Keep Hold of Your Elephant

I recently read former SEAL and current Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s book, Fortitude, which talks a lot about how to live a more balanced and controlled emotional life, especially in this age of “outrage culture.” In one chapter, I found a metaphor that really stuck with me and I wanted to share.

It comes from psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, who described the human mind as a rider on an elephant. The conscious or logical mind is represented by the rider, and the unconscious or emotional mind is represented by the elephant. By all accounts, it would seem that the rider is (and should be) in control, but in certain situations, that elephant can pull and steer the rider in a direction they didn’t expect to go, and that won’t benefit them in the way they hope.

I loved this visual, partially because elephants are my favorite animal, but mostly because I felt like I’ve experienced this pull or sudden loss of logical mindedness in favor of a larger, more overpowering emotional response. And the harder I’ve tried to pull back and fight against that emotional reaction, the harder it’s fought its own fight, leaving me either frozen and at war with myself, or headed in a direction I don’t want to go. So the advice here is to realize that you are still in control. Your logical mind will always be that rider that can calm the elephant and steer her forward. But it is up to that logical mind to decipher—not ignore or belittle or wish away—whichever emotional reaction is trying to lead, and weed out what is true about it and what is not. What will benefit you (i.e. dealing with grief, mourning failure or rejection, etc.) and what won’t (i.e. worrying about things you can’t control, spiraling into self hate, tossing blame/anger onto other people).

In today’s society, we are told to react instantly. To immediately know our opinion, and, especially, to immediately be offended, angry, hurt, afraid, ecstatic, etc. I know I’ve felt the pressure to know exactly how I feel in only a matter of seconds—even if I’m not exactly familiar with what I’m seeing or talking about, and even if I don’t have all the facts or context that might help me form my own opinion. I know I’ve reacted to things based solely on the pressure to react, and the fear that if I didn’t, I’d be rejected, cast out, or left behind. I’ve looked on from my metaphorical elephant as a herd went running in one direction, and worried about the fact that we were still standing here, processing.

But the point is: that is okay. It is okay to process. It is okay to take your time. It is okay to go in the direction of the rest of the herd and it is okay to go in your own direction, as long as the rider is in control.

Don’t let hate steer you.

Don’t let fear steer you.

Don’t let doubt or greed or jealousy steer you.

Feel your feelings, listen to your feelings and then take the time to figure out which are telling you the truth and which are lying to you. Lead that elephant forward and do it on your own terms.

8 comments

  1. I’ve been focusing on ‘being’ with my feelings and learning from them, instead of sweeping them under the rug like I always did, and now that you put it this way, it makes so much more sense. Thanks for sharing!

  2. As someone who is lucky enough to actually spend time with elephants in the zoo as a volunteer, I see they have much to teach us. Do we have control over our feelings? No. Wec can choose how we respond, but we feel what we feel. We are who we are. We are living beings , most of us trying to do the best that we can. And we can take all the time that we need. To allow ourselves – to actually encourage ourselves – to feel what we feel, to name what we feel, and to then choose what we do. I am exploring the process of aging at this point in my life, and find that elephants have much to teach about that as well. Wrinkles, saggy skin, being larger than life – it can all look beautiful. We can learn from animals to stop trying to be what we are not and embrace who we are.

    1. Wow, what an amazing place to volunteer! Thank you for your words on this. I love how you extend that metaphor into a physical place as well, so true! Animals really do have so much to teach us. Thanks for sharing!

      1. Thanks for your kind feedback! It really is an amazing place to volunteer. I’m in awe of animals and their presence and way of being in the world. Being there is my peaceful time. God knows we can all use a peaceful time and place right now.
        Thank you again!

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