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The Power Of Empathy & Shame In Creating Sustainable Change With Karla McLaren

In Episode 85, Karla McLaren, CEO of Emotion Dynamics, dives into a conversation with Melinda about how we can approach empathy and shame as a way to create sustainable change in communities and workplaces. They talk about ways to support ourselves through compassion fatigue, which often comes from doing tremendous amounts of emotional labor, emotion work, and empathy work. Karla also shares what organizations can do to protect the well-being of workers engaged in empathy work, such as setting up ‘repair stations’ and developing emotionally well-regulated social structures in the workplace.

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Understand that empathy is not a trait; it is an interaction. Learn how to ask questions in a way that shows your sincere and innocent interest in the life of another…, to not assume, but to ask. If anything confuses you, ask.
Headshot of Karla McLaren, a smiling, middle-aged, brown-haired, green-eyed, White lady person with glasses and a blue shirt
Guest Speaker

Karla McLaren

CEO of Emotion Dynamics

Karla McLaren, M.Ed. is an award-winning author, educator, social science researcher, and empathy expert. Her groundbreaking Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model highlights all of the processes in healthy empathy and makes them understandable, accessible, and attainable.

Karla is the author of many books, online courses, and audio learning programs, and she’s the developer of the online learning site EmpathyAcademy.org. Her books include The Power of Emotions at WorkEmbracing AnxietyThe Art of Empathy, and The Language of Emotions. She is online at KarlaMcLaren.com.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. 


I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 


All right, let’s dive in. 


MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today our guest is Karla McLaren, CEO of Emotion Dynamics and award-winning author, educator, social science researcher, and empathy expert. Her books include The Power of Emotions at Work, Embracing Anxiety, The Art of Empathy, and The Language of Emotions


So, guess what we’re going to talk about today? We’ll be talking about empathy as it relates specifically to justice, equity, and inclusion. We’ll discuss empathy work. What that is, emotional and empathetic labor, and how we work through these as well as shame to avoid burning out because allyship is a lifelong journey. So welcome, Karla.


KARLA: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here. I just wanted to say that both terms empathic and empathetic mean the same thing but empathic is gaining ascendance in the United States, whereas empathetic is more of British usage. Just to be clear.


MELINDA: Yeah, it’s interesting. I do feel like people are starting to use them a little bit differently too. It’s fascinating. Empathic is becoming an identity even. It’s very interesting. So, let’s start with you. Would you tell us a bit about you, where you grew up, and how you ended up working on empathy?


KARLA: I grew up in Northern California, in an intact family at that moment. One of the entrees or entryways into emotions and empathy for me was that I experienced a great deal of early childhood trauma. As it is with many trauma survivors, especially if they’re traumatized early, I developed a sort of heightened capacity to read people to save myself. 


I could read what was about to go down to avoid people if they weren’t safe at that moment. And so, not knowing how I turned up this reading ability, I didn’t know how to turn it down. And so, I ended up being sort of without skin. Everything could get to me, and everything did. So, I ended up being a very intense, highly emotional, nightmare-filled kid just dealing with lots and lots and lots of intense emotion. 


So, for me, that study of empathy and emotions wasn’t a sort of an intellectual journey. This would be interesting, but rather, I am in the deep ocean of how in the world do I survive? And so, that was where my question about emotions came from. I couldn’t stop feeling them, but what in the heck were they for? Why were they even a thing? So, that’s where my first questions about emotions and empathy came from?


MELINDA: That’s fascinating. I grew up with some childhood trauma as well and almost the opposite. I also grew up in a family that didn’t show their emotions very often. I didn’t learn how to develop empathy as a result of that. And so, my exploration into empathy was intellectual at first. It was the opposite. It was intellectual at first. 


I want to have more empathy for people. I want to show more empathy for people. What does that look like? What does that feel like? I started learning literally the muscles in your face and how that relates to facial expressions. That was my access point. 


