Emotions explained with Psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Explains
Today we define what is an emotion, how to use the change triangle as a tool, and the difference between poor and inhibitory emotions. With Hilary Jacobs Hendel, new York psychotherapist, emotions educator and author of It’s Not Always Depression. This is your host Michelle, and you’re listening to the Mindful podcast. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another Mindful episode. Today we have Hillary with us and we’re going to jump right into it. Hillary, how are you today? Michelle, I’m so delighted to be here to talk about my absolute favorite subject, emotions, which makes everybody want to run away. I know, right? It’s easier said than done, for sure. So let’s jump right into it. What is emotions? What are emotions? Well, much to my chagrin, I didn’t know any of this until I was 39 and training to become a specialized type of psychotherapist. But apparently it turns out that emotions are these very, very important programs that tell us about how the world is affecting us. And we can even subcategorize emotions into these two primary types of emotions, which is very important in terms of well being, core emotions and inhibitory emotions. And it’s these things called core emotions that we really have to understand and demystify so that we’re not also afraid to lean into them. You can think of it as a software program. Think of sadness, right? The core emotions are anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement. There are other motion researchers that might put surprise and other emotions there, but for the purposes of emotions education for the public, I took the emotions that the ones that I write about cause us the most trouble. And so if you think about an emotion, let’s say, like fear, its job is to alert us to danger. And when it does, this emotion lights up a part of the brain that activates the body for a movement. That’s the part that I never understood, that the purpose of emotions are to make us move in ways that are adaptive for survival. Like running, flight. Exactly. Response. Right. So if like a grizzly bear were to barge into this room, we would be running before we would consciously be aware of what was happening and that we were frightened. And that’s why when I learned that I couldn’t control my emotions, that the way that they were wired. They happen to us, and it’s only after they happen that we can exert some control over the impulses they create that I always was raised to think that I could control my emotions. And so that was really an epiphany for me to learn. And what would you say is the main difference between those emotions, the core emotions, and the inhibitory emotions? Well, it’s really important to understand. So if we think of these core emotions, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, and so on, as what is good for me, what do I need to do, what type of motion? And movement to move towards things. I love to move away from that which is aversive. You could think of the core emotions as sort of what’s best for me. Inhibitory emotions shut down or squash our core emotions in service of what’s best for us getting along in the group, whether it’s our immediate family or our peer groups, our tribes, what will keep me in the good graces of groups of people that I need. Because more than anything, when we’re born, survival is dependent on having our caregivers close to us. So that trumps everything. So when we express core emotions that aren’t well received by our families, which happens to us all, we learn all the time to shut them down in favor of the connection. And it’s that fundamental conflict that is there in all humans that unless we understand and can kind of make space and recognize what’s happening inside us and that’s what this change triangle tool is all about, that I’m going all over town, got to learn the change triangle. It’s because it’s so valuable in so many ways, helping us heal our traumas, helping us be our best, helping us act our best, helping us feel calm and confident, whole bunch of things. So it’s that fundamental conflict that the change triangle is all about and how you navigate that so that your nervous system is calm enough to meet the challenges of life. Okay, so you have on one side the core emotions and then you have the inhibitory emotions, and then in the bottom you have defenses. Correct? That’s upside down. So if we look at the change triangle, it’s an upside down triangle. And you could almost I’m hoping that we’ll have a picture of this or people will Google the change triangle because a picture is worth a thousand words. And the change triangle is a two dimensional representation of a very complex it really describes how emotions work in the mind and body for all humanity. And just to kind of pull back a little bit, the triangle is a map for us to look at and to understand where we are in any given moment, whether we’re having a core emotion. Which if you imagine this point of the triangle in my core, core emotions send off physical sensations. They basically live in the body. And that’s why the point, the bottom of the triangle is in the body. So you might recognize when you feel sad, you feel it, right? You feel that sort of pulling in. And when we’re angry and we might feel these things differently in the body, but they’re all physical. When you’re angry, you might feel a rush of energy, you might