Karla McLaren’s Blog

Listen Up!

April 7, 2010

Presenting the amazing Fairfield Four! They’ve been together for decades, and their blend is effortless. They’ve also got Isaac Freeman, who’s one of the best bass singers who ever lived. Watch the audience (a gathering of Southern Gospel singers) in the background; they’re so excited that it’s infectious!

If you ever get the chance to sing a cappella harmonies with other people, take it, because harmony singing is one of the best ways to be with people that exists. Singing is good for your heart, your brain, your mood, your lungs, and your emotions!

I grew up in a musical family and learned harmonizing as a toddler. When I was 13, I was in an a cappella quartet with my sister Jennifer and our friends Lisa Kleinberg and Becky Wilson. We sang Boswell Sisters, Andrews Sisters, Manhattan Transfer, Black gospel, doo wop, and girl group stuff. I arranged my first song for the four of us (it was a four-part version of Chains by the Cookies).

I still teach a cappella singing, and I still arrange harmonies, but right now, I don’t have a group, so I keep my ear sharp by listening to the greats. The Fairfield Four has been around for over 80 years, and no matter how many singers come and go, they’ve always got a tight, emotive, rhythmic, and gorgeous sound.

The Gifts of Contentment

April 5, 2010

Cover of The Language of Emotions

It’s clear that many of us avoid the so-called “difficult” emotions, such as sadness or anger, and that in so doing, we also inadvertently avoid the gifts and strengths they bring. Though it is very unfortunate, it makes sense that we avoid these emotions, because they’ve gotten such terrible press.

However, I’ve been interested to see that many of us also avoid the so-called “positive” emotions as well. We denigrate happy people by calling them slaphappy, or blissful fools, and sadly, we lose touch with the gifts of the happiness-based emotions (I simplify them into happiness, contentment, and joy, but you can also add laughter, bliss, gaiety, exuberance, and so on).

When I look at people’s relationship to their own contentment, I look to their work ethic first. I find that people who prefer to keep working rather than celebrating their achievements; who get slowed down by perfectionism; who tend to avoid activities that are too challenging; and who believe that talent is bestowed upon others (but not them) have difficulty expressing their own contentment.

The Gifts of Contentment: Pleasure & Appreciation
Satisfaction ~ Self Esteem ~ Enjoyment ~ Renewal ~ Fulfillment

Contentment is an emotion that comes forward to celebrate your behavior, your achievements, and your willingness to challenge yourself. Many of us don’t welcome contentment because we’ve been told that it’s vain or pompous to think well of ourselves. This is a problem, because contentment actually gives us the permission and courage to be truly ourselves and strive for difficult goals. If we don’t welcome our contentment, it’s very hard to appreciate ourselves, our possessions, or our achievements.

Contentment is related to happiness, but the two emotions are different from one another. Happiness tends to anticipate a bright future, while contentment tends to arise after an inner achievement. Contentment arises when you’re living up to your own expectations and your internal moral code, and when you’ve accomplished an important goal or done your work well and properly. Contentment comes forward in response to your tangible actions and mastery of clear-cut challenges. Contentment also arises when you’ve successfully navigated through your difficult emotions – especially your angers, hatreds, and shames. When you’ve restored your boundaries, honored the boundaries of others, and corrected your actions or made amends, your contentment will come forward to confirm and validate your excellent behavior. Authentic contentment arises reliably when you respect yourself and others, and when you respect your emotions and allow them to guide your behavior.

Social structures often interfere with your authentic contentment by trying to replace or usurp your internal confirmations with prizes and praise that come from the external world. While it’s very nice to receive gold stars, awards, extra privileges, and special attention, these fabricated confirmations can actually short-circuit your own ability to feel honest pride or self-worth unless someone throws a party every time you accomplish something. External praise also contains a troublesome aspect that’s not a part of internal contentment – and that’s competition. All external praise and awards come with built-in comparisons that place you in a rivalry with others. Though the awards and praise may have their own value, they tend to isolate you from your peers and identify you as a competitor or a pleaser, which will often bring your natural shame forward to question the “fun” of winning. In natural contentment, there is no shame, because your achievements aren’t about doing better than others, but about honoring your own good judgment, good work, and personal values.

If you cannot connect with your natural contentment, you may have a short-circuit that was created by authoritarian, scholastic, or parental structures. This short-circuit can take two forms: the first form may lead you to seek praise and awards instead of your own internal confirmations. This often means you’ll tend toward pleasing and perfectionism instead of wholeness and emotional agility. You’ll tend toward following this rule, chasing that award, and constantly measuring yourself against external expectations (or fighting the awards and losing your drive), instead of allowing your honest emotional reactions to guide you.

The second form of short-circuit may lead you to avoid contentment because you don’t want to be in competition with anyone; you don’t want to play. You just want to work unheralded, and yet you may quietly long for praise, or confirmation (or watch dumbfounded as less talented people are promoted or lauded). In either case, it’s time to reintroduce yourself to your healthy, authentic contentment once again. Then, you can guide, correct, and validate yourself in self-respecting ways rather than relying on (or totally avoiding) external validation.

Photo of contented frog

The practice for all of the happiness-based emotions is extremely simple and infinitely hard (at first): You acknowledge them, thank them, and then let them go completely. If you try to force your contentment to be your leading emotional state (or if you try to live without it completely) you’ll lose your way in a split-second. Real, honest contentment arises naturally when you work with all of your emotions in healing and honorable ways. Welcome your contentment with open arms when it arises, thank it, and congratulate yourself (The internal statement for contentment is “Thank you for renewing my faith in myself!”) – then let it go and know it will come back the next time you honor yourself and behave in ways that make you feel proud.

When your contentment arises, your job is to celebrate your excellent fortune and skills – and then let it go so that you can move on to your next challenge.

Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

April 2, 2010

The United Nations has declared today World Autism Awareness Day. Excellent!

