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Three Ways To Be Three: Enneagram Three Subtypes (Self-Preservation, Sexual, Social)

Type Three represents the radiance, self-worth, and inspiration of the awake heart. This type exemplifies the parts of our identity we know and express through actualizing our potential, by turning possibility into actuality and applying our gifts. Threes tend to be very motivated, skillful, goal-oriented, and adaptable. They intuitively see potential and use their considerable gifts, talents, and energy to make sure that potential is realized. Awake Threes are paragons of whatever they strive for. Their innate adaptability lends itself to a range of talents that they combine with a real capacity for ongoing learning and humble self-correction.

Threes have an amazing capacity to direct their energy and attention at a particular goal so fully that they can quickly adapt the skills necessary to accomplish their aims, and they look good doing it. Most Threes have winning personalities and thrive on attention, but they also often have a hidden, sensitive side they reveal to only a chosen few. They have a natural intuition as to what people value and find inspirational.

Three’s gift to recognize and actualize potential has obvious benefits, but it can create drawbacks by devaluing their present condition. Their natural adaptability means that young Threes typically internalize, overtly or covertly, familial and cultural ideas of value. While this supports them in being able to quickly learn skills, talents, and capacities that help them achieve their aims, they run into trouble by becoming identified with, and therefore “stuck,” in some of their adaptations.

In trying to embody someone else’s vision of value, they lose touch with a sense of their innate identity. They then try to project an image of success, hoping to regain a connection with the innate value they lost touch with. This can begin an inner split between their authentic feelings and their public persona. As fears of losing value mount, Threes can go all-in on projects, plans, or displays to impress or inspire others, but they may fail to give time and space to deeply feel what’s in their heart so as not to damper their ambition.

As a sense of their own value and identity is lost, Threes begin to chase success, becoming inauthentic, self-centered, and competitive. Deeply unhealthy Threes become chronic “do-ers” and end up overworking themselves or needing to always perform. In this degree of distress, any mistake or wrong move is seen as a failure, and failure itself risks exposure to overwhelming amounts of shame and a fear of being inwardly empty. To avoid being seen as a failure at all costs, entranced Threes may engage in deceptive or immoral acts to prop up their desired image. The truly tormented Three loses sight of everything but the “mask” of their image, becoming cold and even ruthless in their attempts to prop up their fragile identity.


Self-Preservation Threes strive to experience Essential Value in their accomplishments, lifestyle, and careers. They tend to emphasise efficiency, tangible results, and mastery of specific skills more than Sexual and Social Threes. Self-Preservation Threes are typically very driven and can be quite competitive, although contrary to some stereotypes not every Self-Preservation Three is wealthy and materially accomplished, as their values may lie elsewhere. A Self-Preservation Three may opt for a humble lifestyle, yet, they may be the most experienced healer in their community or a Yoga teacher with the most training and credentials to show for it. What is commonly shared between people of this type is the attitude of efficiency and pragmatism in service of providing a secure material foundation for themselves and loved ones with an emphasis on practical achievements and tangible results.

Many Self-Preservation Threes gravitate toward professions focused on optimising health or achieving excellence through the body, like in personal training, athletics, or in healing arts. Some are serial entrepreneurs starting multiple business projects, while others strive for material accomplishments. Whatever their path, there’s a marked enjoyment in making concrete changes and achieving practical results. Self-Preservation Threes tend to be less flashy than their Sexual and Social counterparts and don’t emphasise personal charm nearly as much as disciplined work and the fruits of that work, though they still want to look good in achieving their goals.

As values and capacities change over the course of a lifetime, however, Self-Preservation Threes can struggle with finding a path forward in life that results from their authentic values rather than something they’re good at. They may find themselves running off an “inner program” that they adopted at an extremely young age and therefore find themselves struggling to feel relevant when outer circumstances and cultural views of value change. Likewise, they may avoid experimenting or trying out things that they think they won’t be naturally good at, limiting their options and overall approach to life early on. Their efficiency and achievement can lend itself to a kind of momentum toward goals that can sweep them up without their heart really being in it. They may find themselves following a path that is not aligned with their deeper values and have a hard time finding a path in life that isn’t based on their forward-moving energy.

