The Vacation Battle: To Plan or Go with the Flow

Dear Vicki: At a family reunion last spring, my sister Leah and I decided we’d go see the fall foliage in New England this year. We’re both single, have been out of college for a few years, and thought this would be a fun thing to do together. Well, it isn’t turning out to be that fun. At least the planning stage. Really, Leah doesn’t even want to plan! She just wants to get in the car and start driving. Does she think we’ll just sleep in the car when all the quaint little inns are sold out? I don’t get it; she was flaky as a child, but this is serious. Every time I call her to discuss the trip, she says that part of the adventure is discovering what’s out there and we’ll take it as it comes. What does that mean? I’m wondering if this is a big mistake. Fall is just a few months away! How do I make Leah see we could be driving into chaos if we don’t have a plan? Signed: Frustrated in Farmington

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Dear Frustrated: Well, this is certainly an excellent example of how different our elemental personalities can be! The fact that you have a strong desire to plan things, are frustrated that you can’t plan, and dearly want to avoid “driving into chaos” makes it pretty clear that you have a primary Wood personality. Two key attributes of Wood people are their appreciation of structure and their focus on the future. When those two are combined, the end result is almost always a plan. Wood personalities excel at looking to the future and deciding what they think the future should hold. It’s a rare Wood person who does not have a plan for almost everything. And thwarted Wood people get frustrated.

Leah, on the other hand, is clearly not a Wood personality. Her desire to take things as they come is a very common trait of the primary Water personality. Water people revel in the wonder of mystery and discovery. They are happiest going with the flow, which some of the more structured elemental personalities (Wood and Metal) often see as “flaky.” In nature, water has very little structure of its own – it’s happy taking any structure offered to it, be that river bed, bottle, or bowl. Trust sits in the Water element and Water people trust that everything will turn out as it should. One would certainly never say that about a Wood personality.

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Her Daughter and Son-in-Law are Working Too Hard

Dear Vicki: I’m very worried about my daughter and hope you can help. Karen is an attorney in her late 20s who is married to another attorney named Tom. They met in law school and married right after graduation. Karen was always a serious child who spend hours alone reading and painting, but now her life appears to be all work and absolutely no play. Given she’s in corporate law and he’s a trial attorney, the only time they seem to spend together is when they work from home on the weekends. They live in an absolutely sterile apartment (nothing cozy or homey, just empty surfaces in a metal high-rise) and eat take-out most nights. Where is their joy and beauty? How will their marriage survive? I’m concerned that Tom might be a bad influence on Karen because he seems especially focused on getting ahead. What can I do to help these two get a life outside of work? Signed, Worried Mom

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Dear Worried Mom: We all need joy and beauty in our lives. However, different elemental personalities find joy and beauty in different ways, so Karen and Tom might not be as unhappy as you think they are. In fact, they might actually be happy. But let’s take a look at the elemental personalities we are dealing with here so we can ascertain what might be going on for everyone involved. And we are going to start with your elemental personality so you can understand the framework you are using to assess Karen and Tom’s happiness.

Without a doubt, you are a primary Earth personality. Your assessment of their apartment as sterile and lacking aspects of “cozy” and “homey” are a clear indication. People with a primary Earth personality value home and family relationships more than anything else. Creating a home that is cozy matters to Earth people, as does fixing wonderful meals for the people they love. And while these things are everything to Earth personalities, they can be markedly less important to the other elemental personalities. Another clue that you are a primary Earth is the fact that you are very worried about Karen and Tom, and especially worried that their relationship could fail. Worry is where Earth people go when they are stressed, and the ending of a primary relationship is almost unthinkable to an Earth person. But while you are definitely a primary Earth personality, I can guarantee you that both Karen and Tom are not.

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Is it Personal? A Friend Suddenly Changes

Dear Vicki: I’m having a difficult time with one of my best friends. Gail and I have been very close for several years now, ever since we met working at our community garden. She is usually a caring and thoughtful person and we have a lot in common, especially our love of gardening and our children. I read your blog and know a little about the elemental personalities, so have assumed that Gail is an Earth personality, like me. But lately I think she might be a Fire personality because she does everything fast—eats fast, walks fast, talks over you when you try to say something, and finishes your sentences. She’s also been impulsive and acts without thinking things through. Anyway, the reason I’m writing is that my husband and I welcomed our first grandchild a year ago. While Gail was initially enthused about Robby, for the past six months she’s seemed really uninterested. She never asks about him anymore and I’ve stopped mentioning him. It’s gotten to where I can’t be myself around her and it’s ruining our friendship. What can I do? Signed, Grandma

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Dear Grandma: The birth of children and grandchildren are some of the deepest changes we can experience in our lives. They can reorder our priorities and affect everything, including our relationships. Your assessment that Gail has a primary Earth personality is likely correct given that she loves gardening and children so much. But Earth people usually love talking about all children, including grandchildren. Something must be going on for Gail that’s affecting her Earth energy. To look at this, I’d like to consider Gail’s “secondary” elemental personality.

