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The United States is fast becoming a dysfunctional “Three” culture: driven, narcissistic, image-oriented, emphasizing style over substance, symbols over reality. The pursuit of excellence found (as exemplified by the healthy Three) is being replaced by the celebration of the artificial as everything is treated like a commodity—packaged, advertised, and marketed. Politics is becoming less concerned with principles or the use of power for the common good than with the display of personalities. Politics serves public relations, selling candidates with their calculated positions to a public which can no longer tell a fabricated image from a real person.
The communications media, particularly television, are primarily concerned with attracting attention so that the public can be sold something. The shallow values and the beguiling glitter of show biz have become the norms by which everything is measured. The only guideline is the ability to gain attention: what is noticed and in demand has value. People are so seduced by the slick package that they often do not realize that there is nothing in it. To paraphrase McLuhan, the package is the message. Calculated images successfully masquerade as reality, from the programmed friendliness of television personalities to the rehearsed sincerity of beauty contestants to the hard fluff of “evening magazine” shows.
Exhibitionism and self-promotion are becoming acceptable as people do whatever it takes to be noticed in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The ideal is to be a winner—to be successful, famous, and celebrated. The quest for success and prestige is everywhere. Every day, a new book tells us how to dress for success, eat for success, or network for success. We are being sold a narcissistic fantasy: that we will be “somebody” if we are like everybody else, only better. If you manage your image properly, you too can become a star—or a god.
The personality type Three exemplifies the search for the validation of the self, and so Threes look to esteemed others to determine who they must be, what they must do, in order to feel valuable and worthwhile as human beings. With this particular focus, Threes frequently become successful in the eyes of their society because they make it their business to achieve those things which their peers find valuable. This is no less true in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand than in a fast-track corporate culture. Threes will strive to exemplify whatever qualities are honored in their given milieu. Thus, in an unhealthy society which manipulates such fears and motivations, Threes stand to gain the most attention and success from the society, but also end up among its greatest victims—estranged from their own heart’s desire, empty, and emotionally isolated, while never knowing what it is they are doing wrong.
In the Feeling Center
Threes, the primary personality type in the Feeling Center, are the most out of touch with their emotional lives. This is because Threes have learned to put their own feelings, their own true desires aside in order to function more effectively. Threes believe that they will only be valued for what they do, so they put their energies into performing well, “getting the job done.” Further, Threes want positive responses from others, so they learn to behave in ways that they believe will create a good impression. Whereas this can be a useful orientation in certain situations, it can become a habitual way of being—even in circumstances where such behavior would be inappropriate, or at least limiting. Over time, as Threes continually postpone dealing with their own real feelings, they begin to have trouble accessing them. A profound split develops between who they seem to be and who they are, between the image they project to others and the reality behind it. Eventually, their image becomes their only reality. They become so distanced from their own feelings and needs that they no longer know who they are. They believe that the image is all they have. At this point, since whatever affirmation they are receiving is in response to an image, and not themselves, no amount of praise or achievement will make them feel better. The great challenge for people of this personality type is to become inner-directed, to develop themselves as persons according to their genuine feelings and their own true values. Most Threes are unaware of the extent to which they have abandoned themselves, and it can be a very difficult experience when they discover that the dreams they have been so relentlessly pursuing are not their own.
When they are healthy, Threes are loved and admired, even idolized by others because they have taken pains to acquire the qualities and skills they embody virtually to an ideal degree. Ironically, though, healthy Threes feel worthwhile and valuable not because of others’ validation but because they are in touch with their own heart and are guided by it. Of course, the attention and praise of others is wonderful, but healthy Threes are not swayed by it. They would pursue their goals even without the admiration. The overwhelmingly positive self-esteem of healthy Threes is real, and therefore cannot be affected by the opinions of others. The freedom and purposefulness of this way of living is very attractive to others who hold them in high regard. Also, because healthy Threes have more fully integrated their feelings, they come across as warm and genuine both in their personal lives and in their careers. Healthy Threes are outstanding, human nature’s stars.
