Throughout the ages, humanity has been fascinated by stories. From the very early days of humankind, we have gathered around campfires and told stories to pass knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. In our modern world, this fascination with narrative knowledge is still deeply ingrained and present in our everyday lives - in the media, in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our families and our spiritual practices. Storytelling offers additional lenses through which to see ourselves. It is by telling and expanding our stories that we change our lives!
Narrative Coaching explores the human practice of making meaning through stories. The Center of Narrative Coaching and Design defines the technique as follows:
"Narrative coaching is a mindful, experiential, and holistic approach that helps people shift their stories about themselves, others, and life itself to create new possibilities and new results."
Central to the above definition, some key elements that link strongly to the Enneagram as a tool support a Narrative Coaching approach. We see that Narrative Coaching is not only about our own story, but also about the stories that we tell ourselves about other people and the world and our experience of it.
The Narrative Coaching approach draws our attention to the fact that we each carry within us a story about the world and how it is, and therefore how we need to be. This is the ‘fixated’ or problem story, but there are other, more positive narratives that could open up new possibilities.
The ‘Fixated’ or Problem Story
We use the concept of the ‘problem story’ to refer to the one that keeps us stuck in a limited, problem-centric state. We tell ourselves certain things about ourselves and how we see the world, and how we must be in the world. This story is not necessarily the whole version of the truth nor does it necessarily represent the richness we contain as unique human beings.
In the Enneagram world, our story is informed by our Type’s worldview and the core fears that we hold. To be able to function and survive in this self-created reality, we tell ourselves how we ‘need to be’ or how we ‘should’ be in our self-talk. This becomes our core motivation and the foundation of the story we tell ourselves. This story becomes a fixation if it is the only lens that we use to relate to the world.
Enneagram TypeThe story that Ennea 1s’ tell themselves is that the world is imperfect and they need to work towards improving it and themselves too - they must make the world a better place. This story drives the Ennea 1’s motivation to be good, right or perfect. They value being a good person and as a result, self-control, integrity and quality are important to them. They strive for perfection and appreciate standards and structure. Ennea 1s’ problem story may lead them to believe that unless they are good, right or perfect, they are a bad person.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 2s’ story tells them that people depend on them for help and that they only have value when they are liked, needed and loving. This story drives their core motivation to be liked and appreciated and they invest in being kind, generous and self-sacrificing. Ennea 2s’ problem story drives them to offer support and attention to others, by reinforcing the belief that if they are not giving, helpful and generous enough, they are unlovable.
Enneagram TypeA typical story in Ennea 3s’ self-talk is that the world values winners and so they must avoid failure at all costs. This drives their core motivation to succeed, outshine others and be the best. Their story emphasises achievement, so results and image are important to them. Ennea 3s’ problem story tells them that if they are not successful and valuable, then they are worthless.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 4s’ story is all about how they compare with others, and how they are missing something and need to strive for their true identity. This drives their core motivation to be unique and authentic, valuing individualism, feelings, self-expression and purpose. Romantic at heart, they appreciate beauty and creating meaning for themselves and others. Ennea 4s’ problem story reinforces their fear that if they are not making a difference or being true to themselves, they are ordinary.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 5s’ story tells them that the world is a place that invades their privacy with overwhelming demands, so they need to protect their resources and energy. This drives their core motivation to understand and make sense of the world around them and to conserve resources and knowledge. Ennea 5s’ problem story reinforces their sense that they are, in fact, not knowledgeable enough and will be unable to meet the demands of others.
Enneagram TypeAn Ennea 6s story communicates that the world is a threatening and unsafe place, so they need to test and question people and things to feel more secure. This drives their core motivation to be safe, prepared, responsible and alert at all times. Ennea 6s value security and belonging, and as a result, kindness, loyalty and trust are important to them. Ennea 6s’ problem story reinforces that if they are not cautious and don’t protect themselves, they will be unprepared, without support and guidance, and incapable of surviving on their own.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 7s’ story tells them that the world is full of exciting possibilities, ideas and experiences and they need to explore as much as possible. This drives their core motivation to experience life to the fullest and avoid pain, taking opportunities as they present themselves. Ennea 7s’ problem story reinforces the belief that if they are not moving forward and experiencing what is next, they will be limited and trapped in discomfort.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 8s’ tell themselves the story that the world is a tough and unjust place in which only the strong survive, and good things happen to those who take control. This drives their core motivation to be strong and avoid vulnerability. Valuing control, they love rising to challenges and embody a need for justice, which enables them to protect others. Ennea 8s’ problem story reinforces their fear that when they are not in control, they are vulnerable to be harmed or controlled by others.