I had the opportunity to work with a group of young adults on the Autism Spectrum, and in order to get ready, I read everything I could get my hands on. Autism has been described as a form of “mind-blindness” by British psychopathology professor and researcher Simon Baron-Cohen … as a lack of function in the mirror neurons that help us empathize with each other. I thought, huh, will I be meeting people who are on the other end of the spectrum from me?

As it turns out, Autism isn’t that simple, and I didn’t find complete mind-blindness in my autistic friends. Rather, what I saw was a group of people who were dealing with incredible sensory stimulation, both from the outside world, and from their own brains. This often created a great deal of emotional turmoil, as you can imagine, but because there were so many communication and socialization challenges, it was hard for my friends to deal with their often intense emotions. Some would completely withdraw, some would engage in “stimming,” which is a repetitive action that brings some sense of peace and control, and others would sometimes lash out.

It is also not a concrete condition, which is why it is referred to as a spectrum condition. There are many possible versions of it, and each person on the Autism Spectrum is an individual, just as we (who are called neurotypicals) are. I love the term neurotypical. It makes us sound boring, which we often are!

I heard some of the parents of my friends use the word neurotypical as a kind of slam, “A neurotypical wouldn’t ignore a direct question, so wake up!” Ouch! I began to talk about neurotypicals in joking ways around my friends, “Oh, how tedious and neurotypical you are!” It was a good laugh getter.

If you’ve got an Autistic person in your life, celebrate them today (in a quiet way so you don’t overwhelm their ears!). It’s tough to be surrounded by tedious neurotypicals who don’t even realize that the whole world is engineered for their comfort.

Cover for Unwritten RulesI just finished a book called Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Sean Barron and Dr. Temple Grandin. It’s a fascinating look at two individuals who are on very different places in the Spectrum. Interestingly, Sean Barron, is a male whose inner experience of Autism was extremely emotional, while Temple Grandin is a female whose inner experience was and is primarily unemotional.

I found myself arguing with Temple as I read, because she’s holding on very tightly to the old “emotional versus rational” idea that isn’t supported by current neurological research. We can’t be rational without our emotions; but I understand her struggle to overcome an emotional functioning that was overwhelming and totally not helpful to her. It’s nice to have Sean’s more emotional perspective to balance the book and the portrayal of what people on the Spectrum deal with emotionally and psychologically.

It’s a great book to read if you want to understand more about the Autism Spectrum, and more about how we neurotypicals intuitively understand social rules even though we weren’t directly taught about most of them. Here’s the rub: We understand these rules because they were created by us, for our kind of minds … it’s not because our social functioning is objectively correct or better than any other way. This is a good book for opening the mind and discovering yet another “reality” (social rules and social functioning) that is merely socially created!

The Gifts of Sadness

March 31, 2010

Here’s a simple exercise to help relieve tension and stress.

Breathe in deeply until you feel a bit of tension in your chest and ribcage, and hold your breath for a count of three. (Don’t create too much tension. If you’re uncomfortable, let some air out before you hold your breath.)

As you breathe out, let your body go limp, relax your chest and shoulders, and feel the tension leaving your body. Let your arms hang loosely, relax your muscles, and let go.

Breathe in deeply again until you feel a slight tension, hold your breath for a count of three, and this time, sigh audibly as you exhale and relax your body. If you feel relaxed and a bit less tense, thank the emotion that helped you. Thank your sadness!

Sadness is a wonderful emotion that helps us let go of things that aren’t working for us … such as tension, muscle tightness, anxiety, and what I call “soldiering on” behaviors. I call sadness The Water Bearer because it brings a kind of fluidity to a tight, tense, and arid body. Sadness is a gorgeous emotion that bring us the irreplaceable gift of letting go.

Photo of water

However, sadness really isn’t welcome in our emotional or social worlds, so most of us tend to soldier on without the relief of sadness. We run our lives with our intensity, our tension, our plans and schemes, and our sheer willpower, but we tend to ignore the need for simple relaxation … letting go, releasing things that aren’t working, and then being able to re-set our priorities in more self-respecting ways.

I have been interested to see the ways that we’ve all socially created a sadness-free world. Relaxation has become compartmentalized, to the extent that we relax on weekends and during vacations, but very rarely during the workday, at school, or in front of other people. Relaxation and deep breathing have also become professionalized, such that we pay masseuses, yoga teachers, and alternative practitioners of all stripes to help us breathe deeply, relax, and let go.

Notice, too, the ways that we disrespect sad people: Gloomy Gus, Crybaby, Weakling, Boys don’t cry, Big girls don’t cry, There’s no use crying over spilled milk, Stop your sniveling, and so on. I know I’m not the only person who has felt that crying in public would be a very dangerous thing, because it can cause us to lose face in our emotionally-stunted world. The message is clear: Crying is not okay, and sadness is something to avoid.

Photo of sad bunny

And what a sad, tense world we’ve created because we refuse to honor the gifts of sadness. Without our sadness, we can’t relax, we can’t release our tension in healthy ways, we can’t cry and restore fluidity to our arid psyches, and we can’t let go of things that need to move on.

Without our sadness, tension piles up, unsaid words pile up, muscle tightness adds up, things we don’t need pile up, ideas we don’t believe any longer pile up, relationships that we no longer want or need pile up, and we find ourselves crowded out of our real lives by a bunch of unnecessary debris. When we don’t allow our sadness to do its proper work, we lose a great deal of our liveliness and flow.

So let’s welcome sadness to our lives by remembering to breathe deeply and let the tension go. The questions for sadness are What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated? Many of us, because we’ve had such poor socialization around sadness, think that sadness is only about loss. It’s not. Sadness is also about restoring flow, ease, and relaxation … because when you finally let go of things that just don’t work, you’ll suddenly have room for things that do.

