You’ve heard the old saying, “no one is perfect.” Each of us has our own strengths and weaknesses and different ways that we behave around others, and the Enneagram often makes these starkly apparent. Some of our Enneatype qualities, like the Type Four’s creativity or the Type Two’s natural sense of compassion, are talents to be developed. But we all have some areas where we could use some improvement. For Type 3 and Type 7, that trait is empathy. So why is it so difficult for these types of people to understand and experience someone else’s feelings? And is there anything they can do to change it? 

Understanding Empathy

In a recent study in the Korean Journal of Medical Education, researchers examined the empathy levels of medical students using the Enneagram. They found that Type Three students scored the lowest on empathy and Type Sevens scored the lowest on compassionate care. The researchers hoped that developing an awareness of their personality with the Enneagram might help these student doctors develop their empathy for their patients and learn to become more compassionate.

Why is empathy so important? Researchers found the brain’s mirror neurons help us to understand and replicate the emotions of others. By putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can understand each other better. And we can help each other. Sociologists have suggested this kind of behaviour may be part of an evolutionary process that has helped us to survive. It also helps us on a personal level, by increasing our ability to understand our own emotions, and by forging stronger relationships and social connections with others.  

Type Three Challenges

Type Three is known as The Achiever, a self-assured, competent and energetic person who is driven to achieve their goals. While their ambition often scores them top marks at work, they can be overly concerned with their status. In their quest for success, they focus on solving problems and tend to suppress their own feelings and ignore others’ emotions, to maintain their image of strength and feel valuable. This type of behaviour is often encouraged from childhood when Threes learn to act in a way that will get them praise and attention.  

Within the Enneagram, there are three Centers, which each of the nine types belong to. There is the Thinking (Head) Center and the Intuitive (Body or Gut) Center. Surprisingly, Type Three is part of the Feeling (Heart) Center. This type is good at recognising emotions, says Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in The Wisdom of The Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types. But they tend to shut out their feelings in the belief they will interfere with their work and goals. Without connecting to their own emotions, they have great difficulty in feeling empathy for others or even understanding why it’s important.

Type Seven Challenges

Type Seven is busy, extraverted, playful, and high-spirited. They are known as The Enthusiast. According to the Enneagram, the basic fear of Type Seven is feeling too much emotional pain and not having fun. This type wants to be happy and believes that life is all about having a good time. Experiencing or witnessing difficult emotions is something they try to avoid. 

Despite their excitable and spontaneous nature, Sevens fall into the Thinking Center, making them quick-witted and fast learners. According to the researchers in the Korean study, Sevens scored lowest in compassionate care, but they scored high in “perspective taking.” This seeming contradiction suggests that Sevens understand others’ feelings and their situation, but their desire to seek happy experiences, fear of emotional suffering, and a tendency to think rather than feel results in a type who is low on empathy.

According to Riso in his book Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, Type Seven can be insensitive to others’ needs while they pursue their own desire for fun and try to avoid anxiety and other difficult feelings. They are focused on making plans for the future and, like other Thinking Types, their desire to achieve their goals prevents them from feeling and expressing empathy toward others. 

How To Develop Empathy 

Both Type Three and Type Seven avoid feeling empathy for other people because they believe it interferes with their goals. Developing an awareness of your type and your behaviour, however, can help you to recognize some gaps in your social and emotional development and find ways to bridge those gaps. When you do, you’ll form stronger connections with the people who are key to your survival, and your happiness.

Tips for Type 3 

The Type Three wants to feel valuable, which is why they place so much focus on being objective and solving problems, while happily putting their feelings aside to do so.

To develop their sense of empathy and find greater connection with other people, Threes need to learn to become open and vulnerable with those they love. Engaging in an intimate and committed relationship often makes Type Three feel uneasy and fearful because they risk rejection and exposing their true selves. Here’s a few ways to take those steps towards, rather than against, others:

  • Tell the truth. Be honest with yourself and others about how you really feel and what you need. You don’t need to hide who you really are.

  • Find someone compatible. To love and feel loved, don’t let your relationship turn into a competition, says Russo. You don’t need to impress someone with status or success. You will be more impressive by being authentic than bragging.

  • Take time to connect. Instead of focusing solely on your own goals, find some time to show your appreciation for someone you care about. Just asking questions about their day and listening will build bridges and develop your empathy. 

  • Reach out to others. By finding ways to engage with other people in projects that are outside your normal area of interest or beyond your personal goals for advancement, you can forge connections with people and learn the value of working cooperatively with others.

  • Find your values. In their effort to reach for the top, Threes often participate in activities that they think they “should” do, just to meet others’ expectations. Resist the urge to do anything just to be accepted and find out what matters to you. 

Tips for Type Seven

Type Seven wants to feel happy and satisfied, knowing that they are having a good time. They don’t want to feel deprived or trapped and so they will avoid difficult emotions at all costs. As a Thinking type, they understand how others might be feeling, but they can be out of touch with their own feelings and intuition, making them unsure of what to do. So they keep themselves busy to avoid facing difficult decisions and unhappy emotions, distancing themselves ever further from other people. 

Type Seven needs to stop avoiding their emotions and take the time to slow down and reflect on their experiences and their feelings, says Riso. Being constantly on the go and always looking for excitement only increases their fear and anxiety that they may have to deal with something unpleasant. But learning to face your feelings, instead of avoiding them, can give you the security you are always looking for. Here’s how:

  • Recognize your spontaneity. You don’t always have to act on impulse. When you feel the urge to dash to the next big thing, take a moment to notice and think about whether it’s worth acting on. You don’t have to do everything. Learning to resist the urge will help you to get in touch with your feelings, your values and what’s really important.

  • Be quiet. When you listen to other people, you can learn about them, including their feelings and their needs, and about yourself. Take the time to stop rushing around, turn off the music and your phone, and appreciate a moment of silence and solitude, which can help you to connect with yourself and your feelings and understand who you really are. And that will help you to connect with other people on a more authentic level.

  • Slow down. While having lots of experiences can be fun, they only have meaning if you give your full attention to them and appreciate what you have in the moment. Constant focusing on the next exciting thing, for fear of missing out, will actually keep you trapped in a cycle of needing more to keep you stimulated, while you fail to be satisfied with what you’re doing now.

  • Value quality over quantity. It may be a cliché, but spending quality time with people you love is essential to developing your empathy for them. If your relationships with others are based on quantity, you may have a lot of friends, but none of them will feel very close to you and you will struggle to feel empathy for them

Type Three and Type Seven have a lot of positive qualities, including enthusiasm, drive, intelligence and determination. And while they may not score highly on empathy, they do possess the ability to experience it and share with others. By recognising their tendency to push their own and others’ emotions away in their quest for success and their desire for fun, they can learn to open their hearts. By allowing themselves to become a little bit vulnerable, they can find the strength they need to love and be loved while reaching their goals.

Deborah Ward
Deborah Ward is a writer and an INFJ. She has a passion for writing articles, blog posts and books that inspire, motivate and encourage people to build self-confidence and live up to their potential. She has written two books on mindfulness, Overcoming Low Self-Esteem with Mindfulness and Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness. Her latest book, Sense and Sensitivity, is based on her Psychology Today blog of the same name. It's about highly sensitive people and is out now. Deborah lives in Hampshire, England, where she enjoys watching documentaries, running and taking long walks in the country, especially ones that finish at a cosy pub.