feel hot here or hot in the stomach. All of the core emotions, all emotions are very physical, if nothing else. And so when we have a core emotion, we can either be with it and move through with it, which is what we’ll talk about, hopefully yes, but most of us don’t. Most of us bury it and block it because we weren’t taught to do anything else. We heard messages like, pick yourself up by your bootstraps or just get over it, or stop being so needy and stop being so sensitive. We push down emotions in a variety of ways, and when we do, we are in essence, moving up the triangle. And you can imagine the top of the triangle kind of sitting above my shoulders. On one side are the inhibitory emotions because they’re pushing down. And the inhibitory emotions, which are anxiety, guilt, and shame, you probably recognize them all, as do I. We all have them all been there. They push down core emotions in a variety of different ways. Muscular tension, for example, holding our breath. Shame is a very important emotion to learn as much as you can about everybody has shame, but it’s learned in a context, and it’s a very visceral withdrawing of one’s self into, like, a turtle shell. And so whether whatever core emotions are pushing down, whatever inhibitory emotions are pushing down, our core emotions and our core emotions are coming up with energy, core emotions want to come up for expression. It’s like a pressure cooker. And so that feels terrible in our bodies. So then we move over to the top right corner of the triangle to avoid all that, to avoid the feeling. And a defense is just anything we do to avoid feeling emotionally uncomfortable. And defenses are good, and they work, and we need them at the time when they were created, most of them in childhood. But we want to become aware of them because as we grow and we change our family of origin into friends, family that we hopefully choose exactly. And our brains are more mature, we have much more capacity to deal with emotions than we may feel because we’re sort of remembering what it was like to have emotions as a child. And you have children and I have children. Their cerebral cortexes and executive functioning are not yet matured. So they feel so emotional all the time, and they need defenses to cope. If parents and schools, which, as you know, too, they don’t get any emotions education, nobody knows what to do with emotions. And that’s why I’m so passionate about sharing a basic emotions education. Yeah, they do try to implement it, the social emotional learning. But it needs a lot of work, right? And when I ask kids in middle school, whenever kids come over to our house, and I’m always like, can I ask you a question? Did you learn in school anything about emotions? And they go a little bit, and I will ask, well, can you tell me what an emotion is or where it’s located or how you feel it? And nobody says it’s in the body. And that’s like the first epiphany, is that emotions are physical. And to work with them, we have to do what’s very counterintuitive instead of flying up into our heads to try to figure things out, we have to retrain ourselves to tune into the body. And we need tools and techniques and tips to make that a safe experience. Exactly. And step one is really the education so that we know what to expect and they’re demystified. It’s not that emotions are ever easy or not painful or uncomfortable, but when you know what’s going to happen and you know you’re normal and you know that you’re not going to explode or implode, then it sets the stage for being able to be courageous and curious. That makes complete sense. Can you give our listeners a little example of how you would use the change triangle in someone that comes to you with an issue or not able to allow themselves to feel that emotion? Yes, and I just wanted to share that the change triangle is really it’s a tool for everybody. So we could talk about an example in psychotherapy where I use the change triangle. It’s. Part of what I did is I didn’t invent anything new just for the background is I got trained in this very fabulous method called AEDP after I had been conventionally trained as a psychoanalyst and I’d learned CBT. And I grew up with a psychiatrist. And we were always thinking about that was my dad, not my psychiatrist. We were always thinking about psychology and talking about psychology. But this is a tool. We never talked about how to actually work with emotions. We talked about how to rise above emotions. So an example of how I would work with someone in psychotherapy but people can do this in psychotherapy and then do it on their own is let’s say you came to me and you said that you were feeling depressed or you were feeling anxious. So right away, if you look at the change triangle, we know that depression and anxiety are on the top of the change triangle. Depression we think of as a defense because it’s like a shutting down, because the underlying emotions are too overwhelming and anxiety is an inhibitory emotion. So let’s say that you came in and you were just anxious. And what I would do instead of listening to your narrative, although if you wanted to talk me nagging, I would let you talk. Right. I would say, Tell me a little bit, what are you aware of? And then I would say, michelle, I’m wondering, as you’re sharing this with me, if we could slow way down and if you could really feel the connection to me. And as you tune in to the anxiety, how do you know you’re