Have you ever met two people with the same Enneagram type and wondered how they could be so different?
While the main Enneagram model shows the nine types of motivation, it’s actually just the tip of the personality iceberg. Once you get started, you’ll see there are many layers to consider when describing your personality. Outside of your main ego, the next most influential factor is your instinct—how you navigate the daily demands of life.
Each of us has three core instincts that help us survive: the desire to be safe and protected, to belong to a community, and to find love and meaningful connection. While each of us actively strives for all three, there’s always one that sits just a little higher than the rest.
Typically, you’ll be extremely aware of your primary instinct, feel indifferent towards your second, and be relatively underdeveloped with your third.
With the Enneagram, when your core personality (motivation) blends with your dominant instinct (survival), you end up with an Enneagram sub-type.
This explains why there’s variation among people of the same type or why you don’t seem to find one that fits just right—because all of the nine Enneagram types also have three instinct-based variations.
This means instead of choosing from 9 personality types, you actually are looking at 27 subtypes, each with its own distinct flavor.
What are the three subtypes?
Your instincts are what drive your reactions to situations you encounter during your daily life. Like receiving a heated email from a client, getting writer’s block, or skipping lunch. Knowing which instinct is dominant will give you a lot of insight into how and where you spend most of your emotional energy.
So let’s take a look at each of the three in-depth.
family, warmth, security, safety, hunger, self-care, environment
The self-preservation instinct is concerned with being safe, secure, and cared for. They want to make sure they have access to food, a comfortable environment, and are mentally ok. They avoid anything that’s going to add stress, overwhelm, or compromise their physical well-being.
This is the type that’s going to pack a snack, stay hydrated, and check to make sure accommodations are comfortable, and that there’s enough money in the bank account. They want to know ahead of time that they have lodging, transportation, and dinner plans.
They manage their energy and resources to avoid being in situations where their physical and mental needs are uncertain, and they’re unclear on when or where their necessities will come from.
membership, friends, belonging, community, peers, society, tribes
The social instinct prioritizes relationships to establish a sense of belonging. It’s important to this type to bring something to the table and become a member of a tribe. People with a dominant social instinct tend to easily collaborate and enjoy working with others. They also want to feel involved in a common goal and connected to a group that’s built upon the greater good.
This is the type that’s going to read the room, make friends easily, form connections, and always know exactly where to turn. This instinct finds safety as part of a group, knowing that tribes protect their own. They want to know who and where they belong so that when life gets tough or uncertain, they’ll have resources within the community they belong to.
They manage their emotional energy by keeping tabs on where they currently stand, how they’re being perceived, and which social contracts they’re making to ensure their place in the group. They avoid being in situations where the social dynamics are unclear or they’re at risk of not belonging.
sexuality, intimacy, close friendship, sensuality, attraction, connection
The one-to-one instinct is intensely focused on specific relationships. Instead of desiring general membership to a tribe, they want to be attached to another—whether it’s a partner, spouse, or best friend. This type wants passion, excitement, and intimacy. They want to feel deeply connected and bonded to one another in order to maintain a close tie.
This is the type that’s going to call their best friend throughout the day, prioritize romantic relationships, start a business with a partner, and focus on personal development in order to have deeper connections. This instinct finds safety in being a priority in someone else’s life and navigating uncertainty together. They want to know that they are important in the eyes of those they’ve chosen to be close to and maintain their standing.
They manage their emotional energy by tending to a few chosen relationships over the many, keeping tabs on potential rivals and a pulse on the health of their close connections.
How do I figure out which subtype I have?
You might have gotten an idea of your subtype while reading through each instinct, but there are a few more ways to figure out which one is dominant in your life.
The best way to find your Enneagram subtype is to notice where your attention goes throughout the day.
I like to use travel as a cue to someone’s subtype because it deals with preparing for uncertain circumstances:
- Outside of typical accommodations required for any trip—are you most concerned with the comfort of your surroundings, what kind of food you’ll have access to, and what kind of transportation is available? Do you check to see what the local currency is and if there are any vaccines or political threats you should know about? If so, you might have a self-preservation dominant instinct.
- Do you first ask a friend or partner to go with you or meet you there? Do you envision new experiences that will allow you to form meaningful memories without the distractions of everyday life? Do you feel a rush thinking of exploring new places together and becoming closer as a result? You might have a one-to-one dominant instinct.
- Or, do you research how people dress, act, and blend in with the culture? Do you check to see if you already know anyone there or brush up on the language before you go? Do you check to see what the nightlife is like or if you can join a tour or activity to learn more about the place with other people interested in the same things? You might have a socially dominant instinct.
If you’re still confused, you can ask those closest to you what they think. While this can be a helpful start, no one knows you as deeply as you know yourself. You might have to do a little bit of journaling and research before correctly identifying your subtype. I’d recommend keeping a log of how you react to uncomfortable situations and seeing if any patterns emerge.
How does my Subtype affect my life?
Your subtype pattern influences how you react to uncertainty and your daily experiences, even more than your core Enneagram type.
Sometimes these instincts go completely unnoticed until someone else makes us aware of them in our own lives. Through self-awareness and intentional communication, small differences in your subtype can create incompatibility in your relationships and cause tension over time.
Becoming aware of your dominant instinct, and learning the subtypes of those closest to you, can help you see the world through their eyes and avoid misunderstanding when someone else’s preoccupations don’t match your own.
Some people see their dominant subtype instantly, but for others, it’s a matter of becoming more and more aware of your reactions over time. Those who know us well may offer useful feedback since we don’t always see ourselves objectively.
Knowing your subtype is yet another way you can grow as a human. Unlike your type, your instinct stacking can change with mindful redirection, but it’s just as common for you to lean on your dominant instinct for your entire life. If your stacking does change, it’s usually the first and second instincts that shift, since you’re most aware of these.
The ultimate goal, just like any Enneagram growth work, is balance. Bringing all three of your instincts into harmony creates higher levels of self-awareness and allows you to better protect your emotional energy and mental peace.
Here are some ways you can use your subtype for personal growth:
- Try to find 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? Do you avoid serious relationships and keep your distance from friends?
- Pay attention to how your dominant instinct carries you throughout the day, even when you might overuse it. Maybe your dominant instinct is self-preservation and you find yourself stressing about time, money, and logistics rather than being present.
- Notice where your emotional energy goes and if there are any patterns to how you feel. 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.
I still don’t feel like the Enneagram describes me.
Another thing to take into consideration is the counter-types. Those who are a countertype often have a harder time finding their Enneagram type because they may not be a stereotypical description of their main Enneagram type.
Every Enneagram type has a counter-type that demonstrates a preference for one of the three core instincts. The dominant instinct clashes with the typical pattern of the type resulting in atypical behavior. However, the motivation is still the same—it’s just expressed differently.
We’re going to take a deeper dive into subtypes and counter-types as we explore how these instincts show up in all 9 of the main Enneagram types. By the end of this series, my goal is to help you sort out which Enneagram type best suits you and how you can use this model to focus on becoming a better version of yourself!