Protecting yourself from emotional abuse

Whew! The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the seemingly endless turmoil in the Middle East and Africa, the financial crisis and the economic downturn it caused, and over the weekend, the Supermoon? That’s a lot to take in. Even without any media jacking you up, it’s a lot to take in. So here’s my suggestion: Be very mindful about what else you take in.

In Buddhism, there’s a saying: Suffering is discomfort multiplied by resistance, which tells us that if we can focus on our discomfort in a healthy way, instead of jacking ourselves up about it or making it into a melodrama, we can avoid suffering (I don’t think the Buddha ever used the phrase “jacking up,” but you get the point). Notice that the Buddha makes a distinction between discomfort and suffering. Discomfort, as we all know, is an expected part of life. There will be trouble, and loss, and pain; there will be discomfort. That’s not negotiable. But what is negotiable is how we manage our emotions and our behaviors in the face of discomfort.

As we face the serious discomforts of 9.0 earthquakes and tsunamis that travel 6 miles inland; the damage to Japanese nuclear plants; the still-unaddressed earthquake damage in Haiti; the tragic parade of violent dictators; the loss of financial security and stability; the widening chasm between political and ideological groups; and the resurgence of multiple forms of intolerance and bigotry, it is a very easy thing to tumble downward into suffering. Because really, who wouldn’t resist all of this discomfort?

But let’s turn toward suffering and ask ourselves what it is, really? To my eye, suffering is an emotional state, or to be more precise, it’s a series of intertwined emotions such as depression and despair, anger and rage, fear and anxiety, dread and panic, and so forth. For each of us, suffering involves different emotions and different mixtures of emotion, but suffering seems to require that we add something extra to the discomfort that is already present.

Mindfulness practices can give us options when we head downhill toward suffering. The emotional mindfulness practice in The Language of Emotions helps you turn toward your emotions, identify them, and then take the actions that best complete those emotions. The discomfort will still be there, but you’ll be in a better position to deal with that discomfort — and most importantly, you’ll be better able to support others who are in pain. Mindfulness can help you avoid the paralyzing emotional badlands of suffering.

But once you’ve figured out how to identify your emotions and work with them properly, there’s another important protective step to take, and that’s to avoid people and situations that are emotionally abusive. For instance, we’ve all seen scientifically ignorant journalists go on panicky benders about the Fukushima reactors. These people’s inability to deal with their emotional reactions (and their truly abysmal research skills) caused a great deal of unnecessary panic and dread throughout the world (I’m writing from the coast of California, where some hysteria is occurring — as if we Californians are in imminent danger of nuclear fallout. We’re not.).

We’ve seen endless video loops of the tsunami tearing across the Japanese countryside and taking whole towns with it. I watched them — we all did — because there’s a part of us that needs to see disaster, so that we know what to do if we’re ever in one (learning about disasters and misfortunes is a very important survival skill). But let’s be honest; after two viewings, we can all glean most of the information we need. Any more than that, and I’d say we’re entering into a kind of disaster porn — where our eyes are glued to the screen as if we’re nearly drugged.

As you watch this sort of coverage, observe your emotions. Do you feel more informed, focused, and able to offer useful support to the Japanese, or to other suffering people? Or do your emotions get jacked up and caught in a different kind of tsunami? If you’re experiencing the latter situation, you’re experiencing emotional manipulation and abuse.

Protecting yourself from emotional manipulation and abuse

Sadly, advertising-dependent news media have two competing mandates: one is to provide the news, and the other is to find ways to keep you watching for as long as possible so that they can get paid. And sadder still, with the amazing amount of fiercely competing media now available, we’re not so much informed as we are targeted. Manipulated. Jacked up. Pandered to. Abused.

Bear says noLast week’s Supermoon hysteria is a wonderful example of this. If you didn’t see the story, here’s a quick summary: Some off-brand astrologer who didn’t understand astronomy predicted that Saturday’s perigee moon would somehow cause natural disasters, and then he back-predicted to connect this week’s Supermoon to last week’s Japanese earthquakes. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.

But for people who were already frightened and jacked up by media porn coverage of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the Fukushima reactors, it made a kind of sense. So the story began to circulate, and was magnified by reporters who included the nonsense prediction in their stories as if it were a valid piece of information. Real astronomers and climatologists were put in the position of responding to this hysteria, and they did what they could. Clearly, the story was completely wrong, and if journalism was about informing the people, this story would have been reported in the Odd News category, or perhaps in the Failed Prophecies section. But in too many cases, it wasn’t.

