The Three Instincts of the Enneagram

In the final weeks of 2018, I wrote a series of 10 posts on the enneagram – a brief introduction to this personality typing system plus high-level descriptions of each of the nine types. Since then, I attended a workshop on the 3 instincts: Self-Preservation, One-to-One, and Social. Here are a few tidbits that I picked up from that experience.

If we look at ourselves as animals, we can view the three instincts through the lens of behaviors necessary to further our survival. We must attend to our material needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) and provide for our safety and security (Self-Preservation). We need to find a person with whom we will mate or be “besties” (One-to-One, a.k.a. Sexual). And we need to figure out how to get along with others in community (Social). Most of us lean heavily on one of these instincts to alleviate our anxiety and relax. We typically have a back-up instinct when the primary one is not engaged. And we tend to be less attuned to whichever instinct remains.

Here’s how our teacher characterized the instincts:

lone wolf


love birds


border collie


Attention Goes To: Physical environment Individual people Group identity and welfare
Concerned About: Material security and resources Bring seen and loved as an individual person One’s place in the group; the pecking order
Energy Goes To: Being prepared; avoiding shortfalls Attracting affection, intimacy, partnership Membership in groups; collaboration
Values: Having enough
Putting things in order
Setting priorities
Meaningful exchanges

Here’s how panelists who self-identified with these instincts described their perfect days (excluding work days):

Self-Preservation One-to-One Social
Awaken, wash, brush teeth
Morning routine
Organize for the day
Putter around the house and garden
Exercise; go for a walk
Relax in the evening, curled up with a good book
Walk with a friend
Run errands with a partner
Have lunch with a friend
Spend one-on-one time with children
Go on Facebook to connect with friends
Spend time with pets, listening to music, working on hobbies
Go to an exercise class
Volunteer at a nonprofit
Go to lunch with friends
Attend a lecture
Share a meal with family
Go to a community gathering (e.g., choir, service group, book club)

While this may seem quite academic, the “light bulb” goes on for me when I think about how it plays out in relationship. In particular, I have a strong “social” instinct with a back-up of “self-preservation.” I’m not natively a good fit with someone who has a strong “one-to-one” instinct as that level of intensity feels intrusive to me (and its absence feels cold and empty for them!) Likewise, a “self-preservation” oriented person with a “one-to-one” secondary instinct is not going to take comfort with a partner who is relentlessly social.

Of course, we can all find ways to accommodate the needs and predilections of our compatriots and loved ones. The enneagram provides a framework through which we can unearth these aspects of our personalities and have conversations about how we’ll engage them.

Which instincts resonate for you?