What a weird phrase. “I’m in my element.”
It just popped into my head the other day (coincidentally, I was weeding) and before long I was writing this podcast in my head.
What does it mean to be in your element? According to Cambridge dictionary, the expression means: “to be happy because you are doing what you like or can do best.”
Sounds good to me.
I couldn’t find much on the origin of the phrase, so I decided to come up with my own, somewhat educated, theory.
I guess the element it points to comes from the traditional, elements or substances that were thought to comprise all matter in the universe.
They’re likely familiar to you: earth, air, fire and water. I know I know – us westerners miss out the fifth element, aether, and unlike the Taoists, we don’t consider wood and metal to be their own elements.
Oh and seeing as we’ll be talking firmly in metaphors today, I won’t be mentioning the ACTUAL elements, defined by the periodic table. Not today. Since I’m a westerner, and not a scientist, we’re going with Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
Now, what I like about talking in terms of these four elements is that it doesn’t take much for us to quickly agree on a pretty much universal language. I think we can all agree that fire is hot. Water is wet. Air is light. Earth is dense. And from these concepts we can really say a LOT about something – or, more interestingly, someONE.
To prove this, let’s do a quick quiz.
I’m a redhead, I blush easily, I’m quick to anger, quick off the mark and full of fiery passion.
Can you guess the element I what I identify with most?
If you guessed fire, you’d be correct! We’re speaking the same metaphorical language.
And then there’s my friend. She has deep blue eyes, cries at every romantic movie, goes with the flow and makes decisions with her heart, not her head.
I reckon my friend is all about the WATER element.
OK, these symbols are not set in stone (ha – another metaphorical phrase based on our understanding of elements) they are fluid, like… water!
But for the most part, they’re a great shorthand for us to communicate with ourselves and others about a vast range of complex feelings, sensations, perspectives and approaches to life.
This is also the reason I love personality type tests and astrology, but let’s stick to the elements for today.
You might at this point still be wondering why I’m going on about these arguably archaic concepts, but all will become clear soon.
So going back to me digging in the dirt, weeding out pesky greens, and generally having a lovely time on a work-away type holiday, and it occurred to me that I had surrounded myself with something that was missing in my life. Earth.
And yes, I realise the literal meaning but that was just a signpost pointing to the underlying epiphany I was having. I was, until this trip, lacking the EARTH element in my life.
I have an abundance of fire. No one is telling me I could use a bit more drive or to be less patient. If anything, I could probably do with tempering my fire.
And I actually have tempered it, come to think of it, as I look back to my past few years in Brighton. That is one watery – possibly airy too – city. I was literally by the sea. And I was surrounded by incredibly artistic, easy going people who were certainly in touch with their emotional side. I realised my Feeling function, which I associate most with Water, was underdeveloped.
Interestingly, Fire isn’t the element that is least in touch with it’s emotions, it’s really Air that commands the mind and left-brained decision making. But the emotions that Fire commands, mostly rage, passion and obsession, are ones I have let historically get the better of me.
A healthy balance of Fire and Water means tempering those heated emotions, without extinguishing them. It’s looking at them, holding them, sticking with them until they sizzle out.
I did pay attention to this, and started to use more language that spoke to my feeling side. Instead of saying ‘I think this’ I would say ‘I feel this.’
In my journal, I’d write more about how I felt that day, rather than what was happening. If I felt pissed off, I’d sit with it. I would try not to stuff it down, only to let it surge back up later with a vengeance.
I’d say I’ve done pretty well, and my biggest relationship triggers for ragey Cat *cough*family* have improved dramatically.
OK so I’ve worked with Water to temper the Fire. The second element dominating me, I believe is Air. Like I mentioned, this is the one that speaks to my Thinking function.
Oh BOY do I love to overanalyse. If you do to, it could mean that Air has a grip on your mind.
I personally associate INTJs most of all with Air because of how logical they tend to be, as well as being big picture thinkers.
