Awakin Calls » Karla McLaren » Transcript
Karla McLaren: Author, Researcher, Empath
Sep 12, 2020: The Language of Emotions: Flow, Empathy, and Anxiety
Guest: Karla McLaren
Host: Chris Johnnidis
Moderator: Dr. Andrew Kim
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
Chris: Good morning, good day to everyone. My name is Chris, and I am very pleased to be our host today for our global Awakin call. Thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls, as some of you may know, is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is a whole team of dedicated ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today our guest speaker is Karla McLaren. Thanks for joining us again. And let us start with a minute of silence to ground ourselves into this space.
Thank you all. Ground and boundary, we might say, for this call. So welcome again to all to our weekly Awakin call, today in conversation with Karla McLaren. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin call is a conversational space that is co-created by a number of invisible volunteer hands and some visible ones. In this case, our moderator today, Andrew Ikhyun Kim will be engaging in initial dialogue with our speaker, Karla McLaren. And then by the top of the hour, we'll transition into a circle of sharing where we invite all your reflections and questions. At any time you can submit a comment or question via the webcast form on our live street page. You can also email a question to: ask@ServiceSpace.org. Please note that if you are watching the live stream from the designated webpage link, you can make the video full screen by hitting that marked button on the bottom right corner of the video box. To return to the webpage to submit a question, just click the same bottom right button or hit your computer's escape key to exit full screen mode.
And just a little friendly reminder, we are operating in virtual space with the usual constraints of technology -- overloaded bandwidths, audio issues, et cetera. Things can and ... I forget the name of that law where things can and will go wrong ,,, But if there is a technology glitch or issue, just know that we will quickly come back as soon as we can, and we appreciate your understanding in advance.
So with that said it's my pleasure to introduce our moderator today, Andrew Ikhyun Kim. Andrew is a resident physician at UCSF who focuses on palliative care for underserved populations. His work in health diplomacy explored the reciprocal concepts of peace as a bridge to health, and health as a bridge to peace, in North Korea, South Sudan, and Liberia during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Andrew earned his MD at Harvard, a master's of philosophy in international development at Cambridge, and his undergraduate degree at Brown. As integral balance to his professional work, Andrew enjoys backpacking in solitude, skiing, learning languages, and exploring contemplative traditions across world traditions. And Andrew is someone who inspires and motivates me to become a better human as well.
So thanks for being here, Andrew, and over to you.
Andrew: Thank you so much, Chris. Appreciate it. Well, it's wonderful to be here with you, Karla. It's my pleasure to introduce you.
Karla McLaren is an expert on emotions. She is the author of The Language of Emotions, The Art of Empathy, and her most recent book, Embracing Anxiety -- which launched in June of this year, right in the second surge of the pandemic -- has been influential to many people during this time. She works in a field called "dynamic emotional integration" which we will refer to as DEI in this call. DEI is a trailblazing approach to emotions and empathy that tries to reveal the healing power and the genius within each and every one of the emotions that we experience. She is based in Sonoma County where it's currently, unfortunately, raining ash, and I hope she and her husband Tino are staying safe.
On a personal note, Karla holds a very special place in my heart because 2020 has been a pretty excruciating year for many people and especially for someone like me with very little emotional maturity. I'm coping with the grief after an unexpected passing of a close friend from med school, the anxiety around working in the hospitals, and especially in the COVID units, and then also just the anger and hatred and shame that comes with some of the political and racial climate of this day. And so her work in emotions, which was introduced to me by a friend Camilia, has been one of the crucial pillars that has gotten me through three fourths of this year. And so I just want to first start off with a big thank you, Karla. And it's just such a joy to be in conversation with you.
Karla: Thank you. I'm so glad my work has been helpful. It's been helpful to me too this year [laughing] to say, "Whew! I'm glad I understand emotions a little bit." Because this has been emotion, emotion, emotion, emotion year. I think I feel a lot of grief watching what happens when people don't have any practices for their emotions. They have practices for sort of avoiding their emotions. But at this point, you can't. 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.
So I am seeing people making a lot of decisions in their lives based on the suffering that they don't need to be experiencing if they had emotional skills, if they could understand panic and hatred and rage and shame and every other emotion and know that they come to help. Something that I've become really clear about is that emotions don't cause problems, they arise when there are problems.
So the more emotions that come forward means there are more problems. And they're coming to help. But I think a lot of people do not know that, and we've all been taught to treat emotions as problems. The emotion comes up and people start questioning themselves. Or they think it's a character flaw or a sign of disorder within them, that maybe they're not living right. And instead of being able to welcome the help of these amazing sorts of entities, emotions, they are feeling them as if they are a sign of pathology or disorder.
People are making lots of decisions based on their inability to work with emotions. For instance, very stubbornly not wearing a mask at this point. I mean, I'm hoping you're wearing an N95 if you go outside in California. [laughing] You can wear a mask then. But there's a way that people are feeling this panic they don't know how to work with, this anxiety they don't know how to work with, the fear, sadness, depression, grief. And they're like, "I need to feel in control. I need to feel a powerful sense of agency. So screw masks and anybody telling me ...." Do you know what I'm saying? I can see all the emotions they're trying to work around. And I wonder when those people go home and it's quiet in their house, if it ever is, do all their emotions just go, "Why are you doing this? Like, what are you doing?" And then maybe that would be a good time to drink, you know, or do whatever ritualistic self-care behavior people have to then shut their emotions down further.
And in the morning, right as they wake up, are their emotions saying, "Are you kidding me? We don't want to die! What are you doing?" I'm just wondering what goes on in that. I understand that impetus to find agency again, but it's kind of being done in the wrong way for the wrong reason and with the wrong intention. And emotions know that. So there is so much suffering going on, and for people who can just be with the suffering ... I'm like, “Thank God you're here. Thank God for the suffering brigade. Thank you for being in the suffering brigade.” [laughing]
Andrew: I love that. I feel like you just kind of struck at the essence of what I understand to be your work which is just removing ourselves from this sense of the negative valence that we ascribe to so many of our emotions in society. And rather than restricting ourselves to this positive/negative valence of emotions, we can discover the wisdom within each one of them. Now I want to dive into some of the crucial emotions that you brought up earlier. But before I do that, I'm curious if you would be willing to share a little bit more about the important context or experiences of your upbringing and how you even got into this work with emotions in the first place.
