The Wisdom in Our Emotions
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Karla McLaren. Karla is an award-winning author and an empath whose approach to working with emotions has helped countless numbers of people heal from trauma. She is the author of a new book, The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, as well as a Sounds True audio learning series, On the Language of Emotions, about how to unlock and learn from the wisdom held within each of our emotions. Karla and I spoke about the idea of what it means to be an empath, how to talk to children about their emotions, viewing emotions in terms other than positive versus negative, as well as learning how to listen to our emotions. Here’s my conversation with Karla McLaren:
Tami Simon: You’re someone that I think of as an original, someone whose work comes from your own life, your own original sources of material. And in fact, the word “empath” — what it means for someone to be an empath — I heard that word first from you. So, where did you get this idea that you were an empath, and what does that mean to be an empath?
Karla McLaren: We were trying to figure out where the word came from, and I think it came from a Star Trek episode where a young woman didn’t speak but she only read emotions from people, and they called her an empath. So that’s where most people know it. For me, an empath is someone who is aware that they read emotions. We all read emotions — we can’t not, because we read nuance, and we read undercurrent, and we read between the lines. But for me, that has always been the loudest thing in a conversation. So where I would sit with someone and they would hear the words, I would say, “But look how she was behaving. Look how she feels about it. Look at this, look at that.” And I realized fairly early in life that what I was seeing was not what everybody else was seeing; it wasn’t normal. And it took me until I was in my 20s or 30s to finally grab on to that title and say, “I’m an empath.” Some people would also say I’m a highly sensitive person.
TS: Now, when you say it wasn’t normal, what do you mean? You said everybody’s tuning into emotions, but most people aren’t aware of it. So, what was the thing that felt abnormal to you?
KM: I guess how clear it was to me how people felt when they were speaking. I was just watching a musical group — and I won’t say who they are — but there are four of them and they sing and they go all around the country to sing. And someone had sent me a YouTube video of them, so I went and watched. And then after they were done singing, there were interviews with these four singers. And the way they were sitting, they way they were speaking — they weren’t looking at one another. They were all sitting like this in their chairs as the other one was talking, and they weren’t leaning and they weren’t looking at each other and they weren’t joking. And I wrote back and I said, “They hate each other; they hate each other so much.” And other people after they heard me — I sent it out to a bunch of people that I know — and after, they looked at it and they went, “Oh my gosh, they do!” But it wasn’t the first thing that they saw; they were listening to the words and what the people were saying. But I was watching the relationships, or the lack of relationships that were going on in that group. It was fascinating.
And it’s sort of how I’ve felt my whole life. I would see what was going on — the relationships — and people would say, “Well, they didn’t say anything.” And I’d say, “Look, they were screaming it from their body language.”
TS: And then, this empathic information that you’re receiving — you’re seeing pictures, words? I mean, how do you receive the information?
KM: It’s nonverbal, so it’s been a great deal of time in my life I’ve spent figuring out how to articulate it verbally. But it’s nuance, it’s gesture, it’s breathing. I’m reading body language, basically. But more than that, also, I’m reading almost sociologically what the hierarchy is in the relationships. I can sometimes tell how well people know each other or don’t. And it can be very uncomfortable, because a lot of times people want you to see what I call the “on-stage behavior.” They want you to see the man who is not behind the curtain. They don’t want you to see all the preparation that it took to get you where you are, so you’re looking quite adult and all that kind of stuff.
So a lot of times I spend sitting in crowds or in groups of people not saying something about what I see.
TS: Now you said you’re looking at the sociology, the hierarchy in a situation. What do you mean?
KM: What I mean is, sometimes I’ll go into a group — or a lot of times I’ll go into a group and I will see the systems that they’ve formed together. Who think they’re in charge, and who really is. How the relationships work, and how they don’t. Who’s forming little cliques, and who’s left out. Who doesn’t realize they’re left out of the clique. That sort of thing. It’s almost like I see everything as kind of the high-school cafeteria, where it’s more clear when people are teens that they’re doing their cliques: you know, “We’re the burnouts,” and “We’re the jocks” and that sort of thing. But I still see that when I go in.
TS: OK. Now, it’s one thing to know what another person is feeling. What I’ve found is that most people don’t know what they’re feeling, let alone what other people in the room are feeling. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to simply know what they’re feeling?
KM: I think mostly because we’re not taught. Because we don’t…I was looking at…when I look at the emotions I try to make it simpler for people to understand them, and so I say that they are the Water Element of the psyche, the body’s the Earth, the spirit or the spiritual aspect or the visionary aspect is Fire, and the intellect is Air. But what I’ve noticed — and it’s changing — is people say we have body, mind, and spirit, and they think that’s a complete thing. And I say, “Well, where’s the emotions?” Or they’ll say, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost — “Where’s the woman?” It seems like the fluid, emotional aspect of life is left out of most of our deliberations.
