I have a desperate need to be right — but that doesn’t mean what you probably think it means.
It’s not that I want you to believe I know everything. In fact, I very loudly and clearly confess how little I know. It’s not that I want to convince you that I’m never mistaken about anything. It’s easy for me to confess when I’ve made a mistake. I often go out of my way to explain to someone why I was wrong, even if nobody cares.
It’s simply that I have an incredibly strong sense of what is right and what is wrong — and I am driven by something deep inside me to align with whatever I believe it means to do the right thing. So my desire to “be right” is more of a standard for myself.
If I believe I know the right thing, I am obligated to do that right thing. It doesn’t matter whether anybody else will ever know. It doesn’t matter that there might be no consequences. It only matters that I obey the firm moral compass inside me.
I can look back on my past life and see that this has been the core motivation for my entire life. I must do the right thing, no matter what it costs. I can’t help it.
It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve come to understand this. I’ve always acted this way, but I didn’t understand that it was my core motivation. I was blind to this for one simple reason. This was so obvious to me on the inside that I assumed that everybody — except for those who are truly morally degenerate — must feel exactly the same.
It never crossed my mind that any normal person couldn’t feel compelled to do the right thing. It never occurred to me that any decent person could feel good enough about himself unless he or she behaved in accordance with all internal standards of right and wrong.
When I discovered that a person did something which I knew was wrong — and which he would have said was wrong, too — I have been genuinely confused. More times than I can tell you, I have observed such behavior and thought, “How can he live with himself?!”
But that’s because I assumed everyone else was driven by the same internal motivations — and that everyone else had the same fear of not being someone who did the right thing. It’s only the last few years that I’ve consciously understood that many of us have very different core motivations or desires. And I’ve come to understand that each person’s core fear is the flip side of his core motivation.
It was through studying the Enneagram personality system that this finally clicked. Over and over, I heard teachers say that our Enneagram type isn’t defined so much by our actions as by our motivations. I was so deeply into the habit of thinking of personality as being what we do that it was hard to wrap my mind around this different concept.
But once I finally understood what the teachers were talking about, I suddenly understood the lifelong motivation patterns for my Type 1 personality. Then I started understanding the motivations of other people who I know — whose Enneagram type I know — and everything suddenly made sense.
For instance, I knew that a friend of mine is a Type 6. He is very financially successful, but he is somewhat obsessed with fears about something going wrong and losing his financial security. He is very risk-averse, because he constantly fears that he could lose what he has or that someone is trying to cheat him.
He is able to force himself to do things that he doesn’t enjoy — simply because doing those things helps make more of the money that makes him feel secure. He doesn’t care what others think of his success. He couldn’t care less about status. But he needs to feel as though he’s protecting himself and the people he cares about.
My father was a Type 2 and this explains why he was so terrified of feeling cut off from the people he wanted to love him. Even though his narcissistic behavior pushed people away from him, his core motivation was to be loved and wanted by others. For years, it had been a great mystery — to me and to others who knew him well — why he went to such great lengths to cast himself in the role of rescuer with us. Without understanding what he was doing, he was manipulating situations in ways that made us need and appreciate him for something — because he desperately wanted us to love him. He wanted to be our “savior.” He wanted to appear to be a martyr.
I know at least one person who lives out each of these nine motivations and fears. The woman I’ve loved probably more than any other is a Type 3. She is motivated by the need to appear successful and for people to value her. She has a strong need to be admired, respected and praised. This can make her — as it does all Type 3’s — appear vain and proud, even though it’s really the hidden fear of failure more than anything else.
Most of the smartest people I know are Type 5’s. They’re the engineers and technical researchers of the world. And a lot of visible leaders are Type 8’s, for instance, including Donald Trump, who demonstrates what a Type 8 looks like with severe narcissism. I could go on, but you get the point. And if you know the Enneagram types of others — or maybe your own — you might see some familiar things in this list:
Enneagram Type 1:
Core Desire: Being Good / Being Right
Core Fear: Being Bad / Being Wrong
Type 1’s want to be right, good, correct, responsible, appropriate, accurate, virtuous, and ethical.
