I is for Instincts





This is one of my favorite Enneagram topics because it goes a long way in explaining the differences between people within each personality style.

The three instincts of the Enneagram are:



Self-preservation: We all have a strong drive to stay alive, feed ourselves, be warm, safe, comfortable, and financially secure, among other things. A strong self-preservation instinct compels us to pack everything we might need for a trip, ask for a new hotel room if the A/C doesn’t work, and floss twice a day. It keeps us from leaving the house without a sweater, sunscreen or an extra $20 stashed inside our phone cases.


Social: This is our universal human drive to be a part of our social group. To know where we belong, to be a part of our community, to feel that the group and its members are healthy and thriving. This instinct motivates us to ensure everyone at the party is having a good time, create projects at work that everyone can help with, and go on weekly doughnut runs for the nurses’ station.   The social instinct keeps us from going to the movies alone or cussing really loud at High Tea (no matter how much we might want to.)


One-to-one or Sexual: This instinct goes by two names. We all have a drive to connect intimately with one person. It’s not necessarily about sex, though that is, obviously, one way we connect. This is our instinct to reproduce or to create, to experience intensity with another person. It has us tending toward eye contact, intense star-gazing with a friend, and juicy conversation. This instinct is at play when we avoid small talk and wallflowering.

Every human being is driven by all three instincts, but most of us favor one instinct over the others.

First let’s take a buck (male deer) and his instinctual drives. He is compelled to nibble on leaves, keep his ears and nose on alert for potential predators, and get up close and personal with Ms. Doe. Now let’s imagine Mr. Buck had a peculiar proclivity toward just one of those instincts, say the desire to make more deer. What if he spent so much time looking for Ms. Doe that he forgot to eat until he was starving, and he missed the mountain lion on his little white-tailed trail?   If we were to remind Mr. Buck to balance out his instinctual drives, he might live long enough to meet his heirs.


As it would be with animals, when we prefer one instinct over the others, we set ourselves up for an unbalanced life.

Which instinct is the strongest for you, generally speaking? Do you favor your physical comfort over connecting intimately with another person? Do you tend to focus on the group’s needs rather than your own? Do you get so caught up in your relationship with an important person that you neglect your own needs or the needs of the larger group?

Our strongest instinct can conflict with or compliment someone else’s strongest instinct.

Example: My husband favors self-preservation and I favor the social instinct. When our family is all together, I tend to check in on everyone, to keep tabs on how they’re doing and what they might need, while my husband is preoccupied with making sure that the temperature in the house is where he wants it to be, that everything is picked up and put in its place and that the kitchen is stocked with his favorite foods. (Hmmm.  I never would have pegged us as the Edith and Archie Bunker types.  That’s a little disturbing.)

When we make travel plans, my goal is for everyone to get to do something they want to do each day, while Mark picks out the rental car we’ll need to fit all the things he brought, just in case.

At our best, we take advantage of each other’s attention to the instinct that we, ourselves, are likely to ignore. At our worst, we drive each other crazy.

Our strongest instinct can conflict with or add balance to our own personality style.

Example: One of the most validating Enneagram moments I’ve had was when I learned that I had a strong social instinct and how wrong that could rub my Seven personality style.

My social instinct, like gravity, pulls my attention toward whether or not people are enjoying themselves at a party (even if it’s not mine,) what my family needs at all times, and whether or not the world in general approves of whatever it is I’m doing.  It is a terrible burden for a Seven.

Luckily for my children, my social instinct keeps me very tuned in to them and their needs. Sevens have a reputation for not being emotionally or sometimes even physically available for their kids, as they flit here and there looking for the next great thing, but social Sevens are a different story.

The upside and downside is that I feel just as committed to attending to my kids as I feel driven to have adventures and do my own thing. It’s an internal tug-o-war that I’ve resigned myself to be caught in, probably for the rest of my life.

Sometimes our strongest instinct has a lot in common with our personality type, making us doubly whatever we are.

Picture a Self-preservation Six whose personality and instinct are both hell-bent on security.

Or a One-to-One Four who wants to connect and connect and connect.

Or a Social Three who may have to be careful not to exhaust herself as an extroverted extrovert.

What are we supposed to do with all this information about instincts?



I’ve learned a lot from watching my husband. I spend a little more time packing for vacation and a little less time running to the drug store to pick up that thing I forgot to pack. His focus on self-preservation has enhanced my life with luxuries like climate control, a sprinkler system and modern appliances. You should see what our new microwave can do compared to the one from 1986 that I was content to live with until death did us part a few weeks ago.

You might try:

  • Paying attention to what you favor.
  • Paying attention to what you neglect.
  • Asking yourself, what would it be like if I balanced them out?
  • What would I lose?
  • What would I gain?
  • What of that is appealing and what sends shivers up my spine?

Once you gain awareness about how it would be to shift your focus a little bit away from your instinctual habits and toward the other instincts we all share, you may get a deeper connection with someone you’ve been intrigued by, or a sense of camaraderie and belonging you didn’t know you were missing or, if you’re really lucky, a brand new kitchen appliance.



4 thoughts on “I is for Instincts

  1. Like you, I’m a social (one) and my hubby is a self-pres (eight). It’s so great to have someone take care of all the details. But it also has its downside; sometimes, it can feel a bit too controlling, although never enough for me to actually want to take charge of the things I’m sometimes bristling about.

    In my job as a children’s librarian, I felt my role was mostly that of being a party planner. I put on almost 2000 “parties” (programs) in 11 years. Though I am social, I actually reached a point of burn-out. Currently, I love spending my time at home and only with family and friends, and not the hundreds of other people that had populated my life for so many years.


  2. Interesting post. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m not sure which Instinct is dominant for me, but I’ll definitely be paying attention now. Thank you for sharing this information!
    Good luck with A-Z!


  3. Some people don’t have a way out of whack focus on just one instinct. Throughout any given week, all 3 instincts are attended to. Hopefully you get something out of just paying attention to see. Thanks for commenting!


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