The second key to emotional genius

There is a middle path for your emotions

In my work, Dynamic Emotional Integration®, I’ve organized the emotions into four families, and I’ve also developed four keys to help people learn how to work with their emotions in new and healing ways.

The first key is to unvalence your emotions (because there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions), and the second key is to learn a healthy option that will allow you to work directly with the genius in your emotions.

The second key: Expression, repression, and channeling

Many of us have fallen into a simple binary world where we can only express our emotions outwardly or repress them inwardly.

It’s as if we have an on/off switch with no middle ground. This situation is almost a form of valencing, in that we have two simplistic choices that obscure our intelligence and reduce our emotional options. And of course, this in turn reduces our Emotion Regulation skills and our empathic awareness.

However, expression and repression have their place

But it’s important to know that in many instances, expression and repression are good choices. If you’re happy, sometimes it’s awesome to express it – yay!

But sometimes, it’s a really good idea to repress your happiness if it’s not shared (say, when you’re happy that you didn’t get picked for a team at work, but you don’t want to offend everyone).

Expression and repression aren’t problems in and of themselves. They’re fine in many instances; they’re only problems when they’re the only choices you have.

For instance, when an intense or socially unacceptable emotion appears, both expression and repression can be deeply problematic. I’ll give you an example.

When a funny joke isn’t funny at all

Let’s say that you’re at a party, and a friend does something deeply offensive in public: He makes a sarcastic joke about your clothing that’s funny but also really cruel.

photo of adorably angry puppyNow, because your self and your standpoint have been offended against (and shockingly so), your anger will need to arise, and it will probably be accompanied by some shame and maybe even fear. This is an intensely embarrassing attack that came out of nowhere!

If you express your intense anger, you might score some points against your friend, but you might also injure him and come off looking like a jerk yourself – like someone who’s so uncool that they can’t even take a joke.

Also (and your shame and fear might alert you to this), you might not know how your friend will respond to a counter-attack. He could become even meaner, and then the whole evening would be ruined for everyone.

So, if expression might be unwise, you might take the other option in our restricted either/or scenario: you’d repress your anger and your shame and your fear.

You might laugh and pretend not to be offended, or you might make an even uglier joke about your own clothing. Hahah, you’re a good sport – you can take a joke!


When you repress an emotion, you interfere with your basic emotional functioning. In this instance, your anger arose for a very specific reason. It required that you restore your voice, standpoint, and sense of self. You chose not to do that, and it was probably a good idea.

But by repressing your appropriate anger, you’ve interfered with its natural progression, and because you didn’t perform any appropriate action, your anger will remain activated.

You might paste a smile on your face and go get a drink, but for the rest of the night, you may repeat the situation in your head and think of what you should have said, what you should have done.

Your repressed anger won’t relieve itself; in fact, it might become more intense, and your fear might increase, and your shame might become hyperactivated, and that can be a painful situation.

Repressing your emotions – when they’re intense and immediate – can create trouble inside you.

Taking the middle path

Cover of The Language of Emotions bookLuckily, there is another option. There’s a middle path between repression and repression.

I call it channeling your emotions, and by that, I mean directly with your emotions so that they can do the work they came to do.

In the situation above, expression and repression were both troublesome. Your anger was very intense, and it was accompanied by two other strong emotions.

As we all know, that can be a powder-keg situation. But if you have access to the gifts your emotions contain – if you know anger as the Honorable Sentry, and you know fear as Intuition and Action, and you know that shame is about Restoring Integrity, then you can work with all three of these emotions in ways that are respectful toward yourself, toward your mouthy friend, toward onlookers, and toward your own emotions.

But the path is individual to you and to each situation

I don’t have a simple, step-by-step process for dealing with the situation above, and I am really suspicious of people who do, because interaction is so incredibly situation-specific.

However, I do have a simple approach, which is this: Listen to your emotions and work with each of them empathically, interact with others honestly, and then you’ll know what to do.

If you make a mistake, you can apologize, and then you can try something different.

The trick to this isn’t any kind of trick at all: You simply listen to your emotions and pay attention to others and to their responses. This empathic and interactive approach will give you untold resources, because your emotions have evolved over millions of years to help you become a socially successful member of an intensely social species.

Emotions are millions of years older than spoken language, and simply put, they’re smarter than words, they’re deeper than any technique, and they can help you in ways you might not be able to imagine (if all you’ve ever done with emotions is to express or repress them).