When I was in college, I did a study on a project, Paul Ekman’s work around facial expressions, and that was my entry point into empathy. It was an intellectual discovery first. Now, I have gotten probably the deep end of empathy. I definitely have it. And as a result, I know that it can be learned as well. It’s fascinating how differently.


KARLA: Yeah, how differently when we came to the same place. One of the things that I’ve been really aware of is that empathy is not a trait. It can be. It’s an interaction. Because even if your trade empathy is very, very high, if you are confronted with something you don’t understand, or is very different from what you agree is correct, your empathy can drop to zero just like anybody else. Right? 


So, it’s your capacity to engage for me across difference that is empathy. A lot of people think empathy is you and I agree, we think the same, we understand each other completely. And therefore, we are empathic. I would say actually, where’s the empathy? You’re similar. Similarity is not empathy. And so, empathy, I call it empathic, bad-assery. It’s like, empathy when it’s hard is empathy.


MELINDA: When it’s work. Yeah. Let’s talk about what is empathy? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What are the actions around empathy?


KARLA: I wrote down a description of empathy. But basically, it’s your capacity to understand emotion, intention, nuance, thoughts, social structure. It’s your capacity to engage in the world of human interaction. But it is also your capacity to engage with anything. So, your empathy for mathematics, your empathy for—it doesn’t have to be a living thing. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about empathy is I have tremendous empathy with plumbing. It saves a lot of money. 


I go with plumbing and I think, “Plumbing, what do you want to be right now?” That was like, “How do you want to be behaving in this moment?” And I’m like, yes. So, it’s your capacity to engage with that thing that is not you. It also is your capacity to engage with your own emotions, with pain. So, I’m looking at empathy as sort of everything right now. It is everything and it is all things. It’s your capacity to engage.


MELINDA: Interesting. Interesting. Okay. How do we use empathy? Or how does empathy relate to inclusion and justice and equity?


KARLA: There was a beautiful study that showed that people don’t know each other very well at all. And this was with long term partners. They asked them 20 questions like, where would your partner like to go for vacation. Here or here? The simple everyday stuff. And when they ask people how well did you think you did, they guessed 13. You know, 13. Ten would be absolute guessing. Right? You’d have a yes or no. You have 50% chance to get it right. 


They got three. On average, people got three. Long term partners who didn’t know basic things about each other. And what they suggested in this is that the concept of perspective taking should be called perspective getting. Because if you don’t ask, you don’t know. And one of the problems with, as you said, the word empathic is like, “Oh, I’m an empath” is you think you somehow have a freeway in to the entirely Undiscovered Country of the other human or the other piece of plumbing. 


The process of empathy is gathering information by asking good questions and listening to the answer, or by watching over a long period of time. I think a lot of people think that if they think empathy is a trait, then they don’t have to ask any questions they just know. As we saw with the long-term partners, no, you didn’t. Nope. You didn’t know because you didn’t have ask. 


And so, I think that is one of the most important things is learning how to ask questions that are not, “Why do you do it that way?” But sort of like when you talk about this word, words are huge right now in our understanding of each other, right? And a lot of people start fighting over a word and I realized nobody’s asked what that word means—inclusion. Or, what does this word actually mean to you? What does inclusion mean? 


Then we can have a conversation, but a lot of people just go tenterhooks, you know like fighting over the word, whatever it is, and they haven’t actually asked questions, to engage, what does it mean to you? What does inclusion mean to you? What does diversity mean to you? Then we can talk about it and I’ll go, “Wow, I did not know that.” or, “Oh, okay. I wouldn’t have said diversity. I would have said this.” and then we can actually create a pathway into our relationship.


MELINDA: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I experienced that a lot because I have a book on allyship. The word ally. 


KARLA: Oh, yeah. 


MELINDA: People have really positive and sometimes negative feelings with that word and just push it away immediately if they do. Let’s talk about what I mean about allyship. Let’s talk about what you mean about allyship and let’s come up to a conclusion about what we want people to do the actions we want people to take rather than the word itself necessarily.