Next time you feel sadness, see if you can breathe in deeply and let go of tension as you exhale. Let your body help you work with your sadness. And the next time you feel like crying (but you can’t because other people are around), observe your reaction. Most of us tense up and get very tight and arid when it’s actually time to cry (this tension makes our inner situation worse, not better!). If it’s not socially safe to cry, see if you can’t at least relax a bit, breathe deeply, and let your body have a felt sense of letting go. It won’t be as healing as a good cry, but it’s better than crushing your sadness under the weight of everything you’ve been holding on to.

Welcome your sadness, and if you have the chance, welcome sadness in other people as well. You have the power to change social rules about emotions, at least in your area of influence, so go you!

How much emotion is too much?

March 26, 2010

When I talk about The Language of Emotions, one of the central things I try to get across is that all emotions are useful. If you can approach them with care and ask them the right questions, there aren’t any “bad” emotions. They all have specific things to say and they’re all instructive. In most cases, you can listen to and work with your emotions on your own

However, there are times when you’ll need assistance with your emotions. The way to tell when you need help is simple, because in their healthy state, emotions will respond to you and will move on happily when you’ve listened to their message. If you’ve got an emotion that repeats continually and will not resolve itself (like depression, fear, or anger), that’s a sign that you could use some intervention.

As I say in the book, the problem isn’t the emotion itself. Depression, fear, and anger have very important jobs within the psyche; you need them. But if something chemical, psychological, or neurological is impeding or inflating those emotions, you can easily tumble into confusion, exhaustion, and disorder. So it’s very important that you reach out. Don’t tough it out.

Here’s why: Emotions are very powerful, and their nature is to move quickly, address an issue succinctly and powerfully, and then move on. Your job as the owner and friend of your emotions is to maintain an inner life that makes room for your emotions to do their work. For instance, let’s look at anger:

When someone tries to disrespect you, your anger will come forward to protect your boundaries honorably. With that anger, you can set the person straight (or laugh, or raise your eyebrows, or deepen your voice, or any of a hundred non-violent but self-strengthening and boundary-setting options), and then your anger will recede and your boundary will be reset. Bing. It’s done. No one gets hurt.

Photo of mad pup

If you and your anger don’t have a good relationship, or you don’t know that anger is the correct emotion for the situation, you might try to ignore it and be polite or weakened around the disrespecting person. You might laugh nervously or your face might redden, and the person will have gotten away with something wrong. That anger will still be there, but you won’t have used it properly, so it will linger. You might second-guess yourself or replay the incident all day. You might think of a hundred things you “should have said.” And you’ll probably now have to deal with an influx of shame (anger at yourself), because you failed to utilize your anger when it was necessary. Doh!

In this instance, this problem with repetitive anger is one you created yourself, not because you’re clueless, but because most of us aren’t taught what anger is for. You can get help with this from a friend or counselor who can help you become more assertive, or you can just start to ask your anger when it arises: “What must be protected? What must be restored?” If you ask your anger these questions, it will give you many honorable options. The trick is to remember that you’re not allowed to break the boundaries of your opponent. You both should be protected by healthy anger, and you both should be restored. Anger is the Honorable Sentry.

If you ignore your anger, you’re teaching the other person to become less skilled, less socially aware, and less valuable in the social world. You’re not doing them any favors; you’re actually dishonoring them. Welcome your anger and let it help you create and define an honorable and healthy sense of self … for everyone.

Now let’s say you feel anger all the time. Politics inflame you, advertising inflames you, other people’s behavior inflames you, and you lash out at people without meaning to. This is a time when you’ve got too much of one emotion, and this is not healthy for you, your brain, or your endocrine system (not to mention your heart!). There’s work you can do on your own, such as asking yourself why you are so completely boundary-impaired that absolutely everything gets to you? However, you’ll also need some help from a counselor or your doctor, because repetitive anger that never resolves is simply not good for you.

It’s not the anger itself that isn’t good for you, because you can get into a repetitive state with any number of emotions (like depression, fear, or sadness), and they’ll destabilize you as well. The problem is that your anger is stuck in a feedback loop that needs to be resolved so that your anger can get back to its regular work! You need your honor and your boundaries back, and your healthy anger will help you do that. But you’ve got to get this feedback problem dealt with.

So the answer to the question How much emotion is too much? is the same for any of the emotions: If the emotion appears constantly or repetitively, and you can’t get it to resolve, that’s too much. That emotion is out of balance, and you need to attend to it so that your emotional realm can get back to its regular work!

Because emotions are so powerful, a repetitive state can throw your chemistry out of balance, so attending to it may require therapy, antidepressants (in cases of repetitive rage, anxiety, or depression), anti-anxiety meds, or a change in your your diet guide and exercise routines (regular exercise is excellent for your emotional health), so that your body can come back to balance. Emotionally-exhausted bodies also tend to do well on a simple diet with less sugar and caffeine, and fewer processed foods.

You can also study the emotion that got out of balance in your psyche, and wow, it will tell you amazing things about yourself, your family, and the world around you. But first, take care of yourself and get any repetitive emotion back into balance within your entire emotional realm. Emotions are amazingly deep and powerful things, but if they’re out of balance, they can be too much!

Are men less able to feel emotions?

March 24, 2010

The short answer is, no, men are not less able to feel emotions. Men may even feel emotions more intensely than women do, because they’ve been socialized to view themselves as unemotional, and may feel that their emotions are somehow strange or out of place. Also, in general, men are not socially permitted to express emotions or chat with friends about them as women are able to do, which leaves them few outlets for their emotions. In our social training and our social myth-making, we’ve created a pretty rotten situation for most men!

Wow, I’m reading the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain by neuroscience professor Lise Eliot, Ph.D., and in it, she writes that the differences between the brains of males and females are actually quite small at birth and throughout childhood. The old saw about men being less emotional or less able to feel emotions is not true. The old saw about men having smaller corpus callosums than women (the corpus callosum carries information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain), Dr. Eliot shows, was based on a study of just 14 brains, and has since been disconfirmed. But people hold onto this falsehood, and repeat it constantly, and write books and make whole careers around it, while men suffer silently with the emotions they clearly feel, but aren’t allowed to understand.

