Using the Change Triangle to Liberate Your Emotions & Reconnect with Your Authentic Self

Written by Guy Reichard

May 10, 2023

How Your Emotions Can Lead to Self-Discovery, Healing and Growth

In our fast-paced, stress-driven world, prioritizing and carving out time for Self Discovery, Personal Development and Self Care, is not the norm, and in some ways, it’s even discouraged.

People are constantly hustling, juggling work, family, and social obligations. It can feel like there isn’t any time or value in slowing down to focus on our inner worlds so we can tend to our psychological and emotional needs.

In a variety of business circles, and in many families to be frank, emotions are still considered a touchy-feely subject that has no perceived value.

Even in more human-centric circles, the concept of Emotional Intelligence is very popular and carries weight but many think that the only aim of working with emotions is to learn to override the difficult, uncomfortable and unwanted ones, which are mistakenly called ‘Negative Emotions’. This only leads to Toxic Positivity, which is harmful to our wellbeing.

But what if taking the time to explore and learn how to process our emotions effectively was actually the key to unlocking our full potential and achieving true psychological healing, growth and success?

That is the idea behind the Change Triangle, a powerful tool I share with both my resilience and executive coaching clients for self-discovery and emotional healing. It was developed by psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, and so well explained in her book called, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self”.

Based on the principles of AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), Psychoanalytic Theory, IFS, Attachment Theory, and Neuroscience, the Change Triangle is a framework for understanding the relationship between our emotions, our thoughts, our behaviors, and how they can either hold us back or propel us forward in our personal and professional lives.

In this article, we will explore the Change Triangle and discuss how it can help us:

  • better understand our emotions and how to process them,
  • be aware of automatic defenses and reduce the interference of maladaptive patterns,
  • embrace uncomfortable inhibiting emotions so we can get closer to our true, core emotions
  • connect with our authentic selves to foster Self Leadership,
  • and develop the inner capacities that promote a greater sense of emotional wellbeing and resilience.

The Basics of the Change Triangle

At the bottom point of the triangle, you have your Core Emotions – the ones we’re all born with the capacity to experience, which include joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, excitement and sexual excitement.

These are the emotions that we are meant to experience in response to the environment, others, even to the thoughts in our head, so that we can respond quickly and appropriately in a way the enhances or protects life.

Core emotions are at the bottom of the triangle pointing at you, your open-hearted, authentic self.

According to the Change Triangle model, when we experience a core emotion, it activates a set of biological responses that help us maximize or cope with the situation.

The purpose of each emotion:

  • Fear: The purpose of fear is to protect us from danger by alerting us to potential threats and motivating us to avoid them.
  • Anger: The purpose of anger is to assert boundaries and protect ourselves from harm, as well as to motivate us to take action when we feel that our needs or values have been violated.
  • Sadness: The purpose of sadness is to help us process loss or disappointment, and to signal the need for comfort and support from others.
  • Joy: The purpose of joy is to signal safety and pleasure, and to encourage us to seek out positive experiences.
  • Excitement: The purpose of excitement is to motivate us to explore and engage with our environment, and to build anticipation and energy around positive experiences.
  • Sexual Excitement: The purpose of sexual excitement is to motivate us to seek out and engage in sexual behavior, not only to procreate but to facilitate connection and intimacy with others.
  • Disgust: The purpose of disgust is to protect us from potential harm by signaling the need to avoid or reject certain experiences or stimuli.
Some tips on recognizing and processing emotions:

Emotions can be recognized through physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviors. Pay attention to your body’s physical sensations such as tension, heaviness, or warmth, as well as your thoughts and behaviors in response to certain situations. Emotions also have different qualities such as intensity, duration, and frequency, which can help you identify and label them.

When we aren’t in tune with our emotions, can’t feel them, ignore them, or try to override them, we can end up with anxiety, depression, or other psychological distress. The Change Triangle, and several other psychological frameworks, recognize and work with the link between blocked emotions and mental illness.

