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Enneagram Theory: Why Are Subtypes So Important?


The last of three guest blogs by Beatrice Chestnut, Ph.D.

There are several reason that the subtypes are important to know and to study, both for people who use the Enneagram for their own personal growth and for those who aspire to teach the system to others.

First, 27 types yield a more complete and more whole personality type system than nine types. If the law of three is important in the structure of the Enneagram system, doesn’t it make sense that there are three three’s (3 x 3 x 3) involved in the representation of the whole system?  Knowing and understanding all 27 distinct character types allows for a much more nuanced and specific use of the personality types as growth maps.

Second, more specific subtype information is necessary for providing the best and latest information on instinct-driven behavior within the personality. If we promote the Enneagram system as a personal growth path, we should be working actively to make sure we develop all aspects of it; only then can the Enneagram be an accurate map of personality that motivates growth. As mentioned in my first blog, I have long found subtype theory and material to be lacking, and I think we need to update our information so as to better guide personal growth efforts.

Third, identifying the correct Enneagram type for a given person still remains a challenge for many people. There are really no tests that can correctly identify a person’s type with 100% certainty, and this is probably a good thing. I believe the best way for people to understand and gain access to the system is through having to engage with it in a deep way – learning about the system and the types – to locate their type. Having a test compute an easy answer in response to a questionnaire – difficult as this may be – caters to and confirms the worst tendency in Enneagram use, which is to use it superficially and end one’s exploration at identifying and affirming one’s type. For example, if I have found out I am a Two, I am told that this is what I’m like (because the test says so) and, then, my work is over. To really understand oneself and use the Enneagram for development, the journey involved in determining one’s own type is just as important as the answer to the question, What is my type?

So, in the face of this difficulty of finding good subtype information – and this is in addition to the important challenge described above in finding one’s real type ­– it becomes very important that the descriptions of the types are accurate and complete. Gaining a thorough knowledge of the types and subtypes is really the only way to learn which one fits one’s own characteristic patterns.  The 27 subtypes presented by Naranjo in 2004 offer a more nuanced, more thorough description than do descriptions of the nine types by themselves, which often do not include all of the variance included by the character maps of the subtypes.

Even though most people are still teaching from pre-2004 subtype descriptors, it has been my observation that there just isn’t much depth of content. When I have seen the 27 subtype characters presented in print or in workshops, the subtypes are described in a paragraph or less and the exact, distinct descriptions can remain unclear. And if you read different authors accounts of the subtypes, they don’t describe the same subtype characters – they have different names and the characters are dissimilar. How can people find themselves given this lack of good information and these varied accounts, much less use this information for self-development purposes?

This points to a problem I’ve perceived in the way most people currently teach and write about the subtypes. Because there is so little unified understanding of the 27 subtype characters, people who teach and write about the subtypes rely much more than they should on the generic definitions of “self-preservation,” “social,” and “one-to-one” or “sexual.”  These authors and teachers aim most of their subtype discussion on whether people exhibit what is thought to be typical of each of these instinctual groups: what is typical “self-preservation” behavior – being fully supplied, worrying about the checkbook balance, and controlling and monitoring resources; typical “social” behavior – joining groups or not, attending to the needs of the group or family, and relating to the organizational level of things; and typical “one-to-one” behavior – having intense eye contact, doggedly pursuing connections with one other person, and crafting a more sensuous self-presentation.

And while this approach has some value, it seems to me that it acts in part to cover over the fact that people don’t really know or have much to say about the specific nature and patterns of the 27 distinct characters. This approach can also lead to mistyping one’s subtype. For example, several of the self-preservation subtypes do not really take care of their own self-preservation needs. But even more important, this approach neglects the most interesting and useful aspect of the subtypes – that each of the nine passions, when combined with one of these three instincts as the dominant one, results in further specificity of character description – that of the 27 distinct character types. This is the most important point that I believe is neglected by many who teach the subtypes.

It is here that Naranjo makes his most important (and thus far most overlooked) contribution to our understanding of subtypes.  He offers a much more nuanced, much more developed description of the 27 characters than ever before. And, most importantly, if you examine these 27 characters, you can see that there are some combinations of passion and instinct that actually go against or differ markedly from the simple, straightforward focus on what is “typical” self-preservation, social, or one-to-one instinct driven behavior.

So, while I would agree that there is some good in knowing what is generally descriptive of the self-preservation, social, and one-to-one stances, I believe contemporary subtype teachers make a big mistake when they display what I would argue is an over-focus on the “typical” instinct behavior profile of the three instinctual goals in the face of a pre-2004 lack of distinct subtype character knowledge (of all 27 subtypes).

That said, I believe the Naranjo subtype descriptions of 2004 should be seen as a welcome influx of subtype knowledge. This information can help us improve our ability to type ourselves and aid others in the typing process. It can provide valuable additional clarification of the three different versions of each of the nine types that can further self-understanding. And it sheds light on some of the most compulsive and automatic behavior associated with the fixated personality, that of the dominant instinct and its interaction with the passion.

It is this last point that is for me the most important reason we need to be open and embracing of this updated version of the subtypes; we need all the good information we can get about the specificity of the behavioral map of the (9 and 27) types to guide us in furthering our own self-knowledge.  What makes the 27 subtypes vital is the same thing that makes the 9 types so useful; they provide more information and a more specific map of our personality and our personality’s most automatic – and thus least conscious – behavior.  That Naranjo’s most recent articulation of the subtypes provides good information that adds to our Enneagram maps makes it crucial to test, develop, and incorporate into our old conceptions these new insights about the operation of characteristic subtype behavior. But so far, few people seem to be doing it.

So, to sum up, Naranjo’s latest articulation of the distinct character descriptions of the 27 subtypes is very important to acknowledge, study, and develop because it helps complete our understanding of the nine types and the system as a whole; it aids with the difficult challenge of typing; and it provides valuable new information we can use in our ongoing efforts to understand ourselves more and more thoroughly, so that we can be more aware of more of our most automatic behavior and most unconscious needs and drives.

When I get frustrated with the current state of subtype knowledge, it is because I believe people who teach the Enneagram sometimes content themselves with old conceptions of important systemic constructs, like the subtypes, without being aware of the limits of the information at hand and the possibility of accessing better and more complete information.  When we teach something over and over again, we sometimes get wedded to the belief that what we teach is the whole truth, and so get lulled into falling asleep to the important task of expanding the frontiers of our current understanding.  Instead, if we really want to be employing and teaching the best Enneagram-based development strategies possible, we should consistently endeavor to stay open to new learning and updated conceptions of ideas to which we have become attached. If we remain attached to the ideas we have known – or which have made us money – we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the unconscious functioning the Enneagram is designed to prevent and instead promote system that is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, incorrect and misleading.

Finally, thanks to Ginger for both initiating this forum for discussing Enneagram theory and being one of the few in the Enneagram community to recognize the importance of Naranjo’s 2004 subtype material.

Beatrice Chestnut has been studying the Enneagram system for over 20 years. She holds graduate degrees in Communication and Clinical Psychology, has a private psychotherapy and coaching practice in San Francisco, California, and is currently writing a book on the Enneagram types and subtypes. She can be reached at bmchestnut2@sbcglobal.net

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