The Ebb and Flow of Feeling

In exploring the nature of personality there is an underlying dynamic that is sometimes overlooked. It could be called an alternating rhythm of emotional expansion and compression and it seems to play a significant role in our response to life.

How is this dynamic to be understood? Just as we thrive physically through alternating periods of exertion and rest, so emotionally do we have a similar pulse, that operates largely at a subconscious level: one that seeks to establish a comfortable emotional equilibrium with a cycle of active engagement followed by withdrawal: as we deepen our capacity for emotional involvement we expand, moving into unchartered waters; then by processing our new perceptions we come to terms with the experience. We live to our fullest when this rhythm is enabled and unfettered.  As our feelings engage with people, projects, responsibilities and interests we expand, much as we inhale; then, after an intense level of engagement, we need a period of retreat and renewal to let the process of compression consolidate.

Our society craves the intimacy of involvement, the passion that we derive from relationships and projects, yet all too often it ignores this basic beat that signals the switch from expansion to compression. Teenagers are often cruelly unaware that the passionate interlocking of two individuals is poorly sustained by over-intense connection; that there is an underlying emotional tide that can provide the unwary with surprises, as it ebbs and flows, beckoning for temporary respite; the project manager, keen to inspire his team, will detect similar surges that then seem to lapse and lose their fizzle; the couple cocooned on their idyllic vacation may be puzzled by the alternating pulse of their relationship; even the mother cradling her baby may be shocked to discover how the intimate bonding of a few minutes ago has given way to a very different set of feelings.

Health lies in the steady tempo of disengagement and generous renewal

Expansion and compression exist on every level, in every condition, whether we look to the seasonal changes, the patterns of social life or the fluctuations of economic prosperity. Change is the underlying metric, where health lies in the steady tempo of disengagement and generous renewal, achieved through a rhythm that we ignore at our peril. It seems to be when we push against the boundaries of our comfort zone, forcing them to yield, that we experience what was previously suspected but actually unknown.  Then as we garner those experiences together, enriched with fresh insights and a deeper awareness of our potential, we prepare unconsciously for retreat and compression, the harvest of our efforts brought home and carefully mulled over within the security of familiar feelings.

It seems likely that the pace of expansion and compression will vary with personality type, being slower and more reflective as we edge towards introversion and more dynamic in its extraverted counterpart. With the introverted person the rhythm of the process may be accepted more easily as the passage of time increasingly binds him/her to the inner life; with the more extraverted individual, the rhythm may be masked by an agenda locked into an endless round of external activities, until there comes a time – sometimes occasioned by illness, by setbacks or by enforced re-appraisal - when the underlying emotional currents become more conscious and allowances have to be made for those times of retreat and compression.  Whatever one’s innate disposition, it’s good to eventually surrender to this dynamic and to know that times of compression - times less easily born by the heavy demands of the work place or by the need to be emotionally present in relationships – are critical to our affective wellbeing, just as sleep restores us from the rigours of the day.

The concept of expansion and compression reaches into many areas of activity; analogies are everywhere to be found; it seems to be well established and fundamental to change.  It is therefore not surprising that its role should feature in our feelings and be central to our understanding of growth and personal evolution.  Indeed to ignore the existence of this rhythm would be like an athlete who forgets the need for rest and consolidation.

It is a rhythm that actually predisposes us mentally and emotionally towards growth

All too often we fail to notice the power of this underlying movement, preferring to regard ourselves as infinitely available whatever the circumstances; until it occurs to us that by surrendering to this process we gain far more from its observation than from its neglect. It is a commonplace of modern life that ‘burnout’ is the price we pay for endless activity combined with a disregard for the resulting accumulation of  stress; burnout is also the result of a cavalier attitude towards the process of expansion and compression, which otherwise has the potential to achieve balance in the face of the most demanding work schedule. It is a rhythm that actually predisposes us mentally and emotionally towards growth and provides us with a ready means by which to assess the quality of our connection to the world.  It is when we are most congruent with this rhythm that we function best, and in so doing can respond most effectively to life around us.  To understand ourselves in the most testing of conditions, a greater acceptance of our natural tendency to emotional expansion and compression could teach us much about the importance of observing a balanced approach to living.


© 2009. Nick Halpin

Revised 2015