Basically, when one of our emotions is blocked, inhibiting emotions take their place. These inhibiting emotions include guilt, anxiety and shame. As you surely know, these are very uncomfortable emotions to experience. They are downright painful and we will do a lot to avoid them.

  • Guilt: The purpose of guilt is to signal that we have violated our own moral code or values, and to motivate us to make amends or take corrective action. However, excessive or misplaced guilt can lead to self-criticism and a sense of unworthiness, which can interfere with our emotional wellbeing.
  • Anxiety: The purpose of anxiety is to alert us to potential threats or dangers, and to motivate us to take action to protect ourselves. However, excessive or chronic anxiety can interfere with our ability to function and connect with others, leading to feelings of isolation and distress.
  • Shame: The purpose of shame is to signal that we have violated social norms or expectations, and to motivate us to conform or seek forgiveness. However, excessive or chronic shame can lead to a sense of worthlessness and self-blame, which can interfere with our ability to form meaningful relationships and experience a sense of self-worth.
Identifying Inhibiting Emotions

Inhibiting emotions like guilt, anxiety, and shame can be identified through negative self-talk, avoidance behaviors, and physical symptoms such as sweating, feeling shaky, heaviness, stomach upset, restlessness, and a rapid heartbeat. These disturbing emotions and sensations often interfere with daily activities and lead to self-destructive, avoidance-driven behaviors.

We may experience these painful emotions anywhere from brief moments (milliseconds) to enduring moods and states. For most people, these are fairly instant before triggering the behavioral responses known as defenses, which I’ll get into below.

Why Would an Emotion be Blocked?

Any Core Emotion or several of them, can get blocked as the result of early childhood experiences that taught us that it wasn’t safe to register and express our emotions openly. Instead, we learned to suppress them and channel them into other emotions, behaviors or thought patterns for survival’s sake, so we could continue to get our needs met.

For example, if you grew up in an environment where expressing anger was frowned upon, or even dangerous, your psyche may have learned to override it and repress it, and as a result, you will experience Guilt, Anxiety &/or Shame in its place. This will prompt a specific, learned behavior in you that protected you from the harm your psyche understood would have been incurred by experiencing and acting on the true core emotion.

Though the origins of these patterns often come from childhood, they are also learned during adverse and traumatic experiences later in life as well.

Inhibiting emotions are not how we cope with our blocked emotions. They are just a prelude to what comes next. We do, however, sometimes get stuck in them.


As a by-product of core emotions being blocked and experiencing the disturbing, uncomfortable and often painful inhibiting emotions, we develop behavioral defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that emotional pain.

These defenses are a vast, and perhaps endless array of behaviors that include any action that relieves or reduces or replaces that pain with another experience. Let me stress again, ‘any’ action, not only ones that seem protective in nature.

Examples of Defenses

Here is quite an extensive list of common examples you are probably familiar with. None of these is inherently wrong or bad, it’s just that they are uncontrollable, and not necessarily the most effective or self-led response you could be having to a situation if you were to experience and process the authentic core emotion.

We get so accustomed to these defenses, we often think “This is just who I am!”:

  • Avoidance in any form
  • Joking around
  • Being sarcastic
  • Ill-timed or simply fake smiling
  • Ill-timed laughter
  • Vagueness
  • Changing the subject midstream or forgetting the thought
  • Avoiding eye contact / turning away
  • Mumbling instead of enunciating
  • Low-talking, going quiet or dropping the tone
  • Constant apologizing
  • Going mute – freezing up
  • Not listening
  • Spacing out
  • Getting Tired / Exhausted
  • Self Critical / Inner Critic
  • Outer Critic
  • People-Pleasing
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastinating
  • Preoccupying
  • Negative thinking
  • Judging others
  • Judging ourselves
  • Prejudice
  • Grandiosity – One Upping
  • Coming from Shame or Victimhood – One Downing
  • Misguided aggression
  • Working too much
  • Numbness
  • Helplessness
  • Over-exercising
  • Over-eating
  • Under-eating
  • Being secretive
  • Obsessions
  • Addictions
  • Suicidal ideas
  • And believe it or not – states like anxiety and depression themselves, irritability, pain and many other physical and psychological states.

