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What are Enneagram Instincts?

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Instincts, or Instinctual Variants, or just Variants as some call them. Translation: Welcome to some of the convoluted enneagram terminology, friends! Whatever you call them (I prefer "Instincts") they are the most superficial level of who you are. Superficial meaning the top-most-layer, not unimportant. These instincts guide your decision making from the minute you wake up, so you best know 'em! Ready? Let's get into it!


The Enneagram Instincts describe the most fundamental part of every day life.

Instincts are immediate, often subconscious, reactions to our environment. We do a thousand things every day that we don't even think about, that are caused by our instincts. And what the Enneagram does, is group all those instinctual behaviors into three main categories.

  • The Social Instinct

  • The Self-Preservation Instinct

  • The Sexual Instinct

We all have each of these three enneagram instincts operating within us to varying degrees. However, we usually have one dominant instinct that influences the way our core personality gets expressed. It's important to understand that these instincts, or variants as some people call them, are the most superficial layer of your Enneagram Type.

In case you didn't know, your full Enneagram Type has three layers:

  1. The most superficial layer is your Primary Instinct.

  2. The next layer is your primary Enneagram Type.

  3. And the last layer is your Enneagram Wing.

So the most complete description of an Enneagram Personality Type should sound like this:

"I'm a 1 wing 9 with a Self-Preservation instinct."

As you get to know the Enneagram, that complete description will tell you so much about a person.

Fun Fact: If you count up all the possible combinations of Enneagram Personality Types given the fact that there are 3 instinctual variants and 9 Personality Types with 2 different wings to choose from, you have 54 different Enneagram Type combinations, each with 9 levels of health. Just by comparison, Meyers-Briggs has only 16 possible combinations.

The Social Instinct

Now, just as people with a self-preservation instinct desire safety and comfort through material resources, people with a Social Instinct desire safety & comfort through personal connections. They're like herd animals that always travel in a pack for safety. It's a pretty foundational human instinct to form groups, gangs, tribes and nations as it not only fosters protection from other outside groups, but it also fosters a sense of purpose and belonging. So even a typically reserved or isolated Type Five Investigator may foster a strong community of fellow intellectuals because they provide a sense of groundedness amidst all the complex theories and ambiguity of life.

My wife is a Type 3 Acheiver with a STRONG social instinct and I've seen her cultivate many friendships within every environment she finds herself. If you look at our wedding photos - you can see multiple clusters of friend groups developed over the past few decades. They are all distinctly different people too! None of her friends are the same kind of person. And that's because growing up, she didn't have much of a stable family life. She had to find her safety net in the outside world at school, internships, clubs, and volunteer organizations. Her desire to be accepted mixed with her extremely charismatic personality taught her that she could get what she needed from pretty much any social setting. Now, some people have a large enough and stable enough family to where their social instinct does not go beyond their blood relatives. However, the majority of the time the social instinct creates a deep desire to be included in a broader purpose or community where praise & attention can be won.

That's because Social types have a keen eye for power structures. They want to feel "plugged in" to what's goin on. They may like random phone calls just to keep their finger on the pulse of whatever the organization or community is up to. At parties, they will assuredly be drawn to the host or most prominent figure in attendance. This desire to "work the room" makes social types avoid any disturbing or vulnerable topics. Social types would prefer to keep the party going at all times so the last thing they wanna do is draw negative attention to themselves by expressing heavy emotions. Thankfully, people like Brene Brown are making vulnerability more en vogue - but it's still not a natural reflex for most social types.

This avoidance of deep topics and troubling emotions can make social types resent the very people they wish to win over. When unhealthy, social types may feel overwhelmed by the sheer idea of making plans or showing up to social commitments. They can feel resentment for all the "phony people" they've had to impress over the years and go into isolation. They can become defensive against even their most committed, loving friends - and this should become their warning sign that things have spiraled a bit too far into unhealth. Overall, the Social Instinct is a core part of all human beings, and it's the reason why things like solitary confinement, or ya know, self-quarantines during a pandemic, become brutal forms of punishment for all personality types.

Ok, that's enough about the social instinct. Time for the one we've all been waiting for, the Sexual Instinct.

The Self-Preservation Instinct

People with a self-preservation instinct are far more concerned with the basic necessities in life: their home, health, job, and money. All of these material things are important because they bring comfort and security. The Self-preservation instinct can even take an adventurous Type 7 and make them love being home because they can renovate and expand and play with their favorite toy - which is, their house. And money lets them continually expand their house in new ways with new gagets and new designs that alleviate their fear of boredom or being trapped in a lame life.

Self-preservation is my primary instinct so I feel like I have an intimate understanding of how this instinct plays out in daily life. For example, I've spent 13 years here in Los Angeles, which is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and for most of my 20s I was flat broke. So my self-preservation instinct kicked into high gear and I found a way to save enough money each month to pay rent, put gas in my car, and buy groceries - and by groceries I mean the dollar menu. My self-pres instinct also helped me avoid a lot of toxic relationships because I never wanted to spend my time with people who were wasting all of theirs. Overall, the self-preservation instinct makes people great at maintaining and protecting resources of all kinds.