Channeling can help you engage authentically

When I only know how to repress or express my emotions, and a difficult or socially uncomfortable emotion arises, then people will meet whatever emotional training I’ve had in my life.

They won’t meet me as an individual! They won’t meet my true self, my hopes, my dreams, my preferences, my intelligence, my humor, my challenges, or my strengths – no. When my emotional skills are poor, people will meet my emotional reactivity and my problems with whichever emotion has arisen – but they won’t meet me.

In a situation where I’ve only got two choices about how to work with my emotions (expression or repression), a fully empathic exchange is very unlikely (because I’m not even being empathic with my own emotions!).

But when I can channel my emotions and interact with more suppleness and authenticity, people can meet and interact with me as a unique individual — and if they feel able to, they can interact in a more authentic and empathic way with me in return.

Expression and repression are fine in many cases!

As I wrote above, expression and repression aren’t bad in and of themselves; they’re fine in many situations! When a snake crosses your path, express your panic and jump and yell a little!

Or when someone trips on the sidewalk and you think it’s funny, repress your laughter so you won’t hurt their feelings.

When you drop your phone, express your shock and anger (and swear if you like)!

When you feel like crying but you know that the person with you cannot handle it, repress your tears until you’re in a safer place.

Expression and repression are excellent options in many instances, but this third path – this middle path of channeling your emotions – gives you infinite options when repression isn’t healthy and expression isn’t wise.

Thank you for bringing your emotional agility and your empathy to our waiting world.


27 Responses

  1. Bill
    | Reply

    Thanks, Karla for the great post. I can relate to this. I work and have worked a lot with comedy writers who are excellent at hilarious and cutting remarks. And I struggled with how to deal with that. I very much like how you broke it all down.

    And I’m guessing this requires practice. Obviously, in the real world, this processing would all take place in seconds, not minutes. And if I’m not totally conscious of my feelings and what message they have for me, I might be less than skillful. Translation – I might snap back or more likely repress, hold my tongue, and get quietly pissed off.

    I could see practicing in some kind of workshop setting and role playing would be very valuable for me.

    Though maybe that’s just called real life. ;)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oy, I grew up in a family that used sarcasm for almost everything — and we were a hilariously funny bunch. But when I went out into that real life place you speak of, I had to intentionally train myself to stop with the cutting remarks. They absolutely are a form of verbal violence, but if you meet someone who also knows how to verbally spar, you can have a lot of fun with it.

      Until somebody puts an eye out, that is.

      I’m so glad there is such a thing as an internal monologue, because as I was waking up from my sarcasm behaviors, I was able to say whatever brilliantly mean thing I thought to myself, and then react more humanely in the real world. Now, I actually have to search for a sarcastic remark to come to me — so the retraining is possible!

      Practicing in a workshop, say! — Maybe we could do that in my second Embodying Empathy workshop with Nick Walker in April! Maybe we’ll play the dozens and do a sarcasm beatdown on each other. Nick grew up as a tough kid (so did I), so I think we could get all up in each other’s business in a funny way.

  2. Michael E.Stumpf
    | Reply

    Hi Karla — hope to attend April 6th workshop & get a Robust workout with you & Nick, so as to drop into a new level of wholehearted Empathy & Aliveness. Thank You again for your work & commitment. Mike

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Michael — I didn’t know you were in California! I look forward to meeting you!

  3. Gail Kenny
    | Reply

    Karla, your teachings on emotions are so enlightening. I love this quote, “Emotions are millions of years older than spoken language, and simply put, they’re smarter than words, they’re deeper than any technique, and they can help you in ways you cannot imagine (if all you’ve ever done with emotions is to express or repress them).”

    Now I’m going to share this link on Facebook.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Gail!

  4. Bill
    | Reply

    Sarcasm beatdown? Ouch! Yes, I definitely woke up to my own and others sarcasm. One of my teachers pointed out the root of ‘sarcasm’ is ‘sarc’ – which means to tear flesh.

    In a workshop setting, I could see personally benefitting from receiving sarcasm or anger from someone else, and being present with my emotions and working with them and navigating the situation.

    I live in Los Angeles – do you have any plans to come down here and teach? Would love to see you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Bill — no, I don’t have any plans for LA coming up. The last time I was there, I did a workshop at the Banyan Tree — or was it the Bodhi Tree? It was that long ago. What’s happening there now in terms of workshop venues/bookstores that host events?