I spent this weekend on Facebook and Twitter connecting people to reputable stories and scientists who actually know what they’re talking about. I’m glad to have done it, but how absurd is it that any of us should have to?

I expect (some of) my friends to send silly viral warnings about iodine pills or preposterous Supermoon prophecies, but I’m really tired of seeing actual media outlets follow suit.

So I have a question for you: How do you protect yourself from media manipulation, or from the well-meaning emotional abuse that your e-mailing friends expose you to? Where do you go for responsible reporting on issues that matter? Is Snopes bookmarked in your browser? Is Scientific American?

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and maintain your compassionate focus? What steps do you take to tolerate honest discomfort yet avoid unnecessary suffering? Thanks for sharing your real solutions!

Be well,


42 Responses

  1. sylvie
    | Reply

    Hello Karla! I have been working with a client who was overwhelmed with fear after the Japan events. Using your teachings, we worked on her territory and she discovered that for years she had been protecting it with fear (hiperactive intellect, anxiety, hiper vigilance, even phobias). We did the exercises of grounding and defining personnal boundary with the help of anger… and the moment she shifted from fear to anger fear disappeared and she felt powerful again. She said: “It’s a revolution! Thank you!”

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Wow Sylvie! I’m so glad the work is helping your client suffer less. Isn’t anger (properly used) the most amazing thing?

      You’re right. If you’re setting your boundaries with fear, wow, you’ll be exhausted. I also see some people setting their boundaries with sadness, and that doesn’t work either. When each emotion is in its place, we’re all much more functional. Yay emotions!

  2. Terre Spencer
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    Because images hijack my perceptions, I listen to NPR and read responsible journalism for news and have for over 20 years. I simply have not seen the images from 9/11, Katrina, the various wars around the world or the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
    That may make me an oddity, but avoiding network news reduces my reactivity nearly 50%. Hearing and/or reading rather than watching allows my entire psyche to engage without going towards an amygdala-only response.

    • Karla
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      Thanks Terre. Sensitive people need to protect themselves from so much of what media puts out there! I don’t own a TV because broadcast channels are so screamy and jacked up — constant commercials, and even commercials inserted into the shows you’re watching. And cable news is nuts, with a talking head, quick-cut photos of whatever they find that’s intense, and then they’ve got a news feed on a fast crawl at the bottom of the screen. WTF!?!

      Yeah, NPR and PBS, because they’re more sober and focused — not so hyper-emotional, manipulative, and hyperactive. I also bop over to BBC online for some stories, and to science sites for anything technical or involved. Where else do you go?

  3. Terre Spencer
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    I do have a TV, but no cable service. I watch documentary and movie DVDs with my parrots. Anything too fast and jerky for my parrots is not fit for me either (like those horrid crawling headlines on the bottom of cable news shows).
    The Beeb is a good source, as is AlterNet. I listen to a LOT of authorial podcasts. Social, non-fiction writers generally give a great deal of information when interviewed.
    I follow favorite writers’ and journalists’ blogs and articles, have ongoing correspondence with some who cover things I am especially interested in. And then I sit back and accept that I cannot possibly know everything about everything. The sheer volume of what there is to know is quite humbling. To make sense of even a tiny, tiny percentage of that is wisdom.

  4. Matty Boy
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    I luvs your gorilla, ‘cos he’s so… thoughty!

    Very nicely written essay as well. I’m so far out of the info loop I only see a little of the stuff that bubbles onto websites I read, but honestly, I’m kinda sorta into the sciences (math, actually), and when we have two earthquakes as big as the one in Japan and last year’s Chile quake, I worry that quakes around 9.0 might become a regular thing around the Ring of Fire, part of which I call “my back yard”.

    Not that there’s much I can do about it except move to Vermont, but it’s so… cold there.

    • Karla
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      Hey Matty Boy! I thought you’d like the thoughty primate!

      I read a nice piece on our old pal, San Andreas, and apparently, we mainlanders don’t have 9.0s to look forward to.

      I also read a piece that I’m having trouble tracking down, in which geologists talked about the quake dampening effect of specific areas in California. It’s nice to know about, in terms of future tremblors and our existing nuclear plants. I’ll see if I can track it down.

