The Enneagram’s
Basic Propositions

The Basic Proposition: The Foundation of Personality

The unmanaged and limited nature of our personality structure and our personal reactivity or defensiveness causes us stress, conflict, suffering and limitations at work and in relationships. These personality behaviors tend to be repetitive, finite, limited and habitual. Thus, working with our personal reactivity, and hence our personality, is key to living balanced, meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Furthermore, our personal reactivity or defensiveness (what “pushes our buttons”) occurs when our survival, satisfaction or something with which we are identified seems to be threatened. This includes our identification with our own point of view, as we become trapped in the core beliefs of our type. We don’t get upset over something that does not seem threatening to us, even though it may seem trivial. There is a root basis for our reactivity in the Basic Proposition.

In turn, our type’s Basic Proposition, which is both fundamental and comprehensive, determines our personality characteristics and personal reactivity that includes our defensiveness to whatever “pushes our buttons.” This reactivity not only represents our biggest barrier to a fulfilling life, but also to reclaiming our higher side or virtue, which is in the background.

The Basic Propositions can be found for each type, in detail in either of my books:  The Essential Enneagram, co-authored with Virginia Price, and The Enneagram, Relationships and Intimacy:  Understanding One Another Leads to Loving Better and Living More Fully. Both are on Amazon.

Elements of the Basic Propositions (mostly operating unconsciously)

  • The aspect of the original essential state that goes into the background
  • The environmental experience that leads to the essential quality that goes into the background and to personality formation (given the child’s perceptual filters)
  • What the child comes to believe instead – the compensating goal and associated adaptive strategy for survival and satisfaction
  • The concurrent development of the emotional passion interwoven with where attention naturally goes
  • The defense mechanism or “glue” that supports this structure
  • The worst fear or concern that must be avoided
  • What this costs in relationships and in manifesting our higher essential quality or virtue

Benefits of examining and managing personal reactivity

  • Gives us clues to our basic issues, concerns, grievances and identifications
  • Provides “fuel” or energy for the work of change and conversion of the energy of passionate suffering (vice) to the higher original essential qualities (the vice-to-virtue conversion)
  • Reduces stress responses, increasing our physical and emotional well-being
  • Improves our relationships, work effectiveness, and self-esteem
  • Gives us greater cognitive-emotional freedom and inner peace

Our Basic Propositions | Expanded Description | My Personal Story

I worked for years mining for what is at the core of our personality, digging deeper as a miner would looking for gold. Finally I discovered gold at the heart of the mountain that we all try to build to hopefully have a good life, even a golden life. The precious metal I discovered is what I call the Basic Propositions. But what are these? Here is the best definition I can come up with: A Basic Proposition is a statement so fundamental, so core, so demonstrable that it is virtually uncontestable. To me, this is what makes understanding the Basic Proposition for each type so vital, so crucial.

The Enneagram Basic Propositions are the gold at the core of personality since they get right down to our type structure’s basic beliefs and deepest concerns; they get underneath the surface of our type’s hardened outer shale. Down inside we find our golden center, which is where we get to locate our fundamental adaptive strategy — the fundamental principles we are a slave to that drive what we believe we have to be to ensure us a satisfactory self having a satisfying life. And even more. By learning our type’s Basic Proposition, we get to answer question such as this, “What was my upset all about?”

The Basic Proposition of each of the nine types gets right down to the basis of what upsets us, what triggers our defensive and reactivity, and causes us intra-personal and interpersonal conflict. In the process of studying these propositions, we are given a map to the ways we can actually not get rid of but radically include and then integrate the discomfort of our more habituated reactions and upsets, and gain response-flexibility as a result.  But there is more. Last and most importantly, each  type’s Basic Proposition clearly and precisely shows us the paths of development to becoming a more wholly integrated human being, which then carries over into our interpersonal relationships with others. This is how we  truly thrive.  What more could we ask for!

