The Detailed Guide to Enneagram Instinctual Variants

25 May 2023

The Enneagram is a very comprehensive personality typing system that takes into account many different factors, such as instinctual variants, for example, in defining a personality type.

Maybe you have determined your Enneagram core type and your wing but you still feel like there’s more to you than what you have learned so far. You are actually very right, and it is time to dive even deeper and discover which of your core survival instincts played the most important role in shaping you as a person.

What Are Instinctual Variants?

According to the Enneagram theory, we are all under the influence of three major instincts that have allowed us to survive. These are:

  • The self-preservation instinct, which forces us to focus on the essentials we need to survive, such as food, water, and shelter.
  • The social instinct, which highlights our need to belong to the group in order to survive.
  • The sexual (one-to-one) instinct that governs our need for intimate relationships.

To better understand what instinctual variants are, let’s first see how each instinct works.

Self-Preservation Instinct

The self-preservation instinct is also often referred to as the survival instinct. Its purpose is to protect us from being harmed or extinguished by others. So, when this instinct is strong, the person will be worried about safety and try to always make sure their basic needs are met.

Social Instinct

As humans, we have learned through evolution that our chances of survival are much higher if we are part of a group. People with a dominant social instinct prioritize their relationships with their communities and usually comply with social expectations.

Sexual Instinct

Procreation is one of the best ways to ensure the survival of our genetic material. When sexual instinct dominates our personality, we will be mainly focused on our romantic and other close relationships.

What Are Subtypes & How to Find Your Subtype?

The term "instinctual variants" actually refers to Enneagram subtypes. Since there are three major instincts, each Enneagram type can have three instinctual variants or subtypes based on which primal instinct is dominant. Generally, one instinct will be more pronounced than the other two, which usually depends on our earliest experiences and our core nature.

Some authors also propose a theory of instinctual variants stacking, which considers that each type is connected with all three instincts combined in different proportions. Whichever theory you go for, you will surely need to determine which instinct is the most dominant in your Enneagram type, i.e., which Enneagram subtype you are.

Some Enneagram tests include instincts in determining the Enneatype, so you can learn which subtype you are just by taking the test. However, in most cases, you can also determine which instinctual variant you are by yourself. To do that, you just need to take a moment and think about what matters to you the most when you find yourself in a new situation:

  • Do you pay attention to general conditions like heat, light, access to food, drinks, and the overall atmosphere? This is the self-perseverance instinct at work.
  • Are you looking for a group you could join, and do you pay attention to general social rules? If yes, your social instinct is guiding you.
  • Are you paying close attention to recognize a person you could connect with or someone who attracts you or seems interesting to you? The sexual instinct is dominating your behavior.

Every Enneagram subtype will have these instincts incorporated into their nature in a different way. Let’s see how each Enneagram type combines with instinctual variants.

Enneagram 1 Subtypes

Enneagram Type One, also known as the Perfectionist, is a high-minded idealist who strives for what’s morally appropriate. Let’s see how their needs are expressed when influenced by different primal instincts.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type One

This instinct makes Type One behave in a typical perfectionist manner. They strive to keep every aspect of their lives perfect, including their homes, families, jobs, friends, and health. Always trying to do the right thing, they are often anxious and worried, which is why they are often mistyped as Sixes.

Social Enneagram Type One

When social instinct dominates One’s personality, they tend to become concerned with social justice and strive to become a role model in their community. They want what’s right for the society and are focused on issues of justice and fairness. However, since they tend to act as role models and impose themselves as leaders, they may be mistyped as Threes.

Sexual Enneagram Type One

The sexual Type One directs all their perfectionistic energy to others and projects their high expectations on them. They are less concerned with self-development and instead focus on building a perfect union with the ideal person.

However, since there’s no such thing as an ideal person, they easily become critical and resentful. Unlike the other One instinctual variants, they do not suppress their anger but let it all out, so they can be easily confused with Eights.

Enneagram 2 Subtypes

Enneagram Type Two, or the Helper, would do anything for love. Their dominant instinct will, however, significantly modify the way they act to get it.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type Two

The dominant self-preservation instinct makes Twos behave atypically, to the extent that they often get mistyped as Sevens, Fours, or Sixes. This subtype is not so motivated to take on the role of the helper but rather behaves as a needy child to provoke others to take care of them. Moreover, they also tend to be very cautious when meeting new people.

Social Enneagram Type Two

The social Two subtype will feel motivated to earn the role of motivator, protector, or helper in a group. They need to feel needed and take pride in being the one everyone turns to when in need of support or advice. Because of their need to control others through giving, they may sometimes look like Eights.

Sexual Type Two

Sexual Type Two tends to focus on one or a few people for whom they believe they can satisfy their needs. They value romantic relationships more than any other relationship type and are often more passionate than the other Two instinctual variants. Still, they are also slightly less emotionally stable, so others usually confuse them with Fours.

