Feel Better

The Three Triads

IF HUMAN BEINGS were able to stay centered in their Essential unity, there would be no need for the Enneagram. But without working on ourselves, we cannot become centered. It is a universal perception of the great spiritual traditions that human nature is divided—against itself, and against the Divine. Our lack of unity is, in fact, more characteristic of our “normal” reality than our Essential unity. 

Amazingly, the Enneagram symbol accounts for both aspects of human nature in its unity (the circle) and in the way it is divided (the triangle and the hexad). Every part of the Enneagram reveals psychological and spiritual truths about who we are, deepening our understanding of our predicament while simultaneously suggesting solutions to that predicament. 

In this article, I will examine the major ways in which the original unity of the human psyche has been divided—into Triads, different groups of three. The nine types are not isolated categories but are interrelated in extremely rich and profound ways that have meanings beyond individual psychological types. 


The Triads are important for transformational work because they specify where our chief imbalance lies. The Triads represent the three main clusters of issues and defenses of the ego self, and they reveal the principal ways in which we contract our awareness and limit ourselves. 

This first grouping of the types refers to the three basic components of the human psyche: instinct, feeling, and thinking. According to Enneagram theory, these three functions are related to subtle “Centers” in the human body, and the personality fixation is associated primarily in one of these Centers. Types Eight, Nine, and One comprise the Instinctive Triad; types Two, Three, and Four make up the Feeling Triad; and types Five, Six, and Seven are the Thinking Triad. 

It is worth noting that modern medicine also divides the human brain into three basic components: the root brain, or instinctual brain; the limbic system, or emotional brain; and the cerebral cortex, or the thinking part of the brain. Some teachers of the Enneagram also refer to the three Centers as the head, heart, and gut, or as the thinking, feeling, and doing Centers respectively. 

No matter what type we are, our personality contains all three components—instinct, feeling, and thinking. All three interact with each other, and we cannot work on one without affecting the others. But for most of us, caught in the world of personality as we usually are, it is difficult to distinguish these components of ourselves. Nothing in our modern education has taught us how to do so. 

Each of these Triads represents a range of Essential capacities or functions that have become blocked or distorted. The personality then tries to fill in the gaps where our Essence has been blocked, and the Triad that our type is in indicates where the constrictions to our Essence and the artificial filler of our personality are most strongly operative. For example, if we are an Eight, we have been blocked in the Essential quality of strength; thus, our personality has stepped in and has attempted to imitate real strength by causing us to act tough and sometimes to assert ourselves in inappropriate ways. The false strength of our personality has taken over and concealed the blockage of real strength even from us. Until we understand this, we cannot recognize or recover our authentic, Essential strength. 

In a similar way, each personality type replaces other Essential qualities with imitations that we identify with and try to make the most of. 

Paradoxically, if someone’s type is in the Feeling Triad, this does not mean that they have more feelings than other people. Similarly, if someone is in the Thinking Triad, this does not mean that they are more intelligent than others are. In fact, in each Triad, the function in question (instinct, feeling, or thinking) is the function that the ego has most strongly formed around, and it is therefore the component of the psyche that is least able to function freely. 


The Instinctive Triad

Types Eight, Nine, and One are concerned with maintaining resistance to reality (creating boundaries for the self that are based on physical tensions). These types tend to have problems with aggression and repression. Underneath their ego defenses they carry a great deal of rage. 

The Feeling Triad

Types Two, Three, and Four are concerned with self-image (attachment to the false or assumed self of personality). They believe that the stories about themselves and their assumed qualities are their actual identity. Underneath their ego defenses these types carry a great deal of shame. 

The Thinking Triad

Types Five, Six, and Seven are concerned with anxiety (they experience a lack of support and guidance). They engage in behaviors that they believe will enhance their safety and security. Underneath their ego defenses these types carry a great deal of fear. 


Types Eight, Nine, and One have formed around distortions in their instincts, the root of our life-force and vitality. The Instinctive Triad is concerned with the intelligence of the body, with basic life functioning and survival. 

CONCERNED WITH: Resistance & Control of the Environment 

HAVE ISSUES WITH: Aggression & Repression 

SEEKS: Autonomy 


The body plays a crucial role in all forms of genuine spiritual work, because bringing awareness back to the body anchors the quality of Presence. The reason is fairly obvious: while our minds and feelings can wander to the past or the future, our body can only exist here and now, in the present moment. This is one of the fundamental reasons why virtually all meaningful spiritual work begins with coming back to the body and becoming more grounded in it. 

