Karla McLaren is a lifelong empath, pioneering educator, researcher, and award-winning author whose insightful approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” ones and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. In her latest book, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (Sounds True, 2013), she explores the varieties of empathy—which helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others—and why it is first and foremost an emotional skill.
In the following excerpt, McLaren delves into the importance of emotions in our day-to-day functioning in the social world.
In his work as a neuroscientist of emotion, Antonio Damasio has been able to study people who have lost their ability to feel some or all emotions. If you have been trained to think of emotions as mostly problematic, you might think of these people as lucky. Many of us imagine that without emotions, people would be completely rational, like a computer or like the hyperlogical and seemingly unemotional Star Trek character Mr. Spock. However, nothing could be further from the truth. What Damasio discovered as he worked with many emotion-impaired patients throughout his career is that each emotion has a specific role in the maintenance of essential social and cognitive functions. If you take emotions away from people, they don’t become smarter; instead, they become less able to function independently, they lose many of their interactional skills, and they often require direct assistance to care for and protect themselves.
For instance, Damasio wrote about a male patient with brain damage that severely impaired his emotions. Although this patient was still able to think, speak, and drive, he had a fascinating inability to make simple decisions. Damasio described giving this patient two possible dates for an upcoming appointment and then watching in frustration-tinged fascination as the man spent nearly 30 minutes listing all of the possible differences between the two appointment dates (weather, driving conditions, other appointments—he was exhaustive). Finally, Damasio spoke up and suggested one of the two dates. The man agreed willingly and easily—nothing in his meticulous list seemed to matter to him in the least—and then he left.
This patient’s logical, linguistic, and sequencing abilities were intact. His memory was intact. He could easily orient to day and time. But he couldn’t make any decisions about his preferences, and he couldn’t respond appropriately to the boredom and hurry-up signals Damasio was sending. He was as smart and as logical as anyone needs to be, but without his emotions, he couldn’t make decisions. Damasio eventually realized that decision-making is the emotional process of attaching value and meaning to data. This patient knew all of the facts, but he didn’t know how he felt about any of them, and he was unable to make even a simple decision without assistance. Emotions are intimately involved in our cognitive processes, and without them, facts just pile on top of each other without meaning or value. Emotions help us understand what’s important and what isn’t, and they help us attend empathically to the signals and needs of others.
Even the allegedly “negative” emotions are intrinsic to our functioning—even shame, even fear. Damasio wrote about another patient, a young woman who had a head trauma in early childhood that interfered with her ability to feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment. Although you might think that this would be a wonderfully freeing state, it was a disaster. Without the ability to feel ashamed or embarrassed, this young woman was a social hurricane, unable (and unwilling) to behave in ways that worked for others and, eventually, for herself. She was insensitive, unapologetic, unreliable, self-endangering, other-endangering, and so disruptive that she landed in multiple treatment facilities as a teen. Eventually, as a young adult, she had to be conserved because she was so socially disabled. She was intelligent, she came from a good family, and she had plenty of therapy and support. But without her shame, guilt, and embarrassment, she couldn’t function socially, feel concern, empathize effectively, maintain relationships, complete schooling, keep a job, amend her behaviors, apologize for her misdeeds, or live independently. Without her shame, she couldn’t live as a fully functional member of the social world.
Patients like these helped Damasio see through the confusing mists that obscure our understanding of emotions and helped him identify the purpose of emotions. These patients and their disabilities helped Damasio create a working definition for emotions that brings them into clear focus: Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs. They’re not positive or negative, glorious or shameful, right or wrong; they’re action-requiring neurological programs.
With this definition in place, we can approach emotions empathically—not as problems to be eradicated but as action-requiring programs that are essential for the maintenance of our whole and healthy lives. Understanding emotions [this way] helps us observe them more intelligently and more functionally. Because if an emotion requires an action, the next obvious question is (1) Which action? And then, the question after that is, (2) What happens when I perform that action?
The answers to these questions are (1) The action you perform depends upon which emotion has arisen, and (2) When you perform the correct action, that emotion should recede naturally. This action-requiring approach helps us reframe not just emotions but also the conditions we usually blame on emotions, such as repetitive anxiety or depression, or problems with anger, fear, or envy (and so on). Instead of looking at emotions as problems in and of themselves, we can—with this action-focused approach—become more empathically intelligent about them.
It’s so helpful to understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs because it means that you get to decide which action (out of dozens) you want to take. This gives you intentionality and agency in regard to your emotions; you become a person who can act intelligently when your emotions arise, rather than being their puppet or their puppet-master. This concept also lifts away the blotch of pathology that has been smeared onto emotions for so many centuries. Emotions are necessary, evolved, and reliable.
Excerpted from The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, by Karla McLaren. Copyright © 2013 Karla McLaren. Published by Sounds True.