Enneagram 3 Subtypes

The ambitious and goal-oriented Threes often embody many socially desirable qualities. Let’s see how different instincts direct their behavior.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type Three

When this instinct dominates Three’s personality, they are not so motivated to impress others but rather want to be perceived as morally adequate, appropriate, and good. For this reason, they may often look like Type One.

They care primarily about providing a stable financial future for themselves and the people they care about and are less concerned with being socially recognized for their skills or efforts.

Social Enneagram Type Three

When social instinct takes over, all of the Threes' typical traits will be even more pronounced. They will be ambitious, competitive, and attention-seeking. Being in the limelight equals success to them, and because their focus on success becomes even sharper, they may often come off as Type Eight.

Sexual Enneagram Type Three

This Three instinctual variant is obsessed with their appearance and puts in a lot of effort to appear attractive to others. In interpersonal interactions, they aspire to be admired and believe their worth is based on how others see them. Also, because of their pronounced need to be in a relationship, they may look like Type Two.

Enneagram 4 Subtypes

Fours are eccentric, sensitive individualists on an everlasting quest to find their identity. Let’s take a look at what happens when different instincts take over their personalities.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type Four

The dominant self-preservation instinct makes Fours preoccupied with hiding their real and imagined flaws and attaining qualities they see as desirable in others. They are highly private people who open up only to a select few. Moreover, because they hide their real needs, they may often be mistyped as Ones, Threes, or even Sevens.

Social Enneagram Type Four

When social instinct prevails, Fours will just look like typical Fours. They will want to be recognized as distinct in their communities, express their emotions, and form bonds with others based on how they feel. Because they are prone to feeling shame and anxiety, they may be mistyped as Type Six.

Sexual Enneagram Type Four

The sexual instinct makes Fours even more aware of their needs and feelings, which they aim to satisfy in a very open and direct manner. Because they often express their needs so bluntly, they may sometimes look like Eights. On top of it, they will also often behave in a very competitive manner.

Enneagram 5 Subtypes

Fives are knowledge-thirsty intellectuals who tend to live in their heads. Therefore, it may seem harder to recognize which instinct dominates their behavior since they generally seem detached from their instinctual impulses. Nevertheless, Fives display all three instinctual variants just like all the other Enneatypes.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type Five

The self-preservation instinct accentuates all of the Five’s typical traits. This type is focused on building and maintaining strong boundaries to prevent others from intruding on their peace of mind. They are also very emotionally controlled and tend to minimize their needs so that they don’t have to depend on anyone.

Social Enneagram Type Five

When the social instinct dominates their personalities, Fives don’t become extroverted but more aware of others and their community in general. They feel the need to share their knowledge with others and impose themselves as role models.

They may also be slightly better at making interpersonal connections than the other instinctual Five variants. Consequently, they are often mistaken for Ones.

Sexual Enneagram Type Five

Fives with a dominant sexual instinct focus on finding one special person who can understand them and whom they can trust. They are better connected with their emotional side than the other Five subtypes, which is why they may seem like Fours. Nevertheless, the fact that they are more in touch with their feelings does not make them any more eager to show them.

Enneagram 6 Subtypes

Sixes are loyal, honest, and caring realists who value steadiness and security above everything else. Different instincts will highlight different aspects of their personalities.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type 6

The self-preservation instinct highlights all the Sixes' typical traits. They will be the most cautious of all the other Sixes and completely oriented toward keeping their lives predictable, peaceful, and secure. For this reason, they will diligently nurture their relationships, stay loyal to their companies, and take care of their families.

Social Enneagram Type 6

Sixes are usually rather socially aware, and when this instinct takes over their behavior, they become more dependent on different social groups. They will also feel more pressure to follow the rules to avoid being left out of a group. On top of that, these people will also focus on following social clues and rely on social hierarchy, structures, and guidelines.

Sexual Enneagram Type 6

This Six subtype will look the least like a typical Six. The sexual instinct inspires Sixes to suppress their fears and often behave in a counterphobic manner. Because of their trust issues and tendency to confrontational behavior, they may often be mistyped as Type Eight.

Enneagram 7 Subtypes

Sevens are curious hedonists who are always looking for new adventures. Each of the three Seven subtypes takes inspiration from a different instinct, which leads to the development of slightly different traits.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type 7

The self-preservation Seven subtype makes sure all the major areas in their lives, such as health, finance, family, and home, are in balance with one another because that’s what they need to feel happy and secure. While the Seven’s typical traits, like enthusiasm, spontaneity, and hedonism, will still be pronounced, the self-preservation instinct will make these people slightly more practical and realistic than they typically are.

Social Enneagram Type 7

The social Sevens are the least typical Sevens of all instinctual variants. Their attitude toward others seems much more mature, and they are often generous and more compassionate in their interactions. They use their natural charm and zest for life to connect with the community and attract others. Thanks to this, they act very similarly to Type Two.