And, one of the things I’m noticing is that when we’re in school — when we’re four and five years old and we come into school — we’re supposed to already know how to do emotions and how to do social behavior, even though we’re four and five years old. So that if we act out an emotion that’s not right, like anger, we’re not going to be dealing with it in the classroom; we’re going to be sent to the principal’s office. And we’ll be sent away from the learning environment. Because we’ll be told in that shaming way that that emotion’s not acceptable; but nobody actually says it. There’s not a book on it when you’re little. You learn to read and write and do math, but you don’t learn what your emotions are or why they’re there.
TS: So how would you talk to a five or six year old about their emotions?
KM: I might…if I’ve just met them or if I know them?
TS: Or you’re an educator and you’re working in the classroom and you’ve got all these kids and …
KM: Well, I know that anger is about boundaries, so that if you’re feeling angry about something it’s because you’ve lost your sense of self around it or because it is so important to you that whatever happens with it is going to kind of wound you. So if a little child is having a heck of a time with his or her anger, I would just look at the social structure around them because most emotions are social. Some you have just by yourself, but we’re social beings. So what is happening to that child that’s breaking his boundaries or her boundaries?
Is there too much noise in the room? Is this the first time the child has ever been away from their home and unable to just do as he or she pleases? Is this the first time the child has had to ask to go to the bathroom? That can break the spirit a little bit, to have to go from maybe being the king of the house to one of thirty kids. And some kids will just sort of act out. It’s like their little spirits are trying to make a place for themselves in the world, trying to set boundaries.
And so, as a teacher I might say, “I see that you’re uncomfortable right now. So what would make you feel more comfortable, or how do you need to work this out so that you feel welcome here?” Instead of saying, “Young man, we do not do that in here. Now you go to the principal.” And he won’t learn, what do we not do. Do we not feel uncomfortable? Do we not act bratty? OK, I know we don’t act bratty, but what is it that we don’t do in here? So nobody’s telling the child that; nobody’s telling him what his emotions are trying to do for him.
TS: Now a couple of things I want to backtrack [on]. The first thing is, you said most emotions are social. I don’t think most people would think that. I mean, I’m sitting here, I’m feeling sad about something — “This is personal, this is my sadness. Or, what do you mean, how is my sadness social?”
KM: Sadness is a very internal emotion. But in general, our emotions are an aspect of our relationships. If you want to be in a relationship, you’ve got to have an emotional vocabulary. You’ve got to know what your emotions are or you don’t belong in a relationship. I was just looking at jealousy and envy, and they’re incredibly sociological emotions. People hate jealousy and envy. But what they do: jealousy is a little bit of anger and a little bit of fear, and it sets our boundaries, and it intuitively looks at the most important relationship in our lives. And what it’s doing is trying to protect us and that relationship that’s become a part of us, and making sure that what is ours remains ours.
And so sometimes you’ll be really jealous and go, “Oh, this is awful. I shouldn’t do this — this is a bad emotion.” But basically what your jealousy is saying is something’s going on in that relationship and you’re not feeling comfortable. Either it’s you that’s not feeling comfortable or it’s…your partner is not being entirely honest. But the jealousy is a connection between you and the partner.
And envy too. Envy is something that arises to make sure that you are connected to resources and to recognition. And if you’re not, that is socially dangerous for you to not be connected to those things. It’s socially dangerous for you to be in a relationship where you’re being betrayed. That’s not a good thing. So these two emotions come up to protect you socially in the world. And I think that’s really fascinating that those two emotions specifically are so hated. Especially here in America, where we all are about the relationships and we are all about the money and the recognition, right? So the emotions that help us maintain those in an honorable way, we hate them. It’s very backward.
TS: I think there’s this idea that there are positive emotions and there are negative emotions. So emotions like jealousy and envy and anger: “Those are negative emotions and I don’t want to feel them.” And it seems in what you’re offering here, that you’re saying something very, very different from that. This is a pretty common idea, Karla, that these are negative emotions and we don’t want to feel negative emotions.
KM: Yeah, here I am standing here all alone going, “I have something to say here — what about this?” And one of the things that’s been really important for me to understand and articulate is that all emotions have a normal state that’s present and available at all times of every day, and I call it the flowing state. So, flowing fear is my intuition and my instincts, and I just have it all the time. I don’t have to feel fearful — it’s just there. If a person I know does not have good instincts, and doesn’t have good intuitions, I know there’s something wrong in their fear — in that whole area.
Flowing anger is my ability to set boundaries. If it’s flowing, you will know that I’m a separate person from you. You’ll know that I’m honorable and you can trust me and that I’m not going to tell your secrets or whatever. You’ll just sort of know. If I don’t have flowing anger — if I’m not working — my boundaries are all over the place. I’m going to be tripping over you, I’m going to be spilling your secrets. I’m not going to be a trustworthy individual because I don’t have proper boundaries; my anger isn’t properly maintained.
Flowing shame: with flowing shame that is just there and available to you, you reach your hand out for the cookie and you go, “I don’t need that.” That’s shame at work.
