Dear Vicki: I have 14-year-old twins who are as different as night and day. Ted is a low-key guy who has always been happiest alone reading or watching movies. Tammy is the exact opposite. For her, everything is exciting and should be shared and celebrated at high volume. With the onset of sheltering in place, my husband is working from home and the children are doing virtual classes here, which means the four of us are spending almost every waking moment together in our small house. It’s not going well. I’ve tried to create fun and inventive family dinners, but they have degenerated to the point that Ted no longer talks because he can’t get a word in with Tammy going on and on about anything and everything. Tammy thinks Ted is a downer and Ted thinks Tammy lacks substance. My husband, an attorney, thinks they’re both spoiled brats that I clearly failed to raise well as a stay-at-home mom. I know this is a stressful time in the world, and I’m deeply grateful we all still have our health, but do you have any advice for a mom trying desperately to hold her family together during a pandemic? Signed, Battle Weary Mom
Dear Battle Weary: Well, it sounds like your household is certainly not dull. But have faith. You are dealing with the logical extension of what I believe are four different elemental personalities confined 24/7 in close quarters while a deadly virus runs amok in the world. For most people, the pandemic has thrown everything on its head and created stressors that can bring out the best – and the worst – in all of us. But there are ways to make some sense of (and even improve on) what’s happening at your house.
First, we need to identify the elemental personalities interacting in your family. To begin with, I believe that as a stay at home mom desiring nothing more than peace in the family, you are a primary Earth personality. Your husband, an attorney who gladly delegated childrearing to you yet is quick to judge the results, is very likely a Metal personality. As for Ted, the fact that he is low-key and enjoys time alone, plus loves reading and watching movies, strongly suggests that he is a primary Water personality. And Tammy is clearly a primary Fire personality: she loves to be the center of attention, louder is usually better, and everything is worthy of celebration.
Knowing that Ted is a primary Water personality and Tammy is a primary Fire personality absolutely explains the way they interact and the fact that you consider them exact opposites. At an elemental personality level, they really are exact opposites. Let me explain.
In the Five Elements model (see the diagram below), Fire represents full yin energy which can be symbolized as summer, heat, and a time when everything is out in the open to be seen and enjoyed. Water, on the other hand, represents winter, cold, and a time when, for the most part, action is happening underground (or under layers of snow and ice). Ancient teachings say that yin and yang could not exist without the other; in fact, they need each other to survive. And while I doubt that you’ll ever convince your twins of this, the truth is that they do need the other in ways they might not image. Luckily for you, this is a perfect example of when information and understanding can be your friend.
The Five Elements model is not only useful to describe the primary elemental personalities, it’s phenomenal at illustrating the relationship tendencies between each of the elemental personalities. All of the elements relate to each other via either the Nurturing Cycle or the Controlling Cycle of the model (depicted as either a big circle of big star), and the name says it all. The Nurturing Cycle (big circle) increases energy as it flows and the Controlling Cycle (big star) decreases energy.
Tammy and Ted, as Fire and Water personalities respectively, relate via the Controlling Cycle, with Water charged to control Fire. This means Tammy will definitely feel like Ted is raining on her parade at times because, honestly, he probably is. In nature, water puts out fire, so Ted may even have a slight feeling that he needs to do this. Water people often consider it their job to help manage Fire people. And that can be good. Left to burn without limits, fire eventually reduces down to nothing. In this way, Ted is correct; a burned-out Fire personality will lack substance. And while it’s not surprising there are times Tammy feels that Ted diminishes her, he is also the perfect person to talk her down when she panics.
Of course, I realize that none of this may seem important to a 14-year-old girl feeling diminished by her brother. Or a 14-year-old boy who finds his sister flighty or vapid. Or even the mother trying to keep peace in the family. But it is! As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” If you can help Ted and Tammy understand that, based on their personality tendencies, they are polar opposites of each other, it may be one of the most important lessons you ever teach them. Here’s why.
Ted is all about quiet, inward focus. Tammy is all about active, outward focus. He is yin (cool, dark, inner-directed), she is yang (hot, light, outer-directed). And while this may mean that they don’t understand each other at all – and in some ways they probably don’t – it also means that they will often have exactly what the other needs. They are the perfect antidote for each other when either is stressed (like now) or out of balance. And this knowledge can make a huge difference for them for the rest of their lives.
Let’s start with Tammy. Most Fire personalities will admit there are times when they feel weary and burned out. When that happens, Tammy would benefit from seeking out the cool depths of Water to replenish herself. This could mean watching a movie with Ted, reading a book while he is reading, or even surfing the net in the same room with him. His calm energy will calm her. As for Ted, too much alone time in those watery depths never gives him a chance to feel the warmth of the sun and the joy of celebration. When he feels gloomy, he might decide to play a game with Tammy, watch a funny movie with her, or even just discuss his most recent read with her. Occasional Fire encounters like this can help Ted feel lively (when he wants to).
The truth is that each twin will have times when they need exactly what the other has to offer. The challenge will be getting them to realize this, and that’s where your Earth personality comes in. Earth element is the great balancer, which makes you the perfect person to help Tammy and Ted appreciate each other. And you can do this by showing them the way their individual personalities relate to each other via the dynamic of yin and yang. Remind them of the opposites game you likely played with them as children. Down/up, cold/hot, in/out, dark/light, etc. are all examples of the yin/yang dichotomy. Explain that Ted embodies more of the yin tendencies in how he relates to life and Tammy embodies more of the yang. Helping them understand this will actually help them better understand each other. Tammy is heat to Ted’s cold. Ted is dark to Tammy’s light. And in nature, both are necessary to create balance.
To make this more real to them, I suggest you create the following “demonstration.” It could even be part of their studies during the day. Have a pot of water boiling on the stove and a bowl of cold water (ice cubes floating in it will be a great touch) on the counter next to it. Then ask the twins which water they would like to use to take a shower. After they roll their eyes at you, they will probably admit that neither is desirable. And that is when you explain that they would no more want a freezing cold shower than a boiling hot shower. It’s the blend of hot and cold (admittedly in varying amounts according to preference) that creates the perfect shower.
What you are teaching them is the importance of balance, and that is the gift yin and yang give each other. As they mature, Tammy will know she can go to Ted if she is feeling burned out, a problem that can occur with the Fire personality. And Ted will know that he can seek out Tammy when he is feeling cold and alone, a problem that can occur with the Water personality. Your twins’ personalities are two halves that make a whole. As their Earth mother, you can facilitate their appreciation of the balancing affect they offer each other. If they learn it now, especially during these difficult times, it will be a life-long gift for both. Blessings to you and your family. Stay safe and well!