What is Subtype? – Eric R. Meyer, PhD

What is Subtype? – Eric R. Meyer, PhD

The 2016 IEA Global Conference began with a pre-conference conversation between Russ Hudson, Jack Killen, and Mario Sikora about how we come to know what we think we know about the Enneagram.  For anyone who may not initially have been interested in such an abstract issue, a panel discussion of perspectives on instinctual variants or subtypes1 two days later highlighted an area of theory where obvious disagreement and uncertainty still exist.  Like the pre-day itself, this session appeared more focused on reassurance of common ground than exploring disagreements, leaving the audience to appreciate the simple fact that four different teachers (Bea Chestnut, Tom Condon, Russ, and Mario) were on the same stage together, having a public discussion at all.  That sort of thing is considered routine and necessary for the advancement of other fields of knowledge, and I’m very glad to see it beginning to happen here as well.

Differences in these teachers’ views still became clear, most obviously on two points: first, what is the third domain or realm, variously called “sexual”, “one to one”, and “transmitting”, really about?  And second, how do we even approach such a question: how do we know what’s true here?  Conflicting answers became apparent, just as in the pre-day conversation.

Subjective truth:  These sorts of things can just be known directly through immediate internal experience and inquiry.  This popular view sounds cozy and empowering, but isn’t always true – and it obviously implies that any disagreements must be due to inferior personal awareness or insight.  That’s a high-stakes game to want to play; no wonder there hasn’t been more critical discussion.

Authority:  The Enneagram is an ancient tradition of transmitted wisdom; you may not know these things directly yourself, but someone once did.  Of course on subtypes the authority generally cited is Claudio Naranjo, who may not wish to be considered ancient.  And in any case appeal to authority is a classic fallacy, since it merely begs the question how they can have known any better than you or I, and leads to the same sort of arbitrary personal judgments.

Empiricism:  Many Enneagram teachings like this are actually theories about human nature, involving general claims about how real people feel and behave and why, based on observation of others as well as subjective experience.  When questions arise, further investigation may be needed to find an explanation that fits the evidence better.  We learn collectively by improving, sometimes even replacing theories, making them more accurate and useful.

The empirical approach is appropriate and historically effective for this sort of material, and also strikes me as more respectful of our human nature and tolerant of our failings.  It’s the basic orientation of the scientists we like to imagine one day “validating” the Enneagram, and of curious or skeptical people we hope to attract to the study and use of it.  The subjective-authoritarian positions are more precarious, not only because they can intensify personal investment in ideas and discourage critical thinking and discussion,2 but because they confuse subjective knowledge with objective, empirical knowledge.  Not all knowledge concerning our internal experience is subjective.  There are indeed some things we can “just know” directly about our own experience, but what causes human beings to have such experience isn’t one of them.  And so we become amateur psychologists3 whether we realize it or not, proposing theories about the nature and cause of personality types and subtypes just as astrophysicists theorize about dark matter.  What’s still missing is the critical analysis and discussion of those theories that should follow; this isn’t yet familiar practice in the Enneagram community, but like so much else in life, trying to avoid it can actually make things more uncomfortable and difficult.

How is progress possible?

It could easily seem that we already have too many theories about subtypes, and should just pick one and stick with it to avoid confusion – but agreement doesn’t come easily, which suggests a deeper problem.  Even if this panel had attempted to compare their views of a third domain and evaluate which best fits and explains aspects of our experience, it would have become clear that each has intrinsic difficulties.  “Sexual” is a highly specific (and somewhat fraught) term that appeals to some people, but not to others without a suspicious amount of rationalization or persuasion.  “One to one” addresses that problem by becoming a hodgepodge: sex and intimacy and vitality is no longer a coherent focus.  “Transmitting” sidesteps the problem by simply describing a pattern of behavior rather than an experience, invoking sex only as an ultimate biological explanation.  (That works for some purposes, but I miss the experiential aspect.)  Some people are drawn to each description of the third domain, but because those aren’t identical, it may not be quite the same group of people in each case.  One might imagine that a person could identify with a third domain no matter what it’s called simply by excluding the other two, but that doesn’t always work; inaccurate names can be misleading, and at least some of these must be inaccurate.

