Reconnect to your Core
a practical guide on how to feel good and be happy

The Triangle of Conflict

There can only be three things going on inside your mind at any given time. Either you are feeling a feeling, or you’re experiencing anxiety, or your mind is doing/thinking something (a defense mechanism) that distances you from experiencing your feelings and anxiety. Hence, feelings can be covered up in two ways, with anxiety and/or with defenses. This simple method of characterizing our internal experience we call the Triangle of Conflict (ToC), and if you didn’t fully study the graphics from Chapter 1 here is another chance.

The role of attention

At any given time you have the ability to take a moments pause and ask yourself: «Where am I now on the ToC?». You have this ability because even though you’re feeling a feeling, are filled with anxiety, or you’re relying on a defense, you still have the ability to stop and direct your attention.

Where we are on the ToC changes as quickly as a new feeling emerges or a new thought enters our mind. What we’re trying to accomplish at all times is to block our defenses and surrender to the experience of the feeling (and/or the anxiety). This because when your attention is focused on experiencing your feeling it’s impossible to defend against it by, say, worrying at the same time.

The ability to direct your attention is a key factor in helping you to notice and becoming aware of what’s going on inside you. As you practice becoming more aware of what’s going on in your mind and body, you will begin to notice the continuous subtle changes inside you caused by your feelings. When you do this it will gradually become easier to notice whether you’re feeling a feeling, experiencing anxiety, or depending on a defense mechanism.

The order of causality

The ToC has feeling on the bottom corner because this is what’s triggered first inside our mind. First feelings, then anxiety, then defense mechanisms (i.e. thoughts). This it the order of causality inside your mind. It’s not the other way around.

However, these three processes happen with just a few milliseconds between them so that we’re not aware that they’re three separate processes. Our defenses activate almost simultaneously as a feeling and these defenses usually accomplish their task of keeping us unaware of our feelings (or even our anxiety). Hence, most people only experience their defenses, and are totally unaware of the two other processes inside them.

Additionally, most people aren’t even aware of their defenses! Many people live their whole life in denial, which is a defense, never having consciously experienced the feeling that was denied and defended against. They’ve not even been aware of that they’ve lived their whole life in denial, since their ego constructs a reality which to them makes perfect sense.

To accept you have an unconscious mind

That feelings and anxiety suddenly appear whether you want to or not demonstrates that something outside your control activates your body. The fact that your body is activated without your consent means that there are forces (i.e. the unconscious mind) in you that you’re not consciously aware of. To accept this is an important first step. Your feelings and anxiety are triggered unconsciously.

Therefore, rather than judging the physical activation and categorically denying the possibility of unconscious feelings, try to be curious about your inner world instead and try to be willing to explore it. When we out of hand dismiss the possibility that unconscious feelings exist we’re still taking credit for or blaming ourselves for the existence of feelings. Why would we deny the existence of a feeling unless we’re ashamed, embarrassed, or unwilling to accept that feeling?

To be open-minded and curious as to what feelings that might exist which are causing anxiety is a prerequisite to overcoming our problems. Rather than dismissing the notion of unconscious feelings without any further inquiry, we need to make curiosity and open-mindedness our default position if we are to change, evolve, and grow.

When we’re too quick to dismiss the possibility of unconscious feelings we most likely imitate our caregivers who in the past ignored our feelings. We quickly ignore ourselves just like our parents did and within a few seconds abandon our own emotional experience. Then we instead let our thinkingness and our tendency to do things become our default position, but that only maintain our problems. When we go into our head and search for reasons for the anxiety «out there» rather than looking within for our feelings we only uphold our troubles year after year.

You have the ability to recognize and turn on the defenses such as ignoring yourself, externalizing, and rationalizing, and instead look within and search your feelings. But in order to do that you need to accept that there are forces in your body outside of your control and awareness.

Separating the corners of the Triangle of Conflict

People are often unaware of their psychological state of mind because they confuse the three corners of the ToC. Therefore they end up not knowing who they really are and aren’t getting the energy and vitality that their feelings are giving them.

That people confuse the corners of their ToC is very understandable since the process from feeling to anxiety to defense mechanism happens in a split second. Usually people aren’t even aware that they’re relying on defenses, since most people are almost totally identified with the thoughts that their ego produces. Most people don’t question their thought process and ask themselves what feelings might be present that caused the mind to worry. Most people just listen to the worry and believe that what they’re worrying about is «true», a great advice, and something that keeps them safe.

Therefore people look puzzled when asked what they’re feeling if they don’t distract themselves by worrying. Though who can blame them for not knowing the difference between feelings, anxiety, and defenses? After all we haven’t been taught how to think straight about our inner psyche neither in school nor in our families.

Common mistakes when trying to separate the ToC-corners

The four most common mistakes people make when trying to understand their internal state are:

  • Confusing the trigger to the feeling with the feeling itself.
  • Confusing anxiety with feeling.
  • Confusing feelings with defense mechanisms.
  • Confusing anxiety with defense mechanisms.

People with depression, functional disorders, panic attacks, or people that struggle with impulsive discharge patterns have in common an almost total inability to distinguish between the corners of the ToC.

However, most people are on some level confused about where they’re at on their ToC, though they themselves are not aware of being confused because to them it’s «just how they perceive the world». Therefore they’re both unaware of what’s going on inside them and further it doesn’t even dawn on them to question their assumptions.

