Karla McLaren, M.Ed. is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and empathy pioneer. She is the founder and CEO of Emotion Dynamics LLC and the developer of the Empathy Academy online learning site.
Karla is the author of Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of this Vital Emotion, The Dynamic Emotional Integration® Workbook, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You, and the multi-media online course Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions. Her newest book, The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace will be released on August 3rd, 2021.
BRYAN WISH: For those who don’t know, I heard of Karla through someone I work with who said, “You ought to read Karla’s book called The Art of Empathy.” It’s taken me down a two or three-month journey. I’m looking inward and trying to make some changes in my own life—very helpful work. Karla, welcome to the show. Introduce yourself and tell us about the One Away moment that you want to share with us.
KARLA MCLAREN: Thank you, Bryan. I’m an author and a social science researcher. My focus is on emotions and empathy and also anything that impedes those. I have focused a lot of my research on places where there’s trouble in emotions and empathy. Like big trouble. My most recent book was Embracing Anxiety and what I noticed is that most people don’t know what anxiety is. They mistake it for panic, which is a great emotion, but it’s not anxiety. There’s a lot of trouble there. My next book on the workplace looks at how the workplace impedes emotions and empathy and makes people pretty miserable. That book is about bringing emotions and empathy back into the workplace so that it can be a functional social world.
BRYAN WISH: Tell us about the One Away moment you want to share.
KARLA MCLAREN: I’ve got three, but I think the first one has to be meeting my third husband, Tino Plank. I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I was seven. I began writing since I was 20. I lived a very chaotic life. I had experienced childhood abuse, and that can set people up for a destabilized life. I also belonged to a cult from the age of 10-17. I got kicked out because I asked too many questions. If you know me, you’ll know I’m always going to ask too many questions.
That cultic experience meant I missed out on a lot of healthy life experiences. I left high school at 16. I had had enough. I tested out. I did have some paperwork. After the cult kicked me out, I kind of lost a bunch of years. Even though I was writing and taking care of myself and I had a child by the time I was 21, my life was very chaotic. I was extremely poor. I ended up in a battered women’s shelter. It wasn’t a good story. I held my writing out and my poetry as a dream of who and what I could be.
I kept writing. I had a second husband that didn’t work. I gave up on relationships. I needed to focus on myself and my son, who was then nine. Tino Plank saw my poetry and my writing. He wanted to know who I was from that point. He didn’t know I was a young woman. He didn’t know I was marginally pretty. He was drawn to my writing. We eventually got together. He had a more stable life than I did. His presence in my life made my writing career possible. I had the talent and the focus, but I didn’t have any of the support that I needed to take the risk of a writing career.
To be a writer, you need to be prepared to be grotesquely poor. I couldn’t do any more of that from where I was. Meeting him made it so that I had the stability and footing that I needed and love to go ahead and create the rest of my writing career, going back to school, and all the things that I needed to do. In every book, I thank him first. Most people thank their partner last. I’m like, nope. We’re thanking Tino first. It is how my career began.
BRYAN WISH: Just to add. When you have someone in your life who can support you in your dreams, share that experience, and want to push that forward, it feels so good, especially if you know the opposite of that. I could see why it’s so valuable. It’s neat how you said you put him first for that reason. What drew him to your work in the first place? How did he reach out to you before he knew you?
KARLA MCLAREN: I wrote poetry for a local magazine. We lived in the Northern Sierra town of Senora. I was also the promotion director for the local AM/FM radio station, and I wrote all of the ads. I was also the newscaster. It was a lot for a single mom. You just have to have a lot of jobs. He had seen my poetry, and he had heard my newscasts. I’d sometimes be there late at night after I’d been to a board of supervisors’ meeting. I got bored, and I’d make comedy commercials. I’d voice them or put music under them. The station would throw my comedy commercials into the regular commercial schedule.
He would listen to them and go, “This is not someone from Senora. This is someone from the Bay Area.” He was right. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. I had a more Bay Area kind of humor. My writing was sort of chasing him all over town, and my presence was sort of chasing him all over town. He knew I was going to be at a poetry reading. HE came to see me specifically, but he was looking for an older person because my poetry wasn’t simple. It was the poetry of a person who dealt with a tremendous amount of trauma in their life. That called to him because he had as well.
BRYAN WISH: He clearly understood you. By reading, he kind of knew you without knowing you.
KARLA MCLAREN: Who knew it was a message in a bottle?
BRYAN WISH: It was a message in a bottle. Take us to when you met. He shows up at the poetry reading. What happened next?
