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The Crash and Burn of John Edwards: Enneagram Style Three


If John Edwards’s behavior were not so unconscionable, I might feel sorry for him. But clearly, he has been his own undoing, going from famous and respected politician, husband, and father – at least, in some circles – to pariah, who duped his family and the American public. What if he had been the Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee? A house of cards, he fell faster than a bullet train, but how and why did this happen?

The Enneagram can help explain the character (or lack thereof) of the man as well as his fall into rampant deceit. All politicians can fall into disgrace, but the way in which they do so is intricately interwoven with their Enneagram style. In addition, the way they behave prior to, during, and after their freefall is directly related to their level of psychological self-mastery within their Enneagram style – that is, low, medium or high self-mastery. Not all Threes act like John Edwards, who is clearly functioning at a level of narcissism and deception that is most common in Threes who are at the bottom, the low self-mastery level.

John Edwards: Enneagram Three

So what do we know about Enneagram Threes such as John Edwards?

They organize their lives to achieve specific goals so they will appear successful in the eyes of others and receive both admiration and respect. Unless they do a great deal of self-development work, this focus on goals, plans, success, and the creation of an image of a “winner” is, more often than not, at the expense of self-reflection, self-honesty, and their family.

About John Edwards

Always looking the “winner,” with his flashy smile and $400 haircuts, even in time of duress, Edwards looks “put together,” confident, and as if everything is going his way – that is, until he gets caught hiding in the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s men’s room as he surreptitiously visits his new daughter. With his eye on the presidency, then the vice presidency, then attorney general or secretary of state, he is relentless in pursuit of position, holding court to both Clinton and Obama as they succor for his endorsement.

The Three’s Passion: Deceit

“Deceit” is the emotional pattern of Threes – in Enneagram language, the pattern is called the “passion” or “vice” associated with the type — and this includes deceiving others by playing roles rather than being real, not disclosing information that could make them look bad, and, when they are up against the wall, outright lying. Even more, the deceit involves self-deceit. Over time, they come to believe that the image they have worked so hard to create is who they really are. Their lives become a series of press releases that they believe are true, and their deceit is used in the service of maintaining their image of success and avoiding failure at all cost.

John Edwards long list of deceits

It was a one-night stand.

She’s not my [love] child.

Andrew Young is the father.

No money was paid to her from campaign funds.

Keep Rielle away from Elizabeth.

I love my wife.

I’m renewing my wedding vows.

I’m a man of integrity and family values.

I speak for those who have no voice.

I did not beat my cancer-stricken wife (oops, he hasn’t said that yet!) even though I used her cancer to catapult my candidacy (oops, that didn’t work!).

Self-Mastery Levels for Threes

The three self-mastery levels offer insight into what John Edwards has become, where he likely was for more of his life, and what he could have been.

The following description of low self-mastery for Enneagram Threes, taken from my book What Type of Leader Are You?, aptly describes the John Edwards we know today.

Low Self-Mastery: The Calculator

Core fear: Extreme fear of failure, since failure would make a Three feel that he or she has no value.

At the lowest level of self-mastery, Threes may be described as phony, self-serving, opportunistic, and a variety of other adjectives that are often used to depict people who go after whatever they want (usually, the external trappings of success – e.g., money, status, and fame) with little regard for anyone or anything that stands in their way. Although they become extremely isolated, these Threes hide their inner emptiness by believing that they actually are the image or façade they have created. However, that image is only a shell masking a hollow interior.

Was Edwards always like the description above? Perhaps in some ways, but more likely, he was operating from the mid-level of self-mastery described below. Why? Because had he been so low in self-mastery for all of his life, it is highly doubtful he would have been as successful as he was and he would have been caught in his deceptions before now.

Moderate Self-Mastery: The Star

Core concern: Feeling successful, avoiding failure, and gaining the respect of others.

At the mid-level of self-mastery, Threes focus on goals and work, usually at the expense of their relationships. Driven and competitive, they seek recognition and have a need to outdistance their rivals. Although Threes at this level often appear friendly, they are most often motivated by their desire for success. Many times, what looks like an emotional response from them is more the kind of response that they believe a person in their situation should have, not an authentic reaction. At times, even they wonder who they really are.