  5. Bee
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    Thank you for your book, blog and insights. I have been ‘sensitive’ as long as I can remember, ridiculed by my own family for this and am lately finding it too painful to take part in much of what goes on in the world. There’s too much feeling. I can’t seem to read your book fast enough and came to your site to see if you see people individually, but alas I see that was your path to the book. Dissociation and ‘spirituality’ seem to go together for me, and my m.o. fits your description of people you have worked with, yet I have no overwhelming trauma in my history – just things that others seem to be able to process but bring me to my knees in overwhelming feelings. I am seeking a balance that allows me to utilize these amazing empathic skills while managing to function rationally in the world as well. Your elemental boundary work brought me to this book – just reading your descriptions helped a great deal – as an earth, earth, earth I sometimes find it hard to function when I’m not in the woods! Looking forward to getting ‘out of the woods’ with the help of Language of the Emotions. Any other insights, tips or ideas are welcomed and greatly appreciated. Thank you for your strength and wise counsel.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks, Bee! I was thinking today about people I know who try to shut down or shame others who are sensitive. Some are truly insensitive themselves (one person, for instance, has very high pain tolerance and very low emotional reactivity), but some are deeply emotional and just can’t deal with it. So having you (or me) around is just too awful for them. That’s why it’s good to build boundaries around yourself, and learn to calm your reactivity, so you won’t trigger highly sensitive people (who don’t know it). I find now that I can just be gentle and funny around people like that, and talk in a roundabout way about emotions, and they calm down and stop attacking!

      In terms of working one-on-one with someone, have you looked at the work of Elaine Aron, who wrote the books about The Highly Sensitive Person? She is a licensed counselor, and she does workshops. She also has workbooks if you want to do the work on your own.

      As for working with me, I’ll be doing an 8-week interactive online workshop through Sounds True in September. I working now to see just how interactive it can be. I’m hoping to create an online community of people who can explore emotions as messengers and information-carriers, rather than merely seeing them as problematical. In that sort of community, your sensitivity will be a welcome thing! We will learn to sing the chant circus freaks sing to new members: Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us! (Actually, I think that’s the Ramones’ version! Here it is, if you can tolerate punk rock. I like it, but I like New Wave bettah!)

  6. Terre Spencer
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    Karla, I am interested in the Sounds True workshop. I am on their email list, and would appreciate it if you would post a notice here also. Sometimes, I, um, delete things that look like solicitations without reading them when I am feeling unwilling to respond to marketing (which is pretty frequently). So some ST stuff gets the heave without investigation.
    The workshop sounds fascinating!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Terre, I too am a deleting monster. I’ll definitely post about the workshop here. It will start in late September, but I’m building the curriculum and creating content for it between now and July. I’ll post about it soon and ask people what they specifically want to work on. I’m looking forward to lots of feedback, and to the course itself!

  7. Katrina
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    I work at a daily newspaper — and yet, I don’t read our paper; nor do I read many of the stories on the website. I don’t watch the evening news; I don’t read news websites; I don’t listen to the radio. Not because I want to hide my head in the sand — but because I know there’s so much suffering in the world, and there’s very little I can do about it.

    “Do what you can where you are with what you have to offer.” That’s sort of my motto. I wouldn’t be much good helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house or serving dinner at a soup kitchen or stocking shelves in a food pantry. But I can tell powerful stories as an actor and writer — and maybe one of those stories will touch someone’s heart, and that person will go and do things I can’t to make a difference.

    My dream right now is to find a way to start my own theatre company, so I can present meaningful stories on stage. I don’t want to sell tickets for these performances — but I don’t want to do it for free, because when something is free, you often don’t value it. Instead, I want to make some kind of donation the admission fee — perhaps “bring food for the food pantry” or “bring gently used clothing for the family crisis center” or “make a donation to the American Cancer Society” gets you in to see the show.

    That’s how I want to make a difference — by using the gifts I have to offer, instead of feeling bad because I can’t fix all the problems in the world.

  8. Mary Ann Ribble
    | Reply

    Greetings! LOVE your work that I have connected with @ perfect time. What has happened to the link with your workshop in Vancouver? Wanted to consider for myself and my husband. Gotta run to work! Your work is so well articulated and clear. Thank YOU! write more later. The sun IS shining here in Upstate New York / Wonder-full!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Mary Ann, I’ve had to reschedule that workshop until next year, but I’ve got an online workshop coming up in September. It will be an eight-week session with video, audio, live sessions, and a community forum. I think it will be fun! Glad you’ve got nice weather — we’ve got sun here today in California, too!

