„I’m going to attract that into my life“

In today’s self-help subculture there is an often repeated proposition, represented by various people, that we can use our consciousness to create the life of our choosing. This is based on the so-called Law of Attraction or law of resonance, which says that things, that are the same, attract each other. The idea is, that thoughts create vibration patterns that, like magnets, connect with vibration patterns of other people, events and situations. If we therefore influence our own thoughts, we can influence our life. Unconsciously this is supposed to happen all the time anyway, but if we manage to raise awareness for our thoughts, we can steer them into the direction, we desire our lives to move towards to. A popular addition is also to combine this approach with insights from other fields of knowledge, like for instance Quantum Mechanics. This combination can suggest that the consciousness of an observer is a deciding factor in influencing the behavior of the observed. Following this idea we would be surrounded by a quantum field of possibilities. And if we have the right mental attitude, we could influence this field to manifest our desires.

Flowing forth from this perspective are sentences like the following:

„When you manage to recognize and resolve your old beliefs, you can create exactly the life that you desire from the bottom of your heart.“

„When you believe that you are not lovable, how is anyone else supposed to love you?“

„Your success is dependent on what you tell yourself. When you can really sense, how success would feel like, you send out vibrations that automatically attract it into your life.“

„When you meet someone who triggers, disturbs or threatens you, it’s your old patterns that are responsible. What is it you still believe that is in resonance with this experience? How have you attracted it into your life? What is the lesson that life is trying to teach you here?“

Here are some more quotes, that are often attributed to famous or invented people (with dubious sources and often altered), which either refer directly to the law of attraction or to the underlying principle.

Whatever someone thinks of himself, determines his fate.
Mark Twain

If you want and expect it, it will soon belong to you.
Abraham Hicks

No matter whether you believe you can do it or you can not to it, you will be right.
Henry Ford

The Law of Attraction attracts everything that you need, depending on the kind of mental life you live. Your environment and your financial situation are perfect reflections of your habitual thinking. Thought rules the world.
Joseph Murphy

You do not attract, what you want. You attract, what you believe is true.
Neville Goddard

Your word is your wand. The words you speak creat your own destiny.
Florence Scovel Shinn

You become what you think of the most.
John Assaraf

We are what we think. Everything we are arises out of thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world.

The dominating thought or mental attitude is the magnet and the law says: same attracts same. That is why our kind of thinking is inevitably going to attract circumstances, that correspond to it its nature.
Charles Haanel

The happiness in your life is dependent on the nature of your thoughts.
Marcus Aurelius

Whenever I allow these phrases to touch me, I feel a mixture of euphoria and tension. I find them tempting and disturbing at the same time. For they promise power by force of will, while at the same time ascribing responsibility for everything that happens. Including aspects of life I do not like or suffer from. But could this really be true? Is there not something like fate? Where does the responsibility end? And what kind of power do I really possess? What does it mean, when I feel powerless? Does it only mean that I have not worked enough on myself?

I believe that the Law of Attraction is based on real psychological phenomena, that are actually way more differentiated than is obvious on the surface. This is exactly the reason why it is not easy to refute it or make meaningful distinctions. I actually believe that many people have profited from approaches that are based in one form or another on the Law of Attraction. And I also believe that people representing this approach sometimes do have a deeper understanding than gets obvious in the marketing. At the same time I want to take the stress and disturbance seriously, that goes with exaggerating the role of willpower and overloading personal responsibility. In this article I want to shed light on how to separate the wheat from the chaff.


The original situation in which people get interested in approaches connected to the Law of Attraction is usually one of powerlessness. Maybe I have fallen in love with an emotionally unavailable woman for the 5th time. Or I have been struggling financially for years and want to finally breath freely when I check my bank account. I might also be working a job that does fill my bank account, but drains my heart. Perhaps I have a dream that is so far from my reality, that I only feel numb when I think about it. There could also be a lethal illness that threatens me. The experience of powerlessness is the common denominator.

Powerlessness is an existential experience. It means that something, that is essentially important for our well-being, lies beyound our reach or at least seems to. Sometimes it is not at all clear what the real possibilities would be, given an all-knowing observer. Inner and outer life-situations are often complex and can quickly become incomprehensible. Maybe it is just me thinking that I cannot do anything? What if I just have not yet found the right buttons to press? After all, there are enough people, who seem to have „made it“… why should it be just me, who does not? And in principal we can always say with Viktor Frankl: until we die, we become. Until then we do not know, what is in store for us.