Cover for Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Dr. Eliot notes that there is some difference in verbal ability (girls are sometimes more verbal, but not always), and some difference in activity level (boys are sometimes more active, but not always) but not so much as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, there is more difference between girls in these traits, and between boys in these traits, than there is between the sexes. Wow.

Dr. Eliot also shows that the old information about girls being less able to read maps or do math has also been disconfirmed, many times. Sadly, that myth also stays in the culture as people repeat it over and over again, and provide less math education to girls. So the biological truth about boys and girls is ignored, while myths, prejudices, and socialization mold little brains into stereotypes. Ouch!

In sociology, one central focus of study is to discover what is socially created, and what is genetically, biologically, or objectively true. Race, for instance, is socially created. It is not true biologically. So even though race means nothing in the natural world, it means everything in the American cultural world, and it actually creates a class system. However, if you go to another culture, you may find that race is unimportant, while skin lightness, regardless of race, is the key to class distinctions.

What Dr. Eliot is showing us is that many of our ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness are socially created. They’re not biologically or objectively true. And because so few people understand the difference between objective reality and socially-constructed reality, the myths and falsehoods gain the status of truth.

So little girls are permitted to say they hate math, and little boys are permitted to stop crying at a certain age, even when they’ve been hurt deeply. Boys are told to “man up,” stop crying, there’s nothing to be afraid of, stop being “girly,” stop talking about feelings, and basically, stop being fully alive.

What’s very interesting to me is that men throughout the ages have found a way around this prejudice and stereotyping. In The Language of Emotions, I place the emotional, empathic realm into the element of water, which includes emotions, art, music, literature, and dance. And for a long time in our European history, women weren’t allowed into the art world. Hah! Men found a way to work with, express, study, and understand empathy and emotions, the sweeties.

And though it was prejudicial to keep women out of the art world, it is sort of adorable that men created a guys-only playhouse where they could make themselves whole without women telling them they couldn’t feel, understand, or express emotions properly. Yay men!

So the next time you’re tempted to belittle (or coddle) men about their empathy or their emotional skills, or belittle (or coddle) women about their map-reading or math skills, step back. If you make room for wholeness in other people, they’ll almost always rise to the occasion. Socially-created “reality” can only hurt us if we don’t challenge it.

Let’s all make room for talkative, emotionally-aware men and active, scientifically-aware women. Let’s sing a song, build a fort, talk about emotions, and map our way to a better, truer world while we solve the quadratic equation together and laugh about the obvious social cues people think they’re hiding!

Hello CD set The Language of Emotions!

March 22, 2010

Well, the CD-making elves have been doing their magic, because the audio learning set of The Language of Emotions is available now! Hello! Welcome to the new world!

Cover of CD set Language of Emotions

CD Set, 7 hrs, 20 min. ISBN: 978-1-59179-773-9

You can order it now!

There are many purchasing options, depending on your preferences. You can purchase this set at Barnes & Noble, at Amazon, or at a fabulous discount directly from Sounds True. At Sounds True, you also have the option of purchasing this set as a digital download!

This set has come out early, as its release date was supposed to be May 1st. The release date for the book is June 1st, but I wonder if the elves will surprise us with that one, too? I’ll keep you updated!

The Gifts of Anger

March 19, 2010

Photo of angry-looking puppy

One of my friends asked me, “Why are you writing a book about the emotions? I hate emotions! They ruin everything! They’re the worst!” I think she thought I would disagree, but she’s right! In many people’s hands, emotions can be some of the ugliest things you’ll ever see.

Sometimes, I’ll see someone using anger or shame to tear someone apart, and I’ll think, “Hey, give me those emotions! That’s perfectly good energy you’re throwing away! You don’t use anger to tear people apart! Anger is about protection and honorable boundaries! What in the hell are you doing with it? You’re ruining it for everybody!”

We’ve all been on the wrong end of someone’s anger, and we’ve all used anger as a bludgeon or sarcasm as a stiletto. In fact, when most of us think of anger, we see a red-faced bull or something like it (I’m hoping this puppy will become the new anger mascot!).

But here’s something interesting: People can also have a great deal of trouble in their lives if they don’t have enough anger. For instance, do any of these questions ring true?

I often agree to do things I really don’t want to do
I often feel disrespected at work or in my relationships
I often have trouble speaking up for myself
I tend to isolate myself from others because I’m so sensitive
I sometimes think I take care of others better than I take care of myself

I think most of us have experienced these issues, and perhaps we’ve thought of ourselves as pushovers, weaklings, or too sensitive, but what we really are in these situations is anger-impaired. Anger contains a great deal of focused, protective energy, and when we don’t have enough of it, we struggle to set boundaries and protect ourselves in relationships. Without our healthy anger, we can lose our vitality and our capacity to react and respond in resilient ways.

But when we’re using too much anger, we’ve got so much energy that we’re like loose cannons with revolving knife attachments that breathe fire. With too much anger, we set rigid boundaries and protect ourselves so fiercely that we make everyone’s lives miserable, including our own.

Here’s how I learned about the gifts of anger. As a fiery, intense little trauma survivor, I used anger throughout my childhood, primarily to keep people the hell away from me. My abuser was a very intense, rage-filled alcoholic who would careen between rage, manipulation, and weeping fits. Nice. In this cauldron of deeply disturbed emotional volatility, I got to see how his emotions worked and didn’t work, and I got to see a continual fireworks display of badly managed behavior.

My molester was not in my family, so I also got to see my parents and siblings deal with their own emotions. We’ve got a lot of smarts in our family, but we also have the all-too-common lack of emotional agility and awareness. So there was a lot of repressed emotion in my house. The arched eye. The unspoken words. The sarcasm that told the truth in passive-aggressive ways. The simmering undercurrent that was never brought out into the open. You know, a regular American family!

But the juxtapositions were so instructive for me, especially where anger was concerned. Too much, and you’re a danger to everyone. Too little, and you were endangered by everyone. So I worked to find the middle path between too much anger and not enough, and I found the gifts of anger!

