Healing the Unconscious Conflicts of Being Our Authentic Self Using the Change Triangle

Hilary Jacobs Hendel

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To adapt and survive in the face of childhood trauma, insecure attachment, and harsh conditions, we have the capacity to block our true feelings—or what I describe as core emotions. Without adequate support and empathy from a caring other, we use restrictive feelings like shame, anxiety, and guilt (inhibitory emotions), and we do our best to protect ourselves against unbearable emotional pain using a myriad of defense mechanisms to cope. As we grow into adults, we are better able to manage and survive adverse and difficult life experiences: we learn, on a deep psychological and body-based level, that we don’t need to block our core emotions any more, and they become accessible to guide us adaptively through life, releasing our potential to find fulfillment and vitality. Core emotions, and how we experience them physically, are the secret to wellness. They are the doorway to regulating our mind and body. When our body is regulated, we feel calm, curious about the world around us, connected and clear.

For over 50 years, antidepressants have been used to mask our emotional pain. Psychotherapies have focused on the activity of the brain and brain-based memories with little acknowledgment of the role of the body as an archive of primal memory. In my book, It’s Not Always Depression (Hendel, 2018), I challenge and reframe the “depression and anxiety” paradigm, and guide people utilizing a well-tested course of healing. The map to healing is simply and elegantly represented in the graphic form of the Change Triangle. The Change Triangle was first coined the “triangle of conflict” by David Malan in the 1970s (Malan, 1979) and later renamed the “triangle of experience” by Diana Fosha (2000). The Change Triangle is a schematic way to illustrate the relationship between core emotions, inhibitory emotions, and defenses. (Figure 1)


In practice, finding where you are on the triangle allows you to get some distance and perspective from immediate feelings and have direction as to what to do to feel better.

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The basic steps are:

  1. Identify which corner you most closely find yourself.
  2. Pause, breathe, and calm yourself for a few seconds at least.
  3. Try to identify all the underlying core emotions coming up in the moment. There may be more than one. Name each one you can.
  4. Think through the best (healthiest and most constructive) way to proceed in the moment.

With a little practice, your emotional state can be found at one of the three corners of the triangle:

  • top left corner: defense
  • top right corner: anxiety, shame, guilt
  • bottom corner: core emotion

Or you may find yourself below the triangle, in a calm state of peace and openheartedness, where we all hope to spend much more time. This state is accessed by listening to what the core emotion of the moment is telling us, honoring what it says, and letting the associated body sensations move through freely until they naturally subside. Core emotions are wavelike in nature: rising then falling.

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