Search Weekly Wisdom
Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
The gifts of ALL emotions—including depression
Karla McLaren is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and educator whose empathic approach to emotions informs her studies of sociology, anthropology, neurology, and cognitive psychology. With Sounds True, Karla has most recently contributed to the anthology Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Karla and Tami Simon discuss depression as an essential human emotion—one that may carry important messages about what’s no longer working for you. They also talk about the questions you can ask of your emotions to determine their cause and the course of action they are asking you to take. Finally, Tami and Karla speak on the necessity of understanding and embracing the full range of human emotions—even those you deem unpleasant—in order to live a fuller, healthier life. (58 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest Karla McLaren. Karla is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and pioneering educator whose empathic approach to emotions has taken her through the healing of her own childhood trauma into a healing career and now into the study of sociology, anthropology, neurology, cognitive psychology, and education. Karla is the author of several programs with Sounds True, including The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You and The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Karla and I spoke about emotions as messengers and the questions you can ask to elicit the gifts of different emotional states. We talked specifically about depression as a “forced time-out” and what the vital messages might be that depression brings. Finally, we talked about what it might look like to treat ourselves like a village, where all the members of the village have an essential role to play. Here’s my conversation with a very original thinker—the pioneering Karla McLaren:
Karla, the title for Sounds True’s new anthology of redefining the journey through depression comes from your work on emotions. The title is Darkness Before Dawn. I’m wondering—to begin our conversation—if you can explain a little bit about this phrase: “darkness before dawn.”
Karla McLaren: Well, what’s interesting—and you probably know this—is that “darkness before dawn” is the subtitle of a chapter of my book, The Language of Emotions. It’s the subtitle of the chapter on suicidal urges, which would be depression times ten. It is in the area of depression, but it’s a much more intense version of it.
But, because depression and suicidal urges are connected to each other, I think saying that depression can be the darkness before dawn is also true. Any time that you move into depression—and I’m talking about situational depression, which is where you can track what the depression is responding to. This would be different than, say, hormonal depression or bipolar depression or some other kind of more serious depression—like major depression.
[However,] when we drop into depression that is situational, there’s a way that the depression is stopping us from moving forward because moving forward would not be wise. It is not a good idea to move forward with whatever it is that’s going on. It could be some situation at work that is simply untenable, or a relationship that cannot go forward and needs to end, or something along those lines. Or, you’re simply not taking care of yourself and you’re completely drained and tired.
Your depression will step forward at that time to say, “Hey, pal. Do not move forward with what’s going on here. We’re going to shut it down.”
So, it’s sort of like the psyche acting intelligently and compassionately to stop you from going in a direction that isn’t going to lead anywhere good at all. If you can stop, that darkness can help you move toward the dawn of, “Oh, what is it that I do want? This depression is telling me in no uncertain terms what I don’t want and what doesn’t work.” So, that leaves room for what does.
TS: Now, I’ve heard from people suffering from depression that they don’t know the reason. They don’t know what’s going on. This is happening for some intelligent reason? I’m too depressed to have any idea about what the intelligent reason might be. How would you address that person?
KM: I would say—I have something on my website called “Working through Depression.” Depression is my friend. I say that my brain gets an A+ in depression. So, I’ve worked with it throughout my whole life, and learned a lot of practices.
But, one of the practices for depression is to actually go through a checklist and see if there’s anything going on in your life that is pulling at you, and as you soon as you think of it, it just makes you go, “Oh, God. No!”
If there isn’t anything—if your relationships are healthy and your workplace is healthy and you’re taking care of your body and you’re getting enough sleep—then I would say then it’s time to go to your healthcare practitioner. It’s time to go see [if this could] be hormonal. Could this be biochemical? Is there a way to support my way through this?
As you know, if depression goes on too long, it sort of creates its own weather pattern. Instead of having this momentary depressive feeling, you kind of move your entire house into the house of depression. That can be—as we’ve all experienced—a very dangerous time that’s mostly darkness before darkness. There’s no dawn.
TS: Now, you said something interesting—“my brain gets an A+ for depression.” What did you mean by that?
KM: [Laughs.] I’m looking at non-pathologizing ways to talk about people’s differences from the norm. So, if we were going to give me a pathology label, we would say that I have or suffer from major depression and dysthymia. I don’t find that those are helpful ways to look at it. I’m not pretending that this isn’t true for me.
But, rather than talking about myself in terms of a medicalized deficit narrative, I’d rather look and say, “I get an A+ in depression. I freaking rock at depression!” I mean, I’m really good at this.