KARLA: Yeah, that one is big. I’ve seen a number of people say, “You don’t get to call yourself an ally. We will call you an ally if in fact you are.” I went, “Okay.” I will just drop that word and I will show up in a way that I’m just not going to put ally across my chest. And hope that that gets me into doors somewhere.


MELINDA: Yeah. And I would say that it’s more around you can’t call yourself a good ally. other people have to say you’re a good ally. You can’t self-proclaim, “I’m a good ally.” Yeah, I work to be.


KARLA: I’m an ally. My best friends are blah, blah, blah.


MELINDA: Yeah, exactly. Well, actually, so along those lines of work. Your latest book is The Power of Emotions at Work, right. In there, you talk about empathy work or empathic labor. Can you say what you mean by that?


KARLA: The first definition of these come from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild. Her concept of emotional labor is any labor that you do, any paid work that you do to display or suppress emotions in the context of your job. If you’re a flight attendant and someone is drinky and rude, you wouldn’t just push their face, right? Like you would maybe in a bar, but you would say, “Oh, sir, let me see if I can get you a blanket.” Do you know what I mean? You would be putting an emotion on in the context of your work. That’s emotional labor. It tends not to be identified, or supported, or paid for. It is hidden labor mostly identified with female identified human beings. It’s mostly women’s work is emotional labor. 


Emotion work, which se separates out from labor is the work that you do in your rest of your relationships to manage your emotions and the emotions of others in your family. If you’re the person that when they’re all fighting, they can all talk to you, you’re the emotion worker in that time. Are you being paid for it? Are you being recognized and supported for it? Likely, you are not. So, most emotional labor and most emotion work is unpaid and unsupported. 


When people are in any kind of category that is not the central privileged category, so women in an all-male workplace. Black people in an all-White workplace. Deaf people in an all-hearing workplace. They are going to be given the job of doing a tremendous amount of emotion work and emotional labor to keep everybody else comfortable with their presence. 


One of the things we’ve talked about with privilege is you don’t have to do the work of belonging because the belonging got set up for you. Right? There’s another work that I created called empathy work. That’s my conceptualization building off of Arlie’s emotional work and emotional labor. Empathy work involves multilayered understandings of the emotional, social, and privilege-based networks. You understand social structure, and you do a lot of work within it. 


An empathy worker might be someone in a workplace, who acts as the go-between between a fighting marketing department and the art department. This person wouldn’t be able to somehow get the conversation starting between them. Right? But that work is also unrecognized, unsupported, and unpaid. 


When we look at emotions and empathy, knowing that they have mostly been relegated to women, it becomes clear to me as I look at people talking about emotions and empathy and sort of denigrating them. Like, you don’t have much room for equality, do you? But when people say, “Don’t be emotional. We’re rational here.” They’re generally doing some kind of a typical gender split. 


And so, yeah, it’s a very fraught area. For me, it’s like endlessly fascinating, but painful to see how emotion work and empathy work are required in every second of every day to keep our social life functional, and our work life and our family life. But they are almost invisible.


MELINDA: As we’re doing the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think there’s another layer on top of that, where generally it is people who are underrepresented, not from the majority, not from the most privileged group who are doing that work. And it requires empathy, a significant amount of empathy work, as well as emotion work, and sometimes that toxicity within the other people’s emotions. I have noticed, I take it into my body. It lives in my body, and so on. So, it is this extra layer on top of that when we’re doing this work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.


KARLA: Yes. And I was realizing that when people talk about safe spaces, what they’re talking about is spaces where they do not have to do emotional labor, emotion work, or empathy work, except just the normal, you and me are people and we’re hanging out. We might get along. We might not. But we don’t have to do that extracurricular work of managing the system above us, managing the hierarchical system above us so that we can move through it as safely as possible. 


MELINDA: Interesting. 


