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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 Art of Empathy, Part 2
Tami Simon speaks with Karla McLaren, an award-winning author, social science and empathy researcher, and educator. With Sounds True, Karla has created the book and audio series The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, as well as the new book and audio series The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. In the second half of this two-part interview, Tami speaks with Karla about two unusual skills she teaches called “conscious complaining” and “ethical empathic gossip”; the concept that there is no such thing as a positive or negative emotion; and how a feeling of hatred can be an important key to working with the shadow part of our psyche. (66 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge and today we have part two of my conversation with Karla McLaren on the art of empathy. Karla McLaren is an empath, award-winning author, social science researcher, and pioneering educator whose empathic approach to emotion 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. She is the author of the book and audio series The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You as well as a new book and audio series, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.
In part two of my conversation with Karla McLaren on the art of empathy, we talked about emotions and what it might mean to consider that there’s no such thing as a positive or negative emotion. We also talked about developing empathic skills, including two unusual empathic skills taught by Karla—conscious complaining and ethical empathic gossip. We also talked about Shadow work and how any experience of hatred is an indication that a Shadow part of our psyche is involved. Finally, we talked about what it might mean to bring our empathy into the world.
Here’s part two of my conversation on the art of empathy with Karla McLaren:
Karla, welcome to part two of our conversation on the art of empathy. In the first part of our conversation, we talked about the six aspects of empathy. I actually think I have a fairly good idea now of what you mean by empathy in all of its different aspects. But, one thing I’m still unclear about is there are some people who want to develop more empathy and other people who might identify as what you call “hyper-empathic”. They’re flooded by all of the emotional information they’re getting in any situation. I’m curious to know, is there something that you might call a healthy level of empathy, or the “sweet spot,” or the desired, healthy emapathic way of being in the world?
Karla McLaren: One of the things I say after I describe the six aspects is, “Did you notice something missing?” And that is self-care or self-empathy. It’s the most important thing to develop, but it’s not a part of empathy proper because in order to empathize, you really do have to be available to the Other. It is very easy to be a successful and skillful empath and not take care of yourself at all. At all. You’ll burn out, of course.
I think that’s one of the big places where if people are too empathic, it’s a problem with self-care. If people are not empathic enough, it’s a problem with self-care. Sometimes it’s a problem with overdoing the self over the needs of the other.
These aren’t black and white people. Here’s they hyper-empaths and they’re exactly opposite to the people who have trouble with empathy. I see them as people on a continuum who may share the same problems. For instance, a lot of people we would identify as unempathic are hyper-empaths with no capacity to manage or organize all of the input they get, so they just shut down for their own safety. A lot of times, when people say, “Well that person’s definitely unempathic,” I look at that person and see [if] there [are] areas where that person engages very intensely and sensually with something. There almost always is.
I think I want to talk about the word einfelung. This was very surprising to me. The word “empathy” only arrived in the English language in 1909. I thought, “Whoa! I thought it came with apathy and sympathy, all the way from the Greek.” But, it didn’t. It came from a German word “einfelung.” Einfelung came from the German aesthetic movement. They were trying to figure out how to talk about the way that we interact with art. How do I stand in front of a painting that’s just colors on a canvas? How do I understand what the painter was trying to tell me? How do I feel emotion from a painting that isn’t even alive?
They were talking about einfelung, which means “in feeling or feeling into.” When I understood einfelung as where the word “empathy” came from, I was all of a sudden able to encompass all of the experiences of empathy. If we say, for instance, autistic people are not empathic, I would say, “Excuse me. They’re just having their einfelung with non-human actors, who are safer.”
My autistic friends are just loopy about trains, computers, baseball stats, or something where they know everything about it, inside and out. I would say their einfelung is being focused on non-human actors. I have to say, human emotions and the way that humans work with their emotions—it’s a train wreck a lot of the time. There are many times when I need to get away from humans and I will go into music. I will go into art. For some people, it’s meditation. They’re having deep, einfelung experience with their meditative practice and there aren’t people there.
To say that that person who is an artist or who loves trains is not an empath is to not understand empathy. When we talk about empathy, we also have to look at my capacity to have empathy for music, for interior design, for car engineering, for anything—mathmatics, science, research, anything where our heart and soul is drawn. We can have complete relationships with that thing. We would say, “That guy who is an engineer, he’s not very empathic.” And I say, well watch him work with the tools of his profession. He understands those computers or that music board in a way that nobody can. He can feel when this is out and that’s out. He can reach over and he can touch it, and all of a sudden, everything comes in. He is an empath with that thing.
TS: I think people might stumble for a moment and say, “You’re talking about being empathic with a mixing board?” Does that mean that someone could be empathic with a chair or a set of curtains? What feelings are coming from the chair or the curtains? It’s a dead object.
KM: What feelings are coming from a painting? It’s a dead object. What feelings are coming from a movie, which is actually a bunch of still shots put together so that your brain thinks they’re moving? Our capacity to interact with the world—for instance, shamans interacting with herbs or nature or totem animals. They get so much information from the non-human world that I would say they’re empathic in that area.
When people are supposedly non-empathic, I look and see: where is their organism having its intense relationships? What pulls them? For some people, especially young men who just are overwhelmed by all of the ways that men are not welcomed into the emotional world, it can often be video games, where there’s intense emotional interaction. The games are often with a lot of people in different countries. They’re playing these games of shooting things, but they’re talking to friends and they’re connecting. We would say, “This guy’s sitting in front of the computer. He’s not even in this world.” And yet, if you sit with him, you see he’s in an entire world.
