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Enneagram Type Three Explained

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

A Complete Guide to Enneagram Type 3


If you or someone you know is wildly charismatic, charming, tends to have a great reputation at work, and yet struggles to be honest if the truth hurts their public approval… then they may be a Type Three Achiever.


Also if you’ve tested or been told by others that you’re a Type One, Six, or Seven, but you're not quite sure, then this post may help confirm or change the Enneagram type you identify with most. You can also reach out to schedule an Enneagram type consulting call.


Major Personality Traits


The Enneagram Type Three is nicknamed the “Achiever” because they tend to desire, and attain, success. What defines success for Type Threes is always determined by the dominant culture or environment that they’re living in. So if their family values sports, they’ll be a great athlete; if their society values power, they might be a prominent politician; if they live in a creative city like LA, they might seek to be a great artist. Threes are highly capable people because of their ambition, energy, and most of all, their adaptability.


Type Threes are chameleons by nature. They can blend into any system and look like they belong there. That’s both a gift and a curse, because you can only blend into so many different environments before you start to lose track of who you really are at your core and what you really want. Threes are masters at telling you what you want to hear and embodying what you wish you could be, which is why a lot of people either love or hate Threes out of envy.


Threes crave social affirmation because deep down they struggle with a sense of shame and disconnection from their true feelings. Threes have a deep, deep pool of shame about their identity and their past. This can make them run on autopilot for long periods at a time as they lock into work that keeps them feeling accomplished in order to avoid their true feelings. That leads us to another central issue in the Type Three's life: the truth.


The Achiever’s core “sin,” if you will, is deceit. They lie. A lot. And most of all to themselves. They lie about the why behind the what, and they also lie about the what as well if they’re scared of your disapproval. But you can cut Threes some slack because their deceit is rarely malicious. They just can’t bear the thought of losing your approval. The whole reason they’ve abandoned their true identity is to become what you and I are impressed by or admire. So if they end up doing something undeniably bad that cost them public approval, they’ve not only become some inauthentic person but they’ve also done it for no reason. That can and should be a life altering experience for Threes.


However, when Threes can operate out of an authentic, self-affirming place, they can be truly inspiring individuals that create and lead dynamic groups of people to reach incredible goals. While that may sound like every coaching companies website, it’s deeply true for Type Threes.


Childhood


As we explore Enneagram childhood experiences, we take into account both Nature and Nurture. We are all born with a specific temperament, psychologically speaking. But the way our primary caregivers raise us has a great deal of influence on how that temperament is expressed as adults.


In their earliest years, Threes often behave like Type Six Loyalists, as they were attached to the support of their family and authority figures. However, they quickly realized that they did not merit attention without performance or achievement. No one really models a sense of quiet, calm stability for Type Three children. Instead they’re shown a form of public hyperactivity. That's not to say that Threes weren't told they were special and free to do anything, but what they perceived was an imbalance in their nurturing figure's words vs their actions.


Threes are deeply attached to and affected by their nurturing figure, and most often, the mother is the nurturing figure in the family. Maternal figures are meant to mirror the child’s identity back to them with unconditional love and support, but for Threes, their maternal figure tends to subconsciously express an expectation or desire for extroverted excellence, and Threes become hyper aware of this.

For example, playing the piano is great, but what would be even better would be to play the piano in front of the whole school at the talent show.

This emphasis on public success is caused by a disconnection with shame that tends to permeate not just the maternal figure, but the Three's entire family. So achieving external praise and success becomes the antidote to that familial shame. Ultimately, 3s will play out a pattern of seeking awards because they never felt like the average, normal child inside of them was worthy of love and affirmation. And their lost childhood message is that "you are loved for who you are, not what you do."


Wings


Every Enneagram type has what’s known as a “wing”--it’s simply an overlap of traits with the personality type directly to the left or to the right of your primary type. So Type Threes can either have a Two wing or a Four wing. You always have a stronger leaning toward one wing over the other at any given time in your life.