Enneagram Type 2:
Core Desire: Being Loved / Being Wanted
Core Fear: Being Unloved / Being Unwanted
Type 2’s want to be loved, wanted, needed, appreciated, and seen as kind and helpful people.
Enneagram Type 3:
Core Desire: Being Valuable / Being Successful
Core Fear: Being Worthless / Being a Failure
Type 3’s want to be valuable, successful, admired, respected, and praised.
Enneagram Type 4:
Core Desire: Being Authentic / Being Uniquely Themselves
Core Fear: Being Without Significance / Having No Identity
Type 4’s want to be authentic, uniquely themselves, special, finding their own specific place in this world.
Enneagram Type 5
Core Desire: Being Competent / Being Capable
Core Fear: Being Incompetent / Being Incapable
Type 5’s want to be competent, capable, knowledgeable, self-sufficient, and well-informed.
Enneagram Type 6:
Core Desire: Being Secure / Being Safe
Core Fear: Being Without Support / Being Without Guidance
Type 6’s want to be secure, safe, protected, have guidance, and reliability.
Enneagram Type 7:
Core Desire: Being Satisfied / Being Content
Core Fear: Being Deprived / Being Trapped
Type 7’s want to be satisfied, content, happy, unrestrained, and free.
Enneagram Type 8:
Core Desire: Being Self-Governed / Being Independent
Core Fear: Being Controlled / Being Harmed
Type 8’s want to be self-governed, independent, and they want to be able to protect themselves (and those they care about)
Enneagram Type 9:
Core Desire: Being at Peace / Being Harmonious
Core Fear: Being Separated / Being at Loss With Others
Type 9’s want to be at peace, harmonious, connected, untroubled, at ease.
(These descriptions of each type’s desires and fears are adapted from the excellent website Enneagram Explained.)
I’ve come to understand that my motivation and fear explain so much of what I do, even in tiny ways.
I almost never get angry enough to yell at other people. I don’t say things to others — even in anger — that aren’t true. I don’t use profanity. There are a million things that are simply part of who I am — and they’re all explained by this one simple thing.
At some point, I made decisions — some rational and some instinctive — about what is right about a tremendous range of things. I have a strong internal moral compass which tells me what the right way to behave is in almost any situation. I don’t behave in those ways because I’m perfect or because I’m a superior person. It’s simply that I don’t do a thing — or pursue a thing — unless I genuinely believe it is the right thing for everyone.
I simply can’t help myself. It’s not that I’m a “good person.” It’s that I can’t stand to violate this inner standard that tells me I’m a “good boy” if I stick to what I understand is the straight and narrow.
This was a natural instinct in me, but it was solidified by my father’s incessant screaming and punishment when I did anything wrong. I learned that the only way to survive in life — both externally and internally — was to always do the right thing in all possible circumstances.
My actions tell you something about me, but my motivations tell you who I really am — and they’re a pretty good indicator of what I’m going to do in the future. It tells you that if I’m doing something, it’s because I believe it is the right thing. It tells you that I’m not going to deviate from what seems like the right thing, even if it could get me a reward — because satisfying my own standards is the most powerful reward I have.
It’s the same with you. Maybe you’ve discovered your core motivations. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you are as blind to your patterns as I was for years.
For me, understanding all of this has given me permission to examine my standards and to decide whether I need to discard or modify some of them. Even if I don’t change much — and the odds are strong that I’m locked into what I am — it feels empowering to know that I have the ability to consciously make changes to my standards. I’m not required to act as I was programmed many decades ago.
If you find your own core motivation — and thus see your core fears — it can give you the freedom to decide if this is entirely what you want to be, too. It can give you the freedom to realize that you were programmed in certain ways as a child — and that you have the power, as an adult, to change your standards if you please.
Your actions tell me a lot about you, but the motivation that drives those actions — whether conscious or unconscious — is the key to understanding who you are.
And it’s the key to taking control of your own future — instead of just continuing to go through life carrying out what someone programmed you to be when you were a child.