Many of us get the message that our emotions are not OK. If we are angry, we are told to calm down; if we are sad, we are told to get over it. So, we end up repressing our emotions or pushing them away, making us feel inauthentic, unmotivated, depressed, or worse.
According to Marc Brackett, founder of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the new book Permission to Feel, this is a terrible mistake. Our emotions are important clues to how we are experiencing the world, helping us make decisions, build good relationships, fulfill our dreams, and cultivate well-being.
Brackett says we need to encourage more emotional expression—not less—and that we should teach emotion skills to people starting from a young age. To that end, he’s led the development of an emotion skills-building program called RULER that aims to increase children’s ability to recognize emotions in themselves and others, understand where their emotions come from, label emotions more precisely, express emotions in different contexts, and regulate (or manage) emotions more effectively. To date, RULER has been taught in nearly 2,000 schools across the United States, helping children improve their ability to learn, form relationships, and find success in life.
Brackett was inspired to do this work after he suffered from childhood bullying. His book charts his own personal story while providing a primer on the growing science of emotion and encouraging readers to work toward increasing their own emotional intelligence. I spoke to him recently about his book and its message.
Jill Suttie: Why is emotional intelligence so important?
Mark Brackett: We’ve done a lot of studies which show that emotional intelligence is predictive of really important life outcomes. People with higher emotional intelligence tend to have greater psychological health, are less anxious and less depressed or less burned out at work. They tend to make better decisions in life. They tend to have better-quality relationships, tend to perform better academically and in the workplace. So, I think the evidence is pretty clear that emotional intelligence, controlling for all other competing variables—like intelligence and personality traits—is a set of skills that really matter for people’s dreams to come true.
JS: In your book, you encourage people to be what you call an “emotion scientist” as opposed to an “emotion judge.” What do you mean by that?
MB: Many of us are closed off to our feelings and other people’s feelings. We often make very quick snap judgments about how people feel based on their facial expressions and their body language and their behavior. An emotion scientist is someone who asks really good questions to ensure that they understand their own feelings, as well as other people’s feelings. The emotion scientist is looking for themes and trying to understand what’s behind people’s behavior or inability to regulate emotions.
In some ways, an emotion scientist is about becoming more precise. They ask themselves, Is this person feeling disappointment or anger? Am I hearing about unmet expectations or about unfairness? An emotion scientist can pick up on nuances based on the questions they ask, which helps them label feelings more accurately and in turn regulate more effectively.
JS: In your RULER program, why is labeling emotions so important?
MB: There’s an expression that people use in our circles: If you can name it, you can tame it. So, knowing that you’re feeling envious or jealous, and being clear about what underlies envy (wanting what someone else has) versus jealousy (feeling threatened about the possible loss of someone that you care about), is really critical for knowing the right pathway to take for helpful emotion regulation. The strategy that I would use to support a child feeling envy versus jealousy would be very different.
I give an example in my book from my own childhood. After coming home from my karate test where I had failed to get my yellow belt, I started screaming and yelling at my mother. She told me, “Stop being so angry, go to your room, and wait ’til your father gets home.” But what she didn’t know was the underlying story, which was that when I was getting ready to come home after failing the test, I wasn’t just disappointed by my failure, but I was also made fun of in the locker room by some kids who were the bullies at school. They were threatening me and making me feel bad about myself. So, I was really feeling a combination of fear and shame, but I looked like I was angry because I was yelling and screaming.
What I really needed was comfort, someone to help me restructure my negative thinking, more practice, and maybe even some support on my way to school the next day, because the bullies threatened to beat me up. Instead, I was punished and told to calm down. So, until you really know the feeling, it’s going to be super hard to know how to help your child.
JS: How is “emotion regulation” distinct from “emotional repression”?
MB: Well, repression is a form of regulation, but we would say it’s generally unhelpful. There are many strategies—like yelling, screaming, suppressing, repressing, blaming, excessive drug use and alcohol consumption, denial—that people use, but that are not the most helpful for achieving goals and health and well-being.
Then there are the helpful strategies—the ones that we have to learn in order to replace these unhelpful ones: positive self-talk, cognitive reappraisal, getting social support we need from people who care for us and that we care about. A big part of teaching emotion regulation is helping people to evaluate the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of the strategies they’re currently using and then teaching them to replace those unhelpful ones with helpful ones. Helpful strategies have to be learned, practiced, and refined over time.