What caused the decline in John Edwards? Perhaps it was power combined with age and John Edwards was thinking this: I did it because I could. I did it to prove I was still vital. In the end, the reasons are less important; the havoc he raised with behavior take center stage. But John Edwards, had he chosen to pursue growth and self-mastery, could have become president one day. And he would have been like this:

High Self-Mastery: The Believer

Core understanding: Everyone has intrinsic value, and there is a natural flow and order to everything.

Threes with high self-mastery have looked inside themselves to find out who they really are (apart from what they accomplish) and what they truly feel (instead of masking their emotions). Willing to admit that they don’t always feel on top of things and that they have foibles like everyone else, these Threes possess a contagious enthusiasm, genuineness, and confidence. Moreover, they are deeply spontaneous, because they understand that it is not their responsibility to make sure everything happens efficiently and effectively.

The Triangle

So is John Edwards the ultimate villain, Elizabeth the victim, and Rielle Hunter the vixen? While it is easy and convenient to blame the scoundrel, life is more complex than this, with each person playing a role. The Enneagram can also help us here:

Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards is most likely an Enneagram style Two; Rielle Hunter is most likely an Enneagram style Seven. These are hunches on my part, and here’s why. Enneagram Twos create an image of being likeable, want to be liked by certain people – those they like, important or influential people, and those in need – and even when they have clear capabilities, prefer to orchestrate behind the scene rather than to be at the visible forefront. When they love someone or at least are highly attached to the person and think that’s love, Twos will stand by this person until they have had more than even they can take. Another way of explaining this is that Twos have difficulty setting clear boundaries between themselves and those to whom they are close and have great difficulty saying no to them, using emotional repression not to “rock the boat”. Repression means they stuff their feelings so they don’t experience them as fully as they actually feel them. Eventually they erupt in an explosive way.

With Elizabeth Edwards, she stood by her man beyond what most of us could have tolerated. It was obvious to the rest of us that John Edwards was the father of his disowned child, that the Hunter affair was not a one night stand, and that Andrew Young was not the father. Elizabeth Edwards, however, may well have believed her husband simply because she wanted to. But after he had to publically acknowledge more of what he had done, then allegedly took her wallet and later beat her, she had had enough and she was done. Such is the way with Twos, staying longer than they should, not setting strong boundaries with clear consequences for others who violate them, repressing their feelings – especially anger – until these accumulate into rage, and doing it all because their self-worth is intertwined with being indispensable to the “other,” whether the other is a beloved and/or a person of prestige and influence.

Rielle Hunter

As a likely Enneagram Seven, Rielle Hunter would be seeking stimulation, excitement, newness, even enjoying the adrenalin rush that comes with playing life on the edge, and that she certainly has done. Sevens get bored easily, moving from experience to experience, job to job, and person to person in their search for something novel to grab their attention. Hunter’s resume reads like a Seven, with an abundance of diverse career pursuits: an award winning equestrian, a party girl, then film maker, videographer, character in a Jay McInerney novel, viral marketer, self-proclaimed psychic, spiritualist or holy woman. Always thinking – about ideas, new things, future plans – Sevens are often challenged when it comes to empathy or putting yourself in the shoes of another. At times, they may think they know how someone feels, but can’t really feel it. And when their narcissism clicks in — It’s all about me and getting what I want, since I am the center of the universe! – any inkling of empathy soon dissolves. This helps explain why, when John Edwards had to miss Hunter’s birthday because Elizabeth Edward’s cancer had reoccurred, Hunter allegedly screamed at John Edwards rather than showed any compassion for his ailing wife. Elizabeth Edwards was, once again, in her way.


So there it is: a narcissistic, low self-mastery Three (John), married to a Two woman who intertwines herself with important men for her sense of self-worth (Elizabeth), with a narcissistic new-age guru looking for fun (Rielle) to round out the triangle. Could it have turned out differently? Yes, but only if any of the three characters had engaged in self-development work and was on a higher road to self-mastery. Any one of them doing so would have created a different and more positive outcome. Unfortunately, they did not.

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