The Triangle of Conflict

What do we mean by the triangle of conflict? It’s a concept that guides all interventions in ISTDP. So let’s start with our understanding of causality. We understand that a stimulus occurs in life, e.g., a man has an affair, and his wife finds out. In response to that stimulus, she has a feeling (anger). This feeling triggers anxiety in her body. And in response to that feeling and anxiety, the woman uses a defense to ward off her feeling and anxiety. This is important because defenses cause the symptoms and presenting problems patients bring to treatment. In other words, when you diagnose the patient, you will then want to find out what defenses create the symptoms that comprise her diagnosis.

Having clarified causality, let’s look at the triangle of conflict itself: feeling, anxiety, and defense. Let’s take that same woman whose husband had an affair. Suppose you ask her what the feeling is toward her husband. She can respond in only three ways: 1) she can respond with feeling by saying she is angry; 2) she can respond by becoming anxious; or 3) she can respond with a defense, e.g., denial, “I’ve gotten over it.”

If she responds with feeling, we explore feeling. If she responds with excessive anxiety, we regulate anxiety then explore feeling. If she responds with a defense, we help her see and let go of the defense then explore feeling. Notice what the triangle of conflict does for us: 1) it allows us to assess each patient response; 2) it tells us how to intervene; and 3) it tells us which defenses are causing the patient’s presenting problems and symptoms.

Thus, each time a patient responds to your interventions, you psychodiagnose her response: was it feeling, anxiety, or defense? Based on your psychodiagnosis, you know what to address to maintain an effective focus on feeling.

Usually a triangle of conflict is drawn to look like an equilateral triangle. But that is a mistaken image because the triangle of conflict is not static but dynamic. Really, an arrow should point from feeling to anxiety. An arrow should point from anxiety to defense. And an arrow should point from defense to feeling. Why? Because feelings trigger anxiety, anxiety triggers defenses, and defenses repress feelings. The triangle below illustrates this relationship. And the arrows beside the triangle illustrate the two basic movements: defenses repress feelings. Feelings cause anxiety to rise.

Another thing to keep in mind about the triangle of conflict is that it is not a static concept but a living reality, which occurs repeatedly in every session. When we ask the patient what the feeling is toward her husband, feeling rises within her. Within a split second she feels anxiety. We see a sigh. A split second after this, she uses a defense. Thus, moment-by-moment we see the process: feeling, anxiety, defense, one, two, three in that sequence. Thus, we see the triangle of conflict is not just a dynamic relation between feeling, anxiety, and defense, but it is a repeated sequential process that happens dozens, even hundreds, of times in each session.

Sometimes people wonder why we use the term “impulse/feeling” for the bottom of the triangle of conflict. For an answer, we have to turn to emotion research literature. As Ekman’s research showed in Emotions Revealed, there are a handful of basic emotions linked to innate facial expressions universally recognized around the world. Further, Frijda noted that some feelings are linked to adaptive action tendencies. For instance, when sad, we cry. When angry, we form fists and want to lash out. This is why in ISTDP, we invite feelings in three phases. First we ask, “What is the feeling toward your husband for having the affair?” Once the patient can label her feeling of anger, we ask, “How do you experience that anger physically in your body?” Once she can experience her anger physically, we ask, “What is the impulse that goes with that anger?” For the fullest experience of her feelings, we help the patient label her feeling, experience it, and experience the accompanying impulse.

Next: common misconceptions about the triangle of conflict








11 responses to “The Triangle of Conflict”

  1. Mickey Judd Avatar
    Mickey Judd

    Isn’t anger secondary as there is no real physical danger of annihilation? And fear is primary, the authentic feeling?

    1. Jon Frederickson Avatar
      Jon Frederickson

      Interesting question! First of all, following Anna Freud, fear is a response to an objective danger. Anxiety is a response to an internal danger. Thus, if a feeling such as anger, sadness, or joy made a caretaker anxious earlier in life, this anxiety in the caretaker could endanger the attachment. Thus, the child (as we know from attachment theory) will use defenses to hide whatever feeling the parent has trouble tolerating. These defenses become habitual over time. In therapy and life feelings are evoked by stimuli. Those feelings, following Damasio, Panksepp, and others, mobilize us to engage in adaptive behaviors. So if those feelings evoke anxiety and defenses, we no longer have access to these internal “guidance” systems that can direct our actions adaptively. For instance, if someone blocks your goal, you will feel anger. If you lose someone, you will feel sad. If you achieve a goal, you will feel joy. The anger will mobilize you to set a limit. The sadness will mobilize you to grieve. The joy will mobilize you to celebrate and continue working on your goals. If those feelings were difficult for others to tolerate earlier in life, those feelings will trigger anxiety and defenses. And the defenses will cause the symptoms and presenting problems that bring people to therapy.

  2. Mickey Judd Avatar
    Mickey Judd

    Thank you for your comments. I agree with everything that you said. The clarifications I suggest are:
    1) The anger you describe, for me, is the anger of frustration in attempting to meet a goal. For me, there is also the anger which is there to stop a perpetrator from violating us. And then finally there is indignant anger after the violation. This anger is outrage at what was done. How could you do that to me? Never again! Stop it!

    2) For me, the concept of defense is central and, for me, what brief therapy does not acknowledge and address is chronic habitual, protective, embodied, defensive structures from early childhood. These type structures arise from severe early childhood suppression and become stored in chronic, now unconscious holdings in our body. Wilhelm Reich discovered this over 80 years ago. An example of this is dowagers hump in elderly women and men

  3. Arun Avatar

    Thank you Jon.
    Does the balance of evidence suggest that individuals:
    (1) only respond to stressful events with either feeling, anxiety or defense
    and (2) that feeling is the healthiest of those responses?

    1. istdpadmin Avatar

      Yes, the evidence shows that facing reality and the feelings it triggers allows us to make the most adaptive responses. The defense we use to avoid feelings create the symptoms and problems we suffer from

    2. istdpadmin Avatar

      Ideally, we respond with feeling that we can channel into effective action. Our patients usually respond with a mixture of anxiety and defense which prevent them from engaging in adaptive action. Feeling is the healthiest response, if we can channel it into effective action.

    3. istdpadmin Avatar

      Stressful events always trigger feelings and anxiety. Whether we use a defense is the question. If we can bear the feelings and regulate our anxiety, we can channel our feelings into effective action. That is pretty normal. When we use a defense to avoid feelings and anxiety, the defenses will cause symptoms and presenting problems.

  4. Lasse Pallesen Avatar

    Thank you, Jon for this great explanation. As a therapist, one thing I find difficult is when a client responds with a feeling that really is a cover-up for his/her actual feeling, eg. responds with anger instead of underlying sadness. In this way a feeling becomes a defence against another feeling. How do you assess these dynamics?

    1. Lasse Pallesen Avatar

      Of course, sometimes there can be multiple feelings intertwined, which makes the process all the more complicated.

      Best Regards,
      Lasse Pallesen

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