The CHARMER

Enneagram 3 wing 2

Twos are called The Helper because they are driven by a deep need to be needed and a lot of the Type Two characteristics actually fuel the Three's natural strengths, so Charmers are even more energetic, sociable, and wired for relationships. Charmers are that cliche pretty, popular girl or guy in school. Think of the cheerleader and the quarterback. They love to be the center of attention and are masters at cultivating relationships with people they deem worthy of their social circle.


Because Threes are naturally competitive and Twos are naturally prideful, Charmers can get caught up in needing to be the best in their community. They want their spouse to be a catch, their kids to be the top of the class, and their home to be the best on the block. All of this is fueled by their desire to be desired. Because Twos are lovers at heart, Threes with a Two wing (3w2) are more geared toward relational prominence than career prominence. This makes them very seductive...so beware if you’ve caught their eye.


Charmers will use their warmth, positivity, and encouragement to get you to fall for them. They also tend to be physically attractive and put a great deal of effort into staying that way even as they age. Because of this superficiality, Charmers are more defensive and emotionally fragile than Threes with a Four wing (3w4). When unhealthy, Charmers can become desperate for any attention, even negative attention, and they’ll spark drama or lash out angrily just so that you have to deal with them. They can embody some pretty shameless narcissism when they feel rejected or like they’re not getting what they feel entitled to in life.


However, healthy Charmers are generous, enthusiastic people that actually often get mistyped as Sevens because they’re so much fun to be around.


The PROFESSIONAL

Enneagram 3 wing 4

Professionals are a fascinating subtype because Threes and Fours at their core are pretty different people. Type Four Individualists are driven by a desire to be seen as unique or special, and are plagued by envy because they believe everyone else has something they don’t have--and that actually feeds the Type Three's natural competitiveness, while making them shift their attention to some special area of life to succeed in rather than just going after what everybody else has. This can make Threes with a Four wing (3w4) actually look like Type Five Investigators because they’ll go after some specialized role, be it an artistic or technical field.


The Four wing also makes Professionals a bit more emotionally vulnerable than Charmers, as Charmers try to squash any negative emotions that may make them look less desirable. The Four wing allows Threes to become more self-aware and willing to dive into hard truths about themselves. At the same time, sometimes the Four wing adds too much emphasis on self-doubt and negativity, which can make Professionals swing from total ego inflation to crippling self-doubt all in the span of one afternoon. It is important to note, however, that Doctors Riso & Hudson from The Enneagram Institute agree that the Three with a Four wing is not manic depressive, although they often get diagnosed as such. Riso and Hudson state that manic-depressiveness stems from anxiety, whereas the Three wing Four’s issue stems from a narcissistic desire to meet grandiose expectations that no one could possibly live up to.


I’m married to a Three wing Four, and they are very capable of navigating a wide array of emotions in a very short period of time that makes it difficult for, let's say…a rigid Type One, to keep up with.


Integration & Disintegration


The concept of a movement toward integration and disintegration is a central teaching of the Enneagram. It’s the idea that we embody the traits of other personality types depending on how healthy we are.


Disintegrated THREEs

Enneagram 3 disintegrates to 9

If you look at the actual lines of the Enneagram, you can see that Type Three is connected to Type Six and Type Nine. Their movement of disintegration is to Type Nine. When Threes are not dealing well with stress and are functioning in a lower level of mental and emotional health, they disintegrate to the worst characteristics of the Type Nine Peacemaker. Disintegrated Threes are exhausted by their own pursuit of success, so they begin to numb themselves by isolating, indulging in things like junk food, alcohol, drugs, or just simply hours of Netflix on the couch. Chilling on the couch for a few hours can sound innocent, but for the Three, it’s tinged with a sense of “giving up on themself” rather than loving themselves by taking time for some much needed self-care.

Integrated THREEs

Enneagram 3 and 6 Movement of Integration and Disintegration

When Threes are healthy and living out a mature, balanced lifestyle, they integrate the best characteristics of the Type Six Loyalist. Since average Threes are obsessed with maintaining their image as a leader, this movement of integration looks more like becoming a committed follower, friend, or partner. Intimacy is scary for Threes because it risks exposing their true identity, which is why they’d usually prefer to keep their distance from the crowd by staying up on stage. But integrated Threes find confidence in who they are and so they relax that need for special attention in order to cultivate bonds of mutual friendship and self-acceptance.