So my own thoughts begin to turn to the possibility of a new theory that would avoid all these problems and clarify the situation.  Common sense suggests that the likely reason why we haven’t achieved the same degree of general consensus on subtypes as on the nine types is that we haven’t quite identified their nature correctly yet, and need to try to do so.  That is, assuming that three subtype domains are a real phenomenon at all; otherwise we can simply describe people, or invite them to identify themselves, equally well by whatever criteria we like.  But the stories we tell about subtypes and the role they play in relationship suggest that there is something real and important going on here that needs to be explained better, in some different way.

What does seem clear from experience is that we can recognize three important domains of human life associated with subtypes: a self-preservation (Preserving) domain involving security and comfort; a social (Navigating) domain involving status, reputation, and reciprocity; and… a third domain, apparently yet to be described entirely correctly.  It’s not obvious why there should be anything intrinsically challenging or confusing about understanding this particular domain, compared with the other two; rather, I suspect that something about the entire traditional approach to subtypes is misleading and holding us back, and this is simply where the problem becomes most apparent.  (That’s what can happen with theories, as physicist turned philosopher Thomas Kuhn described: they work well enough in most respects but isolated anomalies arise, which if persistent enough can lead to the questioning of an entire paradigm.)  I’d like to take a guess at the possible nature of the problem, and illustrate how the search for a new approach might proceed.  Everyone has been diligently trying to apply the theme of sexual instinct in various ways to our third group of people, despite every apparent difficulty.  What if that’s just a mistake – not merely sex in particular, since I can’t think of a better instinct to propose instead, but the whole idea of instincts?

Perhaps subtype theory has always been stuck in a rut called “instinct”, just as the understanding of type has been stuck in one called “survival strategy”.4  Instinct is an equally problematic concept, whose meaning is often stretched to the point of vacuity.  In biology it refers to specific, universal patterns of unlearned (innate, inherited) behavior in a species, like web-spinning in spiders.  But in popular culture, anything we do that appears conceivably survival-related is called an “instinct”, so however precise or scientific the term may sound, that’s about all it really means.5  Gurdjieff spoke of instinct in this vague way a century ago,  much as Freud spoke of dubious “drives” (Triebe) which were widely mistranslated as “instincts”.  Ichazo and Naranjo both continued to use this sort of language in developing theories of Enneagram subtypes.  I gather that the point is supposed to be that “instinctual” subtype behavior is more primitive and hard-wired than conscious action, or even the sort of “survival strategy” thought to be involved in type.  Yet one could wonder how we know that, not to mention why we should have quite so many survival issues going on all at once in a single personality.  Subtype does seem simpler than type in some way, even more immediately evident, but there may be better ways of explaining that relative simplicity.

A new theory

I’d be very glad just to get others wondering what might be wrong with traditional subtype theory, so even if I can’t persuade you of my proposal, I can offer it as a useful example of empirical or scientific method, questioning an assumption and exploring a new possibility: what might subtypes be about if not instincts, which is to say survival?  What I’ve learned lately about the challenge of being human, and even how that’s expressed in personality structure, is that it’s not so much about getting what we need, through either instinctual drives or rational strategies, as it is about how we feel, how that shapes our perceptions and motivates our actions, and ultimately the difficulty we have dealing with our own feelings.  Of course we can be quite comfortable talking instead about instincts and strategies, because that doesn’t get directly into the feelings we actually have trouble with.  Proposing instincts or drives for subtypes, merely imagining a purpose for these behaviors, ultimately isn’t as relevant or helpful as we might wish.  As we know all too well, subtype behavior isn’t so much appropriate and useful as annoyingly (or amusingly) exaggerated and obsessive.