Karla: I would like to say that it was a decision, "I decided to. I made a rational decision to study emotions." [laughing] But it was a sadder story than that. I started out my life in a fairly warm family. I was the fourth of five children, and we had this kind of world in our household where we could live and be the strange people we all were. But across the street there was a neighbor who just happened to be a child molester. And so that was my very early life. I think from the age of two-and-a-half or three until five when my sister found out, that was a regular experience. It wasn't daily, but it was a regular accepted experience in the neighborhood for girls. And so that's how I grew up. And I, like most early childhood trauma survivors, learned to turn my empathy -- which is your capacity to identify emotions and social situations and understand the world and engage with it -- I turned my empathy up very, very high so that I could keep an eye on what was going on and to understand when there was danger.
And so I was sort of a person without boundaries. I was just like an exposed radio wire trying to figure out the world. And a lot of the aspects of child abuse, any kind of childhood abuse but especially sexual abuse, is to strip away the boundaries of a person. So it was even more. And because emotions respond to what is going on and what was going on was so intense, my emotions were very intense. So I was a boundaryless, hyperempathic, wildly emotional child. And I was a handful. I was just an incredible handful, a raging, angry kid. And just, you know, anxious. I did a lot of this [demonstrates movement]. We would think I was likely autistic growing up. And we do have autism in our family, so I'm an autistic cousin.
And this was my childhood. It was a mess. So learning to work with emotions and empathy wasn't a choice that I made. It wasn't this, “Choose one from Column A.” It was, “You need to learn to deal with these things or you're going to go under.” I also learned how to dissociate and just sort of leave. So I continued to be dissociated, very emotionally labile, and a very intense kid. And that was where this came from. A lot of what I learned about emotions and empathy was in an effort to heal myself and to make friends with or understand these emotions that would not go away. They would not leave me alone. That was the kind of chaotic beginning of it, and I was able to come to understand emotions. I'm still learning about some of them now. [laughing] I just wrote about anxiety.
It’s been a very intense life but also intensely rewarding because working with empathy is just an amazing thing. And emotions are ... I love them so much. They are so brilliant, and you wouldn't know it from the way that most people talk about emotions. You just wouldn't know it. I'll give talks, and I'll start talking lovingly about jealousy or envy or panic and some people will say, "Those are not positive emotions." And I'm like, "Oh, I'm with newbies. Okay. Hold on. Let me go all the way back. There's no such thing as a negative emotion. There's no such thing as a positive emotion.” And that's where we get started. My early work with emotions was just a lifesaving gesture. I needed to figure out what in the heck these outrageously present annoying things were. Then I learned why they were there.
Andrew: Thank you so much for sharing so briefly. You're talking about the lack of positive or negative valence in our emotions. Given the times -- the pandemic, the racial environmental justice movements -- and your current work -- where you're working in the emotional work that surrounds anti-racist training, anti-racist development -- I'm curious about emotions that arise within that work. One is possibly hatred or anger around a lot of police killings of black and brown bodies, and two being possibly the feelings of shame of our own culpability, our own shortcomings, and our own complacency in these movements. I am curious about what you do with hatred, or what do you do with shame, and how do you approach them because they seem so negative to me.
Karla: The more powerful an emotion is the scarier it is if you have no practice or skills for it, but also the more powerful is the healing it can bring. So when we talk about emotions like shame, which most people are taught to just hate or avoid or deny or just, "Run, run! Shame's coming. Everybody run!" And hatred. 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 am 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 is 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 is no place where the hook can get in. And you can see it, “Oh, you are using panic and this hatred to help people, blah, blah, blah … and I choose not to." You have options.
So let's look at hatred which a lot of people are feeling. I don't call any emotion second-hand because all emotions have a reason for coming up. But I'm going to back up on that one and say that hatred seems to be acting as a second-hand emotion to an unfelt and unwanted grief, especially in white people right now.
I notice, as a white person, how the more I read the more I learn how grotesquely ignorant I was about racism. I mean, when I grew up here in California, I thought we didn't have racism in California. I kept thinking that into my twenties and thirties because we never had slavery in California. Except we did. But I never learned it. I didn't learn anything appropriate about the history of American racism which is ... America and racism, they're like this [linking hands]. The creation of America was the creation of a racist state. And none of that … I didn't know any of it. And there's a reason I don't know it, right? There was an intentional effort to make sure that I, as a white person, remained ignorant.
And what I felt with that was incredible shame and rage and grief for all of the losses. And I know how to work with those emotions, so I didn't have to go sideways when they came up, when the shame and rage and grief came up. But I see a lot of white Americans like, "Whoa! I don't know what to do with these three emotions." And it's turning to hatred of the very idea that, "I'm ignorant," of the very idea that, "I was lied to in school,” of the very idea that, "My white body has been used as a weapon. My ancestors' white bodies. It's in my bones, it's in my marrow."
And even Joe Biden -- who's pretty okay -- he says, "I don't have a racist bone in my body." I wrote a post about that, and I was like, "You need to claim your racist bones, these racist bones. [laughing] So just claim them." You can't change anything if you can't claim it. So claim your racist bones, and do the work your ancestors couldn't do.
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. White female? Hmmm, yeah, they're protected too. But not as much, right?
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.
So when hatred arises, when I start hating someone, I'm like, "That person!" I know that I have lost my boundaries in regard to that person. I have lost my perspective-taking abilities. I have lost my capacity to be empathic. I just want to punch them and set them on fire and, you know, just have all this violence toward the person. And so 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."
For me, I just feel so much grief and I want to say, "Give me that hatred. I'll show you what to do with it. You're just wasting it right now. Go have a grief ritual." [laughing] America needs a grief ritual. Everybody needs a grief ritual. So that was a long answer.
