The Language of Emotions!

Emotions—especially the dark and dishonored ones—hold a tremendous amount of energy. We’ve all seen what happens when we repress or carelessly express them. With The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, empathy pioneer and researcher Karla McLaren shows you how to work with your emotions and receive their life-saving wisdom in healthy and useful ways.

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Your ability to work intelligently with your emotions is a key factor in determining your overall well-being. But how many of us were taught what to do in the face of overwhelming grief, seething anger, or paralyzing fear? Through experiential exercises covering a full spectrum of feelings from anger, fear, and shame to jealousy, grief, joy, and more, you’ll discover how to work with your own and others’ emotions with fluency and expertise.

In the field of the sociology of emotions, researchers attempt to connect emotions across cultures to create a grand unified theory of emotion. In this book, Karla McLaren stands at the very center of the emotional realm itself and connects the emotions within and throughout the psyche in surprising — and imminently useful — new ways.

This is a much-needed resource filled with revolutionary teachings and breakthrough skills for cultivating a new and empowering relationship with all of your emotions.

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Karla McLaren takes a seemingly easy question like, ‘How are you feeling?’ and shows that few of us know how to really answer it for ourselves. Most important, she teaches us how to find the true answer on a moment-to-moment basis. The Language of Emotions has changed the way I relate to others, and to myself, forever.Gavin de Becker, author, The Gift of Fear, Fear Less, and Protecting the Gift

In my own graduate education in Counseling Psychology, I found very little information about our emotions. Yet in my work as a therapist and educator, I’ve seen that emotions are key to healing. Karla McLaren’s book offers an outstanding guide to the signals and messages emotions send us, along with clear instructions for intelligent and emotion-supporting actions we can take in response. Karla has made a huge contribution to the well-being of us all; The Language of Emotions will become required reading for my courses.

Nancy Feehan, MFT, Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology, University of San Francisco

Karla McLaren’s unique, empathic view of emotions surprisingly revalues even the most “negative” emotions and opens pathways to understanding the depths of the human soul.

Michael Meade, author, The World Behind the World and The Water of Life

Questions and answers with Karla McLaren

You call yourself an empath. What is an empath?

We’re all empaths; I’m just aware of it. Our empathic abilities are our preverbal or nonverbal communication skills. These skills give us the ability to read emotions, body language, nuance, gesture, and intent. Though we’re not taught about our empathic skills, we use them all the time. For instance, when we watch a dance performance or listen to instrumental music, we’re utilizing our empathic skills. It’s a totally normal ability, yet empathic skills are hidden from us because we believe that communication primarily consists of words, facts, and grammatical structure. It doesn’t.

Many of us have also been taught that emotions are irrational or unimportant. They’re not. They’re absolutely necessary for communication and cognition – and we all depend upon our emotional skills and our ability to read the emotions of others. Sometimes we mistakenly project our emotions onto other people or situations, but when we’re skillful empaths, we can avoid projection and read emotions, gestures, and nuance correctly. When we can, our social and intellectual intelligences become very strong and may even seem magical or intuitive.

How did you come to study the emotions?

My empathic skills sort of forced the issue. Though empathy is a normal human skill, most of us learn to dampen it as we acquire spoken language. Most of us learn – by the age of four or five – to hide, squelch, or camouflage our emotions in social situations. We catch on very quickly to the fact that most people lie about their feelings, leave important words unsaid, or trample over each other's obvious emotional cues. Learning to speak is often a process of learning not to speak the truth, and attaining an uncanny level of pretense in most relationships. Every culture and subculture has a different set of unspoken rules about emotions, but all of them require that specific emotions be camouflaged, overused, or ignored. Most children learn to turn down their empathic abilities in order to pilot their way through these confusing social rules.

However, in my life, a serious trauma occurred at the age of three that interfered with my ability to shut down my empathic abilities. I was repeatedly molested at that age, and along with many other disruptions, I missed the transition into speech as a central communication device. I separated myself from humans to the extent that I could (I identified with family pets and other animals), and as a result, I didn’t join in with the emotional training that other kids got. Consequently, I remained empathically awake (often painfully so) to the currents of emotion all around us – but as I grew and mastered spoken language, my understanding of emotions grew as well.