TS: Help me understand why you think this is an important thing to recognize about empathy—that people can be empathic with non-human relationships.
KM: It’s most important in terms of the ways that we identify what we call unempathic people as inhuman. I think that’s one of the least empathic things we can do. One of the first things that I do in the book is to welcome the exiles. Men and boys have been exiled from empathy. But, if you think in terms of einfelung, men and boys have—throughout history—been wonderful artists, mucisians, painters, and actors. Men have all of the equipment to be fully empathic, but they aren’t welcomed into the emotional world in the way women are.
The second group of exiles is autistic people. That is one of the things that you can say if someone is being unkind to you or isn’t paying attention to you, you say well, you’re acting kind of autistic right now. No one calls people out on it. One of the diagnostic criteria for autism is that they supposedly don’t have empathy. Yet, when I spend time with my autistic friends, you’ve never seen such an emotional, emotive, and empathic group of people in your life. There’s a lot of pain in there for them, and I can understand that. I think it takes a hyper-empath to see a hyper-empath. A lot of people who have done research on autistic people have not been very empathic or have shut it down for their own selves.
The third group of—and for me, the piece about autistics is really important because of the dehumanization that happens regularly with autistic people. It’s a pretty awful thing.
The third group of people are people who are diagnosed with personality—they’re called “disorders”—I want to say “conditions”—personality conditions, like sociopathy. Sociopaths and psychopaths.
We have a lot of lore around sociopaths and psychopaths that, basically if they are, they’re going to be evil, they’re going to kill you and eat you, that they are never to be trusted. When, in fact, it’s just an empathy delay in specific areas—for instance, concern for others. Most people who develop these personality disorders—actually, I think all—were abused as children. For them, empathy was a very dangerous thing. The concern that their caretakers showed for them was brutal. If they showed concern for others, it may have been beaten out of them. For them, it’s a decision that they’ve made, through a life of horror, to survive. So to say they’re evil, they’re going to eat you, they’re not human—I would say, no, they’re very human. This is what happens to humans who are abused in this way.
To welcome the exiles is one of the first things I do and say, “You are welcome in this book. This book is for you. You can feel yourself as one of an empathic species. I understand that you’ve had difficulties. They can change if you want to.”
TS: It’s interesting that you’re highlighting men and boys and their empathic nature. Often, of course, I think, stereotypically you think of a woman—or I think of a woman—in a heterosexual relationship complaining how, “My husband just doesn’t seem to empathize with what I’m feeling.” It’s a pretty common stereotype.
TS: What do you think might be going on that this highly empathic man doesn’t haven’t have language for what he’s experiencing? Or how would you put it?
KM: Well, he doesn’t have permission. I think of it as sort of in the way—I think the way we are with men and empathy is the way we were with women and work in the 1950s. Women were seen as sort of childish, not very competent people—unless they were more manish. As is turns out, women were running houses and they were managing everything, but it wasn’t seen as work. Women have had time to get into the workforce and find, “Oh, we can do this. It’s not a big deal.”
I think it’s the same thing with men. It’s a form of sexism that men are not welcomed into the world of emotion. The idea that a man is—I’m just remembering when I would go out and do talks about the language of emotions. Almost every talk, a man would come up afterward and whisper to me, “I think I’m an empath.” And I’d say out loud, “Of course you’re an empath! Who told you you weren’t?” The idea that men somehow can’t function emotionally, when men have all human emotions and can feel all human emotions, they can express all human emotions. You see it in the art of men. You see it in the acting of men. You see it in the dance of men. It’s all there.
Because in the culture it’s considered unmanly to express emotion, especially sadness and grief. We gender emotions pretty stringently, which is why I kept leaning into you being cranky. Women who are angry have a name and it’s not a nice name. The experience of having the human emotion of anger, if you are, you will be called “a bitch.” Men are giving a name if they feel sadness or grief, and it’s usually “wussy” or “sissy” or just you’re not even a person anymore if you have a human emotion.
Men are also not allowed to feel fear. They’re not allowed to feel joy. There are so many emotions that are gendered and forbidden to men, that when they grow up and their wife wants to talk to them about emotions, they’re like, “How did I all of a sudden get permission? Where did that come from?”
TS: It’s interesting. You’re talking about emotions being gendered, and you have this very interesting quote in the book The Art of Empathy. “We need to un-valance emotions.” I really liked this, I think, probably because the word “valance” and “un-valance” aren’t part of my normal vocabulary. But, I loved this sentence: “We need to un-valance emotions.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?
KM: I love “valance.” It’s a lovely word. A valance is a kind of a cloak that you put around things. To valance things, you would put them in separate catagories. You valance things into, “These are the black chess pieces and these are the white chess pieces.” You would know that they’re never to be mixed. We valance emotions very strongly into positive and negative catagories and into anti-social and pro-social categories. You’ll see it all over the research. It’s common, common language.
What I say is if you valance emotions, you will never understand them. Unfortunately, we all valance emotions. In the book, I say if we are in empathy, which is first and foremost an emotional skill, we’ve got to understand emotions as tools and to pull the valancing off of them and look at them for what they are. If we focus only on positive emotions, there’s not that many positive emotions. I split the emotions into 17 categories—not because there are 17 emotions, but because I was looking at them in terms of what they do, why they arise, and what skills they bring.
