Anger #12 Emotional Triangles

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

Comment: As noted, this is the most useful concept I have encountered, in over twenty-five years of researching emotional issues.

MacQuarrie Email Program #12 — Emotional Triangles

The concept of emotional triangles, what I also call the Three Laws of Relationships, is the most important concept that I have encountered in my personal growth work. The laws seem simple, but they are also incredibly subtle in how they operate.

Before describing them, I want to describe what I call the Three Laws of Experience, again very simple but very subtle. (Usually these laws do not show up in obvious fashion, but they are often in the background, so watch for them.) These laws supplement the Laws of Relationships.

  1. All human beings want positive experience (love, respect, acceptance, et cetera).
  2. It is easier to get negative experience (conflict, pain, et cetera) than it is to get positive.
  3. Negative experience is better than no experience.

Consider: if you put two kids alone in a room with fifty toys on the floor, what is predictable? They will fight over one toy, right! Why? The mechanism is hidden in the Laws of Experience.

Put one child in a room with 50 toys. The child will play quietly for a while, and then will “bug” the parents — “I’m bored! Come play with me.” Right? The child wants more energy (attention or experience). The parents will then play with the child (positive) or criticize the child (negative: such the child becomes quiet — negative is better than none). Add a second child — more energy; the two children will play together. But sooner or later, one child will want to do one thing, and the second something else. The two kids will not know how to negotiate a resolution, and rather than separate (no energy), they will fight (negative is better than none).

angry12b-emotionaltrianglesThe Laws of Relationships

Now, emotional triangles. A triangle is a geometric figure, with three sides and three apices. An emotional triangle is any two people and a third person or issue (the apices); the relationships between any two are the sides. An important concept is what is called the 3rd limb, a relative term for the relationship opposite any given person. In the first diagram above, I show my 3rd limb; your 3rd limb is the relationship between me and the issue.

Furthermore, human beings exist always within a network of thousands of overlapping emotional triangles, a system. Each of the dots of the accompanying diagram belongs to many triangles. And any system is, by definition, designed to remain stable, until a big enough change shifts its equilibrium, to a new semi-stable position. Note: big change needed!

The Three Laws of Relationships (with corollaries) state, for every triangle of the system:

  1. I can only change that to which I am connected (myself, and my direct relationships).
    • But if I get anxious about what others are doing (my 3rd limb), I likely attempt to change them. The results of my attempts are neither predictable nor guaranteed.
    • What is guaranteed is that, the more I persist, the more others will resist my attempts, and the more pain I will encounter.
  2. If I change, others must change.
    • They have no choice — we are connected. The stable response time of the system is approximately three months. Systems require time for change to occur.
    • If my change is significant (big!) to the system, others will not like it (even if my change adds health to the system), and they will in some way attempt to sabotage.
  3. Change requires I stay connected.
    • My life energy impacts others, and I must stay connected to allow my change to impact over time. Can I stay non-anxious while I stay connected?

For now, just pay attention to the three primary laws (1-2-3): I can only change that to which I am directly connected; if I change, others must change; and change requires I stay connected. They sound simple, don’t they? Yet they are an operational definition of the Serenity Prayer.

SerenityIf you are not aware of it, the Serenity Prayer is one of the most popular poems of the entire world, often used in 12-step addiction programs. I first heard it when I was about 28 — I liked it, but quite frankly I didn’t know what to do with it. What the concept of emotional triangles has done for me is to give me a way of living the serenity prayer (a so-called operational definition!).

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.

(The popular version, not quite the way Niebuhr wrote it, but essentially the same.) As mentioned above, there are many subtle aspects to emotional triangles, and I will be covering some of them in future emails.

Now, your task for this email. Take a piece of paper and write down two lists:

  • the many people that you encounter on a daily basis (both personal and work) , and
  • the many issues you deal with on a daily basis (organizing kids, problems at home or work, plans for the future, et cetera), both your own issues and those of others.

Now circle those you consider most important, people and issues. Especially circle those aspects where you encounter anger, your own or that of others towards you.

Using the items you have circled, make a diagram similar to the second diagram above (a system of overlapping triangles). Preferably make the diagram on a full page, with color, and mark in red those relationships wherein there is anger. Post it on your wall.

A general statement for you to consider: Anger is always about the 3rd limb. (There may be exceptions, but they are not common.) My anger always references that I am angry about something that belongs to the limb about which I do not have direct control. Management of anger always requires living into the Serenity Prayer.

Now, what do you personally need so as to live into what you can change, rather than focusing on what you cannot change. If necessary, refer back to Email #09 The Pointing Finger.

I’ll explore how to deal with other people’s anger in a later email.

Finally, remember Email #05 The Role of The Other-Than-Conscious Mind where I described Sailors On A Ship. Consider the possibility that there are many triangles within you — triangles between your sailors concerning the internal issues with which you personally struggle.

Coming next: Who Are My Sailors?

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