I’ve also searched throughout my life for information about emotions as I experienced them – as precise messages from others or from our instinctual selves – but much of the information we have about emotions tells us to stop the natural flow of the emotions or place them into simplistic categories (these emotions are good, and those emotions are bad) – all of which mirror that early socialization we get on which emotions are acceptable and unacceptable. I’ve researched continually, and though there are fascinating pieces here and there, I haven’t found any other approach to emotions that explains all of them in useful ways.

How did you develop your approach?

For twenty-five years, I worked in the metaphysical community as a healer, but not in the way most people think of spiritual healing. Because I was so aware of emotions, nuance, undercurrent, and the effects of trauma, I focused my practice on what turned out to be a significant population in the metaphysical community: Survivors of trauma (sexual, physical, and emotional). With these fellow survivors, I quickly learned how to work with intense emotions like rage, panic, hatred, and suicidal urges. I created a meditative practice that embraced the emotions, and in so doing, I found unique and functional ways to understand and work with them. I also found ways to heal my own trauma, and I eventually wrote nine books and audio learning sets about my work.

As I delved deeper into my work, I began to research my own ideas with intense scrutiny. Because I was working with so many traumatized people, I didn’t want to champion ideas if they weren’t valid. My research led me to leave my metaphysical career in 2003 and return to college. For the past ten years, I’ve studied sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, psychology, neurology, social psychology, and education. What's been really edifying is that I’ve been able to gauge my work against theories and research in the social sciences – and I’ve found that the emotional aspects of my work are uniquely valid and useful. I'm glad to return to them.

With the publication of The Language of Emotions, I was able to retrieve the truly original work I did with the emotions while gently removing the metaphysical concepts that didn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

What have you discovered about the emotions?

Well, they’re a huge stumbling block for us, and our understanding of emotions lags far behind our understanding of nearly every other aspect of life. We can chart the universe and split the atom, but we can’t seem to understand or manage our natural emotional reactions to provoking situations. We turn to science or spiritual teachings to increase our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, but we ignore the most basic and innate source of knowledge we possess – our emotions. We’re intellectually brilliant, physically resourceful, spiritually imaginative … but emotionally underdeveloped.

This is a shame, because emotions contain indispensable information that can help us attain self knowledge, stronger relationships, and psychological healing. Sadly, we don’t treat emotions as indispensable. Instead, we categorize, celebrate, vilify, repress, manipulate, humiliate, adore, and ignore emotions. Rarely, if ever, do we honor them. Rarely, if ever, do we treat them as important carriers of specific and needed information.

This is unfortunate, because it is our emotional sensitivity and agility – our empathy – that helps us move forward, understand deeply, and connect with ourselves, other people, our vision, and our purpose. In fact, research done by neurologist Antonio Damasio (see his book Descartes’ Error) has shown that some patients who cannot access their emotions (due to damage from surgery, trauma, or illness) become unable to make decisions, and in some cases, are unable to understand social interactions (each area of emotional disability affects different areas of cognition and social skills). Verbal skills and rationality may be what make us so smart, but it is our emotions and our empathy that make us decisive, socially aware, and compassionate human beings.

What exactly is an emotion?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said it best: Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs. Until I read him, I couldn't find a clearer definition than that. Within the disciplines, there are a lot of questions about feeling states, moods, whether certain emotions are primary or secondary, and how connected emotions are to our thought processes. However, if you ask people what emotions are, the answer is pretty simple: Anger, sadness, grief, fear, happiness, and so on ... we know what emotions are. And yet, we often have a heck of a time figuring out what to do with them.

Empathically, I see each emotion as a distinct individual with its own message, its own strengths and challenges, its own relationships to its fellow emotions, and its own purpose in the psyche. I also see the emotional realm as an interconnected community of skills, information, abilities, and strengths – which means that all emotions are necessary. By looking at the emotions as a unified whole, I’ve learned to understand the problems that arise, for instance, when people don’t have enough healthy anger, healthy fear, or healthy sadness in their emotional skill set.

Why do emotions cause so much pain and trouble?

In their healthy state, emotions don't cause the pain or the trouble: We cause pain and trouble when we mismanage our emotions. Each of our emotions is only a messenger. The trouble comes when we misread and misuse the messages we're given. I have found that all emotions – even the dark ones like rage, panic, or hatred – contain skills and insights if we manage them honorably. I have also found that all emotions – even the supposedly positive ones like joy – can disrupt us and everyone around us if we treat them disrespectfully.