Andrew: Thank you, Karla. What I'm hearing you say is that hatred almost serves as a mirror for the shadow work that we need to do within ourselves. Maybe, at least in myself, when I see myself experiencing hatred and I don't want to do that shadow work, I feel like what I'm lacking is the strength of vulnerability or the strength of humility in realizing that I actually need to do that work.
Karla: Yeah, and sometimes you can just hate for a little while. "I'm going to hate for like the next 45 minutes, then I'll do my shadow work. But I need to do this right now." [laughing] You can get to a more friendly place with all of your emotions. Like just to say to panic, "It's not that kind of an evening. All right? Just step back for a minute. I don't need to feel panic right now. I don't mean to be rude." Panic just said, "You said what?!" [laughing]
Andrew: I want to tag off of panic … actually, panic and depression and anxiety. As an MD, I feel like these are things that I am taught only in the realm of the DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition] -- you know, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder. And I know which medications to prescribe for that. I don't tend to think of them as emotions, let alone emotions with wisdom or genius in them, and I tend to pathologize it a lot. I am curious how you make that distinction, especially during this time when people are experiencing these things a lot more given the uncertainty and isolation that comes with the pandemic.
Karla: In the anxiety book, I talked about the difference between anxiety the emotion, and anxiety the disorder. There is depression the emotion, and depression the situation where you need to go and get some help. There is panic the emotion, which helps you fight, flee, or freeze when there's danger and your life is actually threatened. And then there is panic the … I know it's called panic disorder, but I am calling it post-traumatic condition rather than disorder because I had this post-traumatic condition for many years. What it was doing -- and they teach this in somatic experiencing and somatic psychology -- with panic, specifically, when you are threatened and that fight, flee, or freeze capacity comes forward, there is an incredible amount of adrenal and other activation that, you know, you could lift a car off a baby with panic. You could run from a bear. You could punch a shark with panic, right? It's stuff you would never do.
It is an incredible amount of activation even if you freeze. If you freeze and just think, "Go away, bear," and the bear goes away, you still had enough energy within you to run from the bear or punch the bear. Don't punch the bear [laughs]. Don't run. Freezing was a good idea, right? But that activation needs to be down-regulated, and that survival situation needs to be uploaded into your survival brain. And you may need to go through it a couple of times. "Okay. The bear came. I was here." You need to do that sort of right away. Shake. "Whoa! That was intense. That was freaking intense."
You need to down-regulate from that panic. Almost no one knows that, and almost no one does this. So what is called a post-traumatic disorder -- where people are having flashbacks, where they're going into that extreme intensity of experience, where they freeze, or where they flood -- all of that is a part of the healing process that needs to occur when panicking situations have occurred.
You will go back to the situation and see there is a ritual happening. But we don't have any understanding of ritual, especially in the DSM-5. There is no "ritual page" in the DSM-5. So we will keep going back and trying. And what the psyche, what the whole organism is doing, is going back to a time when we were threatened and overwhelmed. We are trying to glean as much information from it as possible so that the next time we are threatened or overwhelmed in that way we'll have skills. And that is sort of what is happening in a post-traumatic situation.
There are beautiful ways to work with it. One of the most important things I have learned to do is, if you come upon someone who has just dealt with panic, protect them from others. Because other people will want to go in and dust them off. "Hey, that was fine. That was fine. Don't cry. Don't cry." They are stopping them in every way from down-regulating, shaking, talking about it. They are like, "Oh, you survived. Let's go." And so people are not able to do the work of the emotion panic. That is a very powerful emotion, and it is not going to let you just move forward from a time when your life was literally in danger. You have got to upload that information.
So that is, to my eye and to my experience, what that post-traumatic panic cycling does. It is trying to get you to go back. Now what if what is here is gruesome and horrifying? What if the situation is gruesome and horrifying? That is where you need support. That is where you need support of somatic therapy that can help you slow down the process and feel your way into what was going on so that you can come out resourced. So for me, with my own panic, that is how I learned how to work with it.
Depression the emotion … in Dynamic Emotional Integration, or DEI, we work with situational depression. This is a depression that you can track to a situation. What depression does is it pulls your energy away when going forward would create problems. So there is something going on. “Don't go forward. Stop here. Your energy is gone. Now figure it out.” But for a lot of people it's just scary to have your energy drained away. And that ability to go inward ...
I have on my website a depression inventory. It's to look at all the parts of your life. Is there any problem in any of these? If there is, then there is a reason that your energy is gone because you don't want to go forward on this problem -- physical, mental, spiritual, political. [laughs] Right now it's political, political in terms of the environment. I would say depression has almost a contemplative, meditative energy to it. Just sort of stop, drop, and become aware of what is happening. Don't go forward on this energy because you are going to end up someplace you don't want to be or that you can't support. So that's what situational depression does.
Now situational depression, if you stay in it too long, can shift into major depression so you would need help then. But in many cases you can work with situational depression yourself simply by using a little check box. How is my health? How are my relationships? How is my job? Am I unemployed? How is my sleep? And see what it is that your depression is signaling to you is wrong. One of our people, Sarah Alexander, calls depression the reality check. “What is really going on?” How many of us want to be slowed down? How many of us want to have our energy taken away? It's like, “I've been grounded! I have terrible parents. I've been grounded." But to get grounded, and to look around and say, “Oh yeah, this isn't working.” There is always a reason for situational depression to arise.
And then do we have time for anxiety?
Andrew: Yes. I just want to say that is such a healthy reframe from the PHQ-9 [Patient Health Questionnaire - 9] which is the questionnaire I administer in clinical, monitored depression. What a different approach. Rather than focusing on the negatives, it is focusing on what inventory needs to be taken or, "What do I need to actually address here?"
Karla: Yes. So much of the psychological approach to emotions is to look at it like, “What is wrong with you?” I realized a lot of DEI is a sociological approach. “What's going on in the world? What's going on in the past. What is happening that your emotions are responding to?” rather than, “Why are you so broken? What's broken about you?” We're all broken, but 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.
Andrew: I love that. And yes, there is definitely a time for anxiety. I think that is something that many of us are experiencing during these times. And I am especially curious about anxiety because … maybe you can touch upon this … I find a little bit of conflict within myself between my spiritual ideals of equanimity and presence and the wisdom of the emotion of anxiety and actually learning from that.