Self-Preservation Threes are prone to workaholism, running themselves into exhaustion and achieving without awareness or concern of the larger context or impact on others. Their intense focus can create interpersonal challenges when loved ones fail to appreciate their work and drive, leading to emotional isolation. Even though Self-Preservation is their Dominant Instinct, people of this type can over-do exercise, physical performance, and work at severe cost to their overall health. These activities can become another means of achievement, divorced from their original aim of enhancing the body’s well-being.

Under intense distress, Self-Preservation Threes will court any potential source of accomplishment, becoming indiscriminate and cutting whatever corners necessary to pursue their goals. Inwardly, they may adopt the signs of the lifestyle ascribed by their family and culture: having the “right” home, family, status, etc. In their intense competitiveness, they can become the archetypal “snake-oil salesperson,” willing to push that which is empty or harmful if it puts them ahead and overlooking negative consequences. It’s not that they’re literally selling something, but they may be trying to project an image or accomplish something based on a quick result. Because Self-Preservation is the most reserved of the Instinctual Drives, imbalance Self-Preservation Threes can more successfully compartmentalise toxic habits or other aspects of their lives from their loved ones. They may indulge in addictions, for example, that aren’t known to their intimates, all while putting on an outward show of the steps they’re making toward bettering their health.

When pathological, Self-Preservation Threes feel that their basic survival and personal value is threatened, they may put on a lavish display of their wealth or accomplishments, and they can resort to ruthless competition, seriously undermining or sabotaging others, or Self-Preservation Threes grow when they can actually recognise and internalize their sense of well-being, when they can consciously value themselves where they’re at, in the present, rather than looking exclusively toward outcomes.


Sexual Threes seek to experience Essential Value through their desirability and the magnetism of their attraction displays. Sexual Threes want to be the most magnetic person in the room. They feed off of generating intrigue, mystique, and even controversy, and they aren’t much concerned with being liked or pursuing practical achievements. Competition in Sexual Threes revolves around being the most attractive and having the most captivating sexual display, and they’re most likely to have cultivated a striking personal flavour meant to stand apart from others. People of this type are not interested in generic beauty, so some Sexual Threes, especially performers, play with attractive yet experimental personas or go for an overtly sexy image.

Sexual Threes may combine seemingly disparate elements into their sexual display, like being a devoted artist with a fit, muscular body. Competition and ambition can also play out as making it big in fields where they can signal their sexual value, such as modeling or performing. They usually pair up an exaggerated display of physical capacity with mental or creative capacity. Their creative output is generally more unique, though not necessarily more personal, than other types of Threes, and while Sexual Threes who are creatively inclined may have prodigious output, they may emphasise the impact of their work and the energy behind it over the content itself.

“Failure” is extremely painful for Threes as a whole, but for Sexual Threes, failure is defined as a failure to attract, incite interest, or to keep the focus of their romantic partner. Sexual Threes will “pull out all the stops” to win a specific partner and will often adapt their personal style, preferences, and image into what they believe is most desirable. As a result, they often struggle to allow their partner to discover who they are beneath the display. When unbalanced and fearful, this can lead to Sexual Threes rejecting partners when an intimate bond forms, disappearing behind their sexual “performance,” or conversely, becoming possessive and controlling, suspecting sexual rivalry at every turn. Entranced Sexual Threes can isolate their partner from friends and other people or turn run-of-the-mill social engagements into “battles” of fending off rivals and projecting their energy all over the place.

