and finding commonalities.
You always have all three instincts, but they tend to fall into a hierarchy where one is dominant, another is neutral, and the last is somewhat of a blind spot. Unlike your base type, your instincts can and often do change based on your present circumstances, leading to noticeable shifts in psyche and behavior.
A One with a Self-Preservation instinct may prioritize a steady career, quiet time by themselves, and comfortable routines, while a One with a Relational instinct may have a stronger desire to fight for a cause, meet new people, and participate in intense experiences. Same person, vastly different priorities.
Every Enneagram type has a wing, represented by one of the numbers adjacent to your type. A Five, for example, will have either a Four wing (5w4) or a Six wing (5w6) and adopt some of the personality traits of their wing. 5w4s tend to be more imaginative and detached than 5w6s, who tend to be more observant and anxious. Your wing does not change over time, but some Enneagram scholars believe that the relative influence of your wing does.
For example, a Nine with an Eight wing (9w8) may feel that their Eight wing is strong at certain periods in their life, almost as if they’re 51% Nine and 49% Eight. At other times, they may feel like their wing plays almost no role (perhaps 99% Nine and 1% Eight). As the influence of their wing slowly fluctuates, so too will their needs and comportment, perhaps evidenced by a higher/lower desire for independence, comfort-seeking, and connecting.
Your experiences impact who you are and who you will become. Being raised by domineering parents can affect your self-esteem and attachment style . Growing up in poverty can add a layer of grit to your character, and facilitate a deep sense of gratitude when you make it out. Owning pets can boost your empathy. Quitting your corporate job, moving to Europe, and building an Enneagram app can open your eyes to limitless possibilities.
You can, and should, change for the better as you age; it’s one of the most rewarding fights there is. Consciously choosing the people that enter your life, the information that enters your brain, and the food that enters your body can nurture you on your path to self-actualization.
So can your Enneagram type change over time? No. Your type stays static. Once a Four—with your unique desires, fears, and tendencies—always a Four. The Enneagram is meant to be a typing methodology with inherent consistency.
Within the rough outline of who you are, though, the Enneagram allows for all sorts of different coloring to take place; you may even add entirely new textures. Engaging in personal growth work;
**** developing all three of your instincts; balancing your wings; and living your unique life can lead to a significant metamorphosis. As novelist James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”