Confusing the trigger with the feeling

Perhaps the most common mistake people make is to not separate between the trigger of the feeling versus the feeling itself. A trigger is an event, action, or something that happens externally (i.e. out there in the world). Often times they’re things that other people do or say. Remember, events and actions are not the same as your feelings. Here’s an example:

- «What was the feeling towards your husband when he told you he cheated on you?»
- «I felt betrayed.»
- «Betrayed» is not a feeling. Your husband did something, he betrayed you. Then you had a feeling triggered in response to that. What was the feeling towards your husband who betrayed you?»
- «I was angry».

There are a few popular misconceptions in our language of a similar vein:

  • I felt disappointed.
  • I felt abused.
  • I felt let down.
  • I felt abandoned.
  • I felt neglected.
  • I felt I wasn’t treated seriously.
  • I felt laughed at.
  • I felt smothered.
  • I felt lied to.
  • I felt dismissed.
  • I felt hurt.

But neither of these statements declare what the person was actually feeling at the time. All the above statements only indicate what another person did that later triggered your feeling. To disappoint, abuse, let down, and abandon are actions that other people do, they’re not your feelings. Being able to separate the actions of other people and your own feelings will enable you to relate to others from a viewpoint of authenticity.

The reason the ego equates other people’s actions with our own feelings has its origin from our childhood. As young children our mind is easily manipulated and programmable, and the young ego believes itself to be the cause of other people’s emotions. The child doesn’t develop a sense of emotional separateness (i.e. his own «theory of mind») from his parents until the age 7-8. Before that age he fuses his own feelings with his parents’ feelings and actions. To become aware of the childish mechanism in you that continues to do so is of great help in learning to separate between on the one hand what happens in the environment and on the other hand your own emotional experience.

Confusing anxiety with feeling

People confuse anxiety with feeling when they believe that their anxiety means that they’re afraid or that there’s something to fear in the environment. It also happens when people confuse the bodily tension characteristic of anxiety with how a feeling activates the body. Here’s a few examples:

- «What was the feeling towards your sister when she did that?».
- «I felt angry and could feel my stomach tightening.».
- «If you don’t cover your anger with tension and anxiety, how do you feel the anger?».

- «What was the feeling towards your boss when he criticized you?».
- «I was scared of him.».
- «You felt anxiety and thought you were afraid. But if you don’t cover your feeling with anxiety, what was the feeling towards your boss when he criticized you?».
- «I was angry with him.».
- «How do you feel the anger inside you?».

- «What was the feeling towards that woman when you talked to her?».
- «I was afraid of rejection.».
- «You felt anxiety, and then started to rationalize. But if you don’t cover your feelings with anxiety and rationalization, what was the feeling towards that woman?».
- «I felt happy and wanted to be intimate with her.».
- «How do you feel this inside you?».


Confusing feelings with defense mechanisms

The third thing people get confused are their feelings and their defense mechanisms. This occurs when people make statements like:

  • I felt worried (Defense of Worrying).
  • I felt it wasn’t that important (Defense of Minimalization).
  • I felt like walking away (Defense of Withdrawal).
  • I felt like I didn’t matter (Defense of Self-Attacking thoughts).
  • I felt like giving up (Defense of Passivity).
  • I felt hopeless (Defense of Hopeless Position).
  • I felt confused (Defense of Confused Position).
  • I felt like playing it cool (Defense of Detachment).
  • I felt pain in my neck (Defense of Somatization).
  • I felt like yelling at him (Defense of Acting Out).
  • I felt like I had to be in control (Defense of Rationalization).

Statements like these are very common in our society when describing our feelings, but even though they’re common they’re still not descriptions of what we’re feeling, merely descriptions of how we’re avoiding feelings.


Confusing anxiety with defense mechanism

This happens when people equate their anxiety with a thought in their mind or with an action they performed. Here’s some examples:

- «I felt paralyzed». The person is anxious but then withdraws and takes a passive position at the same time.

- «I felt back pain». The person is tense but ends up with the defense of somatization.

- «I felt so stressed I just had to walk away.». The person doesn’t realize that anxiety and walking away are two different things.

- «I felt so tense I had to just postpone the whole thing.». The person doesn’t realize that anxiety and procrastination are two different things.

- «I felt so anxious that I had to hide the anxiety so people wouldn’t laugh at me.». The person doesn’t realize that anxiety and doing things to hide it based on a rationalization, projection, and a defensive positionality are two different things.

People often say: «I was thinking about the final exam/presentation/date/flight next week and then I got nervous». However, this is a reversal of the causality inside your brain. Remember, first there’s a feeling triggered in the brain, then anxiety attacks this feeling, and then a split second later the mind starts to think («I’m gonna fail the exam tomorrow») and do things (i.e. defenses such as withdrawing or passivity).

However, the anxiety comes from the attempt to cover up a feeling, it does not come from the worry about something! The act of taking your final exam triggers a feeling, which you distract yourself from by entertaining the rationalizing thought that you’re going to fail the exam.

This is a great thing to be aware of as it lessens your «fear of the fear». When you know the chain of causality in your mind you don’t have to «fear your anxiety» like you have done before, because you understand that «anxiety for anxiety» is just a worry about a worry, a defense upon a defense, a neat little trick that the mind performs in order to keep you further away from the feeling that has been triggered.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 4 in Reconnect to your Core.

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