Karla: One of the things I found as I was writing the book -- and I asked everybody, “What is anxiety? What does it feel like?” -- what almost everyone was describing was panic. They were describing panic and calling it anxiety. Words change meaning.
Anxiety came from the word angst, which is existential dread. 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.
There are two problems with this. Anxiety is focused on the future, and you don't live in the future. You live in the present moment, and your body is a present moment animal. So anxiety is already going to create some difficulties by pulling you out of the present moment. But you do need to be out of the present moment sometimes -- stuff is happening at 3:00 pm -- are you ready? Anxiety is always going to be talking about that.
Another issue with anxiety is that if there are a lot of tasks to do or if you have a deadline looming, your energy needs to be increased. For a lot of people that is disorienting. Learning to work with the anxiety energy levels is really important. A famous form of anxiety is stage fright, and most actors learn, “Don't call it anxiety.” Treat it as, “This is energy to help me go on stage and have a presence that is entirely different from my kind of hanging out backstage energy.” If you don't have that anxiety or that stage fright, your performance is going to be kind of dead. You won't have the presence and the gravitas that that energy brings to you. So to look at anxiety's energy and say, “Dude, what do I need to get done?” rather than, “I'm overwhelmed!”
Now, if there is any dread or danger in the anxiety, panic is there too because panic comes forward when there is danger.
For many people anxiety and panic are like this [links hands]. I call them “panxiety” because they have not learned to separate them. Panic is crucial. It is a vital, healthy, wonderful emotion. So is anxiety. But they should not be like this all the time. We need to pull them apart. If you are riled up then one of the ways to do that is to ask, “Is there danger to my physical life right now?” Look around. “Well there is a pandemic.” So, the answer to the question is, “Yes, yes." But what about in your house? Is there anybody sick with COVID in your house right now? So now you can help panic make some distinctions into delineations. Then ask the questions for anxiety which are, “What needs to get done? What deadlines do I have?”
One of the issues I see as people are going out is that panic and anxiety do need to come back together. Because going out means you have to know where your masks are … if you wear a mask. You have to know where your hand sanitization is, and you have to know where you are going. I wear a different mask in each place I go, so I must make sure I have a number of masks that I can then take off. So my anxiety must be on top of this. I cannot just go out to the car like we are in the regular world. We are not. My anxiety has got to be here. And my panic is here too because COVID is deadly. Both must be here.
So how do I make it so that my energy is not so high that I trip over myself and get overwhelmed? Just make sure to tell panic, “I have five masks, and I have hand sanitizer. If it does not feel safe, I will not go into the Safeway. I won't go.” And so panic goes, “All right. I'm going to go just right over here. I will stand right about here. You can go to the store.”
But you know, it is so important to understand what these emotions are doing. They come to help. And if panic is there, the first question is, “Am I in physical danger of the loss of my life?” If not I would say, “Panic, what do you sense?” instead of, “Shut up panic, you are wrong.” But what is happening? Since March there has been a deadly pandemic. How do you handle this when you are going to the COVID unit? You have serious masks and serious hand sanitizer, but how do you handle it?
Andrew: To be honest, until I came across your work it was a lot of repression. And then the realization that I love that disentangling of panic and anxiety that you are talking about. “Is there a real physical danger here right now? What is that? If I don my PPE correctly, that danger has come down quite a bit.” Your work and Resmaa Menakem’s work have been crucial to me at this time. I think these bodily practices of actually looking around and saying, “There's no true danger at this time. Thank you panic. You have done your work, and now I can go on and do my work.” That has been such a blessing to me in this time.
Karla: Yes, I remember in April my husband Tino was getting ready to go to Trader Joe's in the morning. This was before people had their whole mask energy focused. People were still clumsy with it. The night before he began to sort of shake and walk around, and he said, "I'm feeling really anxious about going to Trader Joe's tomorrow." I looked at him and I said, “Honey, this is panic. Don't go, don't go tomorrow.” So, he said, “Okay,” and then everything calmed down. I was just really interested because if a woman sees a man feeling panic, she will usually shame him, right? “Buck up, be macho.” You know what I mean? But I was like, “No, your panic is here. Don’t go to Trader Joe's.” At that point he probably wasn't safe. You know, he is in two or three risk categories. I am always careful about when he goes out. But it was just interesting because he was identifying it as anxiety, and I was like, “No, this is much more than anxiety. You have panic in there.” But how often have we ever heard, “Oh, you're feeling panic. Don’t go.” We say, “No, be courageous.” But your panic is like, “What?! Why are you doing this to me? Now I just know I am going to have to come up really high because you're just being silly.”
Andrew: Exactly. Yes, with panic and anxiety you kind of created a new word “panxiety.” One thing you are bringing up is the limitations of the English lexicon. Up to now, we have been talking about hatred, shame, depression, anxiety, and panic as singular emotions. But you also write very cogently about the fact that we experience multiple, sometimes seemingly conflicting emotions simultaneously. We don’t have the words for that in English. Some languages like German might have terms like schadenfreude, but we don’t have words for that. I am curious to hear a bit more about what we do with these simultaneous expressions of emotions.
Karla: I wrote about that a lot in Embracing Anxiety. It is the first book where I have put a lot of emotions together and given them new names like “panxiety.” I also like “anxappiness” and, with shame and anxiety, I call it “shmangxiety” just because it feels more borscht belt comedian. But when emotions come up together, we do not have very good emotional training. Most of our training about emotions is, “Have the good ones. Avoid the bad ones,” which means we do not really develop skills with either. We treat them as rewards or punishments. We do not treat them as actual aspects of our cognition.
You and I were talking yesterday about the research into the idea that if people have words for something they can identify it, and if they don't they cannot. This research was done with Russian speakers who have a lot of words for blue. They have not just blue, light blue, and dark blue but a lot of words for blue. And they brought in English speakers who do not have a lot of words for blue, unless they are artists. The Russian speakers could look at a spectrum and physically see more colors, more gradations of blue. Whereas the English speakers were like, “Light blue, medium blue, dark blue, and I am done. The end.” The Russian speakers could see like ten gradations that the English speakers could not see.