But, what that also means is that I need to be careful around things that would depress a regular person because they’re going to knock me out. For instance, TV shows that are dystopias—I have to be very careful with—
TS: What does that word mean?
KM: Oh—a utopia is a happy, perfect world and a dystopia is an unhappy, miserable world. So, if I watch drama that there’s no one to like and there’s no one to care about and there’s no hope, my depression will start roiling just because I’m in the presence of a depressive place.
So, the show Game of Thrones—don’t want to watch it, thanks. Or the show House of Cards—nope, ain’t watching it. Breaking Bad? No.
I can watch it for a little while, and then I get drawn in. I know that for my own health and emotional wellness, I need to be with funny, up-tempo people or dramas where you can care about someone [and] where there is hope—if that makes sense.
TS: Yes, it does. It does.
Now, you talked about how for someone, they might have this sense of darkness before more darkness—that they don’t feel into this hope of dawn. As we titled our anthology Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression, I wondered if some people might be like, “Oh, come on. Stop promising the dawn. You don’t know that that’s going to happen.” So, what’s your response to that?
KM: If the depression is not responding to your practices, then I would say there may not be a dawn in that depression. You may need to go get some support.
But, I think one of the problems with depression is that we have so many rules about emotions that turn out not to work very well. One of them is the optimism bias—which is, we all want to be up-tempo and looking at the positive side of life. So, any movement toward any of the sadness-based emotions—sadness, depression, grief, suicidal urges—tends to be put into pathology rather than saying, “Oh! I’m having a normal human emotion of depression or grief or sadness.”
We say, “Oh my God! I’m not optimistic. I’m negative.” So, we not only have the depression, which has a job to do—to tell us what’s going on needs to be looked at because it’s not healthy and it’s not working—but we now have an emotion about the depression. Now, we’re ashamed about the depression. Now we’re angry that we’re ashamed about the depression. Now, we feel afraid.
And I’m like, “Stop! This is an emotion pile-up. Just keep it with the emotion that’s happening—depression.” And there are practices for it. If the practices don’t work, then go get help.
But, it’s not [that] you fail at depression [or] you fail at dealing with depression if it keeps going. Sometimes, emotions and people need help. There’s a fairly easy way to find out if you need help, which is that if you do the practices and the depression doesn’t even care, and it doesn’t move, then it’s time to get help.
TS: OK, so let’s talk about these “depression practices.” What do you mean? What are the practices you offer?
KM: Well, what I do with depression is: each of the emotions—I look at them as separate entities that do very specific jobs in the psyche. I have a question and a practice to do with each emotion. I look at 17 different emotions, and depression is one in the “sadness” category.
The questions for depression are: “Where has my energy gone, and why was it sent away?” That’s really different than the questions most people ask about depression, which is, “Why do I fail at life, and why am I so horrible, and why is there no hope?”
Rather, look at the actual situation that’s occurring. Your energy is being taken away by something intentional. So, intentionally move into the depression and speak to it empathically. Work with it and say, “Depression, what do you want? What are you saying? What is going on here?” Rather than, “I am a depressed person,” say, “I am person who is having the emotion of depression right now, and depression has a very specific job.”
So, I can help my depression rather than fight it, or fall into shame and fear and anger about the fact of the human emotion of depression.
TS: So, there are a couple of very interesting things you’ve said here that I want to underscore for a moment. The first is you’re referring to depression as “a normal human emotion.” That’s very interesting. You don’t hear people talk about depression often that way. Is that how you see it? It’s a normal human emotion?
KM: Yes. It has its purpose. It has its place. But again, I’m talking about situational depression and not the more serious forms of depression that can really completely knock you out.
TS: OK. Those are important distinctions to make.
KM: Yes, yes. So, to say to someone who’s having bipolar depression that they’re not having a fun time at all—or someone with severe suicidal, major depressive episodes—to say, “Hey! Why don’t you ask your depression why—?” It’s like, “Stop.”
There’s a sort of triage that one needs to do with depression because it can be very dangerous to stay in depression for a long time. It’s about taking your energy away and eventually—if it stays too long—your energy will be gone.
So, it’s one of the emotions to be very, very aware and mindful of.
TS: And when you say [that] if it is a severe depression, that [you should] go check it out medically—perhaps get help—I presume you’re referring to antidepressants and that there are times in your view—this is a question—where antidepressants are needed?
KM: Needed? I would say yes for the people for whom they work. But, there are lot of people for whom they don’t work. Talk therapy has been shown to have tremendously good results because it—when you go to talk therapy, it’s OK to talk about your depression, to start working on it, and to start figuring out what’s going on. That is the depression practice.