Yet, we often resist really understanding and really incorporating the meaning and power of these golden propositions and how they are the driving forces in our lives. But why? First of all, these propositions are foundational to our temperamental structure and are formed so early in our development, so much so, they are deeply logged in implicit memory, meaning, non-cognitive early preverbal memory and emotionally-driven learning. Hence, these Basic Propositions are largely non-conscious, emotionally organized, and somatically based in what we feel and sense. Furthermore, since they are so core to our existence and identifications, they are difficult to bring to the surface without a “miner’s guide.” Though taking the deep dive to learn about ourselves in this way leads us toward us more response freedom and potentiation, we may readily refrain from doing so, remaining for a lifetime encumbered by their limitations and self-defining constructs.

When we come to understand our type’s Basic Proposition, we gain the opportunity for freedom of choice and our lives and as a result, both within ourselves and our relationships, we become more expansive, intimate, joyful and self-sustaining. Now you’d think these propositions are long dissertations of some kind, being as important as they are! But no, the Basic Propositions are literally expressed in a paragraph or two; they area succinct, poignant, and consistently verifiable. Within their foundational explanations we find the golden kingdom of liberation. It’s a glorious place right there inside each of us, waiting to be discovered and calling to be known.  May the courageous internal explorer within us set sail in search of this kingdom, as it’s where our expansion lies and the keys are to be found.

Let me use myself as an example. I’m an Enneagram Type 6, the Loyal Skeptic. For the longest time, I just couldn’t understand why I continued to struggle with so much fear and doubt, even at the age of 50. The Loyal Skeptic is at the core of the fear-based, Head Center of Intelligence, mental types. And even though I had by that time been married for over 30 years, I still doubted my sweetie’s love. This doubt was the source of most of our conflict, with me questioning her love, actually even accusing her not loving me with statements like, “You don’t really love me, do you!” And, of course, I could always point to evidence for this statement, even though I was standing right in front of a very loving woman. After all, no one is 100% loving 100% of the time, but for a Type 6, “that” statement was enough proof for me!

When I discovered the Enneagram and consequently that we 6s experience the world  (and others) as untrustworthy, unpredictable, and hazardous, my behavior and its basis, found in this habituated, no-longer-serving-me  belief system, became obvious to me. Now at last, I understood the origins of my unrelenting doubt, which included my doubting my sweetie’s love for me. In waking up to this belief system and developing my self-awareness capacities, particularly my ability to self-observe with kindness toward myself,  I was able to design a clearer path toward a more loving, trusting, and fulfilling relationship with my spouse, and subsequently, with all others in my life. This has been so liberating for me, so freeing! Doubting is energy-tiresome. Doubting is joy-debilitating. The way I had been living with such ongoing “irrational” thoughts and beliefs, many of which I kept having to act on, finally made some sense to me.  What’s changed for me now is that  I am able to consciously focus more on all the myriad of ways my sweetie loves me and expresses it, and I do this with fewer bouts of doubt and with much more gratitude, felt in my heart.

Through this example, it’s easier to see how our personality structure, rooted in our Basic Proposition, manifests itself in habituated patterns of thoughts, feelings, and physical, somatic sensation. Understanding that the brain is is a pattern machine designed for survival, our type’s Basic Proposition reveals our type’s structure as it is expressed in limiting ways that define our internal thoughts and outward behaviors, that trigger our personal reactivity and that  causes us stress, conflict, suffering, and upheaval in our relationships. To begin tracking your own patterns, start by noticing what upsets you. What’s a common theme in what triggers you, pushes your buttons? Is it a consistent doubting, no matter how much evidence is there? Is it feeling “unimportant” or overlooked that tends to get you going every time? Why track the upset? Because reactivity reflects our core beliefs about who must be and cannot be, and our reactivity is protecting our adaptive strategy. Our patterns are not random, actually, they are hooked into something fundamental and they tend to be repetitive, finite, limited, and habitual. Thus, tracking our personal reactivity is a great place to start as what gets us reactive is full of valuable “data” about what’s actually going on deep within. Just pause for a minute or so to reflect on this paragraph, to really absorb it.