The same seems to be true for emotions. If you have more words for your emotions, you can identify them better, obviously. But there is a step in there that is interesting to me. It is that when people develop a better emotional vocabulary, they develop better emotion regulation skills right away. It is like two for one. It is a freebie. If you just learn more words for your emotions, then you are better with emotions. I have a free emotional vocabulary list on my website. I say, “Everybody get better with emotions. It’s free, so come on down.”
But it is normal for emotions to arise together. Like “panxiety.” It is normal for them to work together because their purpose is to come and give you the energy and the intelligence, and even the genius, that you need to deal with whatever is going on. If a lot is going on, you need a lot of emotions. But we have only four words in the entire English language that talk about emotions that are together. That is not enough. But it helps me understand why we are so emotionally incompetent as English speakers.
But I am going to say this is a problem in most languages. German is awesome because they can put words together like schadenfreude. But there are long German words that have gone into the German lexicon. For example, “the house by the road” is one word, and “by that red car” is just one word. And everybody agrees. I was like, “We need this.” That is why I combined emotions in Embracing Anxiety -- so people could have some lexicon for it, and it is all silly. But if Germans can do it, we should do it.
Andrew: I love that.
I want to be cognizant of time. Chris, do we have time for one more question.
Chris: We absolutely do. And I'll just take this moment to remind everyone who is with us at this time that you can ask a question using the livestream webpage or emailing ask@ServiceSpace.org.
So please carry on, Andrew, and then we'll shift in a little bit to audience questions.
Andrew: Great. Shifting gears a little bit into another big part of your work that we haven't talked about yet, I want to ask one last question around your work with empathy. Empathy is something that, at least in my life and in medical training, we learn by being taught which phrases to use -- “I'm sorry to hear that” -- and the body language. I am curious, since you seem to have a much more nuanced view of what empathy is, if you could just give a little primer on that for people who are not familiar with your work.
Karla: When I went to write my book, The Art of Empathy, I looked at empathy research to see what was going on. I was like a kid pulling stuff out of the drawers, “What's this? What's that?” I realized there was not a clear definition of empathy, and the view of empathy was a little bit … well, not a little bit … it was very entangled with our problem with emotions. Some people felt that empathy was just about emotions. And empathy is based on emotion -- it is your capacity to engage with the emotions of others in a sensitive and appropriate way. But I saw it as so much larger than that because empathy is also your capacity to engage -- and not just with people and their emotions -- but to engage.
A big thing I wanted to do in the book was to create a model of empathy that could be used by people who were identified as hypoempathic, or low empathy, and people who were identified as hyperempathic. I wanted the model to encompass everybody. 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.
If you've ever been at the end of a long week or the end of a long day and your empathy is on the fritz, you know what it’s like to be, “No, I can't. I can't even have one more.” You won't make eye contact. I understand being overwhelmed by too much input. So that is what I did with Art of Empathy. I created a six-step model of empathy using aspects of the research to help people understand if they have too much empathy where they are in this six-step model. If they don't have enough, where are they and then what can they do about it? It's like an empathy fix-it book -- how to have a stable and reliable level of empathy that you can turn up and down at will.
That is really important. My husband is in healthcare. He is a hospice nurse, and he comes from a medical family. I noticed that, especially in the elder generation, a lot of physicians -- a lot of surgeons specifically -- learned to turn off a lot of their empathy. Because if you don't and you're cutting into someone's body, you're going to freak out. Your empathy is going to go into that person's body, and you won't be able to make a cut. You'll just be crying in the corner. So they learned to have this very unempathic way which is very important for cutting into the living tissue of another being. And they didn't know they had turned it off, so they don’t know how to turn it back on when they get home.
A lot of kids who grew up with surgeons … I've had two husbands so far who grew up with surgeons who were trained in that time. It is not a beautiful thing to be with someone whose empathy was artificially turned down. It is extremely important for people to be able to turn down their empathy when they are doing stuff like surgery. But to not know how to turn it back up is just as problematic as I was when I was little and turned my empathy to, you know, 11, and then didn't know how I had done it or how to turn it down.
The Art of Empathy was also a way to articulate what I had learned to do as a young out-of-control hyperempath. How did I learn to turn it down? That’s The Art of Empathy. I notice I did not call it the “science of empathy” because it is not a science yet. It is still an art. [laughing]
Andrew: Indeed. Yeah, I love that. I love that dialing up and down of empathy and how we consider for instance, for people on the spectrum, that they do not have empathy. But it is exactly like you are saying. Dr. Simon Baron Cohen, who is better known as Borat’s brother, does this research on that exact thing -- that people on the spectrum have deep empathy. They just don’t have the regulation mechanisms.
Karla: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: Thank you for sharing that.
Karla: Thank you.
Andrew: Well, Chris, I want to pass it on to you to see if there are audience questions that we should address and if you have questions as well.
Chris: My anxiety sensors just activated for a moment because I heard a smoke alarm and I am trusting that it’s being taken care of by others.
But thank you both. It is really a joy to follow along that conversation. So much came up for me, and we have some questions coming in. Let’s get through as many of those as we can.
I loved that some specific examples were delved into like depression, panic, anxiety, and “panxiety.” And I'm getting that, for me, one key aspect that helps me understand this whole framework that you're offering, Karla, is the difference between a flow state of an emotion, a mood state, and then you just touched on the sort of disorder state.
You talk, in your book’s language of emotions, about the brain chemistry patterns, if I'm not mistaken, sort of patterning over time and leading to that disordered state. I just want to understand and for our audience to understand … what is the key paradigmatic shift that you're offering here? Is it true that flow state versus mood state is part of it? Because I sense some of the questions coming in will touch on that. Things like, “How do I deal with this emotion?” But a lot of times when we say emotion, we are talking about the mood state, I sense. Can you speak to that?
