By Cam Lawrence
Photo Courtesy of susanolesek.com
On March 1, I Zoomed with Enneagram teacher and consultant Susan Olesek. As someone highly interested in Enneagram, I wanted to ask some questions of an expert.
Susan Olesek founded the Enneagram Prison Project, which focuses on rehabilitation with those who have been incarcerated by helping them navigate their emotional, behavioral, and cognitive patterns using the Enneagram. She is an Enneagram consultant and spends time with clients trying to help them deeply reflect on themselves. Olesek has also given a TedxTalk, which I highly recommend watching. Currently living in Los Gatos, California, Olesek has graduated from Occidental College and been certified by two Enneagram schools (The Narrative Enneagram and The Enneagram Institute), qualifying her as an Enneagram specialist.
This is what she said:
What is the Enneagram, essentially?
“It's like a map. A way of making sense of human behavior. … It’s just a very incisive, accurate system that helps to illustrate these three different areas: the patterns of thinking, our cognition, our ways that we tend to feel, and the things we find ourselves doing. Those three things come together in a pattern that we call our personalities, and the Enneagram suggests there are nine of them.”
Why use the Enneagram?
“I feel like the people who can use the Enneagram the most are the people who are looking for a way to apply it. ... I feel like the way the Enneagram has the most applicability is when the person is most willing to receive what it has to point them towards.”
How is our Enneagram (or personality) formed?
“We all come into the world with an essence, or essential quality. How we develop our personality is a combination of nature and nurture. ... If our nurture receives us with a lot of presence, wonder, attunement, and love, then we get the impression that we [are loved]. So, we keep our hearts open, and we show up more fully living into that essential quality for the rest of our days. But for most people childhood doesn’t go perfectly. Our early childhood experiences are the building blocks of those personality structures.”
What is the connection between trauma and personality?
“The more traumatic experiences we had, the more armor (personality) we need. We need that personality structure to hold us and defend ourselves. We need secure attachment with our caretakers as a precursor to form a secure attachment to something within ourselves, whether that’s from attachments or relationships… You can have your happy childhood and still end up with a personality. Being willing to stand in the parts that were dark allows us to see where we got defended, where we didn’t get everything we needed or were hoping for … That’s the whole thing about the Enneagram – being able to hold both [light] and the [dark].”
How do you suggest high schoolers approach the Enneagram?
“I think that people will know whether they want to do deeper inner work, or not. It’s really important for people to have their own agency. … [Making it feel safe is] tricky to do while in high school, because that’s a time in our lives when we are forming our sense of identity; it’s hard to find that safety with peers. … The Enneagram needs to be introduced with thought and care and [support]. At the Enneagram Prison Project, we always start with what is ‘right’ about you, looking at the positive qualities.”
What has your experience been teaching Enneagram to high school students?
“We taught a pilot of our same curriculum that we use in prison to 220 juniors and seniors in high school in 2019-2020. … It is true that the whole brain may not completely be formed until we are more into our adulthood… but I feel like once kids get to 12-14, abstract thinking kicks in and they themselves. We heard from faculty that students were kinder to each other, more empathetic because they had more understanding that the behavior that they might have experienced from others as difficult wasn’t actually personal. It was just the personality. The more personality we are seeing, the less of the true person we are seeing. It’s a cover for feeling insecure, unwanted, unloveable.”
How do you suggest high school students start learning about their type?
“I’m not a huge fan of tests, but I rely on them. … They help a lot and they get us into the right territory. I think the best way to learn the Enneagram is to study the system. … My first impulse is to tell people what is right about them, using the Enneagram and pointing to what are called the essential qualities (the thing that is automatically right about you and all of us). ... Most people want to lead with the characteristics that are most dysfunctional or about our neurosis. … I start inviting people to see these [positive] qualities in themselves and let them struggle with the discomfort of that instead; it can be uncomfortable to take in the concept that there is actually nothing wrong with us.”
Finally, why should we invest ourselves into the Enneagram?
“The Enneagram is a human system and a human tool. It works well when people have some space to do some reading and reflecting on their own with the support of a guide. Having a way to pause and look back at ourselves, that’s what the tool is for. I have called myself [a human potentialist], because I think the Enneagram helps us to realize [our full potential].”
To start your Enneagram research, Olesek recommends “The Wisdom of the Enneagram” book, which has a test to help figure out your type, or the online version of that, the RHETI test.
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