There are three what we would call “positive emotions” and 14 others. What happens is: because emotions are valanced so strongly, people develop skills only in the three so-called positive ones and none in the 14 so-called negative ones. This is a problem right away, because people don’t always need to share happiness. In fact, happiness, joy, and contentment are very easy to share. When we talk about emotion contagion and I laugh, it is very unusual that you would find that difficult to deal with.
The emotions that are really simple and quite easy to deal with are the ones that we have skills in. The emotions that are more difficult, we don’t. This is a big problem.
TS: Now, I think I understand gendering emotions. You gave some examples of that. Then, positive and negative is easy to understand. You said there were also pro-social and anti-social emotions. Explain what you mean by that.
KM: It’s pretty much the same emotions. The happiness, contentment, and joy emotions are all considered pro-social. I think I would agree with that, because if people don’t know how to work with the other emotions, then those ones are going to stop social intercourse, because anger is in the room, so people fall apart. Fear is in the room, people fall apart. Anxiety is in the room, people fall apart. That’s kind of anti-social. Not because the emotion is, but because our training around it is.
The idea that happiness is pro-social—if I share happiness with you, we’re going to have a much closer relationship. When the fact is, sometimes if I share grief with you, we going to get a lot closer. Or if you and I have any kind of practice for anger and I share anger with you—which is supposedly the most anti-social emotion. But if we find a way to share anger, that can be the most pro-social emotion, because we become like war buddies. I know that it’s safe to be angry with you. It opens up an avenue for us to be friends in a way that people who just share happiness can never find.
As I look at each emotion, I think let me think of a way that this is anti-social—for instance, happiness at a funeral. That would be anti-social. That’s not—why are you laughing? Sometimes people will laugh and cry at a funeral. But, if you’re just laughing through the whole thing? I’m going to have to take you aside and say, “What’s going on here? Why are you behaving like this?”
TS: Really what you’re saying here, if I understand you correctly—by un-valencing emotion—is that all of these 17 emotions at any given moment are equally valid to be appearing in a human person. Equally valid, equally important, equally interesting, equally welcome. Would you say that?
KM: Yes. I think what un-valancing does is it helps you take your charge off of emotions so that if you can just take a charge off, that is a huge amount of your emotion regulation skills right there. If you’re having anxiety and I just look at it and say, “Tami is having anxiety.” I don’t say, “She doesn’t control herself very well.” Or, “That’s a negative emotion. Why would she be doing that?” Do you know what I mean? I don’t have any crosstalk about it. I don’t have any charge about it. I just say, “Tami is having anxiety.” I have not gotten my body riled up. I have not gotten my emotions involved in it, if you know what I’m saying. I haven’t gone out of my empathic space. I’m just there with you.
So, it’s anxiety. I know you’ll make it through. I saw you do it last week. Right? And just be there with you, because if I get riled up, I might send my [emotion] to you and then your anxiety is going to go on a bender. There are ways that just—un-valancing emotion and looking at them as information, not as with the positive emotions, rewards for good behavior and the negative emotions as you’re not managing your life very well, but just to look at them as information.
TS: You offer a very interesting definition of emotion, and it’s not that easy of a word to define. Here’s your definition from The Art of Empathy: “Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs.”
KM: That’s a mouthful!
TS: Can you unpack that for us?
KM: That’s from the neuroscientist of emotion, Antonio DeMossio, who we talked about—who sort of had to hide his work from his colleagues for a while, because emotions were really considered not worthy of notice. As he looked at his patients who would come in with brain damage or existing disorders that stopped them from feeling specific emotions. He was able to see—for instance, he had a patient who couldn’t feel fear, because her amygdala was calcified. He had a patient who could not feel shame, because she had had brain damage in an accident. And you would think, no fear and no shame? This would make you the most amazing person in the world! You would be free. I wouldn’t have to feel anything.
But, as it turns out, the person who couldn’t feel fear, because fear’s job is to alert you to possible danger. It’s your intuition and it’s your instinct. She couldn’t read danger in social situations. She couldn’t read danger—she would see a snake and go, “Oh, a snake.” She didn’t have that warning—an internal warning system—that fear gives her. So, DeMassio watched her and went, “Wow, fear has a purpose. What? She’s not a full person without her fear.”
The young woman who had the auto accident, which caused brain damage that stopped her from being able to feel shame—and shame is the one that’s so important for concern for others. As you would think, a person without shame would be the freeest, most happy, most wonderful person in the world. But, because shame’s job, if you un-valance it, is to help you understand when your behavior is injurious to another person, when you’re socially out of tune with someone, and when you’re about to do something that goes against your own beliefs. She was a tornado. She could not be aware—she couldn’t read that people were concerned about her or offended by her. She was just a behavioral disaster area. Eventually, she had to be conserved, because she could not be trusted to manage her behavior or her relationships.
He was able to see that without these emotions—which are supposedly negative—people became unable to function. He began to understand emotions as part of the neurolgical process and that each emotion would come forward when an action was required. Every emotion has an action that’s required. I read this after I wrote The Language of Emotions, and I went, “D’oh, he had it! He got it!”
It was interesting, you and I were talking to Robert Augustus Masters in a dual interview.
TS: Another Sounds True author, who wrote a book called Emotional Intimacy.
KM: Yes, and I said that during our interview, and he said it confused him because he hadn’t heard it before. He said, “Well, then that would make emotions just like hunger or something.” And we were in the middle of an interview, so I couldn’t just go and sit. And I went, “Oh, my word, he’s right.”
