Most of us go to therapy because, at some level, to some degree, we recognise we need to change. Things aren’t working as they are. Relationships at home, at work, or more generally aren’t functioning anymore. We can’t go on as things are.
Some of the time, it is external circumstances that need changing but more often than not, it is something within us, internally that we have to get a hold of. We have become out of touch with who we are; we don’t feel “ourselves”. We have been avoiding facing things for a while. We have perhaps been blocking our emotions.
Most of us block access to our core emotions with a variety of creative defenses originally designed to protect us from emotional pain and discomfort. While offering us emotional protection, defenses block access to our core emotions, which leads to chronic states of anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems. As adults, we need to relearn to experience our core emotions safely. By doing so, anxiety and depression are reduced and we feel much better.
For example, “Joe” was effectively taught by his father, due to being repeatedly ridiculed, not to show sadness and definitely not to cry. His brain learned to thwart sadness using shame, an inhibitory emotion. But we need to experience all our core emotions to feel vital and authentic and to recover from life’s losses. People who cannot experience sadness get “stuck” and develop psychological symptoms, which are in fact cues that something within us needs attention and care. By working to undo the connections between sadness and shame in his brain, Joe learned to experience sadness once again and felt better in a whole host of ways. Moving through our emotions regulates the brain and nervous system. That is why, when we connect to our core emotions and move through them, we feel more confident, calm, and clear.
What are core emotions? They are largely physical sensations that we come to recognize and name as a particular emotion. Core emotions inform us about our environment. Am I safe or in danger? What do I need/want and don’t want? Am I sad? Am I hurt? What brings me pleasure? What disgusts me? What excites me? Core emotions are hard-wired in the middle part of our brains, meaning they are NOT subject to conscious control. Triggered by the environment, each core emotion is pre-wired to set off a host of physiological reactions that prime us for action. Core emotions are brilliant: if we get out of their way, their innate programming tells us what to do to live life adaptively. The core emotions are: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement and disgust.
What are inhibitory emotions? Inhibitory emotions block core emotions. Shame, anxiety and guilt, the inhibitory emotions, block core emotions: 1) when they are in conflict with what pleases others whom we need like parents, peers, and partners; 2) when core emotions become too intense and our brain wants to shut them down to protect us from the emotional overwhelm.
What are defenses? Defenses are anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. Depression is a defense because in that state we are out of touch with our core emotions. There are an infinite number of defenses but some of the other common ones in our culture are: joking, sarcasm, too much “screen time,” criticizing, spacing out, procrastination, preoccupation, negative thinking, misguided aggression, working too much, over-exercising, over-eating, under-eating, cutting, sex, obsession, addiction, etc.
The Change Triangle
The Change Triangle, devised by psychotherapist, Hilary Hendel, is intended to help in that immediate moment when something within you, or someone or something in your environment causes you to experience emotional struggle. When you figure out where you are on The Triangle, the idea is that you feel better for two reasons: 1) just from gaining some distance and perspective from your immediate feeling; and 2) from having some direction of what to do to help yourself feel better.
Here are the basic steps:
- Identify which corner you most closely find yourself.
- Pause, breathe, and calm yourself for a few seconds at least.
- Try to identify all the underlying core emotions coming up in the moment. There may be more than one. Name each one you can.
- Think through the best way to proceed in the moment.
With a little practice, when you ask, “Where am I on The Change Triangle right now?” you will realize that your emotional state is found at one of three corners of The Triangle:
a) Top left corner – Defense
b) Top right corner – Anxiety, Shame or Guilt
c) Bottom corner – Core Emotion
Or below The Triangle, in a calm state of peace and openheartedness – where we all hope to spend much more time. The state below The Triangle is accessed by “listening” to what the core emotion of the moment is telling us, by honoring what it says and by letting the associated body sensations move through freely until they naturally subside. Core emotions are wavelike in nature: rising then ebbing.
This of course is an alternative way to that of working with parts or sub-personalities (see earlier posts) though it is essentially the same: we identify which part we are acting from (step 1 above), we try and separate from it (step 2), notice it from a place of the witnessing self (step 3) , give it some attention, perhaps ask what it needs and then respond by fulfilling that need from the place of a calm, compassionate self (step 4).
Whichever approach you find fits best, or even if you were to use a combination of both, the key is to identify and then safely process or release the core emotion.
This is what can bring about real change.