The IEA recently hosted an online workshop focused on the instinctual biases and subtypes. It was a wide-ranging conversation with Russ Hudson, Peter O’Hanrahan, Beatrice Chestnut and me, and while we covered a lot of ground there was a flood of questions from the audience posted in the chatroom that we were unable to address. One of the most common questions was some variation of “how do I improve in an instinct I am weak at?” I’d like to offer a few thoughts on that in this article.

One of the reasons I think this question is so common is because the Enneagram is so often offered as a descriptive model rather than a prescriptive model. That is, it’s presented as a map rather than a guidebook. When the Enneagram is treated as merely a descriptive model, then the idea of using it as a map can keep us stuck because the places we want to go are not going to be on the map!

If we want to grow, we must be sure we are thinking about the instinctual biases (commonly referred to as “instincts”) in the correct way—terminology and definitions are important. The standard approach is to think about them as three distinct energies* or drives that influence our behaviors. This is a view borrowed from early 20th-century psychology that doesn’t correspond with how scientists now think about the workings of our nature. Rather, we have to understand that what the three instinctual biases point to are domains of independent, but correlated, evolutionary adaptations that inspire behaviors that help us meet our fundamental needs.

Thus, rather than think of three “instincts,” it helps to think of three domains or clusters of adaptations (biological mechanisms that drive behaviors) that help us meet similar needs. I refer to these domains as “Preserving,” “Navigating,” and “Transmitting.” We each tend to focus on one of these domains more than the other two; that is, we have a non-conscious “bias” toward it.

My view is that the common names used in the Enneagram literature are too limited in scope and do not address all of the behaviors related to these domains.

“Self-preservation” does not include all of the behaviors in this domain that relate to “Preserving” in general—preserving artifacts, ideas and traditions; preserving relationships; preserving the well-being of those we care about, etc.

“Social,” in the mind of many, implies extroversion (when, in fact, not all Navigators are extroverts by any stretch) and does not capture the nuances of gathering information used to Navigate complicated group dynamics.

“Sexual” is far too limited and does not capture the tendencies for display and signaling seen in Transmitters, or the need to broadly share aspects of themselves such as genes, artifacts, ideas, or creations. “One-to-one” is particularly problematic—it is equally limited and many Preservers are misled by this term because supportive relationships with significant others are so important to them.

So, to ask the question of “how can I work on my ‘self-preservation instinct’?” is bound to lead to frustration, because it makes us think we are only working on one thing when in fact there are many specific things to work on in each domain.

Asking “how can I get better at the preserving domain” is like asking our personal trainer, “Ok, what can I do to become more healthy?”

If we want to become more healthy, we have to start with the realization that health encompasses a lot of different factors and becoming “more healthy” involves first understanding that there are many elements of good health—nutrition, rest, strength, stamina, flexibility and limberness, etc.

We start to become healthier by taking stock of our current state via self-analysis and, ideally, feedback from an expert and then prioritizing which areas to work on first so our investment of time and effort has the biggest payoff. Maybe our diet is fine but we need to build strength; maybe we are strong but need to become more limber; etc. Even when it comes to one of these elements, such as diet, we must look specifically and ask, are their certain vitamins I am not getting enough of? do I need more protein? more fruits and vegetables? etc.

Once the analysis is done, we establish and execute an action plan focused on specific activities in the order that best meets our specific circumstances. The overall effect of working on specific activities that fall into the domain of “health” is the way we become healthier, but if our approach stops at “I must become healthier” we will likely become paralyzed and at best our actions will be disjointed and ineffective.

We need to take the same approach to our self-development related to the instinctual domains—we can’t assume there is a magic bullet to improve in a general domain; we must break it down into specific behaviors and address them in order of priority.

In addition to letting go of seeing the instinctual biases as three singular instincts, there are a few more common ideas we should dispense with.