However, average Threes do not feel real self-esteem: they believe that they will only feel good about themselves if they achieve, if they become big successes and stars—number one in the class. This leads them to become intensely competitive with others for all forms of success and prestige, since they are convinced that this will give them a sense of value. To the degree that they are repressing feelings of worthlessness, Threes will be driven to become “winners.” Unfortunately, they also look outside themselves to determine what qualities a winner should have. Instead of developing themselves, they resort to projecting images, which are meant to make a favorable impression on others. Pragmatic and calculating, they are able to change their image to get what they want. As they become more desperate and empty, they begin showing off and hyping themselves to attract more admiration, but since they are not expressing who they really are, all of the attention in the world cannot touch them.
If they become unhealthy, Threes deceive themselves and others so they can maintain the illusion that they’re still on top—still superior people. They are extremely devious if they are in danger of being exposed and humiliated. Unhealthy Threes are like any other type with deep psychological problems, they have difficulty functioning. Yet, for Threes functioning, or at this stage, even the appearance of functioning, is everything. They are terrified that anyone will discover the degree of their disorder. They can become extremely dangerous as they strike out at anyone who they perceive threatens the crumbling image which they now identify with entirely.
Problems with Hostility and Narcissism
Like the other personality types of this Center, Threes have a problem with hostility which manifests itself as vindictive malice toward anyone who they believe threatens their self image. While Twos and Fours are indirectly hostile, average to unhealthy Threes are more openly hostile in a wide variety of ways, from arrogantly distancing themselves, to snide humor at others’ expense, to sarcastic putdowns, to sabotaging and betraying people. Hostility serves Threes in two ways: first it compensates for their own feelings of inadequacy, and second, it keeps away people who, for one reason or another, undermine their fragile self-esteem. In this latter regard, less healthy Threes may even be hostile to people who they admire or to whom they are attracted.
Average Threes are the most narcissistic of the personality types. While healthy Threes justly possess high self-esteem, average Threes build their identities around an increasingly inflated self-regard: they appear to be utterly in love with themselves. But, more precisely, they are in love with their inflated image rather than their actual selves. Instead of loving themselves as they really are, including a realistic acceptance of their limitations, they love a false facade which bears little resemblance to the undeveloped person beneath.
Because Threes adapt themselves to the desires and expectations of others to validate themselves, they can lose a clear sense of who they actually are and what they want from their lives. In average to unhealthy Threes, the drive to “get value” for themselves becomes so great that it drowns out other legitimate needs they may have. Further, because the sense of self becomes increasingly amorphous, average Threes begin to engage in internal “pep-talks” to convince themselves that they actually are the outstanding person they are trying to become.
Narcissists care principally about themselves—and about others only to the degree that they reflect well upon themselves. They remain intensely self-centered, with a limited ability to empathize with anyone else’s feelings or needs. This is why they have little capacity for love and why—once they have become narcissistic—average Threes have little capacity to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. Relationships are one-sided because both parties are in love with the same person: the Three.
Of course, their narcissism puts them in constant conflict with people. Because they believe so much in their superiority, average Threes are competitive with the very people from whom they want admiration. They show off as if others were no more than an adoring audience endlessly ready to applaud their every move; if others do not applaud, Threes tell them off or humiliate them. Worse, narcissistic Threes add insult to injury by demanding that people admire them even when they are contemptuous of the people whose admiration they want.
The problem is that narcissism is not the same thing as genuine self-esteem. Although average Threes seem to be coolly self-contained, they are not really secure with themselves because their self-esteem is based not on the development of their real capacities but on the ability to capture the attention of others. Threes are finely attuned to people’s reaction to them, and can respond by projecting whatever image they need at the moment. But since their repertoire of images does not have a corresponding measure of reality behind it, everything they do is done for show, not because they are personally committed to, or deeply involved with, anything outside themselves.
