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The Change Triangle: How to Understand and Navigate Your Emotions

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Anne Pascale Stein is a German, English and French speaking licensed mental health practitioner in Berlin and online with over a decade of experience in private practice. Her approach combines body-oriented, emotion-focused, and attachment-based methods to help with anxiety, exhaustion, depression, grief and trauma.

Last Updated on January 29, 2024 by It’s Complicated

Imagine a tool that could serve as a map for navigating your emotional landscape, helping you categorize your feelings, understand them, experience them and guide you back to your authentic self. Well, look no further – that tool is the Change Triangle.

If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.” – Jack Kornfield

The Change Triangle is your compass not to get lost in the complexity that emotions are. It can show you where you stand within your emotional experience at any given moment: defensively shielding yourself from your emotions, stuck in inhibitory emotions like anxiety, shame, and guilt, or in touch with core emotions such as joy, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, or excitement that pave the way to your authentic self.

The version of the Change Triangle® we’re exploring here was introduced by US-American psychotherapist and author Hilary Jacobs Hendel in her 2018 book “It’s Not Always Depression: A New Theory of Listening to Your Body, Discovering Core Emotions, and Reconnecting with Your Authentic Self.” It represents a simplified version of a clinical model derived from AEDP – Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy – a psycho-therapeutic approach developed for over two decades by psychologist and psychotherapist Diana Fosha and her institute in New York.

Self-regulation is the ability to stay connected to oneself in the discomfort of emotions, the ability to be with what is intense, turbulent, chaotic.

Benefits of understanding emotions and working with the Change Triangle® 

As a therapist and a person I love this model because to me it’s deeply human. It makes it clear that self-regulation doesn’t equal calm. Per definition we can’t spend all of our lives in the state of the authentic self. We can’t bypass the mess. As Kristin Neff puts it, we can only thrive to become a compassionate mess. What happens around us affects us. Life constantly throws things at us. 

Self-regulation is a dynamic journey. It is not an untouchable place. On the contrary, self-regulation is the ability to stay connected to oneself in the discomfort of emotions, the ability to be with what is intense, turbulent, chaotic. And also the ability to know when we need others to help us in this journey. Regulation is exactly this movement down or up the triangle. Also defenses have a regulating function, in the long run it comes at a cost. Calmness, serenity and inner peace might be an outcome of regulation. 

Being able to identify where you stand on the Triangle and to know how to move up or down between the three corners and four states helps to navigate our personal experience. When I know where I stand I can be depressed and regulated,  I can be overwhelmed and regulated, I can be angry, excited, sad… and regulated.

Other benefits of working with the Change Triangle are:

  • Understanding emotions and how to regulate body and mind
  • Providing a language to talk about emotions in an embodied way
  • Reduces fear of emotions in general and fosters serenity and presence
  • Provides tools to reduce symptoms of blocked emotions such as anxiety and depression as well as to gain control over unconscious behavior patterns
  • Being able to process emotions make us less reactive and defensive
  • Understanding ourselves and others better by diving deeper than the apparent behavior
  • Fosters connection to self and to others as the foundation to healing
  • Allows and encourages to navigate different depth of experience without judgment 

The Change Triangle®: Everything you need to know

The Change Triangle serves as a guide to recognizing defence mechanisms and inhibitory emotions that prevent us from connecting with our core emotions. Visualize it as an inverted triangle with its apex pointing downward. In each corner, clockwise, starting on the upper left, you’ll find an emotional state: Defences, Inhibitory Emotions, and Core Emotions. Beneath the triangle lies the Openhearted State of the Authentic Self. 

Defences include everything we do not want to feel

Defences on the upper left corner encompass everything we do to avoid or numb our feelings. These can manifest as thoughts or behaviours that distract us from the discomfort associated with emotions. Some common examples include negative thought patterns, distractions, sarcasm, substance abuse and even depression. Sometimes we’re aware of our defence mechanisms; sometimes we’re not. They range from healthy coping mechanisms to destructive habits. We need them to navigate life but using them constantly disconnects us from our emotions and ourselves. Ideally, we use defences, when necessary, not as a constant crutch.

Keeping our true feelings inside: Anxiety, Shame, Guilt

Inhibitory emotions on the upper right corner include anxiety, shame, and guilt. They are intense physical states that block our core emotions. The pressure they exert against emerging core emotions can cause considerable discomfort. Inhibitory emotions serve as a defense against being overwhelmed by core emotions (anxiety) and adapting to our social surroundings (shame, guilt).

We learn about our feelings through social experiences, especially as infants, children, and adolescents. We learn which emotions are considered acceptable or unacceptable in our environment by observing and receiving the reactions of our caregivers or other adults and later, our peer group. Since our fundamental survival instinct is to stay connected with the people around us, negative or positive reactions shape how we deal with our emotions. For example, if as a child, every time you felt sad and cried, your parents instructed you to “think positively,” you learned that sadness was an unacceptable emotion and something you should avoid expressing. In this way, inhibitory emotions step in when core emotions become too intense. 

Inhibitory emotions arise when we’re in conflict with our core emotions – e.g. we believe that feeling angry makes us bad, that we’ll be rejected for expressing our joy or excitement about something, or that we simply don’t know how to feel our emotions. In this manner, anxiety, shame, and guilt keep us connected to our environment but also disconnected from ourselves. They act as emotional stop signs that pop up to halt the core emotions we’ve learned to deem unacceptable. These inhibitory emotions will resurface throughout our adult lives unless we actively work to change these patterns and relearn through different experiences.

