Can’t Figure Out Why You’re Upset? Just Look to the ‘Triangle of Change’

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I can't tell you how many times I've found myself feeling upset, and when my boyfriend or BFF asks "what's wrong?" all that follows is extreme confusion. In fact, I often even feel this way when I personally try to introspect to decipher what the heck feels wrong. While I clearly sometimes have trouble understanding my emotions, a quick poll of my co-workers revealed to me that this is a way more common scenario than I initially realized. And that's largely why I was so happy to discover the triangle of change.

The triangle of change is a revolutionary (but actually classic) model for addressing the oh-so-common exchange of "what's wrong?" "oh, nothing...." And it's so necessary, because not much feels worse than being in a funk, yet not being able to find your way out because you can't pinpoint the root cause of the bad feelings. When I first came upon this idea, dubbed "The Change Triangle" by psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, in a Psychology Today article, I finally felt seen. The thought behind it is that your emotions can stem from three basic elements: core emotions, inhibitory emotions, and defenses. Upon understanding each of those, pros say you're instantly better equipped to handle those emotions, feelings, and concerns.

"The triangle of change assists individuals in making sense of their emotions in the most tolerable way possible," says psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW. "It's largely supported by the tools we're taught through mindfulness, because in order to apply the steps, we need to recognize where we are in the triangle as well as what sensations we're experiencing." Basically, using the triangle of change forces you to take a step back and reflect on what you're feeling, which is, of course, the first step toward clarity.

"The Change Triangle is helpful in that it gives us the space to not only identify how we are avoiding these emotions, but also allowing us to dive into what emotions we're actually feeling" —psychotherapist Michele Burstein, LMSW

This time for introspection can help you narrow down the root of your emotions, rather than bottling things up or handling them in a less-than-beneficial way (like avoiding them completely). "Sometimes we don't give ourselves the time and space or familiarity with how to define how we're feeling," says psychotherapist Michele Burstein, LMSW. "As a result, our emotions often get grouped into a large umbrella term like 'anxiety,' which is defined in the change triangle as an inhibitory emotion. The change triangle is helpful in that it gives us the space to not only identify how we are avoiding these emotions, but also allowing us to dive into what emotions we're actually feeling." The triangle swoops in as a tool for facing what you're feeling and handling it in the best way possible.

Get more details below on the triangle of change (and how it can help you understand your bad moods).

Here's the breakdown of the three base emotions in the triangle of change

1. Defenses: This involves how you behave when you're avoiding core or inhibitory emotions. "This could be done through sarcasm, joking, working too much, etc.," says Silvershein. "It's anything that enables us to avoid being aware or experiencing a certain feeling we're uncomfortable with."

2. Core emotions: These are the bigger-picture feelings that describe how you're experiencing something. "We're more familiar with these, as they include emotions like fear, excitement, disgust, joy, grief, and anger," says Silvershein. "They inform us about our environment and how we're experiencing it." Interestingly enough, she points out that they signal to your mind and body how to react accordingly (like by feeling fear and then removing yourself from the situation).

3. Inhibitory emotions: "Inhibitory emotions are one of three things: anxiety, guilt, or shame," says Silvershein. They're negative, and "enable us to avoid feeling the core emotion," she says. "This comes into play when we're doing something we know others don't approve of or wouldn't find appropriate."

To use the triangle, identify where you are on it currently and where you want to go. By doing this, you'll be better able to access your most openhearted, authentic state—the area beneath the triangle—which caters to feel-good emotions, like being calm, curious, connected, compassionate, confident, courageous, and clear. Most importantly, you'll be able to find the exit to that frustrating situation of not knowing how you actually feel.

For even more intel on understanding how you feel, here's how to deal with negative emotions, according to the pros. And these are the four distinguishing traits of a highly sensitive person.

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