I chose my university major hoping, among other things, to find out more about myself. The innovative Renaissance College leadership program at the University of New Brunswick took place over the course of three years housed inside a teal Victorian mansion. Instead of a fourth year, students would study over two summers, first interning somewhere within Canada and the second, internationally.
School-year classes spanned a breadth of interdisciplinary topics, from economic problem solving to world religions. The program’s crown jewel was the portfolio, a sort of yearly thesis in which students compiled and reflected intensely on their learning. Clearly, this was a program that offered tools and space for participants to get to know their inner world. As an 18-year-old embarking on the challenge of independent living for the first time, I wanted that freedom and knowledge so badly.
I loved our “madcap” interactive college just as much as I’d expected to. The greatest wisdom I discovered came not from the program, but from the people. One day I sat down for supper with a violist friend and her orchestra buddy, a budding linguist I’d met in a French class. My cohort was fresh out of a Myers-Briggs workshop, and I brimmed with enthusiasm from learning all this stuff about how people worked. “I know this system called the Enneagram,” the linguist piped up. “It tells you how you hurt yourself.”
Oh, great, I thought. The Myers-Briggs had spoken to my strengths and left everyone feeling great about themselves. My friend was not giving this new system a tempting sales pitch. But the Enneagram went into great depth, and I borrowed a book from him to learn more. I found my unflattering match in Type Four, the Individualist: sensitive, withdrawn, temperamental, and prone to fantasizing.
I pictured a gangly teenager in black sprawled out on his bed dreaming of flying unicorns. The image made me cringe. Increasingly, as I watched my behavior over the next few days, I saw the truth in it.
Enneagram types aren’t all doom and gloom. At our best, us Fours are creative and emotionally honest, able to express deep truths about being human--qualities my loved ones recognized in me on good days. Other types’ gifts include loyalty, altruism, efficiency, mediation, and a whole spectrum of traits that make people wonderful.
But much of the system’s usefulness comes in its ability to illuminate the ways we hold ourselves back. Clinging to self-concepts that protected us when we were little, we fall into familiar, inhibiting patterns of being and overlook other possibilities. Put more darkly, our Dr. Jekyll personas have a Mr. Hyde side.
My Mr. Hyde, I discovered, was a downer. It didn’t want to go to that party tonight—there would be too many people, talking and tiring me out. I noticed my reluctance. My knee-jerk reaction was usually “No,” but what else would I do—sit on the bed and daydream about unicorns?
I went to that party. Halfway through, I was tired out from the loud, extroverted setting. Instead of heading glumly home, I told a friend, who pulled out a notebook and colored pencils for me. I sat in a corner and drew. Others came up and asked about the drawings. Instead of shutting myself off, I made new friends that night.
As college went on, I seized opportunities to live in the Canadian North and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. I learned more about the Enneagram, eventually getting certified to teach workshops and even writing a book about it. But my decision to go to that party stands out as a personal turning point.
For the first time, I recognized what I was doing and made a different choice. I began the long journey of befriending my inner Mr. Hyde and discovering the strengths he was hiding from me. As I saw myself more clearly, the world grew clearer, too.
By: Melanie Bell
Melanie Bell offers writing coaching, editing, and personal growth workshops through InspireEnvisioning.com. She is the coauthor of a best-selling nonfiction book, The Modern Enneagram. Her creative work has appeared in Cicada, xoJane, Autostraddle, Grain, and various other publications. She loves crafting fantasy worlds, exploring the real one, and reading in her pajamas. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.