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Karla McLaren: The Language of Emotions: Flow, Empathy, and Anxiety


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Nuggets From Karla McLaren's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Karla McLaren.

Karla McLaren, M.Ed. is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and empathy pioneer. She is the author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You (2010), The Art of Empathy (2013), and the multi-media online course Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions (2012). Her most recent book is Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of this Vital Emotion (June 2020). Karla’s lifelong work focuses on her theory of emotions, which revalues even the most “negative” emotions and opens new pathways into self-awareness, effective communication, and healthy empathy. She is the founder and CEO of Emotion Dynamics LLC. Her work now focuses on teaching empathic mindfulness skills that help people interpret the messages and gifts inside their emotions so that they can increase their empathy and emotional awareness.

Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...

  • The question "How to know if you're an empath?" stood out, even before the call, from an online quiz on Karla's website. It consisted of one question: "Are you breathing?" :) If yes, you're an empath. (If no, take a breath and start over!) Karla's work addresses anyone who experiences emotions--that is to say everyone. She also distinguishes hypo-empaths (lower sensitivity) and hyper-empaths (higher sensitivity), which is how she identifies herself.
  • Empathy is being defined here as "your capacity to identify emotions and social situations, and understand the world and engage with it." (On her website, Karla expands on this, and particularly the capacity to engage the world with the intelligence of our emotions, in a post titled "The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy")
  • "Emotions don’t cause problems; they arise when there are problems." Karla shared about learning this distinction first-hand, after experiencing childhood sexual abuse from a neighbor during her early childhood years. "My early work was just a life-saving gesture." Karla learned to decode her dissociative tendencies, her raging emotions, her sensitive attunement to others, including animal friends.
    She concluded: there is no such thing as a negative emotion or a positive emotion; each arises for a reason, in response to an issue, with a message for you, if you're willing to listen.
  • "The more powerful an emotion is, the more scary it is--if you have no skills for it. But also, the more healing it can bring, if you know how to work with it." "If you know how to work with hatred it is one of the most amazingly evolutionary emotions you have. But if you don't, it is pure violence, kind of a meaningless violence if you don't know how to work with your hatred."
  • If people have powerful emotions and don’t know what to do with them, they are susceptible to being manipulated, "weaponized by people in power," hooked by propaganda, by authoritarianism, by conspiracy theories.
  • "So learning to work with your emotions, especially the most powerful ones is a political act. It is an empathic act. It is an act of social justice to learn to work with your emotions so that no one can jack into your emotional system and control you. I mean, that's what propaganda does. Propaganda jacks into your emotions, and conspiracy theories jack into your emotions. Authoritarians jack into your emotions. So if you own all of your emotions, there's no place where the hook can get in."
  • Propaganda works by accessing emotions that people don't know how to work with--those emotions are open for hunting season.
  • Depressed people tend not to vote. Enraged people tend to vote. So if you are feeling depressed and hopeless, curate the heck out of your social media and out of [your information intakes].
    There is very sophisticated emotional targeting that's happening to us on social media and on television, whatever we are watching--curate the heck out of it.
  • Hatred seems to be a "secondary" emotion (though Karla noted usually not seeing emotions as secondary) to unseen and unfelt grief.
  • Hatred is a sign that you’ve lost your boundaries completely, lost your sense of self.
  • When I experience hatred, I know I’m seeing unclaimed parts of myself projected on to someone else. Shadow work is the practice for working with and understanding the messages of hatred.
  • Biden said “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” — no, claim your racist bones. Then you can work with it, change it; otherwise, not.
  • Racism is woven into fabric of the founding of this state. Americans who have been racialized as white may feel grief, anger, hatred as they realize that "my ancestors white bodies have been used as weapons."
  • Depression. Distinguish "situational depression" from major depression. But beware situational depression can shift into major depression, so you would need help then.
  • On Anxiety. Many conflate anxiety and panic. (a.k.a panxiety!) If the feeling has a sense of dread, danger to it, it may be panic, rather than anxiety. Again, each emotion has its purpose. Anxiety focuses us on what needs to be done; panic alerts us to danger.
  • Regarding Covid-19 and anxiety: "Don't do what anxiety can't do, what no one can do right now. It's not your anxiety's fault. We're experiencing something that none of us alive has ever experienced before here in the United States. And don't expect to have skills with it. It's an incredibly difficult time. So bring your anxiety in, and your panic too. Just ask your panic, am I in physical danger right now? And if so, what can I do to ameliorate that danger? Right? Bring it in."
  • Limitations of English lexicon. If you don't have a word for something, it can be so much harder to identify. If you aren't familiar with your spectrum of emotions, it will be even harder to discern between them.
  • Analogy to a study done on perceptions of shades of blue. Russian speakers who had multiple words for 'blue' could discern many different types of blue in a spectrum of blue; English speakers tended to be more limited to 'light blue,' and 'dark blue.'
From the Q&A:

