The Language of Emotions

It happened without me even realizing it. I had worked all day to write and re-write my resume, changing verb tenses and rearranging lists of skills and duties, all in an attempt to make me sound like the value-added corporate asset I knew I could be instead of the flaky deadbeat my resume made me seem. If only the HR managers at the company to which I was applying would just give me a chance. If only I had some way to talk to them, to show them my true talents and skills, they would see that I was perfect for this job.

As I sat at the keyboard obsessing about my work history, a pall slowly crept over me. I went from excited to dejected, from hopeful to hopeless. Who was I kidding? They would never be able to look past a resume full of gaps caused by child-rearing and spotty freelance work and crippling career indecision to see that I could do this job. In fact, maybe I could not do this job after all. Maybe they were right, whoever “they” were.

Once the negative thinking had taken over, I was useless. I didn’t send in the application; instead I took to my bed and spent the rest of the day weeping, indulging in thoughts like, I am nobody and I will never get anywhere. 

Luckily, I had a resource to turn to. On my bedside table, I had Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions. I had already read McLaren’s thesis that our emotions are messages from our psyches sent to alert us that we need to attend to them, honor them, and integrate them into our “quaternity”–our emotions, our intellect, our body, and our spirituality. Now, as I floundered in my self-loathing, shame, and sense of futility, I turned to the chapter called “Building Your Raft: The Five Empathic Skills.” In this chapter, McLaren gives readers concrete practices to use to “navigate competently through your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, and your visions.”

The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren

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 led me 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 myself and creating my boundary, I imagined a piece of paper in front of me onto which I projected my distressed thoughts. I took the thought I will never get anywhere in life and placed it on the paper, then surrounded it with all the negative thinking that had led me to that moment. My indecision about what kind of job I wanted, my introverted terror of networking, and my fear of failure and embarrassment had built up over time and led to passivity, and eventually to my current paralysis.

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.” As predicted, tears welled up and I poured my despair out onto my imaginary page, letting it run its course of self-criticism, anger and desperation. Why was I like this? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t do this simple thing that every adult must do? Why was I, someone who had had many advantages and privileges in life, so stuck in a spiral of low self-esteem and apathy? Why was I hiding from my own life?

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 like a ceremony, and reminded me of being a young broken-hearted woman, burning mementoes from my ex-boyfriend in order to exorcise my love for him. Still, after going through these steps, I noticed that I felt a little lighter and brighter. I realized I would have to do the ceremony 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. I would get somewhere in life. Where didn’t really matter. What mattered was that I get up, go back to the computer, call the resume good enough, and click send.

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