Instincts


The Enneagram instincts describe the most basic ways we function in our daily lives. The pattern normally goes that we operate out of one primary instinct, then our secondary instinct really just serves the first, and the last instinct is usually repressed due to some formative experience we had growing up.


The three instincts are the self-preservation instinct, the social instinct, and the sexual instinct.


Self-Preservation

Self-preservation Threes are concerned with their material possessions and physical security. Self-preservation Threes are often misidentified as Type Six Loyalists, which is also fueled by the fact that Threes integrate Type Six traits in health. A major difference to identify the mistyping is whether or not someone is driven by a sense of shame around their identity like the Type Three, or if they're driven by an underlying wave of anxiety and fear like the Type Six. It takes a lot of discernment to figure this out.


Self-preservation Threes are extremely efficient and practical in how they do things. Their top concern in life is advancing their pursuit of lifelong goals, so any extracurricular activity often gets cut out. Self-preservation Threes love tangible rewards and having a specific career ladder to climb that guarantees increasing status and wealth over time. These traits make it harder for self-preservation Threes to take breaks and chill since they feel like time is money and time wasted means potentially losing your livelihood. Self-preservation Threes are so driven to achieve their security that they can often get caught up in catastrophic thinking--if they’re stressed out and they get sick, and then they have to miss work for few days, their thoughts can spiral: “oh no what if I don’t get that promotion because I’m gone and then my career bottoms out."


If the self-preservation Three has a Four wing they’ll be even more prone to these dramatic bouts of catastrophic thinking. And this kind of unsustainable pressure makes self-preservation Threes prone to burnout and even mental-breakdowns caused by intense anxiety (again, another reason they can look like Sixes). When self-preservation Threes can find a healthy work-life balance and perhaps partner within a trusted coworker or collaborator to help carry the load, then they can build beautiful empires of wealth and stability that benefit the lives of countless others.


Social

Threes with a social instincts are perhaps the truest embodiment of the Type Three personality as we know it. They are driven by prestige. I love that word for social Threes because it reminds me of the movie “The Prestige.” If you’ve seen it, then you know that iconic moment in the film when Michael Cane describes the three steps that go into a magic trick: step 1 is the pledge, step 2 is the turn, and step 3 is the prestige--it’s the wow factor that amazes the audience, when we all go “how’d they do that?!” But deep down, we all know it’s just an illusion.


Much like Hugh Jackman's character in that movie, Social Threes will go to the furthest possible lengths to ensure they have their audience’s respect and admiration. However, social Threes are chasing a very fickle goal, because culture, community, and life in general makes it impossible to retain that prestige forever. Let's say physical fitness and beauty is your benchmark for success. Everyone gets older and loses the beauty of their youth. If success is having lots of money and nice things, what happens when there's a pandemic and you get laid off? This desire to remain socially prestigious can drive social Threes to actually start lying about who they are, be it falsifying a resume, taking out loans, racking up debt, or getting cosmetic surgery.


When Social Threes have a healthy sense of self, they are full of charisma and charm and can make people feel incredibly seen. When you have the full attention of a social Three, you can feel very capable and energized because their confidence is infectious.


Sexual

The sexual instinct can make people uncomfortable because they think it’s all about getting 'down 'n dirty.' It’s not. The sexual instinct is typically about a desire for quality over quantity, and valuing intensity over serenity.


However, for sexual Threes this instinct has a lot to do with being physically sexy. They want to be shown off by their partner, and if they don't already have a partner, they want to find an very desirable mate. They want people to think their partner is a catch. That could be someone who is physically beautiful, or just financially successful, or somebody famous. Either way, sexual Threes will seduce potential partners with their charisma, charm, and yes, physical beauty.

It’s interesting to note that Threes and Twos are really similar in this area, but the primary difference is that sexual Twos give their partner/focus of attention tons of attention and affirmation, while sexual Threes draw attention to their own best qualities and make their partner/focus of attention affirm them.