anxious? Where in your body do you sense the anxiety? Yeah, be the shaking, sweating, the heart palpitations. Yeah, exactly. So right now, as you feel the anxiety and maybe you even have some now, because we’re doing this live recording because I’m not perfect. Exactly. Neither am I. We can be imperfect together. If you tune into the anxiety and we slow down and you sort of deep breathe by slowing you down, the anxiety is probably going to decrease. And then I would ask you if you were to imagine going right through it or moving it aside, what emotions are you able to recognize underneath it? And I might even give you some choices, like as you’re sharing that your partner is being controlling with you, for example, and you’re with the anxiety and we’re slowing down, do you sense any anger there? Okay, what is the core emotion? The root of the problem? Yes. So normally by being in the body, nine times out of ten, you would be able to sense that, but if somebody didn’t, I would say, let’s go through the checklist. Do you sense any anger? And you probably would say yes. And then I would say, great, so anger, do you sense any sadness down there? And you probably would say yes because it doesn’t feel good to be to not get along, to be fighting, to be controlled. I would ask if you have any fear which is different than anxiety. They feel similarly. They’re all connected or could be connected. Well, they’re all different, but they work with each other. So if I have any of those core emotions and they feel overwhelming or I don’t know what to do with them, or I was told that I’m bad or shameful for having them, then as soon as my brain registers that they’re going to come up. I’m going to have an inhibitory emotion pushing them down, and then I’m probably going to move into a defense so that I’m not uncomfortable. Does that make sense? Yeah. So the core emotions are there. They’re wired from the time we are born to do their thing. All humans have the exact same core emotions across cultures, all over the world, across genders, across sex. So some people think that men have more anger and women have more sadness. No, we’re just socialized into those being the ones that are acceptable, and then we block with shame the other ones. Yeah, we’re able to well, everybody manages their emotion differently, but we all have the same emotion. Exactly. And like, when you’re working with students and in your practice and in your world, we can redefine, or as I would redefine mental health and emotional health as being able to validate, feel, experience, move through all the core. Emotions without being sidelined by so much anxiety, guilt, shame and defenses that you can’t move through them because you want to listen to each emotion, because it’s giving you information about the environment. They don’t just pop up for no reason. Okay, so when we listen to them, it’s the root. So if we had this session when you came in with anxiety and you named your core emotions and we listened to those core emotions and went through those in very specific ways that I outline in the book and in my classes and all the stuff online that I give out to try to educate the public. Your anxiety would go down because much better. It’s just physics. It’s how it works, exactly how it is. It’s just how it is. And then we listen to those emotions. Once you process each of the core emotions, then the last step is to think through. Now that I’ve learned about my emotional self, I can now enlist my rational, logical, thoughtful brain to what should I do with these feelings out in the world? Maybe you’re going to speak with your partner about his controlling behavior. Maybe you’ll recognize that it’s actually through the work. It’s not him that’s so controlling. It’s that you had a controlling mother. And anytime he asks you to shut a window because he’s cold, it takes you back to feeling controlled by your mother. Then we would process those emotions. And then if everything goes according to plan, you don’t have the same feelings towards your husband. Or you see it with more clarity, because the whole purpose of working that triangle is to get to that wonderful spot underneath. It called the open hearted state of the authentic self, which in the jargon would be a regulated nervous system. But talking plain, not psycho babble speak. That’s where we go exactly to feel our true self and to be able to relate to ourself with compassion, to relate to others with compassion, to be able to calm down our nervous system when we’re upset, so that we don’t do impulsive things that get us into trouble. The C words are what characterize the authentic self calm, creative, curious, connected, having clarity of thought, having connection with others. And that’s where we all want to spend more time. No one’s there all the time. But you can locate the triangle as a map so that at any given part of the day, if you feel yourself upset, you can locate where you are and then know what to do next to try to get back down to that open hearted state. And the more we work it again and again, it becomes a habit. It becomes a habit, and the more we spend time in these regulated, calm states. And that’s really how, since I learned the triangle, I was learning it for training, but I had had two major depressions myself. Okay, is that why that was going to be my next question. Why the title of the book? Yeah. Is there a reason, since it works for everything, is there a specific reason why