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If I had a hammer...

As a pastoral therapist, I look for ways to help an individual develop a deeper understanding of her relationships along with authentic insights into her own sense of identity. One system that I employ helps us talk about personality. Over the years, many of my clients have found this system known as the Enneagram to be very useful. (The word enneagram is from the Greek words meaning nine lines.)

Recently, I was tidying our garage, working my way through the corner where tools get set down “until I can take them back to the workshop.” Most of them are basic: hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, saws. But some are more specialized. There are the wire strippers, a plumb line, and what’s this – a stud finder? How many of these do we actually use? The same sort of thing can happen to us as we live our lives. We’re exposed to new and different ways to accomplish our purposes. Some of them are basic, some of them are interesting, and some of them sound like a good idea worth a try. We gather lots of tools into our tool boxes. But most of us gradually settle into a smaller selection that generally works consistently for us, the ones that we find are the easiest and most effective for us to use. For instance, you may use your best estimate of an angle to cut while you neighbor might actually use his compass plane; you may even try out the compass plane and after one try, may never try again.

The grouping of characteristics that make up our personality is similar. We start with a basic temperament, and then we begin accumulating various experiences. We learn what seems to work for us along with what doesn’t! In this process, each of us develops a personality which mediates between us and a world that can sometimes be threatening. Our personality becomes our set of tools for interacting with others and understanding our self.

One challenge that arises from our default set of tools is easily captured in the this old saying: when you only have a hammer in your tool box, every problem looks like a nail.

In my work, I believe that when we become more self-aware of our default set of “tools”, we can see how we habitually choose the same tools over and over, even when a more effective tool might be available. An effective carpenter brings a variety of tools to deal with a variety of problems. Sometimes you need a screwdriver and sometimes you may need a wrench.

With increased self-awareness, we can begin to widen our repertoire, make other choices than the ones that have become our habitual responses. With practice and help, we can “catch ourselves in the act” of using our habitual response when a different response would be more beneficial. Then we may find that we live happier, more compassionate, and more fulfilled lives.

P.S. For more information about the Enneagram and to take a quick personality assessment, check out and send us your results ( We’ll return to you a visual graph of your results along with an offer for a personal in-office interpretation of the results.

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