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Are We “Good at” Our Instinctual Bias?

(Want to learn more about a practical approach to understanding the instinctual biases and subtypes of the Enneagram? Register for the Awareness to Action Enneagram certification program, Module 1, in Philadelphia, May 22-26, 2019.

I wrote recently about skillfulness vs. non-skillfulness in the instinctual domains, but this keeps coming up as a question in workshops so I want to take another stab at describing the dynamics related to living out our instinctual biases.Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 6.22.19 AM

It seems that some people have learned* that we tend to be primarily dysfunctional when it comes to the instinctual biases because they come from some feeling of deficiency. Others seem to have learned that our “instincts” are “good” in their natural states (whatever that means) but that they are impeded in some way by our ego or Ennea-type and thus distorted.

I find both of these interpretations to be a bit inaccurate.

I have also seen my views on this topic misrepresented, as if I assume we are innately skillful at activities related our instinctual bias. This is not what I claim.

When thinking about the instinctual biases, we have to remember that nothing in modern biology (or psychology, for that matter) supports the notion that there are three–and only three–”instincts.” Instead, we learn that there are many evolutionary adaptations that nudge or “bias” us toward certain behaviors or areas of concern related to the basics of life. (For example, within the domain of what is typically called “self-preservation” by other authors, we have an adaptation that causes us to crave sweets and an adaptation to seek physical comfort, among many others.)

Some of these adaptations are what are called “short-leash,” meaning that we have less control over or ability to manage our impulses related to them, while others have a “long(er)-leash,” meaning we have the capacity for more control over or better management of the impulse. Reacting to physical threat is an example of a short-leash adaptation–it is difficult to resist the fight or flight response; sharing juicy gossip would be an example of a longer-leash behavior.**

These adaptations do seem to cluster together into three “domains” and each of us has a bias toward one of these domains over the other two. Thus, we do not have a “self-preservation” instinct, a “social” instinct, and a “sexual” instinct; we have a numerous impulses rooted in evolutionary adaptations clustered in three distinct-but-overlapping clusters that I call “Preserving,” “Navigating,” and “Transmitting.” While we have a bias toward one of these domains, we are not all compelled by the individual adaptations equally. Thus, for a wide variety of reasons (including but not limited to our Ennea-type strategy), one individual with a bias toward the Preserving domain may focus more on finances and the “nest” while another might focus more on health and nutrition. In short, not all Preservers are created equal.

But the question remains–Are the instinctual biases a source of strength or a domain of dysfunction? The answer is, as in many things in life, “It depends.”

We must remember that the Enneagram as a model of personality patterns (and I’ll include the instinctual biases as part of the Enneagram here) focuses on motivation or impulses that drive us and how those drives manifest in either skillful (i.e., adaptive) ways or non-skillful (i.e., maladaptive) ways. But our degree of skillfulness is independent of our Ennea-type pattern and influenced by a variety of factors.

Thus, if we have learned how to manage our finances; to develop organizational skills; to attend to our nest and keep the things in good repair and providing a sense of comfort and security; we can be considered skillful in these aspects of the Preserving domain and have relatively little anxiety related to them even if they continue to be the main focus of our instinctual attention.

Skillfulness in the fundamental tasks of life reduces anxiety related to the instinctual domains in which they reside, but our attention will still drift toward them disproportionately. In other words, we can (and do) have a bias toward one of the domains whether we are skilled (or not) in behaviors related to it and our anxiety in that domain is generally proportional to our skillfulness in it.

One caveat to this last point is important–avoidance tends to lessen our sense of anxiety until we can no longer avoid the issue, at which point our anxiety may skyrocket. This is particularly relevant to the tertiary domain. We tend to non-consciously view the third domain as “unimportant” and we generally do our best to ignore it. We may feel anxiety in this domain when we are faced with some life challenge related to it, but we generally don’t feel the anxiety otherwise.

Again, however, a general rule regarding the instinctual domains is that anxiety and confidence are related to our skillfulness in each domain.

Thus, it doesn’t help to think of the three domains purely in terms of where we feel our anxiety or experience our dysfunction–they are simply focuses of attention and the dysfunction or anxiety we feel related to them is dependent on how much work we have done on ourselves.  

The three instinctual biases are systems of values and focuses of attention (we pay attention to things we instinctually place value on). The degree of anxiety or dysfunction we experience in each of the three domains is related to our skillfulness in those areas. We can be really “good (i.e., functional or adaptive) at” activities related to our dominant instinctual domain or we can be really “bad (i.e., dysfunctional or maladaptive) at” them. As a general rule we tend to feel more anxiety related to our dominant bias earlier in life because we have not yet developed the skillfulness that comes with maturity and growth. 

We tend to have a bit more anxiety in our secondary domain because, since we don’t focus on it as much as we do the first, we are generally not as skillful in it. We often act out behaviors related to this domain more than we realize, and we may feel skillful in some of its components but not skillful in other components. Our degree of confidence or security in the second domain, like in the first domain, is related to our competence in it related to the demands life brings our way. If, for example, the Preserving domain is second for us, we will feel stress inversely proportional to our competence when faced with a challenge related to that domain. Since this domain takes up the second-most amount of our attention but we have usually not dedicated time to developing in this area, we are more likely to notice stress related to this domain than to our third domain.

The third domain is one in which we tend to have little interest. In general, we don’t feel anxiety in this area because we avoid it and aren’t frequently faced with circumstances that would elicit our feelings of incompetence. This is not to say that we won’t feel anxiety and shame when confronted with a challenge related to the third domain, but I would argue that we feel this due to our lack of competence, not simply because this domain is “third in our stack” and so we automatically feel shame related to it.

In summary:

  • We don’t have three “instincts,” we have many evolutionary adaptations that cluster into three broad groups or domains.
  • The degree of shame or anxiety we feel in each domain is not a built-in feature of the psyche, it is a response to our perceived skillfulness related to specific behaviors.
  • We can improve (and reduce our anxiety) in each of these areas if we do the work of developing skills related to them.

*I want to point out that I used deliberately the phrase “have learned” rather than “were taught” in the paragraph above. People misunderstand my views and I want to be clear that what people tell me they learned is not necessarily what they were taught and I don’t want to make assumptions about teachings I hear second-hand.

**It does seem that our leash is “shorter” in the areas of our dominant instinctual domain. That is, it can be more difficult to manage the impulses related to that domain than the other two.