Our personal reactivity, which is triggered by things that set us off, “push our buttons,” by what make us defensive and inadvertently causes us conflict occurs when there is a threat to our core beliefs — the who I must be and who I cannot be.  Our driving motivations are embedded in our type structure, it’s what drives us to pursue being a certain way and avoid being someone we could not allow ourselves to be.  At the very deepest level, our reactivity is protecting what we believe will ensure our satisfactory survival, and that we cannot tolerate having threatened. We don’t get upset over something that is not important. Instead, what gets us upset, even though our upset may seem trivial both to others and ourselves, is actually survival-based and can feel life-and-death imperative. The underpinnings of our reactivity rests in the wisdom of the Basic Proposition for each type. It’s our reactivity that needs to be observed, befriended, and explored in order for true self-knowing and sustainable liberation to occur. To me, working with the Basic Propositions, the drivers beneath our personal reactivity is the key to the path to response-flexibility, emotional freedom, developmental potentiation, and far healthier relationships.

And still, there’s more. I think it’s fair to assume that each one of us desires, at some level, to experience ourselves as whole and complete, integrated and high-functioning human beings. We want to manifest the higher transcendent qualities that underlie the external manifestation of personality and those that are truly enduring through time. These higher qualities are there at birth in a rudimentary form. In early life, we are simply there, in the present moment, it’s a time before any cognition takes place. We are in a shared love bliss with our mother in particular and caregivers. We readily smile with joy when in delightful interactions. These so present-to-the-moment qualities often go into the background as we struggle over time to find a way in the world to be felt, heard, seen, and accepted, to find a way to be in the world that provides us with the sense of a satisfactory experience with others and with life itself. Our self-protection mechanisms will take us away from these higher qualities, if necessary, to prevent us from harm, emotional harm in particular; but here’s the key, they (our essential, innate qualities of being) don’t go away from us. To me, this is what the essence of all the world’s great traditions is about. It’s our seeking to bring these essential qualities back into our consciousness and our lives that is the greatest of spiritual endeavors.

To me, this is what the divine means. We all want to manifest love, faith, and hope. We all want a more harmonious, kinder, gentler world, greater than what we experience across much of life. We all want to know the truth and reach the accord that resides under all the external manifestations of our daily experience. This is what manifesting the higher essential qualities at the hub of life means. Each type has a particular higher quality, that for the most part, has gone into the background as we adapted to life on this planet and work to obtain the three basic human needs, which are:  the need for love, self-worth/dignity, and safety/security in the world. The Enneagram gives us a unique path to integrating these higher qualities into our daily lives, integration being the inter-linkage of different parts. Thus, as we work on our path of development, we can utilize the energy embedded in our personality into transformative energies geared at integrating these higher qualities into our daily lives, and subsequently our relationships. For example, as in Type 6, the Loyal Skeptic, the type at the core of the fear-based mental types, the energy dispensed on fear and doubt can be transformed into faith and trust — in self, others, and even the universe. Much more about these qualities later.

In summary, our type’s Basic Proposition, which is both fundamental and comprehensive, largely determines our personality characteristics, drives our defense system and personal reactivity, and is what is vulnerable about us as it governs who we feel we must be and who we cannot be, which can cause us conflict and distress within ourselves and within our relationships. This fundamental construct, protected by our reactivity, when unexamined not only represents our biggest barrier to a fulfilling life, but also to reclaiming our higher qualities, our higher essence qualities, being those qualities that underlie all external manifestations and are permanent and unchanging, such as the precious golden qualities of hope, faith, and love that we all long for. As I expressed in the example of my own life above and further detailed below, my work with fear and doubt characteristic of Type 6 fostered my reclaiming faith in myself, in my sweetie, and in others. What a relief and blessing it has all been.

The Elements of the Basic Propositions

The Basic Propositions have a clear structure. Do take the time to learn the ingredients of these structures as this knowledge provides an understanding of the keys to our developmental progress and the often unrecognized, deeply embedded factors that can run, rule, and even ruin our lives. Since as adults these propositions can be very limiting rather than contributory, which can lend them to no longer serving us, adhering to them can be destructive to our most hoped-for dreams and to our most cherished relationships.