So, in talk therapy—I was very anti-antidepressant for decades. My depression got to the point where that was no longer an issue for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I went on an antidepressant for about three years, and it was so awesome I couldn’t even believe it. It was great. I had no idea that people’s brains that don’t get an A+ in depression actually feel that way. I was astonished at what it was like to have depression that I could manage. Then, after learning how to manage it, I was able to transition off the antidepressant.
But it was sweet. I couldn’t believe it.
But, I know many people that have tried 16 antidepressants and nothing works. So, for them: talk therapy, maybe something alternative, change in diet—something. Something.
TS: OK, so asking these two questions: “Where has my energy gone and why has it gone away?” Can you give me some examples from your own A+ history with depression of how you’ve answered those questions and how those answers helped you? Just really make it real—how to work with those questions—from your own experience.
KM: Yes. Sometimes—I don’t know if this happens for you—but sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll just feel ecch. I don’t really want to get up. I don’t have that morning, “Yay! Let’s go do something.”
So, I’ve learned to stay in bed and to just go through the previous day, and sort of do an inventory. With my husband Tino—is there anything there? No. With work, is there anything there? Oh!
I sit with the depression and ask it questions. I’ll go through one by one the things that might be happening. I will find what it is that’s gnawing at me and that the depression came to tell me.
And then, I’ll figure out, “OK, so that’s where my energy’s been taken away. I’m not allowed to move forward. So, I need to go deal with that thing.” Then, when I know that, I can get up.
Then maybe I’ll call the person and say, “Did I say something really insensitive to you yesterday? Because I feel like we got off on the wrong foot.” Or something like that.
Or, maybe it’s I ate too much candy on Halloween and I feel horrible. It can be something as simple as that—some change that happened in the day before.
But, because I’m such an A+ depression person, I’ve learned to catch my depression immediately because I have been in severe suicidal depressions. It’s almost like there’s a track worn in my brain that, if I am not careful around depression, I can drop into a suicidal urge.
So, I’ve learned the first whisper of depression—any kind of ecch—then I get on it right away. It’s actually become my best friend. Depression now tells me, “Yep, that didn’t work. Can’t do that.”
So, it’s actually kept me on a straight and narrow path, and continually pointed me in the direction my soul wants to go. You don’t hear that about depression.
TS: Yes. There’s an interesting quote from the essay that you’ve written for Darkness Before Dawn. I thought I’d read it and then you can comment on it. Which is, “I’ve learned to treat my depression as a vital message about serious problems instead of mistakenly treating depression as the problem itself.”
KM: Ooh, that’s good.
TS: I thought so too!
KM: [Laughs.] Now, I mean, there are some situations in which—for instance, sometimes as women are going through puberty and their hormones start riling up, young women can drop into depression just hormonally. So, that can be something that really needs to be looked at, because they’re just filled with a lot of hormones and their brain is not managing well, so they need support. Women at the end of their time of monthly periods—in menopause—can also drop into depressions hormonally.
So, in those instances and a number of other ones, then depression is the problem. But, it’s also something that’s telling us, “Hey hey, something’s happening.” It’s the same thing [as] when people’s hormones are changing drastically, then the condition that would cause depression to arise has occurred. Something is wrong and we can’t go forward in this way, so depression comes forward.
So, I always look at depression as my first warning system. Instead of saying, “Oh my God, I’m depressed, which means I’m a failure at positive thinking or I’m a failure at mediation or I’m a failure at whatever.” Instead, I’m looking at it as, “Oh, depression—what? What do I need to do? Because I trust you now. I know that you’re trying to tell me something.”
TS: Now, Karla, in your view—if I understand this correctly—all emotions are messengers. Can you explain that?
KM: I see emotions as fundamental and vital aspects of every part of our lives. I see them as fundamental to all thinking, all behavior, all motivation. So, each emotion has a very specific job to do in the psyche. Each emotion helps us—or all the emotions together—become successful social beings and successful internal beings.
So, I see each emotion as carrying a message. For instance, depression tells us, “No, pal—you can’t go forward.” Sadness says that you’re holding on to something that you don’t need anymore, so let it go. Grief says—it’s different than sadness—something has died. Someone or something has died, and you didn’t have a choice about it. So, here’s the emotion that can help you survive that.
Each emotion has its own job to do. What we’ve been taught is that we only like the happy ones. We only like the “good” ones. The problem is that if we look at emotions in the way that I’m categorizing them—there’s 17 of them—the happiness emotions are only three. I think that’s like 17.5 percent of emotions—I think my math may be wrong.