Now with each of these emotions — ball emotions — there’s a mood state. So, let’s say that I’ve got good boundaries, I’m doing pretty well, and then you come up and you say something to break my boundaries. So you threaten me. My anger may kind of go, “Tami’s a problem right now.” So my anger may need to come up to a mood state and go, “You said what? Hello?” So, I could set boundaries with you humorously or I could actually show you that I’m angry or whatever — I have choices there. And then, since we’re staying in the area of anger, there’s this ramped-up state where I could start really getting up in your face: “You are not going to have this scarf, because the last time I lent you something you got stuff all over it — screw you!” You know, I could try to hurt you. When my ramped-up anger comes out, I don’t have good boundaries anymore ’cause I’m taking my anger, and I would come out and hurt you with it.
So there’s, like, these articulations of each emotion. And so a lot of times people will be very grounded, very able to let things go, very able to be ethical about what they buy — that’s sadness working very well in their lives. And it’s also envy working very well in their lives. When you don’t have good control — not control! — good connection with your sadness, you can’t let anything go. [sharp intake of breath] “’Cause I don’t want to release anything.” Because sadness [out-breath] lets you release. Or you don’t have good connection with your envy, you’re going to be grabbing everything you can, because, “Umm, what’ll happen?” Well, you don’t know because you’re not really thinking very clearly.
So what we tend to know as emotions are the mood states or the part where “I’m going to go out and take you out with it.” So, when people say they hate emotions, I’m all, “I do too.” Because I hate what people do with them. And when someone comes out with their anger and just beats the crap out of somebody with it, I go, “You just wasted a perfectly good emotion.” Each of the emotions has a very specific thing that it does in the psyche, and if you don’t know that, then you’ll just look at the mood states and go, “Well, emotions are just idiotic.”
TS: So what you’re saying — let’s see if I have this correctly — is that there aren’t some emotions that are positive and some emotions that are negative, which is, as I said, a common belief. It’s not that anger and jealousy are…it’s that the positive or healthy condition is a flow state where we’re getting information from the emotions, that’s coming to us as moods but we’re not going further into acting them out negatively — is that what you’re saying?
KM: It’s almost like there are three states: there’s the flowing state, where I don’t even have any consciousness of my anger except that I set good boundaries, and that’s it. I don’t feel anger; there’s nothing there that feels like anger except I just set good boundaries. Then there’s the mood state where I realize, “OK, I’m pissed right now.” And then I see, well, what do I want to do with that? And then there’s the state like with rage, where I’ve just lost my boundaries and I’m an idiot.
But so, each of them you can come back to what would that emotion be for? What is that energy about? What would you do with it? Why do you have that? It’s almost like I’m doing evolutionary biology on the emotions. Why in the world would you have that? Why would you have a suicidal urge? That’s a stupid idea. And then coming back and seeing what it’s about. So for me, this term “empath” is, I would actually go into the emotions and talk to them and say, “What are you about?” Why would I have jealousy, or why would I need panic? Panic’s stupid; it could hurt you. Why would you need it?
So in a way I’m having…the foundation of it is that there’s something positive here, there’s something necessary here, or we wouldn’t have evolved it.
TS: And is the idea that when it arises out of the flow world into the mood world, so now I’m having this mood — to use the example you just gave, let’s pick panic; “I’m starting to feel kind of panicky” — that that’s the time when I need to listen in some way? That there’s some message that I’m getting?
KM: Yeah, and in terms of the language of emotions, I also found that for each of the emotions there’s a question you can ask. So you can get into this practice, this meditative practice with the emotion, and work as [its] partner instead of being [its] puppet. So when I’m raging at you, I’m just a puppet; I’m a tool of the rage. But when I can ask my anger a question and it is, “What needs to be protected?”, it’s about boundaries. What has been broken down and what needs to be protected. Then your anger can turn away from, you know, “Tami who wants my scarf” and go, “What does need to be protected? Oh, OK.”
And so, I could say, OK my relationship with Tami needs to be protected and I definitely want to keep my scarf. So, I have those options, right? And so I could say, “Well, what about if I bought you a scarf that looks just like this one — is that going to be OK?”
TS: Yeah, that would do it!
KM: So that way my anger protects everything that’s important to me. But if I just let my anger go off on a whirlwind tour of crazy, my scarf will become more important than you. And you’ll probably hear that if I say, you know, “Screw you!”
TS: So you came up with each one of these questions through your own introspection?
TS: Can you tell me some of the other questions?
KM: So, with fear, you activate it — the question is, what action should be taken? Because you’re going to have to take an action with fear. Your fear tells you when something is changing and you need to do something about it. What action should be taken is you get into yourself and you say, “OK, fear, you are the expert in this. I’m just a person; you know what you’re doing. So what do I do?”