Moreover, the instincts of the body are the most powerful energies that we have to work with. Any real transformation must involve them, and any work that ignores them is almost certain to create problems. The body has an amazing intelligence and sensitivity, and it also has its own language and its own way of knowing. In indigenous societies, such as the aboriginal tribes of Australia, people have maintained a more open relationship with the intelligence of the body. There have been documented cases in which aborigines knew in their bodies that one of their relatives had been injured many miles away. This body-knowledge enabled them to walk directly toward the injured person to help them. 

Most of us in modern societies are almost entirely estranged from the wisdom of our bodies. The psychological term for this is dissociation, in everyday language we call this checking out. In a busy, stress-filled day, it is likely we sense our body only if it is in pain. For instance, we do not usually notice that we have feet unless our shoes are too tight. Even though our back is highly sensitive, we are usually unaware of it unless we are getting a massage, or have a sunburn or a back injury—and sometimes not even then. 


At this moment, as you are reading the words on this page, can you feel your body? How much of it? Where is your body positioned right now? How deeply are you experiencing it? What helps you experience it more deeply? 

When we truly inhabit our Instinctive Center—fully occupying our body—it gives us a profound sense of fullness, stability, and autonomy or independence. When we lose contact with our Essence, the personality attempts to “fill in” by providing a false sense of autonomy. 

To give us this false sense of autonomy, the personality creates what psychology calls ego boundaries. With ego boundaries, we are able to say, “This is me and that is not me. That out there is not me, but this sensation (or thought, or feeling) here is me.” We usually believe that these boundaries correspond with our skin and therefore with the dimensions of our real bodies, but this is not always true. 

This is because we are usually sensing habitual tensions, not necessarily the actual contours of our bodies. We may also notice that we have almost no sensation in some parts of our bodies: they feel blank or empty. The truth is that we are always carrying around a felt sense of self that has little to do with how our body actually is, where it is positioned, or what we are doing. The set of internal tensions that create our unconscious sense of self is the foundation of the personality, the first layer. 

“When you are describing or explaining or even just inwardly feeling your ‘self,’ what you are actually doing, whether you know it or not, is drawing a mental line or boundary across the whole field of your experience, and everything on the inside of that boundary you are feeling or calling your ‘self’ while everything outside that boundary you feel to be ‘not-self.’ Your self-identity, in other words, depends entirely upon where you draw that boundary line . . .”

Ken Wilber

While all of the types employ ego boundaries, the Eight, Nine, and One do so for a particular reason—they are attempting to use their will to affect the world without being affected by it. They try to influence their environment, to remake it, control it, hold it back, without having their sense of self influenced by it. To put this differently, all three of these types resist being influenced by reality in different ways. They try to create a sense of wholeness and autonomy by building a “wall” between what they consider self and not self, although where these walls are varies from type to type and from person to person. 

Our ego boundaries fall into two categories. The first boundary is directed outward. It usually corresponds to our physical body, although not always. When we cut our fingernails or hair, or have a tooth extracted, we no longer regard them as part of ourselves. Conversely, we may subconsciously regard certain people or possessions as part of ourselves—our home, our spouse, or children—although, of course, they are not. 

The second boundary is directed inward. For example, we say that we “had a dream,” but we do not think that we are the dream. Some of our thoughts or feelings will also be seen as separate from our identity, while we definitely identify with others. Of course, different people will identify with different feelings and thoughts. One person may experience anger as part of the self while another will view anger as something alien. In all cases, however, it is important to remember that these divisions are arbitrary and are the results of habits of the mind. 

In Type Eight the ego boundary is primarily focused outward, against the environment. The focus of attention is also outward. The result is an expansiveness and an outpouring of the Eight’s vitality into the world. Eights are constantly putting out energy so that nothing can get too close and hurt them. Their whole approach to life is as if they were saying, “Nothing’s going to get the upper hand on me. No one is going to get through my defenses and hurt me. I’m going to keep my guard up.” The more wounded an Eight is from childhood, the thicker their ego boundary, and the tougher they are going to make it for others to get through to them. 

Type One individuals also hold a boundary against the outside world, but they are far more invested in maintaining their internal boundary. All of us have aspects of ourselves that we do not trust or approve of that make us feel anxious and that we want to defend ourselves from. Ones expend enormous energy trying to hold back certain unconscious impulses, trying to keep them from getting into consciousness. It is as if Ones were saying to themselves, “I don’t want that feeling! I don’t want to have that reaction or that impulse!” They create a great deal of physical tension to maintain their inner boundaries and hold aspects of their own inner nature at bay. 