But, we’re trained to be good in very few emotions. The rest of them—the other 14—we are trained to run from and ignore. Then, we try to go hide in the emotions in the happiness area. The happiness emotions have their own jobs to do. They have really important jobs to do—but they can’t do the job of the other emotions. The other emotions evolved because there was a need for them.
So, looking at each one of the messengers kind of takes all that pathology off the so-called negative emotions. Instead of reacting to the fact that you have human emotions that aren’t happiness—oh my gosh!—you can say, “Oh, there’s anger. OK, it means that a boundary has been crossed or a rule has been broken. So, what do I need to do about that?” rather than, “Here’s anger. I’m going to destroy you.” Or, “Here’s anger. I’m going to crush it because nice people are never angry.” It’s a way to be empathic with the emotions.
TS: Now, Karla, when you talk about 17 different emotions and only 3 of them are in this happiness family—17.5 percent or something like that—
KM: Something like that.
TS: —it makes me wonder, then: do you think that someone who is living in a balanced, fluid place would be spending the majority of their time in experiencing these difficult emotions—anger, fear, panic, sadness, grief, et cetera—and only spending 17 percent of my time in the happiness equation? Or is it you’re not really saying that, but you’re just wanting to open us to the whole range?
KM: No, but I’m saying those are some awesome emotions—[but] look at the other ones! OK? How about the other ones?
I think what I notice when people get balanced is that their emotions work really subtly and softly—such that they may not even know that they’re having emotions. So, a person who works really well with anger has good boundaries that are not crushing the boundaries of others. A person who works really well with fear has incredibly good instincts and intuition. A person works very well with sadness does not hold on to crap they don’t need. A person who works very well with envy asks for appropriate remuneration and makes sure that everyone around them has what they need as well.
You would never hear that if you didn’t sit and talk to the emotions themselves. They know what they’re doing.
TS: OK. So, in your work, you talk about these questions we can ask when we’re having an emotional experience to help us hear the message, if you will, of what the emotion is appearing to teach us, to say to us. You gave the example of depression. I’m wondering if you could tell us some of the questions you ask for some of the other emotions. I think it’s so helpful. I’d love our listeners to hear this.
KM: Sure. In anger, the questions are, “What must be protected, and what must be restored?” We always kind of know that anger wants us to protect something—protect ourselves, protect our sense of self. But there’s also a restoration in there—restoring the boundary. If you learn to work with anger with the rule that you will not break the boundaries of another person, then anger can become one of the most honorable emotions there is. It’s about boundaries. Not just mine, but about everybody’s.
TS: Now, let’s just pause for a moment here on anger—because I think there’s a lot of ideas that anger is a “destructive” emotion and it’s harmful for you, it’s harmful for the chemistry in your body to be angry, it’s harmful to others. It sounds like you’re saying something pretty different here.
KM: Yes. Yes. Yes—anger can be violent. So can joy! Lots of emotions—if you don’t know how to work with them and you don’t know how to wield them with skill—you can hurt people with your emotions. You can hurt yourself too.
Sadness? If people stay in sadness for a long time, that can be bad for the psyche as well. That can be bad for the body.
Depression? We know that that can be bad for the body if you stay in it too long.
What I’m looking at with emotions is how to help them flow—how to help them give their message and move on as they’re meant to, rather than moving into them and living there forever. So, if anger is about boundaries, you can set boundaries with violence. You can say, “Screw you! This is how I’m going to do it!”
Or, you can set the boundary without violence and you can say, “Well, you know what? I understand that you want to do it that way and that’s really important. I need for us to make room for me to do it this way, so that we don’t—” You know what I’m saying? I’m still setting the boundary, but I’m not doing it by tearing into someone.
When people are very good with anger—my dad is someone who is very good with his anger. He sets boundaries just by standing in his body. Nobody messes with my dad. He never has to say anything. There’s nothing angry or rude coming off of him. He just holds his energy in such a way that people do not mess with him. He was a wonderful person to grow up with—someone who did anger without any violence. He could just look at someone and they would say, “OK. I didn’t mean to do that.” He’s a funny, welcoming guy—but people just do not step over his boundaries.
Another emotion—fear—which most people hate. They hate it. I see it as intuition in action. The question for fear is, “What action should be taken?” Fear helps us orient to change, novelty, or possible physical hazards. So, all you need to do with fear is say, “OK. What do I need to do?” And the answer will be different depending on what’s happening.
TS: Let’s pause on fear for a moment too, because I think there’s a lot of talk—especially in spiritual teaching circles—about “becoming fearless.” “Once you know eternity in this moment, there’s no more fear! You’re not afraid of death—dah dah dah.” The goal, it seems, is to become fearless. Once again, it sounds like you’re saying something quite different.