Q: Current world events are resulting in a seemingly never ending anxiety in me. What are suggestions for handling consistent anxiety?

"Curate the engagement you have with others (including media--much of which, these days, is engineered to keep you unstable!). Is anything engaging your anxiety and jacking it up? Is anything engaging your sense of doom or overwhelming hopelessness? Move that stuff aside for now as if you are recovering from a cold or a flu and there are some foods you just can't eat, right, or you need to sleep more."

Q: I'm having a hard time controlling my anger towards Trump supporters. How can I keep from feeling anger and panic towards them?

"When I look at what's going on with anybody following a strong man leader right now--it's not just happening in the United States--what they're trying to ameliorate in their own soul is panic, grief, rage, depression. These are very damaged people whose emotions are trying to come and help them, but they have very few skills with their emotions, which is why they are prey, why they are being preyed upon. I see them as victims. Even though they're also acting in such a way to victimize others.

There's nothing about the Trump presidency that isn't a cult.

I grew up in a cult, and the people on the outside of the cult who would say things like, "you're in a cult, you're all idiots, you're being used, you know, get out, use your own mind." I could defend against those people like this. Whatever, it just made me stronger in my cult identity. It made the whole cult stronger when people are on the outside screaming.

If you want to help--this is the secret--go to sadness and grief. They're already feeling it. And if you can and engage with the true emotions that are underneath the hatred and rage that they're showing, you can begin to work with them. I don't mean this in a manipulative way. You do feel sadness and grief. And if you have the capacity to grieve, you must."

We've posted the audio recording of the call, and we will be also be posting a transcript on that same page. You can learn more about Karla's work via her webpage, which includes an emotional vocabulary checklist she offered as an accessible practice for anyone to begin to, as she invited at the end of the call, "make a beautiful home for your emotions so they can have names and a place inside you, so that you can use your emotions for yourself and not have anybody else use your emotions without your permission."

Much gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers and all participants that made this call happen.

Excerpts from Transcript:
  • Emotions are here and trying to help. But if people don't know that, they feel that their emotions are creating more suffering. So I'm suffering, and then these mysterious emotions come at me with full force and now I'm suffering even more.
 
  • emotions don't cause problems, they arise when there are problems.
 
  • The more powerful an emotion is the scarier it is if you have no practice or skills for it, but also the more powerful healing it can bring.
 
  • Hatred; working with emotions as a political act; propaganda and weaponizing emotions as an act of power: If you know how to work with hatred it is one of the most amazingly evolutionary emotions you have. But if you don't, it is pure violence, kind of a meaningless violence if you don't know how to work with your hatred. What I'm noticing now, especially now but I always thought it, is if people don't have a practice for their emotions and the emotions are powerful those people can very easily be weaponized by people in power. So learning to work with your emotions, especially the most powerful ones is a political act. It is an empathic act. It is an act of social justice to learn to work with your emotions so that no one can jack into your emotional system and control you. I mean, that's what propaganda does. Propaganda jacks into your emotions, and conspiracy theories jack into your emotions. Authoritarians jack into your emotions. So if you own all of your emotions, there's no place where the hook can get in.  ... [H]atred seems to be acting as a second-hand emotion to an unfelt and unwanted grief, especially in white people right now.
 