Magic, Myth and Mind

In order to be able to categorize the Law of Attraction regarding the experience of powerlessness, I want to lay some groundwork. There is a way in which we can understand the history of human progress as a history of the fight of the human will against the kind of powerlessness, that can threaten the very survival as well as a fulfilling life. Phenomena that seemed to be insurmountable challenges just a century ago, are not a problem anymore today. Just considering the fields of medicine, mobility and communication can show us, how radically the world has changed, as the examples of the internet, air travel and drastically decreased infant mortality rates are able to demonstrate. Without the human mind this would not have been possible. This tool has allowed us in many respects to improve our existential situation and make essential experiences possible. Of course there are many other examples, but I want to use the field of psychotherapy to elaborate on what the mind has contributed to progress. And where its limitations are.

Before we had anything akin to a teaching of neurosis, the best theories on what we call mental illnesses today, were magic and mythic models of explanation. People were believed to be able to use magic and curses to influence the inner state of other people. The voodoo-doll is always an impressive example, but also the „evil eye“, by use of which people could be banned from their tribe, subsequently dying of isolation and hopelessness. In the magical perspective on the world we solve the problem of powerlessness by creating symbols of something real (like the voodoo-doll or certain words or phrases), that we can manipulate. By way of the magical connection between symbol and reality we can influence the latter, by changing the former.

In the mythic perspective, influence happens mediated through powerful beings like gods, demons, spirits and angels, whose support we can ask, pray or make sacrifices for. If they heed our plea, they can heal sicknesses, bring riches, grant good harvests or bless a love-relationship. They could also be made responsible for phenomena, for which nobody had any other explanation, like e.g. in the case of demon posession. In this fashion, inexplicable psychological states fell into the domain of magic and myth. Against this background we can also understand the stigma of these kinds of states, which is fortunately continuously receding. For those states would be understood as evidence of the disfavor of higher beings, who did not want to help but harm this person. And everyone who would get close to him or her would suffer the same fate.

It was not until the recognition of inner correlations and the naming of psychological cause-and-effect-relationships by Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries that we understood, we could entirely do without magic or myth to counter this kind of suffering. And in order to be respected as a physician in matters of the soul, Freud used the medical model and declared psychological suffering to be a sickness, which could be cured in the classical sense. Thus, also in this context we developed strategies to use the mind to keep powerlessness at bay.

The interesting point, though, is as follows: Even though many present approaches in psychotherapy try to resolve psychological issues in a strictly manualized, rational and willful fashion, the process to which Freud’s psychoanalysis was referring to, does not work in a linear-rational manner at all. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious actually means that most of the psychological content escapes the direct graps of the waking mind and is therefore only accessible to indirect methods, if it is not supposed to fall prey to censorship. Hence the importance of dreams, Freudian slips and free association as access points to feelings, wishes and needs that seem to be too threatening in the everyday environment of a particular human being to be processed consciously. We do need our mind in order to gain order and orientation in these areas of ourselves, but we also need something else.


The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist writes in his book „The Master and his Emissary“ about the functions of the two brain-hemispheres in human beings. According to him we need our left hemisphere for linear processes like language, thinking and planning, without which we would not be able to act. In the meantime, the right hemisphere perceives the „field“, recognizes patterns in the unknown, senses interrelationships and orients us intuitively. Those are very different kinds of perceiving oneself and the world, that both contribute something very vital and important.

I like to imagine the difference by using the example of „draw by number“: using the left hemisphere, we connect the numbers thereby forming a pattern. Using the right hemisphere we recognize the pattern. Sometimes this works already, before the pattern is complete. Whatever we perceive using the right hemisphere only becomes available to our conscious speech, thinking and action, when we manage to connect it to our left hemisphere. Thus we can express what we perceive through our right hemisphere. Without this expression we cannot communicate to others and have a hard time to sort through our perceptions. In my understanding, psychotherapy mainly deals with this process of connection, in which unconscious experience from the right hemisphere becomes conscious and expressable enough to be accessible for our actions.

McGilchrist posits the hypothesis that the different modalities allowed for human beings in a pre-historic environment to use the left hemisphere to take care of planning for food and protection by conscious action, while the right hemisphere vigilantly observed the surroundings. Therefore we need both hemispheres for the whole picture which orients us in the best way possible and ensures our survival.