you chose the word depression? Yeah. Well, let me just say it wasn’t me that chose it the way that the title got chosen. And I don’t know how I feel about the title because it’s really a basic emotion education in a book written so that 15 years older, people and older can read it easily. It’s like a beach read on emotions. It’s mostly stories. I tried not to make it boring because I hate boring books, so I would encourage everybody listening to read or listen to the book because you can’t think your way through emotions. You need stories if you’re not experiencing it yourself, to kind of understand what it means to process an emotion. So that’s what the book has. But the story of the title of the book is it’s actually a little bit of my story. So after I became certified in this method AEDP and was practicing it for about a decade, my growing pet peeve that we don’t get any emotions education, not only in professional training, but I think we should be getting this basic training in learning the change triangle in high school. I originally had a pet peeve after I learned it, and it’s turned into a moral outrage. And so I was thinking that there is no good reason why this stuff can’t trickle down and this can’t be part of high school health classes because it is so deshaming to understand emotions. It does so many good things that there’s just no reason. So what I did in trying to do something to help the world is I wrote an op ed for The New York Times and submitted it blindly. I had never done that, but I felt for the first time I had something to say. I was just feeling so passionate about it. So I wrote this article. And lucky me, they published the article. And the editor at the New York Times titled the article It’s Not Always Depression, because I wrote about someone with a treatment resistant depression that had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, had tried every form of treatment, had tried multiple medications, and I didn’t want to just repeat what had been done. So when I met him, I treated him as someone who had experienced trauma in the form of childhood neglect, and he got better. So I was like, it’s amazing. And all my patients were getting all our in ADP, the type of therapy. Everyone was getting better and treating patients well. So I submitted the article to the Times, they published it, and it was called It’s Not Always Depression. Sometimes it’s shame because when we’re neglected, we experience a sense of shame, and it’s really the shame on the people. We internalize the bad feelings that we think there’s something wrong with us. If I feel so bad, there must be something wrong with me. So after the article came out and it went viral, it was the number one article emailed and read on The New York Times on that day, I had been contacted by literary agents that said, we want you to write more. The zeitgeist was changing, and things were becoming more trauma informed, and we had the opioid cris know there’s a lot of things happening. Mental health was going down the tubes more and more than it had in our country and in the world. And I got asked to write a book and Random House ended up publishing it in Penguin in the UK. And they random House titled the book because of Google searches and stuff. They knew that the article had done so well that they wanted to use the same title of the article. When you wrote about this article, mainly or did you mention about your own depression? No, it’s all in the book. I write a lot about myself because I work the change triangle every day and my husband who’s sitting there, I don’t know how we would be able to function if we didn’t understand emotions. And we work the change triangle together. I recommend people read the book out loud to each other in couples and families. I recommend people print out a free copy of the change triangle on my website. Put it up on your refrigerator. Just use it. So there’s a common language to talk about emotions. I mean, did you ever hear of the difference between core inhibitory emotions before? Well, I’m different because I guess we have some training. Did you get it in your training? Because I didn’t very lightly. It was definitely not part or a section in the training. You kind of hear about it. You hear about you have to process your emotions, don’t let them in. But they don’t really give you a bunch of techniques. Right. What is specialize in it? Yeah, exactly. What does it mean? I’m feeling it. Right? Like shake it out, I don’t know. Right. And actually shaking it out can be good, but right. What does it mean to process emotion? What does it mean to experience an emotion? Which maybe we should talk about. It should be common knowledge. Should we talk about what it means to experience an emotion? Do you want to talk about that now? That would be another podcast. Okay, great. But no, I love all this information. I feel that everybody would definitely benefit me working on the school. I completely agree. It should be taught in health or included in the mental health now mandatory 5 hours, which is not enough. But again, that’s another podcast. Right. You mentioned that you found clients that were chemically depressed. What does that mean? What does that entail? I think that I was talking about the difference, like how to think about depression. Because many people come in thinking that they have a flaw in their chemistry and in fact depression, these diagnoses and there’s many labels in the