The Gifts of Anger: The Honorable Sentry
Proper Boundaries ~ Honor ~ Conviction ~ Healthy Detachment ~ Protection for All

If I were to personify anger, I would describe it as a mix between a stalwart castle sentry and an ancient sage. Anger sets your boundaries by walking the perimeter of your soul and keeping an eye on you, the people around you, and your environment. If your boundaries are broken (through the insensitivity of others, or in any other way), anger comes forward to restore your sense of strength and separateness. The questions for anger are: “What must be protected?” and “What must be restored?” Both protection and restoration can occur quickly when you ask these questions. This gives you something immediate and honorable to do with your anger, and with its help, you can easily reset your boundaries and restore your sense of self. All by itself, this simple movement will address your anger and circumvent any need for internal or external violence – because you’ll be making the proper movement in response to your anger. This movement will allow you to speak and act from a position of strength, rather than from brutality or passivity, which is where so many people tend to go with their anger.

If you tend to repress your anger, you’ll be unable to restore your boundaries because you won’t have the strength and focus you need to protect yourself; therefore, further damage will inevitably follow the initial affront. Your anger exists to protect you honorably. If you repress it and refuse to respond to an insult or affront, it is as if your castle sentry is inviting attacks and letting people get away with vandalism.

However, if you choose to dishonorably express your anger at a person who offends against you, you will be dangerously unguarded – just as you would be if your castle sentry left his post and went out on a rampage. When your anger is used as a weapon and your territory is left without a sentry, your psyche will have to pour more anger into the situation. If you habitually express your anger, you’ll end up expressing this new infusion of anger as well, and you’ll break your boundaries (and the boundaries of others) even further. This is how escalating rages and furies get started – the problem doesn’t come from the essential energy of anger, but from the unskilled and dishonorable use of anger when it arises.

When your healthy anger flows freely, you won’t even know it’s there – it will simply help you maintain your boundaries, your inner convictions, and your healthy detachment. Free-flowing anger will allow you to laugh compassionately at yourself and set your boundaries mercifully – because both actions arise from the inner strength and honorable self-definition anger brings you. When your anger is not allowed its natural flow, you’ll have trouble setting and maintaining your boundaries, you’ll tend to dishonor or enmesh with others, and your self-image will be imperiled by your reliance on the capricious opinions of the outside world.

Cover of The Language of Emotions

Healthy anger sets your boundaries and helps you engage more effectively because it allows you to relate authentically and respectfully. When you have an awakened connection to your anger and a clear sense of your own boundaries, you’ll be able to honor boundaries and individuality in others; therefore, your relationships won’t be based on power struggles, projections, or enmeshment. However, if you don’t have access to your vital, boundary-defining anger, you‘ll be undifferentiated, certainly – but you’ll also be dangerous to the people around you. If you repress your anger, you’ll endanger others by creating passive and poorly defined boundaries that will lead you to enmesh yourself in their lives. And if you dishonorably express your anger, you’ll create imposing, fear-inducing boundaries that will degrade the stability of everyone around you. When you can instead channel this noble emotion properly, you’ll be able to maintain your boundaries – and protect the boundaries of others – with honor.

There is a saying from the Bassa tribe in West Africa: “If you are never angry, then you are unborn.”

It’s interesting how often we have to go outside of our culture to find positive words about anger!

Making the Right Moves?

March 18, 2010

I’ve been reading a lot of new research about how our posture, expressions, and physical movements can affect our mood, our memory, and even our ability to learn.

Photo of dramatic chipmunk

Probably not the best body position

Over at PsychCentral, some new data about movement and memory suggest that we can change our mood or our tendency to recall specific memories by changing our body movements. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“When people talk about positive and negative emotions they often use spatial metaphors. A happy person is on top of the world, but a sad person is down in the dumps.

Some researchers believe these metaphors are a clue to the way people understand emotions: not only do we use spatial words to talk about emotional states, we also use spatial concepts to think about them.

To test this link between vertical space and emotion, in a first experiment Casasanto and Dijkstra asked students to move glass marbles upward or downward into one of two cardboard boxes, with both hands simultaneously, timed by a metronome. Meanwhile, they had to recount autobiographical memories with either positive or negative emotional valence, like “Tell me about a time when you felt proud of yourself,’ or ‘a time when you felt ashamed of yourself.’”

When prompted to tell positive memories, participants began recounting their experiences faster during upward movements, but when prompted to tell negative memories they responded faster during downward movements. Memory retrieval was most efficient when participants’ motions matched the spatial directions that metaphors in language associate with positive and negative emotions.

The second experiment tested whether these seemingly meaningless motor actions could influence the content of people’s memories. Participants were given neutral-valence prompts, like “Tell me about something that happened during high school,” so they could choose to retell something happy or sad.

Their choices were determined, in part, by the direction in which they were assigned to move marbles. Moving marbles upward encouraged students to recount positive high school experiences like “winning an award,” but moving them downward to recall negative experiences like “failing a test.”

The study was published in the April issue of the journal Cognition.” (from PsychCentral)

Photo of happy cat

I’ve read other studies where sitting up straight, smiling, or moving in “positive” ways had a positive effect on memory, mood, and cognition. There is clearly a limit to the effect that posture and movement might have on a serious disorder like major depression or generalized anxiety, but since good posture and a smile are free, let’s try them and see!

Wouldn’t it be funny if our moms and grandmas were right all along? Sit up straight and let a smile be your umbrella? Heehee!

Five Year Overnight Success!

March 17, 2010

I just found out that a sociological study I co-authored with Janja Lalich, Ph.D. (see her books here) has been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal. Yow! It’s so exciting!

It’s a study of the lives of gay, lesbian, and questioning ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Janja first told me about the study, I laughed and thought, “Why not do a study on green-eyed male writers from the north-side of Chicago who don’t drink coffee?” The group seemed ludicrously specific, and I wondered what I could ever learn from studying them.

