If you go to almost any Enneagram site, you’ll see references to each type’s core fear and desire. Usually these are succinct phrases, such as “the fear of being defective” for Type 1, or “the fear of being unloveable,” for Type 2.
People new to the Enneagram often use these phrases to help them discover their type, and here we run into one of the main difficulties of the Enneagram — the predicament of living in language.
Imagine the following: A successful businessman wants to learn his Enneagram type. He goes to an Enneagram website and reads: “the basic fear of Type 9 is of being disconnected from his world.” He’s reasonably reflective, and he says to himself, "Of course everyone fears being disconnected from their world to some degree, but I enjoy disconnecting from others once in a while and taking time alone. I actually find it restorative. So I’m probably not a 9.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Just this: the man interprets the word “disconnection” in his own way, without knowing whether his interpretation matches the author's.
The use of a word — any word — is an act of interpretation, influenced by a backlog of experiences that shape the user’s relationship to that word. That’s why the same word can mean different things to different people. (e.g. “I love you.” Well, what do you mean?)
So the man interprets “disconnection” in his way (what other way is available to him?), and he dismisses the possibility that he is a 9. Unfortunately, he is a 9, and he now has psychological energy invested in not seeing that he is.
So: how to close the gap?
The problem is that words are our only tools of interpretation, yet are themselves subject to interpretation. Our project is to use words create a shared interpretation between the man and the writer.
But before we get there, we need to understand another difficulty.
The man is a good man, but having directed most of his life energy towards building his business and his family and not towards exploring his inner world, he has not developed fine tools of introspection. Yet he is subject to the self-deception that he is “self-aware.” He believes, like we all do, that he can see himself accurately, and he assumes that if he is presented with 9 options for how his unconscious works, he’ll be able to see the one that best fits. It is his own unconscious, after all. (And if he can’t, maybe the Enneagram itself isn’t very good.)
Do you see the problem?
The definition of “unconscious” is not conscious. While it is possible to make the unconscious conscious, it cannot be done quickly or simply through multiple choice questions. One must go through a process of self-discovery. If you’ve only ever seen the sky, you can’t know what’s underground, even if I give you 9 options. You need to dig.
The teacher who writes the sentence “Type 1s fear that they are defective” does so from the center of the earth. The student reads it from ground level. The teacher writes from the far side of complexity. The student reads from the near side of complexity. The teacher writes after an inner journey. The student reads before an inner journey. After a lifetime of work, physicist James Maxwell distilled the laws of electromagnetism down into 4 simple equations. A student can read them on day 1 but only understand them after doing the coursework.
Which brings up one more distinction. Electric currents are objectively measurable via scientific instruments, but inner world is only accessible through subjective interpretation. People often get confused here, saying, “Well, if it’s all subjective, then anyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else's.” But that’s false.
Jack says, "Wall-E is about a boy robot who falls in love with a girl robot." Jill says, "Yes of course it is. But it’s really about humanity’s choice between consumerism and stewardship of Earth." Both opinions are subjective, but Jill’s is better than Jack’s because it include’s Jack’s, yet transcends it. If Jack doesn't get Jill’s opinion, it doesn’t mean that she’s wrong — it means that Jill’s interpretive capacity is more developed than Jack’s.
A student may notice that he “likes to withdraw and read philosophy books” and conclude that he is a 5, because according to a website type description, 5s are “cerebral.” But he’s making a Jack-level statement. After some digging, he may develop the capacity to make the Jill-level statement that he reads philosophy not to avoid the terror of being lost in madness and confusion, but because he finds it soothing to be shown how all things are interconnected. Meaning, he might be a 9.
Here’s the point:
The capacity to interpret oneself exists on a developmental spectrum. Yet, words are our only tools for communicating self-interpretations and are themselves subject to interpretation, and we interpret words from the level of our interpretive capacity. The pickle of learning the Enneagram — including discovering your type — is that it requires both refining your capacity to see yourself and updating your understanding of words like “disconnect” to congrue with the Enneagram's intended meaning. These two processes happen in tandem and comprise the journey you (and we all) must undertake to see yourself and the Enneagram from the far side of complexity, which is where we are inviting you to go.
(Can you see now why written personality tests can never be 100% accurate? The test-taker will always interpret questions from their perspective, which will be different from the test-maker’s.)
