Dammed Emotions

Emotions are not static. From moment to moment, they intensify, shift, move, recede, and transform. I’m not talking about the thoughts and labels we associate with our emotions, which can be deceptive, but rather the underlying sensations or feelings themselves. At this level, our emotions are very much like a body of water (e.g. a stream, river, or ocean), always in motion, seemingly alive, unpredictable, and sometimes scary.

I often talk about emotions as a stream that runs through our consciousness. Sometimes it sparkles in the sunlight, sometimes it is dark or muddy, sometimes it gurgles playfully, sometimes it roars, sometimes it is only a trickle, and sometimes it swells into a raging torrent. Many of us try to manage or control the stream by building dams, but we fail to see the many perils of this approach.

First of all, humans are not very good dam builders. Streams are far more powerful than they look, and our dams tend to crack and leak all over the place. This is okay for children trying to dam a gutter with twigs, but the consequences are less innocent for adults trying to dam emotions. The resulting cracks and leaks can take the form of emotional outbursts and even physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, eye twitches, skin conditions, and so forth.

Second, dams don’t really solve the problem. In fact, dams always lead to more problems, because after a while, not only do you still have the stream, but you also have a huge reservoir or lake looming behind the dam. If the stream scares you enough to build a dam, how much more scary is an entire lake of emotion held back by a cracking dam? Unfortunately, we often don’t consider this risk. We commit ourselves to dam building (i.e. emotional control), and then we get stuck in the never-ended business of dam maintenance, too afraid of the reservoir to try anything else.

The alternative to dam building is simply to let the stream flow and trust that it will never sweep us away. We must go with the flow of our own emotions. Yes, streams are unpredictable, but they tend to be okay most of the time. Even if a big surge causes the stream to overflow its banks, it is not likely to do much harm, and most of the damage we do experience is caused by our own panic in the face of the surge. Kayakers, rafting guides, and surfers can attest to this truth. When it comes to both water and emotions, resistance is futile… and often harmful.

If you are not already in the dam business, I strongly suggest that you don’t start. Unfortunately, this is one of those lessons we often have to learn for ourselves. If you are in the dam business, here are some suggestions for getting out:

  1. Let the dam leak. The only way to drain a reservoir is to let more water go downstream. This doesn’t mean blowing up the dam all at once, but it does mean resisting the urge to patch up every little crack.
  2. Spend time observing the stream. When we stop indulging our fears and discomforts, when we bravely turn our attention toward our emotions, we eventually start to understand that the stream of emotions is not so scary or dangerous.

Emotions are an essential part of us, and they add all the flavor and color to life. To deny or repress emotions is to miss out on a huge aspect of living, so even if you could build the perfect dam, why would you? The costs far outweigh any benefits.