But as I delved into the life stories of these people, and coded and re-read their stories (nearly 700 times before I was finished), I realized that this group presented a pitch-perfect example of triple stigma — which is something that the great sociologist Erving Goffman had not completely considered in his classic 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Cover of the book Stigma

Goffman outlined a “three-fold typology of identity,” wherein he separated the social identity we present to the larger world (I am Dave the musician), the personal identity we present to family and peers (I am Dave the friend, husband, and family member), and the ego identity we present to ourselves as our inner, private, “backstage” selves (I am me, Dave, inside my private thoughts).

Goffman asserted that stigmatized people could create a repair station in their personal identity (think of deaf children whose families provide rich signing environments), or in their ego identity (for instance, in wheelchair-bound children who fantasize about flying or about a world where wheelchairs are normal). What I noticed in these gay, lesbian, and questioning Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they didn’t have any identity that could act as a repair station for them, and I wondered how they survived?

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have strong prohibitions against homosexuality, and in that religion, it is seen as Satanic and unnatural. In many of the stories I read, the narrators reported knowing for certain inside their hearts (sometimes by the age of five or six) that Jehovah despised them. That took the possibility of an ego identity repair station right out of the picture!

These narrators also had no possible repair stations in their personal identities either, because being a Jehovah’s Witness means absolutely not being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. So their friends, family, and peers could not provide any comfort or repair.

And because the Jehovah’s Witnesses are separated from the larger society and are somewhat mysterious, these narrators also experienced a stigma in their social identities (oh, Larry is about to witness to us … run!). So they had no repair stations anywhere, and they experienced a triple dose of stigma. How did they survive? Our study explores these lives pretty deeply, and proposes some new ideas about stigma that I think Goffman would have appreciated. Writing theory and adding to his work was so cool. It was like conversing with him!

Photo of Erving Goffman

One of my hero/mentors, Erving Goffman (1922-1982)

The study was also very healing for me (it acted as a repair station, so thank you, Janja!), because when I left my New Age career, I too experienced stigma in all three identity areas. My career, my family life, my peer life, and my inner life … all became completely unmoored when I left all my metaphysical beliefs behind. I had to create a new self out of duct tape, lolcatz, thousands of books and studies, and sea glass.

The time I spent with these lovely, strong, resilient gay and lesbian ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses helped me understand how to rebuild my life. I’m grateful to them, and I’m so glad that their story will be told. The reason this was a Five Year Overnight Success is that many of the journals we sent the study to were either put off by the religious aspect, the GLBT aspect, or the fact that Janja and I allowed the narratives to paint a pretty bleak picture of the real-life effects of homophobic religious beliefs.

So boo-ya! to the Journal of Homosexuality for giving this study its place in the canon. All stigmatized people need to know they’re not alone, and anything we can do as a society to expose prejudice, homophobia, and intolerance … well I’m all for it!

2011 update: Here’s a PDF of the study, which you can download now: JoHStudyLalich and McLaren

How to talk to sad, jealous, anxious kids

March 15, 2010

Okay, so my husband Tino and I are living in what I call “unintentional community,” or a condo complex. It’s a nice place near his new job, it’s month-to-month so we can look for a home, and it’s got trees and lovely plantings everywhere, so I’m not complaining.

However, we’re right on top of people, so we hear the goings on, especially with a neighbor family whose kids play outside. The parents are cool and friendly people in their 30s, and they’ve got two boys. The older boy is five, and the baby is just under two. The boys have very different temperaments. The baby is very adventurous and giggly, and the five year old is more careful, a little bit delicate, and he cries loudly when he’s scared or his feelings are hurt. A sensitive guy.

Photo of sad bunny

When the dad comes home from work, he and the boys play outside for about an hour, and over the weeks we’ve been here, a change is occurring. The older boy was the main play pal for his dad, but now the baby is walking and running, and it seems that dad is bonding a little bit better with the baby.

He and the baby will be crawling around in the ivy and laughing while the five-year-old stays separate and gets dramatic about falling or tripping or something. You can see the dad’s frustration at being called back constantly to attend to the older boy’s difficulties, and you can see that the older boy is trying to get his father back on his side, but he’s going about it all wrong.

Today, I heard someone yell loudly in a very mean way, “What do you think you’re DOING! You don’t take his toys! Get inside!” It sounded like an 11 or 12-year-old girl who was babysitting and hating it. But today’s a school day, so I looked outside, and it was the boys’ mom! I’ve never heard her yell like that, so it sounds as if the tension is increasing between the boys, even when Dad isn’t in the picture. Whoops.

This is a story that occurs every day, but how could it be different? Clearly, the older boy is feeling jealousy, envy, anger, anxiety, and grief. And he’s acting from all or most of them without any direction.

He’s a mess. But each of his emotions is true. He is losing his place in his most important love relationships (jealousy). He is losing his access to status and material possessions (envy). He is losing his old sense of self and his place in his world (anger). He doesn’t know what bad thing will come next (anxiety). And he is experiencing a serious loss (grief). It’s all true.

So how does a parent or a teacher help? First, of course, is to accept the emotions as true, even if they’re annoying. If you know what the emotions mean, you could ask the boy, “Do you sometimes feel like your parents like the baby more?” or, “Do you think the baby gets more attention than you do?” or, “Wow, when my little sister was born, I was so sad! How did you feel when your brother was born? How do you feel now?”

If you give a child the chance to explore his emotions in a safe place, he will learn how to manage them without other people needing to yell at him.

I know it’s hard. Every one of us as parents has gone all wild-eyed and acted like an 11-year-old babysitter who wasn’t getting paid enough. We’ve all done it, and if our emotions are working as they should, we have also felt shame for doing it. So the practice for shame is to make amends. To apologize to our children and let them into the emotional backstage of our lives — so that they’ll know that there IS an emotional backstage, and that everyone struggles.

