The thoughts, emotions, and behaviors triangle


The Diagram below can be used to understand the interconnectedness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Additionally the diagram gives an easy to understand explanation of the many different means of offering a psychotherapy intervention. I use this Diagram to offer a visual depiction of all the different options which are available to help the client in achieving a desired change. I use this diagram to unify all theories… personally I am an eclectic therapist… I believe in all the various interventions and I would propose that perhaps being open to offering any of a diverse array of interventions is a sure way of increasing your ability to assist a diverse array of people (multi-cultural competence).

Changing behaviors – With this point of intervention you can help a person to engage in behaviors which with have a positive effect on their emotional state and thought processes.

How you change behaviors – Associations and Rewards are the two main interventions. With rewards you reward desired behaviors while mostly ignoring negative behaviors. With associations you train people to associate positive behaviors with things they believe to be positive… for example, in beer commercials they put attractive people in bathing suits in their adds to encourage you to associate their product with attractive half naked people… if successful, you will feel the same positive feelings looking at their product as you do when you think of half-naked attractive people… this encourages you to engage in the behavior of getting that product.

  • Example for thoughts – If you encourage a client to engage in behaviors which they are very likely to succeed at they will be internally rewarded by their success. This success can then encourage them to think “I can be successful” instead of “my goal is hopeless.”
  • Example for thoughts – engage is meditation. Engaging in mediation reduces unwanted thoughts and your emotional attachment to the content of your thoughts. Meditation is a behavior which has dramatic positive effects on your stress and therefor on your physical health. Medication has been shown to increase your ability to experience positive emotions… this behaviors increases you maximum happiness potential.
  • Example for emotions (biological) – If you are able to encourage someone to engage in exercise and proper nutrition you will be able to help them to improve their felt happiness. Some studies have found exercise to be as effective as anti-depressants in treating depression. Increasing the behavior of exercise therefor is a way of intervening to improve emotions.
  • Example for emotions (pharmacological) – You can also encourage someone to engage in the behavior of taking an anti-depressant… this behavior will improve their affect.
  • Example of emotions and thoughts (relational) – Helping a couple or a family to successfully communicate and interact with each other will increase the feelings of security and attachment in the relevant individuals. Healthy attachments (which are relationships in which people are safe and supported when they are authentically emotionally vulnerable and available) are necessary for emotional wellness. Therefor changing the interaction behaviors between people helps their emotions. Incidentally it will also change the stories that the people tell themselves and others about their relationships… this changes the way they think about their relationships… positive thoughts produce positive emotions.

Changing Thoughts – there is a famous quote that many people have taken credit for (Thereau is where I got it) – “I have suffered much in my life… and most of it never happened.” We create our own suffering by ruminating on negative thoughts. The “what if” or the “I should have” thoughts are perhaps the most damaging. If you can interrupt these useless and often irrational thoughts you will not have to feel the negative emotions associated with those thoughts.

How to change thoughts – there are four main ways to change thoughts: reflection, disputing irrational thoughts, being mindful or focusing your attention on the present moment, and intentionally thinking about positive thoughts or new ways of narrating your lived experience.

  • Example of disputing irrational beliefs – If you think “I will never be able to do this task” you will feel hopeless and despondent and will be unlikely to engage in the behaviors necessary to complete the task. Never is ironically almost never true… If you dispute this negative cognition and replace it with a new one such as “I can complete these steps which will lead me towards being able to complete the task.” You will feel more hopeful and will be more likely to engage in the desired behaviors.
  • Example of reflections – when we think of something such as a past event our minds immediately begins to pass automatic judgments. These automatic judgments often result in automatic behaviors and always result in automatic emotions. Reflection is when you think about your thinking… the idea is to do your best to avoid judging the thoughts… judgments will inevitably arrive in which case you curiously observe the judgments. When reflection is well developed the person has the ability to calmly sit with curiosity about the automatic thought which popped into their head… in this state of curiosity they interrupt the automatic behaviors and often can positively impact the automatic emotions by reducing the degree to which they are consuming.
  • Example of reflecting on emotions – the mind makes up thoughts to explain the way a person is feeling. By reflecting on emotions a person is free to watch the automatic thoughts and then to change them if they are inaccurate. For example after seeing a rattle snake on a trail a person’s rapid heart beat might convince them that they are agitated with their hiking partner… upon reflection they find that they are simply still holding fear from the experience with the snake… this reflective ability will help the person to behave better towards their friend. People who are hungry often conclude that people in their environment are annoying… upon reflection they would find that the annoyance is internal and can’t be resolved by the behaviors of the people around him/her.
  • Mindfulness and living in the present moment – Mindfulness is a state in which you are a open-minded curious observer of the present moment. You look at the world as if you have never see it before… you allow your senses to interact with the environment as if it were novel and you had no knowledge of it. The past, the future, judgments, knowledge, projections etc. are calmly noticed and the person gently pulls their attention back to the present when such things arise. Most of our suffering is in the past or the future “what if…” or “I should have…”. by allowing your thought processes to stay in the present you reduce suffering while holding the euphoria of the moment.
  • Example of Creating new stories or intentionally focusing on positives and/or solutions – Our reality is our perceptions… no one perceives reality as it actually is… reality is perceived through our minds various filters. How can two people engage in exactly the same experience and have opposite thoughts and feelings about that experience? Often people in relationships get caught up in repeating the negative stories they have… or they continually think to themselves about all the problems which exist. Intentionally focusing on the positive narratives and on all the solutions available will encourage people to feel more hopeful and to engage in more relationship healing behaviors.
  • Gratitude – Almost all religions encourage the practice of intentionally contemplating that which you are grateful for. Practicing gratitude allows a person to live within positive thoughts… this produces positive and hope inspiring emotions.