KARLA MCLAREN: At the time, I had sworn off all relationships because I had such bad luck. I saw him giving me this sparkly-eyed, “Aren’t you interesting?” kind of thing. I just shut it down so hard.
BRYAN WISH: You knew he was into you?
KARLA MCLAREN: Yeah. I was like, “Nope. I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life rather than be in another bad relationship.” He thought, “Oh my god, she’s awful.” That was how we met. I was just sarcastic. I’m very good at sarcasm. I was slappy, and he was like, “Who is she? She cannot be this poet. She cannot have written these poems because she’s just rough.” It took us another four months to get together. It was a small town, and we were continually thrown together at this or that thing. Finally, one night, I figured out who he was. We’ve been together ever since. And he wasn’t afraid. If I do my sarcastic thing at them, a lot of people will go away forever. He would not go away forever.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you built up some good defense mechanisms.
KARLA MCLAREN: They were awesome.
BRYAN WISH: You said you gave him a chance, or maybe you let him in a bit. Did you do your research?
KARLA MCLAREN: I was very poor at the time, a single mom. I didn’t know this, but he had put on a get-together at the local arts council. It was a potluck. I had about $1.40 leftover. It was the end of the month. I could run down to the store and grab some lettuce and make a salad for this potluck. It was the way that my son and I were going to eat that night. I got there, and it was Tino who had set up the potluck. It was an African-themed potluck with a drummer who came to play in Senora.
I saw him, and I just went, “Oh, you again.” He was just right there with me. I sat down with him and was joking and being inappropriate and irreverent. He just wouldn’t leave. He just was like, “You’re not going to scare me away.” At the end of the night, we had drummed together, and I said, “Do you do hugs?” He said, “Yes,” and it was the best hug that had ever been. My body is like, “There we go. That’s who he is. I’m okay now.” I had to fight my way into it.
BRYAN WISH: Wow. There was a lot of luck and timing and serendipitous events that brought you together. When you hugged, when you had that physical touchpoint, you knew that it was right?
KARLA MCLAREN: Yeah. I was like, “This is my home.” That was it. It was magical, and also, I was a jerk. That’s part of the magic.
BRYAN WISH: You got to play hard to get, I guess. I love this vulnerability. You met Tino. It was home. Did you guys just date, fall in love, and happily ever after?
KARLA MCLAREN: I was still a bit fierce around my son, who had so much heartbreak from the loss of my two husbands; his father and my next husband. Before I let Tino in, we met for drumming the next day. Then we sat in his car, and I told him about who I was. I told him about my early trauma. I told him about my son. I also said, “I need to be really serious with you. If you come into my life, I want it to be known that you will be in my son’s life for the rest of his life. This is not a boyfriend/girlfriend momentary situation.
He’s heartbroken, and I can’t do this to him again.” He said, “Yes, I agree.” I said, “You can kiss me now.” That was it. It was the first time in my life that I had set boundaries up around relationships. It was usually like, “Oh, you like me? Let’s get married. You have all kinds of troubles that you don’t know how to manage. You don’t know how to work emotions, and you’re kind of mean. Let’s get married.” Now I was very protective of myself and my son.
BRYAN WISH: I love that. You talk about boundaries in your book Art of Empathy. Good for you. What a moment of strength.
KARLA MCLAREN: Yeah, and how lucky I was that he was right there, as a young boy who his own father had abandoned. He was like, “Yep, I can fix that wound by being a better person myself.”
BRYAN WISH: I have to think, for him, that was a lot to take on all at once. Did you trust him when you said that? I feel that’s an easy thing to say yes when emotions are in the way. Did it feel true to you?
KARLA MCLAREN: Yeah. He was so open and honest. I had seen over the months how he had responded to me trying to push him away. He also had early childhood abuse. We were kind of twins in that way. We knew another wounded person when we saw them.
BRYAN WISH: The trauma you talked about that he had and the trauma that you had, was that still there and hadn’t been worked through? Is it something you worked through together? What was the state of the trauma in your own lives? You say in your book that it’s hard to be in a relationship if you meet someone and they have unfinished trauma.
KARLA MCLAREN: We had both been working on ourselves for many years. We both had similar traumas. They were early childhood sexual assaults. His assault was from a woman in his family and mine from a male neighbor. We both had lots of damage in the area of gender and opposite gender and trust. That’s one of the things I told him in the car. I said, “I’ve had these experiences. I need support sometimes. I’m not a normal, regular person who just deals with things in regular ways. I sometimes need to veer off and take care of things.” He’s like, “Me too.” It was magical and serendipitous. We’ve been together for about 28 years. We’re kind of looking at each other and going, “If either of us dies before the other one does, we are going to be in so much pain. It’s going to be so bad.” I’m like, “I’ll get a cat if you die.”