TS: All right, let’s just pause for a second. I want to hear some of the more questions, but I think often what happens when somebody feels something like fear is they go, “This is very uncomfortable. I don’t want to feel afraid.” Not, “What action should I take?” But “This just basically is terrible and I don’t want to feel afraid.” And they go do something else like turn the TV on or change the subject or something.
KM: And sometimes, you know, that’s the best thing you can do. You know, just get away from it. Especially if you’ve got — I call them “feedback loops.” Sometimes you’ve got an emotion that just keeps coming up and you don’t know what to do with it, but, see, the emotion still needs to be there because it came there for a reason. So you can be, “Oh, I don’t want to deal with that fear right now. I can’t deal with it.” So you go do something else. But then the next time you come to the fear it might even be coming out stronger.
TS: OK, so let’s say I say, “What action needs to be taken?” and the answer I get is, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
KM: So you can just sit with it. And say, well, “What am I afraid of?” But it’s, like, sometimes when you’ve been working with your emotions in ways that are not conscious, your emotions won’t really know what to say to you because they haven’t met you before. So it’s a process of you learning what it is, what the emotion is; and your emotions learning that you’re someone that can be trusted. [laughs] Because I almost-
TS: Trusted to do what?
KM: Trusted to not throw them or crush them down back into the psyche because they’re ugly or they’re… It’s kind of like the shadow from the Jungian perspective, where whatever you repress, it’ll come back and get you. It’s like that with emotions.
TS: OK, so let’s take another example. You said something about suicidal urges. So most people first of all wouldn’t think of a suicidal urge as an emotion.
KM: Yeah. [The way] I put it is that anger is the beginning of setting boundaries and being your honorable self in the world. That suicidal urges are the end, when it’s just the world has become untenable. You can’t set boundaries in it; you can’t find your place in it. Everything’s out of control, and there is just no purpose for your life on this planet.
TS: So it’s part of the anger continuum.
KM: It feels to me like it’s a part of the anger continuum.
KM: Of course, it’s also got all kinds of other stuff in it too. All emotions have other emotions in them or they work with other emotions.
But for me, with this suicide urge, that’s the one that I thought this is a silly urge for a living organism to have. Because most of your body exists to keep itself alive; it’s what it does. And…you can starve a body, you can not give it water — it will stay alive. It does not want to die. So, I’m thinking, why would you have this? And for me, the answer was that sometimes you get to a place in your life for whatever reason that the difference between who you are or who you want to be and who you have become is extreme. It’s not redeemable. It’s not fixable in this world. And for me, when a suicide urge comes up, what I ask it is, “What needs to be killed?” And the answer can never be, “You, Karla,” because that’s not going to happen. But: “What needs to be killed?” And usually the suicide urge, when you say that to it — you don’t say to the suicide urge, “Can I sing you a little song about bunnies?” ’Cause that’s not what it came here for. That’s not about bunnies.
But you can say, “What needs to be killed?” And what I’ve heard the suicide urge say — because I did suffer from major depression and suicide urges since I was about 11 — what I heard suicide say with this incredible ferocity was, “This pain. These circumstances. This behavior.” Like that. And then with the skills, with the empathic skills that I created, I can actually do that in a way that the emotions understand, and that’s by utilizing nuance and imagery and flow and having a place where the emotions can actually be themselves.
TS: So, can you go into this a little bit — these empathic skills? You just named them, but I don’t really have a feeling for how they work.
KM: The first three are informed by the healthy states of emotion. So the first one is grounding, which is where you just breathe in and [exhaling audibly] release into the ground — that’s sadness. So you just get in touch with the healthy flowing state of sadness.
TS: OK, so I didn’t quite follow that. So, I understand the idea of grounding as a positive thing to do, especially if I’m feeling emotionally “Waa-aah-uuh!” But how does that relate to sadness?
KM: Because sadness is about letting things go and relaxing into your body and kind of rejuvenating yourself by releasing tension.
And the next one is — sometimes when you’re in sadness or when you’re really grounded, you’re not really aware of the world around you. It’s a very internal emotion; you’re just kind of here. The next one is to sit forward and to kind of listen for the quietest sound in the room, and there’s a whole practice for this. But it brings a focus to you — a calm, aware focus — so that you’re aware not just about what’s going on inside you but also what’s going on around you. And that one is fear. That’s the healthy flowing state of fear. It just makes you aware of your…of your…world.
TS: OK, because [with] fear the idea is “What action needs to be taken?” So I want to be…
KM: …alert and available to make an action.
TS: That makes sense.
KM: And the action could be just stand there. I’m, like, OK.
TS: So it’s sort of like all senses awake.
KM: Just everybody’s awake. But because of the grounding I also have the capacity to get and move stuff through me. So if I’m getting all tense, what I notice is that I start paying attention to the tension. So my focus goes inside again, and, “Oh, I missed something” or “What did you say?” Because I’m not focused. So with the grounding I can be here and paying attention to you and to what’s going on in the room. And I can [say]: “Oh, that hurts.” Breathe into it, let it go; or check into it or see what’s going on here. But not have to leave you to do so.