KM: Yes. I have to say—as you may remember—I grew up in the New Age spiritual community. The first version of this book, The Language of Emotions, was called Emotional Genius. It was what I created after spending decades in the spiritual community watching people try to live that way—try to live without fear or anger or any of the emotions. I watched amazing car crashes of entire communities based on these ridiculous emotion ideas and rules.
So, my early understanding of emotions—and how they work and why—partly came from watching my spiritual communities make all kinds of rules about emotions and then implode.
Fear is intuition. It is instinct. I don’t know if you have them out in Colorado, but here in California there’s a bumper sticker that says, “No Fear.” I always put on my turn signal and move away from that person, because if they don’t have fear, they don’t have instincts or intuition, and they’re probably dangerous. [Laughs.] I’m like, “OK. That person’s telling me who they are.”
But the thing is: when people say, “No fear,” and then I check with them, I say, “Well, how are your instincts? If someone comes up to you, do you feel [whether] this person’s safe or this person isn’t?” They’re like, “Well, sure.” I say, “Well then, you’re working with fear. Get over yourself.”
What they’re looking to get rid of is the fear of things—actually it’s anxiety that they’re looking to get rid of. They don’t even know what they’re emotions are talking about. Anxiety is fear of the future or fear of things that you can’t control. So, that’s what they’re talking about.
Anxiety has its own job, too. Anxiety is an incredibly important emotion. Like depression, it’s also a difficult one because it tends to rile up the body. It can have lingering effects if you don’t know how to work with it.
TS: OK. I think this is good. So, with anxiety—what are the questions for anxiety?
KM: Anxiety is the procrastination warning system. So, with anxiety—as you know—it can run you around because anxiety is based on the future and you can’t go to the future.
So, the questions for anxiety are, “What triggered this feeling?” That way you can track back to see what your anxiety is trying to point to, because you can just start spinning. And then, “What really needs to get done so that you can begin to organize all of the activation that anxiety has?”
So, anxiety is a procrastination alert message and it is wanting you to be prepared for something that you are not yet prepared for. So, anxiety knows that you haven’t done the work and you’re going into something new, and you’re not prepared.
A lot of people don’t ever want to hear that about themselves. So, they have the anxiety and then they have shame about the anxiety. Then they have anger about the shame, and then they have fear. Come on! Keep it to the first emotion. This is really simple. Just calm it down.
So, I think each of the so-called negative emotions can cause an emotion pile-up because people have been taught such unhelpful things about them.
TS: So, what about this idea then—also popular in spiritual teaching circles—”I want to be free from anxiety. I never want to have anxiety. Anxiety is about the mythic future.” What do you think of that?
KM: Well, the future is only mythic until it arrives—and then are you prepared? Anxiety is just a wonderful emotion. It’s totally necessary. It can help you.
Some people need their anxiety. Everybody’s different. But, some people really need to get up to the very edge of a deadline and stay up all night and do whatever the thing is. That’s how they function. Some people need to do the thing six months ahead of time so that they never feel that level of anxiety. However it works for people.
But, something that I see a lot of people do with anxiety is they start breathing in some other emotion like joy or happiness to down-regulate from the anxiety and get a better emotion up in there. What is being looked at in research that is really helpful with anxiety is actually turning toward it.
One really interesting study was done at a college where they brought students in and told them they would have a calculus test in 30 minutes for which they did not study, because they didn’t know about it. So, they were creating a tremendous anxiety situation. They took the kids into three different groups. The first group was just told to sit and wait. The second group was told to sit and meditate for the 30 minutes. The third group was told to write down exactly what they were feeling.
So, the meditating group was going off into another emotion or another state. The waiting group wasn’t doing anything. The writing group was actually moving into the anxiety. “I’m afraid about this test. I don’t remember what cosine and sine do. I don’t know . . .” So, they’re just going over and over it.
And you would think that the people who went over and over it would do terribly, but they did the best of all three. I find it really fascinating that—by listening to the emotion—basically what they were doing was they were down-regulating from all that anxiety by writing down exactly what they didn’t know so that they could see it and go, “Oh yes, I don’t know that.” By knowing what they didn’t know and hearing what the anxiety was telling them, they were better prepared for the test than the people who went into another state intentionally.
TS: OK. A few more of the 17 emotions and the questions that we can learn to ask.
KM: Let me see. I’ll do one of the happinesses. With happiness—I see it as a very delightful emotion that tells you, “This thing is awesome,” or we’re looking ahead to some awesome thing. There’s not really a question to ask. I just say to happiness, “Thank you! This is awesome.” And then the happiness moves on.