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you still love him as much today as you did back then.
KARLA MCLAREN: I love him more now because back then, I was younger. I didn’t understand love completely.
BRYAN WISH: Tell us what love is before I move onto my next question.
KARLA MCLAREN: Then, love was with a lot of trepidation and fear and hope and frustration. Now it’s just a certainty that there’s nothing that I could do that would stop the love from happening. There’s nothing that we can’t get through. There are no conflicts that we can’t fight out and figure out how to make things work. We’re just such an amazingly good partnership. That’s why I was saying when one of us dies before the other one, we are in a world of pain, my friend. I wonder if that’s sometimes why people don’t want to love completely. They don’t want that pain.
BRYAN WISH: From your trauma, did you ever feel unlovable?
KARLA MCLAREN: I was never scared to love. I kind of threw myself full-on at people. It was a game of Red Rover. When I was with people who didn’t have early childhood trauma, I’d have to pretend to be normal. I’d have to pretend to be just a regular shmo. They’d find the way that I reacted unwelcomely, or they’d treat me as if I was broken. Then I felt really bad. That’s why it was so important for me to be with someone who had a similar early trauma so we could understand each other and see each other as survivors instead of weirdos.
BRYAN WISH: Thanks for sharing. Tino is a blessing in your life. He took in your son. He took you for you. He also took you for your work. Can you describe what happened after you met him and how your writing journey maybe blossomed or took a different course?
KARLA MCLAREN: It became easier to write and also to plan out books for the future. I had all these books stacked up inside me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just too poor, and things were too destabilized in my life. I was able to make brave, foolhardy decisions because there was someone who had my back rather than just working at a radio station to just keep writing. I was able to branch out. My first book for survivors of childhood sexual assault wouldn’t sell. Nobody wanted it. I realized I needed to publish it myself. That could only have happened if I had a stable relationship where there was money. My relationship with Tino is what helped me to write this book from this very different viewpoint.
BRYAN WISH: How did you guys plan around that in the relationship?
KARLA MCLAREN: His dedication to my writing was always essential. For him, it didn’t feel like he was losing out on something. Throughout the years, what we ended up doing is he ended his early work and went back to school, and I’d take over. Then he would take over while I went back to school. Eventually, both of us got Master’s degrees. He’s got two. We went back and forth, making sure the other person wasn’t held back.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you guys were constantly lifting each other up and supporting each other at different points of your life.
KARLA MCLAREN: Yeah, and moving constantly. We’re tired of moving.
BRYAN WISH: You guys are in a beautiful area of the world right now. Northern California.
KARLA MCLAREN: It’s beautiful when it’s not on fire or flooded.
BRYAN WISH: Is there anything else you want to comment on about Tino?
KARLA MCLAREN: Before I met him, I found this absurd book called Are You The One For Me by Barbara De Angelis. It’s one of those relationship books, and I say that with a sneer, but this one was so different and amazing. It said you need someone who is like you in your own house. You can have people who are very different from you outside your house, but you need to have someone who supports you, someone who believes the same things you do, someone who is very similar to you so that you can live your life with the support you need with someone who understands you. That was helpful.
Tino had something very similar. We both had a list of what we needed in a relationship. That’s why I was so, “I’m not in a relationship with anybody until this person with these 100 bullet points comes along.” I was setting a benchmark that could never be met so that I could stay alone. Once Tino and I finally got together, I pulled the list out.
I had all kinds of things like, “Doesn’t drink coffee, spiritual but not religious. Is liberal but not a jerk about it.” It was seriously specific. He hit all 100 bullet points. I went, “Don’t!” I ran outside, and I burnt the list. I was like, “What did I do?” I also didn’t want to trap him there. I wanted him and me to be able to grow. Getting into a relationship with just as much research and specificity as people use when buying a car or a set of headphones is good. Before, I hadn’t done that at all.
BRYAN WISH: There was something about political values. They might not always be perfectly aligned, but at least some kind of an understanding. Spirituality. Sexuality.
KARLA MCLAREN: Sexuality. How they deal with money. Child-rearing. How they are with their family. Everything that people fight about after they get married because they haven’t checked it out.
BRYAN WISH: Do the hard work first, so you spare yourself later. I do a lot of work with young professionals—just more volunteer. I think a lot of hardship can be saved if they check some of the boxes early around certain elements that they often don’t think about. It might be harder that way to maybe do it the right way by being very careful and specific about relationships. Well said.
