By Mario Sikora
It’s a question we get all the time: Why don’t you teach the wings? The answer is that, by eliminating the wings, the Enneagram becomes both simpler and more accurate.
Let me explain why.
Among many who use the Enneagram, the idea that there are two versions of each Ennea-type is taken for granted. We don’t just think someone is, say, a One, they are either a One with a Nine wing (1w9) or a One with a Two wing (1w2).
We can also add the three instinctual subtypes, which we do teach and refer to as Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting. So, one can also be a P1, N1, or T1.
Now we have a challenge—do we take this to the next logical layer of complexity and say that you can be (again, sticking with Type One) a P1w2, P1w9, N1w2, N1w9, T1w2, or T1w9?
I would like to suggest that doing so not only makes the model more complex, but it also makes the model less accurate, and that by eliminating the wings we can dramatically improve our work with the Enneagram.
Here is our rationale:
The idea that one has a “fixed” wing is not part of the original Ennea-type theory.
Now, the simple fact that a concept was not part of the original theory does not automatically invalidate the concept. I am a big fan of innovation and I see Enneagram theory not as a fixed and static body of dogma but as an evolving social science. However, any innovation to a body of knowledge should be justified by its usefulness and accuracy.
Some of the early students of the Enneagram had heard Claudio Naranjo mention “wings” but did not hear his explanation of what he meant by the term. He was talking about Oscar Ichazo’s view that we can understand our own type by thinking of it as an interaction between the two types on either side of us. For example, the lust of the Eight can understood as the “folding in” (“like wings” in Ichazo’s words) of the gluttony of the Seven and the sloth of the Nine.
These same students were also never introduced to the instinctual subtypes in a meaningful way.
Thus, when they started noticing that different people of a given type demonstrated consistent differences, they reached for a term they had heard (but didn’t fully understand) and created what we now know as the “wing theory” to explain those differences.
However, wing theory, in my experience, has always been problematic as I have found that some people resonate with the descriptions of the wings and others do not, creating a great deal of confusion.
My view—which I have heard confirmed second-hand from multiple of Naranjo’s students aligns with his view—is that describing two versions of each type was a clever, but misguided, attempt to understand the differences actually caused by the three instinctual biases. This attempt to explain three variations of people by using two labels is one of the reasons why some people resonate with the wing descriptions and others do not. When those descriptions are accurate, they are usually describing one of the instinctual subtypes—the common descriptions of the 8w7, for example, are usually describing a Transmitting Eight; the 8w9 descriptions reflect the Navigating Eight (the wing descriptions usually do not capture the Preserving Eight well).
The wings are redundant.
I am cautious about adding variables and complexity to a model—simple is usually better than complicated. Adding variables is fine as long as those variables serve to illuminate more than they confuse and don’t add complexity that outweighs any insight they may offer.
The wing descriptions 1) describe some people well but not others; 2) began as a literally mistaken explanation (“taken” from one purpose and inappropriately used for another) for differences; and 3) attempt to explain differences that are better and more robustly explained another way. If I can explain something well with two variables, it makes no sense to add an unnecessary third.
People are resistant to letting go of the wings, and I understand why. Though flawed, in the absence of an appreciation for the instinctual subtypes the theory did a better job at explaining with-in type differences than no theory at all. The wings became so embedded as an accepted part of the general Enneagram theory that by the time a broader understanding of the instinctual subtypes became widespread, the two were seen as unrelated components of the system rather than two attempts to answer the same questions.
The wings live on because once an idea becomes embedded in our minds, confirmation bias takes over and the examples of people not fitting the wing descriptions become invisible to us and our observations of those who do fit (due to the wing/subtype redundancy) reinforce the concept.
When we see the wings and the subtypes as separate attempts to explain the same thing, however, it is simply good practice to jettison one of them. Given this, and that the subtypes explain intra-type differences better than the wings, it is reasonable to not teach the wings.
I’ll add a couple of caveats before we finish: First, some Enneagram teachers that I greatly respect teach and find value in the wings, so I encourage people to keep an open mind when considering my encouragement to stop including the wings in your work with the Enneagram. Second, regarding the concept of wings more broadly, I recently listened to a compelling podcast interview with Sandra Maitri—long-time Enneagram teacher, original student of Naranjo, author of “The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram.” In it, Maitri was more adamant than she was in her book that the notion of there being two “kinds” of each Ennea-type is simply not correct. Rather, she shared, Naranjo’s early teaching was that we each lean into the issues at each Enneagram point next to ours for varying periods. For example, a Nine will spend time grappling with the issues related to Point One for a while (in addition to the issues related to point Nine), and then they will start grappling with the issues related to point Eight for a while. This “while” could be weeks, months, or years, but it is not fixed.
This is a compelling idea and I am exploring its ramifications in my own experience.