Like the title of his book suggests, McGilchrist makes the point, that the right hemisphere should lead as the master, while the left one follows as his emissary. The field perception of the right hemisphere unconsciously takes in way more information, than the precise focus of the left hemisphere ever could. Apart from that, it is open to everything new and unknown. In the meantime the left hemisphere categorizes stimuli in such a way, that we know what to do with them: is the stimulus useful, dangerous or inconsequential? Without this categorization we do not have any orientation on the level of action. Because of this narrowing on categories, the left hemisphere cannot know what it does not know and is apt to believe that willpower should suffice in reaching a goal. The more complex a situation is, however, the more important it is to gather all the information in the field and use it meaningfully for our own decisions. If we take this seriously, it means that we need non-rational leadership for complex situations in order to make decisions, that have rational meaning and serve us and other human beings. One way to talk about this kind of leadership is intuition.

In a german podcast, Vivian Dittmar, author of the book „The inner GPS“, explains that intuition means a kind of perception that we cannot explain rationally in the present moment, although it turns out to be coherent and useful often enough. Its usefulness does, however, depend on the kind of experience a person has in the given field of expertise. As a psychotherapist, I might be able to sense the inner worlds behind a given sentence, but I would suck at predicting the stock market. Thus we can see that the field perception of the right hemisphere does indeed have something to do with reality, even though we might not always be able to say, what the connection is. And everyone, who has gathered long-time experience in a certain field of expertise, knows, that he or she is able to sense what to do at a given point in time, without having to think about it.

Before rational and after rational

Accepting the premise, that we need non-rational leadership, leads us to an important question: How do we recognize, whether this non-rational entity actually relates to what we can perceive in reality? What if we are mistaken? Are not magic and myth also non-rational ways of understanding the world and fighting powerlessness? What about those? Sure, sacrificing a virgin to a god certainly has calmed down a lot of people, but is this really necessary? Does it help? And is the price acceptable?

For me this leads to the conclusion, that not everything, that is non-rational, has the same quality and value. The US-philosopher Ken Wilber organizes this problem by using a developmental sequence, that is based on research and theories by various developmental psychologists (among others Jean Piaget, Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Susanne Cook-Greuter). To that end he speaks of a rough model with three stages, through which both mankind and every individual human being can develop. The stages are called pre-rational, rational and post- or trans-rational.

It is exactly these stages onto which we can also map the different approaches to the problem of powerlessnes, that I have addressed above. Against this background we can recognize that both pre-rational and trans-rational thought are both non-rational and can therefore be confused with each other. Pre-rational myths can be construed as trans-rational wisdom and vice versa. But in their relationship to the rational mind there is a very important difference, because trans-rational thoughts take the rational into account, even if they transcend them. Pre-rational thoughts ignore what we can perceive with the rational mind or are directly in conflict with it.

A good example might be the way Joseph Campbell deals with myth: on a pre-rational level, we take myths and mythological figures literally and actually believe that they really exist and have power. Trans-rationally we take myths as metaphors and projections of unconscious movements of the soul, which can tell us important insights about our internal and external life. It is exactly this distinctive characteristic that I want to use as a standard, by which I make distinctions regarding the topic of the Law of Attraction.

The heart of the matter

I believe that the idea expressed by the quotes in the beginning of this article, does not work in this way. Without further differentiation I get the impression of a magical, i.e. prerational connection, in which I can manipulate the world directly through my state of consciousness. Following this idea, through my thoughts and mediated by e.g. the quantum field, the world should comply to my desires, spare me any dangers and offer me only wholesome opportunities. At least, when I have worked on myself enough. If the world does not comply, it has to be due to the fact that I have not done enough. At the bottom line, this perspective suggests hope for total control over my life, if I just had these „damn states of consciousness“ down. I can use this perspective to defend against the awareness of a lot of forces in the world that are out of my hands – chief among them my own unconscious and the will of another human being, who can love and who can harm us.

I believe the true core of all the approaches connected to the Law of Attraction has to do with uncovering of unconscious processing patterns, which confuse our orientation as adults and lead to repeated decision making, that might „feel great“ at the time, but does not lead to any desired outcomes. These „great feelings“ might also consist in not rocking the boat and leaving everything as it is, to not endanger the stability in ourselves and in our lives. Typically this approach leads to situations in which we experience powerlessness, because the same thing happens over and over again and we cannot „for the life of it“ understand, how this is possible.


