Understanding the Instincts

by | Aug 14, 2018 | Enneagram

(revised from “Instinctual Subtypes in the Consulting Room”, by Barbara Whiteside, © April, 2012)

Every one of us is born into the world with certain propensities which make up the part of our personality that we refer to as “nature”. These natural propensities mix with our environment and our conditioning, or what we call “nurture”, to develop a personality. Personality is defined as the relatively enduring patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This is what the Enneagram system refers to as Type.

In some ways, these Types can be traced back to the defenses or coping mechanisms we learned for surviving in the world psychologically. There is growing evidence that unresolved trans-generational traumas, bio-neurological predispositions, and even past life influences may affect our personality structure. But for the purpose of this article, I will stick with a more psychological point of view. Claudio Naranjo suggests that the Passion (emotional habit) of the Type manifests around three years of age and that the Fixation (mental habit) manifests around six years of age. This begs the question – what drives our survival needs in our earliest years?

Differentiated from our psychological survival, I believe the Instinctual Subtypes are key to our physical survival as individuals and as a species. Our physical body must survive to grow into adults who can then mate and reproduce for perpetuation of our species. Bonding together in social groups helps increase the odds of survival. Our instinctual drives may come into play before our emotional and mental habits develop. There is a survival intelligence at work with the Instincts that does not come from our head or our heart, but is firmly planted in the intelligence of the body.

Most of you who have worked with the Enneagram for many years understand that it is a system of differentiation. We have all the Types within us, and we have all the Instincts within us. Though we identify more strongly with a particular Type, and we are dominated often by a dominant Instinctual Subtype, we simply would not be alive if it were not for our Instinctual Subtypes all working in conjunction, more or less effectively. The metaphor of a three-legged stool has aptly been used by Enneagram teachers to suggest how important it is to develop all three of the Instinctual Subtypes in order to stay balanced and healthy. Much of the work of therapy and coaching can be to help clients find this kind of balance in their lives.

More than traits, characteristics, and behaviors, the Enneagram system first and foremost describes “energies”. We use language to describe traits, characteristics, and behaviors in order to point towards some understanding of these energies. But the focus of attention and motivational drive of each type and instinctual subtype can be missed if we get too caught up in these type descriptors. With this in mind, I will give a brief overview of each of the Instinctual Subtype energies.

The Three Instinctual Drives

All mammals share in common three basic drives which are essential hard wiring for surviving in the world. We are all driven to Self-Preservation – all life seeks to go on living. To stay alive, first and foremost, we must have food, water, clothing, and shelter. The Sexual/Attraction Instinct drives our biological imperative to mate and to pass on our genes, whether we choose to act on it or not. Hormones play a part in this. And finally, the Social/Affiliative Instinct is about the species’ survival – all species seek to continue. Social units often better the odds.

When individuals are in an unhealthy place, the passion of their type can amplify the extreme tendencies of their Instinctual Subtype.

Self-Preservation Instinct (SP is the abbreviation)

Healthy SP individuals have a sensible, grounded, common sense “feel” to them. They see the practical realities of what life requires in terms of health, home, money, body, and well-being, and how to meet those requirements. Their feet seem to be firmly planted on terra firma.

When they are in an unhealthy place, the Passion of the Type mixes with this Instinct, which can lead people to obsess about or neglect their SP concerns. For example, Nines can be mindful and awake in establishing practices that keep their finances, body, and home in a state of well-being. However, when they move into the unhealthy levels of the Nine, the passion of sloth (self-forgetting) frequently comes into play, and this can show up as obsession or neglect of home, body, finances and health. In an unhealthy state, the Nine may begin to forgo their conscious choice of eating well and exercising, getting lost in watching TV and eating junk food. Similarly, a healthy SP Eight may have a reasonable reserve of necessities should an earthquake hit or there be another financial down turn, but the passion of lust can show up in an unhealthy SP Eight through hoarding and obsession. An extreme image that comes to mind is of an unhealthy SP Eight man living on his land in a remote wilderness, with “No Trespassing Signs” planted everywhere, gold coins buried in his backyard, his doors triple locked, plenty of guns and ammunition that he’s not afraid to use, and a deep freezer stocked to last out a two-year siege.

