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The Self-Preservation Instinct

Simply put, the Self-Preservation Instinct is the drive for well-being. It is the drive to survive and to work in support of what makes one thrive in both the short- and long-term. As our basic drive of survival, it supplies energy to endure in the face of existential challenges. It is the most compelling and powerful drive, shared by all forms of life, from which the other drives, functions, and capacities of our organism flower.

  If we think of life and survival in terms of strict categories of “alive” or “dead,” “surviving” or “dying,” then we fail to really understand something fundamental to life; namely, that life is better understood as a range of energy and vitality rather than as a static state in opposition to death. To be connected with the Self-Preservation Instinct means we directly sense and experience that we are living and growing, that we are constantly in development or decline. The Self-Preservation Instinct is aliveness itself, and therefore our relationship to this instinct reflects our feelings about being alive.

How closely one keeps to the visceral, moment-by-moment sense of the energies of the body, especially sensation, is a measure of how present and willing we are to make intentional use of our limited time on Earth. The Self-Preservation Instinct maintains a healthy awareness of death, a source of strength that urges us to use our time wisely and fully, to be intentional with how we live and where we invest energy. What might it mean about the value we place in our life if our breath is routinely poor and shallow? What does it reveal if our bodies are often numb or simply being used like an object to get us from point A to point B?

The Self-Preservation Instinct continuously monitors and gauges the immediate physical state of the organism. It’s sensitive to the body’s direct feedback, providing discernment for what conditions encourage growth and well-being. Listening to this instinct means living in accordance with the body’s real state and need, rather than imposing ideas onto it. It means following the unfolding of our life’s energy. This is the drive that motivates us to test and express our physical capacities and our aggression, but also to rest and foster the conditions that support the optimization of our quality of life force.

Self-Preservation extends its “eye” to include the overall shape of our lifestyle and a “schematic” overview of how life is lived, how much our style of living is a reflection of and foundation for the things that matter to us. When we’re in touch with this instinct, we see how our lifestyle is a reflection of our conscious and unconscious values.

Seeing the patterns we live within shines a great deal of light on the unconscious assumptions and psychological forces motivating us that we may have little awareness of. Very often, the way we actually live stands in contradiction to what we think we value—we might, for example, believe we cherish presence while spending most of our time on mental autopilot. If that’s how our time is used, then what do we truly value? What we spend our time and attention on expresses what we truly value versus what we want to believe is important for us, so the awake Self-Preservation Instinct invites us to look at discrepancies between what we believe versus how we’re really behaving and impacting others.

Practically speaking, this means valuing our lives and bodies such that we make sure to treat it well, to build on and exercise our capacities, to breathe fully, to say “no” to things that are toxic for us, and to take care of our basic needs in a balanced way, like not over-eating or over-exercising. This includes how we make use of our life even in the “in between” moments, the times when nothing is required of us. Is our “off” time spent in distraction, self-numbing, and wasted moments, or are we actually letting ourselves rest with intention and not use time off as another opportunity to check out? Is the way we live guided by waiting for the next thing to grip our attention or by intention? How do we make use of what we have—time, resources, our physical capacities?

A major Self-Preservation concern is our quality of life, both materially and emotionally, and how it is optimized. It brings awareness to how our life is structured, including how we materially support ourselves through each progressive step, challenge, and setback. This instinct’s focus extends to cultivating the conditions in life that allow us to not only live in a way that feels good, but can help us to develop something meaningful and intentional. It encourages us to be economical about where and how our energy is invested, not out of fear of waste or effort, but from choice and purpose. It provides the energy and discipline to get a job or start a business, to get us into the gym on a regular basis, to develop certain skills, and to begin to build for the future from the present.

Adaptability is a key aspect of the healthy Self-Preservation Instinct. Any system that’s too fixed is susceptible to collapse under strain. If our lives are too rigidly limited within habitual patterns, as soon we find ourselves outside familiar conditions, we could face a neurotic breakdown or find our bodies lacking the physical capacity to handle challenging circumstances. Likewise, a system that’s too languid has no resiliency. If we’re physically attacked, for example, it does no good to freeze. If you receive a punch when you’re rigid, you’ll incur far greater damage than if you are able to be flexible and move with it. Being grounded in the body and in touch with the sensations of Self-Preservation means you’ll be able to stand your ground, process your reactions, defend yourself effectively, and endure whatever literal or metaphorical hits you may need to take without freezing or fainting.