KARLA MCLAREN: Tino was seeing a therapist at the time. He was very clear about what and who he wanted. It was about a week or two before he met me. He said, “I want a woman with a child because I don’t want to bring children into the world because I don’t want my family’s genes to continue. I want to end it here, but I want to have a child.” He had other things. His therapist said to him, “You might want to relax some of these because this specificity means you may be alone.” Tino said, “Then I’ll be alone.” It’s like we both had gotten to this place of, “No, I won’t live this way.” He’d been in a very painful marriage. We both had been through too much.
BRYAN WISH: Such beautiful advice. It’s neat how you came together after both realizing that you may be alone your whole life. It’s an incredible perspective. I love you talk about it with such heart and depth. Thank you. You mentioned there was another One Away moment or person that you wanted to talk about. What is that moment or experience you want to share?
KARLA MCLAREN: That is Tammy Simon of Sounds True Publishing, who eventually became my publisher. After I wrote that first book and created a whole publishing house called Laughing Tree Press, people asked for audiotapes. I also published audiotapes. That’s the area that she was working in at the time. I had wanted to be at Sounds True. That was my goal. I sent them proposals. The proposals all got pushed to the flesh pile. I never heard anything from anybody. I went, “I know this is valuable. I’m going to do this myself.” I had already been working in radio. I had a radio voice. I knew how to make things sound good. I developed my own, at the time, audiotapes and sold them along with my books. Someone got them to Tammy.
Tammy called me one day. Her voice is very distinctive. She’s at the beginning of all the Sounds True audios. I answered the phone, and there’s Tammy. I didn’t laugh out loud, but I was laughing inside. We talked a little bit. She said, “So, Karla, what would make you happiest?” They weren’t doing books yet. They were only doing audios. She said, “What title and what approach would make you happiest right now? What do you want to put out in the world?” I stopped for a minute. I said, “This is probably the most important question you’re going to hear in many parts of your life.” I went, “Emotional Genius.” That was the first title I did with Sounds True. That book eventually became The Language of Emotions. That started a 20 year or longer relationship with Sounds True and with Tammy. It was so amazing.
I know that I’m incredibly lucky, wildly lucky but a pitch meeting at Sound True is them calling me and going, “Would you write a book about anxiety?” and me going, “Yeah. How many words?” Or a pitch meeting is, “I’ve got this idea about a book for the workplace,” and they go, “Yeah.” It’s is unheard of in publishing. I know that I’m wildly, wildly lucky. Tammy made that possible. They also say no. I was like, “What about a book for children?” They’re like, “Nope.” It’s not foolproof.
BRYAN WISH: When you find an agent or publishing house that believes in your ideas, words, and voice, that’s very special.
KARLA MCLAREN: What was important was I had to create an entire publishing company for people to see me as viable because all of the things that I eventually did with Sounds True were on this flesh pile. The only way I got in was by taking the time, money, and energy to build an entire publishing house for myself. Sometimes people have to see that you’re a thing before they can see that you’re a thing.
BRYAN WISH: You kind of had to create your path and stand out on your own before Sounds True could say, “Hey, maybe this woman is worth bringing into our world.”
KARLA MCLAREN: “She’s original.” Yeah, I had to be.
BRYAN WISH: They say the best way to fit in is to stand out. Good for you. Describe Tammy.
KARLA MCLAREN: She’s very much a voice. Sounds True started as Tammy and her business partner going out to Spoken Word events and recording them because she didn’t want to lose all of this knowledge. Buddhists, the poet Robert Bly, the mythologist Michael Meade, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés. People that maybe had books maybe didn’t, but you wouldn’t have heard of them if Sounds True hadn’t existed. They were very interested in the spoken word. They created this whole thing. She was like a groundbreaker. She continues to be that. She likes people who are themselves groundbreakers. I think that’s what she saw in me. She also saw that I could use some support.
BRYAN WISH: I love that. I think what’s so neat about the author’s journey is you can write something, and it can still come back around five years, ten years, 15 years later because it’s just getting to the person who needed it at that time. That’s the power of words. You’ve written a few books now. There’s a thread line or commonality in everything you’ve written with emotions. Being a male, I don’t think we’re taught to handle emotions until maybe later in life. What made you pick this topic as something you wanted to submerge into for the long haul?
KARLA MCLAREN: A couple of months before I met Tino, I had applied to go to school in engineering physics. The reason is that I had a vision of a new form of solar cell that utilized the pathways of photosynthesis to make a more effective photocell. I don’t know how I had these ideas. These just happen. I realized I needed to get a background in physics and engineering. I applied. I did get in, and I got a scholarship, but it wasn’t going to be a full scholarship. Again, single mom. During that time, there was some kind of terrible humanitarian crisis going on. I’m not sure if it was Rwanda or Somalia.