Type Nine, the central type in the Triad (the type positioned on the equilateral triangle), tries to hold their ego boundaries in both areas, internal and external. In the internal realm, Nines do not want certain feelings and states to disturb their equilibrium. They put up a wall against parts of themselves just as Ones do, suppressing powerful instinctive drives and emotions. At the same time, Nines maintain a strong ego boundary against the outside world so that they will not be hurt, like Eights. They often engage in passive-aggressive behaviors and turn a blind eye to whatever threatens their peace. It is no wonder that Nines report that they often feel fatigued, because it takes a tremendous amount of energy to resist reality on both “fronts.” If Nines use most of their vitality to maintain these boundaries, it is not available for living and engaging more fully in the world. 

Each of these three types has problems with aggression. (While all nine personality types are aggressive in different ways, the energy of aggression is a key component in the Instinctive types’ ego structures.) Sometimes the aggression is directed toward the self, sometimes at others. In the course of psychological or spiritual work, this aggressive energy often emerges as a powerful sense of rage. Rage is the instinctive reaction to feeling the need to suppress ourselves—the need to close down and constrict our aliveness. Eights tend to act out rage, Nines tend to deny it, and Ones tend to repress it. 

We can understand the function of rage more clearly in the experience of a child. All of us, either consciously or unconsciously, feel that as children we did not have the space that we needed to fully develop. When we start exploring this realm of experience, we will discover that beneath our grown-up veneer, we are suppressing (or even more so, repressing) an intense anger that has resulted from this insult to our Essential integrity. (On the positive side, anger is also a way of telling others “Stay away from me so that I can have my own space! I want and need to be whole and independent.”) The problem is that if we carry these issues from our childhood, we will continue to feel as though we need to protect our “personal space” even when there is no actual threat to it. Once these issues have been worked through, the energy that drives our rage—as well as the energy that keeps it suppressed—can be released and redirected toward other, more fulfilling goals, including our transformation. 


In the Instinctive Triad, we saw how seldom we really occupy our bodies and are really present with our full vitality. In the same way, we seldom dare to be fully in our hearts. When we are, it is often overwhelming. We therefore substitute all kinds of reactions for the power of real feelings. This is the core dilemma of the Feeling Triad: types Two, Three, and Four. 

CONCERNED WITH: Love of False Self & Self-Image 

HAVE ISSUES WITH: Identity & Hostility 

SEEKS: Attention 


At the deepest level, your heart qualities are the source of your identity. When your heart opens, you know who you are, and that “who you are” has nothing to do with what people think of you and nothing to do with your past history. You have a particular quality, a flavor, something that is unique and intimately you. It is through the heart that we recognize and appreciate our true nature. 

When we are in contact with the heart, we feel loved and valued. Moreover, as the great spiritual traditions teach, the heart reveals that we are love and value. Our share in the Divine nature means not only that we are loved by God, but that the presence of love resides in us—we are the conduit through which love comes into the world. When our hearts are closed off and blocked, however, not only do we lose contact with our true identity, but we do not feel valued or loved. This loss is intolerable, so the personality steps in to create a substitute identity and to find other things to give us a sense of value, usually by seeking attention and external affirmation from others. 


Right now, as you are reading these words on this page, turn your attention to the area of your heart. Take some deep, easy breaths, and actually sense into your chest. What sensations do you experience in this area? Allow yourself to relax and breathe deeply and see what you are feeling in the area of your heart. Does it feel sharp? Tender? Numb? Aching? What is the exact feeling you are experiencing? If this feeling had a color or shape or taste, what would it be? What effect does this exercise have on your sense of yourself? 

Thus, the three types of the Feeling Triad are primarily concerned with the development of a self-image. They compensate for a lack of deeper connection with the Essential qualities of the heart by erecting a false identity and becoming identified with it. They then present this image to others (as well as to themselves) in the hope that it will attract love, attention, approval, and a sense of value. 

“All we need to do is to give up our habit of regarding as real that which is unreal. All religious practices are meant solely to help us do this. When we stop regarding the unreal as real, then reality alone will remain, and we will be that.”

