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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

The Triangle of Conflict

Ever encounter a situation where you felt a “surge of heat” , something like a volcano boiling inside of you, but then just like that, before you can really make contact with that heat, its gone? Maybe you noticed it start to happen when your boss was blaming you for how a project you were working on that went “sideways”, but just like that, the heat went away and you just stood there, feeling “nothing”, even as you are taking the verbal lashing for something you didn’t do. Or maybe you just found out that close friend just died when they went on a trip that you were supposed to go on too. Even though you know you should be feeling the devastating loss all you notice is that you feel tense, anxious and jittery!

In today’s post let’s look at how and why this happens…and what to do about it.

So what happens when strong feelings about the past or the present come up? How does the person handle these feelings? Let’s look at the “Triangle of Conflict”:


When we have a feeling (anger, love, sadness), we have three choices: feel it, get anxious, or defend. Take one of the above examples, your boss starts blaming you for something you didn’t do. A surge of heat came up and then all of a sudden – “nothing”. What happened? We’d be likely to think that the “heat” or that “volcano” was the physical experience of anger. After all, your boss is blaming you for something you didn’t do. That seems pretty appropriate, so what happened next? Well, perhaps you had some “impulses”, some part of you wanted to punch him!

That, however, would get you into trouble so you need to “defend” against the feeling (anger) and the impulse that came with it (punching him in the face). The defense, in this example was called “isolation of affect”, a form of detaching… basically you’ve learned how to turn your feelings off.

How about the second example? Why would you get tense, anxious, and jittery when you just found out a close friend has died? If you look at the triangle of conflict, and ask the question: what happened when strong feelings about the passing of your friend came up? The answer is, anxiety.

The purpose of anxiety and/or defense is to avoid experiencing the feelings we have about the things that have happened to us, or are currently happening to us that we have somehow learned are not ok to have or we don’t know what to do with…and this all happens unconsciously. Defenses also help us avoid feeling anxious. In the last example: getting anxious when thinking about our friend passing away, likely sitting with that kind of anxiety for an extended period of time would also be difficult. As a result, we often use defenses to avoid the anxiety as well, like externalizing – giving the responsibility to things outside of us to regulate our emotions, like drinking, eating, work, sex, other people’s validation etc.

How is this a problem?

Actually, a lot of the time it isn’t a problem. Our defenses are useful. They allow us to carry on with our day and get the things we need done… done! It’s probably a good idea, in that moment, to not listen to what the anger inside wants and actually “come out swinging with you boss”.

So, when is it a problem?

It becomes a problem when we stop listening to our bodies and we never allow ourselves to experience the feelings we have about what has happened / is happening to us.

What happens? The energy from those feelings has to go somewhere, and if we don’t allow ourselves to experience these emotions they often go back into our body and turn into defenses. This is when symptoms begin to appear, like depression, high levels of anxiety, problems sleeping, focusing on things we can’t control, getting stuck in our heads thinking about the past or future or going stuck thinking about what others are thinking about us etc.

The other thing that happens is that often the way we cope (the defenses) can also be extremely damaging. We’ve talked about this before.Defenses (avoiding feelings or anxiety) can turn into things like drugs, alcohol, over-eating, never allowing yourself to feel.

Allowing yourself to feel the feelings releases that energy. With that energy gone, there is no need to get anxious and no need to defend. It is from this place that you can start to make decisions from The Strong and Healthy Self.

The question is: Are you ready to feel the feeling?

As always, we would love to hear from you, and please keep forwarding posts that you have found helpful our way! Leave a comment, come see us on Twitter or send us an email!

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