"It's Not Always Depression": Key Insights from the Change Triangle
Therapy is a place where you can explore what is weighing on you within the safety of a supportive and accepting relationship. It is a place where you can explore difficult and painful emotions like shame and guilt.
I do think that there is an important place for resources like books in supporting one's personal growth. Books on the topic of emotions and mental health can offer a way to navigate difficult emotions and experiences whether you are waiting to access therapy or may find the thought of starting therapy a little daunting (There is so much mystery surrounding the therapeutic process). Books can also complement your journey in therapy, as you learn new ways of being with your experience and emotions.
I recently found myself reading the book It's Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, and wanted to share some of the information shared in the book. The concept may resonate with some, and not with others. That is perfectly okay, and know that there are many therapeutic orientations that exist and finding one that resonates with you is part of the journey.
The Change Triangle
The author shares the concept of the Change Triangle, a tool that can support you in navigating your emotions in ways that honour them. So often we can find ourselves feeling confused by the emotions we are feeling, and feeling overwhelmed by them. We can soon come to dread feeling certain types of emotions, viewing them as unwelcome and fear inducing.
Ever notice that emotions are accompanied by physical sensations? Whether that be a heaviness in your chest when feeling sad, rapid beating of the heart when you are fearful, or the warmth you feel when you are feeling joy? The Change Triangle encourages us to tune into our body, and to notice what it is communicating to us about how we feel and to make space for it. Though this may seem trite, we are often occupied with our thoughts and are either unaware or deeply afraid of feeling emotions in our body. The former cuts us off from important feelings that we may be feeling, and the latter creates a type of relationship with our bodies where we are desperate to escape the feelings and sensations that coarse thorough it. To be able to open ourselves up to these feelings and sensations, to view them as containing important information, and fulfilling an adaptive process is nothing short of transformational.
So permitting ourselves to notice, identity, and experience core emotions are important according to the Change Triangle. What might get in the way then?
Inhibitory emotions include shame, anxiety, and guilt. They serve to block us from experiencing our core emotions. The author theorizes the two functions of inhibitory emotions, (1) as a means to protect us from feeling emotional overwhelm, (2) to maintain our perceived connection within interpersonal relationships (As a child, your anger was met with anger from your parents. You learn that being angry is associated with loss of emotional connection with your parents. Now when anger shows up, you feel anxiety or shame instead, thinking thoughts like "why should I inconvenience someone with my feelings?").
Defenses are actions, both internal or external, that we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. Some of the common ones include humour, attempts to distract oneself through screen time, social media, procrastination, preoccupation, worrying, working too much, and substance use. Defences were likely instrumental to you at one point in time in coping with overwhelming emotions on your own, and for your emotional survival.
Using the Change Triangle
As the author explains: "when an event or situation causes you distress, first determine where you are on The Change Triangle (defense, inhibitory or core emotion?), then determine where you want to go".²
Notice where you are situated on The Change Triangle by tuning into your physical experience. Scan your entire body to notice the physical sensations. If you find overwhelming emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and shame arising, take a moment to take deep belly breaths. The author encourages you take time to soothe your nervous system. Be gentle and kind with yourself.
You might notice certain core emotions emerging. Or you may find it hard to pinpoint what emotion you are feeling. Ask yourself, "Is it fear? Sadness? Anger? Disgust? Joy? Excitement or sexual excitement? or perhaps a combination of these emotions?". Being able to identify and name our emotions are often accompanied by a sense of relief and inner calm. Get curious by asking "What is this emotion trying to tell me?". Honouring the emotion you identified can involve observing and allowing the physical sensations rise and fall until they subside, and/or finding ways to meet our emotional needs (seeking a safe connection, going for a walk, or being self-compassionate).
If you found the concepts discussed above helpful, I encourage you to visit the author's website for more information and resources: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/.
Hannah Peirce MSW RSW