Of course, emotional states that repeat endlessly (or ones you can't control) may be aspects of an underlying neurochemical, behavioral, or endocrine imbalance. In these instances, emotions can cause a lot of trouble, but it's not the emotions themselves that are causing the trouble. In a way, the emotions are the canaries in the coal mine that alert us to the trouble.

But haven’t you been hurt by your own emotions or other people’s emotions?

Absolutely! Emotions carry intensity and a motive force with them, and strong emotions carry massive amounts of force. If I’m unaware, I can knock myself (and others) down with my emotions, and certainly, other people can use their emotions to knock me down, too. But the empathic work I teach allows us to take hold of the intensity in our emotions and to use it – not to knock ourselves or other people down – but to change our lives.

When we truly understand the language of the emotions, we can understand why none of our million "cures" for emotion affect the fact of emotion in any way whatsoever. Emotions aren't supposed to be ignored, transformed, or eradicated; our job as sentient human beings is to understand what emotions are and what they do, to listen to them, and to work with them intelligently, empathically, and honorably.

How is the work in The Language of Emotions different from all these other techniques?

This may be hard to believe, but The Language of Emotions is the first book to explain all of the emotions. Each emotion gets its own chapter that explores what it's for, why it arises (and in what forms), how it's connected to your other emotions, and how to work with it in yourself and others. And this hasn't been done before, which says volumes about our pathetically deficient emotional education. In fact, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of San Francisco is using The Language of Emotions as a required textbook because she hasn't found anything else that covers all of the emotions in terms of how to understand and work with them.

Here's another important difference: This work doesn't treat emotions as diseases to be cured. Strong or uncomfortable emotions can certainly arise when we're unbalanced, but it is not the emotion that needs to be cured; rather, the imbalance needs to be corrected so that the emotion can get back to its regular work! Emotions are irreplaceable and necessary, and recent neurological research has shown that without our emotions, we cannot think or function properly. Therefore, our first step is to accept the absolute necessity of our emotions and treat them with respect.

In The Language of Emotions, we treat all of our emotions as our allies and make a pact with them – we promise not repress our emotions, and we promise not to improperly express them. This pact enables us to work with our emotions in utterly new ways – it enables us to hear the messages our emotions send, ask the proper questions, and make the proper correcting moves in response. This work also incorporates step-by-step empathic mindfulness techniques that help us center and focus ourselves so that we can protect ourselves and others from the crazy emotional ideas careening through our culture.

What are some of the most damaging ideas we have about the emotions?

Almost all of our ideas about emotions are twisted in some way, because we don't treat the emotions as a unified whole – as a complete system of information and abilities without which we cannot survive. We cripple ourselves unnecessarily when we call some emotions "positive" and other emotions "negative." All emotions can be positive if they arise at the appropriate time and we manage them appropriately – just as all emotions can be negative if they arise in the wrong situation, if they're stuck in a feedback loop, or if we ignore them, hurl them at others, or try to keep ourselves jacked up with them at all times.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about emotions?

The emotions surprise me all the time, but the biggest surprise for me is that they all exist in every second of every day. I think people believe that they don’t have anger until they get grumpy or riled up. Or they don’t have sadness if they’re not crying, or they don’t have fear if they don’t feel anxious or afraid. But what I’ve found is that all emotions are present – or they should be – at all times. If you look at them that way, it’s easy to track people’s anger, happiness, fear, sadness, jealousy, apathy, joy, suicidal urges, contentment, and every other emotion from their healthy, constant states and into the mood states where we can “feel” them.

For instance, healthy anger sets healthy boundaries for you. If you don’t have a good connection with your healthy anger, you won’t have good boundaries. Healthy fear is your intuition. If you and your healthy fear are disconnected, you won’t have good instincts. If you and your healthy jealousy are unacquainted, you’ll have a terrible time identifying loyal mates and friends. Each emotion has a vital role in the maintenance of your behavior, your relationships, your social life, and your intelligence. If you don’t know that, you may tend to swat away emotions as if they’re mosquitoes, or chase after them as if they’re rare butterflies. Learning that each emotion is with you in every second; that they belong to you and have vital information for you … wow, it’s a life-changing realization.

What messages do emotions carry?

Each emotion arises for a different reason. I’ll give you four examples. Healthy anger is our sentry – our protector for ourselves and others. When we're threatened, our anger will come forward to help us maintain our self image, our standpoint, or the standpoint of someone we care about. Healthy fear is our intuition – it helps us drop into our instinctive skills so that we can sense danger and act appropriately. Healthy sadness helps us let go when we need to – it brings us the capacity to relax and let go when we need to release things that aren't working anyway. And healthy contentment is a rest stop in the psyche – it arises naturally when we manage our lives and our emotions properly. Each emotion exists for a specific reason, and we need all of them working properly or our lives won’t work.

