How the Enneagram Helps Reveal Truth Leading to Spiritual Formation and Freedom

By Starla Gooch


The Enneagram is an ancient tool used in spiritual formation. The Enneagram helps us explore the uniqueness of our God Design, or True Self. It also helps to expose the lies we have believed, which create disconnect and feed into False Self narratives. Starla Gooch, Sherpa alumna, explains how the Enneagram helps gain self-knowledge, inviting us to meet a God who is better and more loving that we ever would have guessed. 

Wherever you are in your journey, may the insights Starla shares draw you into the loving invitations of the Spirit to receive courage enabling you to follow where the Spirit leads.


Disconnection in the Message: 

“Come to the altar if you’ll commit to spend 15 minutes every day in Scripture and prayer.” 

The chapel speaker’s call for response at the end of his message was ironic. He had just spent 30-plus minutes exhorting students to embrace grace without law, yet now he was expecting them to sign their names on a spiritual contract, binding them indefinitely to one particular way of communing with God. There was a disconnect between the main content of the message he’d preached and the application point he tagged onto it. 

After spending over a decade as a student and pastor in Christian higher education, I’ve had both the privilege and suffering of sitting through perhaps hundreds of guest preachers in chapel (in addition to normal local church involvement). I assume readers here, through your various experiences of church and preaching, have noticed similar notes to my own observations. Preachers have an uncanny ability to mix their own biases and personalities into their messages and call it “God’s will.” And this only accounts for the people we pay to study Scripture and teach it; let alone the struggle all followers of Jesus face as we try to discern the voice of the Spirit from our own inner thoughts. Sometimes God and I sound very similar.

Understanding that Helps, Hurts, and Takes Work:

One of the most beneficial—and unfortunately painful—gifts of the Enneagram is its ability to help us name and see our false selves. Likely for this chapel speaker, when preparing application points for a sermon, he defaulted to the methodologies of his false self without realizing it conflicted with the message he was preaching. This false self—the strategy he adopted as a child to survive in the world—was built on works, performance, and achievement rather than love and grace. To be clear, these false self strategies are good. They’ve helped us survive to adulthood and often become crucial to our success. But eventually the masks of our false selves begin to crumble, no longer able to sustain the energy it takes to keep up the façade. And in these moments, our tender, quieter true selves have opportunity to be heard and noticed. 

Now we have a choice: we can either work even harder to fix the false self and reinforce its durability. Or we can undergo surgery to slowly remove it, to change our strategy of survival to embrace our true self and a new rhythm of flourishing. The latter journey of embracing and becoming our truer selves—the selves most attuned to and reflective of the Triune God—occurs both passively and actively. God is the One who works His healing and transformative power to make us truly and deeply free, and we cooperate with Him by intentionally releasing our hold on the false self. 

Unfortunately, the false self is often the version of us we like best. It’s the one that others have praised and/or the one we have learned to praise. It’s the face we crafted to fit the image of our ideal. And the true self, which is also the most vulnerable part of us, is the one that embarrassed us. It’s the one that others rejected and so we also began to reject it. And for a while, whether over years or decades, life felt better when our true self was silenced and our false self was captain of the ship.

Because our false self has proven effective in producing a certain kind of life we wanted, its success makes the journey into the true self especially hard. We now must move against the strategies of the false self so we can meet and embrace the freedom and beauty of the true self. And depending on our unique bent, each of these journeys is different. We are not one-size-fits-all. While it’s beautiful and lifegiving to attempt to travel another’s path for a bit, if we follow it too long and forsake our own, it will limit—and may even contaminate—the work the Spirit is wanting to do in us.

Enneagram Type Overview:

Following, you’ll find a brief description about the journey each Enneagram type must take to embrace the true self. For each person’s journey, there is something they must actively resist in their false self to make space for the true self to emerge:

  • Nine:
    • Invitation: Wake up to your desires. 
    • Resist: False peace.
      Nines have survived through self-forgetfulness and abnegation. They have deceived themselves and others into thinking they have virtually no wants, especially strong ones. Thus, when nines wake up to their own desires and learn to begin naming them, this will inevitably cause new friction in their relationships. By embracing desire, they risk disconnection. Yet through disconnection, nines also have the opportunity to experience and learn relational repair as whole selves, staying connected to their wants and desires.
  • Eight:
    • Invitation: Embrace vulnerability. 
    • Resist: Self-protection and control.
      Eights fear vulnerability because of the way it gives others power over them. They believe if they reveal their vulnerability, they’ll appear weak. In their minds, this puts them at risk of being controlled, which is perhaps the most horrible state they could imagine. Yet, deep and intimate connection with others, self, and God is only possible through vulnerability. Eights must forsake their self-protective and controlling habits to embrace vulnerability and learn its true potency and power for a fuller life.
  • Seven:
    • Invitation: Acknowledge and reflect on the pain in your story.
    • Resist: Reframing past trauma (whether ‘big T’ or ‘little t’ traumas) into a positive experience or entertaining story.
      A great gift of sevens is their resilience. They have survived a lot and most others can barely even see the scars. Like another installment from the Mission Impossible series, they’re the movie stars we’re drawn to who just keep going, surviving all odds, and even have a way of starting a new relationship while saving the world. But Mission Impossible is a fantasy world about non-human feats, and similarly are many sevens’ lives. It’s not that their stories aren’t true, but sevens themselves—and others with them—come to believe the glamorized version of events. Integrating the real with the positive-spin is often overwhelming and devastating for sevens. They’re afraid they’ll get stuck in their pain and never escape. When sevens can face their pain and discomfort, they have the opportunity to discover that sadness and pain don’t preclude joy, rather they deepen it.
  • Six:
    Sixes are one of the trickiest types to identify, because each subtype is unique from the others. Each six subtype relies on their relationship with a form of authority to deal with their fear, yet they handle their fear and reliance in a different way. Thus, the path of healing for each 6 may take a higher level of awareness and discernment than for other enneagram types, because the path is not as obvious:

