This blog post is part of our Fundamentals of the Enneagram series, which takes a deeper dive into all the Enneagram elements - wings, arrows, subtypes, centers of intelligence, growth pathways and more. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post.
In the past, some Enneagram schools have referred to these as “instinctual variants” or have separated instincts from Enneagram types. These inconsistencies can make understanding these terms and how you apply them even more perplexing.
To clear up this confusion, I will explain what instincts and subtypes are, the differences between them and how to apply them to your personal growth. Look out for future articles where I’ll explore the subtypes in more depth.
What are instincts?
Instincts are biological drives every animal has to survive – including humans! These instincts are primal and hardwired into the oldest part of our brain - the part that operates automatically to ensure our survival. When a threat to our survival appears, we don’t think or feel, we just react.
There are three core instincts that Enneagram focuses on, although there are others. These three instincts are: Self-Preservation, Social, and Sexual (or One to One).
The Self-Preservation instinct focuses on protecting our body, our health and ensuring we have enough resources to survive in the future. It is about taking care of the body: eating when hungry, putting on a sweater when it's cold, and saving for a rainy day.
The Social instinct focuses on belonging to a group and the safety that provides. We seek belonging, recognition and relationships from the groups we belong to.
This includes family, community groups, work teams, companies, institutions and society. Here, we want to get along with the group, but also serve the group in some way, which can include stepping into leadership roles.
The Sexual instinct focuses on relationships with specific individuals. This can include attraction, mating and bonding, but applies just as much to friendships as it does to intimate relationships. This can also look like competition or aggression between rivals.
Let’s put this into the context of when we lived in caves. Cavemen and women used their Self-Preservation instincts when they hunted, gathered and prepared food; when they made warm clothes and collected resources to last through the winter; and when they used herbs to heal the sick and injured.
They used Social instincts when they focused on safety in numbers, ensuring everyone had tasks or roles that helped the tribe survive and that no one was left behind when they moved to a new location. This would include group activities like singing, dancing and other rituals.
The Sexual instinct is used for bonding and mating, but also for forming close friendships and warding off rivals, either within the tribe or outside of it.
What role do instincts play in human behavior?
For most animals the instincts activate when they are meant to. That is, each instinct only activates when there is a real threat in that specific domain. For example, the Self-Preservation instinct activates when they are cold, the Social instinct when they are being excluded from the group and the Sexual instinct when they are threatened by a rival.
But for animals with more complex brains and psyches, things aren't so simple.
Instead of using each instinct to react in real time to the appropriate threat, we humans have a dominant instinct that reacts to real and perceived threats on a regular basis, even when we aren’t threatened.
For example, if you are Self-Preservation dominant you are more likely to focus on your physical health and material security. You are likely to be more cautious, risk averse, and take precautions to protect yourself or your health even when there is no real risk. You may be more skeptical, pragmatic and anxious, and pay more attention to self care than other people of the same type.
If you are a Social dominant you likely care more about the groups you are in (or not in) than your physical wellbeing. You may belong to many groups, and seek approval and recognition from each. That might mean leading the group or doing a job the group values. You may be more interested in politics, social and power dynamics, conflict resolution, and being close to important people.
If you are a Sexual dominant, your attention and energy is focused on achieving and maintaining specific connections and relationships, like having a best friend or being in an intimate relationship. Sexual dominants are often more intense, competitive, persuasive and sensual.
How do instincts become subtypes?
To fully wrap your head around how instincts become subtypes, it is going to help if you are familiar with the Enneagram Passions.
Subtypes form when the energy of the instinct mixes with the emotional energy of the passion. That is, Subtype = Instinct x Passion.
A subtype occurs when the biological drive to survive meets the emotional pattern that drives our personality. It represents two very different filters that we see life through, and explains what happens when they overlap each other.
For each Enneagram type, there are three corresponding subtypes, each of which can look very different from the stereotypical description of that type. Let’s look at Type One as an example. When the three instincts mix with Enneagram One’s passion of anger, it creates three very different types of Ones.
The Self-Preservation One’s anger is focused on themselves. They constantly strive to be perfect, but never attain it. They tend to be warmer than other One’s as their anger is less likely to be outwardly expressed.
Social Ones see themselves as perfect. They model the right way to act to the “group” and appear as shining examples of the correct way to act. They are not very adaptable to other ways of doing things.
Sexual Ones focus on perfecting others. They are more likely to display their anger, as they strive to right the wrongs they see in others and in society. That’s why they can be called reformers. They have a dedication, fervor and intensity that is not often seen in the other One subtypes.
How do I use subtypes?
Subtypes are beneficial for two main reasons:
1) understanding why different types look alike, and
2) identifying growth challenges with more specificity and clarity.
When you factor in subtypes, it’s easier to see why some types look more like others. For example the Social Two can look like an Eight because of their drive to strategically support the group. The Self-Preservation Three can look like a One as they are less likely to brag about their achievements. And the Sexual Five can look like a Four as they can express their need for connection through artistic expression.
While people can behave in similar ways, they may be doing so for very different underlying reasons, and subtypes can help us see that more clearly.
As you can imagine from the example about Ones above, each subtype has very different growth challenges. So knowing your subtype, and the corresponding growth challenges, can really speed up your growth and development.
If you want to determine your subtype, read descriptions of your type combined with each instinct. Don’t aim to pick one, instead rank them from most like you to least like you. Remember, you have access to all the instincts; there is just one you are defaulting to.
Note how different all the subtypes are. But when looking for your own subtype, focus on comparing your behaviors to the other subtypes in your type group. For example, if you are a Seven, look at your behavior in comparison to the Seven’s subtypes. Unless you are unsure of your type, avoid looking at dominant types across all subtypes (eg, looking at all the Self-Preservation subtypes across all nine types.)
Once you have determined your subtype, look at the challenges your subtype faces compared to the other subtypes in your group. Consider what behaviors you need to observe in yourself and increase your awareness of.
And, keep an eye out for future articles on countertypes, each of the subtypes, and lookalike types.