The irony is that behind the facade is a deeply hidden dependency on others, a dependency they cannot acknowledge because of the demands of their narcissism. Once narcissism takes over, Threes cannot live with people and they cannot live without them, because they are hostile toward the people on whom they depend, and because they are “nobody” without the attention of others.
As young children, Threes were connected to the nurturing-figure, the person in their early development who mirrored them, cared for them, and provided affection and a sense of value. Young Threes are highly adaptable and responsive to the emotional states of others, and so learn to adjust themselves to the reactions and subconscious expectations of their nurturing-figure. This person is usually the Three’s mother or a mother-substitute, but not always. In some cases, the mother was largely absent, physically or emotionally, and it fell upon the father or a sibling to nurture the baby. In other cases, a nanny or grandparent may have fulfilled this role. In any case, it is important to understand who cared for the child and who provided mirroring.
In their formative years, Threes learn to tune into the desires and hopes of their nurturing-figure. The expectations of the nurturing-figure need not be expressed explicitly. With the remarkable intuitive gifts of children, young Threes know what will please their nurturers, and which behaviors produce approving looks and smiles. All of this is quite natural, and if the nurturing-figure is reasonably healthy, the Three will mature into a well-balanced person with good self-esteem. But to the degree that the nurturing-figure has unresolved narcissistic needs of his or her own, the Three will have to make much greater adaptations. To please the troubled nurturer, young Threes will have to abandon themselves to become the person who will be approved. In cases where the nurturer was more pathological and needy, Threes will have to disconnect from their own feelings and needs almost entirely. Little that the child can do will get the nurturing-figure to approve of them, or validate their existence. The result is a desperate individual with deep narcissistic wounds and an intense underlying hostility for being forced to abandon his or her own heart.
As adults, Threes continue to play out this pattern from early childhood. They seek out people whom they admire and esteem to give them validation and admiration. Threes are not interested in indiscriminately getting everyone to like them: rather, they focus on specific individuals who they themselves view as valuable, successful people. Although this motivates Threes to do those things which will make them seem worthwhile to others, this also leaves them highly vulnerable to fears of rejection. They will work tirelessly to avoid ever being rejected, ever being seen as a “loser.” The admiring gaze which they sought from their nurturing-figures made them feel that they were loved and valued, and in one form or another, they are always seeking that look in the eyes of others. Admiration makes them feel alive and worthwhile—at least for a while; without it, they feel empty and hostile because their underlying feelings of not being valued for who they are begin to surface.
Average Threes perceived that, as children, they were generally valued for what they accomplished, for the quality of their performance, not for themselves. In adult Threes, this can lead to highly effective work habits, but it can also lead to powerful fears of intimacy. They may initiate relationships, but then end them before the other person gets to know them well, or have relationships with people other than the person they most want to be near. This protects their fragile self-image, but at a great cost to their happiness and connection with others. Threes believe that others will only love them for their image and for their success, but if people were to really get to know them, they would see that the person beneath the image and they would be rejected. Because of difficult childhood experiences with their nurturing-figure, average Threes cannot accept the idea that others could love them just as they are. It seldom occurs to them that the most important person who has rejected them is themselves.
To give up their performance and risk exposing the vulnerable self within feels like an enormous risk to Threes. They feel that they have been rejected in the past: why risk it again? They also become convinced that their real self is relatively undesirable and that only their performance is worthwhile. They have put so much effort into it, to give it up seems unthinkable. Yet, if Threes never take that risk, never dare to explore the real person they left behind in childhood, they may become successful in the eyes of others, but they will never know what it really is to be themselves, nor will they be able to relate to, much less feel love, from anyone else. Sadly, newspapers and magazines are full of stories of highly successful people who seemed to “have everything going for them,” but who, suddenly contradict their popular image in startling and tragic ways. One can only imagine the desperation and despair of a person who has tirelessly worked to accomplish what they believed would make them feel good about themselves, only to discover that their feelings of emptiness did not go away.
(from Personality Types, p. 96-103)
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