Also, sexual Threes are very uncomfortable with emotional intimacy or vulnerability, as they much prefer (surprise surprise) physical intimacy. The cliche sexual Three is the one-night-stand that wakes up in the morning and has no idea how to talk to the person they just spent the night with. The sexual Two, on the other hand, would probably wake up and make the person breakfast in bed.


Sexual Threes typically have a deeper trauma tied to their father. As kids, Threes tend to get most of their attention from their overly involved mom, so their inability to have a well rounded sense of sexual identity needs to be cultivated through plutonic, healthy relationships across all genders. It's also wise for sexual Threes to take a season off from dating when they’re younger so they don’t develop a pattern of hopping from partner to partner.


Triads


There are three triads within the Enneagram. These triads all group personality types based on shared behaviors that can really help you to understand why you’re so similar in one area and so different in another. The triads have evolved over time and are a major way the Enneagram integrates widely held concepts from mainstream psychology. They’re a great reminder of the ways we share so many behaviors with each other no matter what personality type we are.The three Enneagram triads are the Triad Centers, the Harmonic Triad, and the Hornevian triad.


Heart Triad Center Enneagram

Triad Centers

In the Enneagram, the triad centers represent three ways of "knowing": through The Head, The Heart, and The Gut (or the body). Type Three Achievers find themselves in the center of the Heart Triad next to Type Twos and Type Fours. The location is important, because being in the center of a triad means that there's no escape. No matter what wing the Three has, they’re still in the heart triad. The term for this is called the “impinged type.” The impinged types are in the center of their respective triad. The three impinged types are connected by the triangle in the Enneagram symbol, with Type Nine in the center of the gut triad, Type Six in the center of the head triad, and Type Three in the middle of the heart triad.


All impinged types will have the hardest time navigating their respective triad. Heart types are driven by their emotions, which means Threes will have the hardest time becoming both aware of and accepting of their emotions.

There are two key traits that all heart types share: first, they deal primarily with a sense of shame around their identity; and second, they are plagued by the past. Each heart type responds to their shame and attachment to the past differently.

For Threes, their shame makes them focus on crafting a flawless, successful identity that they try to convince others of, as well as themself. Because Threes are impinged, they both externalize and internalize their own BS, which is why they are often lost when it comes to finding their true identity and embracing their feelings. When Threes take a long, hard look at themselves and give their hearts a moment to feel deeply, there’s usually a pool of tears just waiting below the surface. It’s admittedly scary and exhausting to keep their shame repressed for years by convincing others they’re amazing as well as trying to convince themselves that they’re amazing.


Overall, Threes would do well to have a regular practice or therapeutic modality that allows them to check in with their feelings, forgive their past, and be honest about who they are today--warts and all.


Harmonic Triad

Harmonic Triad Enneagram

The Harmonic Triad is all about the way we cope with pain, trauma, or failure. The three groups are the competency group, the positive outlook group, and the reactive group.


Type Threes are in the competency group. They are very concerned with their goals and being perceived as capable, outstanding human beings. If they fail miserably at something, they're likely to shift the goal posts and explain that they were actually shooting for a totally different target and they don't really care that the other thing didn't work out. This behavior can make them look like Sevens because Threes have an upbeat spirit where they never seem deterred by setbacks, and certainly don’t like to focus on dark or heavy subject matters. This also connects to their position as the impinged type of the heart triad: if they look unfazed by failure or trauma, it’s likely because they’re just so deeply out-of-touch with their emotions. This is also why logic and competency or productivity feels better to the Three and makes them seek out rational solutions that will look good to their audience of family, friends, and followers.


Hornevian Triad

Enneagram 3 Social Pattern Hornevian Triad

The Hornevian Triad is describes the general ways each type behaves social situations. Each type's primary instinct has a ton of influence here. The three groups of the Hornevian Triad are the withdrawn group, the compliant group, and the assertive group.

Type Threes are in the assertive group with Type Seven and Type Eight. Assertive types believe the best way to show up in social situations--be it a party or a job interview--is to assert yourself in a distinct, noticeable way.