Here are some foundational concepts to absorb, along with the example of Type 6, my type. For me, these foundational concepts are so true, that simply understanding each one can be liberating:

  • The higher quality of our original essence that goes into the background. The higher qualities are timeless and underlie all external manifestations. For type Six this quality is faith in self, others and the universe. Faith and trust definitely went into the background for me. As a substitute, I came to believe that if I could just get to certainty, then no faith is necessary. This is why I kept questioning my sweetie’s love. I wanted to be certain of it. The quest for certainty became my substitute for trust and faith in this remarkably loving woman.
  • The environmental experience combined with our genetic predisposition that leads to this higher quality going into the background and into our personality formation. I definitely experienced the world as unpredictable and hazardous. My mother almost died of childbed fever, couldn’t nurse, and I was allergic to cow’s milk. I’m sure my family was full of fear. Would I even live? And what could I trust in? Not even the food going into my mouth. This increased my family’s fearfulness about my survival. Fortunately at about age three months I was placed on soybean gruel and I began to thrive. And all this likely was further influenced by my father’s mistrust in the world and focus on negatives. He definitely led with Type Six. Also I always have experienced a sensitivity and reactivity in my nervous system to potential hazards – a magnified alerting response regarding what could go wrong and might be threatening. I believe this to be the genetic predisposing factor.
  • What we as children came to believe is necessary for our satisfactory survival and well-being, our compensating core belief and associated adaptive strategy. Yes, I definitely came to believe that the only way I could assure life and gain security in this hazardous and unpredictable world was by being wary and vigilant, avoiding or facing harm and danger (both give temporary reassurance), imagining the worst so that I could prevent it from happening, testing others’ loyalty, and either battling or escaping the perceived hazards. Interestingly it turned out that I non-consciously picked this beautiful, steady, and loving woman, the “right” woman partially for the “wrong” reasons. Oh also, I have always cared about her well-being and loved her separate from the security and reassurance she provides.
  • The concurrent development of our type’s driving emotional energy interwoven with where attention naturally goes to support our core beliefs and adaptive strategy. Naturally I developed and tuned into fear, the driving emotion for Type Six. Remember that the natural and positive function of fear is to point to what is hazardous and unpredictable. I largely fended off fear by taking on challenges that provided temporary reassurance like showing I could achieve academically and in sports. I never told anyone that I had fear. I just kept on trucking through life so to speak, proving my fettle. And my attention would go to what could go wrong and to worst possible outcomes in order to make life certain and to keep whatever I perceived as hazardous from happening. A whole lot of this was definitely wasted effort.
  • The associated deepest concern that must be avoided. I had no idea that underneath was the concern that I would be helpless and dependent in this world I didn’t believe I could count on. Can you imagine how this would be true if you led with Type Six, the Loyal Skeptic? To be utterly dependent and helpless in a hazardous world you just can’t count on would be like death. So I always told myself that I could make it on my own and not be dependent. I hid from and avoided the experience of helplessness and dependency by proving my fettle over and over again.
  • Our resulting type specific personal reactivity. I would hardly ever get upset except when I experienced that I couldn’t count on someone or might be betrayed. And naturally I would focus on the ways I couldn’t count on someone, not on the ways I could count on them. I also would get upset when I felt pressured to figure things out and when I endlessly tried to make life more certain as a consequence of not trusting in myself and others. Yes, all of the classically reactivity for Type Six fit me.
  • What this costs us to our well-being, in our relationships, and in the manifestation of our higher qualities. I didn’t realize the costs before knowing the Enneagram, since I kept trying to gain proof, certainty, and security through my own efforts. But all of this fit too. I was not trusting, assured, and confident in life and love enduring and flourishing, and ultimately in having faith in myself, others, and the universe. I needed to realize that I have the inner resources to deal with almost any situation based on all my years of super coping and that I could trust in myself and others knowing I could handle challenging situations when they come up. Much freedom and peace of mind come with integrating in our higher qualities into our lives, in my instance, faith and trust. What a blessing.


Need help finding your Enneagram type? Take the scientifically validated Enneagram test online or through the paper-back book version found in Dr. David Daniels’ The Essential Enneagram.

To find out more about these and other typing methods, click here.