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.

Another simple, yet important, aspect of the Enneagram is to understand what each type naturally pays attention to, and then how that type shapes the world around it to support that focus. 

There are three options: self-referencing, other-referencing or both. Self-referencing types focus on themselves – their needs, feelings, and priorities and construct their life around ensuring those are recognized. Outer-referencing types focus on the people and environment around them – the needs, feelings and desires of other people and adapting themselves to ensure those are met. For types that reference both, their inner and outer experience continually shape each other in an unconscious way. 

Let’s take a brief look at the three types associated with each. 

Focusing on self first: Self-referencing

Enneagram Fours, Fives and Sevens direct their attention and energy inwards, focusing on their inner experience first. Other types may see them as being selfish, self-absorbed or uncaring but to Fours, Fives and Sevens, focusing on themselves first makes sense. 

Fours reference their feelings, focusing on how they are feeling and the status of the emotional connection they have with others. They spend their energy thinking about their feelings and on expressing their feelings. While Fours have a gift for connecting to a wide range of emotions, they can get lost in their own sadness, grief and longing. 

This can mean at times forgetting they are in relationships, resisting positive feedback or feeling their emotions with depth and intensity.

Fives reference their energy levels and resources. They start the day by assessing how much energy they have and how they are going to use it. Just like the gas tank in a car, Fives ask themselves everyday, “How far can I go today on this tank and not run out?” Fives focus on protecting themselves from intrusion, feelings and the unexpected in order to avoid depletion. 

This can mean erecting strong boundaries, limiting their social interactions to people they really like and trust, and aiming to live on little.

Sevens reference their needs. And because of their need to escape pain and suffering, Sevens focus on their own plans, preferences, priorities and pleasures and then set about getting those things – even going as far as (unconsciously) manipulating the world around them to ensure they get what they want. 

This can mean having a busy social calendar, focusing only on the positive, and being overly charming and persuasive. 

Focusing on Others First: Other-Referencing

Twos, Threes and Nines direct their energy outwards, focusing on other people first and then adapting their inner experience to match. Other types may see them as martyrs, chameleons or pleasers, but to these types it makes sense to focus on other people first.

Twos reference other people’s needs and feelings, particularly of people they are close to or want to be close to. They then adapt themselves to what they think each person will like. They shapeshift between people and situations, sugar coating things if necessary. 

That can mean struggling to know what they need or feel, adopting a hobby as their own because someone they want to be close to likes it, and not asking for help in case it leads to rejection. 

Threes reference others' definition of value and success. Then they craft an image that makes them appear just like their “successful role models” forgetting who they really are in the process. Instead of being aware of their feelings and values, they become hyper aware of any external obstacles blocking their path to success.

That can mean avoiding failure at all costs, not doing work you like or love, and knowing how to play to a crowd and adapt accordingly. 

Nines reference other people’s agendas and desires. Instead of shapeshifting like Twos and Threes, Nine’s unconsciously forget about their own priorities and simply go with the flow to keep the peace. They want what others want to ensure everything remains calm. 

That can mean being busy doing everything but what’s important to them, saying “I don’t know, what do you want?” a lot, and sometimes being a bit invisible. 

Focusing on Both: Both-referencing

Enneagram Types One, Six and Eight focus on both their inner and outer world. In what is like a complex game of ping pong for these types, the ball bounces back and forth between the inner and outer world shaping their perception of reality with each bounce.

Ones reference a set of inner world rules that govern how they are able to behave externally. Essentially they control and manage the expression of their natural impulses. Thus, they are more aware of their inner world experience than Two, Three and Nines, but not as focused on getting their own needs met as Fours, Fives and Sevens. 

Instead of expressing anger it becomes politeness, envy becomes praise and admiration, indecision becomes optimism. They can also aim to be faultless in some way. 

Sixes reference potential threats. Sixes fear many things, and project their internal fears onto the world around them. Not recognising these as their own fears, they then imagine how to prepare for when these perceived threats materialize.

That can mean taking a long time to trust people, questioning authority, not being able to take action until you have a plan for every worst case scenario but feeling calm when something does go wrong.

Eights reference power and justice, knowing who has it and protecting those who haven't. Eights project their own vulnerability onto others, so they can take action without feeling their own pain. 

That can mean being assertive or decisively taking charge of a situation, being protective of people they care about, using their power to confront unfairness, right wrongs and wrestle power from the corrupt or unjust authorities. 

Now what?

Knowing whether you are self-referencing, other-referencing or both can help you make peace with the traits of your type. Before we can relieve the tension contained in our type and start to heal our self-limiting behaviors, we must first accept who we are and the strategies we have used to navigate life’s challenges. 

Samantha Mackay

Samantha Mackay is a certified Enneagram and leadership development coach who believes work should be energizing, not draining. She combines the Enneagram with her experience of recovering from burnout twice to help leaders and teams thrive during stressful times. Connect with Samantha at