Enneatype Three describes the sociable, ambitious achiever who, deep inside, feels oddly blank and unloved. Threes have long been told that this type pattern involves a misguided attempt to earn the love they need, which sounds so plausible that some obligingly recall instances of that from their childhood. We generally notice that there aren’t many Threes in the room at all, and imagine they must be too busy to attend Enneagram workshops, or reluctant to admit a problem – although modern life is notoriously busy for everyone, and we all avoid difficult feelings. Could it be that many Threes simply find this characterization of their type (performing all their lives to earn love) unflattering, or unconvincing? There are good reasons to doubt this familiar story, especially given how early type patterns begin to develop; their motivations are subconscious, and may not be so obvious or straightforward.
The Three pattern is also known for less friendly tendencies like denial of responsibility for failure, impatience with others, and contempt for underachieving “losers”. With such hard edges, success (or the appearance of it) at any price makes much less sense as a strategy for pleasing others, so we might wonder what purpose all that activity really serves. And beyond this discomfort, I think we’re missing another entire dimension of the Three experience when we dismiss their charm and warmth as merely an ingratiating strategy or performance. (Worse yet, we may convince them that’s all it is.) I think we need to recognize that Threes feel genuine excitement when relating to others, and not just at the prospect of an audience’s acclaim; what feels powerfully good and right to them is the energy and enthusiasm of their own effort to connect with others in a warm and personal way.
We won’t fully understand type patterns, how they arise and what continues to drive them, until further subconscious material has been brought into awareness. If we bear in mind that humans aren’t purely rational and refocus on feelings about loving connection with others rather than a need for love, and on relationship rather than individual survival, we may arrive at a more complete picture of the Three pattern. Feelings shape our perceptions and drive our behavior, even (perhaps especially) when we’re unaware of them. Relationship is crucial because human beings aren’t isolated individuals struggling to survive, but highly social by nature and deeply interconnected, especially in early childhood when personality forms. Bad feelings about relationship can persist for a lifetime, and unlike fear and other more familiar emotions, they don’t motivate us to seek what’s good for us; in fact, they discourage us from doing so.
The Relational Problem: Feeling Loved for Who You Are
One way in which we can come to feel bad about ourselves in relationship is not feeling loved for who we are. This is a central painful memory of a Three’s childhood, and so persistent that it remains a recurrent theme for them as adults. Dependent and vulnerable for a long time, young children internalize bad feelings that arise in moments of relational difficulty, coming to feel that they themselves are somehow bad. This becomes a problem in its own right, changing the entire experience of life: reducing inner awareness, diminishing openness to exploring the world, diverting energy into compulsive patterns, and lowering expectations – especially of relationship.
Not feeling loved for who you are leaves you feeling abandoned in a cold world: sadly cut off from other people, and even from experiencing yourself as a person in relationship with others. You feel not only lonely but also dull or blank inside, if you’re curious enough to check at all, as if you can’t feel who you are. Unable to sustain a genuinely warm feeling about themselves when love seems lacking, young Threes begin to construct a reassuring sense of who they are instead by becoming compulsive achievers, developing an appealing self-image based on the excitement of their ambitions and the success of their efforts. They’re often aware that this drive to keep going and doing is a personal thing rather than a performance for others, although we don’t seem to have heard that clearly. Of course Threes do feel a strong desire for contact, so their work is likely to be public and highly visible, even fed by the energy of interaction itself. They keep busy with one task after another, seldom taking time to relax and enjoy their accomplishments. Idleness seems dull and quickly makes Threes restless, so they’re always eager to take on new challenges that sustain their sense of how wonderful it is to be who they seem to be.