Everyone was sending food. Everyone was sending supplies. The people in that troubled place were stopping the supplies from coming through, and people were dying of starvation. It was really bad. Horrifying. What I looked at is even if I made the most brilliant solar cell in the world, there would still be people like those people in Somalia or Rwanda who would stop it from getting to the people who needed it the most. What I thought is technology doesn’t matter. What matters is human emotions.
These people’s emotions had been manipulated and disrupted and disturbed to see their people as enemies wroth starving to death. It was at that point. I thought if I want to work to make this world a better place, technology can’t be it because it will always be kept from the people who need it by people who don’t know how to work with their emotions like hatred, anger, fear, and panic. That’s where I wanted to focus my entire energy and career.
BRYAN WISH: Holy moly. That was chilling. Can I clarify what you just said?
KARLA MCLAREN: Yes.
BRYAN WISH: You were saying in these poor areas, they won’t even have access to technology. Since certain things won’t be able to get to them, they’d suffer from that emotionally, but maybe language and words and text are a medium that could get into their hands. Because of that, you had to kind of go straight to the root of how certain things would make them feel. Did I give that justice?
KARLA MCLAREN: Sort of. Being traumatized so early, I have always wondered why are humans such a flaming disaster? Why is human life so full of pain? How are we so great at so many things and such utter failures at other things like keeping children safe? It was one of the reasons I wanted to look into the solar cell. The energy was something that was kept from people.
They couldn’t live reasonable lives without appropriate sources of energy that were renewable. When I saw the governments and soldiers who were keeping international aid from the dying people, I saw that nothing in technology would help if people didn’t know how to figure out the technology of their own emotions. I didn’t get enough money to go into the engineering physics department, but I also felt I could use my energy and intelligence in a place that might do more good over the long run.
BRYAN WISH: What a striking insight. You were thinking so underneath technology. What’s the root of how people are going to feel about the events of the world? How do I help people? I thought what you said was so beautiful. There are so many good people do in this world; yet, there’s so much evil and things we screw up as a society. Because of that, it’s going to drive a lot of emotion around it. What a higher-order vision that encompasses your work. I clung to that when you were talking. It paused me for a few seconds.
KARLA MCLAREN: Thank you. What is the root of human suffering? Our inability to work with our emotions, especially the powerful ones.
BRYAN WISH: Is there anything else you want to hit on?
KARLA MCLAREN: My sociology professor, Tony Waters. When I finally got back into school and was able to get a Bachelor’s, I was in my late 30s or early 40s. I was bored out of my skull because most of the courses were for kids who were 19. They pitched to that awareness level and that work ethic. I went to one of my professors, Tony Waters, and I said, “I am bored. Do you or does anybody in this department need a research assistant, writing help, editing, anything? Please give me something.” He said, “Well, I’m writing a book about murder.” I was like, “Murder? I want to be on that.” He and I ended up writing the book together.
Although, I was credited as a research assistant. I learned all about murder, criminology. It was such an eye-opening, beautiful experience. Then Tony hooked me up with another person in the sociology department who is a cult researcher. She helped me understand that I had been in a cult from ages 10-17. She and I wrote books together. I was her research assistant. We did a study together. It was just so great to have someone hear me say, “I’m bored. Give me something.” To have that whole world of academic writing open up to me was beautiful.
BRYAN WISH: You’ve constantly put yourself in unknown environments, done things, not maybe knowing how they’d end up. You trusted yourself. When you were taking those actions to maybe start the publishing house because you knew that was what you needed to do or when you met Tino or volunteered on the sociology side, did it feel inherently right to make those decisions? What pulled you in those directions time in and time out that led to something greater?
KARLA MCLAREN: My emotions. It was boredom. It was fear. It was longing. It was jealousy. It was envy. It was panic. It was depression. When I feel, “This isn’t right. It isn’t working,” I listen to the emotions. Then I act in concordance with their intelligence.
BRYAN WISH: Very intuitive process. On the sociology side, what a fascinating learning journey for you. You’re such an interesting person. I wish we could do this longer. Where can we find your work? What would you recommend people check out? What’s upcoming for you? Where can people follow you?
KARLA MCLAREN: I’m on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as me. I have a website karlamclaren.com. I also have a website where people can take online courses called empathyacademy.org. My most recent book is Embracing Anxiety, and my next book is The Power of Emotions at Work.
BRYAN WISH: Amazing. I’m so excited for you. Thank you so much for coming on.