Sexual Enneagram Type Seven

The sexual Sevens are very seductive and alluring. They tend to idealize reality and others because that makes it easier for them to bond. Highly adventurous and energetic, they are always looking into the future. Yet, because they are more focused on emotions, they may be easily mistyped as Fours.

Enneagram 8 Subtypes

The domineering Eights want to be the masters of their destinies. Under the influence of different instincts, they strive to satisfy their big appetites in different ways.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type 8

Under the influence of the self-preservation instinct, Eights are intensely focused on all the things that typically matter to them—finances, power, and authority. They are very direct in satisfying their needs and desires and less emotionally expressive than the other instinctual Eight variants.

Social Enneagram Type 8

The social instinct makes Eights less aggressive and more protective in their behavior toward others. They tend to employ their influence to defend the weak and fight injustice. Because they invest a lot of energy in relationships with others, these Eights may seem like Twos, so they often assume the role of a parent figure in their social circles.

Sexual Enneagram Type 8

Sexual Eights are highly provocative and confrontational. They are the most rebellious of all the Eights variants; they crave challenges and are very intense in their relationships with others. Also, they will be more emotional than other Eights and, therefore, very possessive in their intimate relationships.

Enneagram 9 Subtypes

The amiable Nines are natural-born mediators. Let’s see how their need to resolve all the conflicts around them is affected by the influence of different instincts.

Self-Preservation Enneagram Type 9

Nines generally appreciate a peaceful, comfortable life, and when their self-preservation instinct drives them, all their typical characteristics are even more pronounced. So, the self-preservation Nines will concentrate on maintaining a slow and steady rhythm of life and meeting their essential physical and emotional needs.

Social Enneagram Type 9

Social Nines are the least typical and most assertive Nine subtype. They are concerned with the needs of their social groups and become hyperactive, working hard to meet everyone’s needs. Because they display more socially desirable qualities and strive to conform to social expectations, they may occasionally look like Threes.

Sexual Enneagram Type 9

Sexual Nines are more emotional and caring than the other Nine instinctual variants. They focus on their interpersonal relationships—particularly with their romantic partner—and tend to adapt completely to their partner’s needs, attitudes, and values.

Gentle and compassionate, they may be mistyped as Type Two. Also, because they focus more on their feelings, they sometimes behave like typical Fours.

What Are Countertypes?

Each Enneagram type has a characteristic weakness. When a specific type reacts to their weakness by suppressing it and developing a completely opposite trait or behavior, we say they behave like countertypes. Countertypes are based on the mechanism of overcompensation.

A countertype characteristic may also come as a result of a person’s passion clashing with their main instinct. So basically, a countertype reaction is any action that deviates from the norm for a given type but is motivated by a characteristic weakness of that type.

The most obvious example of the countertype is the sexual subtype of Enneagram Six. These Sixes will negate their fears by exposing themselves to unnecessary risks and acting confrontationally toward authorities, looking a lot like Eights. Yet, even though they behave like Eights, they do not have the self-assurance of an Eight.

Another good example of a countertype would be Social Eights, who often behave like typical Twos. The main difference between an Eight countertype and a Two is in their motivation. A countertype Eight is motivated by the need to be in power, while a Two is motivated by the need to be loved.

They may behave in the same way, but their drives are entirely different and typical of their core Enneagram types. So, the best way to be sure that someone belongs to a certain type is to check what motivates their behavior, not to focus on the behavior itself.

How to Use Instinctual Variants For Growth

Your dominant instinct tells you a lot about your essential needs and what you lacked the most in your earliest years. Moreover, when you understand the need you’re trying to satisfy by following your dominant instinct, you may decide whether there’s a better way to fulfill it.

You can choose a different reaction and attitude just by being aware of which of the three instincts controls your behavior.

What’s also important to understand is that every type has all three instinctual variants. Which of them will be dominant may change over the course of life—it is also possible for one instinct to dominate a type’s entire life story.

However, most people are aware of two of their instincts, while the third one is suppressed. So, apart from noticing which instinct governs your personality, it is just as important to become aware of the instinct you neglect and try to understand why that is so.

Generally, there’s no stagnation in life; you either grow or regress. By acknowledging the factors that influence your growth, you have the chance to hold the keys to your growth in your hands.

Key Takeaways

The instinctual variant descriptions you’ve read above are focused on the aspects that stood out in each subtype. To understand them completely, you must always take into account the traits of your core Enneagram type. Now that you have all the instinctual variants explained, you can navigate your life and relationships with much more confidence.

To support you in understanding the Enneagram, here’s a brief breakdown of some useful things to keep in mind after reading this article:

  • All types have all three basic instincts—the self-preservation, social, and sexual instincts—pronounced in different ratios.
  • Instinctual variant stacking can change over time.
  • Countertype is a certain personality type that behaves in a very atypical manner.
  • Your dominant and suppressed instincts help you understand what you lack the most in life and what you need to develop.