On our website, we have chosen to include brief descriptions of each type. We invite you to read them in light of the above.
Essence is who you are underneath your psychological activity. It has qualities: aliveness, harmony, goodness, love, value, depth, freedom, spaciousness, etc.
Traditionally, it is taught that you lose touch with Essence as a child. You can think of this as your core wound. The loss is agonizing, and your Personality arises as the psychological structure that tries to help you get back in touch with Essence. Unfortunately, while the personality helps you function in the world, it cannot reconnect you to Essence. Only Presence can.
The more present you are, the more contact you can have with Essence. Within each personality type is a spectrum of “health,” which can be thought of as the different attitudes and behaviors that manifest depending on your capacity for presence.
Your Essence, Personality, and level of psychological health are deeply connected.
Put simply, each Enneagram type is trying to recontact its lost Essential Quality and avoid remembering the agony of its loss.
When you are "healthy," you have a high capacity for presence, and you know yourself as Essence. For instance, you know that you are inherently valuable, and you don’t need to prove it.
Without presence, you lose touch with Essence, and your personality tries to get it back. The more "unhealthy" you get, the more frantic and self-defeating your personality's pursuit of it becomes.
The Enneagram distinguishes 3 “centers” of intelligence: the body, heart, and mind. Western society reveres the mind as king, but the Enneagram values all 3 centers equally.
The body is what processes sensory impressions from our environment and makes a sensory impact on our environment. It’s where we experience our substantiality, our boundaries, and our aliveness — our contact with the world. When boundaries are violated, the body re-asserts them a natural aggression. The body speaks to us in sensation, and there is deep, life-forward wisdom in our "felt sense” of something. (See, for example, the work of Eugene Gendlin.)
The heart is what processes others' quality of gaze upon us and gazes upon others and ourselves. It is the seat of our self-image, identity, or sense of “who we really are,” and is where we experience love, worth, and depth -- or their absence. It has the ability to be "touched," which we know when we are overwhelmed by love, awe, or grief. The heart’s wisdom is accessible to us only when we can "be with" our genuine inner experience without constraining it within the frame of an inflexible self-image.
The mind is what processes symbolic reality and organizes our concepts and beliefs. It interpolates and extrapolates from the data of our experience to help us understand the world, navigate it, and imagine possibilities. Although the mind is the West’s archetypical seat of intelligence, repetitive and reactive thoughts often clutter our minds and prevent our deepest insights from arising. But with presence, we can learn to cultivate “quiet mind,” in which we open to a vast inner spaciousness that lets the mind’s true guidance come through.
The Centers of Intelligence are not abstract. For example, you are having a sensory experience in your body as you read this, whether you are aware of it or not. The centers are dimensions of direct inner experience, and we tend to be anchored in one more than the others, giving rise to the 3 body types, 3 heart types, and 3 mental types.
Healthy 8s have an unshakeable confidence that arises from direct contact with their gut. They feel powerful but don't need to prove it, so they respond to their environment with calibrated sensitivity -- "just enough" force -- that arises from the body's attunement to its surroundings. But in fixation, 8s suppress their sensitivity and look for ways to be in “power-up” positions beyond the control or influence of others, lest their vulnerabilities be exposed. They also become “tough,” overly forceful, and domineering — a distortion of the body's natural capacity for self-assertion.
Healthy 9s are grounded and self-possessed. They experience a deep connection to, yet distinctness from their environment that comes from fully inhabiting their body. They feel substantive and easeful, and they respond to whatever arises in the moment in congruence with their felt sense. But in fixation, 9s become “diffuse,” foggy, and attached to autopilot habits and comforting life grooves. They also lose the felt sense of where they end and the world begins — a dissociation from the body's natural awareness of its boundaries and capacity to assert them.
Healthy 1s are dignified and serene because they allow their life force to flow naturally without tensing against or restricting any part of themselves or their environment. This radical "allowing" lets their body relax and express its natural alignment and integrity --- as in integrated: "all parts of me/the world are welcome.” But in fixation, 1s are easily irritated and contract into a habitual need to fix what's wrong in their environment and keep themselves in line. They reject the body's natural state of flow and integration and become tense and self-restricting, lest their darker impulses cause them to be a source of further impurity.