Contentment is a different emotion in the areas of the happinesses. Contentment turns toward you and tells you, “Hey, Tami. You did a good job. That was awesome, what you just did.” Contentment is sort of self-regard. It is self-esteem.
Basically, there’s not much to say to contentment except, “Thank you for renewing my faith in myself. See you next time I do something good.”
With the happinesses, there’s not really much to say because we are trained in the happinesses. We are trained in welcoming them, loving them, treating them as really, really important. So, most people don’t get riled up about them and there’s not really much to do except to enjoy them.
What I’m doing in my work is to try to find ways for people to enjoy all the other emotions too, because they’re just as important and they’re just as necessary.
TS: Right. And I can imagine somebody at that moment—right here, as they hear you say that—”Enjoy? I’m going to enjoy my panic? I’m going to enjoy my depression? Karla. Come on.”
KM: Come on! Come on. Be serious. [Laughs.] I am.
Panic is a wonderful emotion that—in the moment—only has three actions. That is: fight, flee, or freeze. It’s a great emotion when you are in serious physical danger. If you don’t have panic, the bear comes and you’re walking in the forest and you’re alone. There’s the bear. I would hope that you’ve got some panic going. You don’t want to move into envy or—let’s say—move into contentment. Or some other emotion that has no place there.
Rather, you have to make a decision now. Are you freezing? Are you fleeing? Are you fighting?
So, panic is wonderful. The problem with panic is—as Peter Levine so beautifully says—when it gets stuck in what we call PSTD. He looks at it very differently—that the panic is trying to have you replay the situation so you can learn from it. So, the next time you see a bear, you’ll have more options.
But, PTSD—they’re calling it post-traumatic stress disorder—can be incredibly uncomfortable because you get all that activation as if the bear is there, but there’s nothing in the room and you can’t understand what’s going on.
Learning how panic moves and why and what it’s doing when it returns is really wonderful, because then you can welcome the panic and say, “Hey, panic. Thank you! Now, let’s go on and see what we need to learn from that situation in which you saved my life.”
TS: So, Karla, would you say it is your experience at this point in your life that you enjoy all 17 different emotional experiences that might arise?
KM: I love them! Yes. They’re all my friends now, and thank goodness, because they beat me up when I was younger.
TS: OK. So, it sounds like for somebody to become skillful at working—first of all—with all of these different emotions, it’s important to be able to even identify these 17 emotions. I think most people don’t have that kind of language. They’re like, “I feel mad. I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel afraid.” That’s kind of it. Even that—I don’t know if people are even able to use those big, general categories.
So, what do you think about that? Do you think it’s important to be able to have this kind of nuanced understanding that you’re referencing here in our conversation?
KM: Yes, absolutely. There is some research that suggests if people don’t have a word for things, they can’t identify it. So, people who speak Russian have many different words for “blue.” It’s not light blue and dark blue, but there are a lot of different words for gradations of blue. They can actually see more blue—more different colors of blue—than English speakers, who don’t have as many words.
I think the same is true for emotions. If you and I don’t have enough words for emotions, we can’t really identify them. I created an emotional vocabulary list that’s free on my site because people are always asking me, “Well, what’s soft anger? What’s soft envy?” So, we gathered all the words—a bunch of people on Facebook and my site—and we just batted it back and forth for a couple of weeks.
When I go and look at the stats on my site, I would say the emotional vocabulary page—it’s a free download—is the most visited page on my site. It’s almost like the Internet just sends people to Karla, because people will put in the search terms, “how do I emotion words” and they end up at my site. Or “vocabulary for anger” and they end up at my site.
So, I didn’t realize it was such a big thing. But, it is sort of like the center of how people are getting to my site. Luckily, they get something free they can download.
So, I’ve got the emotions in all the different categories and different gradations of emotion—so, there’s soft sadness, intense sadness, mood-state sadness—to help people understand that each emotion has many different levels of intensity. If you can catch it like I do with my depression—if you can catch it early—you can listen to the emotion, do what it needs you to do without having to drop into a mood that you maybe can’t get out of.
TS: Now, you said something in our conversation a little earlier that I found really interesting. Something like, “When we’re working with our emotions in a really healthy way,” (something to this effect), “they come in a soft way and they move through us.” It’s not this big, loud—and I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that.
KM: I look at emotions as existing—as I said—in different intensities. I look at them as the soft presentation of an emotion [and] the mood-state presentation. At the soft presentation, almost nobody knows that they are that emotion. It took a hyper-empath to see them that way because I’ve been tracking emotions all my life in people and animals. So, I’m able now to say, “Anger’s coming. Let’s see how they handle it.”