DSM, right? Exactly. And the purpose of a label is to help, right? To help with treatment. I don’t diagnose anymore because except for insurance you have to for insurance. Exactly. But what I have found is unless a label is helpful to someone, it doesn’t help with healing. Like it puts you under this category. And some people assume that you almost can’t get out of it like a diagnosis is permanent. That’s exactly right, that’s right. So it’s not that people don’t get depressed it’s not that when I was depressed, I didn’t know it actually until I had lunch with my sister one day and she says, you seem depressed. And I was like, oh, yeah, I’m depressed. So what does that mean? It means, according to the DSM Five, and according to what it feels like, you have no energy, there’s no joy, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, and various variations on this. And it’s true that there is a chemical change. We don’t make enough serotonin, or this is at least the current theory, but the depression is not necessarily caused by just a sudden change in your chemistry. Although for some people it may be and for some people that may be very important that they think of it that way. And I’m not opposed to medication, but in this particular person I wrote about in the New York Times article, it was that he had been called depressed and in fact, it was really and he’d been called difficult and a treatment resistant. But you don’t want to make the patient bad because they’re not fitting the diagnosis you don’t want to call someone resistant or difficult because they’re not getting well. That’s a flaw in the profession that’s an inadequacy in the treatment. So I treat everybody, no matter what diagnosis they come in with by helping them get in touch with their emotions and liberating the buried and blocked core emotions and that will change the chemistry. So I just meant that as to say that a diagnosis is really the beginning of a story, not the end of a story. Exactly. I think it’s very important and I see that all the time as well. Like you mentioned, people get a diagnosis and they just feel like they have falling in this category and it’s forever and that’s it and something’s wrong with me, chemically wrong with me. So I love the fact that you talk to everybody and treat everybody, no matter the diagnosis with this technique and are able to help them through something that should be basic but it’s not, unfortunately. Right it takes time and you have to do the work and you need somebody to help you and teach you the right techniques. Exactly. And that’s why I do psychotherapy. But I do emotions education through a curriculum that we develop that we just want. People just take the stuff and learn it, share the knowledge. And even if people come away from this talk with knowing one that emotions just are, don’t blame yourself for your emotions. They happen for a reason. And we can’t control emotions contrary to what we’re taught because they just get triggered off here in this. I brought my brain just to demonstrate when your eyes and your ears and your tongue for taste all those five senses perceive something dangerous or compelling. It goes in through our senses and it triggers the middle of the brain and then it goes straight down to the body before you know what’s happening. So you can’t control an emotion because it’s all happening in this area between the middle brain, the limbic system, the lower brain and the vagus nerve which travels to all the organs in the body. Because the goal of an emotion is to get the body ready for an action. And that action is meant to be adaptive. Like fighting when you feel threatened, when you’re angry. Like running from danger. Like moving in and wanting to share joy. Like jumping up when we feel excited, right? We can feel all those visceral experiences happening in our body. So if people leave one thing, just know you’re not bad for having emotions. You’re completely normal. We do have a choice for how we behave, what we do with our emotions. Do we just slug someone because we’re mad? No. We want to have emotional regulation, right? We want to behave in ways that are constructive to ourselves, that are not self destructive, constructive to our relationships. So we can have good enough relationships, satisfying relationships. So that would be the first thing. Just know that emotions just are you’re not bad. Try not to judge yourself for having emotions and try not to judge yourself for judging yourself for having emotions. The other thing is that emotions are physical so we can’t think our way through an emotion. We have to recognize the sensations of our emotion and be able to develop a capacity to slow down and notice it. Because noticing what’s happening in the body when we’re having an emotion, that is our tool to allowing that emotion to process through. It causes the brain to start reorganizing, to get ready for integration. And then when we let the emotional energy come up like I have in my other does it have a name? This is my figure, my lemon squeezer. This is supposed to be the brain and the body. And this stands for the authentic self that we are all born, right? We are all born with this combination of our genetics, our disposition, with our unique beauty and sense of self. And we come out ready to connect with the world and we come out ready to learn and we come out to strive that’s humanity and then stuff happens to us. Exactly. Our families for