The Enneagram’s
Basic Propositions

The 9 Basic Propositions: The Key to Everything

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 or 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 passion energy 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 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 we all 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 know. 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 basic beliefs and deepest concerns of our type underneath all the surface’s hardened shale. In this golden center we also discover our fundamental adaptive strategy for what we believe will be a satisfying life. And even more. We get to answer the question, “What was my upset all about?” because the Basic Proposition of our type gets right to the basis of what upsets us, makes us defensive and reactivity, and causes us conflict. In the process we discover the way to actually get rid of those old behaviors we so wish we could rid ourselves of. But there is more. Last and most importantly our type’s Basic Proposition clearly and precisely shows us our path of development to becoming a more whole human being and to relationships that 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 determine our lives. But why? First of all they are so early in formation that they are largely the result of what is named implicit memory, meaning non-cognitive early preverbal memory and learning. Hence these Basic Propositions are largely non-conscious and body 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. And, yes, this is so even though discovering them gives us a path to freedom from the limitations that living them imposes upon us.

When we understand our type’s Basic Proposition, we gain the opportunity for freedom of choice and our lives and relationships can thrive with greater joy. Besides all of this, the Basic Propositions literally can be stated in a paragraph or two! So when we really grasp these, absorb these, know these, we not only have the most efficient path for our personal and relationships development, but also for our understanding the motivation and behavior of the other in relationships. This truly is the key to the golden kingdom and the kingdom is right there inside us if we will only become explorers in search of the gold mine inside of ourselves. There is no greater gift than the Basic Propositions which determine so, so much of our lives and relationships – and hence of our upset, reactivity, and conflict. Before we wake up we just live these out on automatic for better and worse. When we wake up we can free ourselves from their domination. We can increase our strengths and reduce our limitation.

I will use my self as an example. I’m a Type 6, the Loyal Skeptic. I just didn’t understand why I still had fear and doubt even at the age of 50, the Loyal Skeptic being the core of the fear based head or mental types. And even though we had been together already 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 here with statements like, “You don’t really love me.” And, of course, I could always point to evidence for this statement even in this very loving woman. After all no one is 100% loving 100% of the time. When I discovered the Enneagram and consequently that we 6s experience the world as untrustworthy, unpredictable and hazardous, my behavior and its basis in this old no longer valid belief became obvious to me. Now at last I understood my doubt, even of my sweetie’s love for me. In waking up to this belief and developing my awareness, particularly my ability to self-observe with kindness toward myself, it provided me with the clear path to a more loving and fulfilling relationship with her and with others in my life. This has been so liberating, so freeing. All my earlier “irrational” behavior made sense to me. I now readily could focus on all the myriad of ways she loved me with much gratitude in my heart.

Through this example you can see how our personality structure rooted in our Basic Proposition manifests itself in our pattern of thought, feeling and physical sensation. Again remember that the brain is a pattern machine. Thus our type’s Basic Proposition reveals our type’s pattern expressed in the limited nature of our behavior and in our personal reactivity that causes us stress, conflict, suffering, and limitations in our relationships. Just notice what upsets you. Can you not discover a pattern? Because our reactivity reflects our core beliefs and adaptive strategy, our pattern naturally tends to be repetitive, finite, limited, and habitual. Thus, working with our personal reactivity and hence our core issues and themes is fundamental to giving our live and relationships balance, meaning, and fulfillment. What more could we possibly ask for. Just pause for a minute or so to reflect on this paragraph, to really absorb it.

Well more. Because our personal reactivity – things that set us off, “pushing our buttons,” make us defensive, and cause us conflict – occurs when there is a threat to our core beliefs and deepest motivations embedded in our type’s structure, it provides us with much energy to work with. At the very deepest level, it is as though satisfactory survival itself is being threatened. We don’t get upset over something that is not important, even though our upset may seem trivial both to others and ourself. The root or basis for our reactivity rests in the golden Basic Propositions. Hence our reactivity needs to be observed, befriended, and explored. To me working with the Basic Propositions and the personal reactivity associated with them is the key to the path to freedom, to liberation, to healthy 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 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 with our mother 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 qualities back into our consciousness and lives that is 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 than that which we experience in 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 adapt to life and work to obtain the three basic needs for love, worth, and 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 transform the energy embedded in our personality into integrating these higher qualities into our daily lives and relationships. For example, in Type 6, the Loyal Skeptic and core of the fear based mental types, energy of 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, which can cause us conflict and distress in relationships. This reactivity when unexamined not only represents our biggest barrier to a fulfilling life, but also to reclaiming our higher qualities, our higher or 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 we all long for. As I expressed in the example of me 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.

The Elements of the Basic Propositions

The Basic Propositions have a clear structure. Do take the time to learn the ingredients of this structure as this knowledge provides an understanding of the key and often unrecognized embedded factors that can run, rule, and even ruin our lives since as adults these propositions no longer serve us and adhering to them can be destructive to our relationships. As much as 90% of the time they are just outmoded and no longer valid. Just realizing this and working with our reactivity can produce striking changes. The Basic Propositions give us the recipe for healthy living that is the basis for this chapter. For each type the ingredients of this recipe are presented in the type-by-type-descriptions section that follow later in this chapter. Here are the ingredients along with the example of Type Six, my type. For me these ingredients are so true that simply understanding these 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.


Alexa Seleno