Karla: I do identify emotions in different levels of activation because it is so important for people to realize that emotions are not just … ANGER … ROAR!!! Anger has many, many presentations. And if you have problems with going to Anger 11 every time you go to anger, what is important is for you to begin to understand your anger when it's at Anger 1-point-2. To understand when you are peevish or sarcastic, you are in anger. To better understand which emotion you are in. One of the things I like to help people understand is it's okay if you go to Anger 11 when there is an Anger 11 situation happening. It’s okay to go to Panic 24 -- panic needs its own number system -- when there is a bear, right? You need to have the emotional range to go from zero to whatever number that emotion needs to go to.
But what I want to see is that the emotion is appropriately responding to the situation. If you see Black Lives Matter and you go to Hatred 24, I'm like, “Hold on! Let's move back. Why are you going so hard on this one?” Not because Hatred 24 isn't important, but because why is this one bringing it up?
For a lot of people when their emotions are very intense, they just go with it with no skills. But if you have skills and your emotions are very intense, then you can do just incredible work of evolution. I want to make sure that I say that you need this massive range. What we want to develop is a greater capacity to deal with every emotion -- to deal with greed and envy and hatred and panic and jealousy and sadness, depression, grief, suicidal urge -- and to be able to work with all of these emotions.
If you can't ever access anger, I would say, “Let's get your anger more accessible to you.” If you always go to this place of grief or panic, then you don't have a fluidity in your system that helps your emotions work as a team and as an ecosystem. Instead, you have a couple of emotions that are very strong and a bunch that are repressed.
Chris: And that's what you talk about in your book -- about coming back to the center of the village within you and grounding your intelligence, air/vision aspects, or your physical/earth-grounding aspects, or, sorry, your fiery-vision or airy-intelligence or watery emotions so that you can have this balance and not that just domination by certain aspects of your insights.
Karla: Yes, yes. To create this really rich place full of jewels. Everything is there, and everything is welcome. And you have skills for all of it. Yes. And I think for a lot of people, their skills around emotions are, “Calm down, down-regulate, watch the emotion go by, phew, missed that one.” And mine is more, “Yeah, calm down and down-regulate. Now what does the emotion want? Let's go, let's dance. Let's have an empathic experience with this emotion.”
Chris: Beautiful. Thank you. So within that context, I would like to direct some of our audience questions coming in.
One that came in a little while back that may dovetail with what's just been said is this question that comes from Theresa and reads, “Current world events are resulting in a seemingly never-ending anxiety in me. What are suggestions for handling consistent anxiety?”
Karla: Thank you. That is a really good question.
Protecting your little bunny organism is really important at a time like this when so much is coming at us. And a lot of that is engineered, engineered to keep you unstable. So know that it's happening, and curate what is coming into your organism. Curate your media. Curate your social media and the television you are watching.
I know, we don't watch television anymore. But you know what I'm saying. 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 cannot eat or you need to sleep more.
This is an extremely intense time. It is important for you to understand your own bunny self and treat yourself as a kind of a little forest animal who doesn't need a lot of noise and screaming.
Another thing about the anxiety is, because we have lost our ability to plan even three months ahead of time -- at least here in the United States we do not have COVID handled in any way, shape, or form -- the anxiety, which likes to look out a year, five years … your five-year plan is done, right? Your year plan is very iffy. Even your three-month plan may be iffy. So bring anxiety in.
If you are making plans, do it for a week and see how that feels. Don't do what anxiety can't do, what no one can do right now. It is not your anxiety's fault. We are experiencing something that none of us alive has ever experienced before here in the United States. Do not expect to have skills with it. It is 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?” Bring it in.
Chris: Thank you. This makes me curious about curiosity, actually, and maybe that will dovetail with our next question from Pam which reads, “Love Karla's perspective and work! As a teacher, special education and elementary education, I'm wondering how we get this critical emotional education where it needs to be -- with our children. Sure, it's important for adults to develop tools. However, wouldn't it be easier if we learn it side by side as we grow from infancy. I would love to be involved in this sort of initiative but don't know how to begin.”
Karla: Thank you. There is a lovely project called … is it called The Empathy Project? … where they bring babies into the school room? It started in Canada and teaches kids empathy and how to read emotions on a baby. That can really help. And you know, babies have so many emotions and you are like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. You have to be quick.
And on my website I have a free emotion tracker for kids. It is a spreadsheet of what the emotions are. And the kids write down, "On Monday I felt this, on Tuesday ... " And then there is a second page that talks about what emotions do and a section that asks kids, "How could you help your emotion?" That might help.
I wrote an emotion book for kids, but it is so different that publishers cannot see it. I am still trying with this book. It is an awesome book, but it is not like a regular book and publishing is a very difficult business. If they haven't seen it before, they have a very hard time picking it up. But, I am moving forward with this children's book. It's awesome.
For right now that free emotion chart for kids is on the site, and you can download it and use it with your kids. A lot of people are using it, and kids are really taking to it. Kids haven't had the bad training that adults have. What we find is that in a household, the kids will become the emotion experts pretty quickly while the adults are like, "What's an emotion?" The kid is like, “Well, obviously you're feeling this.” So it can give them really a sense of agency and like they’re “cool.” Which, of course, they are.
Chris: A comment came in while you were speaking, Karla. Roots of Empathy. [the referenced Canadian project]
Karla: Roots of Empathy. Thank you.
Chris: We have a bunch more questions coming in, and I am trying to see if I can combine some. Let's start with this one because there are two that I think are similar. One reads, "When you have two sides hating each other, as in our national political life right now, how does one side or one person transform the dynamic, especially if it's not currently the ‘winning’ side?” And a related question reads, "I'm having a hard time controlling my anger toward Trump supporters. How can I keep from feeling anger and panic towards them?"
Karla: Those are really good questions. I have been writing a lot of posts on my Facebook page about how propaganda works. It works by accessing emotions that people don't know how to work with, and so those emotions are open for hunting season.
When I look at what's going on with anybody following a strongman leader right now -- it's not just happening in the United States -- what they are 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 are acting in such a way as to victimize others, I see them as … I didn't say this before, but 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 [snaps fingers]. 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 people, have an off ramp from any kind of cultic group.