Healthy 2s express sincere affection that comes from intimate connection to the warmth and sweetness of their heart. They take self-care while attuning to others' needs with discerning sensitivity, and they contribute to others' lives simply because it is a joy to do so. But in fixation, 2s become self-neglecting, insincere, and "over-giving." They cannot help but help others, both to ensure that they stay connected and to protect their self-image of being a selfless person — a distortion of the heart’s capacity for genuinely giving and receiving love.
Healthy 3s are authentic, gracious, and self-accepting. Their direct connection to their heart enables an easeful "knowing" of their worth. They truly value themselves and others, are honest about their abilities and achievements, and honor their heart's true desire. But in fixation, 3s become image-conscious, competitive, and compulsively goal-oriented. They doubt their inherent value and feel the need to be extraordinary, or better than others — a dissociation from the heart's natural capacity to value.
Healthy 4s are equanimous, emotionally profound, and humane. Because of their intimate connection to their own hearts, they savor the full range of their emotional experience and sense to the depth of themselves and all things. They feel saturated in beauty and meaning, and they appreciate the loveliness of “ordinary” things. But in fixation, 4s feel disgusted by the “superficiality” of the world and disdainful of the quality of attention most people pay to anything. They compulsively differentiate from others and become emotionally stormy and indulgent — a distortion of the heart’s capacity to sense depth in anything and to be nourished by the beauty and meaning that are here now.
Healthy 5s are perceptive in a way that is "outside" conventional thinking, and they abide in the spaciousness of the quiet mind. They can participate in life without getting internally “crowded” or filtering their direct experience through too much mental activity. They contact the world freshly in each moment and are illuminated by reality itself. But in fixation, 5s get overwhelmed by the complexity, chaos, and nonsense of the world and feel that they must withdraw in order to hear themselves think. They struggle to relax into quiet mind, since they feel they must actively self-orient, avoid being infiltrated by erroneous information, and seek knowledge and insight to stay safe and understand reality.
Healthy 6s are calm, clear-headed, and self-assured. Because their minds are still and open, they are able to sense their inner guidance. This gives them the courage to follow their intuition even when they don't have "complete" information, which is never. But in fixation, 6s become self-doubting, suspicious, and angsty. Their mind’s natural ability to sense what might go wrong escalates into catastrophizing and hyper vigilance. They struggle to determine what is “true,” what references experiences they need to make such a determination, and what sources to trust in this uncertain and unpredictable world — a dissociation from the mind’s capacity to source orientation from within.
Healthy 7s are ecstatic, appreciative, and patient. They are able to savor the present moment without needing to make it "better" or anticipating the next source of fulfillment -- an expression of the quiet mind's capacity to be fully with what is here now without inventing or superimposing a more enticing symbolic reality. But in fixation, 7s become anxious that their experiences will become stale and unfulfilling, and they fear that they will be trapped in boredom, undernourishment, and inner pain. So, they scan for what “else” might satisfy them, envision more enticing possibilities, and attempt to optimize their experience -- a distortion of the mind’s capacity to "settle with" and draw authentic nourishment from the present moment.
Humans are mammals. Just like horses, pigs, and kangaroos, we have instinctual drives. There are three basic “umbrellas” of instinctual drives:
- The Self-Preservation Drive
- The Sexual Drive
- The Social Drive
What does it mean to have an "instinctual drive"?
Like other mammals, we require physiological regulation. Our instinctual drives are what compel us to pursue and attend to the resources that will regulate us.
The Self-Preservation Instinctual Drive makes us pursue and attend to what we need to survive and thrive as a physical organism, e.g. food, shelter, creature comforts such as lighting, sound, physical materials, and that which allows us to secure those things (e.g., money).
Our Sexual Instinctual Drive makes us pursue and attend to what we need to elicit the choice of a sexual partner. For instance, we enhance facets of us that “hook” others — our vibe, talents, interests, and behaviors that attract the people we would like to choose us.
Our Social Instinctual Drive makes us pursue and attend to what we need to bond socially with others. For instance, we dilate our attention to the group or person we are paying attention to, notice what kinds of behavior are appropriate in a given social context, and implicit signals indicating what's going on in others' inner worlds, the state of relationships, etc. We "read the room" and calibrate to the social context.
Why do we study the instinctual drives with the Enneagram?