Allowing Emotions – Emotions are changed by allowing them to be expressed in a safe and supportive environment. I am hesitant to say “changing emotions” as this is often a counterproductive intention. The paradox is that by allowing sadness you allow happiness to return. It is not changing sadness or avoiding sadness which facilitates wellness… instead the process of allowing and accepting frees us from the burden of unwanted emotions… what you resist will infinitely persist.

How you allow emotions – For authentic emotions to free themselves from a person it is best to create a space of acceptance, supportiveness, understanding, empathy, and safety. This means that while a person courageously shares their emotional experience the listener focuses on understanding the felt experience of the narrator while gently offering short reflections of emotional content to display their attentiveness and understanding… things for the listener to avoid are: projecting your own emotions on the story, trying to ‘fix it’ with behavioral suggestions, pulling the attention away from the speaker, passing judgments, disputing the validity or ration of the story, and withdrawing or avoiding full attention.

Trapped emotions impact behaviors – Often when an emotion is trapped and unattended to in the body a person will engage in behaviors to try and remedy their emotional discomfort. Addictions such as alcoholism are often a way to heal a person. There are many techniques that people use to escape reality… generally the reality that they are trying to escape is the somatic experience of an unresolved emotion. Expression of this emotion can relieve the need to escape… this can change unwanted behaviors.

Emotions and secondary emotions with undesirable behaviors – We have unfortunately not been very supportive in letting males have a full and authentic emotional life experience. Males (and females – more now than before perhaps) are systematically trained to believe that ration = maturity and emotions = immaturity or weakness. As such many people have “anger problems” do largely to emotional immaturity – they are unable to articulate to themselves or others how they are truly feeling. Males in particular are known for articulating two emotions – “I am Angry” and “I am frustrated”. This inability to isolate the true felt experience leads to an exaggeration of the angry and frustrated feelings… often the male (or female) feels embarrassed, guilty, confused, insecure, sad, lonely etc… but these emotions are unlikely to be resolved if they are being labeled by the term ‘angry’. Allowing a space for people to have a richer emotional experience allows them the ability to express their authentic feelings… by doing so the person would have the ability to resolve the emotion. For example, if a person learns that they are ‘guilty’ as opposed to ‘frustrated’ this insight offers them a direction as to how they might overcome the unwanted emotion. Without the ability to know ones emotions are people often become automatons… automatically behaving while creating irrational thoughts to explain the emotional experience they are unable to comprehend… this confusion can create a terrifying feedback loop of explosiveness… violent “angry” people are often excessively lonely and sad.

Emotions and Existential struggles – as an emotion remains unresolved often people will unconsciously try to make meaning of an emotionally harmful experience by reenacting the scenarios which led to the unresolved emotions. For example, many people who have avoided allowing themselves to feel the emotions related to an abusive parent will later end up with a romantic partner who engages in the same emotionally abusive behaviors. By allowing these emotions to be authentically expressed the person can gain the insight needed to seek out emotionally validating people.

Emotions and Relationships – When a relationship allows space for the individuals to be authentically emotionally vulnerable and available a deeper sense of intimacy in created which affects the way the people think about their relationship. People in securely attached relationships (relationships with validating emotional expressiveness) think and feel more positive about themselves.

People behave differently when they feel emotionally authentic… and people behave differently towards people who validate their being emotionally authentic.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

One thought on “The thoughts, emotions, and behaviors triangle

  1. Meditation, anti-depressants and exercise are helpful to overcome struggles but emoplayer can be helpful too. I found this from this site from someone who I followed on Twitter. I find it helpful in a sense that positive emotions can be achieved, it could be an interesting idea because its done using the owen media file of the user.

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