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  • Enneagram Instincts

    Self Preservation, Social, Sexual/One-to-One

    Adapted from the work of  Peter O’Hanrahan, Russ Hudson & Mario Sikora

    Enneagram theory describes three Instincts or driving motivations that are strategies we all use for survival.  Each of us has, and uses, all three Instincts, but we each tend to have an “Instinctual Stack”, or order in which we prioritize our instincts.  The instinct at the top of the stack is the one which we are most familiar with; it’s where we place a lot of attention, and it’s what we feel like we just “have to have”.  We use our next instinct in the stack as a close second, and it supports the first. Our third instinct is somewhat out of our awareness, and is the one we largely ignore.  Becoming aware of, and balancing our instincts, is an important part of Enneagram work.  We can over-use our primary instinct, which creates both advantages and disadvantages for us, and our underdeveloped instinct can cause us suffering. Below is a description of the three instincts. 

    Self Preservation: Attention and energy go to issues related to personal survival, such as safety, security, comfort, protection, and adequate basic resources such as food, shelter, and warmth.

    Animal Example:  Squirrel 

    Energetic “Temperature”: Warm

    Connection Style: Nurturing

    People who lead with a self preservation instinct have an underlying drive to survive by prioritizing their basic physical and material needs.  SP people put lots of energy into their “nest”.  They will usually have specific patterns around their food intake and/or storage.  They are nurturing of those in their close circle. They tend to like traditions-think of the word “preserve”.  Finances and financial security are usually very important.  They can feel “out of sorts” when environmental conditions aren’t optimal, ex. too hot, too cold.  They’re more likely to plan ahead for security than other instincts. They’re often interested in nutrition, vitamins, and staying healthy. They’re savers and coupon clippers. SP people takes advantage of the “buy one get one free” even when they don’t use the product.  They’ll stuff a muffin from the buffet in their bag for tomorrow’s breakfast, or spend $5 on gas to drive to Target to return a $4 item. They generally want to be comfortable in their clothes, and don’t like to draw attention to themselves through their attire, and avoid uncomfortable shoes at all costs. They’ll have a felt sense of when their body is getting sick-they can feel a cold coming on really early. They’ll take good care of possessions and when they are broken they get things repaired. The grass is always cut.  SP people have an overall natural ability to take care of, and conserve resources.

    If the instinct is third in the stack, it’s the underdeveloped instinct, sometimes referred to as the “Blind Instinct”.

    Underdeveloped SP instinct: A person who is Self Preservation “Blind” doesn’t know “to come in out of the rain”.   A person with low SP may have difficulty with self care activities such as eating on a regular basis, eating healthy, taking care of their health.  There may be little interest in curating a “home” environment.  There is often an avoidance of activities of daily living such as laundry, housekeeping, grocery shopping, paying bills, etc. 

    Social Attention and energy go to issues related to your community and group membership, such as role, status, social acceptance, belonging, participation and fellowship.

    Animal Example:  Chimpanzees 

    Energetic “Temperature”: Cool

    Connection Style: To be of service to others

    People whose dominant instinct is Social have an underlying drive to survive by making human connections their priority.  Alliances and coalitions become a strategy to survive.  Social Instinct people often find themselves on committees.  They may be aware of, or follow politics, and are very attuned to the dynamics in social situations or at work.  They tend to be comfortable with “gossip”, not in a pejorative way, but more in the style of feeling an obligation to keep everyone abreast with what’s going on with everyone else.  They find themselves “sizing people up”…who can I trust?  Who do I have to keep an eye out for? Who do I have reciprocity with? Who might be my allies in this group? What’s my place and where do I fit in? How do I orient to the group? Participation is usually a top priority for people with Social as their dominant instinct-they have a strong need to feel useful.  The Social  believes the best way to survive is to interact with people, because we are inter-dependent.  The assumption that all Social subtypes enjoy socializing and like to be in groups is a false stereotype.  It’s the awareness of social dynamics that is important here…someone can be dominant in the Social instinct and be an introvert, yet are still highly attuned to what is happening socially.  Social butterfly does not necessarily equal Social dominant instinct. 

    Underdeveloped Social: A person low in Social may have a hard time picking up on social cues.  It may feel difficult to check on friends who might be going through something hard.  This person may not enjoy group situations or group dynamics, particularly cliques, and often like an outsider in groups. 

    Sexual/One-to-One:  Attention and energy go to issues related to connection in vital relationships such as bonding with special others, sexual intimacy, attractiveness, closeness, union and merging.  This union or merging doesn’t have to be to a person-it could be to a passion project, etc.  Also called the “Attraction” instinct by Mario Sikora, this instinct is related to the need for intensity in all things. 

    Animal Example:  Peacock 

    Energetic “Temperature”: Hot 

    Connection Style: Intense Merging 

    People who are dominant in Sexual or One-to-One Bonding Instinct have an underlying drive to survive by having a strong connection to one special person or with an  “object of desire” which may include experiences, not just people.  This can occur in romantic partnerships, as well as in friendships.  Pairings are characterized by intensity, sizzle, and have a “combustible” vibe.  It’s about stimulation, excitement, change, newness, “juice”, electricity.  It’s expansive, and wants to move into new territories. Sexual instinct folks like to break out of habits, routines, and safety structures.  They are quite aware of own radiance and charm, and are looking for someone else or something else to “light them up”.  They have an ability to let their light shine through, and there is a need to “broadcast”. They’re looking for passion in relationships and with whatever interests them in life, so that can mean being passionate about diving into a good book, or feeling electricity with vigorous exercise.  The key thing to remember is that there is total attention with passion.  There’s a tendency to do things that catch the eye, draw attention to oneself, which doesn’t have to be about the physical self, although it often is.  It’s about display, seductiveness, and enticing people-Sx dominant people enjoy creating an audience.  Less self aware Sexual types talk “at you”, and they talk about themselves.  It increases the chances that something I have to say will stick with you, which then increases the probability of my survival.  People who lead with this instinct are often comfortable with risk, financially, and physically.