Achievement isn’t a strategy to win love, but to compensate for a Three’s own inner blankness. Meanwhile, they can have such trouble registering that others like them that they actually make that difficult. What Threes may seek instead is validation of their constructed image, which can be seen and admired for reassurance. Along the way they try to overlook or forget their mistakes and failures, as they also expect others to do; they don’t tolerate criticism well, and may carry a deep personal grudge over it. They do desire love, but try to avoid awareness of that; type patterns are adaptations to a life that feels bad because we apparently can’t get what we want. That missing feeling is a recurrent discomfort that periodically ambushes Threes who put such effort and charm into relationship themselves. In fact, the more devoted another person may actually be, the more awkward the situation can feel. It’s still hard for Threes to really feel loved for who they are even when they now are and know it should feel good, and that dissonance can make wanting or receiving love strangely unsettling, perhaps even undesirable.
Exercise: To get a sense of this effect, try spending some time deliberately thinking “People don’t love me for who I am”. Most people are likely to recognize having felt this way occasionally, and Threes will have an entire life story about it. It may help to remember specific instances from childhood, and really wallow in them. Notice how this feels in your body (especially the upper torso), how you carry yourself, and what it’s like to interact with others while this is going on. Do they appear likely to love you for who you really are? Do you really want to find out? Once you’ve had enough of all that, try the opposite attitude for a while instead: “People love me for who I am.” You can imagine a good parent long ago saying “I love you for who you are”, or even say this to yourself today. The good feeling associated with these words may be much less familiar and take a while to find at first, but once you begin to feel it, explore what it’s like in your body, and how it affects even a casual encounter with someone else. With the right intention it’s possible to make this shift from bad to good experience of relationship, at least for a short time. Regularly cultivating this positive feeling is a longer-term project that many people will find worthwhile, especially Threes.
The Idealization: Becoming the Loving Person
Feeling bad about ourselves is painful enough in adulthood. For young children, such a conflict with their own natural vitality must be unbearable, so I suspect they intuitively try to find some way to be good again, as the Enneatype patterns demonstrate: focusing on an aspect of goodness and identifying themselves with it. This idealization becomes the core of the personality, allowing a child to continue to develop a positive sense of self. Perhaps Threes were particularly sensitive to not feeling loved, or this was the most problematic experience for them at some critical time. In any case, Threes try to feel good about themselves again by striving to embody this very quality of good loving relationship: becoming someone who feels and relates to who another person is. They know the importance of this from their own experience. Show love to others as you would have them show it to you: this is a moral commitment, not a strategy for getting love yourself. The Golden Rule seems to come naturally to young children, in nine specific ways. This is why our type pattern involves such a feeling of rightness, and we remain so attached to it.
Unfortunately, adopting such a nice idealization is an abandonment of the genuine self as somehow bad. Being a good loving person allows Threes to feel good about themselves again much of the time, although it can never really make up for not feeling loved. They feel most alive when interacting with others, turned on not by the prospect of getting something from them, but by how good and right connection feels itself. At its best, a Three’s charm is a profoundly personal way of connecting with someone they feel close to, inspired with the warmth and excitement of love. But pursued automatically as the type idealization, charm can become a sort of compulsion instead and can easily be overdone, when Threes aren’t actually acting connecting with others spontaneously and authentically. Genuine warmth is increasingly replaced by routine geniality and an effort to generate camaraderie. People who sense the difference may feel uncomfortable and begin to suspect that a Three is insincere, or could have some ulterior motive. In return, Threes can feel hurt when others don’t respond more warmly. The world can seem cold and uninspired.
When describing their strengths, Threes use words like “relatable”. They like to think they have a special gift for connecting with others and congratulate themselves for doing this so well, because it’s what feeling good about themselves has come to depend upon. They would wish to have this aspect of their personality recognized, since it’s so important to them. Threes may even tailor their self-presentation for different audiences, not intending to deceive but simply intuiting how to establish a warm connection. They very much want to be seen as effective and inspiring themselves, and quickly grow impatient with others who seem difficult or lazy. Highly other-focused, Threes may make every effort to be the best spouse, parent, or friend they can be, as a matter not of mere image but loving devotion. Yet a type idealization doesn’t apply to oneself; Threes have difficulty connecting with who they really are, just as we all neglect ourselves in exactly the way we consider most important. Because human beings are so complex, type idealizations also tend to generalize broadly: a Three could love a profession or organization, or mankind, animals, or nature, continually trying to fill the world with warmth and love. But performing this idealization never relieves the bad feeling that drives it.
