It happens to people all the time: negative emotions like anxiety or anger build up and we flood. We start crying on the bus or yelling at our children (or yelling at the bus and crying on our children).

The rivers of emotion simply overflow the banks of our nervous systems and we leak all over the place. And that flooding can cause trouble, washing away our relationships and sense of security.

Walls Don’t Work

To protect ourselves from flooding, we can build up our walls higher, to try to keep the flood waters from spilling out. Sadly, that just keeps us alone and drowning. Also, eventually the levies will break, and then we flood everyone around us, too. That’s not fair to anyone.

I believe that self-restraint is necessary and good most of the time. Containment matters and allows for meaningful, timely expression. But people confuse self-restraint with being walled-off.

That’s not self-restraint, that’s self-imprisonment.

Emotional Flood Protection

How do my clients and I practice “flood proofing” our nervous systems without walling ourselves off? How do we watch and listen to our dark and rushing emotions without being trapped, alone with them?

We raise our foundations up, inch by inch, onto stilts and pillars. That allows us to be true to our emotions without being flooded by them. After all, a house built on stilts accepts the reality of dark waters without submitting to them.

With stilts, our dark emotions like sadness, anxiety, or anger can be there, flowing naturally through our environments, rather than destroying them.

The Five Pillars Of Emotional Well Being

To raise your house, you need at least four stilts – one for each corner – as well as a fifth in the middle to keep your floor from sagging. The five stilts that allow our dark emotions to flow without toppling our houses are: Curiosity, Courage, Wisdom, Compassion, and finally, Faith.

Pillar 1: Curiosity

For me, Curiosity likely came first. In my case, when I am compassionate and brave it is generally because I feel wonder for the world around me rather than fearing it or needing it to conform to my wishes (most of the time). I genuinely feel curious about why certain things make us feel really small or ten feet tall. And because I find the interaction between emotion and behaviour fascinating, I am equally curious about all emotions, fun, painful, or numbing.

I can’t always rise above the flood waters of my clients, family, or myself, but I can always be open to learning how to experience them in more useful ways.

Pillar 2. Courage

Life is not easy and it should not be easy. People who live “easy” lives and, thus, who don’t have to learn and grow from hard times end up being petty and miserable.

People with the bravery to accept that life sucks sometimes and have the courage to do something about it, make the world better. Such courageous, often unflinching people generally lead happier and more balanced lives, too. Why? Because when we have the courage to face reality, we have the courage to find beauty and meaning in it. If we lack the courage to face reality, we cannot see it, learn from it, or appreciate the wisdom around us.

Have the courage to accept that dark emotions happen. And know that you and your community have enough strength to overcome adversity often-enough that you do not need to be stuck or enslaved in fear or sadness for long.

Pillar 3. Wisdom

The thing about strong emotions is they often seem to debilitate our better judgment and cut us off from reason. We feel so much anxiety, that we can’t think straight; we fly into a rage and lose our sense of perspective.

But know this: Even when you feel like you are too sad, mad, or anxious to feel very wise yourself, there’s always wisdom available to you. All you need to to do is ask and concentrate on their answer.

This wise person or entity could be someone you know and love, like your grandma or high school physics teacher (poor, poor Mr. Poulter – you tried so hard and never gave up on me!).

Or the person you seek wisdom from could be far away (or even deceased), but is still someone who truly understands at least one aspect of the human condition that you are grappling with. Alice Munro, St. Matthew, and Sam Cooke were the first three “famous” people who came to my mind as I wrote this. (Ok, that’s a lie, the first person who came to my mind was Steph Curry – a master at observation and follow-through – but you probably don’t love basketball like I do.)

Anyhow, these four likely came to mind because of how they move, inspire, and/or challenge me. Your list will be different from mine because you have witnessed wisdom in different places and seen it in other eyes. The point is, there is always wisdom, you just need to be willing to be willing to seek it out.

One question I like to ask to help people access wisdom is, “How would the wisest person you can think of make sense of this? What wisdom can they offer us, here?”

What matters most is that no matter what awful thing you are going through (like trying to learn physics), someone you love and/or look up to has gone through it too. They can help.

Pillar 4.: Compassion

It starts with loving other people. Loving them and tuning into their love teaches me how to love myself. When I can love and see other people with clarity and without judgement, then I can tune in to my own emotions and love them in the same way I love my child and my wife.

Pillar 5: Faith

Sorry to say it but no one ever reasoned themselves into being a good, balanced person. Being rational, though awesome, only gets us so far. Us humans simply don’t know enough to understand why things work or how we will summon the ability to endure and learn from adversity.

Excellence always requires a leap of faith and the “audacity”, as Mr. Obama would put it, “of hope”. I have faith that my emotions are a part of something bigger and more meaningful than me. Because I have faith that I am a small part of a big, glorious universe, I take comfort knowing that my dark emotions have a place and value too.

I can accept my dark emotions because, even though they make me uncomfortable, fearful, or sad at times, I have faith that they also make me more fully human.

Flood Waters Come And Go

We are all born Curious, Courageous, Compassionate, and with Faith. Every infant possesses these qualities. Over the years we, hopefully, develop Wisdom, too, and along with experience, the muscle memory to put these five pillars into practice, especially when the flood waters of life are rushing upon us.