Turns out, this is actually pretty common. Why?
In a recent post I described the Triangle of Conflict. When feelings or impulses begin to make their way into our consciousness we get anxious and use defenses to manage the anxiety and avoid the feelings. While there are many times where it might be ok to put aside our feelings “in the moment”, constant avoidance of the emotions can often result in physical and mental illness.
There is a second triangle: The Triangle of Persons.
Where the Triangle of Conflict is used as a way to understand how we cope with feelings and anxiety, the Triangle of Persons helps us understand why a person might act the way they do when they are in the room with us.
The typical Triangle of Persons has 3 corners: Therapist, Others, and Past. Even though this is a “therapist model” it can be useful for anyone, so we can say “Present Moment” rather than Therapist. The idea is pretty straight forward. When someone comes to see me as a patient, they have often come because relationship difficulties in the past (bottom of the triangle) are being “replayed” in present day relationships (top right). As a therapist, just sitting in the room, being present and encouraging the patient to feel the mixed feelings the have been avoiding (Triangle of Conflict) makes it likely that the patient will try to also replay that relationship in the present moment (top left).
For example, when MJ came to see me she was having a lot of problems with anxiety and depression. In our conversations we found out that one of her biggest stressors was her husband. She described him as cold and without emotion. This was causing her a lot of distress because MJ is a very warm and affectionate person. She had a lot of strong mixed emotions towards her husband (like love AND anger). When I would do my best to be present with MJ in the room and encouraged her to feel these emotions towards her husband she began to get angry with me and began to treat me as if I was her husband! She began to fear that I would reject her in the same way her husband did, that I would be invalidating, cold and emotionless. As a result she started to have a lot of mixed feelings towards me. Appreciation for being present with her and anger that I should ask her to give up her defenses. When she did give up those defenses it allowed her to experience her emotions towards me (Therapist) and then towards her husband (Others). It was at that point that she recognized that her relationship with her husband looked a lot like the relationship she had with her father (Past). Why this happens is perhaps a topic for another post, but generally it relates to the fact that when there is an injury to an early attachment (parents) we often try and ‘fix’ that damage in future relationships. Unfortunately we often end up repeating the cycle that caused the injury in the first place. This brings us full circle – Why do we pick the same [bad] potential partners? Because often we are trying to ‘fix’ our early relationships.
So what can we do about that? What we’ve suggested in a number of posts is: sit with the feelings, allow yourself to experience them, and make decisions from the strong and healthy self.
That is a pretty tall order, though. To start with just try noticing.You can start to figure out where you are on the Triangle of Conflict and the Triangle of Persons. Start to try and take notice of your body. When do you feel anxious? What feelings are underneath those anxious feelings? Are you bringing in defenses to avoid the feelings? Who are you anxious with? Do they remind you of someone else in your life – present or past?
Maybe you can begin to unravel your Triangle of Persons. I know I’ve been working at it for years now. It is a lot of work, one that often needs help, but it is extremely rewarding and has been incredibly important work that has helped me operate from the Strong and Healthy Self.