Then the third skill is to create boundaries, which I once understood as an aura. And it’s an area around your body at arm’s-length distance. So above you and behind you, and it’s like you’re standing… You’re here and you’re standing in between… in the middle of an eggshell. So you’re a yolk. It’s to create a sense of boundaries around yourself, so that you have a sense that “I am a sacred, inviolate, separate being but I’m going to be available to you. But I don’t want to be running out and figuring out your emotions for you or throwing my emotions at you or anything. And I also want to have the private space I need so when an emotion comes up that isn’t socially acceptable, like jealousy, I can work with it. I don’t have to go running off into the other room.”
And this boundary ability is anger.
TS: Now you said you once understood it as an aura. Is there anything wrong with thinking of it as your aura?
KM: I think, for me anyway — and it could be different for others — is that for me, if it was an aura, then it was from another world. It wasn’t this world. And what I understand it now as, is that your brain and your neural system create personal space for you. And in a healthy person, the personal space is the same exact size as what aura readers see as a healthy aura; it’s an arm’s length away from you at all points.
And what this is being understood as is the proprioceptive system inside your brain. So you have interoception, which is your awareness of your whole body. And then you have proprioception, which makes me aware of where your leg is, where mine is, what’s behind me. And you can get a really good sense of your proprioceptors when you drive a car that isn’t yours. And so you’re driving and…where’s the?…you become…and then it takes awhile and then eventually you map the car. So your proprioceptors map everything around you, and a part of that is your personal space.
So when I was working with the aura concept, I knew that people needed to have that personal space. But now that I understand it as the proprioceptors, it actually makes it a little easier for me to work with, because I can say, “OK, my brain can map this now.” Rather than, there’s some magical, otherworldly thing happening to my aura that I don’t really understand. You know, and people come by and say, “Oh, your aura’s purple or green or blue…”
TS: But you could say, “How intact is your proprioceptive function?”
KM: Yeah — yeah.
TS: “How healthy is your aura, how intact and how aware are you?”
KM: Yeah. And if your brain begins to understand what you’re using it for, just like when you learn to use an avatar in a video game, your brain understands that that’s you. So it begins to understand…your fingers begin to understand how to move it in a way that your brain goes, “OK, that’s happening to me.”
So if your brain and your body begin to understand, “This is how I want my boundaries to be. This is the kind of room I want around myself,” then sometimes your boundary will actually start to change to tell you something in that empathic language of images and nuance and feelings.
TS: Well, yeah, there are people I know who come and they sort of talk to you two inches away. Whether or not they have bad breath, it’s kind of like, “How dare you stand so close to me?”
KM: Yeah. Or when you’re in an elevator, you know where your personal space is. So it exists. And I think with the aura it made it difficult for me because it didn’t exist. I had to make…I had to tell a lot of stories about it or go to other cultures to talk about it. And this is something we all have. So it makes it a lot quicker to get into rather than having to go through the whole metaphysical canon.
TS: OK, but in this third skill, the point is that I become sort of settled in my proprioceptive sense and my personal space — is that correct?
TS: OK, let’s go on to–
KM: So that I know where I am. The fourth skill is called “conscious complaining.” So what I’ve done is made complaining into a practice. And by saying “conscious complaining” — you know how sometimes people come up to you and they just go. And you’re like, “I have a phone call to make.” But they’re like, “You cannot believe what Dave just did. And I want to tell you this because it happened two weeks ago.” And you can’t stop them because they’re in an important process; but you didn’t want to be in that process. So with conscious complaining, I’ll sometimes complain to a person, I’ll say, “Tami, I’m riled up. I need to complain but I don’t want you to go to any kind of resolution. I just want you to let me complain until I’m done.”
TS: Is this a practice that you can do for three hours if you want?
KM: Yeah, but you’ll be surprised that you can’t do it for three hours. Because if you really do it, you’ll be done in, like, a couple of minutes. I have a shrine for the complaining part of me. And I go and I say, “OK, I’m complaining now.” And I go– first of all, well, I swear a lot. So I won’t swear. But first of all this, “Bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep” and “This bleep thing here” and “This thing here.” And I say all the things that you can’t say socially to people, you know, unless you have a talk show or something. But [laughs]… But, it’s just a wonderful thing because first of all it’s kind of against the rules; complaining is not OK. So you create this little shrine and you complain like there’s no tomorrow. And then eventually, it gets funny. Sort of like when you cry, and if you’re cried long enough you start laughing — it’s like that. Eventually you get out of it.
TS: And so the reason that instead of it taking me three hours it’s only going to take three minutes is because I’m being conscious? That’s the difference?
KM: Yeah — and you know what you’re doing. So you could be sitting with a friend and complaining, but they’re going to do or say something wrong. They’re going to try to stop you from being in pain. Or they’re going to say, “Well, have you considered this?” And they stop the flow of the beautiful horridness that is trying to come out of you.
