The Change Triangle - A Useful Map To Deep Emotional Change

The Change Triangle - A Useful Map To Deep Emotional Change

I recently gotten my hands on a wonderful book by Hilary Jacobs Hendel called:

It's Not Always Depression: Listen to the Body. Discover Core Emotions. Connect to Your Authentic Self.

Hilary is has had an interesting career - trained as a dentist, she re-trained to become a psychotherapist - simultaneously studying to be a classical psychoanalyst and an emotion-focused psychotherapist.

In this book, she presents the core of her method to help her patients truly change their stuck emotional patterns such as chronic depression, anxiety, anger and problems experiencing emotions (a.k.a. feeling nothing).

She calls it The Change Triangle. (Those in the know might know it by it's technical name: The Triangle Of Conflict). This is a useful map and tool distilling the insights from psychoanalysis, emotion theory and the clinical experience of many psychotherapists.

I've found it to be extremely powerful in helping some of my clients get to very deep levels of their emotions and to transform these emotions. As a result of this work (Hilary calls it Working the Triangle), some of my clients have (to my pleasant excitement), arrived at a deep clear state of calm, compassion, curiosity and clarity. To be honest, this is the deepest kind of effect my work has had on anyone.

I was impressed.

Being a self-help junkie, I've also tried Working the Triangle a little bit on myself, and while I haven't actually arrived at this clear state (dang it!), I've found that my long-term emotions which I've struggled with, have started to shift.

I'd like to share a little of the Change Triangle here (see the pictures). For in-depth details of how it works, visit Hilary at:

The story of the 3 corners of the Triangle goes like this:

1) Originally, we have CORE EMOTIONS - these are our original deep, free flowing emotions. They might be uncomfortable but they all guide us to grow emotionally and psychologically. She has listed 7 here but I believe from a Focusing point of view, there are much more.

These emotions can come from memories of experiences that have left their mark (good or bad) on us; or current experiences. In Focusing, we are trying to get to this level of emotions, to get our stuck emotional patterns to flow.

2) But we develop INHIBITORY EMOTIONS/ BRAKE - These are emotions that develop because our Core Emotions were not properly received, taken care of, or respected. Say when we were young and got really angry. We might shout and throw things to express the degree of our anger.

Sadly, instead of receiving empathy for our anger, we get beaten up, humiliated and blamed for our anger. We start to learn that anger (a Core Emotion) is not something good to experience or show. We learnt to develop emotional reactions to this Core Emotion - the Inhibitory Emotions such as shame, guilt and anxiety.

I believe there are more inhibitory emotions than those Hilary listed. To me, any emotions that stop or are a reaction to Core emotions can be considered inhibitory. I like to think of them also as warning signals to stop us from going further with our Core Emotions.

3) So we develop DEFENSES - these are any means (emotionally, mentally, behaviourally, and physically) which we employ to not feel at all (or not in great depth). Defenses developed as a reaction to 2 sets of potentially uncomfortable emotions - Core and Inhibitory. They help us cope with life and to maintain some kind of survival in a hostile or unwelcoming emotional landscape.

Defenses can also include emotions such as depression and anger. These work to help us not feel by respectively flattening all our experiences and going on the attack.

The problem with defenses, if they are the only thing we use all day and everyday, is that they get us into a whole host of troubles. The worst of these is that they don't enable us to live fully or to connect fully with people.

Here's how to Work the Change Triangle.

A) Look back at your significant and recent life experiences. Notice how you tend to react.

B) If these reactions help you not feel, then put them down in the DEFENSES corner.

C) Next, take a guess which of the 3 basic inhibitory emotions are in place. You can choose more than one.

D) Then guess which emotions you would normally feel (if you haven't got the Defenses or Inhibitory Emotions in place), in some of these situations. Again, you can choose more than one, and if you're at a lost, you can guess based on the 7 basic emotions Hilary has listed.

*This step is important, take a moment to pay attention to how these emotions (just by thinking of the situations) feel as physical sensations in your body. Allow yourself to feel these sensations as fully as possible, and try to put words/ fantasies/ memories/ meaning/ symbols to them. See if you can express them. Sometimes, these sensations can be pretty intense but know that if you ride them out, they will definitely settle.

If you think this sounds like Focusing, then you're right! It IS Focusing (refer to our previous posts dear reader =))

** Because these Core Emotions have been ill-treated or because we've never learnt to handle them properly, we might find the Inhibitory Emotions kicking in to help us not feel the intensity of Core Emotions. Do some Focusing on these Inhibitory Emotions or some self-soothing methods to release them.

*** If you find yourself not feeling suddenly or not being able to feel, chances are that your Defenses have kicked in. Take a few seconds to respect the intention of these Defenses to protect you, then gently bring your awareness back into your body to get in touch with a bit of your Core Emotions.

Here's my Change Triangle:

1) Core Emotions - these have been repeating for me, and I've become somewhat more aware of them in my Focusing practice. They are: deep rage, deep insecure fear, and deep sadness. It all feels as a whole like a deep hurt, a kind of twisted, scarred bruise in the center of my chest.

2) Inhibitory Emotions: Shame, Anxiety and Guilt are common. My Core Emotions have not been very well received and I've came away with the impress (from others) that my Core Emotions are a) shameful or disgusting to show (I cringe at the thought of ugly crying); b) a source of hurt to others (Guilt); and c) anxiety-provoking - I feel that I can trust people to treat my Core Emotions with empathy or gentleness (I might be guilt-tripped, shamed, blamed, dismissed or misunderstood if I tried to express them. Once bitten, twice shy as they say).

3) Defenses - my throat literally closes down and I can't project my voice. I also end up using a lot of humor and self-deprecation to turn attention away from me.

So there you have it folks, my Change Triangle. More recently, whenever my throat closes up, I bring gentle awareness to it - thank if for working so hard to protect me from hurt, and then deliberately bring awareness into my chest where I know the twisted bruise resides. And the bruise has started to release, bringing with it it's own emotionally meaningful stories (including memories).

It's early days yet but the Change Triangle is a nice map to aim my Focusing on. I'm excited to see where it takes me.

Please, have a shot at it yourself. The more you Work the Triangle, the more you'll free up your emotion and eventually hit that Clear State reliably. That's the space from which to live authentically.

Happy Sunday Eveninig.


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