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Subtypes vs. Instincts

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

Is there a difference between Instinct and Subtype?

Yes. This can be a super confusing topic, so it is not uncommon to use these terms interchangeably even after you've hung around the Enneagram world for awhile.

What are the Instincts?

Instincts are basic human drives that influence a person's way of engaging with the world. Some scientists believe that these Instincts reside in the reptilian part of the brain and is something we cannot control or influence once it has been set. Other scientists believe that the Instinct is determined by the environment that the individual grows up in, though this can be hard to prove as well. Like many areas of research in the Enneagram, the experts don't quite agree on the origins of Instincts (or Core Types), but they do agree that Instincts influence our everyday lives are useful to know as you embark on your growth journey.

The Basics of Instincts

There are three essential human drives or Instincts: Self-Preservation, Social, and Sexual (or One to One). Each of us has elements of all three Instincts, but we have one Instinct that is dominant, one that is less dominant but still active, and one that is repressed. This hierarchy of these Instincts is considered the "Instinctual Stack" for the individual.

The Dominant Instinct frequently is an area of strength for the person, but can be overplayed during stress and become an area of negativity and bad habits. For example, someone with a dominant Self-Preservation Instinct naturally builds routines and habits to help them navigate their lives, but during stressful times, these good habits become rigid and impervious to flexibility.

On the opposite end, the repressed Instinct represents the area that is least developed and is the weakest point of survival for the person. This area is a natural blindspot for the individual and becomes even more so in times of stress. For example, someone with a repressed Self-Preservation Instinct will likely lose their keys, wallet, and headphones on a daily basis, which becomes even more exasperated in stressful times.

The secondary Instinct of the Instinctual Stack is something the person has skill in but doesn't lean into as much in stress. This can be an area of strength for the individual, as they can have the positive skills associated with the Instinct without negatively overplaying it when stressed. For example, someone with a secondary Social Instinct will have all the skill of making friends, holding conversation, and reading Social cues, but would not over-socialize, over-involve with group drama, and over-read into social cues when stressed.


Self-Preservation Instinct is primary concerned with the protection of the physical self. This operates under the belief that the way to survive in this world is to ensure the safety of the physical person through stability, protection and management of resources, and building skills to ensure this long term. People with Self-Preservation Dominant Instincts will be concerned with their physical well-being; the stability and security of their resources; developing and honing skills that will help them with self-regulation as well as self-reliance; and maintaining their domesticity.


Social Instinct is primarily built on the belief that the connection and belonging with a person's tribe will ultimately help the person survive and thrive. A person with a Social Dominant Instinct will be concerned with connecting with others and bonding in a way that allows belonging; creating and maintaining healthy rapport through reading and adapting to the Social cues from others; and creating a system of contributing to the group in order to maintain inclusion and importance.


Sexual Instinct is primarily built on the belief that attracting and/or seducing either a special person or groups of people and creating an intense connection will ensure the survival of the individual . This manifests in the individual as a large amount of of intensity felt on an energetic level; a desire to push boundaries and feel the frisson of something new, exciting, or dangerous; a need to merge and fuse with others they want to connect with; and a push to look and feel attractive to others (not necessarily for the sake of finding a mate, but also for connection).


What are Subtypes

Subtypes are created when the Dominant Instinct of an individual is combined with the Core Type of the individual, creating a set of beliefs, behaviors, and characteristics that are uniquely flavored by the combination. Some experts will teach that our Core Type is actually our means of meeting our Instinctual Drive.

For example, someone with a Self-Preservation Dominant Instinct can be combined with the Core Type of a Type Two and create a distinct flavor of Two that is more reserved, self-deprecating, and child-like than a Social or Sexual Two. A Sexual Five, for example, will be more interested in deep connections with specific loved ones and pushing boundaries than their Self-Preservation Five counterpart, who can be the most isolated Type on the Enneagram.

How to Use Subtypes

Introducing the Enneagram Subtypes through descriptive paragraphs about the unique flavoring of each combination of Instinct and Core Type can be either super helpful, or incredibly confusing. There's no real in-between. Either the description nails your experience without much effort, or you start to question your Core Type because you cannot relate at all.

In my experience, the best way to discover your Subtype is to ignore the descriptions of Subtypes for a short time and really hone in on the Instinct and Instinctual Stacking that describes your experience the best. Once you have figured out that Self-Preservation or Social or Sexual describes how you move about life, then adding this information to the Core Type will be helpful. I've even found that after spending time with the Instinctual Drives and Stackings that I am able to see myself in the descriptions for Subtypes better than if I tried to discover my Subtype without this help.

What Questions do YOU have? If you have specific questions about the Enneagram, feel free to send them to


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