Last fall I was taking a dear friend to the airport after a wonderful, long visit together. We had allowed extra time for the trip so that we could take a more scenic route and see some sights on the way. Nevertheless, we packed more into that morning than we had time for, and we ran behind schedule. As we drove toward the airport, I began to feel anxious. Now, this same friend and I have actually missed flights before by doing just this sort of thing. I felt anxious about missing the flight and about being in a hurry after intending a relaxing drive. Anybody would feel nervous in this situation. Wouldn’t they?
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times: “That really pushed my button.” One typically uses this expression to describe an event or action that prompts an out-of-proportion internal reaction—an overreaction. We all have these “buttons,” hot topics that get to us. Perhaps “road rage” exemplifies one such “button” for many of us. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we might have a huge flash of outrage and even go so far as to drive unsafely in response.
The psychologists, Murray Bowen for one, coined a term for such reactions: they called them “triangles.” Triangles serve to reduce our anxiety. For example, when Sue has a fight with Alice, she talks about it to Marianne, because that is easier than talking about it to Alice directly. In the same way, Bowen suggests that when we react to something strongly it may signal the presence of a triangle. That is, when we react to the driver who cut us off, we may be reacting to something else, something inside of us, some experience or history, and we pull the target of our immediate outburst (the other driver in this case) into the triangle to reduce our anxiety. To be mad at the other driver is easier for us than to know the real issue, the “inside of us” information that the reaction is actually “about.” To blame the person or thing immediately before us is easier than to look inside ourselves and perhaps discover some past hurt or fear. When someone or something “pushes a button,” Bowen suggests that we may be reacting to ourselves, to our emotional history, rather than to the situation at hand.
This idea of the triangle gives us a helpful tool in our human relationships. How we respond to that driver signals something not so much about his driving skill as about our own heart. When applied to our closest relationships, an awareness of triangles can shed light on our hearts in an even more profound and certainly more uncomfortable way.
When we find ourselves reacting with anger at another driver or with anxiety on the way to the airport, we have an opportunity to understand those reactions in the context of our history and experiences. We can gain much needed insight into who we are, who God is, and how we can love one another better. When we see our hearts more clearly, we can turn to God for mercy, as well as seek mercy inside our closest relationships. When we find mercy, we are freer to love and to be loved.
My friend and I are on our way to the airport, once again rushing to catch a plane, and I’m feeling anxious. I can respond to this feeling a number of ways (and I have, over the years, with this same friend). One option is to push away my anxiety and tell myself to try to remember to allow more time the next time. I could also respond by getting angry and blaming my friend for wanting to see that one extra sight for which I knew we did not have time. Or I could take a deeper look. Is this feeling of anxiety telling me something I need to listen to?
My friend and I are about to say goodbye. I always squirm when it comes to goodbyes. They are very important to me. And now, we will be in a rush, and that means our goodbye could get cut short.
Now that I understand that my nervousness is related to our imminent parting, what do I do? I could manipulate the situation so that we could have a longer goodbye. Or I could again get mad and blame my friend for doing too much when we did not have enough time, making it “his fault” that I feel this way. Or I could pull inward and become depressed and lonely at the prospect of leaving behind this good visit and my good friend. And I could easily justify each of these actions.
I began to ponder it. Goodbyes are important to me. They always have been. Oh yes, this familiar feeling. I feel afraid. When it comes to goodbyes, I feel scared. When I was only two, my oldest brother died. I found out years later that there were no explanations or goodbyes. From the view through my two-year-old lenses, my big brother who loved me and doted on me simply disappeared without a trace. Then, in my twenties, I lost a dear friend to murder, and again there was no goodbye. These experiences have taught me that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and knowing this I feel afraid. This familiar feeling of fear that accompanies goodbyes reminds me that I have had these experiences, and that life is uncertain. And this feeling is uncomfortable.