Inner life also requires a solid foundation in a well-regulated and conscious Self-Preservation Instinct. Authentic self-awareness begins with seeing how we’re really living, how we’re really treating ourselves, and whether there is enough congruence between our body, heart, and mind, so that how we express ourselves in the choices we make are in accord with what will make our life a fertile soil for essence to thrive. It supports us in consciously self-regulating and being intentional toward valuing our present state.

The awake Self-Preservation Instinct helps us to live and to create the external conditions that allow an unconditional presence to thrive within us. How we nourish, support, and grow our soul in the same way we attend to the body is what the mature Self-Preservation Instinct calls us to confront. This deep well of resilience, fortitude, and sensitivity to our present state is the root system that deepens in direct proportion to the capacity to reach higher.

Self-Preservation Types

People strong in Self-Preservation seek experiences and circumstances that contribute to a healthy, robust, and full life. A Self-Preservation Type’s attention naturally lands on what encourages and sustains growth and what helps themselves and others thrive. Self-Preservation Types are oriented to foundations and how things develop or decline over time. In environments, relationships, and in spirituality, they gravitate toward what sustains and substantiates their experiences and cultivates their values.

Among the Instinctual Types, Self-Preservation Types tend to be most focused on the body’s direct feedback and present state, but they can easily become overly preoccupied with it. When this type is healthy, they’re skillful in balancing activation with relaxation. They value and make time for themselves and generally give themselves permission to be as they are—to rest when they’re tired, to unplug when they need to, to treat themselves to something restorative—and they know to put serious work in when needed. When imbalanced, however, this nuance gets lost and splits into the extremes of hypersensitive need for comfort or tenaciously overworking. There’s usually a stronger or more direct link between the state of the body and their emotional state than in the other Instinctual Types.

Self-Preservation Types are attentive to the physical and material well-being of loved ones. They often express their love and affection through offering care for physical needs and in lending assistance in practical endeavors. If something is going wrong in your home, like a pipe is bursting or a loved one is sick, you’ll probably end up calling upon a person dominant in Self-Preservation for help. Their natural pragmatic outlook brings an intuitive understanding of how to be supportive at each step in a process. While they may not appreciate being ongoingly “on call” for others, they tend to find deep satisfaction in being useful, especially when it comes to empowering others to be self-sustaining. Yet many Self-Preservation Types have difficulty seeing themselves as dominant in this instinct because it’s common for them to struggle with achieving the solid foundations and balance under the purview of this instinct for themselves alone.

It becomes much easier for them to do this when they are responsible for the well-being of another person or animal.

People who are high in Self-Preservation are prone to having acquired a number of practical skills, and thanks to consistency and practice, they’re often quasi-experts. They typically make a living from these skills and interests, and they’re likely to gravitate toward careers and expertise dealing with maintaining life’s essentials, spanning from tackling the nitty gritty of practicality, like nursing, or bringing a sense of “refinement” to life-sustaining actions through specialized craftsmanship, like being a great chef.

Personal autonomy and self-reliance make up a central focus for Self-Preservation Types. Whether they are providers for their family or prefer a more solitary lifestyle, Self-Preservation Types have typically carved out living and work situations where they won’t have to rely on other people in order to meet their basic needs or those of their dependents. They typically have practical skills, a back up plan, or a safety net to fall back on in case of emergencies. On the other hand, they may spend a disproportionate amount of their lives seeking a “sure thing”, financially, materially, or in developing a certain level of competency at the expense of their actual well-being through spending money excessively, gambling, putting themselves or their health in danger, or working to exhaustion.

Self-Preservation Types tend to be sensitive to levels of comfort, sensual pleasure, and the emotional associations and impact of food, environments, and material things. Many are collectors or have strong sentimental value with specific objects and crafts. Some Self-Preservation Types who feel called toward spiritual growth can feel conflicted about this side of themselves. The lack of presence with any instinct means that we become overly attached to their instinctual resources, but valuing instinctual resources is no issue unless our attachments and identifications obscure a deeper perspective.