JS: How do you know that your approach is culturally sensitive and relevant to kids from different socioeconomic, cultural, and racial backgrounds?
MB: What’s critical about the way we teach these skills to children is that there is no correct or incorrect strategy. We’re never trying to tell a kid that there is only one good way to regulate their feelings. We try to help kids explore and discover the strategies that work best for them based on their background, their personalities, and their family context. In that way, there’s never judgment around something being the best strategy. It’s really helping the child find what works best for them.
I’ll give you an example. I was in a school in Seattle that serves children from 57 different cultures. And there was a kindergarten class where a lot of the kids said that they felt like getting a hug would be a good strategy when they were feeling sad. But there was one little girl in the class who was from the Middle East, and getting a hug was not something she could accept because of her religion. So, we were able to teach that hugs are helpful for some people and not for other people, and that there are many strategies people can choose to manage their sadness. What’s nice is that, from an early age, kids see that there are both individual and cultural differences in what people need. As long as the strategy is helpful for supporting the child with their emotional needs, that’s what matters.
JS: How can a program like RULER make inroads in changing cultural limits on appropriate emotional expression—like how boys are punished for crying or girls are punished for expressing anger?
MB: The emotion scientist says all emotions are acceptable, all emotions are valuable sources of information, and everyone can express emotions in a way that is based on who they are. We don’t like to even use the word “appropriate” when talking about emotions or strategies for regulating them, because that’s a judgment. We like to ask, Is that strategy helpful for achieving well-being? Is it helpful to building relationships? Is it helpful to achieving academic success?
Parents socialize their children early—fathers and mothers talk in a different way to their male versus female children, and adding transgender in there, you can see how complex it can be. Part of what we do is teach parents that it’s okay for their boys to cry; it doesn’t mean they’re weak. It’s okay for girls to express strong, negative emotions, like anger; it doesn’t make them mean. Those are stereotypes that we’ve created in our society that we have to break.
JS: What do you say to parents who really want to be there for their kids, but find that their kids won’t confide in them?
MB: Part of that has to do with the fact that parents have to act as role models. We cannot expect our kids to do what we’re not willing to do ourselves. From the day they’re born, our kids are watching us, listening to us, observing the way we treat them. If they’re in a two-parent family, they’re observing how their parents communicate and work with each other. It’s so important for parents to model and teach the skills and strategies they want their kids to use.
I had a father say to me recently (after hearing me speak), “You’re so vulnerable in the way you speak about your childhood trauma and the bullying. I was bullied too, but I would never want my son to know that about me.” When I asked why, he said, “Because my son will think I’m weak.” So, I said, “Take a moment and just think about that. What is the message that you’re sending to your child? What if he is being bullied? Are you creating the space for him to feel comfortable to talk about his own fears and shame?” It was a wakeup call for this dad. Maybe he could have a more positive relationship with his son if he were able to tell him about his experiences in a way that was authentic.
JS: In the United States and other countries around the world, people’s fear and anger is being exploited in different ways, to expand political and social agendas. Do you think emotional intelligence might help counter this kind of exploitation of our emotions?
MB: There are always people who are manipulative. They’ll say things like, “I think you’re being overly sensitive about this.” When someone says that to you, it’s up to you as the emotion scientist to call them out and to say, “It’s okay that I’m being sensitive about this, because you’ve been lying to me, or you’ve promised me things in the last few weeks and not followed through.”
The strategies that we use in RULER help people evaluate what’s really going on. Changing the storyline—or thinking about your emotions from a different perspective, someone else’s perspective—can sometimes be very, very helpful…until it becomes psychological manipulation. You have to learn to take a step back and say to yourself, Let me evaluate this from the emotion scientist perspective. And when you do that, my hope is that you will make more informed decisions.
JS: What impact do you hope your book will have?
MB: I wrote the book because I believe this information is valuable for everyone. While our approach to social and emotional learning, RULER, is scaling up—this year we trained 500 schools—there are still tens of thousands of schools and hundreds of millions of people across the United States, not to mention other countries, that would not have access to what I believe is really important information. So, my hope is that my book will reach as many people as possible and help them learn how to become emotion scientists. That way, they can be healthier and happier; better parents, partners, and colleagues; and engaged citizens who can make the world a better place.