As I ponder this, I have another decision to make. Do I tell my friend about this process I am experiencing, as I sit quietly in the passenger seat speeding toward the airport? Do I dare request that we take a moment for a goodbye at the curb? In the end, though I felt afraid, I took the risk. I shared my feelings, my thought process, and my painful memories with my friend. I told him how important goodbyes are to me, that I would love to be able to take a moment for one, but I also told him that if we couldn’t, I would understand. He responded by sharing his own feelings about goodbyes and how they are hard for him, too, though for very different reasons. In the conversation which followed, we connected deeply about many things: our visit, our twenty-five-year friendship, our lives now. We arrived at the airport, said goodbye at the curb, and parted. I drove away with a sense of loss, but also with a deep sense of connection. I felt cared about and enriched by this friendship.
How did I reach the conclusion that my anxiety was related to our impending goodbye? The process I went through is hard to describe in steps, because it is not linear. And it doesn’t look the same for each of us. It is not clean and neat, and it doesn’t fit into tidy categories.
The process I have described is an uncomfortable one for any of us to go through. First, we must know that we have feelings, and then we recognize that we must “own” our feelings and not run away from them; nor should we blame others or hold them responsible for the way we feel. I must take responsibility for my feelings. Only when I understand this can I begin to know deeply what I feel and think and have experienced in a way that I can share with another who cares about me.
What does it mean to take responsibility for my feelings? It means that when I overreact, I understand that I am reacting to something inside me. It means that, in the end, I don’t blame you for my feeling, but I work to discover what that feeling is saying about me and my experiences. Then I can consider risking sharing that knowledge of myself with you. Does being responsible for my feelings mean that I always respond well? No—but it means that I will be softened to recognize my reaction as mine, and I can own it rather than blaming you for it.
Does my overreaction always indicate a triangle or something inside me that needs to be uncovered? No—perhaps I am just in a bad mood. But it is my bad mood, and if I hurt someone with it, it is not appropriate. Or perhaps my overreaction tells me that I am a sinner and I want my own way. Being responsible in this case means that in the end I become willing to own my bad mood or selfish behavior and to ask for mercy, rather than to demand or manipulate to get my way.
We in the church might resist the process of self-awareness I have described for a number of reasons. We might see pursuit of this self-knowledge as selfish, because it focuses on “me and my issues.” In our self-indulgent, self-help culture, this is often the case. Or we might resist the process because others have used our self-knowledge against us; for example, as an excuse to ignore our deep concerns. Having identified something as “my issue,” others may have responded to me by saying with their words or actions, “It’s your problem, and you had better deal with it, or I won’t like you.” Worse yet, if “my issue” involves a conflict with someone else, someone who has genuinely hurt me, that person might deny any responsibility in the conflict because the issue is mine and not his. Therefore, we may fear we must give up something, our right to justice, for example. In the end, we may have to trust God for that justice.
There are other reasons we might resist this picture of self-awareness. We might resist the idea of discovering that our big reactions reflect a painful internal history, because our Christian culture believes that any “negative” feelings, like sadness, fear, or anxiety, mean we have somehow failed to “live by the Spirit” or are “out of fellowship” with God. Because we have accepted these false ideas on some level, we may move away from our feelings as quickly as possible, perhaps fearing that we doubt God or that we might raise questions that don’t have easy answers.
Finally, we might resist the process of self-awareness because, frankly, it is uncomfortable. And we don’t like being uncomfortable. To say that this very discomfort has something to teach us is to say we might need to feel uncomfortable in order to learn it. To know our fears and our pain on this deep level is just too scary. And yet there is great hope for deeper connection, deeper intimacy, as we risk gaining this knowledge of ourselves and then sharing it with another.
All of us are sophisticated in our efforts to minimize our discomfort, even at the expense of knowing some truth about reality and the God who put us in it. There is truth to be found in difficult feelings, which speak to us of the experiences which live inside us throughout our lives. If our Christianity is coherent, we can ask it to be coherent in this area of our lives, also. We can ask it to make sense of the reality in which God has planted us, including all the pain and hurt. In the face of hard truth, in some mysterious way we discover that God is good and that we can trust Him with what He has authored in our lives.