Reworking a toxic emotion

April 14, 2010

The main message in The Language of Emotions is that all emotions are necessary. And yet, we all know that emotions can be really troublesome. So how do you take an emotion that’s a total drag and turn it back into an asset?

First, you learn what the emotion is supposed to do and what message it carries. I find that when people know what their emotion is asking of them, they have a much easier time working with it. For instance, if you know that anger is about boundaries, you can look at an overabundance (or lack) of anger and re-frame the entire situation in terms of how you set (or ignore) boundaries. When you know what emotions are for, it’s a heck of a lot easier to work with them.

Book cover of The Language of Emotions

However, we often get ourselves into a rut with certain emotions. Maybe we’re very forceful and angry at work, or maybe we’re anger-impaired pushovers who can’t set boundaries. In either case, it can be hard to change these behaviors because we don’t know another way. We get stuck in an emotional behavior that not only doesn’t work; it also ignores the reason the emotion arose in the first place, so we lose our way.

Because emotions carry such vital messages, I created five empathic skills to help people reclaim their own innate empathic abilities. These skills rely on our ability to work in the imaginal realm (notice I didn’t say imaginary?). The imaginal realm isn’t something we make up; rather, it’s the place where our creativity comes from. In the imaginal realm, we create music, art, dreams, ideas, and sudden inspirations — and all of these recruit and rely upon our emotional and empathic abilities. With the five empathic skills, we learn to rely on our imaginal abilities so that we can work with our emotions in new ways.

We’ve been talking about shame this week, and I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of caution around shame. If you’ve got a great deal of applied and inauthentic shame clogging up your emotional life, there’s an empathic skill that can help you refocus and detoxify your shame. This skill is called Burning Contracts.

The Gifts of Burning Contracts
Behavioral change ~ Emotional renewal~ Self restoration

Burning contracts is an empathic practice that helps you separate yourself from behaviors, attitudes, and relationships that destabilize you. It helps you envision these things as tendencies, rather than concrete certainties. When you can view your behaviors not as life sentences, but as inclinations, then you can choose to support or release them.

If you’ve got trouble with certain emotions, you can burn your behavioral contracts with those emotions and restore your emotional flow. If you’re unhappy with one of your behaviors, you can burn your contracts with it and free yourself from its clutches. If you’re unable to function in relationships, you can burn your contracts with those relationships – not to end them, but to reorganize the behaviors that control your interactions with others.

To burn a contract with an idea, behavior, stance, or relationship, imagine unrolling a large piece of blank parchment paper right in front of you (if you can’t visualize, use your hands to actually unroll this imaginary parchment). This parchment should be a calming, gentle color that can absorb whatever you place onto it. Keep this roll of parchment near you for now, so that you can feel your connection to this attitude or behavior.

With your parchment in front of you, you can project, envision, write, speak, or just think your trouble with shame onto it. You can project emotional expectations, intellectual stances, physical rules, or spiritual pronouncements. Or, you can envision a picture of yourself feeling shamed or being shamed directly onto the parchment. When you can get these behaviors, stances, and ideas out in front of you, you can begin to observe and individuate from them. You can see yourself not as a victim, but as an upright individual who decides to act, relate, or behave in certain ways – and can decide to act and behave differently.

As these behaviors, beliefs, and postures move out in front of you, you may feel emotions rising up inside you. This is absolutely fantastic. You can use whatever emotion comes forward to dislodge unworkable ideas or behaviors, and in so doing, you’ll restore your flow. That’s what emotions do: They move energy and information from one place to the next and restore your flow. Rely on them, and you’ll achieve real separation from old attitudes and behaviors — and real understanding of your authentic self.

Welcome your emotions – whatever they are. If you feel angry, throw these ideas onto your parchment, or imagine a color, movement, sound, or quality you associate with anger, and place it alongside your images. If you feel fearful, speed up your movements and fling these ideas out of you. If you feel sad, imagine laying these ideas on your parchment slowly and mournfully. If you feel depressed, darken the images or your parchment (or slow your movements to a crawl), and welcome your depression to this process. Don’t fight your emotions or pretend you’re feeling something else. Don’t surround yourself with pink bunnies if you’re sad or anxious.

Do this for as long as you need to. When you feel done, and your parchment is full of words, images, feelings, or sounds, please roll it up. This parchment personifies the contract you’ve forged with shame. Roll this contract tightly so the material inside can’t be seen or heard any longer – in this way, it becomes less powerful immediately. Tie your contract with a cord, if that feels right. Grasp your rolled-up contract, and imagine tossing it away from you. When it lands, imagine burning it up with whatever emotional energy feels right. You can blast it with anger (or shame!), strike it with fear, engulf it with sadness, or use your depressive energy to create a funeral pyre. Your emotions will provide the exact intensity you need to destroy the contract and set yourself free.

