For most my life, I had no idea what emotions were, why they were necessary, or what I was supposed to do with them. I made all sorts of incorrect assumptions like, I am supposed to control my feelings and I am weak for having feelings.
In 2008, I attended a conference on emotions in New York City. Despite years of education in the biological sciences and a certificate in psychoanalysis, I had never learned that emotions could be processed by paying attention to the sensations they created in the body.
I had never learned that by staying with emotional experience in the body, emotions reach a natural endpoint after which calm and relief are frequently accessed. For the first time, I saw a predictable path to healing anxiety and depression. What I learned at that conference changed my life and my career trajectory.
It was there that I first laid eyes on the Change Triangle, which was introduced to me then as the Triangle of Experience. The Triangle of Experience was one aspect of a comprehensive psychotherapeutic model of healing and transformation developed by psychologist, Diana Fosha, Ph.D. called Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP).
AEDP is a bottom up model grounded in current neuroscience. Over a decade later, I would nickname this triangle “The Change Triangle” and introduce it to the public. Everyone, not only psychotherapists, benefits from an education in emotions. The Change Triangle has the power to improve mental health and reduce stigma on a large-scale level.
So What is The Change Triangle?
The Change Triangle is a map—a guide to carry us from a place of disconnection back to our true self. Working the Change Triangle teaches us to identify the defenses and inhibitory emotions of shame, anxiety, and guilt, that prevent us from being in touch with our core emotions, like joy, anger, sadness, and fear.
In allowing ourselves to fully experience core emotions, we move toward an openhearted state where we are calm, curious, connected, compassionate, confident, courageous, and clear.
When people first incorporate the Change Triangle into their daily lives, they have instant benefits. Here is my list of the top five benefits from working The Change Triangle:
1.Imparts immediate distance and perspective from our distress.
Just remembering to think about where we are on the Change Triangle can stop a downward emotional spiral.
2.Brings awareness of the way our mind is working.
Once we see the Change Triangle on a piece of paper or in our mind’s eye, we understand what’s happening to us emotionally. Our current state is located on one of three corners of the Change Triangle or below it in the openhearted state.
The openhearted state is a place in which we all want to spend more time. It feels great, as we are calm, clear in thought, connected, curious, compassionate and confident that we can handle whatever life brings. Working the Change Triangle over our lifetime helps us spend more time in the openhearted state.
3.Helps us figure out if we are using defenses, experiencing inhibitory emotions, or experiencing core emotions.
Knowing which corner of the Change Triangle we’re on is important. It’s knowledge that tells us what needs to be done to feel better. For example, if we recognize we are anxious, the Change Triangle guiding us clockwise tells us we have core emotions that need naming and honoring.
Or, if we recognize we are in a defended state, we have the choice to stay there or reflect on the emotions from which we are running.
We are liberated when we stop fearing emotions. Even though emotions are sometimes painful, they are more bearable than we realize and education really helps. Knowing what to expect makes the wave-like nature of core emotions less scary.
4.Helps us find and name our core emotions
The brain calms down when we put language on our experiences. By taking the time to slow down, scan our body for emotions and put language on what we are experiencing, there is an immediate calming effect. Knowing the heavy feeling in your chest and pressure behind your eyes is sadness helps. Even saying to yourself, “It’s okay, I’m just feeling sad” often calms the brain and body so it’s easier to release the sadness with a good cry.
5.Gives us direction, showing us what to do next to help feel and function better
Once we can locate which corner of the Change Triangle we are on, we know what to do next. Whether we can work the Change Triangle alone, or need the help of a safe and non-judgmental other, we still have knowledge and direction for how to get relief and clarity.
I write about the Change Triangle because of how helpful it truly is for everyone who learns it. I cannot imagine life without this tool. Well, really I can because until I was 39 years old, I didn’t know it existed. Since then, I feel much more organized and less overwhelmed by my mind and feelings. I also feel much less self-conscious and just more me!
Having had this education in emotions, I understand that anxiety and symptoms like depression, addiction, self-harm, social anxiety,and more are symptoms of not fully feeling the underlying core emotions that arise from living, especially when we experienced a great deal of adversity in our early lives.
The Change Triangle gives hope that there is always something we can work on to feel better and more connected to our calm, courageous, compassionate, clear, and confident authentic Self. I am so thrilled to pay this knowledge forward to you.