Unhealthy Sexual Threes can view themselves and their partners as “prizes” in that having partners who are attractive and desirable becomes a statement on their own desirability. Therefore, imbalanced Sexual Threes may enter into relationships that support their narcissistic self-image or relationships that are toxic, wherein the partner’s lack of appreciation of the Three beyond their sexual display reinforces a further division between their persona and their authentic self. Cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, and other intense measures used to preserve their physical beauty are common.

Sexual Threes find balance when they’re able to be present to who they are beyond their sexual display. Generally, Sexual Threes are already attractive people, and it’s their need to amplify it that turns people off. When a Sexual Three can simply accept and value themselves, they become enriched and others are more drawn to them.


Social Threes look to experience Essential Value in their relationships and vocation, particularly with the people with whom they experience belonging. Many Social Threes are highly accomplished and talented, but much of their drive stems from wanting to inspire others through their example. They are sensitive to people’s potential and are moved when others fulfil their aspirations. It’s important for Social Threes to feel they are seen as exemplars of whatever may be valuable within their social context, and they especially want to be seen as special to loved ones on a personal level. Social Threes don’t wish to conform to their social milieu so much as they wish to be a force within it, the one who sets new standards and raises the bar higher for the culture they’re in.

Threes with a dominant Social Instinct tend to be extremely charming and charismatic, and they devote real energy to cultivating personal qualities they believe make them more interesting and gain them greater acceptance. They are typically attuned to what people think of them and put a lot of energy toward maintaining a good reputation and presenting themselves in a favorable light. Awake Social Threes combine their goal orientation with personal warmth, charm, and connection to help people bring out their best. Often, Social Threes find themselves in positions where they can guide others into their potential, lending to an orientation toward service, especially as this type matures.

People of this type are typically skilful at accomplishing their aims and goals, using their charisma and personal connections to move ahead and adapt to expectations and conditions. They can be so skilful at progressing toward their aims that they may catch themselves pursuing a path that they didn’t have that much interest in. This can be a very difficult position for Social Threes, because they may feel valued, accepted, and skilful at their project or profession without feeling much inner resonance with it. For them to step away and begin something that feels more personal and fulfilling in absence of ongoing positive feedback can be a great challenge but a personally rewarding journey.

Often, Social Threes get caught playing many different roles for many different people and are unable to inwardly locate themselves apart from the roles they’re called to play. When a different persona is called for, Social Threes often become the exemplar of it.

Depending on the context, they may become the perfect parent, the wise friend, or the charming boss, weaving many different faces into a “complete package”—and yet, they may not feel a heartfelt investment in many, if any, of the roles roles they’ve set themselves up to play, leading to profound inner and outer split.

Especially in the modern digital world, many Social Threes fall into the trap of blurring their private life with their professional persona, living as if they have to always be “on” in promoting themselves like a personal brand. Private experiences may be undertaken with a public audience in mind, which can drive intimacy from relationships.

The need to be seen as desirable and special can lead to Social Threes wanting to position themselves in socially exclusive circles, presenting an aloofness which may run up against their desire for personal connection. Seeking to be elite and special among the “beautiful people” can undermine interpersonal relationships, leaving Social Threes feeling alone and insecure despite whatever prestige they’ve acquired.

The ambitiousness of the Three personality can turn the desire for belonging into a motivation to constantly expand their influence, and they may begin to view others as personal challenges of whom they can win over and how quickly. Social climbing and vying for status, recognition, and exclusivity can replace any real connection with themselves and they can begin to act in ways that are incongruent with their heart’s authentic wishes in order to get ahead socially.

Unhealthy Social Threes can become wholly identified with their persona, such that their motivations and aims become determined by the values being reflected to them by their social environment.

The way they relate to others can become almost entirely performative and transactional.

When a Social Three learns to be self-accepting and curious about who they are apart from the images they adopt, they learn to value themselves as unique characters with endearing quirks. When they can be present with their own heart, they can learn that others love them in ways that have escaped the bounds of their self-concept and begin to trust in their own value, talents, and relationships.

[Source: Luckovich, 2021]