  9. Mary Ann Ribble
    | Reply

    The online session sounds great and I am definitely interested. I am using your book as a tool to aid me in my own emotional work and have experienced over the last almost 40 years that “turning within” to experience the wonders there have EVERYTHING to do with being able to recognize and have a language for understanding my emotions. All my experiences of feeling freer to BE come from being able to feel and understand more deeply my emotions and their meanings in the context of my unique and very personal history. All of my experiences of “creative” activities that enlarge what I think is possible come from experiencing and understanding my emotional self. There is much to share but sleep is calling!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Sleep! Mary Ann, I’ll be posting about the online class in the next few days, and asking for input from people about what they would want to explore. There will be people completely new to the book, and old hands like us, so I’m working now to create a curriculum to keep both kinds of student engaged.

  10. No name
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Saw your new book here in an Iowa chain bookstore… can’t wait to read it; it’s next after one by Orloff. I think I rem. telling you about her back in the day. You & I met a few times in San Fran… you helped me with issues from my past & public speaking, came to my house back in 1998. I’m very interested in reading about your ‘new skepticism’. You always had such common sense so I’m sure I’ll keep learning more! Take care & write on!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Woohoo chain bookstore! It will be interesting to see how the book tracks over time. Book sales are so funny.

  11. Jill Rosen
    | Reply

    I don’t engage on the day to day level with the news. It’s too negative and it presents people, and its audience, in a diminished light.

    I don’t even think that TV news is news. It’s more like entertainment, or a virtual superculture of the lowest common denominator, and it keeps people defocused. So I don’t feel obligated to keep up with it.

    Most “news” is just the fallout of deeper trends, and I am not newsy: I prefer to learn about the deeper trends themselves, not their manifestations.

    I also like to think more big picture: big human trends like population increase and the move to lower-carbon energy sources. For that I trust WorldWatch Institute’s nonprofit scientific publications. They do a good job of presenting global issues like Third World illiteracy without taking a position on it.

    Something like Worldwatch Institute’s publications forces me to absorb the larger issue and think harder about it – what are all the factors at play in environmental degradation, for example, and how is it related to population increase and poverty? For example, we know that deforestation is bad and can lead to arid, useless land. But to avoid it, the local culture might need a new source of cooking fuel, since the local habit has been to go cut down trees in the nearby forest. Then I look at programs of nonprofits to see how they tackle this particular issue of cooking fuel alternatives. And I find that an organization like Heifer International has teamed up with an ex-pat from China to provide rural villages in remote areas of China with a way to capture methane from composted manure and cook using that. It closes the loop for me and I see a path out, and I can support that path, so I do.

    This is more or less how I meet my social obligation toward human culture. That and supporting the arts like music. And not just jumping on every bandwagon that comes by like Frankenstein’s angry mob – reflecting sincerely on what happens and what it might mean and acting with a conviction that there are multiple viewpoints and stakeholders in every contest.

    When I’m feeling like interacting with others and nobody I like is around, I will listen to interviews with writers and thinkers and artists who inspire me to learn more and keep trying to do my best, like on New Dimensions Radio, where I heard Karla speak for the first time.

    To tune in to the suffering of others is painful and drains my energy, so instead I selected a few organizations to support that work to alleviate abject poverty and cruelty to the disenfranchised, and I support them steadfastly.

    Right now I just give donations and update myself now and then as to what these organizations are doing. However, I am also using Karla’s book, tai chi, music, meditation, and yoga to try to learn not to multiply other people’s discomfort within myself so that one day I can participate in these organizations myself without getting drained or having to detach emotionally.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Jill, great ideas! I just finished donating to a bunch of places, and I’ve been holding back because I sort of had to be sure that they were my best choices. Yow, there’s a lot of need, and it can be paralyzing sometimes, trying to figure out where to focus attention and resources. Thanks for your input!

  12. No name
    | Reply

    I know, huh? There were only two left, too! They have the book prominently displayed on the shelf, cover out, so it really catches the eye…. Can’t wait to run back & buy it! Funny, I just yesterday ran across my BPI certificate for graduating from some class there back in the 90’s… I laughed. =)

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