To understand these unconscious processing-patterns, we need to consider the childhood situation that I have already referred to in articles like Mediation. In this situation, parts of our nervous system develop and without inner work, they continue to work the same way in adult life, as they did in childhood. As a child we are dependent for our very survival on the relationship to our mother or our primary caregivers respectively. Therefore we feel an enormous pressure to do everything possible to ensure its stability. When we fail to do so, we are confronted with panic and fear of death, which for a child are only tolerable to a certain degree. In order to ensure more or less stable conditions for growing up, we therefore push every stimulus for this panic out of awareness and thus distort our perception. This makes for what we could call „programs“ and structures for our sense-making process regarding ourselves and reality. And one experession of these structures are beliefs about ourselves and others, which usually have a general and absolute quality to them. Here are some examples:

„I’m too stupid, dumb, ugly, not good enough.“
„As a woman I should always be nice and quiet.“
„All men want sex. Always.“
„Whoever has money has no soul.“
„Whoever wants me has to be so deepy disturbed that I do not want him/her.“
„When someone is not available, it’s because I haven’t done enough.“

These beliefs are usually the way in which we managed to push unbearable experiences out of awareness as a child. As long as I believe, e.g., that I am stupid, I do not trust my senses and prevent myself from noticing, how my parents hurt me. When I tell myself that I am ugly, I may be able to defend against noticing unwanted attention. When I believe that money and having a soul do not go together, I can live more easily with poverty. To believe that somebody who wants me, must be disturbed, possibly protects me from the experience of being overwhelmed or engulfed by someone’s closeness. As long as those beliefs are unconscious, we perceive ourselves and our surroundings in a way, that has much more to do with our past situation, than with the one of today. This means that we cannot really consider our present situation, when we make a decision. And thus we can overlook opportunities and dangers, which we would notice, if we were more conscious.

Gaining consciousness on early circumstances is easier said than done, because the distress and pain of the past tend to reappear when we allow ourselves to question our beliefs. I like to take the following image to illustrate this: since our heart hurt so much, that the pain became unbearable, we put it on ice. That numbed the pain and stabilized the inner situation in such a way, that survival was possible. Since our heart is also our compass, which orients us regarding important life decisions, we can only use it for our own purposes today to the extent that it is no longer frozen. Following this image, the next step would be to unfreeze the heart so that it can serve as compass once more. And if you have ever felt, how unfreezing fingers feel like after having been frozen, you know, how uncomfortable that can feel like.

Confusion is the price of defense

I want to take a case as an example, in which a client for the 5th time in his life actually had fallen in love with a woman, who was not emotionally available. In this case, after a brief commitment and a break-up by her, there had been a couple of on and offs and he had been hoping for living together and founding a family. However, again and again she withdrew. Generally he had been quite mindful and attentive towards her, took her seriously, expressed himself as openly as he could… and still: the relaxed flow of connection, that he was looking for, did not emerge.

This experience had repeated itself a couple of times and he was sick and tired of it. He related, how every time the woman had felt like it was super important to win her over, without actually knowing why. The fact that he was unable to articulate this was odd, because of his overall well developed linguistic and cognitive capacity. Considering his early childhood situation, we found out, that he had not been able to reach for and connect to his mother, whenever he was feeling powerlessness, sadness or anger. In those instances she withdrew and he could not do anything to prevent it. Any kind of begging or protest had not helped. Sometimes it had been especially difficult, because the withdrawing did not happen on a physical but a psychological level, even though her body was still there. This meant that a part of his had not been mirrored. And since he had been feeling insecure about being actually recognizable on a deep soul level, he had doubts about actually existing as a sentient being with a vital internality.

This left him with a deep yearning and powerlessness, which he had been trying to numb by keeping up the fight for connection against all odds. He told himself that he might not have shown up enough or that he just had not understood properly yet, how a real relationship was supposed to work. And that he would just have to put more effort into understanding the internal conflicts of the woman, imagining, he might be able to resolve her conflicts and win her over. In a way he held on to the belief that he, as he was, might not be good enough to deserve being seen or loved. This belief had the function to defend againts the powerlessness, that came about with the fact, that the withdrawing of his mother’s had nothing to do with him and lay way beyond his grasp. Realizing this powerlessness as a child would have meant despair without any hope for change.

When seen from my perspective, the relationship to this woman had looked impossible to me for quite some time, but my client would not have any of it. He had tried to turn the tiniest spark into a fire and would become angry, when somebody tried to talk him out of it. Uncovering his belief about his inadequacy meant that he had to face the real powerlessness, that he had experienced as a little boy. For a long time this had seemed like pure horror to him – something to be avoided at all cost. It took quite some time, accordingly, before he was able to realize his limitations, when the next setback came along.