There have been many arguments about whether altruism actually exists in human beings. I believe it does, if by altruism we mean a willingness to sacrifice the self for another. The Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived Auschwitz while his family perished describes this as “the self-transcendence of human existence”. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he describes the inner experience he had that moved him to give another prisoner his bread, and to stay behind when he had a chance to escape to take care of a sick man in his charge. I believe a higher human consciousness may have been at play here, so that Dr. Frankl, in effect, elevated the SP Instinct to include others as part of his own self-preservation.

I have no idea what Viktor Frankl’s Dominant Instinctual Subtype was. The reason I cited him as an example is because I imagine Self-Preservation is of primary concern for anyone in a concentration camp, no matter what their dominant instinct.

The Sexual Instinct (SX is the abbreviation)

Whether we act on it or not (and homo sapiens may be the only species to actually have that choice), we are driven to mate. This is the Sexual Instinct at play. Hormones play a large part. All life seeks to continue, and we are driven to reproduce and pass down our DNA. Animals instinctually engage in all kinds of behavioral displays to attract a mate, and a female in estrus becomes irresistible to her male counterpart. We human animals have the same instinct.

The SX Instinct arouses and regulates the nervous system. Intense, exciting, activating, energizing, initiatory and creative are words that are used to describe people with this as their dominant instinct. SX energy is not the same as a heart connection, attachment, or bonding, though at the higher levels of consciousness it will include these. Simply put, we can love someone who we don’t feel attracted to, and we can be attracted to someone we don’t love. Nor is this energy about sex per se. It is more about the nervous system’s arousal – think Kali, the Goddess of birth and destruction. This energy can manifest in the juiciness of an idea shared, the thrill of an extreme sport, or maybe just dancing Zumba to a heavy bass beat. I have heard it said that the SX Instinct dominant person is sometimes the least likely to need the sexual act precisely because so much of life is experienced through a sexual or arousal “lens”. We might differentiate this energy from heart energy by saying that the SX Instinct regulates the nervous system while the Heart center, with its need for connection, attachment and bonding, regulates the limbic system. Sex was happening long before the mammalian brain and its corresponding need for attachment came into existence.

Denial of sexual energy can wreak havoc, as we have witnessed with some priests of the Catholic Church who have tried to rid themselves of these forces, with the result being extremely damaging expressions of it with innocent children. From human trafficking to sado-masochistic sexual practices, to snuff pornography, there is no shortage of witnessing how this energy can incite nefarious actions in the world.

In a healthy SX dominant instinct person, this energy is harnessed and put to work in relationship as creative, activating, life-giving energy. The healthy SX Instinct person will be fully awake to this energy and find healthy expressions of it in both their personal life and in the world. When healthy, the sexual impulse regulates our nervous system and mixes with the higher levels of consciousness, manifesting in the juicy, exciting, activating arousal that comes from connecting, attaching, and bonding with another – this could be referred to as the energizing experience of Eros. Even a hermit or a monk in a monastery can have plenty of this energy. Read the writings of Rumi or Thomas Merton to sense the erotic force from which their words emerge. Stephen and Ondrea Levine, in their book “Embracing the Beloved” show us what is it to bring this instinct into the higher levels of consciousness in a marriage, and ultimately to healing in the world.

If our strongest instinct is Sexual and it is in an unhealthy place, the instinctual drive will amplify the passion of our Type. For example, imagine a SX Two who doesn’t know her own needs, and has seduced an intimate or friend by giving everything she believes is needed (this is the passion of pride). She can become very aggressive towards that person she believes is not reciprocating in the way the SX Two expects. Similarly, an SX One, who brings tremendous zeal to reforming his intimate partner, can get very angry when the partner doesn’t comply to doing it his “right” way.