Interestingly, you could be just as likely to be a genius as an airhead when it comes to having a dominant air element. Lots of air can make you indecisive, inconsistent, full of ‘hot air’ and a wee bit selfish.
It’s like air-dominant folk need their balloon popped, they need to be brought down to earth.
Enter: the element of Earth. I was in the rainforest of Peru when I realised I needed to spend less time at my laptop, and more time doing things with my body and with a small community of real live, people. Er – call this a 30 year old crisis if you like, but even months after returning home I felt this urge to be more earthy, more real – it had stuck with me.
Here’s a fun fact: the element of Air is also associated with… technology! Hah. So naturally, an overabundance of Air became next on my list of elements to balance. Earth is the counter to Air, just as Water is the counter to Fire. Just as I had naturally been drawn to Brighton and embraced my Watery side, I’ve more recently been led to the Algarve and had the opportunity to develop my Earthy side.
So I’ve been led to a villa in the Algarve where I’ve spent the past few weeks helping out in the garden in exchange for room and board. It’s a pretty awesome way to travel if you have a flexible job and don’t want to spend a lot of cash on lame, lonely Airbnbs. I get to meet people AND get my paws in the mud.
This was really my idea of an experiment, maybe an extension of last year’s YOF. But I didn’t realise what my subconscious had been doing until the other day, when this phrase popped into my head:
In your element.
I have the hardest time identifying with the element of Earth, if I’m honest. Sure, Earth is stable. Grounded. Hard-working. Persistent. Gritty. Nurturing. Loyal.
But where’s the fun, freedom and flexibility of Air? Where’s the intensity of Fire and the depth of Water? Earth is kind of… boring.
But you know what I haven’t been when I’m up to my wrists in soil, with bugs crawling around in my field of vision, and grass stained leggings? I have NEVER been bored.
I have been so very satisfied. That’s the only word really. Content, may be. Tired, sure, but it’s a physical tiredness. It always recovers by the next day and you know the coolest thing? It doesn’t deplete mental energy!
Yeah. If anything, using the physical energy seems to – seems to – increase my mental energy.
I don’t understand any of this myself, I’m just laying down the facts.
Or the feels, more like.
So how does this ramble about metaphorical elements help you?
Well… How about you identify your dominant element? If you’ve taken a personality type test like Myers Briggs, I’ll bet you’ll find this super easy. Or if you’re into astrology, you’re probably well versed in this.
It doesn’t matter: it’s all the same principle because ALL of this is SUBJECTIVE. Yeah. I’m not saying you literally have more fire in you or that being born under the Sun in Pisces literally makes you a watery dreamer. But… If you identify with these traits and associations , these archetypes, then you may find this process very useful.
Then you can identify what element you might want to enhance a bit more, and experiment with ways to do that. You can be super abstract, just focussing on the quality of an element you know you want to develop.
Let’s say you realise you’re lacking in Air and decide you want to be better at critical thinking, using your rational mind to see the world clearly, so you read a book about the subject.
Or you could be really literal, realising you want more Fire because you’re feeling a little cold and apathetic, so you paint a picture with lots of red and orange, and light some candles (er, but do be careful, you don’t want too much fire!)
The parts of me that I’m abbreviating to these symbols, these elements, ALL have their upside and their downside. And naturally, we can let our traits and preferences get out of balance, and our actions and behaviours ultimately reflect that. Then we end up snapping at a co-worker (Fire) or staying in a shitty relationship longer than we should have (Earth.)
It’s super helpful, in my experience to start communicating with yourself in these symbolic ways. Some of you will take to this more than others because yes, we’re all different. But we’re also really similar, and that’s why these systems work. It’s like having lots of different ways to organise your CDs. Back when CDs were a thing. I chose alphabetically. My sister chose colour, organising the spines like a rainbow.
So if you’ve stuck with me through this super esoteric ramble, I applaud you. And as a reward, I have a pretty snazzy online quiz you can take for free, that tells you your dominant element, explains all the four elements in depth, explains how they might relate to your Myers-Briggs type, and tell you what to play up as well as what to watch out for.
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