You suggest that in addition to Earth, Gail has a lot of Fire in her personality and on the surface that could be true. But the traits you mention can also describe someone with out of balance Wood energy. Doing things too fast frequently happens with a poorly focused Wood person. Finishing people’s sentences and interrupting are rude manifestations of an impatient Wood person. And impulsiveness is often the result of a frustrated Wood person. Honestly, it sounds to me like Gail’s personality is more Earth and out of balance Wood than it is Earth and Fire.

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Embracing Grief

Dear Vicki: As a grief counsellor, I am interested in how each of the elemental personalities processes and deals with grief. Also, are there specific pitfalls for each of the elemental personalities as they grieve? Something that typically blocks their ability to process grief in a healthy way. I guess my bottom line is how best can someone support each of these elemental personalities through the grieving process? Signed: Caring Counsellor

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Dear Caring Counsellor: This is a fascinating question and one that I am happy to address. But before I do, we will need to cover a bit of background to make sure we are all on the same page. Please bear with me here as I review a few key points regarding the Five Elements model and the elemental personalities associated with that model, then we will dive into the issue of grief.

The Five Elements Model

Like any useable model, the Five Elements model from Chinese medicine takes a grandiose idea and reduces it to a simple design. At its core, the Five Elements model is used to describe phases and interactions found in the natural world. The phases are represented by Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal and can be used to describe anything in the world, including people. Actually, they are especially useful when describing people. Here is a simple visual depiction of this model:

The Five Elements Model

We each have the energy of all five elements in our wiring, but based on that wiring, we’ll have a natural affinity for one of the elements. It’s like we’re born into a secret club and our club membership affects everything in our life: the colors we like, the foods we crave, the roles we take on in life, and how we relate to each other. Yes, it’s that significant. Knowing what our elemental personality is — what club we belong to — instantly helps us better understand ourselves, and others. It can also help us understand how best to help each other during difficult times.

The Elemental Personalities: Here are quick thumbnail descriptions of each elemental personality:

Water element corresponds to winter, when most of the activity is below the surface. People with Water as their primary elemental personality are like that. Almost nonchalant outside, inside Water people are a flurry of thoughts, ideas, and creativity. Unlimited potential, hope, and trust sit in the Water element, which gives us a sense of how Water balanced people approach the world when they are balanced. Under stress, the Water personality can become hopeless, empty, narcissistic, or intolerant.

Wood element corresponds to spring, a time of manifestation, growth, and expansion. “Bigger, better, more” typifies the way people with Wood as their primary elemental personality interact with the world. Wood is where accomplishment sits, and when balanced, Wood people excel at getting things done. Under stress, the Wood personality can become indecisive, frustrated, impatient, or angry.

Fire element corresponds to summer, the most energetically active season of the cycle. Fun, celebration, visibility, and enthusiasm all typify people with Fire as their primary elemental personality. Fire is where fun, excitement and celebration sit, and when balanced, Fire people are fun, charismatic, and spontaneous. Under stress, the Fire personality can become scattered, overwhelmed, anxious, or panicky.

Earth element represents times of balance, neutrality, and transition. It’s associated with both Indian Summer, the pivot point between spring/summer and autumn/winter, and the transition times of the solstices and equinoxes. People with Earth as their primary elemental personality value connections and when balanced, they are caring, compassionate, and love anything having to do with people and home. Under stress, the Earth personality can become needy, clingy, worried, or meddling.

Metal element corresponds to autumn, the time for letting go of what’s no longer necessary and moving forward with whatever is. People with Metal as their primary elemental personality are able to synthesize the wisdom from any experience and create form and protocol that they believe must be followed. Under stress, the Metal personality can become sad, critical, inflexible, or controlling.

It’s important to remember that we all have all five of the elemental personalities in our energetic wiring. This means we can call on the traits of any elemental personality when the need arises. If we want ideas and inspiration, we can seek out our Water energy. If we need to plan and accomplish something, we can seek out our Wood energy. The desire to celebrate an event puts us in our Fire energy. Time at home with loved ones certainly activates our Earth energy. And endings of any kind will use Metal energy to process and synthesize the experience. And if the ending created a loss that is hard to process, our response is what we call grief.


And this brings us to our discussion of grief which, for the sake of this post, we will define as a deep and poignant distress caused by loss. Here is how we might expect each of the elemental personalities to act while processing a loss, and how best to help them. As a professional counsellor, you have the skills necessary to manage this process for your clients. For those non-professionals reading this post, please be aware that loss and grief are serious issues and professional help may well be warranted.

