The Nature of Emotional Triangles

The basic emotional triangle.
The most important diagram of my life.

Apologies to my readers — I indicated in an earlier post The Nature of Burnout, Part 1 that there would be a second, and I got distracted. However, to do the topic justice, I need to discuss the nature of emotional triangles first. So here we go.

In looking over what I have written in the past few months, I am surprised that I have given so little attention to this concept, a core concept in how I respond to life. Briefly I described them earlier in “You Should, Part 3 (Emotional Triangles).” This concept is actually my best way of examining many concepts, especially both burnout and leadership.

An emotional triangle is any two people and a third person or issue (human beings relate both to people and issues). An important aspect of the triangle is what is called the third limb, the side of the triangle that I do not directly touch. It is a relative term, referring to the side opposite any given person; for example, in the triangle involving me, you and this posting (the issue), my third limb is the relationship between you and the posting; your third limb is the relationship between me and the posting. Thus, given the number of people in my life, and the number of issues (my own and those of others), I (and every person) exist in thousands of interlocking emotional triangles (the number of emotional triangles increases exponentially as more people and/or issues are added). The interlocking is what we refer to as stability, but it is also our stuckness — systems by definition attempt to maintain stability.

There are three laws of emotional triangles (with corollaries), applicable to any emotional triangle:

  1. I can only change myself, and my relationships with others. I cannot change others.
    • When I become anxious of others and attempt to change them (the third limb), the results are not predictable.
    • Unless the other chooses to cooperate, the other will resist, and eventually do the opposite of what I want.
    • As a result of this resistance, my exposure to pain will increase.
  2. If I change, others must change. We are connected.
    • If my change is effective in responding to the system, others will sabotage me; they will resist my change (because they will also be required to change).
    • Sabotage will occur even if my change adds health to the system (systems have an inherent need to remain stable).
  3. Change requires I stay connected.
    • My presence impacts others. If I leave, the system will revert to its original state (unless my original impact was so great that the system has established a new equilibrium as a result).
    • The essential skill is for me to remain non-anxious as the system responds, especially as sabotage occurs.

SerenityOperationally, this is the Serenity Prayer in action (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference). What the Serenity Prayer does not identify is that the sabotage is predictable, and actually guaranteed to the extent that my change is effective in response to the system. It is a measure of success!

Although these laws may seem very simple, they are also incredibly subtle in how they play out in life; they had a major impact on my life once I learned how to live them. I will have more to say on this when I do some posts on the work of Ed Friedman, one of my major mentors (now deceased). Ed wrote three books, all of which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in emotional process:

  • (1985) Generation to generation: Family process in church and synagogue. New York, NY: Guilford.
  • (1990) Friedman’s Fables. New York, NY: Guilford.
  • (2007) A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. M. M. Treadwell, & E. W. Beal, Eds. New York, NY: Seabury Books.1990

The essential skill of leadership and of managing burnout is to recognize the predictability of sabotage, and to remain non-anxious as I respond further.

To re-iterate what I said in The Nature of Burnout, Part 1:

Leaders lead others; they manage themselves.

Coming next: The Nature of Burnout, Part 2

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