      Oh, but in terms of working with sarcastic or verbally aggressive people, my favorite person right now is Sharon Ellison, who wrote the book Taking the War Out of Our Words. It’s really a startling take on communication, and it’s my favorite of all the thousand techniques that are out there. She’s got such a unique take, and a hands-on approach that you can use immediately.

      Bop around on her site — she’s got excerpts from her book and audio excerpts throughout so that you can get a feel for what she’s doing. She’s changing the emotional tone approach in communication so that people don’t immediately get defensive and triggered — and the audio is really important so you can hear how she’s reframing questions.

  5. kevin
    | Reply

    Hey Karla-
    Did you happen to see Jennifer Lawrence’s acceptance speech for best actress at the oscars? I was wondering what you thought of her response to tripping on her way up the stage (whether she appropriately balanced repression and expression).

    It’s a bit of celebrity gossip, but I bet we could all learn from your empathic interpretation.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Kevin — I don’t have TV — what did she do?

  6. kevin
    | Reply

    It was interesting- When she fell going up the stairs, she lingered on the floor, without flinching back up-as embarassmnent would seem to induce. When she got to the mic, she said ” you guys are just standing up cuz you feel bad that i fell and thats really embarassing but thank you”

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Okay, of course someone uploaded it to the Youtubes.

      I love what she did. That dress was absurd for walking. I like that she caught herself and just regrouped for a few seconds on the stairs. That may be a part of who she is, but it’s also something a live actor would learn — how to set strong boundaries and stay in character even when props fail and everyone else forgets their lines.

      The shame — which she articulated clearly — came up after she refocused on the crowd. I’m sure she was feeling it during the fall and as she was reintegrating herself on the stairs, but it’s nice to see someone who works so nicely with shame, and in whom shame isn’t problematic. This is one of the many examples of why I call actors skilled emotionologists!

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Bill
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    There are many venues in LA, as you can imagine. A few that come to mind that might be appropriate are:

    West LA:


    In Santa Monica:

    The Bodhi Tree closed down.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Bill! As I look ahead at the book release in October, LA may be on my schedule!

  8. Bill
    | Reply

    Great, you’re welcome. I know someone who has a connection to the Wellness Living Store, so if/when the time comes, and if you like that venue, you can let me know and I can put you in touch.

    Definitely lots of people in LA yearning for workshops on consciousness and working with our bodies & emotions. :)

  9. strollingturtle
    | Reply

    Absolutely LOVE this post. Just shared the link to it on my blog. I love that you are teaching us about a third way….Time for the either/or thinking to get washed down the drain. It’s past time for a third way…a middle way! Yay! Thank you!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Strollingturtle. Emotional skills are awesome, aren’t they?

  10. Patrica Stevenson
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I consider your work on emotions with such value, and I treasure the new understanding that I have gained from it.It has been life changing for me. I wonder if you could shed some light on a technique that I just came across “Tapping” or TFT or EFT. I have never heard of it before.The claims seem to suggest that it helps to somehow ease emotions through some kind of code? I would love to hear your thought on it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia!

      I’ve looked into these tapping and emotional freedom ideas, and while some people swear by them, they don’t have a lot of valid data behind them. Something that concerns me about them in general is that they treat emotions as things that you want to get rid of or be free of, and that’s problematic in itself (however, that’s a very prevalent idea). For an emotionally-supportive and empathic approach to emotions, I suggest Focusing-oriented therapy, which helps people tune into their emotions, and if there is any trauma, I suggest looking into somatic therapies, which also help people tune into the genius inside their emotions and their responses, rather than treating them as problems. Emotions are carriers of unbelievable amounts of information and genius, and I focus on approaches that are respectful of emotional wisdom and emotional ways of interacting in the world.

  11. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Hi Karla! Expression, repression and the middle road (channeling) is such a powerful concept! One point that continues to arise in our group discussions is the struggle with the word “expression” since “channeling” ultimately feels like a form of expression as well.

    Our solution has been to expand our use of the terms to dishonorable expression, repression and honorable expression (mentioned in one of your books) when distinguishing between the three choices.