It’s like hunger, in that if you need a sandwich—if your blood sugar goes down—your hunger is going to come up and say, “Please go feed me.” When you have your sandwich or your piece of fruit, your hunger goes away because it’s no longer necessary. Your hunger is an autonomic response to the fact that you need to eat. Hunger is an action-requiring neurological program.
Same with anger. When it’s time for you to set boundaries, your anger will come forward. If you do it right, your anger will recede, because it’s no longer necessary in that moment. It’s not going to go away, just like your hunger will never go away. The next time your blood sugar goes there, your hunger is coming up. Boom! It’s time to eat. The next time someone crosses a boundary with you and you need to set them straight and make sure that the relationship is clean, then your anger will come forward, because it’s always there watching. It’s always there waiting.
When emotions come forward, what I say is, “OK, what action needs to be taken?” I know that fear is about making sure that I’m safe, so I’m going to need to look around if I’m feeling fear. Is there anything in my environment that needs to be attended to? Or, if anger comes up, there’s a boundary that’s been crossed. Do I need to deal with this? Or, if anxiety comes up, am I procrastinating or is there something coming up that I haven’t planned for?
Each emotion has its own specific action. If you can look at them that way, that totally un-valances them. A lot of people say, “I just want to feel happy all the time.” It turns out, one of their problems is they don’t know how to set boundaries. I would say, “I would suggest that you might want to feel some anger,” or something like that. Or, if someone has died and people say, “I just want to feel happy again.” I know that the work of grief is to help them mourn. I would say, “You probably want to look at grief, not happiness. You’re in the wrong area here. You’re in the wrong area of your neurological system if you’re looking to be happy when it’s time to mourn.”
TS: OK, Karla, I want to ask you an important question for me, and I’m curious here. Action-requiring neurological programs arise and in this model that you’re offering, we respond to them. We listen to what their message is, and we take action. What or who is “the self” in the world of Karla McLaren?
KM: [Sighs.] That’s a thing that I’m really thinking about, because—as a person who was so skilled at dissociating as a young person—a lot of my work throughout my life has been learning how to reintegrate. I still have the separation, so that I can say, “My body is feeling this, yet I want to do that.” I feel my emotions coming up and I can interact with them.
I think the self is an emotionally-moderated—DeMassio’s writing about this now in Self Comes to Mind and in The Feeling of What Happens. What he’s saying is that consciousness requires emotion. He’s one of the first persons who’s saying that. I think I am still seeing it as a separate entity, but it is a part of my disassociative past that I do. However, it’s helpful that I have this internal monologue. I can go and say, “Well, what am I feeling?” I think it’s the same with people who are doing mindfulness meditation. They’re developing that internal monologue that is separate from emotion, if you know what I’m saying.
TS: I do.
KM: I think it’s that same process, but I came to it through childhood trauma rather than a mindfulness practice. My mindfulness was about putting it all back together.
So, I would say it’s the self. And yet they’re not separable. That’s a terrible answer, but it’s the one I have right now.
TS: So, emotions are appearing and the part of you that’s listening and responding is related to the emotions, but yet is somehow able to witness, watch, and see what’s happening.
KM: I think that’s what people are cultivating in mindfulness practices—a way to learn to watch. Especially, for instance with physical pain. If you can’t get some separation from it, you become your painful knee and you really can’t move forward. I think it’s important to be able to have that internal articulation. That has been the most important thing for me, as a hyper-empath, is to be able to say, “I’m feeling this emotion. Let me listen to it and see what it needs.” Then, other emotions come up. I see emotions as arising simultaneously in a fluid, kalidescopic way. There’s a lot happening at the same time.
TS: In this conversation, you very intentionally wanted to welcome anybody who might feel exiled or who has been exiled from considering their empathic nature, and I appreciate that. I think in knowing you now through our work at Sounds True, you always want to bring back whatever’s been exiled. Whatever’s left out of the room intentionally, you want to bring it back in. I’m curious to know more about how you see Shadow work and the work of developing empathic skill—how you see those two as being related.
KM: Well, now that you talk about it, I see them as intrinsic, I think. If we were a more emotionally-aware culture and if we had proper emotion training, we wouldn’t have to deal with so much Shadow, but emotions are in the Shadow. To have the capacity to do Shadow work and question—for instance feel that emotions are coming at me. A lot of people ask me, “How can I tell if an emotion is mine or someone else’s?” I’m thinking that’s the wrong question, because if there are certain emotions, we want to show them. If people are laughing in a room, we don’t care whose laughter it is, we want to have some of that.
What the question hides is—what I hear people saying is, “Emotions are toxic. How can I keep those darn things away from me? When other people are having those toxic emotions, I don’t want to be any part of it.” What I am looking at is: what emotions are we talking about? It’s usually anxiety and anger and other emotions that people don’t have any practice for—don’t have any comfort with.
There are other emotions that we’re completely happy to feel with others—and, as I said before, we will pay actors to go and make us cry. We will pay actors to make us feel fear. It’s controlled. We know we can get out and the movie’s going to be over in 90 minutes. But, we definitely want to have emotion contagion. It’s natural.
Another thing about the Shadow is working with the emotion of hatred, you really need Shadow work. You really need Shadow work—because hatred, in some peoples’ hands can be the most brutal and horrifying emotion that has ever been created. That’s not the fault of hatred. That’s the fault of people utilizing hatred in a way that’s not aware.
