Category Archives: Triangle of Conflict

The desire to be liked

“I have a question about the triangle of conflict. Are feelings always necessary for the formation of a presenting problem? Suppose you meet a stranger the first time, feel anxious, and, to make a good impression, you act superficially nice or smile too much. I understand that anxiety might rise because you fear rejection, but once you talk to the stranger, you would probably feel neutral. So the conflict appears to be between your desire to be liked, anxiety, and the defense to lower anxiety. Is this subtle desire the feeling base of the triangle? Thanks to Nikan for this stimulating question!
This question is so cool because it touches on a subtle theoretical distinction made by the affect researcher Silvan Tomkins. Tomkins noted that affects are the “amplifiers” of the drives. Thus, we might say attachment is an innate drive and affects are what give that drive energy.
Here, the patient has a drive to connect to another human being. Given the history of that drive, the patient has a variety of feelings, which arise, based upon his attachment history, and these feelings are paired through conditioning with that drive. Thus, whenever he wants to be liked, mixed feelings arise.
Some patients have very good attachment histories and the mixed feelings that arise will not be too intense or conflictual, thus little or no unconscious anxiety will arise. In this case, something else happens.
Drive: he wants to connect. Feelings: mixed feelings rise as he connects. Anxiety: as his feelings arise, he becomes anxious. Defense: to ward off that anxiety he has the thought that the therapist will reject him (projection) and then acts superficially nice and smiles in response to the supposed rejector (secondary defense in response to the projection).
If the patient’s projection is primarily in the form of intellectualization and his anxiety is in the striated muscles, merely talking to the therapist will bring anxiety down, and the thoughts about the therapist will diminish quickly. If the patient’s projection is primarily in the resistance system of projection and anxiety is in cognitive/perceptual disruption, neither the patient’s anxiety nor his projection will drop just from talking to the therapist. Anxiety regulation and restructuring the projection will be necessary.
So, short answer: yes, feelings are necessary for conflict. But we must differentiate feelings from the drives they amplify. Remember Leigh McCullough’s lovely statement on this. She asked us to remember how powerful the sexual drive supposedly is. Yet, once the emotion of anxiety enters the picture, notice how suddenly sex turns into a paper tiger!

No answer I ever give is good enough!

A client spent 2 sessions ruminating no matter how much I try to block him, saying he needs to understand the process of therapy before he engages. I identified and clarification to no avail (I didn’t challenge him as he was quite fragile). He just insisted he needed to understand before he continued.

So after a while I asked him if it is his will to do therapy, and he then spent a long time wondering what will is. After a while I mirrored it, “OK sure. Shall we spend 20 sessions understanding what will is, before we finally work on your depression? Let’s leave you drowning in that pit of anxiety and depression while we figure out what will is, then we can pull you out. How many sessions do you think we need?”

He then admitted this made him feel angry at me, while at the same time realizing that all I had done was mirror his words back to him. We had a productive session exploring his anger afterwards to me but I wasn’t sure if that anger was the right anger to explore.

Triangle of conflict: mixed feelings toward you; anxiety; wall of rumination, self-deprivation.

First of all: WOW!! You were fantastic here! You understood that his defense of self-deprivation was syntonic. So you mirrored it. Then he could see how he was sabotaging himself and depriving himself and asking you to collaborate with his self-defeating behavior. Albert, that was just brilliant.  Next, he says he is angry with you. I would still work on restructuring. “Yes, you are angry with me right now. But if I were you, I would be more angry at that self-depriving, self-sabotaging habit that has been hurting you. Do you see what I mean? It sounds like you thought I would hold you back, but now can you see how the rumination holds you back?” See, if he is angry with you as if you sabotage him, he will remain paranoid, unable to have an intrapsychic perspective where he sees the He causes His difficulties. This is a subtlety of differentiating the patient from his defenses, and then establishing correct causality: Albert doesn’t cause his problems, his defenses cause his problems. Always good to help patients get clear about that:-)