When considering our health from a holistic perspective – connecting the dots physically, mentally and emotionally – I have found it can be helpful to use an analogy. Last summer, I came across one that struck me as quite clever, in a book called The Happiness Hypothosis (by Jonathan Haidt). Encountering it again in another book (Switch by Chip & Dan Heath), my esteem increased by several notches from ‘that’s clever’ to ‘that’s bloomin’ brilliant!’

Imagine emotions represented by an elephant (yes, you read it right). Then imagine thought, or the brain, represented by the rider of that elephant. Finally, imagine the environment they are in, (the people and surroundings they interact with, the destination they are headed for), etc, represented by a pathway. For any journey taken by the elephant and the rider to run smoothly, the pathway needs to be obvious and clear, not cluttered by too much junk, preferably wide enough, and otherwise conducive to the journey and the safe arrival at their chosen destination.

While the idea of a path needing to be clear and conducive may be an analogy you are already familiar with, the concept that is more unusual here is the one that uses an elephant to symbolize emotions, while ‘rational thought’ is represented by a mere man – (when I use the word ‘mere’ I am of course referring to the comparative size). In this context size does matter, because it indicates power and force and, as we know, (even if we rarely take it into consideration on a daily basis), emotions are more powerful than thoughts. In fact, emotions are so much more powerful than thoughts that the ratio is probably quite accurately depicted in this image! Keep going with the analogy and it may look something like this:

When the elephant is well fed & watered (emotionally content), looked after (acknowledged), and cared for (validated), he is happy to oblige the will of his rider’s commands (logical reasoning) and go where his rider tells him to go. However, if he has been deprived of food & water (feelings ignored or denied), has been neglected (invalidated) and kept confined (suppressed), he will not be in any condition to obey his master well. If the rider attempts to force compliance, the elephant will in all likelihood become resentful, uncooperative, defiant, and eventually veer out of control (frustration, anger, or other unpleasant emotion). No matter how much the rider holds the reins and may look like he’s in charge, in reality he is immobilized simply because the six-ton elephant is the larger, more powerful one. Imagine trying to reach your destination in this scenario!


Translate all this back to your own day-to-day environment, thoughts, and emotions, and you may get some insights into why your life isn’t always happening the way you want or think it should! For example; do you ever find yourself escaping into your laptop or I-phone during meetings when you know you shouldn’t be? Or not speaking up when you know you should? Do you ever hear yourself saying something you know isn’t wise or that you’ll regret, but you can’t stop yourself? Or loosing your temper and yelling at your child when you know it’s inappropriate?? Do you know you shouldn’t be eating that cholesterol-packed meal but you just can’t help it? Do you want to be exercising/meditating/practicing self-care but can’t seem to get around to it? I could go on and on with examples of procrastination, flared tempers, avoidance, stressed out behaviours, and – well, you get the picture!

The piece that can be helpful here is the image of your emotions as the six-ton elephant, and your ‘sensible brain’ as the rein-holding rider. When your ‘rider’ wants you to stop (or start) doing something but you don’t ‘agree’, it’s because your ‘elephant’ is not being addressed and so he has taken charge – whether that means he’s charging off, refusing to move or just being inert. Picture the last time this happened to you!……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now picture the good news; that when your rider considers the elephant and the two work together, the arrival at your destination (what you want to achieve or how you’d like to behave) is pretty much assured, and you can use the heightened intelligence you gain from all your brain’s systems being coherent, to ensure that the pathway – your environment and conditions – are as supportive as possible.

So next time you feel yourself not being congruent in thought and deed, or in feeling and expression, give yourself a brief ‘time-out’, stop what you’re doing for just one minute, (if you can, stand up firmly on both feet), and take a deep breath. Hold it and notice any tension you are feeling anywhere in your body. Try to identify what it feels like. Then as you exhale, let all the tension go, imagining it melting away from your body the way ice melts in the sun. Now take another breath in and move your attention to your heart. Smile. As you exhale, feel a good ‘smiling’ feeling fill your heart and chest and radiating out to fill your torso. Hold onto and enjoy the good feeling. Now ask yourself what emotions you may have been feeling that interfered with your internal coherence – what was going on with your ‘elephant’?

Or was there something going on with your ‘rider’, like over-analysis, or over-thinking – in which case the ‘elephant’ may have a touch of emotional insecurity going on.

Whatever comes to you, however brief an insight, write it down.

If appropriate, act on it.

This whole process will normally take 2 to 3 minutes, but can often save you hours, even weeks, with the increased coherence between ‘elephant’ and ‘rider’ that you gain!

In my experience, there really is nothing like this kind of development of emotional intelligence; or what we call emotional mastery, to get the ‘elephant’ and the ‘rider’ working together ….. maybe we should re-name it Elephant Mastery.

By: Jennifer Day, EM Coach at Calmer Clinics



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