Finally, when he was able to bear the horror and sense the love within him, despite being unreciprocated, he was able to realize, that he paid in orientation what he gained in illusory control by believing in his inadequacy. This was why he had been unable to recognize when a woman was so afraid of her internal conflicts that she would probably be unable to commit to him in the way that he was looking for. In order to be able to realize this, he would have to take his nervousness seriously, that he had been numbing by his hopeful outlook. Because of this outlook he had been falling in love with women, who had initially seemed to be willing to the kind of openness he was looking for, only to subsequently signal their overwhelm and wish to withdraw. For him this looked like he could actually change something, just as he had believed, when he had been a little boy, just not to fall prey to utter despair. The awareness of the kind of glasses, he was wearing, allowed him to take them off, to look at them and perceive his counterpart with clear standards for what he wanted to engage in and what not.

The child and the bath water

Against the background of this case vignette, the degree of accuracy of the title „I’m going to attract this into my life“ might become apparent. From a trans-rational perspective, we are not talking about a magical process of attraction due to a supernatural quantum field, but a clarification and reorganization of perception. This process is not merely rational, but it is possible to describe it in terms, that do not violate principels of reason. However, since we are considering complex phenomena, we are dependent on the field perception of the right hemisphere of the brain, which shows up as intution, given a certain level of awareness and experience. Field perception allows us to spot, order and weigh dangers and opportunities differently than we habitually do. Once we get clear on the standards, by which we measure our lives and become able to differentiate those standards from our beliefs, we can change the focus of our attention. And this new orientation can then lead to us „creating“ a new life.

For my client this meant at first, gaining security and confidence in the ability to actually know his real aspirations and desires in life. Disorientation recedes increasingly, the clearer he can perceive the realness of his love, even when it is not reflected back to him, while at the same time grasping the nature of his situation. With this kind of confidence he is able to take risks and can check diligently, whether a woman is able to hold herself, when she is afraid. He can steer his level of engagement, before risking the same experience again. Maybe this kind of perception leads to him noticing a woman, that he might have overlooked before, because he had underestimated her capacity for openness. Another possibility altogether might be, that he wants to create a safe home for his love within himself, before trying his luck in the next relationship.

All of these are descriptions that go beyond the rational mind, but are not in conflict with it. With this kind of empowerment I cannot see any kind of grasp for total control, resulting in no pressure to be able to hold the reins about things that I have no power over. I can agree with that whole-heartedly. Without this differentiation, however, I am afraid that approaches related to the Law of Attraction do more harm than good and that the illusion of magical control eventually leads to even more powerlessness, disappointment and self-hatred.


She: „Honey, have you taken out the trash yet?”

He: “No, but I’ll do it later, stop being so pushy!”

She: “How am I pushy?! I just don’t enjoy a stinking kitchen and I don’t see, why it’s me again having to take care of that!”

He: “What do you mean by ‘again’? Don’t you see what I’m carrying for us all the time? I hate you bitching about things all the time!”

She: “Then look for another idiot who’s willing to take care of a beautiful home next to all the other things that I take care of. I don’t need this.”

He: “So typical, you don’t get me at all! I bust my ass around this place and that’s what I get for it?!”

She: “You’re free to leave, if you don’t like it! In any case, you’ll sleep on the couch tonight.”

Hmmm, that escalated quickly. It is reasonable to think that the two of them did not have that fight for the first time and there seems to be quite some background. But what did actually happen here? And what might be a healthy way of dealing with it?

In pondering the question, what a healthy relationship is built upon, the term “triangulation” has become important to me. It describes a skill and a developmental challenge, that every human being is existentially confronted with at some point or another. Without some kind of mastering this skill, I deem fulfilling relationships impossible. Not to be able to triangulate means to be imprisoned between submission and demand and to have a very limited tolerance for differences. In many cases, it means to prefer staying alone to risking to lose oneself in a relationship. It can also mean to feel lonely within a relationship, because acknowledging the existence of someone, who is truly different, can be so threatening that we either stop perceiving ourselves or the other person fully or accurately. Without triangulation, growing beyond egocentricity is blocked and real closeness without giving up one’s identity and differences is impossible.

There is a lot of literature about this term within the field of psychoanalysis, but unfortunately for the most part, I find it difficult to understand and digest. Most of the time a satisfying reference to everyday observations and feelings is missing. The origin of the term “triangulation” goes back to Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the Oedipus-complex and later, among others, to Hans W. Loewald, Margaret Mahler and Ernst Abelin’s Organizer- and Triangulation model, which also describes developmental stages before the oedipal stage. At this point I do not want to go into the details of these models, but elaborate on what I myself see in the term. But I make reference to what is called “the early triangulation”, not the oedipal one. I also want to differentiate the term from the dysfunctional triangulation within the framework of systemic family-therapy. I thereby hope to enlighten a phenomenon that is both complex and often unconscious, despite its everyday occurrence.


