Guide: Instinctual Variants (SP, SO, SX)

The instinctual variants are the differentiators of Enneagram types (sometimes referred to as Enneagram subtypes, which add up to 27 total). It’s an abstract and spiritual take on personality that focuses on what drives people to make their decisions. There are three core motivators:

Self-preservation (SP), social (SO), and sensual (SX).

The last of the stacking is known as the “blind spot.” Think about traffic, and the cars that are hidden in the driver’s peripheral vision. Easy to miss, and almost impossible to pay attention to without hindering the first two variants.

For instance, an SX-blind person may be confused about what chemistry and intimacy mean (or “should” feel like)—while confusing partners in the process.

An SP-blind person may fail to recognize hunger cues and skip meals regularly—while living paycheck to paycheck.

An SO-blind person could have zero clue about what’s going on in the world and see little value in reading the news—while staying on top of niche topics they care about.

Oscar Ichazo (1931 – 2020), a Bolivian-born spiritual teacher and founder of the Arica school proposed the Enneagram subtypes, which includes the instinctual variants in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean-born psychiatrist and Enneagram teacher, expanded on Ichazo’s work and developed a system of nine Enneagram types, each with three instinctual variants, resulting in a total of 27 subtypes.

We’ll dig into what these core instinctual variants mean and how to spot tell-tale signs, stressors, and cues in real life.

The Three Core Instinctual Variants

Self-Preservation (SP)

The SP instinct values (and if unhealthy, hoards) space, time, food, and finances in order to increase their chances for survival. Like a turtle’s shell, SP-firsts seek shelter and protection in order to feel safe and secure.

Topics self-preservation (SP) leads often talk about:

  • Financial stability
  • Food and cuisines
  • Clothing and fashion
  • Real estate
  • Home renovations
  • Health or fitness

Social (SO)

Often mistaken for extraversion, the SO instinct values community and cares about issues that involve the wellbeing of people. It looks outwards for cues on how to act or feel. One fear SO-firsts have is to be an outcast, loser, or reject.

Topics social (SO) leads often talk about:

  • Events, especially large ones
  • In-person and online communities
  • Celebrity gossip
  • Pop culture
  • World news
  • Social movements

Sensual (SX)

Also known as one-to-one or sexual, the SX instinct is associated with sparks, fire, and chemistry. Passion is a core concern to SX leads, and they may feel “numb” or “empty” if they experience a lack of stimulation.

Topics sensual (sx) leads often talk about:

  • Close relationships
  • Inner purpose or meaning
  • Chemistry and attraction
  • Obsessions
  • Pushing psychological boundaries
  • Exploring the depths of the mind

There are six possible pairings for the three instinctual variants, which are (in hypothetical descending order of popularity):

  • SP / SO (self-preservation / social)
  • SO / SP (social / self-preservation)
  • SO / SX (social / self-preservation)
  • SP / SX (self-preservation / sensual)
  • SX / SP (sensual / self-preservation)
  • SX / SO (sensual / social)

The Six Instinctual Variant Stackings

SP / SO (The Handyman)

Reliable, patient, and hardworking—the SP/SO is the (theoretically) most common stacking among people. They understand their role in society and the skills they need to make a comfortable living.

Stressors for the SP / SO:

  • Losing their sense of security and support system
  • Unexpected crises that put their finances at risk
  • People who come off “too strong”
  • Having to talk about their feelings
  • Emotional volatility and unpredictability

SO / SP (The Model Citizen)

Often associated with religion, the SO/SP looks to their community first to find meaning in their lives. They often carry a strong sense of moral responsibility and view of justice.

Stressors for the SO / SP:

  • Facing tension between friend groups
  • Articulating their exact feelings with friends and partners
  • Undergoing hormonal changes that change their perspectives
  • Feeling disconnected from world and local news
  • Lacking a sense of community

SO / SX (The Host)

As a natural leader and host—the SO/SX has multiple social circles where they integrate effortlessly into. They enjoy sharing their passions with others and will encourage them to partake in shared interests.

Stressors for the SO / SX:

  • Feeling left out and not “in trend”
  • Missing inside jokes and social cues
  • Experiencing rejection from others
  • Having to focus on their health or finances
  • Encountering two-faced people

SP / SX (The Hermit)

As the starving artist or underground dealer, the SP/SX lives secluded in the shadows and sees little purpose in becoming integrated with society. They may be more prone to extreme personal and political views, but keep to themselves.

Stressors for the SP / SX:

  • Having their personal space invaded
  • Being pushed outside of their comfort zone
  • Taking place in mandatory social gatherings
  • Inauthenticity in their relationships or choices
  • Faking a persona to get along with people

SX / SP (The Magician)

Like lightning in a bottle, the SX/SP is caught between two extremes of wanting solitude yet needing to feel connected to a single person or vision. They often go great lengths to search for this—sometimes flirting with various philosophies of what life and death entail.

Stressors for the SX / SP:

  • Feeling disconnected from a greater mission
  • Forcing lacklustre relationships with zero depth or meaning
  • Feeling stuck in a place, situation, or relationship
  • Losing their freedom to wander and their security
  • Navigating the mental and physical effects of burnout

SX / SO (The Butterfly)

If you get too close, they’ll flutter away gracefully, onto the next flower. You can look, but not touch, like a peacock in a zoo. The SX/SO is the superstar or idol figure; a scintillating fantasty. Their charisma and magnetism is unmatched, which makes them the rarest instinctual stacking.

Stressors for the SX / SO:

  • Getting “too close” to someone
  • Having to focus on menial or monotonous tasks
  • Losing popularity and status
  • Other people rejecting their energy
  • Dealing with boring events or people

Are certain instinctual variants and stackings more compatible with each other, in theory? The answer seems to lean towards yes.

Polar opposites generally repel each other, while identical pairings can become too predictable or unstable.

There’s also the sync- and contraflow theory (yes, rabbit hole seemingly never ends)…