And also, when you’re complaining to someone else who’s alive, you might…you’re always going to be aware of hurting them or pulling them down into the doldrums with you. So there’s always going to be this holding-back thing you do. You’re not going to say, “I’d just like to kill that guy.”
TS: And then what emotion does conscious complaining relate to?
KM: I think it relates to all of them.
TS: The first three skills-
KM: The first three skills are very specific. But conscious complaining is just for all of them. And I use it sometimes for really stuck emotions like depression. Or anxiety; anxiety is a tremendously stuck emotion because it’s got all that activation of fear. But anxiety is a fear of the future and you can’t do anything about that. Or it’s a fear of the unknown, and if it’s unknown, what are you going to do? So anxiety just tends to spin.
TS: What question do I ask when I feel anxious?
KM: I ask what action should be taken.
TS: Same as fear.
KM: But a lot of times with anxiety it’ll be like “I don’t know!” So I say, “Well, go and complain.”
TS: Uh-huh. Interesting.
KM: And so if you can complain about things, it’s hard to be anxious about them. Because complaining is more… it’s an action. But it’s also more empowering. Because when you’re complaining you’re kind of angry, you’re kind of bratty, you’ve kind of had it. You’re kind of done with it. And so, it helps you to hear it all. And sometimes when you’re complaining you will surprise the heck out of yourself at what you say.
It’s almost like that left-handed writing that people used to do, and they’re like, “What in the world is coming out of my brain?” It’s thing that you would… I’m right-handed so left-handed would be my opposite. But sometimes you’ll hear yourself say something that you didn’t realize because you’re being socially polite. Because complaining’s not OK. All that stuff.
TS: And then the fifth empathic skill?
KM: The fifth is called “rejuvenating yourself.” And I don’t say this in the practice, but it’s joy. It’s joy. So you basically get yourself grounded and get yourself focused, and fill your entire boundary with a sense that you get in your favorite nature scene at the best time of year. [Whether] you’re alone or with people it doesn’t matter. But just…you know sometimes when…for me, its Kauai. So when I finally get to the end of the road and there’s Ke’e Beach, and I know I can get into the water, my body goes, “Ahhhhhh…” And it took a long time to get there. I had to have a plane and do this and pack, and now I’m at Ke’e.
And so, it’s using the fact that your emotions understand images. They understand nuance; they understand undercurrent. So you imagine; if you can’t visualize you just feel how you feel when you’re in Ke’e. So you bring that in. And then just breathe it into your body and just rejuvenate yourself with that sense.
So it’s imaginal, it’s meditative, but it’s also emotional.
TS: OK, now we started talking about these five empathic skills in the context of someone who might have a suicidal urge. And you were like, “Well, there are these empathic skills that can be used.” So how would this person — let’s just say they’re not obviously serious about killing themselves. But they have some kind of thought. Maybe something terrible happened, or “I just want to kill myself.” And it’s clear that this feeling is coming up, or the sense is coming up. What do they do?
KM: I forgot one of the skills.
TS: Oh, that’s OK — go ahead.
KM: [laughing] One of the skills is called “burning contracts.” Because the skill of grounding has sadness and fear in it, grounding and focusing. So there’s a skill called burning contracts and it relates directly to suicide urges, OK? So in burning contracts you’re inside your boundary and all that kind of stuff, and you actually unroll a parchment and you express onto the parchment the things that you’re feeling or the behaviors you’re having or the attitudes that you’re stuck in, or anything like that. And you just let it come out with whatever emotion wants to come out. And it’s a way to create and support emotional flow.
And after that’s done, you roll up the contract — and if you want to, you tie it. It’s kind of a way of telling the emotions, “I saw what that was; I understand what it is. Now I’m getting rid of it because I don’t want to do it anymore.” And you throw it out of your boundary and — Poooof! — let it go. Something where you tell your emotions, “I’m aware that there’s a problem and that you can help me with it.” And I just did that.
So with suicidal urges, you would say, “What needs to be killed?” And it will start listing things. Because you don’t get a suicidal urge if you just forgot to get toilet paper that day. It’s usually about eight, ten, twenty-five things. And so, sometimes it’ll say, “Your whole persona. Don’t kill yourself.” So let’s say my suicidal urge didn’t like my persona, the way I was being in the world because it was fakey. I would unroll it, I would put my whole persona on there, and I would just start feeling things about it and having my suicide urge help me figure out what is so wrong with that — I probably know. I probably know.
A lot of times in a suicide urge, it’s just intense. It’s like it’s there, it’s gone. Because suicide doesn’t want to think about it or mourn it or grieve it or… It’s like, “That’s gone. I’ve had it.” Chooo! And so you take it, you roll it up, you throw it out, and you kill it. And this seems silly; it seems like play-acting or something. But the psyche loves images. And the empathic part of you, the watery part of you, loves music, which has no words. It loves art. It loves painting. It loves time with animals. It loves all kinds of things that have nothing to do with words, or reality. And so as we work with the empathic parts of ourselves, we have to realize you’ve got to get to where it is and make room for it.