TS: Let’s say that in my own contemplation, I tell the truth that there’s somebody I hate. Whenever I think of that person, I just hate them. How would I investigate how that’s a Shadow issue for me?
KM: What we say is that if there’s hatred, it’s always Shadow. Because, if you just disliked them, you could get away with, “I don’t want to be with that person.” They’re boring or whatever. But, if it’s hatred and there’s this incredible intensity, this is your psyche wanting to engage with that person. It feels like hatred, but what it is is a part of you that’s missing. That’s what we do in Shadow work.
I like what Robert Bly does, which is to write down all the things that are odious about that person. Write it down—they’re selfish, they’re this, they always get everything they want and they’re never called out for their behavior. Or whatever it is that’s in your Shadow in that moment or that’s in the hatred. Then, look at those things you’ve written down and say, “Do I have any permission in my life to do any of those things?”
Usually the answer is, “Oh, hell no!” People who we hate hold our Shadow and what makes us so angry about them is that they’re getting away with behavior that we know we would never be able to and everyone would stop loving us and they’re getting away with it. Hatred, as we’ve all seen—when it’s unbridled, when people haven’t done their Shadow work, is just horrendous. It’s horrendous. But, that’s not a function of hatred the emotion. It’s a function of how we’ve learned to work with hatred.
TS: So, I write down these qualities about this person I hate—and I’m imagining this as we’re talking. Then what do I do? I’ve got this list. What do I do now?
KM: I would put it on a shrine. All these qualities, put it on a shrine so that taking your gaze off of that person and start to interact with those qualities—how they work with you. I also do a Shadow Walk, which is a little meditative practice. If I have someone I really hate, I will go on an hour-long walk in nature. Sometimes I’ll do it with other people. I take a problem that I cannot fix—that I cannot figure out—and that absolutely won’t work. I entreat the person I hate the most, or the person I adore the most. Oh, this person’s so wonderful, because—that’s the bright Shadow—anyone you dehumanize. So the dark Shadow is the person that you hate and they should just not even exist, and the bright Shadow is this person who’s exalted.
I go on this walk with a problem I can’t possibly fix in my own soul. Then, I entreat that person in my meditative practice and ask them a question. The first time I did this, I did it with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who I just saw as the most evil thing ever. I couldn’t—everything about him was wrong. I decided I needed to go on a Shadow Walk with this guy, because this is getting toxic. I went on the walk and I was out in nature and I asked my question and his secretary came out of my psyche and said that I hadn’t made an appointment, so I couldn’t talk to him. [Both laugh.] It was hilarious! I had to wait 15 minutes, then he came and gave me a one-sentence answer for my problem that fixed everything.
For me, the Shadow Walk is fun. It’s a way to play with it. It’s a way to lighten stuff up, because that’s some really intense—that emotion’s really intense and it’s important to bring some humor to it. The Shadow Walk helps me understand that if I can’t fix a problem, I need to go to the person who is least like me. Usually that’s the person I hate.
TS: In the book, The Art of Empathy, you teach several empathic skills. I thought it would be good—a couple of them are quite unusual, so I thought it would be good to talk about them. You teach grounding, which you’ve talked a little bit about, setting boundaries—maybe you could say just a couple of words about that.
KM: In my earlier career, when I understood empathy—or to be an empath—as a metaphysical skill or a paranormal skill, I set boundaries by imagining the aura. What I learned at that time—which is supposedly the electomagnetic field around a person. What I noticed at that time, though, is that the shape of a healthy aura is an arms-length away from you in front of, behind, above. It’s a bubble all the way around you at about an arm’s length. It was the exact same dimensions as what psychologists have identified as a person’s personal space.
I thought, well that’s interesting that some people are seeing it as an aura and other people are seeing it as a personal space. When I left my earlier metaphysical career and started to really question the precepts upon which I was looking at empathy—which always bothered me. It always bothered me to have empathy be a metaphysical skill, because it meant that it was a special, magic skill that certain people had and other people didn’t. It always really bothered me that that was the model that was being promoted.
It was really helpful for me to get away from the metaphysical and paranormal framework and start to look at it again. When I came back to rewrite The Language of Emotions—which you asked me to do after I left my earlier career. It was about six years later. I thought, how am I going to teach about emotions without the aura? What in the world am I going to do? To set boundaries is one of the most important things.
What I mean is, to give people a sense not just that their body is theirs, but that they have an arms-length area around themselves that they can claim as their own. I don’t just have my body—“Whoa! Emotions are coming at me. Yaaah!” But, I can imagine that I have sort of a cushion around me.
What I found was—in neurology, again—that this personal space is actually—neurologically and muscularly and through the sensory organs—mapped in every moment that you are awake and asleep as well. That this arms-length area around your body is continually mapped and is called the proprioceptive system. If you don’t have good proprioception, you will tend to walk into walls and trip on things. You’ll walk backward and fall off of things, because you’re not mapping correctly.
What I noticed is that when I had people work with what I then saw as an aura, they would become more proprioceptively aware. The brain was using it to learn how to re-map. What I find with a lot of highly empathic people and with people who are having trouble with empathy, they don’t have very good proprioceptive space. They don’t have a very good space around themselves, so they can’t sort of articuate between self and other. That’s one of the most important things.
Setting boundaries is a way to almost imagine yourself as a cell with a cell membrane. It’s lovely to have it. I was like, “Yay, neuroscience! I can have the aura back.” But now call it something that doesn’t separate it out so that only people who have metaphysical beliefs can access it. We work with this proprioceptive system—this boundary—to give both hyper-empathic people and people who are currently feeling unempathic a way to identify self. That’s really the first place that has to happen.