The SX Instinct is often called “One-to-One” in Enneagram circles. I believe this is really a misnomer and misses an important point. People with the Self-Preservation or Social dominant instincts have their own versions of one-to-one relationships. For example, SP people often enjoy finding a mate who they can hang out with, together taking care of their shared well-being. Similarly, SC dominant people can cultivate one-to-one relationships for the shared vision and contribution that the group will make. For example, a family is a SC unit with a vision of a future together in which there are many one-to-one relationships. For that reason, I choose the word Sexual Instinct as I don’t feel the phrase One-to-One truly represents this specific instinctual energy.

The Social Instinct (SC is the abbreviation)

The Social Instinct can be seen in the family unit, and sometimes in mammals living together in groups. Mammals give birth to live young and nurse them until they are capable of surviving on their own. With some species, the father stays and the family unit remains intact while vulnerable young are being raised. In others, it is the mother and her offspring that form the family unit. Many mammals survive in groups, such as a pack of wolves, a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, or a troop of apes. This social context increases the chance of survival of the species.

People with a healthy Social Dominant Instinct demonstrate relational awareness. They sense the “flow” in a group, whether there is give and take in the conversation, and how to plug in. They have a sense of their own contribution and the contribution of others, are conscious of how they are “showing up”, and seem to be aware of the different positions or roles necessary to the group’s survival.

When a Socially dominant person moves into the unhealthy ranges of type, this Instinct mixes with the type’s passion and shows up in obsessive, compulsive and neglectful ways. For example, a SC Three in the lower ranges of health will not just strive for achievement and prestige. The passion of deceit mixed with the SC Instinct can drive the person into using people, propagandizing, cheating, and deceiving themselves and others, all for self-aggrandizement and to create the winning image. An unhealthy SC Five can obsess about being the most knowledgeable on his topic, be stingy or avaricious with this knowledge, and share only with his chosen few. More importantly, he can lose touch with his body and heart centers, with his “knowledge” not leading him to true wisdom. On a grander scale, I believe that whatever Hitler’s type was (the Enneagram community loves to speculate!), his SC Instinct completely distorted it, driving him and his Nazi followers to bring devastation to the world.

However, this drive, when brought into higher consciousness, can lead to the kind of social reform that Ghandhi brought to India as memorialized in his grandson’s book, “Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Non-Violence”, or Rosa Parks in her pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or Nelson Mandela in his 20 year prison term taking a stand against apartheid, or the civil rights movement maverick Martin Luther King Jr., or the 19th century women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, or the courageous Joan of Arc, not to mention Christ, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and scores of others.

Stacking Order

Most Enneagram teachers work from the assumption that we have a fixed stacking order of our Instincts, with one being Dominant, another being Secondary, and the third being the Blind Spot, or Underdeveloped Instinct. I remain curious about this because in my actual hands on experience with many people over the last 20 years, I think human developmental stages, as well as life circumstances, can actually shift the Instinctual stacking order for long stretches in one’s life, so I question the idea of a permanent stacking. A simple example is how many teenagers seem to be living more out of their SX Instinct, while people moving into the last third of life can really become more Dominant SP, even if that is not where they have been during their earlier years. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this article, I will give a few definitions.

The dominant instinct is the one that is most acted out through the Type. The secondary instinct is the one that supports the dominant. And the third is neglected and/or ignored instinct, and often not valued by the person. A low SP Instinct person might judge a high SP Instinct person as being selfish, focusing on how they seem overly obsessed with their own well-being. A low SX Instinct person may judge a high SX Instinct person as being way too intense, or just “too much”. A low SC Instinct person may judge a high SC Instinct person as superficial and lacking depth. (Self-observing your own biases might be one way to see your own Blind Spot!)

We really need to honor and develop all three of these Instincts in healthy ways, balancing that three-legged stool within ourselves. Generally, it doesn’t work to focus too much on not being whatever your dominant instinct is – ironically, this effort to “tone it down” just makes us more focused on it! Instead, the real work, often to our chagrin, is to develop our Blind Spot, that underdeveloped instinct we don’t really live into. When we do this, our whole system begins to come into balance, like a Rubik’s cube when one side gets solved. Indeed, this is hard work requiring us to delve into shadow aspects of our Underdeveloped Instinct, and it is well worth the effort.

I invite any questions or comments on my blog posts. Please send me an email and I will do my best to get back to you.   ~Barbara