by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.
Social awareness of depression is at an all-time high right now. I think the growing willingness of people to openly discuss their own struggles is a huge development in the emotional intelligence of our society. As an acupuncturist, I look at depression through the lens of Chinese Five-Element philosophy.
Of the Five-Element personality types, the Water type is the most likely to struggle with depression. Waters are deeply introspective and have an amazing capacity for finding meaning and wisdom in life. Waters like to take their time and go with the flow, prioritizing comfort over efficiency. Waters can talk eloquently for hours about philosophical and other topics of real substance, but might not be too interested in small talk. Many of our most beloved artists have been Water types: Kurt Cobain, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro, Ernest Hemingway.
While Waters are great at going deep and being introspective, that approach can get them stuck when it comes to painful memories. They can end up hiding and isolating themselves, overwhelmed with despair. Fear is the emotion associated with the Water element. Waters are great at seeing everything that could possibly go wrong, but that fear of what might go wrong often paralyzes them and prevents them from moving forward. According to the Chinese Five-Element perspective, the Water personality needs to learn to have courage to overcome fear and move forward. That sort of approach is the strength of the Wood element.
The Wood personality is fearless—she picks a path and just goes for it. She’s not afraid of taking a misstep because she knows she can handle whatever arises. Woods can be great friends and coaches for Waters, giving them that inspiration to get out there and a plan of action for success. Many people who’ve lost a ton of weight with radical changes in their diet and exercise habits are Waters who have been coached up by Woods.
But very often there ends up being a difficult event that comes up—the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a stressful situation at work—that brings up those old feelings of fear, shame, and inadequacy. And then the Water spirals back into depression and their old coping mechanisms—food, alcohol, drugs, escapism, whatever.
So what’s the alternative if we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives running or numbing ourselves from our painful emotions? Are we just supposed to dwell on them and wallow in misery? Isn’t that what’s causing the problem?
I don’t think so—at least not anymore. When I first got into meditation and eventually Chinese medicine, I saw my spiritual practice as a way of conquering my emotions and finding peace through discipline. But in that struggle with my emotions, they just seemed to get bigger and bigger and harder to avoid.
I’m pretty stubborn, but it eventually started to dawn on me that maybe the way to true peace is through accepting my emotions rather than trying to push them away. And it turns out many spiritual teachers and psychologists (and my wife) have been saying this for a long time—I just wasn’t ready to hear it. Carl Jung maybe said it best when he said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
Water needs the support of Earth in order to find courage—and the biggest strength of the Earth element is compassion. Real transformation happens for Waters when they develop the ability to have compassion, understanding, and forgiveness for themselves. That way they can choose a path forward and not beat up on themselves too much when they take a wrong step.
Seeking help from some sort of therapist or counselor is so important for people suffering from depression. It’s easy for people suffering from depression (especially men) to think they understand their problem and what to do about it—they think just need to have the discipline to do the right things they need to do.
But the main reason why a therapist or counselor is so helpful isn’t because they’re going to tell you what to do—it’s because they’re going to show you compassion. Yes, they’re going to offer you compassion, but they’re also going to show you what compassion looks like. And ideally that compassion becomes infectious—you start to believe that not only are you deserving of compassion from others, you’re deserving of compassion from yourself. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to move forward when you’re not always cutting yourself down.