"If I don't triple-check this report, my boss won't consider me for a promotion."

"I have to make sure I always look perfect, or else people won't take me seriously."

"If I don't outperform my sibling, my parents won't respect me."

If you have ever thought or said things like this, then you may be using fear as a motivator. We've all felt the sinking feeling of anxiety that comes with worrying about the future or being judged by others, and it can easily become a driving force behind our actions. As a motivator, fear can be both powerful and dangerous – powerful because it often leads to action rather than procrastination; dangerous, because it can put you in a perpetual fight-or-flight response pattern that causes both physical and mental stress.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Enneagram. The answer is that, in the Enneagram system, each type has a core fear that drives them. This core fear is really terrifying to us, and we all go out of our way to avoid it. When you understand this, you can get a lot of insight into why you behave the way you do, and also start developing strategies to stop your fear from taking up too much space.

What does this look like in practice? Here’s how fear-based motivation plays out in the nine Enneagram types.

Type 1 - Fears being imperfect

Fear-based motivation for Enneagram Type 1s always stems from their fear of being imperfect, of being seen as a "bad" or "flawed" person. For this Enneagram type, fear-based motivation will often follow the idea that they’re not doing enough and that they’re failing themselves and others. So, they work harder than anyone to be seen as "good" or "perfect," often at the expense of their own wellbeing. 

Type 2 - Fears being unlovable

Enneagram Type 2s fear being unlovable and ending up alone, so their fear-based motivations are often linked to the worry that if they don’t do something, for instance lose weight or make more money, they will either never find love or will lose the people who love them. They go out of their way to care for and be needed by others to ensure they remain central in other people’s lives.

Type 3 - Fears failure

Known as The Achiever, Type 3s fear failure above all else. They push incredibly hard to achieve their goals as, deep down, they are unsure of their innate self-worth. This type is always comparing themselves to their peers to make sure that they're not falling behind or being perceived as worthless, not successful or not admired.

Type 4 - Fears being flawed

Enneagram Type 4s lead with their emotions. They make sense of the world through their feeling of being different to everyone else. They want to be special but, at the same time, they fear that they’re fundamentally flawed in some way and therefore are missing out on the happiness that others have. If they don’t show how unique they are, everyone will find out that they’re flawed and that can be a powerful motivator.  

Type 5 - Fears being overwhelmed

Type 5s worry about being drained of energy by engagement with the outside world. Their fear-based motivation tends to come from a desire to be self-sufficient, or risk being overwhelmed by their needs and the needs of others. To cope with the fear, Type Fives tend to live in their heads and detach from the demands of the world.

Type 6 - Fears being unprepared

Concerned with safety and security, Enneagram Type 6s fear danger or, more specifically, they

fear not being prepared for danger. To manage their fear, Sixes often stick with what’s familiar and refuse to move out of their comfort zone. Fear-based motivation for Type 6 can lead to them being over-controlling and over-prepared against all potential threats, no matter how unlikely.

Type 7 - Fears emotional pain

Fun-loving Type 7s have a strong fear of missing out. They worry about getting stuck in a rut and so their fear-based motivators often stem from the idea that if they don’t do something, they won’t get to experience all the good things life has to offer. They're constantly looking for exciting and stimulating experiences to manage this fear.

Type 8 - Fears being powerless

Type 8s do not like being vulnerable and they fear ending up as a victim of things outside of their control. For this type, fear-based motivation can be especially prevalent when it comes to careers. For example, Type 8s often fear that if they don’t work harder than everyone else, they’ll end up at the bottom of the pecking order in their organization and out in the wider world.

Type 9 - Fears losing people

Enneagram Type 9s are scared of pushing people away and worry that's exactly what will happen if they come across as too needy. They cope by going along with whatever other people want, leading to a fear-based motivation of constantly trying to please in order to avoid being rejected or experiencing conflict in their relationships.

How to combat fear-based motivation

It takes conscious effort to reframe fear-based motivation into a positive opportunity. Here are three ways to work on moving away from fear and towards effective motivation.

#1: Practice love-based motivation

For many of us, fear-based motivation is a knee-jerk reaction to everyday pressures and stress. If you fear emotional pain, for example, your automatic response might be to avoid attachment with other people so you don’t get hurt. Your fear-based motivation might be to carry on going on dates with multiple people even after you meet someone you really like to avoid the possibility that they might reject you.

Love-based motivation draws on love – rather than fear — to inspire you to improve and is thus the exact opposite of fear-based motivation. If you were to practice love-based motivation, you might choose to tell yourself that whatever happens, you’re going to enjoy the experience of being with that person. Rather than fearing an imaginary rejection that hasn’t happened yet, you might go into the relationship thinking “Nothing that is meant for me will leave me. I welcome beautiful connections without fear of the future.” The relationship might not last forever, but it could be a beautiful, fulfilling and transformative experience, no matter how long it lasts.

#2: Be more curious

Another way to think about love-based motivation rather than fear-based motivation is to approach problems from a place of curiosity and joy. If you can try to find the fun in the journey, you can create a more positive relationship with your goals.

For example, rather than fearing losing the edge in your career and using that fear as the motivator to start a new development program, think about what you could learn instead. What might you discover about your industry or role? What might you learn about yourself through this process? What strengths and skills will you be able to explore?

By approaching your goals with curiosity, you can bring more positivity into every day. Make a conscious effort to enjoy the journey rather than use fear to push you towards the final goal.

#3: Imagine you’re talking to a friend

For many of us, the way we talk to our friends is completely different to the way we talk to ourselves. You would never be so harsh or so critical of a friend.

To help you overcome fear-based motivation, imagine you’re talking to a friend or loved one. When you look in the mirror, talk to yourself in the same words as you talk to the people closest to you in your life. Practice supporting and uplifting yourself, being kinder and more compassionate, and providing words of encouragement rather than criticism.

Don’t let fear-based motivation get in your way

While fear-based motivation can be an effective motivator, it can also lead to unhealthy habits. Overcoming fear-based motivation takes conscious effort and repetition, but over time you can reframe your motivation to focus on love and compassion. Don’t give up, and be kind to yourself.

Elizabeth Harris
Elizabeth is a freelance writer and ghostwriter. She’s an anthropologist at heart and loves using social theory to get deeper into the topics she writes about. Born in the UK, Elizabeth has lived in Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Dubai before moving most recently to Budapest, Hungary. She’s an ENTJ with ENFJ leanings. Find out more about her work at bethharris.com