But I’ve found that it’s just amazing, because when you’re in therapy with a good therapist, you’re going to get to that same place. They’re going to have you look at your emotions and say, “What about your persona?” And you’ll say, “Well, it’s killing me.” And so, for people who can’t afford therapy [laughs] we can do burning contracts.
TS: Well, you know, I notice I feel so relieved in a way and free to be able to even talk about something like suicidal urges, meaning it’s a topic that you mostly can’t talk to people about that kind of thing — it’s not public conversation. And so I want to keep going in this direction if that’s OK, Karla. Because that’s one of the things I really appreciate about your work, is that you embrace and aren’t afraid and don’t shy away from a lot of experiences — emotional experiences — that a lot of people do in their work. You know, it’s all happy-slappy.
So, let’s take depression, something you said you were personally familiar with. What is the message that’s coming with depression? What question do I ask? How do I work with it?
KM: I call depression “ingenious stagnation.” Because what I notice with depression is energy and impetus and hope, they kind of vacate the psyche. They’re gone; you can’t find them. And with depression you just [sighs]…it just doesn’t matter. And the questions I ask for depression [are] “Why is my energy gone?” and “Why was it sent away?”
Because what I understand in depression is — and the picture that I got is — that it is the psyche…I got a picture of World War II, of London, and of people sending their children to the countryside. And what I got from depression was that something in the psyche was making a decision to send the children of the soul away from the war. And what I notice in depression is if we look at the Four Element model, usually the emotions — something’s going on there. They are emotions that can’t be felt or that are spinning, and it’s not working. Usually the mind isn’t very clear; the depression can really drop you out of intellectual functioning. Usually your body feels pretty crappy; you just don’t have the energy to go. And your spirit’s kind of grounded; you don’t have that soaring “What if?” It’s more like you’ve just given up. And yet you’re not in a suicide urge. So what’s going on?
Now, of course you can be in a chemical depression, but it still means that something’s going wrong and that if you’re in a chemical depression you shouldn’t be moving forward and buying a house and getting a new job. It’s time for you to stop. So that’s why I call it ingenious stagnation — because you don’t want to go forward when you’re in that much imbalance and turmoil. So when I turn to the depression and ask “Why is my energy gone?”, it’ll tell me “This is going on. We haven’t felt sadness in 42.5 months.” You know, that sort of thing. There’s definitely something going on.
So antidepressants can totally help because a depression can…it can knock you out. It can take you out. But even when you’re on antidepressants and you’re feeling well, you still, in therapy, need to go back and see what it was that got you there. How did that happen? And it could be that you need to be on antidepressants because the chemicals in your brain are just not going to be OK. But there was something going on. So depression is like a stop sign: “Don’t go any [farther] because it’s not going to work.”
TS: I didn’t really understand the World War II imagery and association with depression. Can you help me there?
KM: Remember that London was being bombed and the adults stayed to take care of the houses, and also I think there were hospitals going on at the time. But they sent the children away to the country, and the country was not being bombed at the time. And a lot of children who grew up in that time, they remember being sent away. They didn’t want to go; the children didn’t want to go. They wanted to stay with their parents, even if it meant they were going to deal with bombs. And so that’s what it felt like to me is, some part of me was making a terrible decision in the face of war to send away my energy, to send away my hope, to send away everything because it wasn’t time for me to move forward. There [are] bombs falling. So that’s what the imagery meant for me.
TS: So in the whole development of this work, you discovered that you were an empath — had empathic capacities. And then you started in your own sort of personal laboratory working with each one of the emotions. When you talk about the emotions, you talk about them almost as sort of beings…
KM: Yeah, like they’re people!
TS: Yeah, you do a little bit. And so I’m just curious how that process, the process of developing this work, The Language of Emotions, has been for you?
KM: It’s been difficult, and I’ve been able to actually have it be a practice in my life, something that I do. Because basically I’m a weirdo.
TS: All right, join the crowd, man!
KM: Thank you! Basically I’m the one sitting in the room seeing stuff that nobody wants to have seen. But writing a book, I become sort of an expert or something at it, and people will come to me–
TS: An expert weirdo. That’s what we do here!
KM: And it’s been very, very difficult, because for me I was a survivor of childhood trauma, so I dealt with a lot of crazy emotions and crazy situations growing up. So for me at first, it was just a way to save my life. But then I noticed that I could help other people too; and especially in the metaphysical world that I grew up in, being able to sense auras, or proprioceptive territory, being able to sense emotions in people made me look like a psychic.
So I was welcomed into that community. But I began to realize, I’m not a psychic. I don’t see the future; I’m reading people. I’m reading relationships. I’m reading social structure. I’m not…you know, like, psychics can say, “Oh, there’s an earthquake coming.” Or they have actual pictures of things. I don’t have that. I have a sense of things. And so that’s why I began to understand I was an empath and that my place in the world wasn’t being some cut-rate psychic. It’s like, “Well, I can’t tell you the future, but I’ll tell you how you feel.” But instead to focus on what I could do, which was so unusual.