But for instance, soft anger—oh, and there’s the third state, which is intense. So, at the soft level, most people can’t see it. At the mood-state level, almost everybody can see it. At the intense level—oh yes, you can see it.
So, the soft anger would be cross, apathetic, cold, displeased, detached. Mood-state anger: angry, mad, offended, antagonized, sarcastic, exasperated. Intense anger: hostile, aggressive, contemptuous, hateful, vengeful, seething, spiteful.
But if you go back to the soft ones—the frustrated, the critical, the displeased, the detached—and you can catch the anger there, you don’t need to go any further with it if you can turn toward the anger and say, “OK. What boundary’s been crossed? What rule has been broken? How do I restore the situation without injuring others?”
But it seems like it takes a while. Why would you want to stop there? But, look what happens if you let anger go and you don’t have any skills for it. You could tear up your relationships.
TS: So, once again, I want to be clear if I understand you. Are you saying that—as we become more mature, sophisticated, [and] as we grow in our ability to work with emotions—that we’re growing in the direction of experiencing all of the emotions in a soft way?
KM: Yes. Yes.
TS: OK. So, let’s take an example then of something like grief. Let’s just take that. Tell me what a soft grief might feel like versus an intense grief when a serious loss is present.
KM: Let’s say it might be melancholy. Low, wistful, distracted, disconnected. That would be a light, soft grief.
Then into the mood state, which would be grieving, sorrowful, dispirited, world-weary, mournful. With intense: despairing, anguished, inconsolable, grief-stricken, heartbroken, bereaved.
Understanding what emotion you’re feeling and what level of intensity you’re feeling it [at] gives you information—I have a lot of skills for these emotions, so that people can begin to live more gracefully with them. So, it’s helpful to go, “OK, what am I feeling?” and then have a list. Am I peeved? Yes, I’m peeved.
And then [you can] understand, “OK, I’m in anger now. So, let me go look at my anger page.” At first, that’s what you’re doing. You’re going back and forth in the book. “OK, what is anger?” And then you get it. It’s like any new skill.
TS: But just understanding what you’re saying here about the soft level being—we grow towards this softness. When we find ourselves in intense states—whatever they might be—that means that we didn’t listen carefully enough when the soft presentation was there?
KM: Or that emotion just needs to be really powerful right now. I’m not suggesting that if an emotion moves to the intense place—like, if you’re grieving, you definitely want to be heartbroken and bereaved. You want to be in intense sadness, because it’s an intensely sad thing.
The intense emotions that are troubling are usually in the anger area, because people have almost no practice for anger except not having any, which doesn’t work. So, most people—when they’re in intense anger—become violent in one way or another. Emotionally, physically.
So, there are emotions that I call “the raging rapids.” Rage—intense anger—suicide urges of course, and panic. They’re three emotions to be really careful with because people don’t know what they’re doing. They haven’t been taught.
But, if you move to intense fear—which would be horrified, phobic, petrified, paralyzed—there’s probably a reason. There’s probably something going on.
So, it’s not as if going to the intense state of each emotion is problematic in of itself. There are just three specific emotions to be very wary of, because we don’t know how to work with them.
TS: Now, I want to bring out one other aspect of your work with emotions. You talk a lot in your writing about there being a “village” inside of us and that we need to bring together all of the different elements and intelligences of this village. So, what do you mean by this village metaphor?
KM: I think a lot of people—well, Karl Jung—talk about different elements of the psyche. So, earth element would be the body and the physical world. Air element would be the mind and the intellectual world. Fire element would be—for people who have a spiritual viewpoint—that would be spirituality, ideas about God. For people who don’t have a spiritual outlook, it would be vision and ideas that seem to come from nowhere. The fourth element is the water element, and that’s the artistic, flowing, expressionistic, emotional realm.
What I looked at in my own growing is that working with all four elements together—rather than saying, “OK, spirituality is the best and emotions are the worst,” [or], “No, air element is the best. Intellect is the best, and emotions are the worst. Spirituality is stupid.” What I noticed is that people who didn’t work with their four elements were always truncated and lopsided in some way.
So, my early work was to try to bring all four elements together and be equal in my awareness. What I found when I did that was that a fifth element came up. In many cosmologies, the fifth element—let’s see. In Chinese, it’s wood—which isn’t dead wood, but the growing plant. In Dagara cosmology, it’s nature. Dagara is a West African tribal cosmology. In the Jungian—I don’t know if Jung had it, but its ether. It’s the fifth element that arises out of the four elements coming into balance.