These are some of the observable behaviors our psyche uses to protect ourselves from the pain or discomfort of the Inhibiting Emotions as a result of blocked core emotions, and the fear we learned from our adverse experiences.

Perfectionism Example

Amanda was a straight-A student throughout her academic career. She was always at the top of her class, and her parents praised her for her achievements. They also judged her severely and without intention, made her feel badly when she didn’t achieve well enough. Amanda worked hard to maintain her perfect record, studying for hours every day and sacrificing her social life to ensure that she excelled academically.

Despite periods of intense anxiety, and loneliness, Amanda graduated from college with honors and landed a job at a prestigious law firm. Her work was praised by her colleagues and superiors, and she quickly climbed the ranks. However, Amanda became increasingly anxious about making mistakes and not meeting her own high standards. She worked late nights and weekends to ensure that her work was flawless, often sacrificing time with her friends and family.

One day, Amanda was asked to present a report to the firm’s partners. She spent weeks preparing for the presentation, obsessing over every detail and rehearsing her speech over and over again. On the day of the presentation, she was so nervous that she stumbled over her words and lost her place in the report. She was devastated and felt like a failure.

After the presentation, Amanda’s boss pulled her aside and told her that while her work was excellent, her perfectionism was starting to interfere with her ability to function in the workplace. Amanda was taken aback and defensive, insisting that her perfectionism was what made her successful in the first place. She couldn’t imagine functioning any other way. She believed this was who she was.

Amanda’s perfectionism served as a defense against feelings of inadequacy, ‘not good enough’, and fear of failure. Her parents’ praise and societal pressure to achieve success fueled her perfectionistic tendencies, but ultimately, it caused her anxiety and interfered with her ability to function. It wasn’t until her boss pointed out the negative effects of her perfectionism that Amanda was able to see the need for change.

What Core Emotion might have been blocked?

FEAR: The core emotion that might have been blocked is the fear of not being good enough or the fear of failure. These underlying emotions can drive a person to engage in perfectionistic behaviors as a way to cope with and avoid feeling these uncomfortable emotions. By striving for perfection and achieving a high level of success, Amanda may feel a temporary sense of relief from these fears, but ultimately the underlying emotions remain unaddressed and can continue to drive her behavior.

Just to be sure – please be deeply aware that defenses are not inherently good or bad, and everyone uses them to some extent. However, when defenses become habitual or automatic, they mean we are not fully processing our emotions and living from a deep connection to our authentic self. Also, it makes experiencing deep emotional healing impossible. Recognizing and working through these defenses is an important part of emotional growth and development.

Sidebar: The Change Triangle also connects with the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model that informs my Self Leadership Coaching. IFS suggests that we have an Authentic Self and we have multiple sub-personalities or ‘parts’ within us, each with their own set of emotions, beliefs, experiences, behavioral capacities and repertoires (defenses).

Many of us get cut off from our Authentic Self (and core emotions) and some of our parts take on protective roles (survival strategies) that lead us through life, ultimately maladaptively.

The protective parts themselves become fragmented and polarized with each other. Operating on auto-pilot in response to stress, adversity and trauma.

That is why we often do things that are in direct opposition to what we think are our best interests.

From this vantage point, the Protector Parts are the ones doing the Defenses.

People-Pleasing Example

Daniel had always been a people-pleaser, and it had served him well throughout his career. He was the one who would always say yes to any request his colleagues or boss made, even if it meant staying late or working on weekends. He thought it was the key to success, and everyone seemed to like him for it.

However, things changed when Daniel got a new boss, a woman named Karen. Karen was a bully and had a reputation for being difficult to work with. She would criticize everything Daniel did, no matter how hard he tried. Despite his best efforts, she was never satisfied, and Daniel started to feel like he was walking on eggshells around her.

