Threes Competing

Keeping Score

The Olympic Competitions usually prove to be a Three's paradise. Competition has a light and a dark side, and both sides reveal the inner workings of a Three. The light side is the achievement, the glory, the exertion, and the roar of the crowd. The dark side is the win/lose structure in which one person goes home in ecstasy at the expense of the opponent's agony. The gymnast who took off his bronze medal in disgust after leaving the platform was asked why he took it off. "It isn't the color I came to get." In the world of competition, the world most reflective of the Three's energy, there is only one winner. All the rest are losers. To have compassion on the Type Three, imagine a world in which the only time you can rest is the brief period after winning. (And winning is defined by someone else).

Winning and losing requires careful score keeping. This is the Three's burden and the source of his compulsive energy. Type Three has to please whoever or whatever is keeping score. Threes require a score keeping mechanism. In capitalist America money keeps score. "Whoever has the most toys (or the most expensive ones) at the end, wins." Money is not for greed, or security or luxury. It is to keep score. Your financial report is your report card. In the Olympics we are not shown the judges: they are God and God is, as everybody knows, invisible -- and infallible. The "invisible hand of the market" judges the Three and they believe in market success.

Downside of Competition

For a thorough analysis of competition in America, read No Contest, The Case Against Competition, by Alfie Kohn. The book is about competition on one level, on another it is all about living in a Three culture. Competition is supposed to bring out the best, but under analysis, it really doesn't. It is supposed to give us self-esteem, but it undermines it. Within the Three style, competition is an addiction. Here's why. The inner dynamics of the Three reveal a success/failure polarization. Behind every successful Three image lurks an equal and negative self-image. Rags to riches is the way this dynamic is written publicly. The millionaire who can't forget his humble beginnings, the Charles Atlas who remembers vividly his scrawny youth (Schwartzenegger, a fine Three, was scrawny as a kid)! The more necessary the public success, the more pronounced the preoccupation with failing. It is this polarization that makes competition so toxic to a Three. Unless you win all the time, you slip back into your inward image of a loser. It is hard to win all gold medals. Or make the most money. So any defeat gets internalized into despair, because you already have this inner belief that you are a loser. The slightest loss confirms this world-view.

Where's the Center of Gravity?

Karen Horney notes that one type of neurotic needs to excel, to achieve success, prestige, or recognition in any form. Strivings in this direction are partly oriented toward power, inasmuch as success and prestige lend power in a competitive society. But they also make for a subjective feeling of strength through outside affirmation, outside acclaim, and the fact of supremacy. The center of gravity lies outside the person himself; only the kind of affirmation wanted from others differs.

Hint: When you read descriptions that bristle with comparative speech, you're in the presence of Threeish competitiveness. We try harder, we're number one, the best, the most, the fastest, the highest, the longest, bigger, better, further. Comparison is the vocabulary of the comparative mentality.

The comparison mechanism evaluates me. If I am what I appear to be, I need to know how I appear. In the open sea of being, where am I? In the absence of a certain substance of soul, of a sense of valuing one's self, one searches for relative psychic weight.

Threes are the classic "other-directed" people, in the sense that they become the best at whatever game is playing. High energy, goal oriented, appearance-conscious, feedback-dependent, they are what every book on management teaches you to do - and be. The reigning Three Icon today is Tony Robbins. His learning style, his appetite, his emphasis on goals, his energy, his ingenuity in getting it done -- those are Three tracks if you're hunting for a Three.

Illustrations: Some movies that act out the Three strategy. Tom Cruise always plays Tom Cruise, a cocky Three. Threes usually play themselves, because it is too hard to play more than one role at a time, and Threes are already playing whatever role their life situation calls for.

A fellow politician wrote this of Republican candidate for president, Fred Thompson: His defining feature as a politician is that he comes across like the parts he plays in movies. "Fred, he is what he appears to be," explained a prominent Tennessee Democrat. "I don't think he ever comes out of character." This description, which came from a political foe, explains a careful trick of Thompson's career. Either he is never acting, and just plays himself in movies and television, or he is always acting. There is only one character there.

A Few Good Men or Rainman will give you a feel for his Three aura. In Rainman, Cruise starts out callous and materialistic, but as he learns to love his autistic brother, he grows considerably.

The movie, To Die For, is practically a case study of a really unhealthy Three. Be warned: it is vulgar in places. Some commentators might see it as a criticism of a certain cultural attitude, and on one level that is true. But it is also a vivid exaggeration of what troubles type Three. Suzanne Stone (and she is inwardly a stone -- Threes shut their emotions down to get the job done) is a Three, with a Two wing, a Social subtype). She flagrantly displays the low side of Two. She is a workaholic, cold and calculating and obsessed with image. She uses sex but is not really sensual. She has to be recognized to be real. She invests the image with the power of reality. In one sense she is totally dependent on being observed. This is the classic confusion of being and appearing, of image and reality. It is cruelly depicted here, but if you look at the reverence we offer our media/entertainment stars, it is only slightly exaggerated. In America we are all infected with some Three compulsions

Resources: Karen Horney's Our Inner Conflicts would be helpful, especially the chapter on "The Idealized Image," and "Moving Toward People." Tom Condon's Enneagram Movie and Video Guide is an amazingly reliable analysis of movies that delineate Enneagram dynamics. In The Literary Enneagram, Judith Searle makes a compelling case for all American Scarlett O'Hara laying bare the Three trajectories.


  1. Share your story of your mid-life crisis. Mid-life is especially traumatic for Threes, but for everyone it is a time of letting go, of achievement as the center of life. If you're too young, talk about those you know about. They get a lot of attention.
  2. Where are some places in Scripture that contrast being real with a concern about image? Look especially at Jesus' instructions on prayer.
  3. Go to an establishment (restaurant, hardware store, bookstore, whatever). Go there twice, once dressed shabbily and once dressed very expensively. Notice the differing reactions of people to you. Share your experience. This is how a Three is created in the early life of a Three. She is valued for what she accomplishes and what kind of image she creates.
  4. Where do you feel most competitive? What would it feel like to drop that competition? Do a guided imagery by yourself or with others in which you make friends with, congratulate and value a competitor. Can you share the experience?

    Discussion Questions:

  1. How much attention did the losers get at the Olympics? What's going on?
  2. What is the attractiveness of the Rags to Riches theme so popular in America?
  3. Is sibling rivalry necessary? Or just American?
  4. What do you believe about "survival of the fittest?"
  5. What does competition do for your performance? Really. What things can't you compete in? (Start with prayer, kindness, then get creative...)
  6. Hollywood is THE Three town. Do you follow the image industry? Why?