It is good to look at the whole question of how each element reveals itself both in its balanced and in its unbalanced state. First we need to define what we regard as a balanced element, and look at the way this may start to lose its balance when it is subject to too much pressure upon it. Each element has balanced expressions of those four sensory attributes, its colour, its sound of voice, its smell and its emotion, by which it signals its control over those handed over to its protection. (This is why I like to call this dominant element a person’s guardian element, because, like the more common expression, guardian angel, it hovers protectively over each of our lives.) If we concentrate here on one of these qualities, an element’s emotion, then we should start by thinking about what we would describe as a balanced expression of these five emotions. For each of us this will reflect something quite personal to us, perhaps based on our life experiences when engaging with people of different elements, but I imagine that there may well be a common quality about each emotion which we all recognise as being an expression of it when it is in balance.
It is easiest here to use Wood as an example, because its emotion, anger, is the most visible and in-your-face of all the emotions, and therefore one that we can relate easily to, unlike the more hidden emotions of grief or fear. I think we can all agree that it would be entirely appropriate for anybody to show their anger if, as happened to me, somebody tried to snatch the cash as I was withdrawing it from a cash machine in the street. I remember shouting at the man as he did so, my shout alerting those around me in the queue so that he let the money drop and sprinted away. I like to think that my anger, which had the accompanying effect of changing my voice to a shout, can be seen as being an appropriate and balanced response to the situation.
But what if, instead of this, I had cowered back and refused to engage with the incident? Could this not have been considered an inappropriate reaction from my Wood element, as it failed to do what balanced Wood would have done? In that case, I would have been showing a lack of anger, an inability to show anger where anger would have been appropriate. Equally, if Wood people explode with anger inappropriately, perhaps because they are the kind of people who blow their car horns repeatedly when in a traffic jam for no obvious purpose except to let off steam, this could be described as being an expression of excess anger. Here both lack of anger and excess anger are the two sides of the same coin, both showing the Wood element out of balance.
It is good to look now at how each of the other four emotions changes from positive to negative as it becomes unbalanced, and how we need to learn to recognize this as a way of diagnosing imbalance in our patients. If we look at the element at the centre, Earth, it will show, in balance, the comforting qualities associated with this loving mother element, nurturing us, supporting us, ensuring that we feel grounded in all that we do. All these attributes, however, can become liabilities if it itself starts to feel deprived of good nourishment and is unable to feed itself sufficiently, both physically and emotionally, to replenish the reserves it needs with which to feed others. It can then react in one of two ways, either by exaggerating its particular qualities, so that we see them as expressing an unnecessary level of sympathy, of the “poor you” kind, where this would be inappropriate. The reverse of this is when it feels it has to suppress its natural tendencies, and instead turns itself into a surprisingly hard and unforgiving element, its emotion becoming an unyielding lack of sympathy for the problems of others.
Very different, indeed, from this example of an unbalanced element is that of Earth’s own mother element, Fire. Unlike Wood, Fire is always likely to be viewed positively, for does not the word joy, which describes its emotion, immediately make us feel happier? But, as we know, there can always be too much of a good thing, and exaggerated expressions of joy can overwhelm those who approach a Fire element which is out of balance, much as we might scorch ourselves if we move too near an open flame. Other elements, particularly I expect that coolest of all elements, Metal, can feel threatened by what can seem to them to be the somewhat overpowering warmth which the Fire element in excess can spread around itself. The opposite manifestation of unbalanced Fire, that of depleted Fire, will express itself as a lack of joy. I have found that this form of low Fire energy can have an extremely draining effect upon those in its presence, making us feel as though all the warmth of our own heart is being drawn from us.
My response to the emptiness of Fire, which we call a lack of joy, is here very different from what I experience in the presence of Metal, where the unbalanced expression of grief, lack of grief, is where this element is unable to show grief in situations in which grief would be appropriate. Here Metal seems to distance itself from us even more than it normally does, an extreme expression of suppressed grief making it seem totally unapproachable. Lack of grief is the kind of emotion Metal people show who we would describe as emotionally numb or stony-faced when others around them are weeping. It is not that such people are not experiencing grief. It is that they are so overwhelmed by their feelings, that they are unable to express them and have learnt to suppress them. Unbalanced Metal can also express itself as excess grief, which is when a person is unable to recover from the death of a beloved person, and may continue to mourn for many years.
The unbalanced expression of Water, our final element, is very different from that of its parent element, Metal. Its fear, appropriate when it faces any frightening situation, becomes exaggerated when it loses its sense of proportion, and sees danger where a greater sense of balance would reassure it that all is well. Excess fear is easier to diagnose than lack of fear, as we may not be sufficiently sensitive to detect the anxieties hidden behind a Water person’s show of apparent indifference to danger. I remember a Water patient of mine who enjoyed putting herself into extremely risky situations (a solo parachute jump with very little prior training, for example), and seemed to enjoy the challenges she voluntarily faced, despite fearing them. I would call this a lack of appropriate fear.
All elements can therefore exhibit a range of responses which veer from the most appropriate, and therefore the most balanced, to the unbalanced, on a scale of from a mild to an extreme expression of their emotion. By listening carefully to how our patients describe their responses to stressful situations we can learn a great deal about the balance of the elements within them.