I wrote a book about cults. I am a cult researcher. There is nothing about the Trump presidency that isn’t a cult. It is cultic, and people are trapped there. So see them and bring some compassion toward those people remembering that they are in incredible pain. There is a racist rage, a racist grief that Trump and other leaders throughout the world are preying on and using for their own ends. I don't want to pity these people because they still have good minds. They are still humans, but they are trapped. And so just know that your rage and your hatred actually increase the cohesion of their group.
If you want to help -- this is a secret -- go to sadness and grief. They are already feeling it. And if you can 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. But to go and say, “How can you believe in Trump or Boris Johnson or whomever?” Try saying, "I'm really concerned about what I see in the party or about Brexit. I'm really concerned about this. And it makes me feel afraid, and it makes me feel just ... I feel grief about it. What do you see?" You brought grief. You brought fear. You brought humanity. You are reaching across that chasm.
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. It is shadow work. It is grief work. I do not see it happening. There are a couple of places where it's happening, but it's not large scale.
Chris: Is it worth naming some places where it is happening? I know you are running a grief group right now.
Karla: I keep getting grief rituals.
Chris: Yes, a check for some signs of encouragement and hope.
Karla: Yes. I belong to a group. It's called “Coming to the Table.” It was created by a white woman and a black woman who had the same last name, and then they realized why. So it is white people and descendants of enslaved people coming together, coming to the table to talk about these things.
I also just took a course by Dr. David Campt called “Empathy is your Super Power: How white people can talk to white racists.” Although we are all racists, how we can talk. Instead of having people of color having to do these difficult conversations, have white people hold these difficult conversations. It was very interesting.
I am also doing some work putting together a course called the “Emotional Work of Antiracism” which is looking at what natural and normal emotions arise when people are victims of racism or when people are perpetrators of racism. The objective is to see how we can reframe those emotions to help people understand why they are there and how to work with them instead of just becoming a victim to their own emotional inability.
Chris: Thank you. Karla, we have a rich array of questions coming in. I am going to try to weave a little bit of a web here.
There is a question that dovetailed with some of what you were describing about slowing down and tapping into that sadness and grief. It is, “What about folks who feel numb, immobilized, and don't really have a lot of access to that?”
And then you mentioned a bit of your history that I would love to go back to. And then regarding racism, a question came up about classism. So history and classism if we can get to it.
But this “numbness” piece seems very fundamental. How do you even access your feelings if you are numbed?
Karla: On Facebook and other social media we are all being targeted psychologically by the ads that we are seeing. But one of the differences is that on the right, the emotional targeting is trying to engage people's hatred and rage and schadenfreude and joy in belonging and being American -- like a fierce joy. On the left, the emotional manipulation is to get people to feel depressed, overwhelmed, and as if there is no solution.
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 is 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.
If you find yourself feeling hopeless, there is a reason to feel hopeless and there is a reason to feel hope. But if you cannot do both, curate because that is the intention of a lot of this. I mean some of it is from Russia. Some of it is from here. We are being played with. And if we do not know our emotions, it is not good.
Chris: So there is some internal work of just getting to know yourself and your emotions. Then there is a really important external piece that can be missed -- curating your daily intakes in your environment and what you are exposing yourself to messaging-wise.
Karla: Yes. If you are on the left and feeling hopeless, find groups and people who are still hoping if you are feeling hopeless. Curate that and find people who are still hoping and dreaming. And on the right, find the people who are grieving and letting go of that level of social control and who do not want to be in hatred. Find the people who are still able to function within this environment.
Chris: Thank you, Karla. We just met yesterday on the pre-call, so it may be too early to move to a more challenging type of question. But I feel moved to offer this.
We have a question coming in about shadow work around classism. We had a guest speaker a few months back, maybe earlier in this year. John Powell talked about the origin story of racism in this country. As you said, racism is so intertwined together with classism. It is sort of used as a wedge to maintain an elitist sort of dominant class.
Do you have some internal work around that awareness, self-awareness? And is this something you think about for external work in terms of bringing light to this sort of shadow classism that may be in each of us, especially those who benefit from white privilege and other forms of privilege positionality in this culture? I am curious about your thoughts there.
Karla: I am reading a book by Isabel Wilkerson called Caste. It is not just class, but caste, here in the United States. She talks about Martin Luther King going to India. There are celebrations and state dinners and everybody is just ... Martin Luther King is like, "This is awesome."
Then someone introduces him as a person from the untouchable caste in the United States, and he is just taken aback. He knows what Untouchables are. They are the lowest caste in India. India is aggressively caste-based. And then he sits and thinks about it. And he realizes, “Oh, we are. We are the Untouchables. And we are that lowest caste in the United States.” And it is not based on how you were born as it is in India. Everyone in the Dalit class looks like everybody in the Brahmin caste. There is no difference between them in terms of skin tone. But here in the United States, the caste the Untouchables, are the African Americans. And that has been really amazing to read.
I am in the middle of this book, so I don't have the answers yet. And I don't know if Isabel does either. But to look at it as an intentionally engineered caste and racist system here in the United States has been really powerful.
I wrote a post called, “How to be a Privilege Traitor.” One of things that really concerns me about talk about privilege is that they are not looking at it in the sociological sense which is, if you are aware of your privilege it is not privilege anymore. Privilege is structural, and you are not supposed to be aware of it. When people say, "Check your privilege," I'm like, “Okay, you don't even know what you're talking about at this point.”
You can’t check your privilege. Privilege is something that is unearned. And it is built into the system, not into the people. If you have privilege, people are like, "You need to lose your privilege. You need to give it away." And I say, "I can't. I can't take my skin off." But you can become a privilege traitor and you can say, "What privilege do I have?" and then become a traitor to that class. [laughter]
People get upset about the word traitor, yes. To say, “If I have white privilege then I'm going to center nonwhite voices. And if I have lady privilege, I'm going to center male voices. And if I have educated privilege, then I am going to work with uneducated people. And if I have, you know, whatever privilege I have, then I'm going to be a traitor to that class and I'm going to open up to whatever I can do as an individual.” But I cannot give it away. I can just be a traitor.
Chris: You are saying there is a level of agency to uncover there. And once it is uncovered, then that opens up a realm of action that is inaccessible if it is more at this subconscious, unaware level.
