Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book review: The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren

Unsolicited, uncompensated review. Opinions are purely my own.

I heard an interview with the author of this book on Koren Motekaitis's podcast, and had to get a copy. As I often do with books that I want to read right away, rather than put on the shelf and get to "when I have time," I bought it as an audiobook through audible.com (link takes you to a site where you can try a membership for free and support one of my other favorite podcasts, This American Life).

At times, The Language of Emotions can get sort of woo-woo -- in the audiobook, there is singing that sounds like "woo-woo" to separate chapters.  In the figurative sense, too, when there are tales of how the writer saved neighborhood cats with her empathetic abilities.  Don't let this discourage you -- there is some great information here.

A lot of counterproductive behaviors -- addictions and compulsions of all kinds,  distancing and "checking out," controlling behaviors -- result from efforts to hide from so-called negative emotions.  The author outlines how emotions we perceive as negative, like anger and sadness, actually serve important purposes for us, and if we could succeed in an attempt to live only in positive emotions like joy, we would be manic and ungrounded. We wouldn't be whole human beings.  She takes readers through exercises to explore the gifts of each emotion and help show what each brings to a well-rounded life.  Emotions are not something we should learn to detach ourselves from -- even the name implies that they are there to motivate and move us. Anger, for example, is described by McLaren as a warning that a boundary has been crossed.  If we don't let us feel angry, we will let people push us around.  She says we shouldn't lash out, but should instead feel the emotion, understand its message, and then act mindfully.

I had a fellow member of the Half Size Me community contact me not long after I listened to this interview, wanting to chat. She said, "I should be happy, but I can't stop feeling sad." I asked her, "What if you decided to set aside some time and be sad?" She said that she instantly felt better when she thought about doing this.  Instead of hiding from sadness, she could just feel it.  Ironically, that made her happier.

A couple of warnings. McLaren discusses childhood sexual abuse in this book, which could be triggering for a lot of people.  She doesn't do it as a way of "pouring her pain all over you" (her words), but as an explanation of how she developed her own empathetic abilities.  I also think that some of the emotions discussed in this book, like depression and suicidal urges, should be worked through with the help of a counselor. McLaren mentions this, and thankfully, unlike other New Age authors, acknowledges the value of antidepressants and other medications to help manage emotions.  I think, though, that this book would make a great supplement to professional help as a guide to navigating these emotions more mindfully.

Though sometimes an author reading his or her own book can be clumsy or monotone, McLaren has an engaging and expressive voice. My only minor quibble is that sometimes she inserts laughter that feels false and forced -- but even this isn't too intrusive or annoying.

I need to listen to the book a second time and go through the exercises more carefully, but even by listening through the first time, I learned a lot and have felt more in touch with my feelings.  I highly recommend it.

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