So if it’s time to stop and take a fresh look at the whole situation,6 I suggest inquiring into how people feel and how that motivates their behavior.  Instead of talking about a self-preservation instinct, we might see daily lives that involve a low chronic level of fear – which also sounds more like something people could work with therapeutically.  (This already appears to be recognized to some extent, for example when self-preservation head types like me are described as having a “double dose of fear”.)  Instead of talking about a social instinct and debating what sorts of relationships that includes or doesn’t, we might see people experiencing chronic low-level distress.  (Just to be clear, distress isn’t fear of not being connected but a different emotion, a discomfort involving actual longing for connection.  A survival view is simplistic, recognizing only fear of various threats, whereas personality is shaped by other emotions also.)

As for the third domain, of course I wouldn’t tell anyone who strongly identifies with a sexual theme that they don’t feel what they say they feel, but I am willing to suggest that it may not be quite what their subtype is about.  (That’s surely better than telling someone who doesn’t feel a central sexual theme in their life that they must be reluctant to acknowledge it.)  If we abandon the specific focus on sex, we’re left with what people in this domain seem to talk more about anyway, the energy or “juice” in their life, of which sex is merely an instance.  (We also avoid attributing a sexual subtype to children, which feels unhealthily Freudian.)  If we abandon the emphasis on sex and intimacy in the “one to one” subtype, we’re left with “the vitality of the life force” (as Peter O’Hanrahan puts it), which may be the point itself.  If we abandon an alleged purpose of reproduction in “transmitting”, we can take it to involve just what it describes: charisma, ambition, self-promotion.  That all seems very much in line with many other terms that appear to resonate for people of these subtypes: intensity, power, jealousy, rivalry, seduction, aggression, competition, strength, beauty, fascination, possession.

If we don’t insist on a specifically sexual interpretation of this theme, it can be recognized as describing a broader subtype domain involving who we are and how we interact with the world – the importance of expressing ourselves and asserting our desires.  Its intensity isn’t specifically about sex or even intimate relationship, not so much about any particular area of life as how one approaches life generally, which helps to explain why there’s been so much confusion about it.  Of the existing names, only Transmitting would be usable for this domain, with the understanding that what’s being transmitted is simply one’s own vitality and will (not cues about reproductive fitness).  Otherwise, searching for an appropriate new name, we might choose something like “self-assertion” or “Asserting”, which I’ll offer as an initial suggestion.  And instead of inventing a self-asserting instinct (even though it is arguably necessary for survival), if we inquire how people who behave this way may be feeling, we may recognize a chronic low level of anger.

I propose that the subtype domains aren’t instinctual but emotional, and that there are three because we have three essential7 aversive emotions: fear, distress, and anger.  Three corresponding concerns arise:  Am I prepared for whatever may happen?  Am I connected to and supported by others?  Can I express myself and pursue my own goals?  Of course this is just a theory, but so are all the existing explanations of subtypes, and we do seem to need to explore new ones.  This seems at least promising: it makes sense, feels right to me, and fits my own experience and my impressions of others.  Mario has a simple diagnostic rule that I find very useful: Preservers tend to talk about things, Navigators about other people, and Transmitters about themselves.  It’s easy to see how chronic fear would drive a focus on supplies and circumstances, distress a focus on social context, and anger a focus on one’s own interests and desires.  As you think of people you know, and check with your sense of them in your body, do you detect one of these emotions in your impression?

Further speculation

We find things coming in threes everywhere in Enneagram theory, and I’d expect this ultimately to be explained by some aspect of human biological nature.  I’ve proposed that the three aversive emotions (fear, distress, anger) determine the self-preservation, social, and self-asserting subtype domains; as many will be aware, Jack has previously associated the same three emotional systems with the head, heart, and body triads.8  This isn’t a contradiction, but a suggestive connection.  Once the “sexual” focus is removed, a striking correspondence becomes apparent between subtype concerns and triad concerns; they appear to involve the same domains of life, governed by the same emotions, while still differing somehow in degree or intensity.

