Emotions are survival programs deeply embedded in the brain and not subject to conscious control. In the face of a physical threat, fear is triggered. Let’s say a wild dog was chasing you; fear makes you instantly move. Anger protects us by compelling us to fight in self-defense. Sadness is the core emotion we feel when we suffer losses, like losing one’s hair, losing a cherished possession, and losing loved ones. When we succeed and connect with others in enriching ways, emotions such as joy and excitement propel us to engage further, so humans grow, expand, and evolve. Emotions are immediate responses to the present environment. Emotions stand in stark contrast to intellect. Our thinking brain allows us time to consider how we want to respond. Our emotional brain just responds.
Based on our genetics, natural disposition, and childhood experiences, we each navigate emotions differently. The type and amount of adversity we faced in youth directly affects how we feel today even if we cannot consciously perceive the connection. Furthermore, how our parents and caregivers responded to our individual emotions directly affects how we feel about and deal with our own emotions and the emotions of others in the present, now.
Some of us disconnect from our emotions to cope with the challenges we face. That has ramifications. We turn off. We shut down. We become numb. Eventually, we live in our heads with only our thoughts and intellect to guide us. We have lost our emotional compass. Alternatively, some of us cannot disconnect and instead become easily overwhelmed by emotions.
At any given moment, we will find our psychological state on one of the three corners of the Change Triangle or below it in the openhearted state.
The Change Triangle is a map to move us out of our defenses and put us back in touch with our core emotions. When we contact our core emotions, feel them, and come out the other side, we experience relief.
Experiment: Slowing Down
WE CANNOT BEGIN to notice our emotions and body state, let alone work with them through the Change Triangle, without first slowing down. Slowing down leads to relaxation—if not at first, then with some practice.
Deep belly breathing is one of the greatest calming tools we have. When you first start experimenting with slowing down, you will become aware of things happening inside you. It is important to keep breathing when experiencing something new or uncomfortable.
Belly breathing actually stimulates a major nerve in the body called the vagus nerve. When stimulated, it sends a message to the heart and lungs to slow down, and this is a powerful and reliable way to calm and soothe anxiety. Here is how to do it:
Inhale slowly and deeply through your nostrils, breathing into what feels like the bottom of your belly. Feel your belly come out. You should strive to look like a Buddha—belly out as far as possible. It helps to place your hand on your belly to make sure it is expanding as you inhale. This actually takes practice over weeks. Most of us breathe into our chest, technically the top of our lungs. We are trying to retrain how we breathe from chest breathing to belly breathing.
When you’ve inhaled fully, hold your breath for a beat.
Now exhale fully through pursed lips, as if you are blowing on a hot spoonful of soup. Pursed lips help you control the airflow out so you can create maximum relaxation. Tune in to your body as you exhale so you tailor the speed to what feels most relaxing inside. Your exhale should take approximately twice as long as your inhale. As you exhale, imagine your entire body going loose and limp. Repeat this five times.
Experiment: Giving Yourself Compassion
Self-compassion does not come easy for most of us. However, people who relate to themselves with compassion and acceptance feel better. Just think: When you are upset, do you generally feel better when you are treated with understanding, acceptance, and compassion or harshness and judgment? Our brains calm down when we feel safe, seen, and accepted.
Think of a recent event or memory that brought up hard feelings.
Write it down:
Ask yourself what you would say or do to comfort a beloved friend who experienced the same thing and felt the same way as you. Write down what you would do or say
Once you access the compassion that you imagined giving to someone else, experiment with turning that compassion inward toward that part of you that was suffering recently. Actually try directing the comforting words or imagining the comforting actions you wrote above to that part of you that was hurting. Give yourself unconditional permission to take in that compassion.
Picture a secure and calm parent comforting an upset child. The way a parent holds her child allows the child to feel his emotions safely and, ultimately, feel better. These caregivers have essential knowledge that their children lack:
- Emotions are temporary.
- Emotions don’t kill us.
- Having a calm and available caregiver helps us move through our emotions.
Do you remember a time when you were young and someone hurt your feelings or shut you down, causing you to feel bad? Use your imagination to see your present-day adult Self approaching your young hurt Self. Imagine parenting that hurt part of you in whatever way feels right. Maybe that younger part of you needs a hug or just some encouraging words. Really see and listen to that young part of you.
You are not trying to change the past. What’s done is done. You are trying to change how you’ll feel in the future. You are working to heal small t trauma. As an adult, having survived your past, you can provide comfort and compassion to the hurt parts of you. You now have that essential knowledge about emotions. The goal is to use your imagination to bring compassion and safety to a painful emotional moment no matter how long ago it occurred. You are trying to securely connect to a hurt part of you and parent that hurt part of you the way you needed.
Experiment: Finding Your Core Emotions
SCAN YOUR BODY slowly from head to toe looking for any emotions, no matter how slight or subtle. When you find some kind of feeling, ask yourself each of the following questions to find the core emotion that best fits. Be sure to go slowly. Check for one emotion at a time. Give yourself lots of time (thirty seconds to scan your body for each emotion, which will feel very long).