    • Self-preservation Six: 
      • Invitation: Get in touch with your anger and say things “directly instead of being vague.”
      • Resist: Idealizing another person who you think will protect you.
        Perhaps the most overtly phobic of the 6s, this type is highly aware of their vulnerability and seeks “an ‘idealized other’ for protection. … They doubt themselves, and they doubt their doubt.” This type is invited to face their fear head on, to say things “directly instead of being vague,” to get in touch with their anger even if it risks their attachment with the person/people they’re relying on. But beginning to be an autonomous self is terrifying because they may end up—by their perception—bringing more hurt upon themselves and losing their outside protector.
    • Social Six
      • Invitation: Lean into ambiguity and embrace your feelings and instincts.
        Gaining a more integrated sense of self and courage will put them at odds with some of the systems or rules they’ve been relying on. Embracing ambiguity will inevitably cause anxiety, which they have built a life around resisting.
      • Resist: Escaping anxiety through rationalization.
        Social 6s rely on the safety of some sort of outside authority—perhaps rules, an expert, rational thinking, etc. They focus on duty: the expectation of responsibility others, or society, have for them. They invert their feeling of insecurity, anxiety, or doubt by becoming too sure. They have a stronger presence than the self-preservation 6 and may present a type of certainty, as they also tend to follow people who exude a sense of certainty, which puts them at danger of developing alliances with unwise sources who appear wise.
    • Sexual Sixes:
      • Invitation: Embrace vulnerability.
      • Resist: Using versions of “strength (such as physical strength or beauty) to appear intimidating to others.
        Sexual sixes preempt their fear by playing offense. They enhance their sense of strength (often physically–whether through physical strength or beauty) to appear intimidating to others. Similar to 8s, they are invited on the path of healing by relinquishing their weapons of defense/attack and embracing vulnerability. They can nurture inner courage by allowing themselves “to feel pleasure without ambivalence and tenderness without reserve.”
  • Five: 
    • Invitation: Embrace holy detachment by taking risks with things precious to you, choosing to trust God and others to provide rather than relying solely on self.
    • Resist: Hoarding your thoughts, feelings, energy, and possessions.
      Fives have an inner belief that their internal resources for navigating the world are scarce, and so they guard and hoard precious resources like energy and self-disclosure. Journeying toward the true self requires them to speak before their thoughts are fully formed and to expose personal details of their lives, which risks them being perceived as incompetent, useless, or incapable—their greatest fear.
  • Four 
    • Invitation: Embrace equanimity and the temporality of your emotions; feel and share your emotions and be willing to let them go.
    • Resist: The compulsion to over-identify with your feelings, trying to go it alone, or projecting your suffering onto others through comparison.
      Embarking on this journey risks being continually misunderstood and rejected, and for some, they must release their sense of significance and distinction they’ve derived from their feelings via self-soothing in order to receive the significance that only Christ can give.
  • Three  
    • Invitation: Begin to recognize when you are confusing admiration for love, and risk public humiliation by exposing your vulnerabilities. 
    • Resist: Setting goals that build a life of meaningless efficiency, where people know about you but no one knows you personally. Resist the impulse to dismiss less productive (or less “admirable”) people.
      As the most efficient and productive number on the Enneagram, the task-orientation of Threes—which fosters their success in their relational networks—creates an obstacle for their true self to emerge. Instead of hiding their vulnerabilities, their spiritual formation journey requires self-exposure at the risk of public humiliation and being found out as worthless—their greatest fear. Threes must learn to be both intentionally personal and inefficient. Threes excel at pushing their emotions aside in order to get a job completed, and many benefit from using feeling wheels that help them become reacquainted with their emotions. In the same way that they measure their own worth by their ability to achieve, they also value others this way and must learn to notice when they are internally dismissing others on image-based variables, then choose instead to befriend whomever they consider “the least of these.”  Try asking people close to you what they know about you that you don’t know (and don’t quickly disregard their opinion if you disagree).
  • Two  
    • Invitation: Notice and name your own needs without projecting them onto others.
    • Resist: Serving others simply to get your own needs met.
      Twos are invited to shift their focus from striving to serve others to being fully present to themselves. As people who have learned the way to get love is to give it first, their false self shows itself through manipulation and pride, believing that they have less needs than others. As the true self emerges, twos must get in touch with their real needs and share them with others without waiting for others to make the initiative. They must learn to ask for others for help and open themselves to receive love without attaching extra strings. But revealing their real needs and asking for love opens the risk that they may be rejected or found unlovable–their greatest fear.
  • One  
    • Invitation: Embrace the beauty of imperfections and messiness in yourself and others. Explore the wildness of emotions like joy and anger, entrusting the vulnerability of these feelings with God and close friends. 
    • Resist: A sense of over-responsibility to make yourself and the world just and perfect.
      Ones are invited to relinquish their ideals of how their lives and the world should work in order to embrace the beauty, joy, love, and meaning that are available only in a world that’s messy and full of color–rather than in an orderly world of black and white. Ones have spent their lives developing an internal system of rules and control, which help them feel safe, innocent of moral failure, and like a life free from unnecessary pain is possible if they can do everything just right. Thus, the journey to the true self requires intentional dismantling of the One’s belief system, which comes by questioning and breaking many of the unstated rules they previously followed. As the shackles are slowly undone, the One experiences grace and love, which reveal how much their previous systems designed for protection worked instead as a jailhouse of enslavement.

Curiosity and Companionship Lead to Connection:

How might the chapel speaker’s message have concluded if he had recognized his false self and embraced the journey of the true self? Perhaps he would have opened space for questioning and curiosity rather than demanded commitments. He might have invited hearers to ask God where they may be following law over grace and to begin to share what they’re noticing with others. 

Rather than a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts,” the journey into the true self is often directed by curiosity and companionship, by the questions asked and the people who walk with us. We rarely need someone to tell us what to do, but we often need others who offer thoughtful questions with deep empathy, which empowers us to learn self-compassion as we gain self-knowledge. We also meet a God who is better and more loving that we ever would have guessed. 

Wherever you are in your journey, may you hear the loving invitations of the Spirit and receive courage to follow where the Spirit leads.

 1. Beatrice Chestnut, The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge (Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2013), 204.

 2. Chestnut, 203, 204.

 3. Chestnut, 204.

 4. Chestnut, 206.


Starla Gooch was a member of Sherpa Cohort 1 and enjoyed it so much that her mom has recently joined her own cohort. Starla is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and is currently a PhD student in Pastoral Theology and Psychology at Boston University School of Theology. She holds a Master of Theology from Duke Divinity School and a Master of Divinity from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Starla has fifteen years of experience in pastoral ministry with Christian universities, local churches, and in hospice chaplaincy. Most importantly, Starla deeply loves Jesus and is passionate about developing well-formed spiritual leaders who cultivate spiritually transformative communities.