One day, Karen asked Daniel to work on a project over the weekend, which would mean canceling plans he had with his family. Daniel hesitated but ultimately agreed, not wanting to upset Karen or risk losing his job. He worked all weekend, barely sleeping, and submitted the project on Monday.

But instead of thanking him, Karen found several mistakes and criticized him in front of the whole team. Daniel felt embarrassed and humiliated, but he couldn’t bring himself to confront her or stand up for himself. He continued to try to please her, hoping that one day she would see his hard work and appreciate him.

As time went on, Daniel’s stress levels increased, and he started to experience anxiety and even panic attacks, which ultimately led to a period of deep depression. At that point he began therapy and came to realize that his need to please others was causing him to neglect his own needs and health.

What Core Emotions might have been blocked?

ANGER: Daniel may have felt angry towards his boss for the way she was treating him but he suppressed or repressed this emotion to avoid confrontation and maintain a positive relationship with her. Instead, he prioritized his boss’s needs over his own and focused on pleasing her. This pattern of behavior can lead to feelings of resentment, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

FEAR: Prior to the anger at Karen, it’s possible that the fear of not being liked or accepted was the core emotion that was blocked for Daniel. People-pleasers often feel that their worth and identity are tied to their ability to make others happy so they can gain their approval and acceptance. As a result, they often suppress their true feelings and needs out of fear that expressing them and asserting themselves will lead to conflict, or worse, rejection.

Using the Change Triangle

So how do we use the Change Triangle to bring ourselves back to emotional health? The key is to learn how to identify and feel our real emotions, even the ones that we’ve been taught to suppress or avoid, so we can reconnect with the Authentic Self, and be who we really are.

Letting ourselves feel our inhibitory emotions lets us get to deal with the blocks to feeling our authentic core emotions. When we do, we’ll be in closer connection to our Authentic Selves. As such, we will be in a more whole, resourceful, non-reactive state and mindset where we can choose to respond in a more understanding, wise, loving, fair, or tough, assertive, courageous way.

When we feel our real feelings, so much of the time we don’t even have to do anything else. It stops the rumination, the worrying, the spinning, the preoccupation, the constant defending and the conflict rehearsal we often do when we’re stuck in a loop avoiding our core emotions. So much freedom comes if we can process and metabolize our authentic, core emotions.

Exploring Emotions

So where do we really start? We usually start with the problems caused by our Defenses.

Notice the Defense and press pause.

Let’s use the Defense of Procrastination as an example.

If you’re used to being a hardworking, driven, high-achieving person, and there are some things you procrastinate on, and you know it’s becoming a problem for you – then we can turn to the Change Triangle as a map to guide you backwards towards the Inhibiting Emotions, and then back towards the Core Emotion/s.

Here is an abridged version of the work inspired by The Change Triangle. There’s really a lot more to this, and it isn’t a simple quick fix. This is actually really challenging but necessary work. It is ultimately liberating and will help you in so many ways. I suggest reading the book and if you’re interested, consider my program that includes this work called The HeartRich Resilience Fundamentals.