KARLA: As safely as possible. I remember I was in a group and someone made a joke about being pulled over by the police. And this was a mixed-race group. A young blonde woman laughed, and said, “I would just flirt and get out of the ticket. I’ve never had a ticket.” I just watched a lot of the group kind of lose it at that point, because she had no conceptualization that if you’re in a not White body, being pulled over by the police could get you killed. 


The emotion work, emotional labor, and empathy work that for instance, a Black male or a Black female would have to do when the police pull them over, is massive. You know, it is Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill massive, whereas this one blonde woman is like, “I’ll just flirt and pretend to be kind of stupid. And boom, no ticket.” It was just so amazing to see that she would never have intentionally hurt anybody by saying that. She had no conceptualization of what it was for someone else to be pulled over at that time. 


This was before Philando Castile and da-da-da, and Eric Garner and everyone had been murdered. It was before we understood that, but I just looked at and I thought, you know, privilege is the privilege not to have to change yourself in any way. To be treated well. It’s not to have to, I don’t know. Turn yourself into an emotion and empathy work expert to just make it through your day. Yeah.


MELINDA: George Floyd was murdered in 2020. So, it’s been almost two years. I am seeing that people who are kind of newly awakened to exactly what you’re talking about, newly awakened allies are realizing that this is work. It’s not just external. It’s not just protesting. It’s not just saying everybody else is wrong and the system is wrong, but it’s realizing we are part of this system. It’s realizing that we have this own internal work that we need to do because we are unintentionally harming people like that. Or, did. 


And at the same time, I’m also seeing in my network, diversity, equity, inclusion advocates and activists burning out because this is super emotional, often toxic work. So, to create the change that we all want to see, it’s really important to recognize what you talk about the compassion burnout and that fatigue in ourselves and work to change it and work to heal it, avoid it as well. So, what would you suggest? I know this is stuff that you’ve been thinking a lot about. What would you suggest that we do to start?


KARLA: I think language is so crucial because if you don’t know that you’re doing emotional labor, you may be surprised at the end of week when you are flat out. And you had nothing. Your partner or children come up and they need something from you, you’re like, sorry.


MELINDA: You have nothing. 


KARLA: You got nothing. If you don’t realize the amount of work that you have done and the extent of work that you have done, you may arrive at the weekend, not understanding what has happened to you. So, the terminology is so important. And to begin to understand that emotional labor, emotion work, and empathy work can be draining or nourishing. But if you don’t know that, and if you don’t set up your relationships in your life to have little safe, nourishing places, where you can just let your hair down—if you have hair. You can let your body relax, and just say what’s true without the fear of being attacked. To have places where you can be yourself and be outside of the hierarchies of oppression, whichever ones they are. 


I think a lot of times, what I see with many activists is they’re like, “We’ve got to fix this now.” And they just throw themselves like it’s a game of Red Rover at all systems of oppression. And then they wonder why they burn out. I’m like, where’s your systems of nourishment and hilarity and love and delight, because you need those a whole bunch if you’re going to be coming up against systems that are intertwined with capitalism with the very way that we make our money. 


They’re intertwined with policing, with medical care, with family behaviors that oh my gosh, they’re everywhere. We’re swimming in it, right? And to think like, “I’m going to work for six months on this project.” No. No. The hierarchical and racist and misogynist, and kind of humanity crushing structures of our world have been cooking for centuries. 


I wrote a post before he became president, Joe Biden was accused of saying something racist, and he said there’s not a racist bone in my body. I said, “Yes, there is. You’re White, pal. You are White. All your bones are racist until you work to become anti-racist. So, I went to look at my ancestors. And when they came over to America, and as far as I know, none were slave owners, but to be a slave owner meant that you were prosperous person. I’m sure my ancestors would have enjoyed being a prosperous person. I don’t know if I can say “Phew. No slave owners so I’m okay. I’m an okay American.” But going back and claiming the racist bones.


MELINDA: And your ancestors probably were colonizers. That’s what I think, too. 


KARLA: Yeah, I said they were all settlers. And I went, “Hold on. What were they settling?” Were they settling someone else’s place? Yes, they were. So, for me going back and doing grief rituals with the racist bones of my ancestors, everything that led to me being a privileged, White person in an unequal and unfair hierarchy of worth. 