Following the roots of the term, triangulation points to a triad, which is formed by a “third party” joining a dyad, i.e. a relationship of two. This third party is necessary to create a mediating balance between two different poles. Without this mediation, the differences in a relationship can be grounds for a power struggle, which leaves only space for one position: mine or yours. And even if I “win”, the result will not be entirely satisfying, because the relationship will suffer: the “we” loses. And the part in me that wants belonging, connection and closeness, loses as well. But how do I take care of the “we” without neglecting the “me”?

I assume it is safe to say that this question is overwhelming for many people. Not primarily, because it can already be mentally complex, but because the feelings going along with this question can be overwhelming and scare us to death. And the more important the relationship is, the more intense those feelings can become. If you have ever been in a situation that I have outlined above, you know the intensity behind what has been said. To think clearly while anger, hurt and fear are raging within you, is impossible. The nervous system is hijacked and on a rollercoaster ride without seatbelts. Instead of calm discourse or constructive interchange, only fight, flight or freeze are possible. When our focus is limited to the current situation, we might wonder, how this is possible: “Didn’t they just talk about the trash?” And yes, without understanding relevant experiences from the early stages of life (the consequences of which reach far into adulthood), it is impossible to realize, how situations like this can be so intense.

Close to the abyss

Since a relative stability is essential for learning and growth as a child, a substantial amount of uncovering (e.g. in psychotherapeutic settings) is necessary to realize, how precarious the childhood of a human being actually is – especially from the child’s point of view. We are maximally dependent on our parents and caregivers in seeing us and taking care of us, because nobody else would do it. And even in our relatively stable social situation, where child protective services might step in, in case of violence or neglect and make sure, we are adopted by the best foster parents of the world – how would a child know about that? When the imagination stops regarding where we sleep tonight, whether we get something to eat or have a warm place, where we are treated with care, we hit a limit very quickly. And it is even quicker in the earliest stages of life, when we have not yet developed the capacity for imagination. I believe we rarely develop an idea of death, but in most cases, there is something like a “fog of dread”, where images grow fuzzy and vague. And when we get too close to this fog for too long, we feel panic.

Since we are dependent on our primary relationship (most often to the mother) for security, emotional safety and stability, this panic can also come up, whenever we want something else than the mother. This difference can pose a threat to the relationship. Depending on the age we are speaking of, the possibilities of the child are varying of course. But let us assume we are talking about an 18-months old girl wanting to self-determine what to eat and how much. If the mother is either incapable or unwilling to meet the girl in her preferences, the situation can become quite dangerous to the girl: either she affirms what she wants and risks the relationship, or she gives up her will in order to calm the relationship and soothe her nervous system. As long as this is a power struggle between mother and child, the latter choice is more likely. After all, we can survive without expressing ourselves, but without a basis for survival, we have no chance for enjoying our self-expression. The price for this is, that we need to deny, forget and repress parts or ourselves so that we do not experience this self-relinquishment as unbearable. If we do not manage to do so, fight or flight impulses become so forceful, that we are not able to resist them. If you can imagine what a 3-year old must feel, who wants to flee out into the world, unable to hold all the pain and anger, you might be able to understand, how threatening these feelings can be.

However, in order to develop a healthy sense of ourserlves, we need a situation, in which we do not have to decide between self-expression and maintaining the relationship. And this situation only comes about by way of triangulation. Traditionally the “third element” is the father. And for purposes of illustration, I will talk about the father and his ideal effect on the situation. On a meta level, triangulation points to a mediating element in general that can bridge any kind of differences. Further below I will talk about what kind of other forms this mediating element can take, which can have a similar effect.

The ideal situation

Assuming mother and child can have different ideas and feelings about what and how much to eat, there can be a power struggle between them. In case the father joins them and he has a loving bond towards mother and child, he can mediate. Possibly he sees something else in the behavior of the little girl, e.g. the human need to choose for herself and feel the effect, that she can have on others. When he empathizes with that, he can name it and stand in for her. Doing that he becomes her “attorney”: he protects her and stands by her side. In this moment, the little girl can start to relax, because the threat from the mother is decreasing.

However, the relationship is only safe again, when the father is not only the girl’s attorney, but also a mediator. And he only can be that, when he is able to understand the needs of the mother’s as well, e.g. her worry about “doing it right”, her exhaustion and her needs for empathy and rest. The father’s presence and consciousness can create a space, in which mediation is possible. The little girl can experience her feelings and needs consciously, as well as the mother, without increasing the tension. At this point the question is not anymore, how much to eat, but what the underlying feelings and needs are: the exhaustion and discouragement of the mother, who needs space for herself and her inner life – and the understandable need of the girl to determine for herself, what she wants to eat. Given this space, a third way can emerge that works both for mother and child and serves their relationship. How exactly this might look like is not as important anymore, because the connection is re-established on the heart level. Maybe the girl is satisfied, maybe there are other ideas what she could eat, maybe the mother needs half an hour for herself and the father takes over.