  • The work of racial justice for white people: Every white person has to do this work. I don't know if this is going to happen [laughing] because it requires a sense of responsibility for something you never created, maybe you never agreed to, you didn't know it was happening. The ignorance is real, and it's engineered. But I see people just turning hatred toward the whole concept of racism. And I see these emotions behind them trying to help people evolve, trying to help them become a more upright person who can grieve and feel the shame that is necessary -- both are necessary -- and to feel rage toward a system that has done such damage for 400 years and more to everyone who isn't a white male. ... And so instead of turning that hatred toward the system saying, "We need to tear this shit down," we're turning the hatred toward any person who says, “Black Lives Matter.” So in that way the hatred is being used in a very abusive way, not just to the people, but to these other emotions sitting in the background wanting to help the person evolve and become something more valuable in this struggling world. And when you can take your hatred and turn it back and hold it, what hatred says -- hatred is one of the anger-based emotions -- hatred says, “This is a sign that you've lost your boundaries completely. You've lost every part of your sense of self." And hatred comes to show you that.
 
  • Shadow work as the practice for hatred: I know at that point that what I'm seeing is a part of myself that has been exiled, or a part of humanity that has been exiled. And so I know it's time to do my shadow work. That's the practice for hatred. But with shadow work, you have to call yourself out. And a lot of people don't have the strength of … I don't want to say strength of character … What would you call it? A strength of … not will … They don't have the ability to feel ashamed of who they've become. They've got to hold the structure of themselves up and avoid shame at all costs and not say, "Look what I've become. Who are you? Why are you shaking my psyche so? What is going on here? I need to find out what it is about you that diminishes me." And that is a very ... Working with hatred ... I think it comes with the amount of energy that it does to give you the strength and, you know, almost violence, to strip down and look at what you've become. Look at what you are missing. Look at the holes in your psyche. So hatred has all this energy, and if people don't know what they're doing with their emotions they're just like, "Energy! I'm going to use it as a weapon. I'm going to go join a group of people who are equally emotionally incompetent, and we're going to make a political party or we're going to make a group."
 
  • emotions come and help to tell us where the brokenness is, where the problems are. And then they give us the energy we need, or the lack of energy in the case of depression, to deal with what is real.
 
  • What I say is that anxiety has this very specific purpose which is to help you gather the energy you need to move into the future and get your tasks done and hit your deadlines. Anxiety is going to gather everything you need. It is going to keep you focused, on task, so that you can get things done.
 
  • I had done a lot of research and work in autism, and what I had seen as a hyperempath is that almost all of my autistic friends were hyperempathic not hypoempathic. They were engaging so much with the world that so much was coming in, and they didn't have the capacity to process it. It wasn't that they were unempathic. It was that they were overempathic.
 
  • Curate the engagement you have with others. Is anything engaging your anxiety and jacking it up? Is anything engaging your sense of doom or overwhelming hopelessness? Move that stuff aside for now as if you are recovering from a cold or a flu and there are some foods you just can't eat, right, or you need to sleep more.
 
  • Don't do what anxiety can't do, what no one can do right now. It's not your anxiety's fault. We're experiencing something that none of us alive has ever experienced before here in the United States. And don't expect to have skills with it. It's an incredibly difficult time. So bring your anxiety in and your panic too. Just ask your panic, am I in physical danger right now? And if so, what can I do to ameliorate that danger? Right? Bring it in.
 
  • If you want to help, this is a secret, go to sadness and grief. They're already feeling it.  And if you can and engage with the true emotions that are underneath the hatred and rage that they're showing, you can begin to work with them.
 
  • One of the most important things to do when propaganda and social control of this nature are happening is to continue to humanize the person on the other side.
 
  • So the depressed people tend not to vote. The enraged people tend to vote. So if you are feeling depressed and hopeless, curate the heck out of your social media and out of what's happening. This is very sophisticated emotional targeting that is happening to us on social media and on television or whatever we are watching. So curate the heck out of it.
 
  • What we do with grounding is just to help people feel like, get in the present moment, feel your bottom on the chair, feel your feet on the floor. Is there anything here that is going to kill me now? Right. And okay, panic, you can step back a little bit. Right. And that sort of thing. So not down-regulating the emotion, but down-regulating our reaction to the emotion. So we can just be with the emotion itself and then eventually get back to anxiety. So what did I, what do I need to do? What tasks are undone? What deadlines are coming up, right? Each emotion has its own practice and its own question. So the down-regulating is just so you can be like, Oh yeah, there's a question for this emotion, rather than trying to always take the emotion and take anxiety and go all the way down to, what would it be, organization.
 
  • People would try to erase the emotions, but that is literally impossible because emotions are part of cognition. And they are an extremely important part of cognition


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