trauma. Exactly. Right. So we’re defining trauma as really not being able to be who we are because our parents, through no fault of their own, also didn’t get emotion education. So they just start to do their thing and we start to twist and turn. The pipe cleaners are the wires in the brain. So if we learn that every time we get angry, which is a natural thing, if we don’t like what’s going on in the environment, right? We’re a little kid. Our. Mom takes our toy that pisses us off. So we show anger and then all of a sudden she starts humiliating us for being angry. We’re going to develop a memory network of the anger and of the shame and of the negative look in our mother’s face and the threat of abandonment. And this is going to wire together. And so anytime this keeps happening, we develop an aversion to our own anger. And then when somebody makes us angry in the real world, this neural network will light up and obscure our kind of core authentic self. With all those C words, we lose our calm, we lose our connection to that person. Right. Because we’re hiding, probably. We lose our courage to talk, we lose our confidence about who we are. And so the goal is to help people recapture this kind of open ability to look at the memories, to look at our feelings, to look at our physical sensations, to look at the images and to look at the thoughts running through our mind that aren’t serving us and to be able to process them so that we have space to take them in. But to think through what’s the next step? For us to go in the direction of our values and our dreams, almost like externalizing the emotion and not being so attached to it. Being able to analyze it from an outside perspective. Yes. To be able to feel it as we see it. To not be like in this case, overtaken by rage. Right. So blinded that’s an example. Like if this was covering up the core sense of self, all we see is rage. And if we’re in a relationship and then we’re like, I’m going to leave you. You’re the worst person in the world, all these kind of threats. We may feel that way, but if we can say, you know what? I just got triggered. To not only anger, I am enraged. And to be able to say, to notice that first go for a walk. Exactly. And then a variety of tools. Right. It’s tools. It’s tips and techniques and really detoxifying the emotions so that we can approach it with wisdom at a time. That’s right. For us. But it’s all about being able to be in the body. If you’re cut off from your body because it’s too overwhelming in there, you’re going to be operating with really just half the capacity we have. We need the head and the heart and the connection. The mind and body. Exactly. Which is another thing. Before we get off, I want to just clarify. People get a little squeamish when I talk about letting in emotions because I think they think that means wearing emotions on one sleeve and not an excuse, like unprotected kind of thing. Exactly. The heart and the hand. Exactly. Crying at work. Or an excuse to be rageful. So being able to experience an emotion is a completely internal process that I talk about in the book, and that I teach people how to do what you do. That last step, how you express that emotion, has to be a thoughtful process. It can’t be impulsive. So, again, this is an ideal that we’re working towards for the rest of our life. The change triangle. You never finish working it. It’s a lifelong endeavor, and you start off wherever you are and you try to build on it. If you’re into personal growth and personal development, I love that you can use this technique, like you mentioned in therapy and outside of therapy. I’m sure your book mentions a bunch of techniques you can use at home. So that would be very helpful. I’m going to have to read it. But I love the concept. I love the idea that the mind and body and we’re always talking about it in the show, mind, body, spirit, everything has to be everything’s interchangeable and everything’s connected. So I definitely love the props. I want to say thank you for coming. Thank you for sharing your message. I really do hope that our listeners did get a little something. If you’ve never heard about the change triangle, now you know what it is. Feel free to do your own research and implement it as soon as you can. Exactly. This is a beginning just to sort of as a teacher, is this of interest to you? And then there’s so much to learn and there’s so much available, contrary to what we might think. And lastly, another thing about schools, and putting this in schools is it makes no sense to educate children about emotions if their parents are still uneducated. So that’s another thing that really I don’t know why they should give this book out to every parent, to every teacher, just so you know what’s going on. It just helps foster empathy and compassion as you corral proper behaviors. Right. It’s got to be both. I completely agree. Oh, my God. Well, thank you again. Thank you for coming to Florida. I hope you’re enjoying the weather. I am. Thank you so much for having me, Michelle. It’s great be here. I’m going to have to bring you back. I would continue on the other conversation. That’d be fantastic. Thank you guys for watching, for listening. Please don’t forget to tune in next week. Leave us a comment, let us know what you thought. If you have anything to add, or if you ever had any experience with the change triangle, let us know. Thank you. Don’t forget to subscribe and like the video. Bye. Thank.