    I just wanted to make sure we aren’t missing something. It’s this simple… right? Continued thanks for the many lives you are changing…

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Lisa, yes — you can channel an emotion by expressing it. What I’m focusing on is inserting the important awareness and questioning steps, so that people don’t just fall into reactivity like this:

      Stimulus –> Emotion –> Action

      Instead, with channeling, the process has some cognitively moderated pauses:

      Stimulus –> Emotion –> Feeling & Identifying –> Questioning the Emotion (or tracking back to the stimulus) –> Acting (or deciding not to act if the stimulus is invalid)

      If the stimulus is valid and expression is the most workable action, then yeah, express! But with some emotions (like anger, which most people have been trained to use in horrendous ways), these pauses are crucial so that people don’t fly off the handle in response to an emotion they don’t know how to work with. I hope that helps!

  12. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Wonderful! Yes it does help — especially the inclusion/reminder of the words “reactivity” and “cognitively moderated pauses.” Very helpful! Thanks a bunch!

  13. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    Hi again Karla– I’ve been thinking about posting on one of your blogs for a bit. Recently, I’ve had some wispy germs of insight into the mysteries of humanity– As is my way, I gave them more substance in my mind than they have in reality (easy to do with ideas) and I brashly trumpeted my brilliance toward all who would listen. Not as many as I’d hoped, of course. But that doesn’t mean no one didn’t think I had something to say.

    As the dust settles, I find it hard to articulate exactly what my new insights are. This is not a new experience for me in regard to my insights. So, I’ll turn to old habits– I’m going to respond to some of what you said here and offer my thoughts, criticisms, further questions and ideas.

    I like the hypothetical scenario you focus on in this blog post. Partly because it strikes me as one in which most people would be unaware that they had any option other than to express or repress their emotions. My initial reaction was– Oh, but what about a truly malevolent manipulator? Such a person might take on the role of a timid and insecure person in public, all the while pulling strings behind the scenes. This person might repress her anger, but likely not dwell on it all night– instead she would be carefully crafting and executing her plans to dominate the group.

    Then, when I got to your example of how you might respond, I considered how I might respond in such a situation. I believe I might respond in any of the possible ways you’ve discussed, including a way similar to what you suggested (my way would probably be to crack a pointed joke of my own.) Or I might repress or express in a more fully committed way. I’m a bit hazy on the factors that would go into my decision– I’m very impulsive. As best I can tell, my agenda in groups rests on basically two pillars:

    1) Lead by example, teach, help others, facilitate group bonds and group decision-making.

    2) Dominate, control and manage. Obviously I do this to build and maintain my own power. I’m not convinced it isn’t partly a teaching function as well. More later.

    I suppose there’s a third pillar– I want to make friends :-)

    In any case, I am willing to publicly humiliate people if I deem it necessary. Certainly, I feel shame about this and I generally don’t do it very often. I am much more willing to humiliate people, whether privately or publicy, and I don’t feel as much shame as I used to.

    Now I’m curious how you might handle another hypothetical– What if you thought someone *was* building toward a coup inside a group using manipulative tactics behind the scenes all while publicly presenting as timid and/or likeable or non-threatening? From reading some of what you’ve written about your experience with cults and other authoritarian groups, I’m sure this is a situation you’ve encountered.

    Without offering a long explanation, I’d say my approach against enemies tends to be to fight fire with fire. In my experience anything less is insufficient.

    Which brings me to the earlier point I promised to elaborate: I think that part of teaching is offering a strong positive example that people want to follow. I also think people need challenge. I like to call it a kick in the ass.

    Well, that feels like enough on this topic. As always, I’m quite curious to hear your thoughts– or to witness how you choose to process the emotions you feel in response to this post :-)

    And btw, I like the concept of “action-requiring neurological programs” also. Right now I’m feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied– I’m curious how you deal with such feelings (which I assume you agree are simultaneously pleasant and dangerous)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Ira! That’s a long message, and I feel like you’re riffing, so I’ll just go with it. I can’t answer everything, but I’ll choose one: What to do about passive aggressive people who are doing some Machiavellian stuff behind the scenes. For me the answer is to gather allies — not for a war, because that never ends well, but to gather a group of people who can become aware of the behavior and organize strategy to detoxify the group dynamic.

      In a cult, that’s hard, because there are too many mechanisms of control running at once, but I would still attempt to gather allies. If I found in that attempt that it was not going to work, I would warn people, leave the group, and then keep lines of communication open with the ones who can still hear so that they can get out. If they can.

      Frontal assaults in these situations actually backfire and create stronger group cohesion, so while aggression might feel good for a few minutes, it would be a really bad strategy, and very injurious to already-vulnerable people. You learn that the hard way after a few cult experiences!