Answer each question below and put a check mark next to each one you find right now. Just accept what you notice and resist the temptation to evaluate if you should have the feeling.
- Do I feel any anger?
- Do I feel any sadness?
- Do I feel any fear?
- Do I feel any disgust?
- Do I feel any joy?
- Do I feel any excitement?
- Do I feel any sexual excitement?
Pick one core emotion you’re experiencing. Experiment with tuning in to the emotion itself; don’t think about the emotion, only sense it. Stay with it for thirty seconds while taking deep breaths. What comes up as you stay with the emotion for longer?
Complete the sentences below for the emotions you are currently experiencing. Don’t judge or think, just let the emotion, as you sense it physically, tell you the answer.
I am angry at because .
I feel sad about because .
I am afraid of because .
I am disgusted by for doing .
I feel joy about and feel like sharing it with .
I am excited about and feel like sharing it with .
I am sexually excited by and my fantasy is .
Experiment: Plotting Yourself on the Change Triangle
MOST OF US first become aware of our emotional states when we are upset. At the moment you realize something is wrong, you’ll be at a three-pronged crossroad. One road avoids what you are feeling by turning away from whatever is upsetting you. Another leads you to react impulsively. The third road takes you toward your inner experience—lean in to it and work the Change Triangle. For example, you can get curious and ask yourself, What just happened that triggered me? Then you can further inquire, What feelings does it bring up for me?
Slow way down with breathing and grounding. Tune in to yourself now, giving yourself lots of time to notice. Locate to the best of your ability where you are on the Change Triangle. Are you on the inhibitory corner experiencing shame, anxiety, or guilt? Are you already at the bottom of the Triangle in a core feeling of sadness, fear, anger, disgust, joy, excitement, or sexual excitement? Are you in the openhearted state feeling one or more of the C’s: calm, curious, connected, compassionate, confident, courageous, and/or clear? Are you in a defensive mode, blocked off from your emotions and the openhearted state?
Name what corner of the Change Triangle you think you are on right now.
Write down what it is you just noticed about your internal experience that helped you figure out what corner you are on. For example, I recognized that I am on the defense corner because I feel numb, bored, and want a drink. Or I recognized that I am in the inhibitory corner because I am anxious and tense and I feel small and inadequate. Or I recognized that I am on the bottom of the Change Triangle because I’m experiencing sadness and my body feels heavy and I feel like I have to cry. Or I know I’m in an openhearted state because I’m calm and I feel at peace with myself and others.
Experiment: Working the Change Triangle
Corner 1: Defense
If you locate yourself on the defense corner, ask yourself, If I wasn’t using this defense, what might I be feeling right now? You are trying to discover what emotion or conflict the defense is protecting you from. Now write that down where you think it goes on the Change Triangle.
Corner 2: Inhibition
If you are on the inhibitory corner it means you have figured out that you are experiencing either anxiety, guilt, or shame. Can you discern which one?
If you’re feeling anxiety, calm it down by grounding your feet on the floor, use deep belly breathing, and consciously remind yourself that this is anxiety. Accept everything you notice and work to muster a compassionate stance toward yourself. Simultaneously to calming anxiety with the above techniques, try to name all the underlying core emotions you feel. Write them on the bottom of the Change Triangle diagram.
Now try to find your core emotions toward the person who originally caused you shame or taught you to be ashamed of that quality. To help find your core emotions, try asking yourself these questions: If I felt strong and confident in myself, what emotions would I have toward the person who first shamed me? What emotions would I have on behalf of my best friend if he was hurt or shamed the way I was? If they are core emotions, write them on the bottom of the Change Triangle diagram. If they are inhibitory, write them on the inhibitory corner.
If you are experiencing guilt, ask your guilt, If guilt is for a crime, what’s my crime right now? If you hurt someone, prepare an apology and make amends.
If you did nothing wrong, your goal is to tolerate the guilt that setting limits and boundaries cause. Then try to notice what core emotions were blocked toward the person who originally would not tolerate your limits and boundaries.
If you feel guilty for being lucky or having something someone else lacks, move from guilt to gratitude. You can choose to be compassionate and give back in concrete ways. Being guilty doesn’t do anything positive for you or the person evoking the guilt.
Corner 3: Core Emotion
If you locate yourself on the core emotion corner or you worked the Change Triangle to get there, it means you are experiencing sadness, anger, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, or a combination of them. Validate each emotion separately by saying, I feel AND I feel . Name them all. Write them down at the bottom of the Change Triangle diagram.
At this point, if you feel comfortable with further experimentation, try to stay with one core emotion. Notice and name the physical sensations it brings up. Stay with the sensations in your body as you breathe nice, long, deep belly breaths. Stay with those sensations until something shifts or you notice an impulse. Use fantasy to imagine what the emotional impulse wants to do. Ride the emotional wave until you feel calmer.
Congratulations! You have just worked the Change Triangle. Remember, the Change Triangle is a map and a tool to use for the rest of your life. With practice and experimentation both on your own and with others, you will get better and better at recognizing where you are, where you need to go, and how to get there.