Joseph Goldstein

In psychological terms, Twos, Threes, and Fours are the types most concerned with their “narcissistic wounding,” that is, with not being valued for who they really were as children. Because no one graduates from childhood without some degree of narcissistic damage, as adults, we have a lot of difficulty being authentic with one another. There is always the fear that, when all is said and done, we are really empty and worthless. The tragic result is that we almost never actually see each other or allow ourselves to be seen, no matter what type we are. We substitute an image instead, as if we were saying to the world, “This is who I am—isn’t it? You like it—don’t you?” People may affirm us (that is, our image), but as long as we identify with our personality, something deeper always goes unaffirmed. 

The types of the Feeling Triad present us with three different solutions to this dilemma: going out to please others so that they will like you (Type Two); achieving things and becoming outstanding in some way so that people will admire and affirm you (Type Three); or having an elaborate story about yourself and attaching tremendous significance to all of your personal characteristics (Type Four). 

Two major themes in this Triad involve identity issues (“Who am I?”) and problems with hostility (“I hate you for not loving me in the way I want!”). Because Twos, Threes, and Fours unconsciously know that their identity is not an expression of who they really are, they respond with hostility whenever their personality-identity is not validated. Hostility serves both to deflect people who might question or devalue this identity, and to defend these types against deeper feelings of shame and humiliation. 

Type Two is looking for value in the good regard of others. Twos want to be wanted; they try to obtain favorable reactions by giving people their energy and attention. Twos look for positive responses to their overtures of friendliness, help, and goodness in order to build up their own self-esteem. The focus of their feelings is outward, on others, but as a result, they often have difficulty knowing what their own feelings are telling them. They also frequently feel unappreciated, although, as much as possible, they must conceal the hostile feelings that this generates. 

Type Four is the opposite: their energy and attention go inward to maintain a self-image based on feelings, fantasies, and stories from the past. Their personality-identity centers on being “different,” being unlike anyone else, and as a result, they often feel estranged from people. Fours tend to create and sustain moods rather than allow whatever feelings are actually present to arise. Less healthy Fours often see themselves as victims and prisoners of their pasts. They believe that there is no hope of being another way because of all the tragedies and abuses that have befallen them. This is also their way of eliciting attention and pity from others and, hence, some degree of validation. 

Type Three, the central type of this Triad (the type positioned on the equilateral triangle), directs attention and energy both inward and outward. Like Twos, Threes need the positive feedback and affirmation of others. Threes primarily seek value through accomplishment; they develop notions about what a valuable person would be like, then try to become that person. But Threes also engage in a great deal of internal “self-talk,” attempting to create and sustain a consistent internal picture of themselves, like Fours. They are always in danger of “believing their own press releases” more than the truth. 

Despite the various images presented by these types, at root they feel valueless, and many of their personality’s agendas are attempts to disguise this from themselves and others. Twos attempt to get a sense of value by saying, “I know I am valuable because others love and value me. I do good things for people, and they appreciate me.” Twos are rescuers. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Fours are rescuees. Fours tell themselves, “I know I am valuable because I am unique and unlike anyone else. I am special because someone took the trouble to rescue me. Someone is taking the trouble to attend to my distress, so I must be worthwhile.” Threes are paragons who do not need rescuing, as if to say, “I know I am valuable because I’ve got my act together—there’s nothing wrong with me. I am valuable because of my accomplishments.” Despite their individual methods for “building self-esteem,” all three of these types lack a proper love of self. 

If the types of the Instinctive Triad are trying to manage feelings of rage, in the Feeling Triad Twos, Threes, and Fours are trying to deal with feelings of shame. When our authentic, Essential qualities are not mirrored in early childhood, we come to the conclusion that something is wrong with us. The resulting feeling is shame. By attempting to feel valuable by means of their self-image, these types hope to escape feelings of shame. Twos become ultra-good, trying to be caring and of service to others so that they will not feel shame. Threes become perfect in their performance and outstanding in their achievements so they will be able to resist feeling shame. Fours avoid deeper feelings of shame by dramatizing their losses and hurts and by seeing themselves as victims. 


If the Instinctive Triad is about maintaining a felt sense of self and the Feeling Triad is about maintaining a personal identity, the Thinking Triad is about finding a sense of inner guidance and support. The dominant feelings in types Five, Six, and Seven are anxiety and insecurity. To put it another way, the Instinctive Triad types are concerned with resisting aspects of the present. The Feeling Triad types are all past-oriented because our self-image is built up out of memories and interpretations of the past. The Thinking Triad types are more concerned about the future, as if to ask, “What’s going to happen to me? How am I going to survive? How can I prepare myself to keep bad things from happening? How do I move forward in life? How do I cope?” 