Exercise: This particular idealization of loving personal connection won’t resonate for people of other types as it does for Threes who live by it, and may even be a challenge to imagine. If you’re a Three, you can become more aware of its effect by spending some time consciously thinking “I’m a really good loving person, more so than others”, and if you like you can add “I can connect with anyone.” Notice where your attention goes because of this, and what it’s like to interact with others with this motivation. Once you’ve had enough of that, try a simpler, unconditional feeling instead: “I’m a good person.” Again this isn’t just something to say to yourself but a feeling to find in your body; if these words don’t lead you to it you may find others that work better (“I’m not bad”, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, “I deserved to be loved”) or a breathing practice that helps. To reverse the core self-abandonment of type, it’s essential to learn to feel yourself and your own goodness directly, not merely imagine or evaluate it. This will be another ongoing practice, perhaps a more challenging one. Once you do have this feeling, notice how you feel in your body and in the world, the quality of your attention, and how this will affect even a casual encounter with someone else. Naturally, connecting personally with others may still be a useful skill, but it can be used appropriately in a more spontaneous and authentic way when you feel more present.
The Love Triad
It may at first seem difficult to envision Threes offering love to others, after assuming the reverse for so long. This isn’t even how they’ve generally described their own type experience, but I think we haven’t been asking them the right questions, and have missed or misinterpreted whatever they happened to say about this energy in their lives. The Three pattern is all about the true nature and value of love, not some kind of misunderstanding of it. Our culture speaks of love in many different ways: as an abstract quality, a moral obligation, or a specific fantasy of how someone might make us happy. We even use the word more casually to mean mere liking, admiration, or approval, which can be quite confusing. Love, as a simple human emotion, is an essential quality of connection that children need to feel from parents. The heart types feel distress when this affection seems lacking, just as the head types fear not being understood and empathized with, and the body types are angered by not feeling welcomed and appreciated. The manifestations of love range from a special feeling of closeness (the particular Four preoccupation) to care and nurturing (for Twos); the core issue for the Three pattern is love itself, the warmth and affection that arise from feeling just who a child is.
Whenever you encounter someone, you can simply think of what they’re good or bad at and how you want the interaction to go, or your heart can open to feeling who they are as a person, and what possibilities the situation might hold. We face a similar choice when we contemplate ourselves. I’ve heard outwardly successful Threes confess “I don’t know who I am”, without anyone seeming to know what to say or do next. “Who am I?” could be a fascinating metaphysical inquiry to pursue, but if it seems more like an uncomfortable dead end it’s merely a sign of trouble feeling who you are, a feeling that can be rediscovered and made familiar again through love. If the mind turns to accomplishments, roles, possessions, or beliefs to identify with, or simply goes blank, it’s because this problem can’t really be solved by thinking. We’re meant to feel who we are directly, to be inspired with a sense of joie de vivre: warmth and excitement at simply being alive, being who we are, and having the life we have.
How can we finally come back from ideas of who we’d like to be to our real self,, and learn to open again to what’s always been so hard for us to feel? Healing the self-abandonment of personality patterns requires self-kindness, even self-love. Yet recognizing your Enneatype can so easily lead once again to feeling that there’s something wrong with you and wishing to embody some corresponding quality or virtue, without realizing that’s exactly how the type pattern you want to let go of developed in the first place. As we should all know from long experience with our type, it’s tiresome trying to be a better person than we think we are, and it never drives away the underlying bad feeling. Threes do want love, but their charm isn’t an attempt to get it from others; the whole theme of not feeling loved is so uncomfortable that they mostly try to avoid it, as we all avoid the central problem of our type. Threes connect with who others are because they want to be good, and that’s their idea of what this means.
Copyright © 2018, Eric R. Meyer. The first part of Exercise 1 is modeled on one used by Karen DeHart at IEA 2016, the rest on elements of Integrative Body Psychotherapy. More articles in this series