Overview of the Enneagram

The Enneagram personality system has a few basic "building blocks," which you can read about in the sections below. If you're a beginner, we encourage you to start by reading this blog post on The Predicament of Learning the Enneagram through Language.


Personality, Essence, & Presence

The Centers of Intelligence: Body, Heart, & Mind

The Instincts: Social, Sexual, & Self-Preservation

Descriptions of the 9 Core Types


Personality, Essence, & Presence

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.

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The Centers of Intelligence

The Enneagram distinguishes 3 “centers” of intelligence: the body, heart, and mind. The centers develop sequentially during infancy and represent distinct layers of self.

We are born with a Body that manages energy, boundaries, and the sensory impact of our environment on us. When bad sensations “get inside” us or others make unwanted demands upon our energy, our body registers that its boundaries are being violated and re-asserts them with a natural aggression. The body is also what makes a sensory impact on your environment, and you experience our substantiality and aliveness through the body. The body speaks to us in sensation. The Body Types (8, 9, 1) represent different strategies of managing our energy, boundaries, and sensory experience.

Once we develop the ability to focus our attention, we can register the quality of others’ attention on us. We intuit what others value through how they pay attention, and attuned, positive attention from others makes us feel valued by them. But when others ignore us or attend to us in a way that misses our inner experience, we feel the pain of not being “seen” or valued. In Enneagram terms, our Heart is what manages our self-presentation to be seen in a way that confirms our value. It is also our inner “I” that pays attention and our very personal sense of identity. The Heart Types (2, 3, 4) represent different strategies for experiencing identity and managing self-image.

As we grow, we accrue a baseline mental model of reality, an overall way that we expect things to be. When reality conforms to our expectations, we feel safe, assured, and reasonably in control of our well-being. However, reality often surprises us — “Why does my stomach hurt?” “What made her say that?” When we don’t know what’s going on or what will happen, we feel anxious and eager to make sense of things to restore our sense of stability. Our Mind is what holds and updates our inner map of reality, organizes our concepts and beliefs, and inter- and extrapolates from the data of our experience to help us understand the world, navigate it, and imagine possibilities. The Mental Types (5, 6, 7) represent different strategies and criteria for updating our mental map and reassuring ourselves.

Body, Heart, and Mind are not abstract concepts but dimensions of direct experience. For example, as you read this, you are having a sensory experience whether you are paying attention to it or not. At the same time, you are feeling whether this content accords with your self-image, as well as discerning whether these ideas are worthy of incorporating into your mental model of reality. We tend to over prioritize one center and under prioritize another, giving rise to your trifix order — much like the instinctual stacking.

Body Types


Type 8

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.


Type 9

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.


Type 1

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.

Heart Types


Type 2

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.


Type 3

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.


Type 4

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 narrow 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.

Mental Types


Type 5

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.


Type 6

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 reference 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.


Type 7

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.

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The Instinctual Drives

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.

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The 9 Types

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