The Triangle of Safe Uncertainty is a map to help guide you in understanding how the environment we live, work and play in can help us achieve our truest self. When feeling safe to explore and take risks, we give permission to connect with our creative potential. The triangle works by helping to connect you with the emotional atmosphere of your environment, recognising as you move around the triangle the effect this has on opening up or shutting down your emotional expression and inspiration.
The Triangle of Safe Uncertainty combines the Triangle of conflict, made popular by David Malan in the 1970’s and Safe Uncertainty from Barry Mason in 1993. Much of my work is based on attachment theory and helping people to connect to core emotions to lead a fulfilling and authentic life.
What is attachment?
Attachment describes the process in which a baby forms a relationship with their caregiver (often parents but can be other people) and is innately programmed in us for survival. Attachment is universal and happens across all cultures. Unlike other mammals that are self-sufficient very quickly after birth (think of the giraffe that can walk within hours or the turtle that hatches and immediately makes its way into the sea), humans rely on their caregivers for an extended period. As babies and infants are relatively helpless, the adults around them are often responsible for feeding them, keeping them safe, protected, warm and nurtured. It makes sense then that infants use these adults as a ‘safe base’ from which they can begin to explore and adapt to their world. When exploring brings them into contact with something that may be frightening or cause anxiety, they can safely return to be comforted before setting off to explore again. Both attachment and autonomy are important for a child’s development.
What are emotions?
Thanks to evolution, we have been given core primary emotional systems that help us to listen to what we desire or need, and give us the motivation to respond to that need. E-motion literally evokes motion, and when we can listen honestly and openly to those feelings, they act as a compass guiding us toward what we need so that we can live a balanced and fulfilled life. These seven emotions are PANIC/GRIEF, SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, PLAY, and CARE. Other feelings that are often talked about in therapy are those of guilt and shame; it is important to recognise the differences in these emotions: guilt can alert us to repair relationships where we have acted in a way that doesn't align with our values, and has the experience of "I did something bad". In contrast, shame can be inhibitory, shutting us down and reflects a sense of "I am bad". Both shame and guilt can become toxic when used in ways to punish the self.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a bio-physiological response. Despite many people wanting to 'get rid' of anxiety, this is impossible as it is a much-needed signal telling us of our internal response to "perceived challenges and threats to emotional safety, autonomy and, connection" (Coughlin, 2017). Unlike fear which tells you that something is dangerous in your external environment, anxiety is a communication of feelings internally. Some anxiety is healthy as it suggests we are interested in our world and what is happening around us, ready to learn new information. Too much anxiety is paralysing, stopping us from achieving our potential.
Defences are ways in which we avoid our core feelings and often used to help reduce our anxiety in the short-term. Some of the common examples we see are joking or dismissing our feelings, over-eating or under-eating, addiction, obsessions, self-harm, zoning out with too much T.V or internet, or, the opposite: keeping so busy with work or our social life that we find it hard to sit still. We know that in the short-term this can distract you from your anxiety and looking at the core feelings underneath, but in the long-term, this keeps our suffering or distress going.
How the Triangle of Safe Uncertainty works?
The triangle is designed as a guide to notice where you are at any given moment in your external world. When we find ourselves in ‘Safe Certainty’ we can find ourselves acting on autopilot, being rigid with rules and life can feel mundane and monotonous. Often, there can be very little anxiety in this zone of learning, as we are not engaged in the task and just going through the motions. While we may be able to complete a task, it’s unlikely this will generate creativity or interest, as we are only really partially present as anxiety isn’t online to keep us engaged.
When we find ourselves in an ‘Unsafe Uncertain’ zone, this can feel threatening with unpredictable responses from those around us. We may feel unable to judge whether we will get a consistent response from close others. This environment can begin a process of shut-down as a way of coping with this threat, unable to listen to others or approach them for reassurance. Alternatively, it may lead to an increase in reassurance seeking as anxiety feels so overwhelming. Because the environment is uncertain, despite given reassurance intermittently, this will not help reduce anxiety and thus begins a cycle of reassurance seeking and feeling uncontained so seeking more reassurance.
‘Unsafe Certain’ environments are those that are consistently toxic; leading to a damaging and dangerous atmosphere where exploration is severely reduced. These environments can be shaming and restrict the person from trying new challenges or taking appropriate risks because of the guaranteed negative consequences. Anxiety is likely to be extremely high in these situations. People may often use defences to cope with the feelings this provokes, for example becoming depressed themselves despite feeling angry, or, acting out, unable to regulate these feelings or use them constructively. With anxiety so high, very little learning is possible.
The goal then is to move into a ‘Safe Uncertain’ environment. In this zone, there is safety with the relationships around you creating a supportive and containing atmosphere. Appropriate risk-taking is rewarded, knowing that this is the way we learn: through repeated attempts and permission to get it wrong so that you can eventually get it right. Anxiety is online but is regulated and helping you move into your optimal zone of learning. In this zone, you can access your triangle of conflict to make sense of your feelings, anxiety, and defences. You have the agility to explore these areas of the triangles to observe your defences, attend to your anxiety and uncover the feelings that are motivating your behaviour. This leads to truly authentic living where we can achieve our greatest potential.