Understanding Enneagram Subtypes: How to Find Yours & Use It for Self-Development (Part 1)

Have you ever met two people of the same Enneagram type and wondered how they’re so different? While the Enneagram describes nine types of motivation, there are way more layers to take into consideration when it comes to your type. One of the most highly influential factors? Enneagram subtypes.

Also known as instinctual subtypes or instinctual variants, Enneagram subtypes are a combination of your core type and your instinct (aka how you’re wired to survive). People have three basic instincts or life forces within them which affect their actions, thoughts, and feelings. You can think of this instinctual influence as your body-based center of intelligence, which points to how you navigate the demands of life.

According to the model of Claudio Naranjo, the three instincts show up in our personality structure, paving the way for 27 subtypes to exist—and this nuanced look at the Enneagram provides an ultimate growth path.

What are the three instincts?

Everyone has the following three instincts within them to ensure their need for survival: self-preservation, one-to-one, and social. Your dominant instinct collides with your type to produce your subtype. The other two instincts stack up in second and third place. Typically, people are over-aware of their dominant instinct, feel neutrality towards their second instinct, and their third instinct is repressed or under-developed. 

While reading through these descriptions, think about how your own instincts stack up. 

Self-preservation: The self-preservation instinct wants to make sure they have everything they need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable. People with a dominant self-preservation instinct prioritize food, shelter, family relationships, and tending to their physical and mental well-being. They’ll manage their energy levels and resources to avoid becoming stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. 

One-to-one: The one-to-one instinct focuses on the intensity of life’s experiences and one-on-one relationships (whether romantic or platonic). People with a dominant one-to-one instinct value intimacy, passion, and excitement. They carry a strong energy and actively seek out experiences where they can build bonds with another individual. 

Social: The social instinct prioritizes relationships to establish a sense of belonging and bringing value to their community. People with a dominant social instinct tend to be socially aware of their place in a group, how they’re perceived, and who they need to befriend. They enjoy working with others towards a shared purpose or common goal for the greater good, and want to feel involved and connected.

An interesting way to look at the three instincts is through the Center of Intelligence—the self-preservation instinct can be associated with the Head center, the one-to-one-instinct with the Body center, and the social instinct with the Heart center.

How to find your Enneagram subtype

You might have gotten an idea of your subtype while reading through the above descriptions. If you’re still lost, that’s okay too. 

The best way to find your Enneagram subtype is to notice where your attention goes when you’re out and about in the world. Let’s use the classic example of a party:

  • Do you notice your environment right away, from the lights to the music to the setup to the temperature of the room? If so, you might have a self-preservation dominant instinct.
  • Do you focus on finding one or two people that you can deeply connect with at the party, and feel a rush when intimate bonds are made? You might have a one-to-one dominant instinct. 
  • Or, do you notice where your friends are at and focus on having a good time and going with the energy of the group? You might have a social dominant instinct.

If you’re still lost, you can try asking other people for an objective opinion. While this can be a helpful jumping off point, remember that no one knows you as deeply as you know yourself. You might have to do a little more research and digging before landing on your subtype. 

Also be aware of countertypes

Another thing to take into consideration are countertypes. Those who are a countertype often have a harder time finding their Enneagram type because they may not be a stereotypical description of that type. 

One of the three subtypes per type is a countertype. The dominant instinct clashes with the “passion” or emotional pattern of the type resulting in atypical behavior. However, the motivation is still the same—it’s just expressed differently!

The most blatant example of a countertype at work is Type Six. While Sixes are painted as phobic and cautious, a one-to-one Six is counterphobic. They deal with fear by facing it head on, often taking bold risks—this is why they’ll often mistype as an Eight

How to use your Enneagram subtype for personal growth

Knowing your subtype is yet another way you can access your full growth path. Unlike your type, your instinct stacking can change, though it’s very common to have the same dominant instinct throughout your life. If your stacking does change, it’s usually the first and second instincts that shift, since you’re more conscious of these. 

The ultimate goal, just like any Enneagram growth work, is balance. Bringing all three of your instincts into harmony creates ultimate self-awareness of where your energy goes.

Here are some ways you can use your subtype for personal growth:

  • Observe your third or repressed instinct. Often, this carries shadow traits. For instance, if you have a repressed one-to-one instinct, do you fear intimacy or creating close emotional bonds with others? 
  • Use your dominant instinct to notice where your attention goes day-to-day—and how you may overemphasize it. Maybe your dominant instinct is self-preservation and your attention goes towards stressing about time, money, and other resources rather than being present with others or yourself. 
  • Notice how your dominant instinct serves your passion or lower emotional habit. If you’re a Social Type Two where pride is your emotional pattern, this may play out by feeling more inflated by serving the needs of others in a group as opposed to looking at what you might need yourself.


Enneagram subtypes are yet another way people of the same type present differently. Everyone has an instinct stacking where one is overused, one is underused, and one is neutral. Knowing which instinct drives your reactions gives you great insight into how and where you spend your emotional energy. Given energy is highly valuable and what you pay attention to becomes you, your subtype can highlight the patterns of your type on a deeper level—and at the same time, bring you into closer alignment with yourself.

How does each instinct crossover with the Enneagram to form your subtype? Check out tomorrow’s post for a description of what each Enneagram subtype may look like.

Julianne Ishler

Julianne Ishler is a writer, Enneagram coach, and creative mentor. Obsessed with all things personality and storytelling, she helps creatives and entrepreneurs define their voice and feel empowered to follow their own path to live a life of fulfillment. She is based in Chicago and enjoys travel, rainy days, and deep conversations over hot tea.


AC0211 (not verified) says...

Super interesting 🧐 

XZ (not verified) says...

It's more accurately the sexual instinct, not one-to-one, and it's not about intimacy. It's about energy and activation.

szomebody (not verified) says...

Disagree. The sexual instinct focuses on intimacy and connection is not limited to only sexuality and sexual actions. Neither does it focus on energy and activation because the same can be said with the social instinct (i.e. I can have high social energy interacting with my community). "Energy" is a vague term and having a dominant sexual instinct does not imply a high energy level nor activation.

xr (not verified) says...

According to Russ Hudson, the 3 zones of the sexual instinct are: Attraction, Exploration/Edge, and Fusion/Merging. The 3 zones of so are: Reading People, Creating/Maintaining Connections, and Participation/Contribution. For sp: Self Care/Health, Practicality/Resources, and Domesticity/Home. 

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