I live in a neighborhood filled with vibrant, Mexican art and murals. Some of my favorites are mosaics. I love admiring a cohesive image from afar, then drawing close and realizing how many different shades and colors are really there. From close up, it can be hard to imagine how these little shapes could possibly work together to form one image.
The past decade or so has been a whirlwind of self-revelation for me, something like getting up close to the mosaic of my own personality and noticing all these little nuances, shades and shadows. I’ve gone through many changes: living abroad and coming home, putting down roots in a new city, getting married, becoming a parent, encountering workplace conflict, living through a global pandemic and social unrest.
I can point to moments when I really let my best self shine, memories that stir up feelings of joy and pride. I can also point to many, many moments that opened the door to fragilities and vulnerabilities I didn’t even realize were part of me. These memories carry shame and regret. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of how all these moments are really part of the same person.
In my attempts to navigate this dissonance, I’ve made my way through therapies, spiritual practices,social media groups and books full of tips and tricks. One tool that I keep coming back to is the enneagram.
The enneagram is a personality tool — something along the lines of Myers-Briggs or Strengths Finder — whose foundational structure is a circle with nine numbered points. Each number represents one of the personality types. While we all possess pieces of each of the nine points and move amongst them, we each reside primarily in one number, which becomes our Enneagram type.
Since the first time I heard about enneagram in college, I had typed myself as a One. I felt good about being a One, but didn’t find it to be a particularly earth-shattering insight. At healthy levels, Ones are “wise, discerning, accepting, hopeful,” “sensible, moderate and objective,” “highly ethical and self-disciplined,” possessing a “strong sense of purpose and conviction” (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, p. 106).
On a spiritual level, each number reflects something about the nature of God: hope, creativity, faithfulness, joy. Ones reflect God’s goodness and righteousness and, at their best, shine in the virtue of serenity.
As a young 20-something, I could see how I was on a path to become the best version of myself, and it felt good to be affirmed in the growth I was achieving.
But this intercultural, spiritual, psychological personality system has much more to offer than affirmation of our best selves. Don’t get me wrong–I love affirmations of my best self, and I think they are really important. But with virtues come vices, and we all come face to face with our own sooner or later.
In my life, marriage and parenting—while both beautiful gifts—have been the catalysts for discovering many pain points in my personality. One moment I am a patient, fun-loving, wise wife and mother. Then someone spills their milk, or comments on the dirty dishes, or makes more noise than I can handle, and I lose it. I become angry, resentful, sarcastic and moody. I begin to doubt myself. I withdraw from friends and family. I indulge in comforts like TV and junk food.
In the theory of the enneagram, fluctuations in our behavior are described primarily in terms of integration and disintegration. These two movements represent changes in our typical behavior in moments of growth and stress.
I admit that the words used to describe this fluidity – integration and disintegration – have been counterproductive for me. I struggle to let go of the value judgments that these words carry. In some ways, I conflate “disintegration” with “falling away from God.” But it isn’t sinful to be stressed.
Certainly stress reactions can be a quick pathway to actions that harm others, and we have to learn to put mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening. Mindfulness techniques like the “power of the pause” and mantras can help us respond intentionally instead of following knee-jerk reactions.
With the help of the enneagram, I’m learning not to see disintegration as a sign of falling away from God, but rather as an opportunity for God to encounter me in a particular way. When I feel the urge to respond to my child in anger, God comes to me in deep breaths. If my tendency under stress is to pull away from others, God invites me to prayer through journaling or art, allowing my insecurities to dissolve in the ink or crayon lines I scribble across the page.
Richard Rohr is a spiritual leader and enneagram teacher who expresses this exceptionally well. He writes that the enneagram “allows us to see and embrace our shadow.” Enneagram numbers are not an attempt to compartmentalize my wise-and-discerning self from angry-emotional self, but are rather a pathway to integrate, love and embrace all these parts of myself.
Here Richard Rohr connects reflections from St. Teresa of Avila, herself a great promoter of spiritual renewal, with a parable of Jesus:
Teresa of Ávila said that the sinner is actually one who does not love himself or herself enough. We do not see or admire the whole self; so we split and try to love the good self and reject the bad self. But Jesus told us to let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest, lest we destroy the wheat by trying to pull up the weeds (see Matthew 13:24-30).
Even when I fail to practice that pause, when I ignore God’s invitations to encounter, and my coping and defense mechanisms do lead me to sin, this still does not result in an absence of love. Richard Rohr recognizes this, as well:
It’s liberating to know that God knew this all along, loves us anyway, and actually used our sins for God’s purposes. As Paul puts it, “Precisely where sin abounds, grace abounds even more” (see Romans 5:20).
This all brings me to realize a paradox of spiritual and personal growth. Only in embracing and loving all parts of myself, just as I am in the present moment, will I increase those moments when I’m reflecting my “best self.”
Over time, it also becomes easier to reveal those parts of myself to others. In creating spaces for this type of honesty, where we can each be accepted and loved for all of who we are, we may realize that we all appear to be an incohesive mix of shades and colors. Yet when we step back, and perhaps try to look at our mess through God’s eyes, we see the beautiful, harmonious mosaic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.