Misconceptions about the Triangle of Conflict

Sometimes people misunderstand the triangle of conflict, so let’s clarify a few of those misconceptions. Sometimes people talk about the triangle of conflict as if we are talking about conscious feelings, conscious anxiety, and conscious defenses. In ISTDP, we are referring to unconscious feelings, unconscious anxiety in the body, and unconscious defenses.

First, when the patient declares her anger, if she is in conflict, we understand that her conscious anger is connected to unconscious rage, which is currently repressed. It is the unconscious repressed rage that triggers the unconscious anxiety. Visually, imagine an iceberg. If that were an emotion, one tenth of the iceberg is above water. That is conscious feeling. Nine tenths of the feeling is under water. That is unconscious emotion pushing up to consciousness.

Second, when we refer to anxiety, we are not referring to conscious thoughts like “I’m afraid.” We refer to unconscious anxiety in the body, discharged through the somatic and autonomic nervous system. This anxiety is triggered non-consciously, outside the patient’s awareness. And unless the patient pays attention to her body, she will not be aware of anxiety that is being discharged in her body. Patients’ conscious thoughts about anxiety are not the physical experience of anxiety in the body itself.

Third, when we talk about defenses, most of the time we are talking about defenses outside the patient’s awareness. At least 95% of the defenses a patient uses are outside her awareness at the beginning of therapy.

Some confusion exists in the field regarding anxiety, since some propose that the anxiety pole of the triangle of conflict should be named an inhibitory pole. Some believe that feelings like shame and guilt have the same function as anxiety. Unfortunately, this confuses anxiety, which has the function of signaling danger, with defense, which has an inhibitory function. Let’s clarify that.

As Panksepp (Affective Neuroscience) and Porges (The Polyvagal Theory) have shown, fear is an emotion we have inherited from the reptiles and mammals. After all, any animal that doesn’t have fear becomes dinner! In the animal world, fear signals danger to survival, automatically triggering the animal to fight, flee, or freeze. For us humans, this fear response can be triggered by objective dangers such as the nut who swerves into our lane on the freeway. However, most often it is triggered by feelings that could endanger a relationship. When the fear response is triggered by feelings, we call it anxiety. It signals that a feeling could endanger the safety of a relationship. In turn, it triggers the defenses, which repress that “dangerous” feeling.

So what about guilt? Well guilt is complicated enough, I devoted an entire blog to it, so you can review what I said there. Basically, I pointed out the differences between conscious and unconscious guilt and defenses of self-attack and so-called “guilty feelings.” None of those belong on the anxiety pole.

But, you ask, what about shame? Traditionally, shame has been described as the feeling we have when we do not live up to our ideal. As such, it is a message that we have diverted from our best self and it can motivate us to change course in our lives to live up to our ideals.

However, the kind of shame we run into therapy is rarely of that sort. Instead, the patient shares a feeling, perhaps sadness. Anxiety rises, and the patient begins to report feeling shame. In fact, upon inquiry we usually find that the patient is engaging in a subtle form of self-attack, shaming himself we might say. So, in fact, the shame is a defensive affect, the result of the defense of self-attack. Or a patient might report feeling angry, become anxious, then report feeling shame. Upon inquiry, we learn that she imagines we are judging her. Thus, her projection of the superego, imagining that we are shaming her, leads her to feel shame. Again, the shame is a defensive affect resulting from the defense of projection of the superego.

Thus, although we clearly agree on the crippling impact of shame and the defenses that generate it, it does not have the same function as anxiety: to signal the emergence of a feeling that at one time was believed to be dangerous to a relationship.

 

8 thoughts on “Misconceptions about the Triangle of Conflict

  1. Juliana Kunz

    How about, say, test anxiety or public speaking anxiety? Those aren’t really objective dangers but I suppose they could be dangerous to one’s social standing.

    Reply
    1. Jon Frederickson

      The problem here is not presenting, but rather the projections onto the audience and the ruminations about possible problems that could occur. Thus, the defenses of projection and rumination create imaginary dangers, amplifying and sustaining anxiety. So we need to focus, not on the presentation but, on the projections and ruminations that are a form of self-torture. In these situations, patients often think their presentation is triggering anxiety when, in fact, their projections and ruminations are creating the problem.

      Reply
      1. Juliana Kunz

        That makes sense. I was just asking because you were saying that fear is triggered either by objective dangers or feelings that could endanger a relationship. So I guess you’re saying that for people with a fear of public speaking, something about speaking in public brings up a feeling that could have been dangerous to a past relationship?

        Reply
        1. Jon Frederickson

          Exactly. And let’s remember that public speaking is not an objective danger like a car careening off of the street, coming straight at you on the sidewalk! When people are afraid of public speaking, feelings rise based on sharing thoughts and feelings in earlier relationships. Anxiety rises. Then defenses of projection and ruminating about possible awful consequences create defensive affects of imaginary fear. I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said he had suffered many disasters in his life…..most of them imaginary.

          Reply
          1. Juliana Kunz

            Hmm, on further reflection, I don’t disagree that what you describe is a factor for many, many people in that situation. At the same time, don’t you agree that there are some kinds of situations which, while not objectively dangerous in an immediate sense, still create some kind of natural “rush,” independent of past relational experiences, which can contribute to an overall picture of anxiety?

  2. Jon Frederickson

    Of course! The question is this: does it arouse enough anxiety to provide a certain edge and energy to the presentation? Adaptive. Or does it overwhelm the speaker with anxiety, damaging the presentation? Maladaptive. When maladaptive levels of anxiety are triggered, we can be confident that defenses are interfering.

    Reply
  3. Juliana Kunz

    Thank you for the answer. I think that does square with my experience. If I’m not thinking about it very hard, I would say that I was afraid of public speaking but then I just got used to it to the point where it feels more exciting than terrifying. But if I remember more closely, in the beginning I was actually worried that people were going to see how nervous I was (which clearly was a feedback loop). I never really found out what would have been so bad about people seeing that I was shaking or what else might have been under that, but the excessive anxiety started to go away after I got feedback on my speaking and realized I appeared confident even when I felt the opposite.

    Reply
    1. Jon Frederickson

      Exactly my point! The presentation was not the problem. The problem was that you feared people would judge you for being anxious rather than understand and have compassion. That projection created an additional unnecessary stressor. Once you got the corrective feedback, the projection dropped and you felt fine.

      Reply

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