Water in Grief: Water personalities thrive on ideas, creativity, philosophic beliefs, and being part of something larger than themselves. Because they don’t have a lot of structure, possessions – and even people – aren’t that important to them. When loss hits a primary Water personality, they will usually go deep inside themselves to process the loss. To the outside world, this may look like depression. And if it lasts too long, it canlead to depression, but Water people process changes to their world at a very internal level, so depth is their friend. The best way to support a Water person dealing with a loss is to let them do their own thing for a time. Because Metal feeds Water on the Nurturing Cycle of the Five Elements model, the Metal energy ofletting go flows naturally to Water people and they usually process what needs processing regarding the loss, then move on. If a Water personality seems stuck or depressed, it’s important to help them rediscover a purpose to life that matters to them, and a way to participate in it.

Wood in Grief: Wood personalities thrive on accomplishment and success. They are wired to manifest, be that a plan, a building, a corporation, or a new world. The act of making things happen really matters to Wood people. Loss can hit a Wood person hard if what is lost in any way represents success to them or was a person who mattered. In the Five Elements model, Metal is the control for Wood, so the energy of loss and grief can really pull Wood people back for a time. A Wood person in grief will be more suspectable to the use of alcohol than the other personalities. The best to way to support a Wood person dealing with loss is to help them focus on ways to re-energize their lives and plans (Woods always have plans). As the pain of the loss subsides, Wood people will naturally start thinking of the future; that is the focus of their vision. Help them engage with something in the future that matters to them and begin working toward manifesting whatever it is.

Fire in Grief: Fire personalities are usually passionate people who thrive on movement, activity, and fun. They are wired for fun and celebration, the more the merrier. Quick to laugh, they are usually the life of the party wherever they are. Loss can really snuff out the flames of Fire, but because they have little structure, they don’t form the deep attachments to people of things that some of the other elemental personalities do, so they can recover quickly. However, they can also try to stay busy as a way to avoid the feelings and eventually burn themselves out. The worst thing that can happen for a Fire personality is to spend too much time alone, so creating opportunities for them to socialize, whether that means coaxing them to a party or inviting people over, will help them move through the grief. In the model, Fire is what controls Metal, so the very act of rekindling their Fire will help manage the grief.

Earth in Grief: Earth personalities care deeply about lasting connections, family, house, and home. They love animals, gardening, helping others and are generally very inclusive. The loss of anything or anyone close to them will usually affect Earth people more deeply than any of the other elemental personalities. In many ways, they are defined by the people and places in their lives and it can take them a very long time to regain a sense of balance. When loss happens, having the people they love around them will be an important part of moving through the grief. The comfort of family and friends will take them a down the road of healing, but it usually isn’t a short journey. When they are ready, time out in nature or the opportunity to help someone else will usually bring them back to themselves.

Metal in Grief: Metal personalities are wired to manage endings by synthesizing the lessons then letting go. They also excel at compartmentalizing different aspects of their lives. When a Metal person suffers a loss, it may look on the surface like it barely fazed them. And in some cases, that might be correct. Balanced Metal people do detach well. They accept endings as part of the cycle and move on. But if they are stressed – and loss does create stress – the Metal person can act like all is well but inside might be having difficulty letting go. Because grief sits in the Metal element, helping the Metal personality move through it is in some ways easier and some ways more difficult. Metal people focus on the past; that is what makes them so brilliant at synthesis. But moving through grief calls for leaving the past behind and moving forward. What often helps Metal people move forward is support from Earth people. Earth feeds Metal in the Five Elements model so an infusion of Earth energy in the form of caring friends, shared food, and even just silent togetherness can help the Metal let go and move on.

Well, this has been a longer than normal post, but I hope it gives you a sense of how each of the elemental personalities embraces and moves through grief. Blessings to you on the work you do!


Unhappy Co-Worker Taking the Office Down

Dear Vicki: My brother Ted is having trouble with a co-worker who appears very hostile toward him. They work with a group of people in an accounting firm where no one has private offices. Everyone has cubicles, so most sound carries. Ted takes his job very seriously, and is really good at it, but he’s also a pretty caring guy who likes to socialize with his co-workers. The problem is that whenever he talks to anyone, this particular co-worker (I’ll call her Ann) gets furious that he’s making noise. Ann apparently wants the whole office to be deathly quiet so she can concentrate, but Ted says it’s bringing the whole place down. Do you have any suggestions regarding how Ted can he handle this situation? Signed, My Brother’s Helper

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Dear Brother’s Helper: Bravo to you for stepping up to help Ted. Office dynamics are always interesting because, within reason, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way for co-workers to interact. Some offices have company events and encourage socializing, others much less so. But outside of the tone set by the company itself, how people get along at work really can depend on their elemental personalities. After all, a relationship is a relationship!

It sounds to me like Ted is a primary Metal personality who has a strong secondary Earth personality. This means he will be great at precision (thus his success as an accountant) but will also value relationships with his fellow co-workers. Whether standing around the proverbial water cooler chatting, or laughing at jokes with others, this form of connecting will be important to Ted. On the other hand, I suspect that Ann is a primary Wood personality. Wood people value doing the best they can and getting ahead. They also rarely like to socialize unless it serves a significant purpose. But what her secondary elemental personality is will also matter.

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