Now some of the negative implications of the self-preservation instinct. First, this instinct causes a lot of worry and anxiety. The most extreme example of the self-pres instinct gone haywire would be those people that build an end-of-the-world bunker in their backyard in case of a nuclear war or zombiepocalypse. The self-preservation instinct is like a radar that goes off around anything that would cause bodily harm or even mild discomfort. In relationships, the self-preservation instinct can make people extremely self-centered. They may have a sort of poverty mentality where they will hoard their resources even if they're well off, and then they will shamelessly ask you for your time, energy, or other resources.

Now one fairly innocuous clue that someone is a self-pres type is that they tend to hate being interrupted. We see our mental energy and focus is a limited resource, so if we're in the creative flow, you damn well better have a good reason for distracting us or we'll feel like we lost something we'll never get back. There's a great scene in the Phantom Thread where Daniel Day-Lewis's character is in the middle of creating a new gown and his assistant interrupts him by bringing him some tea. This sweet gesture is seen as a needless annoyance, and when she apologizes by saying she'll take the tea and go, he responds by saying "The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me." Yeah...we can be real assholes.

On the bright side, Self-preservation types can be extremely practical, responsible, and minimalistic. I love seeing minimalism take off because it's at the heart of sustainability and necessity. A healthy self-preservation instinct drives us to have only what we need and share the rest. When a self-pres person feels at peace with their resources, they can create extremely stable and welcoming homes for others to enjoy. Greed and stinginess are super distasteful characteristics to a self-pres type, so if you plan on skipping out on the group's tab at a restaurant or not brining anything to the party, self-pres types will be quick to cut you out of the social circle. When people have a repressed self-preservation instinct, they have a hard time accumulating wealth, caring about their jobs, or taking care of their bodies. Sometimes if we self-preservation types are overwhelmed by life, we may deliberately sabotage our main instinct by overeating, overspending, or hoarding useless goods. But that's enough on the Self-Preservations Instinct, so let's move on to the Social Instinct.

The Sexual Instinct

Depending on who you are - you're either really excited or pretty uncomfortable talking about the Sexual Instinct. I think most people are unfomrtable talking about the sexual instinct, especially in groups of their peers or coworkers, and that's why some Enneagram consultants changed the name of the sexual instinct to the "one-to-one" instinct. But as uncomfortable as I'd be talking about the sexual instinct with, idk lets say - my parents - I'm keeping the label as is. Because as Frank Underwood once said, "Everything in this world is about sex - except for sex. Sex is about Power."

That quote perfectly sums up what the Sexual Instinct is really all about: Power. Electricity. Excitement. Intensity. As the Enneagram Institute teaches, the sexual instinct turns people into plugs looking for a socket. This instinct can drive even a rigid Type 1 Reformer to seek out intimate and turbulent relationships with chaotic partners in order to feel truly alive. People with a sexual instinct are pulled, often subconsciously, into relationships and activities that promise excitement of some kind. This could manifest as a tendency to spark wild conversations about unconventional ideas, or taking a spontaneous trip to a new city. I had a roommate in college with a strong sexual instinct - don't ask me why I know that - and he once convinced me to drive out to Las Vegas from LA on a random Thursday night. For some reason, we got dressed in the only suits we owned and started the 4 hour drive that got us into Vegas just past midnight. I wasn't even 21 yet so I had literally nothing to do but walk around and hope I could snag a free drink while he gambled. Aside from almost falling asleep at the wheel - he found a way to make it fun. We were absolutely wrecked the next day and had to skip class. Oh well we thought, life is short...“And if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

That devil-may-care attitude is what can lead sexual types to completely abandon their responsibilities or relationships when they become dull. Their true gift is in their ability to cultivate energy & excitement when there is none, but they often have a hard time looking inside themselves for the answer to their lack of intimacy, intrigue, and excitement. When the sexual instinct is completely absent or neglected, people may fall into mindless routines that numb the senses and repress their desire for pleasure. Think about those old married couples that never spice things up anymore because they've got a few kids, a predictable job, and mind-numbing tv to watch every night.

In my younger days, I used to see the sexual instinct as purely self-indulgent. Growing up a conservative christian will do that to ya. Let's not talk about that whole book dedicated to sensual relationships - let's just read the book of Numbers again and repent for our heathen ways. For real tho - Sexual types just seemed like they were never satisfied - and some aren't. But the sexual instinct keeps us curious, keeps us hungry, and keeps up energized as we explore the endless mysteries of life and our partners. I love the sexual instinct for its unwillingness to accept the status quo in life. And when the sexual instinct is healthy & balanced, it can bring vitality and passion to even the most mundane experiences. Often times we rigid folk just need to give it permission to be present in our daily lives, otherwise we're doomed to a life of predictable loops.

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