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Talking about empathy with Tami Simon

December 6, 2010

Tami Simon and I got a chance to talk about empathy last year when I was in Colorado recording the audio workshop for The Language of Emotions. She’s a wonderful interviewer, and I want to expand on a few things we covered in this short interview (here’s the the original empath: Gem from Star Trek).

Why are emotions so hard to understand?

They’re not. The problem is that we’re not taught about them directly. We tend to be taught very simple rules about which emotions are right and which emotions are wrong. Sadly, we’re not openly taught about emotions themselves; instead, we’re taught about behaviors that arise from emotions.

For instance, we don’t learn that anger exits to protect our sense of self, our position, our standpoint, and our voice. We don’t learn what the different levels of anger are, how to moderate anger, or when to use it. Instead, many of us were told as children what not to do: No fighting, no biting, no pinching, no punching, no kicking, no swearing, no talking back, and no dirty looks. Some parents say, “Use your words,” which is better than letting a kid drop into a tantrum, but how can a child talk clearly about an emotion she hasn’t been allowed to understand?

With this kind of backward emotional training, kids end up filled with rules but not with understanding. So each time a child feels anger, she won’t gain a greater understanding of it. Instead, she’ll recall a list of things she cannot do (no fighting, biting, etc.), and she’ll have the option to use words, but she’ll develop very little understanding of what anger is about.

Anger has a great deal of motive force behind it; it fills you with a lot of intensity, because one of its jobs is to strengthen you when you’ve been disrespected or threatened socially. If you don’t understand why anger arises and what its intensity is for, you may merely use its intensity against others. You may wield anger as a weapon instead of internalizing the strength it gives you. This is often a terrible choice, because it disrupts the security and self-image of the people you attack, which will bring forth their anger. Acting out in anger can easily get you into trouble. It can be socially unwise and endangering. Therefore, the “no fighting, no biting…” rule has its purpose.

However, anger itself has a purpose, which is to give you the strength you need to set boundaries and protect your position (or the position of others, if your anger is empathetic). Though it’s not a great idea to attack people with your anger, if all you know how to do is not fight and bite with your anger, you will have missed anger’s central purpose. If you repress your anger and refuse to protect yourself from attack, you’ll actually endanger yourself. You’ll become less strong, and less socially viable.

This either/or conundrum traps a lot of people. If they express their anger unwisely, they can get into trouble, but if they repress their anger, they can endanger themselves.  Both options seem fraught with danger, so it’s very easy to see why people throw anger onto the trash heap; they have no idea what it’s for, and they have no idea how to work with it.

However, when you know what anger is for, you can work with it fairly easily.  You can identify it, question it, articulate it, and make decisions based on your understanding of its real purpose. When you know your anger, you won’t need to work against it with repression, and you won’t need to work for it as its unwitting and volatile puppet. When you know your anger, you can work with it and set your boundaries in honorable and respectable ways. When you know your anger, you’ll become safer, calmer, and more socially viable. Anger rocks!

Every emotion rocks when you know how to work with it. Every emotion has a purpose and a place in the maintenance of your life and your livelihood. Each one is important, and each one brings you specific gifts, skills, and abilities. Emotions have been left out of our deliberations for a very long time, but that’s changing. We’re challenging the old, tired idea that emotions are the opposite of rationality, and we’re learning to look at emotions and empathy as viable subjects of study.

We’re catching up to our friend Rumi, who understood emotions over 800 years ago. Emotional awareness and intelligence are a part of your ancestry, and empathy is your native language. Once you know what your emotions are for, working with them is actually quite easy!

6 Comments

Meta Hirschl December 8, 2010 at 5:34 am

I appreciated watching and hearing you speak, Karla.

I’ve heard you on podcasts and interviews but I like actually seeing the author of a book that has changed, is changing my life.

Language of Emotions has supported me in ways that allow me to actually shift. I am a yogi and a teacher of yoga and I work with body and emotions all the time, so many of your ideas aren’t new to me. But your practices and harnessing of specific emotions is revelatory and so helpful, thank you!

As to this particular interview, I would just humbly offer: when you say people are understanding body/mind/spirit and point out that the emotions aren’t there, I disagree. Because I experience emotions as body, as inextricably part of the body and in fact, as you lay out in the book, truly feeling emotions in exact locations as they flow through is part of healing. Vipassana meditation is wonderful at teaching this, tho the 10 days can be daunting to many.

In all, I bow to you and your work and wisdom.
many blessings on all our heads,
namaste,
Meta.

Karla December 9, 2010 at 7:07 am

HI Meta!

Thanks for checking in. I agree that emotions are in the body, and you’re right about how powerful it is to be able to feel and track them. Yes! I just want those body/mind/spirit folks to SAY the word emotions! Say it now!

Say it!

Heehee.

Katrina December 13, 2010 at 12:40 am

Listening to you talk about being able to see what’s really going on with people (what they’re NOT saying!) made me think about my own ability to “read” people … and some particular incidents from my past (the not-so-distant past and several years back).

My ability to articulate immediately what I’m seeing isn’t very strong, but I’ll pick up on things — subtle non-verbal signals and cues — and my body will start sending me signals. My shoulders will get tense, or my stomach will feel like it’s tied in knots, or my skin will feel as if I walked through something slimy. (Those are just a few examples.)

Years ago, I was waiting for a job interview, and I found myself battling an incredibly strong desire to get up and run out of the building. I fought back the urge and made it through the interview … and got hired. After I started my new job … I quickly realized that there was an intense distrust between supervisors and employees — and I’d actually felt that distrust in the air while I was waiting for my interview. I ended up hating the job; I left after only a couple of months.

Even though I can’t articulate — to anyone else or even myself — what I’m feeling when I’m feeling it, I have learned to pay attention and to trust my instincts and follow my impulses. I may not be able to explain to anyone (including me) why I’m doing what I’m doing … but my instincts are usually right!

Karla December 13, 2010 at 5:10 am

Yeah Katrina, it’s funny how our social and emotional antennae get alerted to what’s going on in a situation looooong before our rational minds even know anything is happening! I’ve been thinking for quite a while that what I once thought of as psychic or paranormal skills are in reality emotional skills that we haven’t yet identified, simply because so much of the emotional world is still deep in the shadows of our understanding. However, I’ve also been reading a lot of social science research that shows that many of our instincts are wrong (say, about people of different races, who we tend to identify as wrong/bad/different unless we actively teach ourselves not to).

I’m really studying and thinking a great deal about how and when to listen to emotions, and how and when not to (in the “not to” column, politics comes immediately to mind! ;). Clearly, there are some people who are masterful at working with their emotions, and others who are really craptastically bad at it. What differentiates the two?

These are very intricate questions, and I think about them continually. Okay, I think and feel about them!

Bob Hadden September 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm

The urge to fix:
My experience.
We do try to do it.
It only works to a certain point & seems to create dependency, neither of which are particularly useful.
but, similar to Dominic Barter (Buenas Aires),
If I am willing to simply be present, to be a witness, to look into the black hole (whole) with people, It seems to give them permission to heal themselves.

badly phrased, perhaps, but does this make sense to you?
Thanks

Karla September 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Hi Bob, this speaks so well to the process of mentoring, which isn’t teaching or pouring information into another person, but, if it’s done right, is a process of helping them bring their gifts out into the world. You don’t see it a lot these days, but it’s excellent!

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