It’s not just doing all this work. It’s also going back and talking to my ancestors about what’s that about? What were you doing there? And knowing that it is almost impossible not to be racist and misogynist because every form of education is both. It is hard not to be prejudiced when all of our inputs and so many of our inputs are deeply, deeply prejudiced. And so, to say, “Yes, I have racist bones in my body and I’m working on it.” Instead of pretending that being called a racist is worse than being a racist.


MELINDA: Right. Yeah. And so, as either managers of teams or diversity, equity, and inclusion activists or people in HR people teams or anybody who’s working to create change, first, how can we help each other to avoid burnout as we’re doing this work? And also, how can we recognize the signs of that compassion, burnout, or fatigue in others across our organization and work to prevent that, too, as we’re working to create change?


KARLA: I really like Tiffany Jana’s work in looking at the structures. Have you read her work?


MELINDA: Yeah. I just recently interviewed her actually. They and I have known each other for a long time. 


KARLA: Okay. I like their approach. It’s a system. Right? It’s a systemic issue. And then our job as individuals is to look at the system, rather than saying, I am a failed human being and I will always be failed. I can never say anything, because it’s always going to come out racist. Do you know what I mean? We silenced ourselves. But for all of us to sort of pick up our tools and go and look at the system and to be able to hear when someone says that felt racist, right then, that felt exclusionary right then, that felt misogynist right then. And people having the emotional fortitude, to say, “Yikes.” How do we change it instead of, “I’m not racist. I’m not a misogynist.” No, it’s the structure. It’s the structure and creating structures that are not the opposite, because then you’re going to get into the shadow and probably create something just as bad, but creating structures of inclusion and reclamation and emotional agility. So that if you feel shame, you know, okay, I know that shame comes up because I have broken some kind of really important rule or someone has told me I have skills for shame. I don’t have to shut everything down. 


So yeah, I think developing a shared emotional vocabulary, so everybody can know. I mean, here in our community, people will just say openly to each other. “Wow, that was an awesome use of shame you just did.” And it’s okay to say that. And the person goes, “Oh, yes. I guess I did.” And so, we all have ways to understand how people’s behavior works and stuff like that, or like, you know, awesome use of depression, right? You know, just like stuff you don’t hear to sort of daylight, all of the emotional labor and emotion work that people are doing and to identify it clearly.


MELINDA: You also write about repair stations. Yeah. Can you talk about what those are and how we build or access them?


KARLA: Repair stations come from the sociologist, Erving Goffman. He talks about how much of our social behavior is a kind of performance not in that it’s fake. But in that we put on different personas to do different things, you know that your persona in the grocery store is different than your persona here or with dogs. We have different personas. 


A repair station is a place where you can remove as many personas as you can. It’s almost like the backstage area of a play, where you can lay around and read a book and drink a milkshake and just be a person. Repair stations are crucial for people doing heavy emotion work or emotional labor because you have to be able to say to someone, “That phone call was intense. I need to lay down. I need a drink of water and to go look at the sky.” 


In most emotional labor situations, you don’t have that. You don’t have any repair stations. So maybe you put down that phone call and go, “Jesus.” Then, pick up the next phone call. Right? So, there’s no ebb and flow between the kinds of work you do. There’s no place to repair. So, repair stations are crucial for people in the workplace. Either a repair station can be a relationship. It can be a breakroom. It can be a walk outside. Any place where you can drop all the personas and go be yourself with other people or alone. Those are crucial. 


Most workplaces don’t have anything even approaching repair stations. They have climbing walls. They have ping pong tables. They have gluten-free snack wagons. They have, you know, like, whatever. But most of these are out in the public sphere. Or nobody actually really uses them. They’re just gathering dust. But that understanding that people are doing intense emotional labor and empathy work and emotion work isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. And so, the repair stations that would be needed also don’t exist. 