  14. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    Riffing, definitely; thanks for playing along.

    I agree that a cult is an extreme example. My hunch is that authoritarianism and hierarchy in all groups functions more or less according to the same rules. Clearly some leaders are more benevolent, and in other cases leaders vie for power and balance each other out to some extent, creating breathing room for less powerful members of the group.

    I think that a less often discussed factor is the charisma or what I sometimes call personal power of leaders (and all people, really.) I believe that what sets cults apart is the exagerration of personal, charismatic, idiosyncratic elements of power, mostly uninhibited by legalistic, bureaucratic, impersonal forms of power.

    In any case, for what it’s worth, your hypothetical response to a cult sounds similar to how I dealt with and have continued to deal with my own experience with a group I consider to be a cult.

    Except in one crucial regard. I think that a significant part of my response involved a frontal assault. Once I had an internal break with the group ideology and connected to my terror, discarded my system of lies and excuses, I came to the conclusion I needed to escape. I argued constantly with everybody about the abuses, trying to convince them that the group was a cult. Their apparent response was as you suggest– creating stronger group cohesion.

    I dispute that my behavior was injurious to these already-vulnerable people however. My view is that my exit indeed made them more vulnerable temporarily, since I think that I acted as something of a buffer against the depredations of the leadership. However, I think that by taking a courageous stand and leaving in a blaze of glory, I helped provide some sort of psychic inoculation that has lasted even after my departure (I’ve made an effort to be at least available to everyone, and I’ve maintained relationships with many.)

    Of course this could all be a carefully crafted system of excuses that I’ve designed to justify my self-serving behavior. I don’t know why, but it’s hard for me to sort it out on my own. My fallibility, at least, seems evident :-)

    For me, regardless of my own experiences, the question remains: is aggression bad or harmful, ultimately only capable of dividing and destroying? Or does it play some deeper role that in the end is a necessary part of the process of creating unity, trust and understanding?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Dude! You nailed the many facets of cult control, and the Charismatic Leader is the clincher. You can have every other aspect of cultishness happening, but without a charismatic leader, a cult can’t really get off the ground.

      Did I tell you that I have written with and am now writing a book with the internationally recognized cult expert Janja Lalich? Understanding cults is so sweet! Her four-factor Bounded Choice model is really the best model out there, and I’m so lucky to have been able to work with her.

      Like you, I also left my cult in a blaze of glory, and it did increase internal cohesion, because now they had a black sheep and a traitor to fight against. But the cult soon fell apart completely, though many people looked for a new one and some are still looking today. It’s an amazingly seductive system of control.

      About aggression: It has its place, but as it is with any weapon, it needs to be utilized with incredible care, honor, diligence, and skill. For the best approaches to aggression, I look to Aikido, to the old models of fighting with honor and rules (fencing is a cool stylized aggression sport), and to Sharon Ellison’s work on Powerful Non Defensive Communication.

      There are very few people who know how to do aggression well, and even fewer who know how to receive it. I’m an awesome aggression person, but I can do it with almost no one. When I find someone who can spar and fence verbally and emotionally with me — and who understands the rules of engagement, watch out! It’s fun fireworks up in the house!

      I’ve got a post brewing, and I’m going to have to clean up the title, but it’s called Envisioning a Form of Violence That’s Not Fucked Up. Violence and aggression, handled honorably, require rules, boundaries, extensive ethics, and awareness of self and other. It’s isn’t so much a lost art as a missing one. Which is why I focus on the stylized aggression models out there, yeah!

  15. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    Awww, you’re almost making me blush. Well, I don’t blush. No one has ever told me I did anyway and I’ve never seen any red in the mirror. Hmm, I guess I’m not sure on that one. All I can say is, no one better ever point it out to me if they do see it!

    Hmm, where was I? Ah yes.


    Man, if that didn’t work, I’m really gonna be embarassed :-)


    Cool beans, and I’m looking forward to the new post [ fwiw I like the unsanitized title just fine :) ]

    And btw, The story certainly hasn’t closed on the cult I was talking about. However the branch I was part of was an extension of the original, which had been in another city for some time and continues on today. I was one of the first members of the branch in my locale– it was growing for a time but was starting to fall apart around the time I made my exit, and dissolved completely in less than a year. I certainly don’t claim sole or even most of the credit for that. I’m glad though, that’s for sure!

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