“Why don’t you teach the wings?”
This question comes up a lot. This time it was during a certification training I was conducting in Santiago, Chile earlier this month. Usually, when people ask this I say that I don’t teach the wings because I usually teach the Enneagram in a corporate setting and I don’t have the time to go into complexities like that. But this was a pretty advanced group of consultants, coaches, and therapists who were already familiar with the Enneagram and they deserved to know the real reason and I’ll explain my response in this post. Another great question that came up was “Is the Enneagram type a ‘thing’ or is it a ‘process’?” I’ll address that question in an upcoming blog.
When I first learned the Enneagram, I learned that each of us had a distinct and identifiable “wing” and that there were essentially two versions of each type. If you were a One, you were a “One with a Two wing (1w2)” or a “One with a Nine wing (1w9);” if you were a Two, you were a “Two with a One wing (2w1)” or a “Two with a Three wing (2w3);” etc. This made sense to me when I read it and I didn’t question the idea. Given a binary choice, I identified myself as an 8w9, but there were some things about the Seven wing that resonated with me as well. People who knew me well would comment, “You’re this one sometimes and this one other times.” Overall, however, I didn’t question it very much.
When I started attending Enneagram trainings a few years later, I started to notice that wing identification tended to be a contentious issue during breaks and meals. It was not uncommon for people to struggle with identifying their wing, and others would often challenge people on their self-identification. I remember one Four who I had become friendly with coming to me on the verge of tears because a group of people insisted that he was a 4w3 when he clearly felt he was a 4w5. So, way back in the recesses of my mind, it felt like there was a problem.
Later, when I started teaching the Enneagram to groups in organizations, I started noticing similar problems. Discussions would get sidetracked as people debated which wing someone was. Over lunch, the conversation would turn to this rather than how to productively use the material. At first, I questioned whether or not I was teaching the material correctly, but quickly realized that if these same discussions occurred during the trainings given by the “gurus,” the problem was probably not necessarily with my delivery.
It wasn’t long before I simply stopped teaching the wings to groups because, for a discerning and challenging audience like a group of executives, the wing theory distracted more than it clarified.
I was still left with the problem of dissimilarity, however; why does one Three seem so different from another Three? While there are many reasons why two Threes may look different–cultural, socio-economic, maturity and psychological health, etc.–I eventually came to realize that the most obvious explanation lies in the instinctual biases.* A Preserving Three will look kind of like, but also different from, a Navigating Three, who will look kind of like, but also different from, a Transmitting Three. As I began teaching the Enneagram by focusing on both the nine strategies** and the three instinctual biases, my clients comprehension of the model accelerated. I found that I could cover a lot more material in a much-shorter time while still seeing greater understanding by the audience.
So, for me, there is a pragmatic reason for not teaching the wings–it takes longer and it can be distracting; but there are also theoretical reasons. Now, admittedly, part of my rationale is based on anecdotal and pieced-together evidence, so hold that part lightly, but part of it is based on 15 years of experience teaching this day in and day out with my clients, so I ask the reader to indulge me with an open mind.
The anecdotal part of the rationale is related to the history of the Enneagram. My (second-hand but multi-sourced) understanding of how Oscar Ichazo teaches the wings is not that we are a type with one wing (i.e., a One with a Two wing), but that the “wings” are guides to our development. A One should “move away from” Nine and “toward” Two in their efforts to grow (see Michael Goldberg’s “The Nine Ways of Working” for more on this). Further, from an explanatory perspective, the two wings “fold in” to form our type. That is, the Nine (which represents “indolence”) and the Two (which represents “flattery”) “fold in” to form the One (which represents “resentment”). This may well be a useful insight into our psychodynamics, but it is a very different idea from the more recent conception of wings. Claudio Naranjo apparently taught the wings in a similar way, with each Enneagram point being seen as “midway between two wings.” (See Sandra Maitri’s The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram for more on this.)
Here’s where I’m admittedly speculating, but it seems that because some Enneagram authors saw distinct differences in people of the same type but were not familiar with the concept of the instincts or subtypes, they started emphasizing this concept of wings as a way to explain intra-type differences. When they learned about the instincts, this became an additional layer of complexity rather than a more-accurate explanation intra-type difference than the wing theory.