You can burn contracts at any time, and in any place. No one needs to know you’re doing it. This process is a fully portable, emotionally welcoming process that was created for people with busy lives; it can be used whenever and wherever you like. Burning your contracts – because it utilizes the imaginal and emotive language the psyche likes best – will move you to a new place in consciousness, where you’ll no longer need to waste your time on unfulfilling behaviors or objectionable relationships to certain emotions. Burning your contracts can set you free.

After you’ve burnt a contract with a toxic emotion, it’s very helpful to get to know it better. With shame, you can ask yourself the questions: Who (or what) has been hurt? and What must be made right? This is a good way to sort of retrain your brain about shame, and it will bring forward all the things you may feel ashamed about. Luckily, you can make things right, so you don’t have to wallow in shame or be beaten down by it any longer.

Because shame is so often applied to us like a heavy coat of plaster, it can take more than a few contract burning sessions to get underneath all the foreign and inauthentic shaming messages we’ve received. The good news is that burning contracts is free, you can do it anywhere, it takes almost no energy, and it can help you rescue emotions that have been made toxic!

Yeeha! The imaginal realm rocks!


Simon April 15, 2010 at 5:14 am

I just burned few contracts WHILE I was reading this article, it works. Thanks Karla for your priceless advice, info and research.

Karla April 15, 2010 at 6:59 am

Haha Simon, you rock!

Lewis April 16, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I recently came across an audio tape “How to Become an Empath” at a library. I’ve listened to it twice and made notes, enjoying your unique perspectives. Is the new book a rewrite of this material?

Karla April 17, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Hi Lewis,

To a certain extent, it is, because the skills aspect is very similar. However. this is actually a reworking of the book and audio called Emotional Genius.

After I left my new age career in 2003, I did a great deal of research and discovered that the information I have on emotions and empathy is quite original. It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to rewrite the material from my new perspective. I’ve been able to remove the metaphysical and paranormal stuff in favor of more grounded psychological and sociological principles. Yeeha!

Miguel Angelo April 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I was searching for some advices and answers after spending big part of my life in pain and lack of energies balance.
Last week I’ve bought one of your books (“Your Aura & Your Chakras”) and it’s been a great self experience to me.
I would like to thank you for your work and dedication.
In one of the lines you say that we readers can send you a letter. I will!!
Miguel Angelo
from Brazil
(I’ve exploded the shame of the last comment!)

Karla April 17, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Hola Miguel,

I’m glad the book is helping!

The twisted love inside hatred « Karla McLaren September 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

[…] wishes, dreams, and aspirations. You might not believe it at first, but it’s true. If you can burn your contracts with your adoration target, and then imagine filling yourself with these beloved qualities, […]

Shame: The excruciating, exquisite, and indispensable emotion « Karla McLaren July 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

[…] Dealing with applied shame is difficult, but we’ve got an empathic skill that will help (How to re-work a toxic emotion), so worry […]

Helen Shultz-Kamadulski June 11, 2013 at 11:35 am

This looks to be a very practical and doable exercise. I really like the inclusive way you describe the process…leaving room for people to use their imaginal abilities in the way that works best for them….whether actually visualising, or acting out with the motions, etc. Oft times exercises I’ve seen map out a very specific process requiring, perhaps, really good visualization skills. I get kind of hung up and discouraged in those situations. Your way makes the process more accessible to me and, I imagine, other folks who’ve felt similarly challenged, as well. Thanks again Karla!

Karla June 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Thanks Helen, yes, imaginal abilities are such an awesome way to get at behaviors that may live underneath language and seemingly out of reach. With imaginal and emotive tools, we can access behaviors in their own language, excellent!

Becky July 11, 2013 at 8:35 am

Hi Karla,
I’m reading all these different posts and wishing you and I could just talk for an hour or two!
Shame…maybe you have said this. But I see shame as a healthy way to monitor my own behavior towards other people AND towards myself. My healthy shame is then how I notice that I have just done something to erode my own boundary. Does that make sense to you? I see anger as my response to others impinging on my boundary but shame is how I monitor how I am impinging on my boundary.

Karla July 11, 2013 at 10:11 am

Hello Becky, yes, you’ve got it. Shame, when it’s healthy, is the behavioral monitor that helps you understand how well you’re living up to your own internal moral structure — and whether or not you’re breaking your own boundaries or the boundaries of others. Here’s a post on shame if you haven’t found it yet. Good work!

Becky July 11, 2013 at 10:34 am

Wow! Easier for me to be focus on other’s boundaries partly because they’ll get upset if I don’t. Million dollar issue: being aware and taking action about my own boundary. Thanks for your affirmation!

