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Instinctual Stacking in the Enneagram

What is the Instinctual Stack

Though often pushed to the back of our consciousness and buried under layers of Ego, every human at their Instinctual core, is just trying to survive. At this Instinctual level, there are three main areas of concern that help the individual survive in an uncertain world: Self-Preservation, Sexual, and Social. These make up the bestial side of us humans, a part of our lizard brain that watches for ways to keep the body safe, procreate, and live harmoniously with our fellow humans in order to live another day.

We all use the three Instincts, though to greater and lesser degrees and with more or less mastery. We call the Instinct we naturally use (without any real thought) our Dominant Instinct with the Instinct that is our least developed and least utilized our Repressed Instinct. Both the Dominant and Repressed Instincts can cause us problems in how much we overuse or underuse the skills involved. The Secondary Instinct in the Instinctual Stack gives us skills that support our pursuit of our Dominant Instinct, while also not causing us many problems. This Instinctual Stacking (Dominant, Secondary, and Repressed) is believed to be fixed at a very young age and is not subject to change, though we can flex each Instinct more depending on the circumstance and with conscious growth in these areas.

How to Find Your Instinctual Stack

Determining a person's Instinctual Stack can be done a number of ways. One method is by starting with determining what an individual does not identify with at all (most likely their Repressed Instinct). This non-identification can come in the form of seeing certain skills or elements as unnecessary to living a full life or something that is totally outside a person's skill set (maybe even causing feelings of shame for not having these skills). Another method is examining a person's behavior and underlying fears when under stress, which can uncover a person's Dominant Instinct--in other words, where we go when we are the most stress usually uncovers that which we value the most. Finally, understanding the Instinctual Fears associated with each Instinctual Drive can also provide valuable insight:

  • Self-Preservation Dominants fear scarcity and harm

  • Sexual Dominants fear being undesirable and overlooked

  • Social Dominants fear being ostracized and abandoned

To understand the inner-workings of this Instinctual Stacking, let's explore the role of each Instinct in the Stack more closely.

Visual Representation of the Enneagram Instinctual Stack

The Instinctual Stack

Dominant Instinct:

The Dominant Instinct is our primary strategy for survival and our most heavily relied upon toolkit for navigating daily life, which impacts our overall well-being and identity. Our Enneagram Type and the Ego structure associated with it is our particular method of attempting to satisfy the needs surrounding our Dominant Instinct. This over-focus on the needs and preoccupations of the Dominant Instinct can cause us problems in that it narrows our focus, causes us to over-rely on satisfying these needs, and create habitual patterns of thinking and behavior that can ultimately leave us stuck. Determining our Dominant Instinct can be difficult because we are so close to its expression that it is almost indistinguishable from our sense of self. One way to determine the Dominant Instinct in our lives is by looking at the needs in our life that we fulfill with some sense of urgency--setting aside other needs to fulfill this one need--and the idea of not filling them causes feelings of anxiety and portending doom. Looking at our actions and what we prioritize particularly during times of high or extended stress can illuminate what we really value and lean into when everything else feels like chaos.

Secondary Instinct:

The Secondary Instinct in the Instinctual Stack is the Instinct that supports our efforts in satisfying our Dominant Instinct. Secondary Instincts rarely cause us problems as we gain all the skills involved with this Instinct without the problems caused by over-relying and over-identifying with it as we do with the Dominant Instinct. Furthermore, in times of stress, the needs of the Secondary Instincts are likely thrown to the wayside in favor of meeting the needs of the Dominant Instinct. The skills associated with this Instinct soften the edges of the Dominant Instinct, making the expression more palatable, more harmonious, and more attractive to others--for example, a Self-Preservation Dominant person who has a Social Secondary will be able to purse their SP needs in a Socially skillful way that doesn't alienate people.

Repressed Instinct:

The Repressed Instinct in the Instinctual Stack is typically characterized by its underrepresented, underdeveloped, and underutilized needs and skills in our lives. In other words, this Instinct is a blind spot for us--something we don't use and maybe don't even think we need. This denial of having needs in this Instinct's area can stem from an unconscious fear of the Ego that to pursue this Repressed Instinct would be to threaten our pursuit of our Dominant Instinct. Our own emotional and mental health and maturity as well as our past experiences with our Dominant and Repressed Instincts can determine if our Repressed Instinct is mildly or totally outside of our awareness. One way to determine which Instinct is Repressed is finding which needs and skills are absent, underutilized, and even a source of shame for the individual. Though difficult, integrating the Repressed Instinct can be a a great area of growth as it will require unsticking ourselves from habitual patterns (usually laid out by our Ego and Dominant Instinct) and learning a new language of life that opens up possibilities.

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