Self-Preservation Types typically give considerable care and personalization to their living space. They often fall under extremes of living minimally, sometimes under almost acetic conditions, or, on the other end of the spectrum, they can accumulate excessive objects, extra food, and backup emergency supplies. Indulgence versus abstinence can be a big Self-Preservation polarity.

While Self-Preservation Types often value consistency and stability in a number of areas in their life, it’s more common than not for people with a strong Self-Preservation Instinct to have an adventurous or athletic streak, an outlet that provides some consistent way of engaging the body’s aliveness directly that enhances their physical capacity and health. Because of the Self-Preservation Instinct’s connection with the direct sensations of the body, often Self-Preservation Types enjoy testing and challenging their sense of aliveness through acts of endurance, through athletics or something like mountain climbing, in training the body in something restorative like yoga, or demanding like weightlifting or martial arts. While they are exceptions, risk-taking daredevils or those involved in extreme physical feats and acts of endurance are often Self-Preservation Types in that they’re seeking to viscerally experience aliveness in an intense way. The Self-Preservation attitude, however, means these things aren’t approached haphazardly or carelessly. Preparation can have a profound, ritualistic feel, where proper equipment, proper diet, or whatever other prerequisites needed are given considerable intention.

Conversely, many Self-Preservation Types are risk-averse, but they may balance the more measured expressions of this instinct with intense and dynamic physical expression. They may, for example, be finicky about temperature in their home, but then have grueling workout routines.

Self-Preservation Types have a strong capacity for working and putting effort in a focused direction. As much as comfort may be a high priority, it’s often balanced with an industrious streak. Ambition is a major Self-Preservation theme, but it means different things for different Enneagram Types. The ambition of a Self-Preservation Three may resemble more common views of seeking achievement, whereas a Self-Preservation Four may mean putting years of energy into a creative project that leads to very little outward success. They usually don’t have ambition for status so much as a drive for material or creative accomplishment or for a place where their focused energy can be channeled into something both practical and meaningful.

One of the great challenges for Self-Preservation Types is in finding a creative direction to apply their drive. Self-Preservation provides a quality of persistent, enduring energy that’s useful in building toward long-term aims, but especially in the case of young people who are Self-Preservation Dominant, they can struggle to find a meaningful focus for their tenacity. They may too quickly invest in the first opportunity that provides the promise of an outlet for their drive without consideration of deeper values or evolving perspectives. This can lead to getting locked into a lifepath, squandering the very energy and time they take to be precious. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a tendency for some to excessively prepare, save, and remain in a kind of stasis without actualizing anything of value. They may clearly recognize the value of their own energy, time, or resources, but from a scarcity mindset, they have a distorted gauge for what and where it might be valuable to spend or invest.

Useful resources for making these choices for Self-Preservation Types lie within the Sexual and Social Instincts. Enlivening chemistry and the sense of calling and vocation are invaluable for expanding the picture of how to consider what makes one feel more alive.

Integrating the other instincts, however, often seems threatening to Self-Preservation because they can be both destabilizing and invite a complete revision of the basic, foundational assumptions that are guiding the personality. Uprooting anything foundational, especially values and a sense of identity, is deeply challenging for anyone, but this is especially true for Self-Preservation Types.

The ego co-opts Self-Preservation by reducing this drive of enlivenment into a collection of habits, so Self-Preservation Types grow and come more alive when they’re on-goingly re-examining their basic operating principles—not from fear or doubt, but from a sincere curiosity and attention to what their roots really are.

 Self-Preservation Types In The Ego Cage

Instinct functions automatically, so to be identified with instinct means that this automatic quality overruns the functioning of body, heart, and mind, and extends to restricting our consciousness to a limited repertoire of patterned responses. In Self-Preservation, this manifests most apparently in structuring one’s life according to habits great and small. Habit isn’t limited to daily rituals or routines, as some Self-Preservation Types may struggle with forming supportive routines. Habit, in this sense, can be understood more broadly as ways attention and energy become structured. This is universal, but it can be particularly pronounced in Self-Preservation Types by virtue of association stability and/or continuity with well-being. Even physically daring and seemingly disorganized Self-Preservation Types can be acting from a narrow and wholly automatic inner place while appearing to outwardly embody a dynamic lifestyle.