Photo of LegosOur boy outside, he feels alone. But he’s not alone. We all struggle with our emotions in this emotionally-confused world, and we’re only alone if we lie to people and pretend we’ve got our emotions figured out.

Everyone needs training in emotions, and everyone needs a safe place to talk about them, so let’s make a safe place and change the world, yes?

I think I’ll see if our boy wants some Legos that I’ve got in the garage. Sensitive little people often love Legos, don’t you find? And you can talk about all sorts of stuff when you’re building with Legos. Sneaky!

What is Emotional Hygiene?

March 11, 2010

Emotional hygiene is an idea I developed about seven years ago (the phrase is not original to me, though) when I was dealing with depression and one of my best friends was dealing with anxiety. As it turns out, the two states aren’t very compatible!

My friend and I had been very close and emotionally in sync for many years, and we were very used to sharing emotions with each other. It’s nice, and I’d say you can’t have working relationships without the ability to share emotions. However, I became aware that it wasn’t healthy to share my depressed mood with my friend, because it resulted in too much anxiety. My friend would ask worriedly, “Oh no! How awful! What should I do? Are you suicidal? Do you feel like hurting yourself?” And inside, I thought, “Well, not until you mentioned it. Calm down!” Eventually, I became careful not to let any depressed affect or nuance show when my friend was around. It helped my friend maintain composure and focus.

Picture of cats in bat countryThat was great for my friend’s emotional health, but my friend didn’t realize that constantly sharing anxieties, worries, plans, schemes, and trepidations was very upsetting to me. I tend not to worry. I don’t like to be jacked up and anxious all the time, but my friend’s behavior was sort of all about that. I found myself becoming less and less willing to go out or make the swashbuckling moves that were natural for me, because there was always this anxious chatter around me. I became isolated, and I pretty much lost some faith in myself and the world because I was spending too much time listening to all my friend’s anxieties about everything. Of course, this made my depression much, much worse.

One day, I finally realized that my friend had terrible emotional hygiene around anxiety, because every bit of worry and anxiety emanated outward … undigested and unconsidered. And because we were always close, I picked up all that emotional shrapnel and tried to do something with it. But I was depressed and not firing on all cylinders, and since the anxiety wasn’t being managed properly, I really couldn’t work with it. It was a mess.

I told my friend about how hard I was working on my own emotional hygiene — to keep my depression to myself — and I asked my friend to please consider that anxiety and worry were not good things to share. It changed the relationship for the better, and we’re doing very well now, because we have this concept of emotional hygiene to fall back on.

Now that my depression has relieved, I use this concept to make psychological separations between myself and other people’s poorly-managed emotions. It’s nice to have good emotional hygiene when other people are behaving clumsily with their emotions. It’s nice to be able to watch people throw their emotions around and not feel like I have to do something about it!

Is there an emotion that knocks you sideways when other people express it habitually? If you’re not depressed (depression can make empathic work difficult), see if you can create a felt-sense of separation between yourself and the emotionally clumsy people in your life.

In my upcoming book and audio learning set, The Language of Emotions, I teach specific skills for setting psychological boundaries so you can have some privacy in the often noisy emotional world that surrounds us.

If you’ve got a relationship that’s close and secure, but a little emotionally unhygienic, you can borrow the phrase emotional hygiene and perhaps help move your relationship to a cleaner place! It can be really fun and healing to share emotions; however, you have to be conscious about it!

Targeting Emotion Work

March 8, 2010

Ooh, I just witnessed a beautiful example of emotion work and how it can surprise us!

I’m standing in line at the Target, and I’m three people back from the checker. Everyone is standing around trying not to look bored. I’m studying people like I always do.

The checker is a man in his 50s, slender but rather disheveled, with hair that needs cutting and a bit of a five o-clock shadow starting. I notice when he reaches for bags to complete his current order he’s got dark stains under the arms of his red polo shirt. They’re not wet sweat stains; they’re actually deeply stained from many months of constant wear and improper laundering. I wonder if: 1) He doesn’t have anyone at home to care for him, 2) If the manager has noticed but doesn’t know how to tell him he needs a new shirt, 3) If he doesn’t bother to look at his clothing or himself in the mirror because maybe he’s depressed, 4) If Target employees have to pay for their red shirts. Probably they do.

Now I’m two people back in the line. Yay, it’s moving!! Suddenly, I see that the conveyor belt is moving lingerie toward him: colorful underwear and thongs, and three brightly colored padded bras. I look at the pretty, petite young woman, alone in front of him with her focus on her purse as she prepares to gather her money. Neither the checker nor this young woman know I am watching them (because I’m so sly!).

The man has to touch and unravel each undergarment in order to free the price tag so it will scan. He handles the underwear without much emotion showing on his face, but the young woman looks up a bit from her purse and sees all the underwear passing through his hands. She does not look at his face. Now the bras come to him, each padded into a soft, breast-like shape, and as he handles them, his eyes meet the young woman’s for a split second. Neither of them knows whether to smile about the bright bras, or what. He has entered her private, interior, sexual world, and she knows that he has, and neither of them has a clue about how to proceed.

They look away from each other, and she flushes and looks down. He looks at me because he realizes I’m looking at him, but I quickly turn away so as to protect his dignity. I don’t want him to know he’s being watched. He becomes flustered by the bras and quickly stuffs them into the bags. He does not hand the bags to her; instead, he places them to his left, on his side of the counter. The price rings up, and the two of them manage the most business-like transaction without glancing at each other again. She carefully places her bills on his hand without touching him, and he places her receipt and change on the counter.

When they’re done, he looks immediately to the woman just in front of me and begins ringing up her detergent, two greeting cards, and gum. The young woman has to walk around to the end of the counter and grab her bags of lingerie, but she’s fine with it. She turns and quickly leaves the store.

Yow! The things you see when you’re waiting in line!

