Back when I was a science writer, I could waste a lot of time obsessing about a story that was due. I remember the feeling of sitting at the computer, a pall slowly creeping over me. I often went from excited to dejected, from hopeful to hopeless. Who was I kidding? The editor–not the nicest guy on a good day– would tear it up anyway. In fact, maybe I should just quit trying to be a writer and become something more sensible, like a waitress.
Once the negative thinking had taken over, I was as good as useless. That is, until I started reading Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions. McLaren’s thesis is that our emotions are messages from our psyches sent to alert us that we need to attend to them. In the chapter called “Building Your Raft: The Five Empathic Skills,” McLaren gives readers concrete practices to use to “navigate competently through your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, and your visions.”
The first skill, “getting grounded,” is similar to meditation or other practices that help people to develop focus and to be in the present moment. McLaren suggests sitting in a quiet place, breathing naturally, and imagining your breath moving downward through your belly and into the earth, anchoring you to the ground. “Grounding calms and regulates the flows within your psyche,” McLaren writes, “so that you can moderate and direct your thoughts, your bodily sensations, your visionary awareness, and of course, your emotions.”
After grounding, McLaren teaches readers how to define their personal physical space by imagining a boundary around themselves. According to McLaren, this boundary gives you privacy and protection: “In our distracted and dissociated culture,” she warns, “most of us don’t see ourselves as distinct individuals with clear boundaries.” Imagining this boundary can help us to protect and define ourselves to create a sense of safety and wholeness.
Next, McLaren leads readers through “burning contracts,” which is a way to release trapped emotions and behaviors. Once you are grounded and bounded, you can start to “navigate the flows of life.” You can remain centered through difficult moments. This process is not unlike other methods, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which encourage people to separate themselves from the destabilizing behaviors and attitudes that keep them in distress, and “burn” the contracts that we have all unconsciously signed to keep repeating the same old negative patterns. After grounding yourself and creating a boundary, you imagine a piece of paper in front of you onto which you project your distressed thoughts.
McLaren suggests that at this point, emotions will start to arise. “Don’t fight your emotions or pretend that you’re feeling something else,” she writes. Instead, let these emotions flow freely “to help you separate from these entrapping ideas and behaviors.” When i tried this, as predicted, tears welled up and I poured my despair out onto my imaginary page, letting it run its course: Why was I like this? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t persevere in the face of criticism? Why had I let a little rough feedback derail me from getting my work done?
McLaren advised me to “use whatever emotion comes forward to dislodge unworkable ideas or behaviors.” Then, when the paper was full, I had to roll it up and toss it outside my boundary, then imagine burning it up with the raging emotions I had unleashed. Just like that, the contract I had created with these “unworkable ideas and behaviors” was incinerated.
To me, all of this felt a little silly, like the ceremony my friends and I had enacted as teenagers when we were broken-hearted and burned mementoes from ex-boyfriends. Still, after going through these steps, I noticed that I felt a little lighter and brighter. Over the years, I have done the ritual many more times–whenever my despair raised its ugly head–in order to keep remembering that I could, if I wanted, let go of the thoughts and behaviors that were holding me back. I realized that, as McLaren insists, negative emotions are there for a very good reason. They are messages from your psyche begging you to pay attention to yourself, to the pain that you have repressed or dissociated from or hidden, the pain that keeps you locked in self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior. It was important to pay attention to those feelings: and then to get up, go back to the computer, and keep working.