Self-Preservation Types can allow habits to run away with them. They may set an aim and work very hard for it but fail to reevaluate their goal or feelings about it along the path to achieving it, carried by a certain kind of inertia. There can be an unconscious fantasy or desire to be “set for life,” a sense of an end goal where things will be easy or abundant. This provides fuel for the ego with the sense that the present moment is never enough and a static image of the future is sought after for which the ego will resist taking in fresh impressions that don’t align with the envisioned aim.

Self-Preservation Types have often been unfairly stereotyped as people preoccupied with resources and stability. There’s an element of this that is true when this instinct has been co-opted by the ego.

Outwardly, an entranced Self-Preservation Type can be very dynamic and active, but inwardly, identification will manifest as tightly-held psychological boundaries within rigid comfort zones. The confusion of essence and instinct means that essence is unconsciously viewed in terms of Self-Preservation considerations, i.e. taking the feeling of grounded-ness and holding to be essence.

In light of this, inner upheavals can often seem as threats to psychological and spiritual stability. There can be a lack of challenging an inner status quo for fear of disrupting a kind of spiritual “ground” that Self-Preservation Types unconsciously seek.

Here, however, is where the metaphor of “spiritual breakthrough” is close to the inner reality. Self-Preservation Types often find the richest path to inner freedom when they can relax within instability.

In times of stress, Self-Preservation Types can fall into extremes related to physical care and neediness. They may excessively self-sooth, especially through food, sex, comfort, or substances. In other cases, rest and stability might seem like a luxury, and counterphobic behaviors to overcompensate for anxiety can manifest. This could be expressed in workaholism, self-deprivation, and substance abuse.

They can get caught or swing between ends of a spectrum of hyper-avoidance of potential dangers and physical threats, while others may go into override by playing offense as defense, aggressively countering threats, having a materialistic or mercenary attitude.

Narcissism in Self-Preservation is often strongest around lifestyle. Pride in one’s lifestyle becomes a reflection of one’s self-image. “How I live” comes to define “me.” Taking one’s lifestyle to be more “authentic” than others, however that’s defined, is probably the most common brand of this because it extends across economic classes and material means. It can be expressed in displays of wealth and luxury, greed, entitlement to and possessiveness of resources, and sabotaging others. Conversely, pride in living simply or environmentally consciously can be a way the ego feels aesthetically or morally superior to others.

The Self-Preservation Instinct is how we balance our autonomy with our reliance on things, places, and people for meeting our basic needs, so when Self-Preservation Types are deeply stressed, the emotional issues around their own vulnerable feelings of neediness come into conflict with the desire for autonomy. In the next chapter we’ll go into greater detail about the underlying dynamics of the instinctual autonomy conflicts, but in Self-Preservation, the intense feeling of neediness that was once directed toward our mothering figure becomes sublimated and directed toward instinctual resources, i.e. things that provide regulation just like our mothers did.

In Self-Preservation, this means resources, places, and people that are viewed as providing regulation act as psychological placeholders for our mothering figure. The intensity of our attachments and reactions to instinctual resources is comparable to the intensity of need of the child for their mother. Therefore, if Self-Preservation is our Dominant Instinct, there’s a strong likelihood that not only are we relying on resources, food, and our home for maintaining our survival and well-being, we’re also seeking those resources in order to evoke specific emotional dynamics we felt with our mothers as infants. This unconscious emotional energy maintains the “aliveness” of our psychological self-concept, often at the expense of the well-being of the body.

Eating to manage emotions, for example, can evoke feelings of holding. A fascination with weapons may be a symbolic compensation for feelings of vulnerability. A preoccupation with comfort, stability, or needing to be physically soothed can be ways to unconsciously grasp for maternal care and contact without risking undermining a sense of autonomy or the relinquishing of personal boundaries. This situation provides only an illusion of real autonomy, to preserve the self-image of autonomy, and defends against fully experiencing one’s real neediness and anxiety.