As a somewhat rabid Occam-ite, I always prefer simplicity to complexity. “Occam’s Razor” is a philosophical principle that is often interpreted as “the simplest answer is usually the correct answer.” In fact, what the great William of Occam was really saying is that we should not add unnecessary steps in an explanation. If you can solve a (philosophical) problem with two steps or variables, don’t add a third.***
So, if one can explain intra-type differences using the instincts without resorting to the wings, it doesn’t make sense to me to add the wings into the picture. Are there times when it helps introduce the concept of the wings to help people see themselves more clearly? Perhaps, but I can’t remember the last time I needed to do so. In fact, I will argue that very often people rely on using the wings because they don’t understand the complexity of the instincts. They too would be able to explain variation more effectively if they understood these complexities and/or used this understanding more broadly.
At the risk of injecting subjectivity, I’ll use the Eight as an example. As I pointed out above, given a forced choice (“you have either a Nine wing or a Seven wing”) I uncomfortably chose the Nine wing. Perhaps it fit better than the description of the Seven wing found in the literature, but seeing myself as an 8w9 always felt like I was wearing someone else’s pants. Those who read my blog regularly, and those who know me more than casually, will know that harmony, consensus, and non-offending–all signature characteristics of the Nine–are not burdens with which I am afflicted. However, I do often carry myself with restraint (making me look like 8w9); while at other times I am manic, distracted, and attention-seeking (making me look like 8w7). So what gives, do I have two wings? Do I vacillate between wings? I would answer “no” to both.
A better explanation is that I am a Navigating (i.e., “social”) Eight. That is, my instinctual bias is toward behaviors that help me understand the group and find my place in it. My Type Eight strategy of “striving to be powerful” causes me to try to meet those navigating needs in an assertive way, a strategy that allows me to exercise power in an effort to meet my needs and satisfy my values. However, all Navigators have a tendency to play a wait-and-see game in a new or uncomfortable environment. They hesitate to let their true selves out until they understand the social terrain, wanting to understand the group dynamics and mores before revealing themselves fully. Navigating Eights will exercise restraint in environments in which they don’t feel almost-total control, but when they feel the control they will let the “full Eight” out. In other words, they will look like the person described in the literature about the 8w9 until they look like the person described in the literature about the 8w7.
Preserving (i.e., “self-preservation”) subtypes, however, are more conservative and self-restrained. They tend to be more introverted. The Preserving Eight will thus be more introverted and cautious than the other two subtypes of Eight, but they can also be more rigid and quietly strong-willed than the other subtypes. It is easy to look at them from the outside and slap the 8w9 label on them, but again the traits are not really related to the strategy at point Nine of “striving to be peaceful,” and much of their behavior actually contradicts the assertion that 8w9s are good at compromising. (Navigating Eights tend to be much more flexible that Preserving Eights, even while the latter tend to be more introverted than the former.)
Transmitting (i.e., “sexual”) subtypes, of all Ennea-types, tend to be more extroverted and aggressive than the other two subtypes. They are display-oriented, charismatic, and talkative. The Transmitting Eight is very aggressive and outgoing, as both the instinct and strategy variables are generally extroverted. Again, given a forced choice, it is reasonable to see them as 8w7. However, the “Seven-ish” behaviors are not best explained by the Seven’s strategy of “striving to be excited” but by the Transmitting instincts.
It is possible to go around the Enneagram, looking at each type, and realize why explanations of traits and phenomena that are often explained through a description of wing variation are actually better explained through the lens of the subtypes.
Per Occam, when one variable explains a phenomenon, don’t add a second.
So why do people find the wing theory so useful? This is only my opinion, of course, but it seems that there is an interplay of the false choice fallacy and the confirmation bias at play. A false choice was established (“you have either this wing or that wing”), and people see evidence that confirms the bias without digging deeply into what is really going on. It may be a handy model, but in my experience, it breaks down relatively quickly in real-world application. Seeing the Enneagram as a model of 27 variations (three instinctual biases times nine strategies) has, I believe, the advantages of both accuracy and simplicity over seeing it as a model of 54 variations (three times nine times two wings)
There is more to say, of course. When discussing the wings, many people claim that it is helpful to think of the Enneagram as a color wheel or spectrum, and that some people are, say, a more-yellowish shade of green while others are a more-bluish shade of green. That is, some people are Ones who are more Nine-ish and other people are Ones who are more Two-ish. I find this analogy problematic as well, and it ties to the second question referred to in the opening paragraph: “Is the Enneagram type a ‘thing’ or a ‘process’?” I will address that question in an upcoming blog.
*I’ve written many times about why I use nontraditional names for the subtypes and won’t belabor the point again here. For an explanation, please read this interview in the Enneagram Monthly.
**See the same interview for an explanation of the term “strategies” and why I use it.
***I highly recommend Larry Witham’s “The Proof of God: The Argument that Shaped Modern Belief” for a great overview of the debate between Occam and Anselm, out of which Occam’s Razor grew.