Threes look a bit different than other assertive types because they rely on the approval, affirmation, and attention of groups as a whole. They would much rather earn their way to the top or be elected from within the group rather than show up and immediately be top dog, like Sevens and Eights probably prefer to be. Their assertiveness is far more political in nature, so they use their talents to make the team happy and shift their behaviors to be the most likable version of whatever personality type thrives in a given environment. They want to be remembered and revered. Threes want no part of being feared or looking overly enthusiastic if the group does not value charisma for charisma's sake. Threes believe if they can just have a conversation with you in person, you'll love them, and thus their social problems will be solved by having asserted their physical presence.


Practical Exercises

The Enneagram is incredibly critical and it touches on the most sensitive areas of our lives. That’s because it’s foundational belief is that the ego, or what most people call your personality, is just the YOU you’ve become to survive in this world.


There’s a layer below your ego called your essence, or your “true self.” Think about it like becoming the best version of your personality. Either way, the only process to get that true self out of you is to become aware of that top layer of your ego so that you can make healthy choices to either identify with it or transcend it.


Here are a few ways Type Three Achievers can choose work on transcending their ego:

  1. Feel Your Feelings: One major practice Threes can use to develop their self-awareness is simply getting alone with their feelings. You can set a timer for 15 minutes to start, but it’s important to practice stillness because your tendency is to get addicted to busyness and overwork yourself to avoid your feelings of inadequacy. As one of my favorite coaches always said, “It takes confidence to take a day off.” Being truly confident in your work means that you don’t have to obsess about it.

  2. Invest in Relationships: It’s also important to take breaks to focus on the wellness of others. Threes' preference for productivity can mean they skip over the more heart felt aspects of their relationship. Threes will become more self-accepting when they open their hearts to the interests and wellbeing of others. This will also help Threes keep their priorities straight and remember that work is never more important than their friends and family. Threes also come alive in communal settings, so if they have the energy to coordinate group hangouts or even just participate in recurring activities like book clubs and intramural sports, they’ll find themselves a lot more centered in their identity than if they give 100% to their work.

  3. De-Commit: Similarly, Threes need to practice saying “no.” Threes constantly over commit themselves because they’re insecure about their true worthiness. Having healthy boundaries and knowing when they're too exhausted to say yes to another commitment is a huge sign of health for Type Threes.

  4. Let People See You Struggle: Threes love to impress people, but they often do it by embellishing their accomplishments and underplaying their failures. Threes are often more inspiring and impressive when they’re vulnerable about the ways they’re struggling. Threes will have way better relationships if they practice letting people see them crash and burn, because it’s humanizing. More of us can relate to the experience of failure than going undefeated or selling your company for a billion dollars or having zero percent body fat when you’re 50 years old.

  5. Seek a Mentor: Threes would do well to find a good career mentor. They often struggle with depression caused by unrealistic expectations surrounding their work. Threes need someone they admire to tell them that they’re doing a good job, even if they’re not getting promoted as fast as they want or making as much money as others in their field. The comparison game kills the Achiever’s bright little spirit, so they need to find a way to have realistic conversations about their goals to see if they're actually doing better than you think.


Bonus Fluff


🇺🇸 Country: Think of a culture defined by it’s dream of having a big house, a white picket fence, and 2.5 children. It’s none other than these United States of America. We’re also the source of celebrity culture and the shiny image of success on social media.


🦚 Spirit Animal: There’s technically a few that work. First is the chameleon, with their ability to blend into almost any environment, and second is the peacock, always showing off those fancy feathers.


✨ Famous Type Threes: Oprah, Tony Robbins, Bill Clinton, Whitney Houston, and Meryl Streep


🦸 Marvel: In the Marvel Universe, Thor is a dead lock for a Type 3 Achiever. He’s a gorgeous lightning god!



SOURCES: Much of this information comes from an amalgamation of sources, but the primary source of this information comes from the works of Russ Hudson and Don Riso of the Enneagram Institute (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Personality Types, Understanding the Enneagram), followed by Richard Rohr's The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, and Helen Palmer's The Enneagram in Love & Work.

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