First, we have to get rid of the idea that we need to be equally “balanced” in all three domains, like a stool with all three legs the same length, or that such a thing is even possible. As we’ve established, we are not talking about three specific and singular phenomena, “instincts,” or “energies;” we are talking about countless specific adaptations and behaviors. The idea that we could be equally skilled at all of them is a fantasy.

Thus, we have to do an analysis of what specific actions (or avoidances) are causing us to suffer and then develop and execute a plan to correct those actions. If we want to improve in “Preserving,” we need to establish what specific activities in this domain we need to improve (eating better, getting regular check-ups, exercising, saving more money, etc., etc. etc.) and then get to work on them.

Second, we need to abandon the idea that the “instincts” are some form of natural, informed intelligence and the problem is simply that our “fixation” interferes with them, and that if we simply rid ourselves of the fixation our “natural animal intelligence” (whatever that is…) will take care of everything. This is a counterproductive perspective stemming from old, simplistic, essentialist thinking that humans are naturally “complete” but impeded by some sort of “false” personality.

The adaptations or drives are rooted in the three instinctual domains are merely impulses to satisfy our needs and we can meet those needs skillfully or not. “Working on our ego” will not magically make us better at preserving, navigating, or transmitting in any substantive way. Developing skillfulness in specific behaviors will.

Yes, our personality patterns will create obstacles that impede our ability to grow and if we want to improve in any area of life we have to understand the nature of those obstacles. We have to learn to pay attention to the internal narratives our Ennea-type strategy creates; learn to skillfully rewrite those narratives in a way that allows us to embrace, rather than reject, new behaviors; and create plans to skillfully implement those new behaviors. (I refer to this as the “Awareness to Action Process,” which you can learn more about in this article or this video.

But we need to understand that there is no magical formula for this. There is a simple formula, but it requires hard work. That formula is as follows:

  1. Practice self-awareness via self-observation and feedback from others with some experience or expertise in the area in which we are trying to improve.
  2. Identify specific areas for development (“I will balance my checkbook every Friday;” “I will ensure that I eat five servings of fruits and vegetables;” “I will lift weights every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday;” etc.)
  3. Pay disciplined attention to our behaviors in the relevant area. “Being present” on its own is insufficient, but it is a critical piece of any growth activities.
  4. Recognize how our habitual interpretation of our preferred Ennea-type strategy creates narratives that impede our desire to adopt the new behavior and rewrite those narratives in a way that honors the healthy, adaptive intention of the strategy. (This is the “authenticity” stage of the Awareness to Action Process.)
  5. Exercise will and execute a specific action plan.

In short, working on growth related to the instinctual biases relies on increasing our skillfulness in the behaviors related to the domain and learning to practice self-awareness and self-management regarding our habitual and deeply wired impulses.

The image accompanying this article illustrates the point—to grow we want to steadily work on increasing self-awareness and behavior-related skillfulness and move from lower-left to upper-right on the graph. (You can find more on this topic in “Instinctual Leadership: Working with the 27 Subtypes of the Awareness to Action Enneagram,” which I co-wrote with Maria Jose Munita.)

It is easy to fall into the trap as seeing the Enneagram as a solution rather than a model of diagnosis and prescription (I like to refer to it as a “problem resolution protocol”). Knowing “our number” (a term that should be banned from all thoughtful discussion of the Enneagram) is not where we end; recognizing our habitual patterns and understanding them in the context the Enneagram provides is where we begin. The Enneagram helps us recognize common patterns of behavior and certain aspects of human nature; it points us in the general direction of growth. But the “solutions,” the specifics of what we do to grow, come from other places, whether they be spiritual traditions, self-help activities, or common techniques for developing fundamental life skills.

Follow the steps in this article and you will make the progress you are looking for.


*While “energy” is a good word for colloquial speech, it is often used as a “weasel word” in self-development/self-help circles and obscures rather than clarifies. A weasel word is a term meant to sound explanatory but does not actually explain anything. When people use “energy” as an explanation for something, always find out exactly what they mean by the word in that context.