What questions should we ask our emotions?

Understanding why the emotions arise helps us to understand which questions we should ask of them. With the protective sentry of anger, the questions are: What must be protected? and What must be restored? With the intuitive instincts of fear, the question is: What action should be taken? With the water-bearer of sadness, the questions are: What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated? Every emotion has a specific message, a specific skill, and a specific purpose. Learning their language helps you become your emotions’ ally instead of their ignorant puppet or their strict taskmaster.

What about dark states like rage?

Understanding the healthy expression of each emotion helps us work with its trapped and unhealthy forms – the ones that can hurt us or other people. Rage is intense anger – it is self-protective energy that has become unhinged. Rage comes forward when our healthy anger has been ignored or overwhelmed, and it always relates back to a hidden or forgotten self-image or boundary issue. Repetitive rage can also be a sign of a clinical depression – especially in men. So if we're enraged, there is always a good reason. The Language of Emotions helps us feel rage (as if we could ever stop rage!) without acting against others in response to it. This process allows us to refrain from repressing our rage or expressing it inappropriately, which enables us to use the intensity inside the rage to do some specific inner work.

When you feel rage, you ask the anger questions very insistently: What must be protected? What must be restored? Then, with your empathic skills engaged, you work through the answers rage gives you. It's a startling and beautiful process to experience, because rage will actually answer you in specific and life-changing ways. Then, it will contribute the energy you need to make specific and protective changes in your demeanor, your behavior, or your attitude. When it's utilized appropriately, your rage doesn't destroy you or hurt anyone else; it actually helps you mature. The same is true of all of the supposedly dark emotions – each one of them will help you perform amazing self-healing work when you simply listen to it empathically and act upon its information honorably.

Why do you say that love is not an emotion?

My definition of a healthy emotion is that it shifts and changes in response to its environment, that it arises in its mood state only when it's needed, and that it appears just long enough to address an issue before it recedes. My view of love is that in its healthy state, it is a steadfast and undying promise. I don't equate love with desire, lust, the absence of loneliness, or shared hobbies. Love is much, much deeper than any of those things. In my view, love is deathless and utterly stable – and it simply doesn't move or behave in the way true emotions do. I don't know what love is, exactly, but I do know that it is very different from any of the emotions. Love is in a category of its own.

What would you tell people who are suffering through difficult emotions right now?

I'd tell them that they’re not alone. Our emotions are very powerful, and it’s very easy to be overcome by them. But I would also ask them to remember that they are in charge – not in a strict way – but in the sense that they have control over how they respond to their emotions.

It’s always useful to breathe in and remind yourself that this too shall pass. All emotions will move along if you pay attention to them (except, of course, in emotional illnesses like anxiety or rage or depressive disorders).

A very helpful thing I learned from the emotions is that if they don’t move along, then there’s something wrong. Emotions are supposed to move and change and flow. If they don’t, and you’re continually stuck in an emotion for hours or days on end, it’s important to seek outside help. That help can be a book, a close friend, a counselor, or your doctor. One of the purposes of emotions is to connect us to others, but we almost always forget to reach out when our emotions are troubling. So reach out! There’s excellent help available.

The Language of Emotions is an update of your work, Emotional Genius. How do the two differ?

In the dozen years since Emotional Genius was published, the study of emotions has flourished. Neurologists, behavioral economists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and psychologists have been doing exquisite and groundbreaking research on how emotions work. The Language of Emotions has been updated to include these excellent new ideas.

But the real difference is that I’ve been able to recast my work and help people understand how intelligent emotions can make us. In my earlier career, I had confused my intense awareness and sensitivity with psychic ability. That always concerned me, because it meant that I had a rare and magical skill, and that other people could never experience it. In The Language of Emotions, I’ve removed the mistaken idea of paranormal forces. Now, everyone can join in on the fun!

The Language of Emotions does contain meditative skills, because many emotions can be unsettling if you’re not in a mindful place. However, I’ve simplified the skills and removed the metaphysical concepts so that the process is much more accessible. Understanding the emotions is so vital to our health and well-being. I’m glad that I’ve been able to update my work and make it available to everyone!