Understanding Enneagram Wings: What They Are, and What They Are Not27 September 2021 / By Samantha Mackay Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on September 27, 2021
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 here.
Wings are an important part of the Enneagram. However, over the last several decades there has been some confusion about their nature and the role they play within the overall Enneagram system. And more importantly, how they help us grow.
So, we have all gotten a little distracted from the gifts they offer us.
In this article, we’re going to recalibrate our understanding of wings. But first, a quick reminder on where to find them on the Enneagram.
What are wings and where to find them
“Wings” is the term given to the two Enneagram types found on either side of your primary type. For example, a Two’s wings are One and Three, a Six’s wings are Five and Seven, and an Eight’s wings are Seven and Nine.
Like any evolving theory, it takes time for theorists and practitioners to fully understand and explore all the nuances of a model or system. We all have had moments of revelatory insight about how something works, and because of our excitement, shared that with everyone we know—only to discover down the track we were on to something, but not quite in the way we thought.
This is what happened with the modern Enneagram. Some very excited advanced practitioners published books and papers in the early decades of the development of the Enneagram, only to discover a decade or so down the track that they weren’t quite right and revised their position. But early editions of their book(s) remain popular or publishers aren’t open to updating them. So despite the changes, the outdated perspectives remain in common use. That is, they are all over Instagram and no one is the wiser.
That happened with wings. And now, armed with a deeper and broader understanding of the Enneagram, practitioners are sharing these updated perspectives, but it takes time for this to permeate the wider Enneagram consciousness.
Let’s start with what wings are, before we delve into what they are not.
The Enneagram isn’t just a tool to help us discover our personality type. It is a system to help us unravel the ego defenses that hold our personality in place. It is a system that guides our adult development to help each of us be more balanced, conscious human beings. And to do that, we need tools and guidance to show us what our primary personality is missing and how to gain those broader skills.
That is what wings provide. They are resources for growth that we can reach out to and integrate into our personality so we can each operate in a more holistic way. No matter what your type, you can consciously stretch out into either wing to work on whatever you need.
That is their primary purpose, and anything else is a bit of a distraction from that.
Wings as subtypes is a distraction from the Enneagram’s true purpose.
The main confusion about wings is whether they represent a subtype or not. For example, you may have heard people referring to themselves as a “Type 4 w 3” or a “Type 9 w 1.”
There are two issues with this, one practical and the other theoretical.
Let’s start with the practical one.
That is: focusing on “typology” distracts us from growth.
The Enneagram is first and foremost a model to help us breakfree of the personality defences we developed in childhood. It provides us with various pathways to growth. To determine which pathways to follow, it helps if we can determine which of the nine types we are.
When we focus on “picking a wing” we are using the Enneagram superficially, at the typology level. While we may see ourselves represented in a “wing,” it doesn't open a doorway to growth, but rather distracts us from our ability to look more deeply at our own actions.
For example, I remember when I used to plan hiking trips as a teenager. I would think through all the worst-case scenarios and be prepared for each. How would I respond if someone twists their ankle or breaks their leg? What would be our exit route in case of a bushfire? What if we were attacked by a gang? I had the biggest first aid kit of the group, plus multiple maps. I also worried about being comfortable, so I had a special pillow, sleeping mat and some fancy foods. Of course my backpack was heavier than anyone else's!
If I were using this situation at the typology level, I might brush this off by saying “Oh that’s just my Six wing acting up, I will be fine once this all calms down.” And that would allow me to avoid the much harder question about my deeper Seven motivations, such as, “Wow it looks like you are really overplanning this and taking too much stuff as a way to manage some underlying fear. What is the scary thing you don't want to acknowledge about this trip?”
Our primary Enneagram type provides us with everything we need to know about ourselves in order to observe, label and start to work with our deeper motivations. When we shift from seeing wings as part of “our type” to seeing them as resources for growth, we open up greater possibilities for ourselves.
If I were using my Six wing for growth, I could notice the negative data I was worrying about (bushfires and broken legs) and could slow down my feverish planning process to ask questions and assess the risks more objectively. I might ask the more experienced members of the group how they prepared for those events and what I really needed to take. Maybe the group could share the load.
Next is the theoretical issue
This is more advanced, so if you are just a beginner, skip over this section.
For something to function as a subtype, its core driver has to exert pressure on the main type in a completely unconscious way. In the case of Enneagram types, that would mean the core of your primary type would need to mix with the core of the wing type. At the core of each type is what is known as the “passion” in the Enneagram. (Which we could roughly translate into being an imbalanced emotional state operating at the subconscious level affecting all of your decisions).
So for wings to be a subtype, we would each need to have two passions operating within us, two core drives, and we don’t see this happening in reality. The personality structure does not form that way. We each only have one passion. (Which really is a relief, otherwise things would get even messier!)
For example, as a Seven my passion is called gluttony, or basically a desire for many experiences or things as a way to avoid fear. My excessively large first aid kit and heavy pack are a perfect example of gluttony at play. I always need more so I can protect myself from any future potential suffering. The Six’s personality structure is different. Their passion is “fear” and they are far more aware of that inner anxiety than other types (we all have anxiety, but we aren’t all aware of it). Gluttony and fear operate in two very different ways, and don't combine easily to operate as a subtype.
That is why wings are excellent as growth resources, but don’t shoulder the subtype load very well. That doesn't mean subtypes don’t exist, but another aspect of the personality structure fits that definition better. We’ll dive into those in a future article.
Wings are pathways for growth
Life is constantly presenting us with opportunities to evolve. Our personality served its purpose in childhood, and now it’s time to shake it off to embrace the natural flow of change that life asks of us. Of course, our personality stubbornly resists these invitations, hence it helps to know the pathways you need to walk in order to evolve.
So when you hear the call to grow, look to your wings for guidance. They will provide what you need in order to find more stability and balance within yourself.
You can learn more about using wings for growth in next week's post.