CONCERNED WITH: Strategies & Beliefs 

HAVE ISSUES WITH: Insecurity & Anxiety 

SEEKS: Security 


The Thinking Triad has lost touch with the aspect of our true nature that in some spiritual traditions is called the quiet mind. The quiet mind is the source of inner guidance that gives us the ability to perceive reality exactly as it is. It allows us to be receptive to an inner knowing that can guide our actions. But just as we are seldom fully in our bodies or in our hearts, we seldom have access to the quiet, spacious quality of the mind. Quite the contrary, for most of us, the mind is an inner chatterbox, which is why people spend years in monasteries or in retreats trying to quiet their restless minds. In personality, the mind is not quiet and not naturally “knowing”—it is forever trying to come up with a strategy or a formula so that it can do whatever it thinks will allow us to function in the world. 

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that’s waiting for us.”

Joseph Campbell


Right now, allow yourself to relax and get in greater contact with the sensations and impressions you are having. Actually sense what it feels like to be alive in your body at this time. Don’t visualize—let yourself experience whatever is here. As you become more grounded and calm, you may begin to notice your mind becoming less “noisy.” Continue this process for a few minutes. Stay in contact with your immediate sensations and impressions, and see what effect this has on your thinking. As your mind becomes quieter, are your perceptions clearer or fuzzier? Does your mind seem sharper or duller?

Fives, Sixes, and Sevens cannot get their minds to simmer down. This is a problem because the quiet mind allows us to feel profoundly supported; inner knowing and guidance arise in the quiet mind and give us confidence to act in the world. When these qualities are blocked, we feel fear. Their reactions to fear distinguish the three types of the Thinking Triad. 

Type Five responds by retreating from life and reducing their personal needs. Fives believe that they are too frail and insubstantial to safely survive in the world. The only safe place is in their minds, so they stockpile whatever they believe will help them survive until they are ready to rejoin the world. Fives also feel that they do not have enough to “bring to the table” to meet the demands of practical life. They retreat until they can learn something or master some skill that would allow them to feel safe enough to come out of hiding. 

Type Seven, by contrast, charges into life and appears to be afraid of nothing. It at first seems strange that Sevens are in a Triad whose types are afflicted by fear since they are so outwardly adventurous. Despite appearances, however, Sevens are full of fear, but not of the outside world: they are afraid of their inner world—of being trapped in emotional pain, grief, and especially feelings of anxiety. So they escape into activity and anticipation of activity. Sevens unconsciously attempt to keep their minds occupied so that their underlying anxieties and hurts will not surface. 

In Type Six, the central type of this Triad (the type positioned on the equilateral triangle), attention and energy are directed both inward and outward. Sixes feel anxious inside, and so launch into external action and anticipation of the future like Sevens. But having done so, they eventually become afraid that they will make mistakes and be punished or overwhelmed by demands on them, so like Fives, they “jump back inside.” They get scared by their feelings again, and the reactive cycle continues, with anxiety causing their attention to bounce around like a Ping-Pong ball. 

The types of the Thinking Triad tend to have issues related to what psychologists call the “separation phase” of ego development. This is the stage, around two to four years old, when toddlers begin to wonder, “How do I move away from the safety and nurturance of Mommy? What is safe and what is dangerous?” Under ideal circumstances, the father-figure becomes the support and the guide, the person who helps the child develop skills and independence. 

The types of this Triad represent the three ways children might attempt to negotiate the separation phase and overcome dependency. Sixes look for somebody like a father-figure, someone who is strong, trustworthy, and authoritative. Thus, Sixes deal with the loss of inner guidance by seeking guidance from others. They are looking for support to become independent, although ironically they tend to become dependent on the very person or system they use to find independence. Fives are convinced that support is unavailable or not reliable, so they attempt to compensate for the loss of inner guidance by mentally figuring everything out on their own. But because they are “going it alone,” they believe they must reduce their need for and attachment to anyone if they are going to break away and be independent. Sevens try to break away by pursuing substitutes for their mother’s nurturing. They go after whatever they believe will make them feel more satisfied and secure. At the same time, they respond to the lack of guidance by trying everything—as if by the process of elimination, they could discover the source of nurturance they are secretly looking for.