Karla: Yes. My sister and I are talking about creating a group called “Karen's for Social Justice” [laughter] because we are both “Karens,” right? We are white lady “Karens.” And we are thinking our motto would be, “We want to talk to your manager about equality.” We can use our “Karen” power for good instead of just being another horrible white lady who is being a racist.
Chris: It does make me curious about the shadow work in this realm that may be yet unnamed. It is a very curious bookmark.
I want to get to a couple more questions, Karla, if we can. We have some more coming in.
First I would like to circle back to what you mentioned about growing up in a cult as well as another shift that was fascinating to some of us organizing this call and to some of our listeners, too, perhaps if they are aware of this. You chose a big shift in -- was it around 2003? -- after having worked more in the paranormal world. I am sorry if I don't know all the terms, accurately.
Karla: They change.
Chris: Yes. More of the metaphysical, perhaps, and then pursuing more degrees yourself and just shifting to a more scientifically-grounded -- if it is fair to characterize it that way -- approach. I wonder if you could just share with us a bit of that.
I think in your letter I read on your website you call it a “second act.” I can only imagine the emotions that drive such a monumental shift, like courage which Andrew mentioned earlier and many others I’m sure. But yes. Is there something essential you would like to share about that here? It seems very unique.
Karla: It is such a long story, but because I was in a New Age cult growing up, that was my frame of reference. That was what I understood. It was like dead people can talk to you, spirits, reincarnation, auras, chakras, that kind of thing. The New Age.
That is how I started my career, and that was my understanding. I was working with emotions at that time which was very strange because in the New Age of that time, and I think still today, emotions are very much in the shadow. Emotions were lower vibrational, whatever. And spirit was the best. And the mind was, you know, the monkey mind. It was, “You cannot trust the intellect.” But the emotions were usually held out for particular scorn.
And I watched in the emotionless groups that I was in, and I thought, “Wow! This is a terrible idea.” 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. And without any awareness of emotions, the emotions went wild. And people would just savage each other, but in a loving way. And there was so much passive aggression in the New Age circles I was in and just absurd levels of emotional incompetence.
And so that is when I first began to see the importance of the emotions. It was really important that I was there, but I questioned both the relevance and the ethics of that entire world. And for me, I had to get out because I could not grow as an intellectual person within that realm. And I couldn't question what was going on because everything was written. It was written so you could not question it. And it just did not work for me, and I saw the damage being done to people within it. So I did a murder suicide on my career. I just killed everything. I took every book I had out of print, and I went away and went back to school to see what had happened to me.
And just luckily I met the internationally famous cult researcher Janja Lalich, and she and I began writing together and talking. And she helped me see that I had been in a cult. I was like, “Oh, I didn't know.” [laughter] But, yeah, it was just a really wonderful experience of … I mean, it was horrifying. At the time I said I would have had to cheer up to be merely despairing, and I would have had to calm down to be merely enraged. I was just full of emotion. How could I have done this? And I was in so much shame for having passed along information that I now knew to be very suspect.
Chris: Thank you for naming that.
I feel some anxiety and shame in the flow, like a one- or two-level sense, of knowing that we are approaching the end of our time. That is a sacred story, and I feel bad for inviting you to touch on that in two minutes. [laughter] But, actually, I will again engage the edge of my shame boundary and ask if you have a few extra minutes to cover two last questions. And if not, we can wrap up now.
Karla: Sure. Let's do it.
Chris: Okay. I'll keep grounding as I go over time here.
Karla: [laughter] We are in Kairos time now. Kairos is a time of ritual. So we are here.
Chris: Yes. So I invite you to speak to it however it feels honorable. This question from a doctor reads, "You spoke about down-regulating emotions. I work with many patients who, in an effort to down-regulate emotions, have actually been suppressing them. Can you illuminate for us how you support people to down-regulate as opposed to suppress when suppression/detachment has been a long, conditioned pattern?”
Karla: That is an excellent question. When I talked about down-regulating, I was imprecise. What I am doing is down-regulating my activation in regard to the emotion. A lot of people will have an emotion pile-up when they have an emotion. I feel anxiety; I know it's a negative emotion. Now I'm going to feel some shame. Now I'm going to feel some fear. Now I'm feeling some anger. And so now they have 95 emotions, and there are only 17.
What we do with grounding is just to help people 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, now you can step back a little bit. Right.” And that sort of thing. So it is not down-regulating the emotion but down-regulating our reaction to the emotion. We can just be with the emotion itself and then eventually get back to anxiety. “What do I need to do? What tasks are undone? What deadlines are coming up?” Each emotion has its own practice and its own question. So the down-regulating is just so you realize, “Oh yes, 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 organization.
You will do that through the practice for the emotion rather than trying to get the emotion down to this … what would you call it? … manageable state. I think they are always manageable. There is a manageable place. So yes, that concept of down-regulating emotion? I have to be more careful when I talk about that. I mean down-regulating your reaction, so you are not just freaking out when an emotion arises and you no longer have your wits about you.
Yes. Thank you. That was a really good question.
Chris: Thank you. It also circles back to bits of that somatic piece that Andrew invoked earlier. Just be in the present moment.
Thank you so much, Karla, for staying on with us into Kairos time. There is one last question I get to ask as the host. And first, I just want to share this brief last comment that came in. It reads, "This whole conversation is balm to my spirit. My sincere gratitude."
Karla: Thank you.
Chris: The final question for you, Karla. You know that Awakin calls are part of this larger ecosystem called ServiceSpace which is a global ecosystem committed to voluntary service, fostering a compassionate society, changing the world by changing ourselves. What can we, as a larger service-based community, do to support the work that you are engaged in out in the world?
Karla: Download the free emotional vocabulary list, and 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.
Chris: Thank you so much.
Karla: Thank you.
Chris: We like to end, as we began, with a moment of silence before we say goodbye. And this time holding the gratitude for all the fruits of the hard work you have engaged in Karla, that you have shared. And for all the unnameable phenomena that brought us together on this day. Thank you all.
Thank you for listening to a recording of Awakin calls. To access archives, visit us at www.awakin.org and to get more involved, volunteer at www.servicespace.org.
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