So, that’s one of the big things is to find ways for the community to decide. What kind of emotional labor are we doing? What kind of repair stations would a person doing that work enjoy? Create that. If it doesn’t work, nobody goes there. Okay. Okay, so let’s not do that. Right. Because we don’t even know. We’re not going to do it right the first time.


MELINDA: We can ask. We can ask. That would be helpful. Yeah. I think about my past workplaces where they were very toxic places. There’s some workplaces that have a meditation space or something like that. I would have used at that time. For sure, too. Yeah. 


Many of us, some of us don’t have homes, the safe home spaces, of course. Many of us have spaces in our homes where we can get out, get away, talk to significant other and say, “Oh my God.” That phone call to your point.


KARLA: Yeah, my husband hasn’t been home for two years. And he’s like, “I’m not going back.” They don’t have my bed. They don’t have my food. They don’t my wife.” I think that was a part of the great resignation, too, that you know, so many people quit their jobs. I think they just realized, “Wow, this is not worth it. It’s not worth my time.” There’s got to be something better.


MELINDA: Yeah. There’s research out there that shows that the majority of people who have underrepresented identities are less excited about going into the office and its generally White men that are more excited about going into the office and this may be one of the reasons. Emotional work, this emotional labor.


KARLA: Yeah. I wonder if someone at the height of the of whichever hierarchy there is, I wonder if then going back to work means that they would have to do less emotional labor? Because when they’re at home, oops. Although Tino is a White man. I don’t know. Maybe. I think his garden is the main thing. But yeah, I’m wondering if that an acknowledged safe space of the workplace for people at the height of hierarchies is something that they’re missing. 


MELINDA: Fascinating. 


KARLA: It’s their safe space. 


MELINDA: Yeah. It’s very interesting. I also wanted to talk about well-regulated social structures. Can you share first what those are, what they look like? And then, how do you develop them?


KARLA: Emotionally well-regulated social structures are something that I’ve been looking at for many years. First, in healthy intimate relationships. And then, in social groups. A social structure can be two people or it can be 100, 200, 600, 9000 people. But I found that there were nine things that emotionally well-regulated social structures had. 


Emotions are spoken of openly and people have workable emotional vocabularies. Mistakes and conflicts are addressed without avoidance, hostility, or blaming. Ha! It almost never happens. You can be honest about mistakes and difficulties without being blamed or shunned. It’s also unusual. Your emotions and sensitivities are noticed and respected, which means that your emotional labor and your empathic labor are noticed and respected. 


And you also notice and respect others. So, if someone just got off a rotten phone call, you wouldn’t ask them for that 40 bucks they owe you. You would have some kind of consciousness and you would say, “Can I get you a glass of water or vodka?” 


Your emotional awareness and skills are openly requested and respected. This is something that never happened for me at work, because I’m a good listener. If people would just come in, I’d be typing. I’d be right in the middle of something and people go, “Karla, you cannot believe what just happened.” And there we go. I’m in emotional labor and emotion work and empathy work. 


People didn’t even know that they were asking me to do work. Right? It was invisible to them. But they knew to come to me. And then you also openly request and respect the emotional awareness and skills of others. You don’t go to someone else and say, “You would not believe what just happened to me.” You would say, “Do you have a minute, because I could use some support?” And then, wait to hear the answer. Right? You and others feel safe enough and supported enough to speak the truth even if it might destabilize relationships or processes. 


MELINDA: Oh! Ooh! 


KARLA: That one doesn’t happen very often. Right? But how many of us have been in jobs or families or relationships, where the whole thing was falling into a tornado of despair because someone didn’t tell the truth because they thought they would hurt someone else’s feelings. And now, everything is a disaster. Right? 


I’m going to say everything’s in I Love Lucy Show. Everything about I Love Lucy. She wouldn’t tell Ricky the truth. And he wouldn’t tell her the truth and hilarity ensues. But it doesn’t. That’s the whole show. It’s not funny in real life. Yeah. 