David December 18, 2014 at 10:27 am

Hi Karla!

I’ve been trying out burning contracts, and whenever I try and throwing out or burning the toxic emotion, my whole body starts to tremble/shake, like I’m having some kind of seziure. I can stop this counciously just by stopping the whole process, sometimes it gets through and I feel a release, but mostly I just try and shake it off so to speak, but it really feels clogged up and blocked.

I get this same issue sometimes when i hit blocks in meditation, I start to shake intensly and sometimes it’s also accompanied with a pose where I automatically raise my mouth to the ceiling and my jaw opens quite harshly as if though something is trying to be released through my insides.

I wonder if this is something you’ve come across or have some spontaneous though about. I kind of like the shaking because it feels as if I’m on to something when it’s happening, though it feels awry in some way as well.

Anyhow, thanks for your great work. It’s been really important on my path.

Karla December 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Hello David, wow, that’s a very interesting reaction!

My first thought is about Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, in which he talks about the shaking and trembling that happen as people heal from traumas. If you’ve had physical traumas in your life, it may be that process, and it could be a kind of self-healing down-regulation.

The other thought is that it may have to do with anxiety? In either case, it might help to see a somatic therapist. Peter Levine has a practitioner’s list, though he is not the only person doing somatic therapy, and his work is primarily focused on trauma. His practitioner list is here:

I hope that helps!

David December 20, 2014 at 4:12 am

Hi Karla!

Thanks alot for the quick and interesting answer. I live in Sweden, so I will have to look for similar/other options here. Massage has been of great use, as well as different types of meditations (especially compassion, body-scanning and prayer).

Either way, i believe it’s certainly related to both physical trauma, which I personally believe is related to the abuse/stress my mother was afflicted with during her pregnancy and during my early years, and anxiety as companion to it. My first memories in life, are mostly of me experiencing myself as a lifeless ghost, which I interpret as the out-of-body-experience/dissociation as a self-defence against the stress and life-threatning experiences of early life/prenatal life.

Actually i get the same shaking experience during prayer when I pray for contact with my own source, and during intense orgasm (induced during audio-hypnosis). I believe all of this is related to my attention/energy/tuning in to bodily senses – a “channel” that’s mostly been closed up my whole life. I’ve always been an highly intellectual type of person, mostly up in my own head or drowned in visual/auditive stimulus – not the bodily.

Since I experienced a sort of bodily/emotional awakening after 1 ½ month at a zen tempel, this started the shaking, I’ve cried almost every day since (now it’s 4 months ago) and recently I’ve been enjoying moving my body more in dance and touching my whole body just at anytime. Depression and healing from it is definitly in this picture as well.

Anyhow, thanks alot for your answer and your work, It’s bringing me clarity in these really confusing time in my life and pointing me in directions I believe I have to go.

Karla December 20, 2014 at 8:48 am

Thanks David — yes, Somatic therapies might be very helpful for you. They focus on how your body is feeling, moving, and expressing itself, and they help you connect to the messages your body is sending.

It sounds like you’re doing that already, but it might help to have some support. It’s an amazingly gentle, yet powerfully integrating process. A practitioner might also suggest that you incorporate shaking and trembling into your dance moves to help your body continue to heal and integrate.

There are two Somatic Experiencing practitioners in Stockholm, and if you’re not near there, they may have ideas about other somatic practitioners nearer to you. The somatic community is pretty close-knit.

Be well my friend!

Phoebe June 22, 2016 at 5:47 am

Hi Karla, thank you for your work. It is amazing, fascinating and quite unique information! (As you know) I’ve had your book Language of Emotions for about a year and I’ve just started now to really click with it. I was fascinated from the start but also found it so confusing new and really scary. My partner split up with me 3 weeks back and since then I’ve been reading your book most days. I just did the burning contracts exercise for releasing the relationship and suddenly all this unexpected anger just jumped out of me onto the page and I spontaneously groaned with relief for 2 minutes. It was a massive relief and felt surprisingly good ! I didn’t get through all the anger because then I sort of clammed up and became very frightened. But it was good to shift a part of it.

Karla June 22, 2016 at 9:39 am

Hello Phoebe and thanks for commenting.

I’m sorry about your break-up, but I’m glad that you had the Burning Contracts practice available to you. If you felt too much anger coming out, it may mean that Conscious Complaining would be a good regular practice, so that you can hear what your anger is trying to tell you. At first, this anger may be intense, because it hasn’t been heard, but it will learn how to calm down and speak in a way that’s comfortable for you.

Grounding and defining your boundaries will also help, and the Rejuvenation practice can really help calm and refresh you when you need it.

Take care. If your anger doesn’t calm down, it would be good to talk to someone about it, like a counselor, so that you’re not alone.

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