   Aversive emotion           Triad                                           Subtype domain

Fear                             Head:  safety, predictability         Self-preservation:  security, comfort

Distress                        Heart:  connection, caring            Social:  status, support, reciprocity

Anger                           Body:  self-worth, belonging         Self-asserting:  self-expression, satisfaction

The expression of these concerns seems more fraught and avoidant in the types, more straightforward in the subtypes.  The background fear of self-preservation (Preserving) subtypes would manifest as a concern with immediate comfort rather than actual threats to survival, explaining the “warm” impression commonly attributed to them.  The background distress of social (Navigating) subtypes wouldn’t be intense enough to involve intimacy, only a chronic concern with social connection, explaining the “cool” impression that others describe.  The background anger of self-asserting subtypes (not a desire for intimacy or sex) would explain the “hot” impression that others report, and how easily that intensity can pass on to another target.

The expression of subtype may be more obvious in everyday life than that of type not because it’s “instinctual”, somehow deeper or more primitive, but because it’s simpler and closer to the surface, and therefore triggered more routinely.  It shouldn’t be difficult to abandon the instinctual interpretation of subtypes, or very surprising to need to.   Explaining trivial behavior like the typical self-preservation attention to room lighting and temperature in terms of instinctual needs or survival always seemed a bit overwrought.  Subtype behavior really looks just as neurotic or obsessive as type patterns, and it’s always taken some effort to imagine otherwise.  (Perhaps we should recognize degrees of health in subtype, just as we do in type.)  It was never clear how anyone could hope to rebalance primitive instinctual energies, but becoming aware of an emotion we’re experiencing would enable us to address it therapeutically.  I see subtype (like type) as an indispensable guide to understanding and dealing better with how we feel about our experience of life.

Presumably there should be some developmental reason why we acquire one of these three primary emotional concerns in our subtype, along with the more complex mechanisms of our type.  (It might turn out to be related to the way living through hard times seems to accentuate these concerns even in adulthood.)  I’m content to leave that as a subject for further inquiry, along with any apparent stacking or ordering among the three domains.  I don’t claim mystical inspiration, authoritative certainty, or perfect completeness for this theory; I just hope it may turn out to be true, or mostly true, and help people determine, understand, and work with their subtype.  And since I’m convinced that we still have more to learn about subtypes (and types), I hope it may contribute to a productive ongoing discussion.


Copyright © 2016, Eric R. Meyer.  I thank Mario Sikora and Jack Killen for discussions of an early draft of this material.

 1  I’ll use the single term “subtype” from now on for brevity, and also because I intend to question whether “instincts” are actually involved.

2  For a good account of how much trouble people can have admitting error, and the consequences of that, see Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  On how mistakes can be useful learning opportunities, see Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz.

3  Of course some have professional degrees as well, and “amateur” isn’t necessarily a deprecation when the field of psychology has so long ignored so many aspects of human experience.

4  I presented this argument in my previous paper, “Relational Psychology of the Enneatypes”, on ninepointsmagazine.orgwww.ninepointsmagazine.org/relational-psychology-of-the-enneatypes-part-i-relationship-by-eric-r-meyer-phd/

5  A quick web search turns up an assortment of vague claims like “Instincts include fear, anger, shyness, curiosity and secretiveness among many more”, from such respected authorities as reference.com.

6  Of course Mario has already set a fine example for taking a fresh look at subtypes, especially by observing how Transmitters appear to want to express something about themselves.

7  By “essential” I mean, corresponding to the three aversive emotional systems in the brain identified by neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp.  See Panksepp and Biven, The Archaeology of Mind (Norton, 2012).

8  See Jack Killen, “Toward the Neurobiology of the Enneagram” (Enneagram Journal, July 2009).  By the way, I’m not the first to suggest a relationship between triads and subtypes; Ichazo saw the triads as fixations of the three instincts, and criticized later theories of subtypes for discarding that connection.


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