Enneagram Wings: What are they, and how can we use them for personal growth?


What are wings?

Wings are the numbers either side of your type on the enneagram diagram. They are one of the ways we get easier 'access' to numbers on the enneagram other than our core type. Whilst our core type never changes, and the core motivations that define that type are the same for everyone who identifies with it, the expression of that type has infinite possibilities. We are not 'boxed in' and only able to feel or think or respond according to a narrow view of type - there are many reasons why you are the way you are depending on your past and current experiences, as well as innate temperament and gifts, and there are many tools we can use to affect our direction of growth from now on. Some of these tools are ones that sit at the top of the toolbox, ones we are more familiar with and take out and use from time to time. Others are buried underneath and take a bit more digging to find; they might be the kind of tool you find and think "what on earth is this for and how do I use it?"; they might be the kind of tool you need to borrow from someone else, or watch them use for a while, before you can add it to your own collection.

A wing can be something that influences the expression of your personality in the present that we have easy access to, and something that already sits in our toolbox that we need to learn to take out and use when we need it. My favourite metaphor for how wings affect our core type is one based in my favourite beverage - coffee. Imagine that you have a line of lattes (type 2s). Some of them don't have any syrups or flavourings in them. Some have a little vanilla (type 1 wing) and some have a little caramel (type 3 wing). Some have a lot of vanilla or caramel, and some have a combination of the two. The balance of flavours in the lattes can change over time, but they will always be lattes, and they are all fundamentally lattes even if they taste very different.

Strong wing influences can make it difficult for people to work out their type, because they can feel very much like two or three types. Usually confusions are due to behaviours which are more 'typical' of the wing type, which is why coming back to the core motivations is so important. For example, types 9 and 2 can appear perfectionistic which might lead them to think they are a type 1 due to stereotypes, but it might be that they are focused on details being 'right' in order to avoid conflict and keep people happy, or wanting to be seen as really useful, rather than wanting to be seen as good.

Some enneagram teachers think that early on in life, children learn that one of their wings helps them to get their needs met better than the other, and so they lean into this. Our personalities develop as we learn what is expected from us in the environments we grow up in, and it makes sense that we adopt strategies that are more likely to get us what we need/want (for another psychological theory on this, see the idea of personality adaptations from Transactional Analysis). Russ Hudson has commented that in adolescence one of the key tasks seems to be answering the question "who am I?" by narrowing down and trying to describe oneself in more and more specific - and distinctive - ways. However, later on in life if people are still interested in self-discovery they tend to want to broaden out the search and be more open to issues of complexity, which may lead to a greater willingness to seek balance and develop in new ways - including leaning into the other wing.

Using wings for personal growth

So what does this mean in terms of how to use wings for personal growth? Perhaps when you learn about the enneagram you realise you are a latte with a strong vanilla flavour. You do have some caramel syrup, but you might have to be more intentional about adding it to your coffee. We often use the phrase "lean into your wing" - because our wings are right next to our type, we don't have to go very far to draw on the qualities of those types. But, it does take intentionality, and it is a longer-term change; we don't ping quickly over to our wing for a shorter amount of time the same way we access our stress arrow type. The more we lean into a wing, the more that wing starts to influence our overall personality.

Some wings are harder to lean into than others - types 4 and 5 for example are very different and 4w5/5w4 are rarer personality types. A 4 with a strong 3 wing is likely to find it harder to lean into their 5 wing than a 2 with a strong 3 wing finds it to lean into their 1 wing. 9s may find it hard to lean into their 8 wing because these types have such different senses of their own identities, and completely opposite approaches to conflict and going after what they want.

People might also find it hard to lean into a wing (or draw on any personality trait) if they have learnt somewhere along the way that certain traits are 'bad' or that they are not allowed to embody them. Issues of social justice are likely to be at play here, with people of certain genders, races, sexualities, religions etc. likely having experienced being told (implicitly or explicitly) that they are not supposed to be confident, opinionated, in charge, a leader, emotional, vulnerable, thinkers, doers, gentle, ambitious... It can take time to unpick this and see it for what it is - an opinion that has been imposed and internalised.

So, here are some tips to get started:

  1. If you don't already know your type, spend time figuring this out first - you may be able to get a sense of how your wings influence your type along the way. See my blog post here for tips on how to do this.

  2. Look at both of your wings and identify the positive qualities of each. Think about how both could be of use to you.

  3. Notice if anything comes up in you that resists exploring either wing - is there a voice that says you can't be like that, or that you shouldn't be like that? Reflect on where these messages come from.

  4. Set some simple, achievable goals for how you would like to lean into one of your wings more. Make sure you think of this as adding something in, rather than trying to be less of yourself. For example, a 4w3 might say "I want to do more deep thinking" rather than "I want to be less emotional".

  5. In situations which fit with your goals, start to wonder "how might a type [insert wing] respond in this situation?" - and then imagine 'trying on' that type like a costume. This isn't about being disingenuous, you will still be you, but it will prompt you to act in a way that is different to your usual response and see how it feels.

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