1. The Instinctual Stack and Inner Work
All instincts operate in each of us, but they tend to drive us in different proportions. That is, we typically over-prioritize one instinct and under-prioritize another, resulting in an "instinctual stack."
For instance, your stack might be...
…in which case, you over-prioritize the self-preservation instinct and under-prioritize the sexual instinct. The common parlance for this is "self-pres dominant" and "sexual blind."
There is huge transformative power in working to balance our instinctual drives, and it's one of the most exciting and immediately impactful parts of inner work because of how much life-force gets unleashed.
2. Instinct Precedes Enneagram Type
Our instinctual drives are more fundamental to our organism than our Enneagram type.
Our awareness is infused in a flesh and bone mammalian body, and what co-opts our attention most irresistibly is our biological impulse to attend to our instinctual needs.
You're hungry? It's going to be hard not to pay attention to that. You're attracted to someone? That too. You’re feeling alienated from your friend group? That too.
The function of personality is to help you meet your instinctual needs.
For example, we need to eat. How do we do that? We develop a personality that allows us to procure food. We get jobs, perform tasks, monitor our spending, etc.
We want to have sex. How do we do that? We develop a personality that is sexually attractive to others.
We want to bond with others socially. How do we do that? We develop a personality that others will want to socially bond with.
Here's the punchline:
Our Enneagram type is the way we approach meeting our instinctual needs and the way we evaluate whether or not we have met them.
Recall that the personality is a psychological structure that attempts to reconnect you to Essence, but in a way that will never work. This is because it confuses contact with Essence with the satisfaction of instinctual needs, and instinctual urges always renew.
3. Enneagram Types Show Up Differently Depending on Their Instinctual Stack
A type 6 that is self-preservation dominant and social blind will be very different from a type 6 that is social dominant and self-preservation blind. Fixated 6s who are self-pres dominant will tend to get most angsty about their physical and logistical needs, and their healthy superpowers will tend to be in the physical and logistical realm. But Fixated 6s who are social dominant will tend to get most angsty about whether they are navigating social situations appropriately, and their healthy superpowers will tend to be in the realm of social intelligence.
Object Relations Theory has a complex history in psychology, but it can be summarized simply as a way to understand how one’s inner relation with others in childhood carries into adulthood. The basic idea is that you, the “subject,” feel a certain way towards “objects” in your environment (the primary objects being mom and dad), and this feeling, or “affect,” forms a baseline for how you experience relationships in adulthood.
Riso and Hudson did brilliant work in adapting Object Relations Theory to the Enneagram. Their insight was that there are 3 primary Object Relational “affects” — Attachment, Frustration, and Rejection — which can be directed towards 3 primary “objects” — Mom, Dad, and Both together. They later clarified that it’s not “mom” and “dad” per se, but the “nurturing” and “protecting” functions provided by early caregivers. This forms a 3 x 3 matrix that cleanly produces the 9 Enneagram types.
According to this theory, the Nurturing Function provides cuddling, cooing, feeding, and positive mirroring, all of which helps the child develop its sense of self-worth. The Guiding/Protecting Function provides direction, structure, protection from danger, and a sense of “how things work around here,” all of which helps the child develop confidence and self-reliance.
For the last 20 years, this presentation of Object Relations Theory has become the common understanding in Enneagram circles, and it has tremendous explanatory power regarding psychological blueprint "at the bottom" of our type structure.
Type 3 is Attached to the Nurturing Function — meaning, 3s love the yummy milk, coos, and positive mirroring that reminds them that they are valuable, and in key moments when they don’t get it, they try to get it again. 3s carry this same pattern into adulthood, which is why 3s are psychologically drawn to attaboys, admiration, and other markers of value like status, prestige, money, and nice things, and it sets up the 3s’ pattern of adapting (or, Attaching) to external sources of validation and is what makes it hard to know their worth and identity absent a mirroring other.
Type 6 is Attached to the Guiding/Protecting Function — meaning, 6s love the structure and guidance that helps them feel supported, and in key moments when they don’t get it, they try to get it again. 6s carry this same pattern into adulthood, which is why 6s are psychologically drawn to mental models and decision making paradigms that provide a sense of stable orientation, as well as to people whose guidance they trust. It also sets up 6s’ pattern of needing to always take into account (that is, Attaching to) external sources of guidance and is what makes it hard to trust their inner guidance without being reassured by an external source.
