What are subtypes and how do they influence your core type?
First of all, let's take a step back and consider the push back that is often hurled at Enneagram fans and teachers which is: "There can't possibly be only nine types that all humanity in the entire world fits in to. We are too diverse, and have too many varieties of humans for everyone to be categorized as one of nine types."
One way of addressing this concern, has been wide-spread but it's worth mentioning again, and that is to think of the color wheel. There are only a certain defined number of primary and secondary colors - the ROY G. BIV if you will - however, WITHIN each color there is a wide spectrum of shade and variations. Some of them look nothing alike, but still contain the same root color.
But also, maybe the way my strange brain works will be helpful here, I like to think of this as a meal. Your Enneagram type is like the protein - there are only a certain amount of animal proteins that we enjoy eating as a human race, Lamb, Chicken, Beef, Pork, Salmon, etc. So think of your core type as a protein, because at the end of the day, the Ennegram only tells us ONE THING: What's your core motivation for everything you do.
When we know that, we can pull out a TON of helpful thoughts and considerations from that, but really that's ALL the Enneagram tells us. It doesn't tell us who we are, what we like to do, our favorite hobbies, how we behave at a grocery store, etc. It tells us what our core motivation is - that's it.
The way that motivation is expressed, the way it's manifest, the way it influences your life and decisions you've made is so varied based on three factors: your wing, your instinctual subtype and your life experiences.
Your life experiences do influence how that core motivation is expressed, how it grows and comes out of you and shows itself in your life.
Going back to the meal analogy, let's say that Type 3's are beef. Well, guess what, you can take beef and make so many meals from it - some of which would not look or taste anything alike. If you are a Type 3 with a 4 wing, maybe that wing brings in it's own flavor - and it's a peppery flavor (hang in there with me) and then the subtype is sort of how the meat is prepared. You can char beef, you can grind it and brown it, you can even do beef tartar and leave it raw - all of these preparations influence how the beef presents itself and that's what both subtypes and wings do for our core type. They don't CHANGE our core type, that core motivation is still there and very much in tact, but can you see how there is such a wide spectrum for a type 3? You will find as much variation as you would for how you could prepare and season some beef.
I can't tell you how many typing sessions I've had with clients and they have been shocked when we arrived at their type because they knew another type ___ and they were nothing like them. I am constantly having to remind myself and others - Enneagram is about core motivation, not about how you behave at a party or what you carry in your backpack or even about what you order at Starbucks (shocker, I know).
You can be the same type as someone else and behave or look very different.
Please don't be confused if you saw a meme about how your type goes on vacation or what your type's house looks like and it didn't fit you - that's not actually what the Enneagram teaches us.
Now, that we understand how subtypes (and wings and life experiences) influence or affect your core type, let's actually take a quick look at subtypes and what they are.
There are three subtype or instinctual subtypes.
They come out of this idea that to survive as a human race, we have three basic survival instincts that are almost animal in nature, and therefore, often hidden from our awareness.
This instinct is concerned with getting the things they need to survive. I need shelter, I need food, I need weapons, I need to be near water. Very focused on getting the things they need to feel safe and continue to survive.
I need people around me, we are stronger together. We can divide the work, you have these skills, I have those skills, there is strength in numbers. I want to be apart of something bigger than myself, a tribe instinct.
3) Sexual (one-to-one)
Obviously there is a sexual need to procreate and survive as a species. But also this instinct sees people as individuals rather than commodities or in a group. Being able to connect deeply to the soul of an individual, which is necessary for survival because we were created for connection.
These three instincts are similar to the three centers of intelligence in that, we use all three, but there is one that tends to be more dominant than the other two. Of course, we all employ all three (both centers of intelligence and instinctual subtypes) but there is a difference between what we do without thinking, and what we decide to employ after we've had a moment to think about it.
Have you heard of the FLIGHT FLIGHT or FREEZE responses to an emergency? Most people, when there is an emergency, will fall into one of these three categories. Without even thinking about it, they will either FIGHT - run towards the actions, jump into the fray and get to work. FLIGHT - run away, hide, seek shelter and safety. FREEZE - do nothing, feel completely stuck where they are.
Of course, after this instinct happens, any of us could later CHOOSE to do something different. If I FROZE initially, I could then, get my wits about me and run toward the action, or run away. All three actions are available to me, but there is one that comes NATURALLY to me when I'm not even thinking. It's the same with our centers of intelligence and subtypes.
When you are trying to consider which subtype you might be, I don't want you to ask yourself "Which one of these do I do?" Because you might get all three!! I want you to ask yourself "Which one of these do I do without even thinking about it? Which one do I do FIRST? Which one is PRIMARY and DOMINANT?"
Remember, we can employ all three subtypes (or centers of intelligence, or responses in emergencies) but one of them will feel natural and the other two will feel more like work - like an intentional choice.
Why is this important to understand? Well, usually, our dominant instinct will be overused and the other two will be underused and when we identify that, we can intentionally do the work of bringing balance to our type.
Knowing your subtype can be incredibly helpful, not only for bringing up balance between the other two subtypes, but also in identifying your type because each type looks a little different depending on what subtype you have (some have even argued that there are not 9 Enneagram types but 27 Enneagram types - 9 core motivations x 3 instinctual variants).
The queen of subtype work is Beatrice Chestnut and her book The Complete Enneagram. She goes through each type and how it looks different when paired with the three subtypes. If you have had trouble identifying with your type, you may be thrilled to find yourself in one of her more detailed subtype descriptions.
For more on Subtypes (and wings, and centers of intelligence, and the Enneagram as a whole) I would HIGHLY encourage you to check out my Enneagram e-course. It's the best way to get your crash course into the Enneagram and really de-code a lot of these terms and get to the root of what they are, why we need to know them and how they make our lives better.