Enneagram TypeEnnea 9s’ story tells them that the world is not a harmonious place where they can fully assert themselves and that people need to treat each other with respect. This drives their core motivation to be in harmony with the world and to be understanding, accommodating and accepting. Ennea 9s’ problem story reinforces that if they do not keep the balance, they will be in conflict, discomfort and separated from others.
From the above stories for each Enneagram Type, we see that there is real power in these self-told narratives. Each story is anchored in core beliefs about the world that we take for granted, and in turn these stories are validated and supported by our observations and interactions as we move through our lives. If we are fixated on our particular story, we don’t realise the impact of our self-limiting beliefs on our own lives and those around us. We tell ourselves that “this is just the way things are” and remain committed to our stories, rather than opening up to alternative interpretations of the world and therefore, to growth.
Challenging our Story
When we commit to a coaching journey, we set the scene to transform our current stories actively. As we become more aware of the stories that we have been telling ourselves, we begin to gain perspective and notice how we may have been limiting our reality. We begin to shift towards a more open perspective and commit to the task of challenging our stories as we strive to practise different behaviours.
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are”-Brené Brown
The objective of challenging our story is to address the beliefs, practices, and assumptions that limit us. We can equate this process to one where we ‘wake up from sleep’ and begin to escape our fixations, enabling us to explore more possibilities. As we reflect on the stories that inform our identity, we realise that the problem story is not the whole truth about our lives. We become more open to exploring alternative stories that reflect a more holistic sense of ourselves, to tell a fuller version of the story of who we really are.
The Virtues of our Type
The alternative to our fixated problem stories often lies in the virtues of our Type, which remind us to take a broader perspective on the world.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 1s accept the world as it is with serenity, instead of standing against it, they no longer need to correct everything. When this happens, critical anger no longer has a place and they become open to whatever presents itself, allowing themselves to be at peace.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 2s learn to acknowledge their limits and recognise that they are not indispensable to other people, their pride gives way to humility. As a result, Ennea 2s are able to establish healthy boundaries and give love as needed.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 3s are hopeful that they will be accepted for who they are, their self-deceit and the image they present to the world give way to truth and self-acceptance. As a result, Ennea 3s’ drive to appear competent and successful at all costs becomes unnecessary.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 4s are able to see the positive and negative in equal measure, they stop envying others and approach life with equanimity, taking life as it comes without personalising or reacting to situations. As a result, their fundamental belief that other people have it better gives way to true authentic engagement.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 5s detach from their need to be self-sufficient and isolated, they appreciate that they can better understand the world by participating in it. Taking in only what is necessary, they learn to trust that they can replenish their resources, particularly time and space.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 6s step into courage and faith, they recognise that their safety and security fears are largely self-conceived. No longer inhibited by their story, they begin to question their fears and assumptions, acting without deferring to the rules or ideologies of others.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 7s’ gluttonous hunger for stimulation is tempered by sobriety, they no longer fear limitation. Moderating themselves by slowing down and anchoring themselves in the here and now, they experience more quality of life and true joy.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 8s let go of their fear of being controlled, they become more open-hearted. In a state of innocence, they appreciate and experience life without judgement or expectation, neutralising their drive for excess and power.
Enneagram TypeWhen Ennea 9s embrace right action, they move out of inertia to discover their own intention and purpose and act on it. By discovering what they really believe and acting on what they authentically think and feel, they begin living for themselves.
Unpacking these stories, we allow ourselves to experiment with different reality filters and look at our issues and challenges with fresh eyes. Ultimately, this shift will indicate that we are no longer putting others and ourselves in boxes.
“Narrative practices seek to rehumanize the world through the telling, re-telling and witnessing of the multiple stories of our lived experience – stories that we have interpreted and stories that we are knowledgeable about.”
-Chené Swart, Re-Authoring the World
Our ability to develop and acknowledge these richer, healthier and more authentic stories about ourselves enables us to experience happier and more fulfilling lives. By working with our story and its limitations through the Enneagram, we can transform ourselves and support a more holistic way of being and thinking in the world.