Picture of Target checkout line from Flickr

An Introduction to Emotion Work

March 6, 2010

In her excellent 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild described what she termed “emotion work,” or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace.  For instance, flight attendants must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but they must also present an open, welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or needy, part of the work of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, accepting presentation of self.

If passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests.  In fact, this normal human reaction is frowned upon; therefore, part of the job description and work product of a flight attendant is to deal in unusual ways to rudeness or bad behavior.  This is emotion work.  It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not given as much importance as other areas of a job description, emotion work is possibly the most important job skill you possess.

As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotion work of the people who serve you, and the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit, even if you’ve never set eyes on them before. You know how they’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to behave, and how any other person in the business is supposed to behave.  You also have very specific emotion work expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses.

Yet even though we all “know” how everyone is supposed to behave, this knowledge is not made clear, and a great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the “problem” employee), or is being performed but not valued (the put-upon, or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

I’ve always been a stranger in the workplace because I can’t believe how poorly emotions are handled in most jobs.  I tend to get into trouble because I say, “Hey, why don’t you tell your assistant the truth instead of doing his work for him?” or “That person is working way past her abilities, and she’s bossy and snappy because of it,” or “This person is heading for burnout, and if you call yourself a manager, then manage the tension in this building so your workers don’t get fried!”  Empathically speaking, I see poorly-managed emotions as a part of the workflow — as an integral part of the profitability and efficiency (or lack thereof) of any business, but most people aren’t really awake to this.

Due to my continual questions about the emotionally incapacitating tendency of the workplace, I decided to study the sociology of work and occupations (this is in addition to my BA in Social Science and my work as a researcher).  I became certified in Career Testing and Guidance, and in Human Resource Administration.

And here’s something that totally fascinates me:  Career Guidance and HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotion work. There are a few psychology courses, but the focus is more on how to deal with problem employees than it is on understanding the nuances of emotion work and how a nonsupportive workplace can create an unproductive emotional atmosphere … and problem employees. There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out; a great deal of the burnout prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more interesting or varied, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported emotion work.

So the Career Guidance professionals whose job it is to help us find work, and the HR professionals who oversee the workplace … unless they’ve done extracurricular study, these people usually have no clear training in or understanding of emotion work, which is the central human skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional!).

So let’s change that and openly discuss our emotion work.

What emotion work do you do, and is it stated as part of your job description? Are you doing any emotion work for a colleague, such as soothing tempers if your colleague blows up, translating for your colleague when others don’t understand, or taking the lead if your colleague cannot speak up on his or her own?

What emotion work do you do?  Is it recognized?  Do you get paid for it?

What is an Empath?

March 3, 2010

When people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a writer, researcher, and empath.  This last title often makes people ask “What?”

Photo of Kathryn Hays as Gem the Empath on Star Trek

Kathryn Hays as Gem the Empath on Star Trek

For my fellow trekkies, the word “empath” has a special meaning. Gem, in the 1968 episode “The Empath,” was able to take other peoples’ emotions and pain into her own body and heal it for them. Gem is magical and does not speak, but she has excellent eyelashes and a sparkly gown. When I do my empathic work, I usually wear sparkling gowns, but I have a hard time with the eyelashes. Kidding!

Though the sparkles are fetching, the skill of empathy isn’t magical or otherworldly. An empath is simply a person who knows that they read emotions and nonverbal information.

You’re an empath, too. You also read emotions – we all do, because empathy is our nonverbal and preverbal language. We all use our empathic skills when we socialize, listen to music, work with animals and babies, appreciate art, laugh at physical comedy, and read body language. We also use our empathic skills when we speak and when we decipher spoken language, because we actually can’t make sense of the world if we can’t use our emotions.  The logical, mathematical, and linguistic parts of our brains are extremely important, but without the emotions, they simply can’t work properly.  The emotions and the intellect are a boxed set.  Empaths know how to look inside and outside of the box!

I once thought that my empathic skills were mystical, because if you can read and understand emotions, you can look exactly like a psychic.  You can see the stuff people think they’re hiding, and you can become very skilled at working with people and getting down to the brass tacks of who they are. Through empathy, you can get to know people very deeply in a seemingly magical length of time.

However, empathy also makes you question yourself and your actions.  It’s almost impossible to be a scam artist and an empath at the same time, because you feel the pain of others,  so you don’t tend to hurt people if you can help it.  Empathy made me question my seemingly psychic skills very intently, and in 2003, I ended my career to return to college and study the heck out of the human condition!

I discovered that empathy is a natural human ability, but it looks magical because most of us are educated out of our empathic skills at a very early age.  We’re taught to ignore our emotions and focus on what people say rather than what they mean. We’re taught that the emotions are the opposite of rationality; therefore, our emotions go unheeded, dishonored, and unheard.

Because of our early training, our empathic and emotional skills tend to go underground.  But they’re never gone.  We all rely on them everyday, and we’re drawn to them in obvious and hidden ways.  For instance, if you look at most comedy, there is nearly always an empathic undercurrent.  Rude comedians often say true things we could never say and get away with it.  We laugh because the comedian is funny, but we also laugh because he or she is telling the emotional truth and not getting punished!

Of course, physical comedy also relies on our empathic skills, because there are no words and we have to decipher the situation by relying upon gesture, nuance, undercurrent, and emotion.  I have to say, though, that I can’t watch physical comedy like the show Jackass, where people continually hurt themselves in a desperate bid for laughs and attention.  Sorry, but that’s just too painful!  However, I laugh every time I see  the Monty Python fish slapping dance, so go figure.

Puns are also funny empathically, because our logical brains expect words and sentences to mean one thing — and then suddenly the words go careening off onto another tangent, and we laugh!

We’ll talk more about empaths and empathy, but since you are an empath, watch yourself closely.  When are  you aware that you’re reading gesture, nuance, undercurrent, and subtext?  When do you hear what isn’t spoken?  When do you detect an emotion that tells you something about another person — and do you work with it, or ignore it? Or is it totally situation-dependent?

How do you work with your own empathic skills?

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