Three Things That Drive Us Crazy About the Enneagram Type 3s in Our Lives

Type 3 is the motivating super-achiever of the Enneagram. With a habit of attention that points towards success, these are the folks who get things done. But if this type is so successful, how come they are often frustrating and irritating to those closest to them?

It’s important to reflect that, at the highest levels of awareness, each type offers amazing gifts and displays compassionate behavior. The bright side of Type 3 is someone who helps others see their potential, who brings out the innate talent in those around them, and who can speak authentically from their heart. 

But at the average and lower levels of awareness, there can be some problematic behavior.  Let’s explore how these Type 3s can drive the rest of us crazy.

1. A Concern about Image over Substance

Average to low-functioning Type 3s have a weak internal sense of themselves and experience their own worth from the outside in. This can lead to puzzling behavior because image and image-management are in the forefront of their minds, taking priority over substance when it comes to decision-making. 

They don’t mean to be insensitive, but their attention goes to how things look rather than how things really are. They may be overly focused on optics - how everyone is dressed, how the event will be perceived from the outside, how they imagine people will talk about it later. Remember Mary Tyler Moore’s character Beth Jarrett in the 1980 movie Ordinary People? She was obsessed about her husband’s shirt matching his shoes at her teenage son’s funeral. The focus on image is intense and out of balance.

On a more personal note, this habit of attention is how my Type 3 mother suggested we go to a popular, well-regarded steakhouse for my college graduation dinner even though I had been vegetarian for four years. She wasn’t trying to be insensitive, but she was imagining the lovely family photo that would be taken and how good the dinner would look from the outside. How it looked from the outside mattered more than the event itself. While the Type 3 behavior can be insensitive, the motivation is image-management. They can literally become blind to reality.

2. They Don’t Listen Well

In average to lower stages of awareness, the Type 3 psychology aligns around a role: the good parent, the best friend, the perfect partner, and so on. The focus of attention goes to filling this role rather than actually showing up as the real person associated with the role. 

Like an actor focused on delivering their lines perfectly, the true emotional connection is a pale shadow of the delivery. This means when Type 3s are responding to a situation, they aren’t always present. They are thinking of how they should act.  

The unfortunate consequence of the attempt to fill a role can result in a “bad listener.”  They are not listening to you as you speak. You can almost watch their focus leave the conversation and move into the future as they anticipate how they should act. The result? They don’t hear what is being said and so they “forget” their best friend is scheduled for a major operation later in the week. They “forget” their son’s wife had a serious miscarriage and is struggling emotionally. They forget many details of what is being said because they are so focused on their own performance.

For years after I first moved to San Francisco my Type 3 mother would ask me “Lynn, have you ever been to Greens…?” Greens is a popular San Francisco vegetarian restaurant, and she would ask the question in exactly the same tone with exactly the same delivery. It was remarkable. She posed this question literally dozens of times. And every single time, I would say yes. 

Why did she ask the exact same question over and over? Because she wasn’t listening to my answer. In the “good mother” role she had to deliver the line associated with a vegetarian daughter which was to ask if I had eaten at Greens. 

As you can imagine, this behavior can be frustrating. But the important thing to understand is that deep in the background, the Type 3 is insecure about their own ability to show up as a fully engaged emotional person. They align around a role as a defense mechanism. They fear they don’t have what it takes to be a good parent so they put all their focus on acting like a good parent. Frustrating, yes but more than anything it is actually sad. Because of their insecurity, they miss out on true connections with people they would like to be close to.

3. It’s Hard for Them to Show Up Emotionally

Even self-aware Type 3s will often reference that they know their emotional fluency is limited. Like a painter who can only paint with three primary colors, Type 3s aren’t known for focusing on or understanding their own emotional world. Happy, sad and impatient are the main feelings that low to moderately self-aware Type 3s can access.  The more nuanced emotions of empathy, compassion, and unconditional love aren’t easily available to them. This is why Type 3s aren’t the obvious choice to run to when we have an emotional problem. 

Because they can’t relate on an emotional level, Type 3s try to connect by turning it back to themselves. Their psychological structure imagines if they share a similar story, that’s connection. You tell your Type 3 friend you have a serious illness? They will tell you about the operation they had ten years ago. You say you are worried about your job search? They talk about their own job-seeking history. This is their attempt at emotional support. But anyone well-versed in emotional connection understands this isn’t real support. This is egotism. Type 3s grow when they learn to tune into empathy and develop tools to access more of their emotional spectrum and hold emotional space for others.

Your Own Habit of Attention Matters Too

While all this behavior can be frustrating, it’s important to look at your part in the dynamic. We each come in with our own habit of attention and our own level of awareness. Our habit of attention colors our interpretation and reaction to events. And our own level of awareness helps us access compassion for hurtful behavior. 

Using the graduation meal example, where my mother suggested her vegetarian daughter celebrate her college graduation at a steakhouse, the truth is her insensitivity didn’t bother me that much. I’m a Type 7, an assertive type, so the idea we would have actually gone to the steakhouse was remote. It’s easy for me to advocate for myself so I found the entire incident ridiculous and laughable but not particularly painful. However, had I been a Type 9 with a tendency to go with the flow or a Type 4 with a sensitivity to being misunderstood, it could have been a very damaging experience. Your own habit of attention is inherent in all your interactions, and the Enneagram can help you identify why some experiences are painful and others less so.

And the Enneagram can help you understand the otherwise confusing behavior of others. While I was often hurt by various things my mother said and did, with the lens of the Enneagram, I could interpret her seemingly mystifying actions better. It took a while, but with perspective and context, I could even find compassion for her. 

The Enneagram explains that Type 3s are deathly afraid of failure and secretly worry that if they look deep inside, they won’t find anything there. They fear they might be an empty shell. Their focus on image, their alignment to a role, and their narrow emotional range are all defense mechanisms to hide their sense of shame. Dissolving shame and cultivating self-love is the foundation for Type 3s to relax their habit of attention and move to greater self-awareness.

And when they wake up and share their true gifts, their ability to inspire and their focus on achievement and motivation skills, you can see the light in this type. With the context of the Enneagram I was able to see that emotional connection wasn’t my mother’s strong point, but her focus on success was. She was deeply interested in my academic success and cultivated my achievement, setting me up well for those aspects of life. For Type 3s at their best, see The Bright Side of the Enneagram: The Light in Each Type.

Lynn Roulo

Lynn Roulo is an Enneagram instructor and Kundalini Yoga teacher who teaches a unique combination of the two systems, combining the physical benefits of Kundalini Yoga with the psychological growth tools of the Enneagram. She has written two books combining the two systems. Headstart for Happiness, her first book is an introduction to the systems. The Nine Keys, her second book, focuses on the two systems in intimate relationships. Learn more about Lynn and her work here at LynnRoulo.com.

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