What I looked at in terms of when children develop empathy, it turns out—people thought it was around four or five, but some researcher said, “Wait a minute. That’s when kids are talking. Are we giving them tests that require verbal response?” The answer was yes. So, they went and did other ones where they were just showing actions. They found that empathy pretty much develops around 18 months or two years. Before you’re out of diapers, your full six parts of empathy develop.
What has to happen first is you have to be a mirror self-recognizer, which is a way that babies begin to understand that they have a self. If you put a baby before that age in front of a mirror, they will think it’s another baby or they’ll look behind the mirror for the baby. When they can say, “Oh, that’s me. Look at my little funny nose. Oh, this is my hair.” They will touch the baby and they will realize that there’s another person. That’s actually the time when they develop the other parts of empathy—the full six aspects of empathy. It’s a developmental process.
When people are hyper-empathic and can’t work it out as adults and people are un-empathic and can’t work it out as adults, it’s usually because they haven’t developed this self-recognition that is a healthy way. It’s a way to sort of come in later in life, utilizing parts of the brain to change that problem with self-other recognition. That’s a part of the boundary. It was a lot easier when it was an aura and I was like, “In rainbow colors!” [Laughs.]
Now that I understand it more clearly in terms of development—and there’s so much work being done with neuroscience now saying you can change your brain. You can change how you respond. Your brain is a really wonderfully elastic organ that loves to learn new things. Even if you didn’t develop empathy properly when you were little and you had just a horrendous early life as I did, you can come back and, understanding these six aspects of empathy and how it develops, you can make it work again for yourself.
TS: Karla, this is a little bit tricky territory, but you brought up your previous “metaphysical career” when you were talking about boundaries in terms of the aura. Is it fair to say that you were considered a psychic and that you even used that word to refer to yourself and that now you might describe this “psychic” ability as being a hyper-empathic person—that you’ve [now] framed this ability that you have to really tune in as just hyper-empathy?
KM: Yes—for me it is. There may be other aspects of intuitive ability that do have a paranormal or metaphysical piece to them. For me, I have to say—really catagorically—empathy isn’t. However, because empathy is a human skill—it’s also a primate skill. Dogs and cats have it. Birds have it. Some lizards—not too many lizards. Empathy is a natural skill that is evolved in social species. It makes me so happy to be able to take it out of the metaphysical realm, because that means I can take it out of the shadows. There’s a way that the metaphysical, spiritual information is really important, but it’s also sort of ghettoized in terms of being able to talk about it openly.
I thought I was a psychic because the things I could pick up about people were bizarrely accurate. I couldn’t have known. What I’ve learned now—especially as I’ve studied sociology and anthropology—is what I was reading is paralinguistic signalling. I was reading intentions, social space, thoughts, actions, emotions, nuance. All the things that happen around language, but we aren’t taught about and we aren’t given words for.
When I was little and I was identified as a psychic—this is not because my parents didn’t do it right, but there was no frame to say, “She is a natural micro-ethnologist. She is a natural jury selection consultant. She is a natural sociologist.” Instead, it was, “She’s a psychic.”
So that’s where I went with it because there wasn’t any other frame for me. There wasn’t—in the research, an empath isn’t even a thing. The work that I’ve done has had to be with the research, but also with my lived experience. Pulling it out of the metaphysical and paranormal realms has just been a lifesaver for me, because it’s freed me to go and look in new directions and find new ways to talk about it that is more welcoming to everybody.
TS: Are you holding open—it sounds like you are—the idea that there may be some people out there who are currently labelled psychics—other people are labelling that way or they’re labelling themselves that way. That there may be a group of such people who are actually just highly empathic and there may be a group of other people who are actually receiving downloads from other planets or who knows what, and there could be both categories out there?
KM: I’m definitely an agnostic. What that means is—my friends who are atheist say, “You’re an agnostic atheist.” I was like, “All right, whatever.” For me, atheist means there’s no God. I don’t think humans are smart enough to make that distinction. For me, agnostic—“gnosis” is certain knowledge. And for me, agnostic is, “I don’t have certain knowledge.” I’m willing for it to be true, but I’m not basing any of my work on it. I’m willing to say, “Let’s look at non-paranormal explanations for this.”
TS: I want to go back to these to these empathic skills, because you offer, as I said, a couple that are quite unusual. Here’s one of them: “conscious complaining.” This is a skill. This sounds like a skill a very much am a natural at, I think. But, go ahead, explain to me: how is conscious complaining going to help?
KM: One of the things that we’re told about the so-called negative emotions is you just don’t express them. You don’t want to complain. You don’t want to bitch. You don’t want to whine. You want to keep positive and go forward at all times. But, what happens is that people get clogged with a lot of emotion. If an emotion is an action-requiring neurological program, and your response is to ignore it, it’s like ignoring your hunger. It’s going to get worse. If people don’t have any practice at all for the so-called negative emotions, they just get clogged up and that interferes with emotion regulation, because they’ve got all these action programs that are not being acted on. It’s like a pile-up of cars inside them.
With conscious complaining, I created a practice with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a ritual. You basically go off alone—in this book, I also make it into a partner practice so that you can do it with other people.
TS: Sounds fun!
