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Enneagram Instincts: self-preservation, sexual, and social

The Three Instincts

Descriptions of the Enneagram instincts vary depending on who you ask. This can create some confusion about what they are exactly and how to use them.

The Enneagram instincts are not represented on the symbol itself. They are generally considered to be three different survival strategies that we use to varying degrees. The self-preservation (sp) instinct is about going it alone. The sexual (sx) instinct is about bonding with a partner. The social (so) instinct is about being a part of a group or community.

Most of us as humans live in a world where we don't have to focus all of our energy on survival. So while the Enneagram instincts start out as survival strategies, similar to what can be found in the animal world, they carry over into our daily lives much more broadly.

The Self-Preservation Instinct (sp)

Often the self-preservation instinct is equated with self-survival. Descriptions generally talk about a focus on safety, comfort, finances, health etc. However, that's a narrow and somewhat misleading interpretation. It can better be thought of as a primary focus on self-concerns in general.

Preservation of the self doesn't simply involve survival but involves a preservation and maintenance of a separate and autonomous sense of self.

It can sometimes be easy for us to lose who we are in a relationship or a group. We get caught up in the expectations and demands of others. The self-preservation instinct not only maintains the needs of the self but also guards against a loss of self. Boundaries can go up when self autonomy feels threatened by others.

The Sexual Instinct (sx)

Sometimes people take the sexual instinct too literally and think it's actually about sex. That's why the sexual instinct is also called the intimate instinct or the one-to-one instinct.

Although the labels offer some hints of the instinct, none describe the instinct completely. Sexual alludes to the animal instinct of finding a mate and all that entails. One-to-one insinuates a preference for being with one other person vs. a group of people. Intimate gets closest when a more specific definition is used.

The sexual instinct focuses on intimacy with an object of interest. While the object of interest can be another person and the desire for a close relationship or encounter, it can also be the books of a particular author or the study of a particular discipline or the worship of a particular religion or deity and so on. There's a seeking of an intense connection with and intimate knowledge of whatever the object of interest is.

The Social Instinct (so)

Sometimes the social instinct is confused with sociability or even extraversion. While some people may express the instinct in that way, it's not definitive of the instinct itself.

While the self-preservation instinct seeks an autonomous sense of self and the sexual instinct seeks intimacy with an object of interest, the social instinct seeks inclusion and participation in something larger than oneself such as a group or community.

Participation has to do with everyone being on the same page, working toward the same ends, keeping connection with and tabs on other members, maneuvering within the ranks, internalizing the expectations and culture of the group, etc. Some people may want to be recognized and provide leadership while others may be happy just contributing and blending in. Awareness of inclusion vs. exclusion is also of concern (i.e., knowing who's in and who's out, who should be included and who should be excluded). 

Contrasting the instincts

What helps in understanding the instincts is to notice the contrasts between them. These contrasts often appear when the instincts look at each other.

The self-preservation autonomy presents an antithesis to the sexual and social instincts. Autonomy guards against losing a separate sense of self which often requires strong boundaries or detachments to keep that from happening. "You do your thing and I'll do mine."

The self-preservation instinct when looked at from the sexual or social instincts can often appear overly self-concerned, detached, isolated, and even selfish.

The sexual desire for intimacy demands more than the self-preservation and social instincts can offer. Intimacy requires the boundaries of the other be opened up making oneself more available to the relationship and going beyond casual social interactions to a deeper level of encounter. "You complete me."

The sexual instinct when looked at from the self-preservation or social instincts can often appear too demanding, intrusive, intense, and even clingy.

The social participation deals with something larger than the self-preservation and sexual instincts. Participation overrides self concerns and one-to-one relationships to put the interests of the group or community first. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few."

The social instinct when looked at from the self-preservation or sexual instincts can often appear superficial, pretentious, and even devaluing of the individual.

Using the instincts with the types

There are two approaches to using the instincts with the Enneagram types.

1. Instinctual Subtypes - this is the older and better known approach where each type is further divided into three subtypes using the instincts.

Click here for more on the instinctual subtypes.

2. Instinctual Variants (also called Instinctual Stacking) - this is a newer approach where a preferential order for all three instincts is found. This can be used with or without reference to Enneagram type.

Click here for more on the instinctual variants.

People often don't realize these are two different approaches to using the instincts and mistakenly use them interchangeably. Your instinctual subtype has nothing to do with your instinctual variant stacking, they're describing different things. Subtype is a variation of type and variant stacking is simply a preferential ordering of instinct.


Quick Guide to the Enneagram

This page is part of the Quick Guide to the Enneagram available on this website. For more information about any particular Enneagram type or the many concepts and history of the Enneagram types visit the Quick Guide main page.

The Nine Enneagram Types x
The Nine Enneagram Types