Since when does anybody need permission to feel?
That’s the way that Marc Brackett a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence opens his new book focusing on emotion. His book, entitled Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, helps us understand how we can use our emotions rather than try to fight them to live fuller and more mindful lives.
He explains: True, we all have feelings more or less continuously, every waking moment – even in our dreams – without ever asking or getting anybody’s approval. To stop feeling would be like to stop thinking. Or breathing. Impossible. Our emotions are a big part – maybe the biggest part – of what makes us human.
A yet we go through life trying hard to pretend otherwise. Our true feelings can be messy, inconvenient, confusing, even addictive… They make us do things we wish we hadn’t done. It’s no wonder our emotions scare us sometimes – they seem so out of our control. Too often we do our best to deny them or hide them – even from ourselves. Our attitudes about them get passed along to our children, who learn by taking their cues from us, their parents and teachers – their role models. So we deny ourselves – and one another – the permission to feel. We suck it up, squash it down, act out.
We avoid difficult conversations, we react with anger, and we eat our feelings without knowing why. Brackett explains that when we deny our feelings, we lose the ability to identify them and when we can’t understand what we are feeling, there is no way we can react to those feelings in a productive way. He suggests that we learn to identify those feelings and then embrace them – ultimately that we learn to make our “emotions work for us, not against us.”
Brackett calls his method the “RULER” method based on the acronym that begins the five different steps towards making your emotions work for you:
Recognizing emotions in oneself and others. This includes nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language, along with things we say or think. The best way to recognize an emotion is to notice changes in the way that we think, feel, or move or to look for those changes in those around us. For instance, we might notice that our friend is getting angry because she is speaking more loudly or her eyes are darting back and forth quickly.
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotion. Once you recognize an emotion, you need to understand both what led to that emotion being felt and what the consequences of feeling that emotion will be. Once we understand what causes the emotion and how we reacted afterward, we can better make predictions about future emotions and reactions.
Labeling emotions with precise words. There are lots of words that can be used to describe happy: joyful, pleased, elated, ebullient, cheerful, ecstatic. All of those words are similar, but have slightly different meanings. When we label emotions precisely, we increase our self-awareness and reduce misunderstandings in social interactions. This labeling is for ourselves so that we can understand what we are feeling.
Expressing emotions, taking context and culture into consideration. It is not always the right time to express our emotions. We need to take the setting into account – is this a business meeting, a get-together with friends, or a family event? When we are skilled at expressing what we are feeling, we know how and when to display our emotions. This means that we learn to express ourselves and modify our behavior according to the environment we are in.
Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and well-being. It’s great to feel feelings, to recognize them, and to identify them. But, the goal is not just to feel everything. The goal is to feel things and then regulate them in order to avoid those feelings regulating us instead. Regulating involves monitoring, tempering, and modifying emotions in order to reach personal and professional goals. Of course, this doesn’t mean ignoring the inconvenient emotions that we feel, but instead learning to accept them and manage them as they arise.
In these uncertain times, understanding how to feel – and how to regulate those feelings is particularly relevant and important. Brackett writes his book with children in mind, working to incorporate these skills into the curriculum, but the reality is that everyone can benefit from these skills. Especially today.