    Underdeveloped Sexual/One-to-One: They tend to be uncomfortable with their own body, and physical urges.  They’ll feel exhausted by too much intensity and avoid it in a partnership.  They prefer to stay away from too much excitement or change, and enjoy the sensation of keeping life copacetic. 

    Warring contradiction of our Instinct causes us to suffer: Mario Sikora describes how opposing sides of our instinct play out.  Example-for SP….I see a cookie, I want to eat the cookie, but a part of me says don’t eat the cookie.  Both are part of the SP instinct.  Part of the instinct drives to me eat more than I need because we should store up while we can, for a time when food is not available.  The instinct for sugar is related to the nutrients in fruit.  The other part of my instinct drives me to avoid the cookie because I know I’m overweight and that cookie does not aid my long term survival.  So the two sides are at war, yet they are both part of the SP instinct.  The dissonance associated with this contradiction is what makes us suffer, and those around us suffer.

    Contradictions: Within each instinct, there are “push-pull” experiences that contradict one another.

    Self Preservation:  To Conserve vs Indulge. Ex. I want to save money, but I really want a high quality comfortable pillow, and they’re expensive.  So I buy it but I feel guilty.  I want you to have a piece of pie, but I don’t want you to take the last piece if it means I won’t get any.  

    Social:  Seeking Acceptance vs Image Management. How much do I reveal, how much do I hold back?  I want you to like me enough to reciprocally help me, but not so much that you’ll know too much about me and not assist me when I need it. 

    Tendency to Connect vs Tendency to Judge: I want to connect, but I have to size you up, and that involves judgements. It’s not judgements related to standards like a Type 1-it’s about sizing you up so I can stay safe.  Trying to figure out how I compare to you so that I know our relative places in the group. Social Instinct people can read between the lines socially.  They read social cues well, and are good at knowing what will bring collaboration.  They know how to co-create with others and build relationships-the social glue.  They’re curious about people’s stories; they understand teamwork and networking.

    Sexual/One-to-One:  Bonding vs Needing the stimulation of something new. Wanting one audience, then another.  

    Charm vs Narcissism.  They want to bond with you but forget to ask you questions about how you’re doing.  

    People who are dominant in the Sexual Instinct often misidentify themselves as the Social Instinct, because they like to talk, but they are not skilled at taking the social cues such as when talking too much is not working.  

    Others tend to have the strongest reactions to the Sexual types.  We connect with them or we really don’t.   At times, a Sexual dominant instinct person will be so consumed with broadcasting, they forget to inquire about others. 

    Confluence of the Instinct and the Type: The Enneagram SubTypes are formed by the confluence of the “passion”, or challenge of the Type, and the dominant instinct, and so we will discover that the challenges of our Type will play out within our dominant instinct in big ways. For instance, if you are a Type 9, you can be a Self Preservation 9, a Social 9, or a Sexual 9.  The passion of the Type 9 is classically called “Sloth”, but is better described as “Self Forgetting”.  In keeping with this example, for a Type 9, the passion of self forgetting will manifest in the dominant instinct.  For example, a Sexual 9 will “forget” themselves through merging and fusion with a significant other.  

    Example:  a SP 4 will have the instinct to put energy into the nest, and one of the challenges of the Type (need to be special, as an example) will translate into the home environment being unique in some way.  

    Example: The 6 is motivated to feel safe and secure, with one of the challenges being lack of trust.  If it’s a Social 6, there will be lots of energy spent in figuring out who I can trust in the group, feeling doubtful about how I fit in. The Social 6 will spend energy on figuring out how to find safety in their groups. 

    Confusion over our dominant instinct:  We have all three instincts, and use all three instincts and for this reason it can be difficult to discern our dominant one. Based on life circumstances, we will utilize the instinct best suited for the purpose. So, if I have a financial issue, I will buckle down and utilize more SP.  In the teen years, we will see more Social because how I fit in is critical.  In early adult years, I may use more of my Sexual/One-to-one instinct as I try to find a partner.  Sikora suggests thinking about your pattern when life is good….when you are relaxed and there’s not a lot of stress going on, what do you revert to? 

    If our dominant instinct is badly out of balance, it may look similar to the underdeveloped instinct (third in the stack).  It can be a bit confusing, but thinking about where you have rigidity or preoccupation vs a lack of awareness can be helpful.  For instance, a person dominant in Self Preservation, but who is out of balance with the instinct might not have a healthy relationship with food.  Highly restrictive diets are an example of SP out of balance.  If there is preoccupation or rigidity around the restrictions, it may be dominant SP out of balance, vs a person who is Sexual dominant and is so intensely engrossed in the art project they are working on that they forget to eat or shower, which would be low SP.  

    Questions for Exploration

    1. How do the instincts play out in my life, and which one seems to predominate?  Which one is underdeveloped?

    1. How does preoccupation with my instinct benefit my relationships? How does it get in the way?

    1. What could I begin to do, or reduce doing, to bring more balance into my life with respect to the 3 instincts?