The simple tool I use with 90% of my clients: The Shapes Diagram

Sometimes you stumble across a tool that you didn’t know you needed, but as it turns out, you really do. Like pretty much everything Steve Jobs ever created.

I’ve creatively titled this tool “The Shapes Diagram.” I use it with 90% of my clients because it takes complex ideas (like emotions and inner healing) and makes them a bit more concrete.

This diagram basically designed itself as I was trying to communicate some core emotional health ideas to Cambodians in Khmer. It wasn’t that my clients were dumb, it was that I lacked enough language skill to accurately describe some things.

So I did what any former youth pastor would do, I started scribbling. And this is what I came up with:


I’ll walk you through the thing here in a minute. But if you’d rather watch an 11-minute video of me explaining The Shapes Diagram, click the video below.

OK, so here’s a rough walk-through…

Basically, we all have emotions, and most people end up seeing me because they’re having some emotions they don’t like. In other words, most people don’t come in happy (except the pre-marital clients, they do come in happy, and usually they leave happy too, but that’s not a given).

We start in the middle rectangle. For many, the rectangle (emotion) is anger or sadness or anxiety. Now, many pastors hear the story that led to the unwanted emotion and immediately start looking at what STEPS the person needs to take (or avoid) in order to get to the positive result (and avoid the negative one).

For example, someone might tell the really sad person, “Exercise, read your Bible more, pray!” They might continue, “Don’t drink when you’re sad, don’t do drugs, don’t watch Gilmore Girls. Those would be steps in the wrong direction and would lead to a negative result.”

Here’s the thing: that might all be good advice, and maybe people need to hear it, but pretty much every depressed person I’ve ever talked to already KNOWS those things. What I’ve come to believe (and experience with my clients) is that for the most part, all of that top part (the middle emotion box) and the steps and the results are all future-oriented things. That is, they force the client to ask, “What will I do now?” And that’s certainly a very valid question.

The thing is, that top half of the diagram (Emotions plus Steps plus Results), often balances precariously on the triangle that consists of emotional pain and lies from the past.

Often, past painful events in the client’s life have caused him or her to believe, deep down in their core, lies. Lies like “I’m worthless,” “I’m unlovable,” and “I’m broken beyond repair.”

It takes a lot of energy to keep everything steady on the tip of that triangle, but people try. And they try and they try. And they never deal with the emotional pain and the lies. We do them a tremendous disservice if all we do is give them Steps.

I want to ask the question, “What’s in the triangle? What’s the pain that this is all balancing on?” In practice, about half of my clients see this diagram and immediately say, “Oh, I know what’s in that triangle!” They then go on to list the traumatic event or the emotional trauma and the lies it planted. The other half typically says, “Well, I think this is probably true, but I’m not sure what’s in there.” That’s fine too, and so with their permission, we just continue the conversation.

If we can help a client to see what’s in the triangle and label it and maybe find the lies, then we can encourage them to invite Jesus into that specific place for healing. We can invite the Truth in and he can counter the lies and heal the emotional pain. The triangle can be erased, and it’s not nearly as mystical as it sounds. : )

Then, with the triangle gone, the client’s emotions are simply resting on the Truth (Jesus). The emotions are still there, because the client is still a human, but the whole thing is much more stable.

Now some people try to bypass the triangle and jump straight to the Truth. But that’s not as effective. In fact, it’s just terrible. You can’t skip the triangle and jump straight to Jesus. You want to meet Jesus in the triangle. And he wants to meet you (and your clients) there too.

If you jump over the triangle (the pain/lies) you also jump over the healing.

I ask people to imagine that someone’s drowning in the middle of the Mekong. What if I see them drowning and I ride my boat over to them and I give them five gallons of good, clean water. Do they need that water?

Well, sort of. I mean, people need clean water to drink. And the Mekong is filthy. But is it helpful to them? No. It’s also not very kind. When someone’s drowning, I don’t want to just throw clean water at them, I want to actually help them.

We do that to folks who are depressed or anxious or experiencing a lot of difficult emotions. We give them good clean “water” of Truth and throw a Bible verse at them and stuff. The verses are true and good, but the timing is way off. Help the person NOT drown. That’s what the Church has to get better at doing, not just throwing water bottles to drowning/depressed people and telling ourselves we were helpful.

One article that might prove an additional resource is something I wrote about the Psalms. You can find that article here: The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement.


Caveat: I’m all for medication if it’s necessary, and I would NEVER tell someone who’s depressed to stop their meds or go off their meds. I’m talking about a holistic approach here. So maybe someone’s on meds, fine, they should still be looking at what might be in the triangle.  Maybe there’s nothing, but maybe there’s something. Maybe it really is just a chemical imbalance that needs intervention. I believe that happens. But I also think exploring past painful events and asking around for deep-seated lies can expose someone to healing and greater self-awareness.


November, 2018 Addendum
Let’s talk about the difference between lie-based pain and fact-based pain (the stuff in the triangle), and why the distinction matters.

Here’s the new handout I’m using with clients…


11 thoughts on “The simple tool I use with 90% of my clients: The Shapes Diagram

  1. Pingback: A Missionary's Call to the Psalms and a Deeper Emotional Intelligence - International Mission Board

  2. I love this diagram! It is clear and really explains how ineffective counseling process should go. I am a lay leader at Celebrate Recovery. It has been difficult to explain exactly what celebrate recovery is, & get pastoral & church support. But your diagram shows that by coming out of denial and admitting the lies and pain that are undergirding our emotions and/or addictions, we can find true freedom. It seems most pastors and small group leaders don’t understand that process. We do not just jump over the triangle of lies and pain to give a quick biblical Band-Aid. We want to get to the core of what is possibly causing the issue by working through a spiritual & moral inventory in a safe setting. Thanks for sharing this insightful tool!

    • Hey there, Grace! I’m so glad this material was helpful! I totally get what you’re talking about regarding the importance of deep soul work. It’s nothing flashy, it’s not on the “outside,” and yet it’s so vital to our ongoing discipleship and growth. Again, so happy this was useful for you. God bless! — Jonathan T.

  3. A major complaint I have with the church is that we want to only address the spiritual many times,so we end up with people with heads full of scripture and lives spent doing what they should but not emotionally healthy. We are made up of more parts: emotional, physical, social, psychological, and I believe spiritual is the umbrella over them all. We need to help people deal with the emotional hurts and to grow in emotional maturity. Many Christians are emotional infants running around with heady knowledge of the Bible and end up hurting each other in their immaturity. A book that helped me was “Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You.”

  4. Hi Jonathan. You asked if these kinds of videos are helpful, and I would like to tell you that I find them VERY helpful! I used your shapes diagram tons in my former work in member care. Thank you so much for taking the time to do them, and yes, if you are able, I would love for you to do more of them! I would love a 5 to 10 minute video on grief and processing grief in a healthy way. And any other ideas that you have. Drawings always great! I’m a visual learner. I also just want you to know that I have followed you for many years, and have so appreciated who you are and what you bring to our world. Thank you for your insight, your work, following Jesus to a hard place, and your deep, evident love of Him . . . in the midst.

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