I am aware of the fact, that I am describing an ideal situation, which many people would have wished for, but actually might have experienced rarely. In doing this, I want to create a conscious metric for how it might work – on the basis of which we might better understand, what was missing in many cases and why it was not possible under these circumstances. And what would be required today, if we want to grow beyond the power struggle.

Different paths with the same intention

As I have said before, the father is an ideal example. This constellation derives its power from the fact, that the child’s bond to the mother is usually the strongest and the need, to be able to balance autonomy with connection is nowhere greater but here. In a less potent version, the roles can be reversed: the conflict can be between father and child, while the mother mediates. Every other close adult with the respective consciousness can have the mediating role. The mediating element can also consist in the mother’s awareness of her legitimate needs and boundaries, while also sensing what the child needs. In that case, the mediation happens within her awareness and she creates a space, in which she first empathizes with herself and then opens up to understand the child better.

In other cases, external situations or states within the body can have a mediating effect. As a child, most people experienced extra care when they were sick. If the illness is not severe, there can even be a yearning for being sick, because it sent a powerful signal to the mother: “My needs are important.” That is how the so-called “secondary gain” for sickness comes about, which at its core can be the relief, that our needs have a place within the relationship, without us having to give up on the relationship. Another way, children can try to effect the early triangulation, is by way of one’s sex and sexuality – a topic about which I want to write in a future article.

I am sure that there are even more ways for little children to try to escape the distress and impossibility of this power struggle, but in essence I want to point out the quality of connection in mediation and why it is important. Seeing how few people will have experienced such an ideal situation, the question might emerge, how this piece of wisdom could be useful. Obviously, we have no way of changing the past. But we can start to examine it in such a way, that we can have more complete images and more comprehensive understanding of where we stand internally and what we have to feel and understand, before we are able to triangulate successfully.

Mediating internally

One way to describe the “goal” of psychotherapy is “to become the mother and father to ourselves, that we did not have.” This addresses the fact, that consciousness in itself can be the mediating element necessary for triangulation. When I uncover, feel and become able to name what is happening within me, I take a witnessing position towards myself. From this position, I can mediate – either between me and an important person in the external world, or between different positions within myself, like e.g. when I want to be autonomous while also wanting to be close to someone. Without this awareness, I might experience my needs as internal pressure, that I have to submit to as quickly as possible, if I do not wish to experience unfathomable tension. And when doing so leads to a conflict with a significant other… well, a night on the couch can follow. Or a couple of nights.

To raise consciousness on feelings and needs there are a couple of approaches that I find helpful. Next to classical psychotherapy I appreciate Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg the most. However, the most difficult aspect in developing triangulation is not on the level of mental understanding, but is rooted deeper, emotionally and physically in the body. As I have said above, the overwhelm usually consists in not being able to contain the intensity of feelings that might arise in conflict with close people. Among them I count disappointment, anger, hurt and fear. Sometimes it is even the “beautiful” feelings that can trigger a panic, because they remind us of our vulnerability and the possible pain associated with them.

Being able to consciously hold those feelings requires long time inner work and internal examination in most cases. For without it, those feelings might come up as pure panic, feelings of dissolution, deep despair, fear of death and other, much more mysterious symptoms, which can sometimes be so extremely remote to one’s consciousness, that they only arise physically in the body. Migraine and stomach-ache are among the usual suspects. And the less awareness we have of our personal history and the present-day connections to it, the more mysterious and scary those states of consciousness can be to us, leading us to do all sorts of things to avoid them. Among them can be addictions, self-images and beliefs, on to which we hold fiercely, despite clear facts indicating something else. But also attempts to keep a beloved person at a distance or put pressure on him or her to keep unconscious deals and submit to our wishes, can be attempts to avoid those kinds of feelings.

However understandable those defenses are, avoiding these states consistently might get in the way of taking them into account adequately in current conflict situations. Sometimes people need to have dire crises, before they are ready to deal with feelings that they avoided and defended against all there life. Before people are willing to face it, external circumstances sometimes have to become so unbearable, that the internal pain becomes more acceptable by comparison. Since this can in turn become overwhelming, these processes may take a long time. Thereby, step for step, layer for layer, the feelings associated with the early drama of the power struggle, rebellion and submission can come into awareness.