So, for me, that’s the village inside. It’s all four elements are informing me. What arises out of it is the nature self or the ether self that is the fully resourced human being, who has emotions but isn’t emotion; who has a mind but isn’t mind; who has a body but isn’t entirely body; and who has a spirituality or ideology or vision, but isn’t only that.
So, that’s my village metaphor.
TS: Beautiful. OK, Karla—just two more questions. Here’s the first:
We began our conversation by talking about this new anthology, Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression. You’ve written another book with Sounds True in addition to The Language of Emotions, called The Art of Empathy. I’m curious what your view is of relating to somebody who’s experiencing depression. Perhaps there’s a listener who knows someone—a friend or someone in their family—who goes into depressive states or is depressed right now. What’s your suggestions [and] recommendations on how to effectively empathize and relate with such a person?
KM: For me, with depression, I know that a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. So, not only are you depressed, but you’re isolated and you can’t speak.
One of the things that can make another person’s life very nice is just to say, “How are you feeling? I mean it.” Usually we say, “Hi, how are you?” and it doesn’t mean anything. “How are you feeling? I mean it.” And then to have time to listen.
A lot of people don’t want to listen to depression because they’re not aware of it, but their brain probably gets an A+ in depression too. So, hearing the depression of others could be kind of dangerous for them because they don’t have skills in their own depression. So, they just want to stay away from those so-called negative people.
But if you can sit with people in depression and instead of saying, “Have you tried this or have you tried that?”—constantly trying to fix it for them—ask them, “Have you found anything that works for you?” And if they haven’t, “Would you like me to do some research? I’ve got some energy and I know that sometimes when you’re depressed you just don’t have energy. Would you like me to do some research for you?” Or, “Would you like me to find a support group?” Or anything like that.
If they say no, that’s the answer. But, at least they know that you’re there and you’re willing to talk to them about depression. You’re not afraid of it yourself and you’re not going to fall apart because someone’s depressed.
TS: What do you think about presenting someone with these questions that you ask, “Where has your energy gone and why has it gone?” It seems like that might be quite [confrontational] depending on the state someone’s in.
KM: Yes. I think maybe give them The Language of Emotions and say, “There’s a depression chapter here,” but don’t say it yourself. Part of being depressed is feeling powerless. So, if someone comes at you—”Here’s what you do! Here’s how you do it! Have you tried the all-tomato diet?”—that can just cause more depression.
So, just being willing to talk and being willing to offer whatever energy you have. “Do you need me to pick stuff up for you?” You would do that if someone had the flu. People don’t pathologize the flu and turn it into, “You’re a social leper.” They would do something for you.
So, I think just welcoming depressed people into the realm of the everyday world. I have friends who say, “Hey, how’s your depression?” I’m like, “My depression’s awesome! How’s yours?” Just to make it part of life. “How are you doing? How are you feeling? How’s your energy?” And then let them answer.
TS: Which brings me, Karla, to my final question. Which is: how would you like to see our culture redefine the journey through depression? More broadly put: how would our culture need to change? What would need to change for depression to be honored in the way that you see it would be helpful for it to be honored?
KM: You know, when you asked that question, a big light bulb went off. We’re very, very busy people. I wonder. I wonder if depression is acting as a busyness timeout. I wonder if—because we don’t rest, we don’t sleep, a lot of us don’t have a meditative practice, [and] we don’t exercise enough because we’re just working all the time. Maybe we’re not even eating well.
I’m wondering if depression steps forward in a protective sense. When people have down time, I notice for many people, they do something. Or, they watch TV, but they don’t ever actually have downtime where they get to sit with their own thoughts and just be. I’m wondering if depression is almost a way for people to enter a kind of enforced meditative practice—being forced to sit.
I’m wondering if the intense busyness of our culture is a part of the problem—and a part of the thing that’s calling depression forwards so often. I’m wondering if there’s a way to give people the freedom to rest and to take time out when they need to.
I think we have to change capitalism! [Laughs.] Yes. It’s all about production and making money and keeping going and striving. Sometimes, you don’t even realize that what you’re striving for and what you’re making money for has no meaning to you anymore. The meaning went out of it years ago. Sometimes, depression is a call to inaction, but it is also a call to an action for your soul. Is this work working? Is this life livable?
I think if we all get down to it, our modern lives our pretty unworkable. Maybe depression is our friend, telling us there’s a different way. That’d be cool.
TS: Beautiful. Very good. I’ve been speaking with Karla McLaren. She is a contributor to a new anthology—as well as being responsible for the title—of a book called Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression. With Sounds True, Karla has also created a book and an audio series on The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, as well as a book and an audio series on The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.
Karla, I always learn stuff when I talk to you. It’s so helpful. Thank you so much.
KM: Thank you!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.