Reflections from an Enneagram Three: Learning to Rest in Truth
“Call me if you want any help with this group.”
That was the first sentence I ever said to an InterVarsity staff minister. It was January of my freshman year.
I had stumbled into the large group gathering at my university and, after sitting through the event, I scribbled my name and number down on a piece of paper and handed it to her.
In my small Illinois hometown, I’d graduated at the top of my class and received a great scholarship to attend college in Saint Louis. I was the president of our “Friends in Christ” club in high school and a worship leader in my youth group. Basically, wherever there was an opportunity to be leading people, especially if it was connected to Jesus, I was there.
When I heard about a Christian group on campus, I knew it was something I didn’t want to just join—it was an opportunity for me to step up and lead. I was driven, ambitious, and a little too eager to shine. I was, in short, a young Three on the Enneagram.
Threes are typically called “the Performer” or “the Achiever.” We are firmly in the Heart Triad (Twos, Threes, and Fours—see the chart in the intro post for this series), which means we are externally focused on how others are perceiving us. Gaining attention and avoiding shame are key motivators.
Threes specifically want to be seen as successful in whatever arena we find ourselves. We are highly status-aware and, when unhealthy, we can be deceitful and twist the truth to maintain whatever image is held up as the aspirational model in our field.
When we are healthy, Threes have a lot to offer the body of Christ and the broader world. In their book The Road Back to You, Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile describe Threes as “optimistic, resilient people with audacious dreams who inspire others.” Healthy Threes fully embody the values of their communities and are more than willing to blaze a trail forward and call others to join.
Threes are also gifted coaches and cultivators of gifts that others may not see in themselves. We love empowering people to accomplish a goal they thought was previously impossible.
I have a one-year-old at home who is learning how to walk. More accurately, she is learning how to not be afraid of walking. She has everything she needs—the physical strength in her legs, the coordination, the balance—she’s just afraid to take that first step out on her own. One of my greatest joys as a dad is setting up little challenges for her around the house to build her confidence, like a chair just out of reach from the one next to it so she has to take a tiny leap of faith on her little legs. Whenever she takes the risk, I cheer like a madman and she gets the biggest smile on her face.
The shadow side of Threes is that we wrap our security and sense of worth around how others view our performance, whether it is at work, in school, or even at home. We become so fixated on whether our friends, professors, bosses, and even spouses are gauging our “success” in their arena that we can lose all sense of who we are and what we desire in life. We avoid introspection and dealing with our own feelings, trading our very selves for the masks we put on to impress those we esteem.
This deception is the primary vice of a Three—the desire to so thoroughly convince another person of our competence that we would rather lie than betray a crack in the reputational wall we are always building.
When I was a kid, these lies were pretty grandiose. I remember telling a girl I thought was cute in second grade that I was, in fact, a real-life Power Ranger. She was pretty impressed for about a week until the lie reached all the way up to the owner of our daycare, who called me into her office and reprimanded me for a solid 10 minutes.
As I’ve gotten older, the lies have become more subtle and devious. I still catch myself pretending I’m further along on a project than I really am among my coworkers or telling my wife I will be home fifteen minutes earlier than I know is possible. The lies have changed but the desire is the same—acceptance based on achievement.
This shadow side comes through in my relationship with God as well. I see myself primarily as a performer for whom success equals recognition of my achievements and avoidance of any hint of failure. I have wrestled with seeing God as the ultimate audience to impress, as if I am a tightrope walker and he is just waiting at the bottom to see if I will fall off the rope.
As I have walked through some of the brokenness of my own story, I have been able to see Jesus more and more as both the “final performer”—the one who accomplished everything I needed to accomplish on the cross—and as the Lord of the Sabbath: the one who gives the gift of rest from constant striving.
For Threes, learning to see community as a place to be real and not as another stage from which to perform is a daily spiritual discipline. I was at a church event recently when a relatively new friend asked me how I was doing. Everything in me wanted to move as quickly through the conversation as possible, skimming the surface of my heart and giving him only what felt easy for me to share.
In that moment, I could sense the Holy Spirit challenging me to go deeper and both confess some sin I had been wrestling with and a tough story about my family. I experienced a profound sense of freedom and our relationship seemed to grow even in the 20 minutes we spent together.
The freedom to be vulnerable is a gift I am still learning to accept as a Three, but I know it is a crucial practice in my discipleship. One of my favorite songwriters, Andrew Peterson, wrote a line in a song called “The Dark Before the Dawn” that beautifully sums up a Three on the road to transformation:
I had a dream that I was waking at the burning edge of dawn And I could finally believe the King had loved me all along.
(From The Burning Edge of Dawn, 2015)
That is the place of wholeness for a Three—the ability to rest from performing in God’s unearned-yet-unflinching love for us.
The gift of this awareness has changed my relationship to other people as well. I am learning that I don’t need to be perfect in order to receive love from those closest to me. I notice that as I am willing to open up and share my actual feelings, it opens a deeper well of trust for the other person too. Instead of blazing a trail of “success” for others to follow in my wake, vulnerability marks a path for communion, a place where we can be who we really are together. I have a long way to go on that path but every time I choose to speak the truth over a convenient lie, I am reminded again that it is the only thing that can set us free (John 8:32).
Image designed by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
Spiritual director (and former InterVarsity staff member) Alice Fryling introduces the Enneagram with questions and meditations to lead you into deeper self-awareness. You'll learn how you can experience God's love more abundantly and extend God's grace to others more fully.