KM: Basically, you say, “I am complaining now,” and you let it all out. Not in a hitting the couch with pillows kind of cathartic way, because it turns out catharsis is not very good for you. It teaches your brain that everytime anger comes up, you’ve got to go hit the couch. It teaches you to be violent, which is not what we want. But, to speak the truth about your emotions. It might be things that you can’t say, for instance, at work. So, I would say, “I’m complaining now. This is really hard. I’m over-scheduled. I feel like I’m going to let everybody down. I feel like I’m in the edge of a cliff and I have to put on a happy face.” Do you know what I mean? Tell the truth.
What I find with conscious complaining—because it is in sort of a ritual container, pretty soon, as you’ve spoken each of the emotions, then it comes out. “I feel that I can’t meet everybody’s needs. I feel that I’m a failure.” Where you thought you were angry and pissy, it turns out you’re feeling grief. It’s gets that fast.
TS: How long do I get for this?
KM:It takes about 30 seconds. It is amazing how quick it is when you create a container for it.
TS: One of the key differences, then, between ordinary complaining and conscious complaining—it sounds like—is ordinary complaining can go on and on and on often—hours of it. Especially with another person.
KM: If you’re with another person, a lot of times you’re aware of your face—of maintaining face. You’re going to say, “When that person did this, I realize I shouldn’t be angry about it, but blah, blah, blah.” You have a lot of crosstalk. But, with your quiet complaining practice, you can be really honest and get it out. Once the emotions know that you’re going to hear them, they’ll just fall over themselves to help you. “She’s listening to us? Oh, my word. Let’s go! Let’s work!”
Then, when you’re done and you get to what it is, you might need to cry, you might say, “I need to speak to people.” You’re not going to go to people, now that you’ve done this practice, you’re not going to go to people all riled up with 100 emotions that you haven’t felt. You’re going to be able to say, “I just realized that I feel I’m taking on all this extra work because I feel like I’m going to fail you as a person if I don’t. But, I’m falling apart. What can we do?”
TS: I can imagine someone who isn’t used to thinking that complaining could be considered a healthy spiritual practice thinking, “Doesn’t complaining just re-ingrain my negativity and my blame and all of that? Doesn’t that just further dig a hole?”
KM: It surprisingly doesn’t. I come to this after I talk to people about what each emotion is for. They go into this practice with tools and skills and a way to look at emotions that isn’t: this one’s good and that one’s bad. But, to say, “I’m feeling anger. What boundary has been crossed without my permission? I’m feeling hatred. What is in my Shadow?” They have skills there.
It’s also a place to just go and do it. At the end, you say thank you and close it. That’s something that, as you say—some people, their complaining goes on forever. It has a beginning, but it has no end. This one, you enclose it. I think it’s one of the most helpful things—especially for people who are striving to be good people—is that you’re never supposed to feel any of the so-called negative emotions. Since you always will, since they’re all necessary and they’re a part of everything you do, it’s important to have a practice for them.
TS: You have another surprising practice—ethical empathic gossip.
KM: I love it!
TS: OK, Karla, help me know how I’m going to turn my desire to engage in gossip into ethical empathic gossip.
KM: One of the things—I used to hate gossip. I thought it was the most cowardly thing you could do. It’s like, go talk to the person. Geez. In my large family, people would gossip to me constantly about the other people. I would go and talk to the person who—so my mom would gossip about my sister and my sister would gossip about my mom. So, I would tell my sister what my mom had said, you know, in a nice way, and I would tell my mom what my sister had said in a nice way. Then, they would both attack me. I was like, that was not the right thing, so don’t do that. [Laughs.]
I felt that gossip was cowardice and I hated it. When I started to study gossip in anthropology, it turns out that gossip is really crucial. Gossip exists in all social relationships. It is done between men and women and people of all ages. In anthropology, they look at gossip as informal communication networks. Gossip is something like, “Oh, did you hear about that person? She’s so awful.” Or, it can be, “Did you hear about Dave? His car was just hit.” That’s gossip.
It’s an informal communication chain. If you get that gossip about Dave, you’ll know when he comes in, how you need to treat him. You don’t want to ask him for that 40 bucks he owes you, because he’s been through it. If you didn’t have that information, you would not be socially successful. Gossip is a really important aspect of social commuication and social success.
But, as we all know, gossip can be gruesome. So, I put in a practice to—just as it is with complaining, which you must do, but it needs to be detoxified. To detoxify gossip and help people understand what gossip is, what emotions are involved in it—usually envy and jealousy, which are some of the most hated emotions in the emotional realm, and yet some of the most important. To help people understand to have a practice for gossip where it has, again, a beginning, a middle, and an end. You treat it with ethics and—
TS: What are the ethics?
KM: The ethics are: if I’m gossiping to you about a person, let’s say, “Martha is so blah, blah, blah.” Everytime I come to you, it’s all about Martha and blah, blah, blah. What I’m telling you, Tami, is that I cannot handle my relationship with Martha and I need help. But, I’ve gotten into a really toxic place of just spilling her secrets out and trying to get you to be my ally against her. That’s when I would say we need some ethics here.
So, the next time I come to you and say, “Can we gossip about Martha, because clearly I’ve lost my way with her.” I would do my gossip, and you would listen. The next step is I would need to listen to your suggestions for how to go and do it differently. The need for gossip came up because I lost my relationship skills with Martha. Now, I need to come to you and actually treat you ethically and empathically and with compassion, and let you say what you need to say, because you heard me for months talking about Martha and you’re sick of it.