  • Notice the pattern /defense
    Procrastination: “I’m usually driven and hard-working, why do I keep stalling on this commitment?”
  • Try to find the trigger/s
    “Working backwards, once I noticed I procrastinated, I can ask what I was thinking about before I slipped into some other task. I can ask, how did I feel?
  • Think about the triggers and you might feel the Inhibitory Emotions (Anxiety / Guilt / Shame)
    “I felt anxiety. And maybe a little guilt.”
  • Notice and Calm the Inhibitory Emotion
    “I understand and accept this uncomfortable feeling, anxiety. I can be with this and calm this in my body without turning away from it.”
  • What might you be really feeling?
    “With some ease in the anxiety and guilt, I can ask myself – what might I really be feeling. Is it sadness? anger? fear? joy? excitement? sexual excitement? disgust?”
  • Name the Core Emotion and validate it
    “When I land on the one/s that feels right, I validate it and accept it. I already know the purpose of each emotion and I don’t judge them.”
  • Sense the emotion and feel it
    “I allow myself to feel what my system feels. I give myself permission and room to experience this emotion.”
  • Ride the emotional wave till it’s complete, possibly using fantasy/imagination to complete the action associate with the core emotion
    “One of the emotions is Anger. I didn’t want to frickin do that favor for that manipulative s-o-b! He always gets me to say yes to things I don’t want to do. Also, I had some Fear that if I said no, my wife would be upset or embarrassed. I also had some fear of my own that if I didn’t say yes, I’d be judged and they’d think I was rude. Anger…. Fear…. I can use my imagination to play out the conversation differently. What would I have said if I was just being totally transparent and real?”
  • Be more in touch with your Authentic Self
    8 Cs & 5 Ps of Self Leadership – Connectedness, Calm, Courage, Confidence, Clarity, Curiosity, Creativity, Compassion, Presence, Perspective, Patience, Persistence, Playfulness
    View the whole situation from this vantage point and consider long-term solutions from this wiser, calmer, more compassionate place
    “I can let myself have this inner experience and still choose to do the favor because I said yes already, but not next time. Next time, I’ll say No and I’ll make it clear that I don’t want to do these types of things again. I know that’ll probably bring up some anxiety and maybe some guilt but I’d rather be on my own side and take care of myself than live this way.”

Ultimately, working through defenses in The Change Triangle requires a willingness to be vulnerable and open to emotional experiences. It involves acknowledging and processing uncomfortable emotions, even when it feels difficult or scary to do so. However, by working through these defenses and allowing for emotional healing, you can experience a deeper sense of self-awareness and emotional fulfillment.

Bringing Parts Back In

As I alluded to earlier, IFS is a form of therapy based on the idea that our psyche is made up of different parts or sub-personalities, each with its own set of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. These parts aim to protect us but often can be actually destructive, and they can play a significant role in our emotional experiences and behavior.

The Change Triangle can be used in conjunction with IFS to help us identify and work with these parts. By exploring our emotions and identifying our defenses, we can gain a better understanding of the specific parts that are driving our behavior. This can allow us to work with those parts directly, rather than simply trying to suppress or avoid them.

The Inner Critic part may tell us that we are not good enough to handle it, or our perfectionist part may drive us to work harder and harder to prepare. These parts are trying to protect us from the discomfort of the anxiety, but they may actually end up exacerbating it in the long run.

For example, if we notice that our inner critic part is causing us to engage in negative self-talk and self-doubt, we can work to connect with that part and understand why it is behaving that way. Through this process, we may discover that the inner critic part is trying to protect us from feelings of vulnerability or failure. By acknowledging and working with that part, we can find more effective ways to address those underlying emotions, such as practicing self-compassion and developing a more positive self-image.

According to IFS, our Authentic Self is the core of our being – the part of us that is always calm, curious, compassionate, and confident. However, the Authentic Self can become obscured by our protective and defensive parts, which often take over in response to painful or challenging situations. These parts can create a kind of internal chaos or fragmentation, leaving us feeling disconnected from our Authentic Self.


The Change Triangle and IFS provide frameworks for working with our protective and defensive parts and help us move towards a greater sense of inner wholeness and connection with our Authentic Self.

By exploring our emotions and identifying our parts, we can start to understand the underlying reasons for our behavior and learn to work with those parts in more understanding, compassionate and constructive ways. Working these processes involves acknowledging and honoring the protective functions of these parts and our defenses, while also working to address the underlying emotional origins that are driving them.

As we work with our parts and unblock our emotions, we can begin to experience a greater sense of inner calm and connection with our Authentic Self. This can help us to feel more grounded and centered in our lives, and to make decisions and choices that align with our deepest values and aspirations. Ultimately, this work can lead to greater personal growth, freedom, wellbeing and fulfillment, and a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.

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