So even in the New Age subculture, which was a place for a lot of weird and wonderful people, I was a weirdo even there. So I realized, I could either be a weirdo and … just kind of be homeless or something. Or I could actually go into this, and find out what it is that I have that is so unusual. Thank goodness I was able to, because the emotions are just really these amazing, amazing things.
TS: Do you ever now feel emotions that overwhelm you or that you think, “God, I just don’t know if I can deal with this”?
KM: Not as much as I used to because I do work with them all the time. And it’s almost like they’re muscles that you get good at. But I was just dealing with a big family issue: my mother died, and our family was very estranged. And taking care of my mother was almost an act of sedition in my family. So, people in my family love me but there’s also a tremendous amount of, you know, family stuff — it’s nonsense. So I was sitting at my computer and I was writing, and all of a sudden an email came up because I can see the emails on the little side. And it was from my sister, who’s been very estranged, talking specifically about the trouble but in a very intense way — very intense and angry way.
And I’m just sitting there, and all of a sudden I kind of left my body and this huge rush of heat came up. And I was like “Iiiiiiiiiii don’t want to look at that.” And I sat there and I went, “What’s that heat for? Oh, it’s shame — I feel ashamed. I feel angry.” So I’m sitting there going… So I can set boundaries around this and go read that email. So I did, and I was able to sit back and go, “This is her experience. This isn’t my mother. This isn’t my experience with my mother.” You know what I mean? It wasn’t like I made her into a non-person, but I didn’t take it personally. Because I was still in mourning for my mom and I didn’t need to hear stuff like that. But it was just fascinating that this thing came up, and I was going to the place I did when I was younger. Just like, “Iiiiiiiiiii don’t want to deal with that!” And instead I was able to actually go in and then right back right away, and welcome her, ’cause she sent it out to everybody in the family; and nobody else wrote back anything.
So I said, “Hey, I know that was hard to do.” ’Cause, I mean, I know what it’s like to say something really emotional and then just have it drop. And then have people kind of be weirded out by you for quite a long time, and you feel really alone. So it was really amazing to have this emotion come up and teach me how to deal with a sister that I’ve had for forty-eight years. It was amazing.
TS: The book The Language of Emotions you originally published under the title Emotional Genius. And my response to that title was, “I want to become, like, an ‘emotional beginner’ or something. I’m an ‘emotional reptile’ or something — I’d be very happy to be an emotional beginner.” The whole idea, could I ever become an “emotional genius”? I don’t think so; I just want to be in the game. And even as I’m talking to you today — I’ve now known you for awhile; and I’ve grown a lot, I must say; and I don’t feel as afraid of the emotions. I feel like I am an emotional beginner, not an emotional reptile any longer. But I guess my question is, can people, just everyday people who are afraid of our emotions — which is probably where most people are — actually develop these skills and become anything like what you described as emotional geniuses? Is there hope out there for people? I mean, most people are afraid of their emotions, Karla — they’re not even in the game.
KM: I think for me, this chance I’ve had and that you’ve given me to come back and to revisit it later in my life, and to simplify it, and to understand it more…I didn’t realize when I wrote Emotional Genius that grounding was sadness and fear. I knew that auras were anger, but I’m learning more about it. And to be able to have people do just a tiny, little thing; so sit forward and listen to the quietest sound in the room — that’s fear. To have people understand, “Oh, my word. I’m good at this.” To make it as simple as possible. To get the auras and the chakras out of there so that it’s accessible to people, and to say, “These are your emotions. You have them. You already work with them all the time. You’re already an empath.”
You know, I write in the end of the book that, with science there’s always questions, but basically modern humans appeared 195,000 years ago. And there [are] a lot of questions about it, but what they’re thinking is that language appeared between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. So does that mean that modern humans were dimwits for 145,000 years? It doesn’t, because we were communicating with gesture, with nuance, with pointing, with art, with music, with comedy, with physical comedy, with touch. We were empaths for 145,000 years before this-all language nonsense came along. We are empaths; it’s something that we own.
And for me especially in the territory of fear, a lot of times when I’m afraid I’ll just drop down and ask my fear, “What do I do?” And it gives me information that I would never have gotten for my 40-some-odd years on the planet. Because fear comes from the 195,000 years and so does our empathy. We just haven’t been trained in it. And I’m saying, “Here’s a little training from the world of empathy. And please come join me ’cause I’m lonely over here in the corner.” [laughs]
TS: So you’re saying that because this is in our genetics, that it’s possible for anyone regardless of their current relationship with their emotional life?
KM: That’s what I’m saying. That’s my hope.
TS: Thank you, Karla. Joining us today on Insights at the Edge, the author of a new book from Sounds True, The Language of Emotions.