Instead of presence with their fear of scarcity and harm, the personality simply reacts to it in the style of Enneagram Type (specifically, in the style of the “Passion”, the egoic Achilles Heel of each type).

Eights, in the style of Lust, harden themselves and become overly intense and energized about securing the resources necessary for their well-being, taking “what’s theirs.”

Nines, in the style of Sloth, use comforts and self-preservation activities, such as work or exercise, to “get by on a little,” to settle for small habits and comforts at the expense of discerning and pursuing what they really want for their lives.

Ones, in the style of Anger, react to hang-ups and imperfections in one’s environment and lifestyle as an affront to their idealized sense of rightness and perfection.

Twos, in the style of Pride, project scarcity onto other people and act as a caretaker at the neglect of themselves, running into exhaustion in the hopes of reciprocation.

Threes, in the style of Vanity, work to excess to stave off scarcity, while also “performing” their best version of abundance and chosen lifestyle.

Fours, in the style of Envy, take a sense of scarcity personally, as both fuel for despair and as something to rebel against.

Fives, in the style of Avarice, seek to minimize their dependence on that which they need so as to give more time and energy over to concentration.

Sixes, in the style of Fear, invest energy in and worry about the systems that ensure resources, and feel conflicted about their obligations to others versus caring for themselves.

Sevens, in the style of Gluttony, launch into plans and backup plans of how to acquire a lifestyle that will give them the freedom to pursue what they like while indulging in “rewards” in the meantime.

The root assumptions based in scarcity and the fear of harm are usually unconscious, but when these fears mount, they extend to a more existential lack of basic trust in any kind of abundance in the world and doubt around their own ability to meet needs. Scarcity can be an objective feature of our current experience, but if we’re not present to our current conditions, our response to scarcity will be neurotic, destructive, and self-sabotaging. As fears and internal pressures mount, practical issues will be accompanied by greater emotionality and aggression coupled with paranoia that external forces are going to despoil their resources, home, or loved ones.

More deeply-seated emotional issues won’t be attended to out of fear of being overwhelmed or engulfed.

The ego can respond to these fears in a variety of ways: hoarding objects, over-eating, physical hypersensitivity, and paranoia of being taken advantage of. The entranced Self-Preservation Type can use their feelings of being overwhelmed to justify greed, exploitation, and violence toward others. Preservation flips into a destruction of one’s own body and other people. Resources may be destroyed or ruined from an attitude of “if I can’t be satisfied, no one can.”

The delusion for deeply imbalanced Self-Preservation Types is that essence will be found through Self-Preservation needs, leading to an exhausting pattern of striving to improve the external circumstances of one’s life without ever being able to really land in the longed-for security and contentment. From the egoic point of view, satisfaction and happiness come through by having certain conditions fulfilled while other conditions are rejected, so even recognizing the yearning for essence is itself something that must be brought to consciousness if a more whole sense of aliveness is to be reached.

In desperation, the orientation toward self-reliance can devolve into turning one’s back on others and a willingness to embrace an attitude of “me versus everyone else.” Autonomy is tightly clutched, and internal emotional threats to the self-image of autonomy are projected externally as fears of contamination, violence, chaos, and death.

It’s impossible for the personality and instincts to find lasting satisfaction. Need is always renewed, which keeps us motivated to maintain ourselves. The ego will never feel totally happy, satisfied, and secure because that’s not the job proper to it. While our instinctual needs are valid and powerful, the deep hunger for essence often gets buried when survival seems to be at stake. Most of our scarcity fears stem from our disconnect with essence, which is one reason why we so easily forget our resiliency and capacity in overcoming difficulties. Functioning will become fraught with emotions swelling up from a younger, less capable image of ourselves. The pleasure and joy our hearts long for are qualities of essence, states within the “substance” of presence itself, and not exclusive to the circumstances of life the ego deems appropriate.

 From a foundation in essence, the vigilance of personality around our Self-Preservation needs are intelligent adaptations, rather than expressions of fear and lack.