And then the social structure welcomes you, nourishes you, and revitalizes you. And in many workplaces, that’s not true. We have so many songs about, I’m working for the weekend, I don’t like Mondays. We have so many songs that tell us. Taken what they’re given because I’m working for a living. Yeah. 


When you can create that social structure, boom, the workplace becomes a land of peace and plenty. No, it’s still trouble. But at least you now have allies in the trouble. And yeah, you make an intentional social structure.


MELINDA: So, the work of doing that is to look at that list and start to develop the pathways toward building those social structures.


KARLA: Yeah, building a place where actual human beings with actual human emotions can live. And most workplaces and schools, that’s not what’s happening there. So, it’s no surprise that we grow away from emotional awareness. We grow away from empathic awareness. We have to go to college and study facial structure and facial muscles. 


That’s not you’re failing. You know what I mean? That’s the water we’re swimming in. I think the problem with that, a million problems, is that people with legitimate, emotional, and empathic burnout and overload don’t have language for it and don’t have a way out except to isolate themselves.


MELINDA: I think adding to the complexity of this is also as people with privilege, as people from the majority population, as we’re working internally on diversity, equity, inclusion work, we may find shame. We find shame in our history, for example. We find shame in, “Ah, I committed those microaggressions in the past. I inflicted trauma on somebody else unintentionally.” And so, how does shame play a role in this work?


KARLA: Shame is a beautiful and necessary emotion that helps hold us to the agreements and morals and ethics that we value. Whether we were made to value them by parents, schools, media, peers, magazines, Instagram, whatever. Our shame tells us when we have broken a rule that we agreed with. 


The work that a lot of people want to do with shame is get rid of it. We didn’t want to get rid of shame and go to guilt or get rid of shame and feel peace. But the actual work with shame is to begin to understand what rules you agreed to and why you did. So, if one of the rules that your shame is holding for you is you will never be loved until you’re perfect. A lot of people have that one. It’s a toxic, toxic belief but shame doesn’t know that. It knows you agreed to it. 


So, if some poor schlub comes to love you, your shame is going to go on a bender. Your shame is going to go banana crackers, and you will think shame is the worst emotion I’ve ever seen in my life. It should go. But shame is just doing what you asked it to. And so, we have a practice called burning contracts. That is actually looking at that thing you agreed to—how you will never be loved until you’re perfect, which is impossible. 


And actually, do a practice to get rid of that toxic message. So now your shame can go do things that are lovely, like I like to floss. And so, every time you floss your shame is like, “Yes!” And if you don’t floss, your shame will wake you up at 3am and say you do not floss. You go, dammit. You go.” But the intensity of your shame is directly related to the messages you picked up. And so, it becomes crucial to look at the messages you picked up. 


One of the huge ones that stops people in their tracks, especially in racial equity is this idea that racist is the worst possible thing you could ever be. “I’m not racist.” People will tie themselves in knots not being racist. And you can’t not be racist so maybe the shaming message is racist is the worst possible thing you could ever be. So, anytime you move toward natural racist behaviors in a highly racist culture, your shame is going to go cuckoo. Cuckoo! 


And you’re going to, you know, “I’m not racist.” You will do everything you can to move that away. But if you could say okay, that’s not a worthwhile thing for my shame to work with. How about this? How about this, shame? “I am racist because I grew up in a racist structure and every single thing that I ever learned in my life has a racist basis to it. It would be surprising for me not to be racist, but I can work to be anti-racist”. 


Then if I screw up, which I inevitably will, I can say, “I got some work to do. Hold on. I apologize to everybody. But wow, that was some serious racism coming out of my body and I have to think about that.” Okay? Because my shame now is in the present moment with me, I’ve chosen this moral, this ethic. It is now something workable. 


And when I make a mistake, my shame will wake me up at 3am and say, “You did something racist. And also, go floss.” Yeah. So, looking at what the shaving messages are. And looking at your relationship to misogyny, or racism, or ableism.


MELINDA: And where it came from.