When this path has been walked upon for a good deal, the adult consciousness can recognize, touch and hold the early distress, just like the ideal parent would have done it in the past. We can then become our own attorney and mediator. This enables us to feel real and deep compassion for the child that we once were and whose feelings and experiences influence who we are to this day. And with this kind of compassion I can mediate – be it between different parts of myself or between me and a beloved person, with whom I have differences. Apart from this, I gain the inner freedom to maintain boundaries within a relationship and create distance at times, when I need space for internal mediation. Should I come to the conclusion, that my counterpart does not meet the requirements that I have for a relationship, I can decide to end it – and thanks to the internal mediation I can hold and process the feelings triggered by this loss, that would have been unbearable as a child.

An alternative

Against the background of what I have discussed so far, I would like to pick up the dialogue from the beginning. But this time with the difference, that the man is able to start with triangulating between parts within himself and his partner, before she joins him. By that I want to demonstrate what kind of space is possible thanks to triangulation, in which conflict, differences but also connection have a place to be.

She: „Honey, have you taken out the trash yet?”

He: “No, but I’ll do it later, stop being so pushy!”

She: “How am I pushy?! I just don’t enjoy a stinking kitchen and I don’t see, why it’s me again having to take care of that!”

He: “Hang on… let’s slow this down and check… something’s going out of hand here…”

Despite being tense and angry, she stays still and allows him to take space and feel. He closes his eyes and notices, how tense he is. He realizes his fear, he might not be able to meet his professional goals in time and lose money that he would have wanted available for him and his partner. On a deeper level, he can feel the despair, which he already felt as a little boy, when he did not have words for how he was feeling. And how he would have wished for his mother to sense it and understand him. That had not been the case in many instances and his father had not been there as well to take care of the understanding. It had taken him a long time to be able to cope with the deep pain and powerlessness, instead of telling himself that he did not need this or would be able to effect it himself at some point in the future. On one level, he so would have loved to be understood by his partner right now. He breathes into the pain of not being able to change that and gives it space. After a couple of breaths he can switch and see her own internal pressure, although he does not yet know, where it is coming from. He takes a deep breath before opening his eyes and saying: “You know, honey, I notice that there seems to be a lot of pressure you’re under. Would you like to tell me, what’s going on for you?”

His calm and friendly tone touches her and calms her down to a considerable degree already. She says: “Darling, yes… that’s right. Sorry that I snapped at you. I have heard now for a couple of times that you wanted to do stuff later and then they weren’t done. This totally stresses me out, because I then begin to doubt, that you really hear me and take me seriously.”

He takes that in and is relieved to be able to sense her heart in her message. Because he knows her well, he can hear on a deeper level how this seems to touch a childhood issue of hers. Her needs had often been in question when they were different than what her mother wanted or deemed important. Because they had talked about that many a time, he answers: “That hits you at that old spot, doesn’t it?”

She: “Yes… thank you for seeing that right now.” She sighs and tears are welling up. She’s touched that he sees her. At the same time, she can feel, how deep this pain is and how hard it is sometimes to bear this pain consciously. Let alone to hold it and have compassion with it. Instead she often feels the impulse, to put herself under pressure and to angrily pass on the pressure to someone outside. Sometimes the pressure can lead her to dissociate and collapse, feeling nothing, just like how it was when she was little and unable to do anything without her mother’s help. She feels the distress like an incredibly heavy load on her chest, that almost takes her breath away. She remembers, how lonely she used to be as a little girl, when she did not get the attention and understanding by her mother that she needed, while her father was also missing and unable to mediate. She too sometimes wishes her partner could understand her, without her having to say anything – after all, would not that be enough, to not having to experience this despair at all? At the same time, she is aware enough to understand the price he would have to pay, if he tried to prevent that. He would have to pay way more attention to her than to him – and that would hurt the relationship and eventually her as well. After a lot of attempts in the past, she knows, that this is a price, she does not want to pay.

To him she says: “You know, I know you can’t relieve me from having to tell you, when I’m scared that I’m not taken seriously. Although I really wish you would do that, sometimes. And I can see that you are under pressure and household chores are not your top priority right now…” She stops herself, breathes deeply and says: “I notice now, I can start to relax again… the intense stress is gone. I can see my doubt and my despair from the past. And I also notice that you are taking me seriously.”

He feels relief, is touched and invites her to a deep, tender embrace. After her accepting it, he says gently into her ear: “What do think of me taking out the trash? And after that we could cuddle on the couch together.”

She: “I would like that very much… I’ll prepare the snacks then.”