Our compass: core emotions

Core emotions are hardwired in our brains (the limbic system) and are beyond our conscious control: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, disgust, and sexual arousal. Core emotions allow us to connect with ourselves and what matters to us. They inform us of our needs, what’s good for us, what we like, and what we don’t. Their function is to best adapt to our environment and always includes an impulse for action. For example, anger motivates us to set boundaries when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, and fear may alert us to a potentially dangerous situation.

Each core emotion carries its unique energy and feels distinct. All core emotions are experienced on a spectrum, ranging from mild to intense or even overwhelming experiences. How well we can feel and experience our emotions, how well we can emotionally regulate ourselves, depends on how well we were emotionally regulated when we were young. We learn self-regulation through our relationships with the people we grow up with. We need others to regulate ourselves (co-regulation). And even if we live in a society that puts independence above all else, also as adults, we need other people’s attunement to be able to experience, understand and accept our emotions.

Often, we haven’t learned how to feel our emotions. Tuning into a core emotion is like riding a wave. We notice the sensations arising within us and allow them to be until they diminish. Core emotions want to be felt and acknowledged. We need our bodies, our breath, our flexibility in movement, to remain grounded in emotional experiences and stay with the sensations until they peak and then recede like a wave. When we can move through a core emotion, a sense of relief or clarity often follows.

Being who we are: the openhearted state of the authentic self

The openhearted state of the authentic self refers to our essence and our experience when we feel connected to ourselves: calm, curious, connected, compassionate, confident, courageous, clear – and here, extended by creative. (The seven adjectives are borrowed from the description of the Self in Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy.) This state often emerges when we’ve fully experienced core emotions, e.g. after we let ourself cry or after a laughing attack. In this state, we often gain clarity on how we want to approach a situation. The situation might not be resolved, but the distress, pressure, and urgency we felt have dissipated, and we can move forward from a place of serenity.

How do I work with the Change Triangle® in therapy?

Here is what to do in each corner of the triangle:

Softening Defences

When we find ourselves in the corner of defences, we often feel stuck, tense, strained, rigid, drained… That’s what the little grid in the model stands for. Here we want to learn to soften the grid, validate it and possibly move it aside. 

It’s about recognising that with defences you’re protecting yourself from emotional pain or discomfort. When you become aware of your defence mechanisms, you can turn your attention inward and ask yourself, “What is happening within me that I don’t want to feel right now?” Cultivating a friendly attitude toward your defence mechanisms is crucial. It’s understandable that you often want to rid yourself of them because they can feel so uncomfortable. 

However, it’s rarely that simple and one-dimensional. Defence mechanisms serve us well and only have our best interests at heart. So, it’s important to develop understanding for them, acknowledge and appreciate them, while simultaneously learning and enabling other ways of dealing with emotions.

Calming and soothing inhibitory emotions

When we find ourselves in the corner of inhibitory emotions, we are stuck in an intense discomfort which is only getting worse. That’s what the spiral stands for. We need to learn to calm, ground and soothe those emotions. It’s about becoming aware of the sensations in your body that accompany anxiety, guilt, and shame. By directing your attention to your body, you can learn to calm and soothe these uncomfortable sensations, allowing the blocked core emotions to emerge. Once again, this involves a friendly, compassionate attitude that encourages and supports you to dive deeper. Most probably shame and guilt were learned in difficult situations in the past and anxiety is covering up for too intense or conflicting core emotions.

Riding the waves of core emotions

When we work our way through defences and inhibitory emotions we meet core emotions. In this corner it’s about perceiving and experiencing the bodily sensations of these emotions. Each emotion can be anchored in its physical experience. In a second step, you can acknowledge the emotions by naming them and making space for the experience of their waves in your body. An emotion rises within you and then subsides. In this movement, you also perceive the inherent messages and action impulses. Sometimes, you might not be sure what you’re feeling; with the Change Triangle, you can “try on” different emotions by asking yourself, “Am I feeling sad? Am I feeling afraid?” Sometimes, you may experience multiple emotions simultaneously. Experiencing core emotions ultimately reconnects you with your authentic self.

Embodied state of the Core Self: a place to be and come back to again and again

In the open state of the authentic self, the goal is to be there as often and for as long as possible. From here, you can confront life’s challenges with courage, curiosity, calmness, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, and a sense of connection to yourself and the world. This allows you to deal with what is, step by step. Your authentic self and its qualities are part of your core being and are always there for you. You can learn to reconnect with it actively by making space for your emotions and what moves you. This journey to yourself is an art form in life and an ongoing process and practice. The Change Triangle is a tool for your to achieve your most authentic state.


The Change Triangle is not just a theoretical construct of our emotional experience and their transformational power; it’s a practical tool you can use to navigate the complex terrain of your emotions in everyday life. By becoming familiar with its corners, you learn to pay attention inside, exploring your defences, inhibitory emotions, and core emotions. This self-awareness and self-compassion will guide you to the openhearted state of your authentic self, again and again, breath by breath and step by step.

Sources and Resources:

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, It’s not always depression. A new way of listening to your body, understanding core emotions and connecting to your authentic self, 2018

Hilary Jacobs Hendel also offers a lot of resources around the Change Triangle and understanding emotions on her website HERE

Diana Fosha, The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change, 2000

Diana Fosha (Hg.), Undoing Aloneness & the Transformation of Suffering into Flourishing: AEDP 2.0, 2021

More about Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy HERE

Richard C. Schwartz, Introduction to Internal Family System, 2001

SOS Emotions. Self-regulation with the Change Triangle. An online DIY course in eight modules for taking a deep dive in understanding and navigating your emotions. Soon out in German and English HERE.

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