KARLA: Yeah. Yeah. I was noticing something about ableist words, like I’ve worked with my language to not use words like blindness. You know, “She was blind to this.” And I was like, wait, because my friend Candice who’s blind, would she not know what was going on? It was like, then you’ve just used blind as a slur word. So, stop it. And just going through my language. But what I noticed is there’s so much shadow there, because I have a number of mental illnesses and I have a number of learning disabilities. 


I’ll notice I will start using slur words for mental illness and ignorance. They will just come out of me and I will be like, oh, something is trying to catch my attention because my learning disabilities are getting more intense. And maybe I need to look at them. And all that my whole psyche can do is say, stupid idiot, you know, like, moron. 


I will just start using slur words. Though I know I shouldn’t. And its sort of like, “Oh, there’s something deeper underneath me trying to get me to understand that there’s trouble within myself. There’s something in the shadow, and the words are just blurting out of me.” 


I think that could be such a helpful thing to know when people are trying to change their language and they cannot get it. You know, like, they just can’t stop saying crazy, for instance, when they mean unusual or surprising or strange. Like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” And you’re like, “Am I using a slur word for mental illness? Why am I doing that?” Yeah, it’s just really interesting. There’s so much nuance to it instead of just stop using that word.


MELINDA: Yeah. When you said cuckoo, I started thinking about that, too. Is that one too. 


KARLA: Yeah, cuckoo is definitely a slur word, which is why I transitioned into what I just said. But it’s coming out of me a lot. As I’m watching my language, I am having more and more trouble with language and the disabilities I’ve already had. So, it’s very much in my consciousness.


MELINDA: Yeah. I think a really powerful way to show that emotional work, that work that we have to do internally, as a part of creating change, the bigger change we want to see is that internal work of really thinking about the shame that’s coming up thinking about the words that are coming up and why they’re coming up. That helps us to self-regulate and not do them in the future, I think.


KARLA: Yeah. And to have as much compassion for myself as I want to have for people who have been injured and yeah, and demeaned. Like, what was that? There’s a comedy album called We’re All Bozos on This Bus. I like that. We’re all clown going on the bus to wherever. Yeah.


MELINDA: So, let’s see. We talk about really recognizing that compassion fatigue, that empathic burnout and supporting each other and supporting ourselves in that and finding ways to finding those repair stations. Finding/nourishing emotions and really finding ways to that nourishing work as well I think is really important. Is it nourishing? Or is it draining? And then also, those well-regulated social structures and really working to deepen that work. And then also, working internally on our shame on what’s coming up for ourselves.


KARLA: And also, just having time to fool around and be complete. I’m going to try to find a word. I was going to say, goofball. I just don’t know if that’s a slur word. To be silly. To be silly and pointless. Because hard work is hard work. You need to play. Yeah.


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So, this show is focused on moving people from learning to action. So, learning and then taking action. What action would you like people to take after listening to this conversation?


KARLA: Understand that empathy is not a trait, it is an interaction. Learn how to ask questions in a way that shows your sincere and innocent interest in the life of another. And to not assume but to ask, and if anything confuses you, ask. Ehen people are using a word or acronyms, you know, like so many words and acronyms are happening. You’re like, “I don’t know what that means.” Ask. And yeah, I call highly empathic people interaction organisms. And so, yeah, interact with this world and don’t assume that you know.


MELINDA: I love it. Where can people go to learn more about your work?


KARLA: They can go to my website, KarlaMcLaren.com.


MELINDA: I love it. And for those of you listening, she just signed her name, or her website.


KARLA: Okay. EmpathyAcademy.org is where people can take courses, online courses.


MELINDA: I love it. I love it. Thank you, Karla. 


KARLA: Thank you. 


MELINDA: I love talking deeply about empathy. I appreciate you talking with me today, with us today and all your work on the subject.


KARLA: Thank you so much. Thank you to the interpreters.


MELINDA: Yes, absolutely. 


MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc. 


Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you. 


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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.