For you to be able to say, “Here’s what I’ve noticed about you and Martha.” You know, whatever. “Have you tried this? Have you tried that? I’d like you to go back that way.” The rule is, I need to go back and do it differently with Martha, and not spend all my time creating a toxic environment for the three of us. But, you can’t get rid of gossip. It is a necessary thing.
TS: Karla, we’re almost complete here with our two-part interview on the art of empathy. Yet, the entire second half of the book, we haven’t really talked about yet. Which is what it means to bring our empathy into the world—into our home, into our intimate relationships, into our friendships, into the world of parenting, into schools, and into the whole realm of social action and working with injustice in the world.
So, we’re not going to have time to go into this whole second half of the book, but I’m curious if you could just make a couple of points—really a couple of the main points—that you think are important for people to understand about what it means to bring our empathic abilities into the world.
KM: I’m thinking about it in terms of some conflict, because the way that we understand empathy is so troubling—that it’s about being nice. That it’s about always doing for the other. I think empathy is the air we breathe and it’s excellent food for our social selves, but there can be problems with it.
In the book, I set it up where I start with the person—I start focusing completely on the reader and what’s going on with you. How are you doing? How is your emotional awareness? What’s going on? And then moving out from there. What about your home? Is your home an empathic sanctuary? Is it quiet enough for you? Is it beautiful enough for you? Is it organized enough for you? Or, if you don’t like organization, is it messy enough?
Look at yourself as an empathic, sensitive organism living in a world that doesn’t really understand empathy very well and isn’t very sensitive. Instead of throwing yourself—sort of undressed—into the fire everyday. Treating yourself as a sacred shrine through which something that has been made unsacred—emotions and empathy have been made terribly unsacred—is trying to be made sacred again. And realizing it’s a life practice, that you’re going to need a lot of support, and start to identify your close relationships.
Start to identify who’s around you. Do you have any empathic downtime at all in your life, or are you always on? If so, how can you create boundaries and threshholds and to separate out—for some people who do therapy—and we see therapists as professional empaths. They will have a special piece of clothing they wear when they’re doing therapy, and then they will intentionally take it off and put it on a coathook to say to their body, “Now, we’re going to play. Now, we’re not in that position anymore.” The therapists who are successful do that. Other ones just go through the world as, I call it, a truck with no brakes. Just heal-o-matic—runaway healers—and they burn out.
To look at empathy as a gift that you bring, but also as a relationship we all have, and to treat it as a sacred thing. At the very end of the book, I say, “Someone asks me what would an empathic civilization look like?” And I said, “It looks like this. This is an empathic civilization.” We are empaths—all of us—whether we’re good at it, or comfortable with it, or not. We’re all empaths. You can’t not be. It’s not possible not to be empathic in at least three of the six areas. We all have trouble with it to a certain extent, but the art of empathy is to understand it clearly and to engage with it consciously—as opposed to unconsciously, which is how most of us do it at this point.
So, it’s to become conscious and aware of yourself as an empathic organism living in a culture that really isn’t very welcoming to empathic organisms.
TS: When you say we live in an empathic civilization now—yes, we’re experiencing emotion contagion, feeling each others’ fear, anxiety, etc.. But we’re not living in a skillful empathic civilization.
KM: [Laughs.] No! I was going to say this is what we’ve got right now. This is how it looks now. This is how empathy looks now, in 2013. Where our government just shut down, because of what I call “the dark side of empathy.” It’s called three-person empathy in the research, but I’m calling it “three-party empathy,” which is a fascinating thing that I’m looking at a lot right now—which is you and I can become more empathic about our hatred of that other guy over there who’s so wrong. We can experience powerful empathy with each other at the exact same moment we experience powerful lack of empathy for the other person.
The idea that our communication and our relationship is based on a hatred of that other guy, I would question that sort of empathy. And yet, it’s almost how we form groups, right? Our group is formed because we’re obviously better than that other group and we want to right the wrongs of the group that made everything so bad. A lot of our empathisizing that we do with each other is actually toxic. That’s something I question in the chapter on [the] social justice movement. A lot of social justice is about hating that other guy.
TS: I think the real question is not are we an empathic civilization now, but the question that I want to end our conversation on is: what would it mean to have a civilization where we were skilled at empathy? What would that look like?
KM: What would that look like? It would look like the relationship with your best friend who can laugh and isn’t full of hatred. It would look like people who have done their Shadow work. We know some of those people. They exist. It’s possible.
Doing your Shadow work means taking a fearless moral inventory and having enough gumption—that’s an old word we need to bring back. Having enough gumption to look at yourself and call yourself out on your behavior. That means having functional shame working in your psyche. That’s a hard thing for people. People like to run from shame and valance the hell out of it and say that it’s the most toxic emotion in the world. I’m saying that you don’t know shame.
I think there’s a lot of trouble in the emotional realm that helps us be unskilled empaths. Focusing on the genius inside of emotions is what will help us.
Aaaahhhh! That’s my zany empathic quest.
TS: Focusing on the genius inside of emotions. I’ve been speaking with Karla McLaren. We’ve done a two-part podcast here on a new book release. It’s called The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. With Sounds True, Karla has also published a book and an audio series on The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You and an online course on Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions.
Karla, I want to thank you for your work that is so pioneering and for you always standing and speaking your truth as it changes through the years. You are leading a brave way into the genius of emotions. Thank you.
KM: It takes one to know one.
TS: SoundsTrue.com Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.