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Reflection: Welcoming Emotions to the Table 

April 28, 2015

No class on May 1, let’s plan to see one another May 8


Over the weekend, I attended a workshop with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotion and The Art of Empathy. McLaren’s work has the potential to profoundly shift how think about our emotions and therefore, how we can behave when we are angry, anxious, or struggle with any intense emotion.

As the day-long workshop unfolded, people eagerly dug in with their questions and curiosity. Mid-way through the day a few people, stirred by their emotions, asked emphatic questions that left the rest of us breathless.

In the face of those intense questions, I was so uncomfortable I immediately wanted McLaren to silence the asker. After a few more minutes, I longed for her to move us on to the next activity. Finally, I recognized how much there was to learn and watched in fascination as she listened intently to the person’s fear, anguish, and uncertainty.

McLaren didn’t shout the questions down. She didn’t ask the person to talk to her after class. She settled in and her facial expressions and body language relayed a message that she was hearing and seeing the speaker.

I can’t think of a better way to handle the situation and the rest of us were able to observe exactly how McLaren suggests we behave in the chapter, Anger: The Honorable Sentry. When someone is angry, listen.

McLaren eschews the notion of only four emotions, and, as we worked with the fifteen emotions she has identified it was easy to see why. I came to appreciate the nuances of each emotion and, most importantly, how they work together and the interactions between them. Emotions almost never function solo.

If you’ve been reading along on this blog, you know, I’ve been working with the processes of anxiety and anger and how they function within my family and other families. It was only last summer, at a friend‘s suggestion, that I read The Language of Emotion. Some very key pieces fell into place.

Empathy pioneer, Karla McLaren

Empathy pioneer, Karla McLaren

For example, McLaren sees anger as an honorable sentry whose purpose is to protect a boundary. That means if I lash out, my border is unprotected. And if I cave in, my border is also unprotected. Instead, I can work with my anger until it flows freely, as McLaren says, and signals to me that something is wrong. In those moments of being alerted, I can learn what needs to be protected and restored.

There’s something expansive about bringing all my emotions to the table, shushing none of them. I can learn to let my council gather and work in harmony, some coming forward when needed and others receding when their turn comes to wait.

When I first tried to imagine a natural ebb and flow of emotions inside me, all I sensed was chaos. And so, I gave up on the idea and tolerated the clamoring. And, sometimes, none of my emotions were present and I sat in deadened silence.

These days, my emotions and I gather around the family table where harmony and cohesion jab and feint, and highs and lows are expected and welcomed. Anxiety now has a focus, anger does her job, and happiness gets to rest when the emotional content has nothing to do with happiness.

All in all, listening to and making friends with my emotions has been an incredibly fruitful process, a natural extension of my studies of human behavior and my practice of the Feldenkrais Method.

The simplicity of accessing my emotion council astonishes me, and yet it makes perfect sense. After all, it’s me listening to me being me.

What emotion do you struggle with?
And, which emotion would you like to invite to dinner? 


  1. I love this post, every word of it. I am half-way through The Language of Emotion, had almost forgotten about it after having loved it initially…maybe a year go. This spurs me to go back and finish it. Thank you.

    • Oh exciting, Kendall. We seem to be in a similar path of book reading. I’ll write more on this.

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