Type 9 is Attached to Both — meaning, 9s love both the positive mirroring of the Nurturing Function and the structure of the Guiding/Protecting Function, and as adults they look for both in the world and in their relationships. This “double Attachment” hit is why 9s feel so internally “merged” with their environments, and why they feel the need to maintain external peace in order to feel inner peace. It also is what makes it hard for 9s to individuate and inhabit themselves as a distinct entity, since being their own source of self-knowing or self-guiding requires putting their attachments at risk.
Type 7 is Frustrated by the Nurturing Function — meaning, 7s want the yummy milk, coos, and positive mirroring that reminds them they are valuable, but feel like what they got fell short of an inner standard. So, 7s take the Nurturing Function into their own hands, giving themselves positive self-mirroring, and going after what they want. However, the Frustration affect means that they find themselves disappointed again and again, even as adults, which sets up the 7’s pattern of constant seeking and going after what will nourish them, always feeling that contentment is one step ahead.
Type 1 is Frustrated by the Guiding/Protecting Function — meaning, 1s want structure, protection, and direction, but feel like what they got fell short of an inner standard. So, 1s take the Guiding/Protecting Function into their own hands, giving themselves and others the “correct” rules and structure to abide by, and attempting to keep everyone in line. However, the Frustration affect means that they find themselves disappointed again and again, even as adults, which sets ups the 1’s pattern of enforcing “rightness” and constantly fixing what’s wrong, and always feeling that total alignment with the way things “should be” is one step ahead.
Type 4 is Frustrated by Both — meaning, 4s want the yummy attunement of the Nurturing Function and the structure of the Guiding/Protecting Function, but feel like what they got fell short of an inner standard. This “double Frustration” hit is why 4s feel so internally disgusted with their environment and so misunderstood, since apparently they are the only ones who can see or guide themselves in a way that actually attunes to them and satisfies their inner standards. It’s also what makes it hard for 4s to participate in “ordinary” activities and relationships, since the Frustration affect is fundamentally fueled by the fussy disappointment that the world doesn’t meet expectations, and participating in the world as it is would mean turning my back on my standards and condoning the world as it is.
Type 8 is Rejected by the Nurturing Function — meaning, 8s wanted the yummy milk, coos, and positive mirroring that reminds them that they are valuable, but in key moments when they didn’t get it, the pain was so unbearable that they “decided” not to want it anymore. (A version of “You can’t fire me, because I quit!”) In so doing, 8s rejected the Nurturing Function, rejected the part of themselves that needs nurturance, and “sloshed” psychologically over to identify completely with the Guiding/Protecting Function. This sets up 8s adulthood pattern of denying their sensitivity, being radically self-reliant, and becoming Guiders/Protectors in their relationships. It’s also what makes it hard for 8s to see and embrace their vulnerability, since doing so might open them to re-experience the pain that their Rejection affect protects them from.
Type 2 is Rejected by the Guiding/Protecting Function — meaning, 2s wanted the structure, protection, and direction that makes them feel self-reliant, but in key moments when they didn’t get it, the pain was so unbearable that they “decided” not to want it anymore. In so doing, 2s rejected the Guiding/Protecting Function, rejected the part of themselves that needs Guiding/Protection, and “sloshed” psychologically over to identify completely with the Nurturing Function. This sets ups 2s adulthood pattern of denying their need to be self-reliant, being radically attuned to others, and becoming Nurturers in their relationships. It’s also what makes it hard for 2s to see and embrace their capacity for independent functioning apart from relationships, since doing so might open them to re-experience the pain that their Rejection affect protects them from.
Type 5 is Rejected by Both — meaning, 5s wanted the yummy attunement of the Nurturing Function and the structure of the Guiding/Protecting Function, but in key moments when they didn’t get it, the pain was so unbearable that they “decided” not to want either anymore. In so doing, 5s reject Both functions and the parts of themselves that needed Either. Since there is nowhere left for them to psychologically “slosh” to, they find themselves feeling profoundly alienated and separate from the world. This “double Rejection” hit sets up 5s’ adulthood pattern of isolating, denying needs that create dependencies or force contact with the world, and retreating into their heads to figure things out on their own. It also makes it hard for 5s to make contact with the world, since their Rejection affect makes it feel certain that contacting the world would utterly annihilate the “me” that exists behind the rejection wall.