You know that feeling when you read a book, and you feel like the whole thing is a mic-drop moment, in the best way? Recently, I read Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D., a professor in the Yale Child Study Center and the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As a 30-something trying to figure out life and parenthood, personal growth, and raising small humans, I knew within a matter of pages that this book would be on my best of 2020 list.
In short, Permission to Feel is a simple but power-packed and practical guide for educating ourselves, our children, our schools, and our workplaces on how to relate to and manage our emotions. Who among us was ever truly taught emotion skills for our personal lives and beyond—specifically, recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions? I sure wasn’t, and I’m guessing you might not have been either. This isn’t something to feel bad about or behind on, as it was actually only in the 1990s that the first formal theory of emotional intelligence was introduced to scientific literature.
But now, more than ever, we ready for these skills. Take 2020 alone—as mothers we wake up each day flooded with global pandemic news and lifestyle adjustments, massive national unrest and awakening, and heavy concerns of all kinds from economics to politics to health and safety. We have emotions raging and racing through us, all while going through the motions of diaper-changing, homeschooling, book-reading, LEGO-playing, and tantrum-soothing. How can we get some space for our emotions when we can barely get some space to use the bathroom alone or even leave the house?
Brackett’s new, very readable book suggests how to acknowledge, honor, and regulate our emotions in healthy, productive ways. I know I need this right now to continue coping and showing up and growing and surviving, all while parenting 24/7. The simple emotion model Brackett teaches is “RULER.” This breakdown of his method is very basic, and you should definitely check out the book to get the full scope of how this practice can impact your life and parenting. What I love most about this method is that it can easily be adopted to teach kids emotional intelligence—it’s really applicable for all of us.
Read on to learn more about the RULER model, Brackett’s teachings, and how to become an emotionally intelligent parent.
The first step in the RULER model is recognize how you are feeling. Brackett says, “Until we can recognize our own emotions, we can’t learn the skills necessary for regulating them.” Makes sense, right? Stop, take a deep breath, and notice your body’s sensations and thoughts. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”
Brackett developed what he calls the Mood Meter that can help you be as specific as possible when trying to identify your feelings. Perhaps most important to this step of “recognize” is to refrain from judging whatever you’re feeling at the moment. The idea is to be an “emotion scientist” not an “emotion judge.”
After you recognize and acknowledge what you are feeling without judgement, you then have to seek to understand why you feel that way. What’s the underlying reason or cause? Sometimes this is a simple answer that comes immediately to us, but Brackett points out that, “It’s rarely a simple matter. There may be a complex web of events and memories, of one emotion provoking another.” So, you have to have grace. Get curious. Try to notice what you can about what might be causing your feelings or reaction (or your kids’ feelings and reactions).
You’ve recognized what you’re feeling, gained some insight into why you’re feeling that way, and now you’re reached what Brackett calls the “pivot point” in his RULER model. Labeling is the link between knowledge (R-Recognize and U-Understand) and action (E-Express and R-Regulate). Labeling reduces an emotion’s power over us, organizes our thoughts, and helps us get some clarity on what we can do for ourselves and what we might need from others.
I love this quote from the book: “When you can understand and name your emotions, something magical happens. The mere fact of acknowledgment creates the ability to shift. When we don’t have the words for our feelings, we’re not just lacking descriptive flourish. We’re lacking authorship of our own lives.”
The next step is expressing the emotion that you’ve recognized, understood, and labeled. For me personally, I have always felt comfortable expressing my positive, or “acceptable,” emotions, but when it comes to the negative, difficult ones, I have felt at a loss. Explode or suppress seemed to be the two options for express, and neither have served me or those around me well.
In the RULER model, Brackett teaches us that there are healthy (and unhealthy) ways to express emotion, and the idea is to learn how to express in healthy ways. This process isn’t effortless, but it feels so good when you begin to close the gap between how you really feel and how you act, while not hurting yourself or those around you in the process. The next step of this model explains how you can do that.
Emotion regulation is basically taking some control over balancing, adjusting, handling, and even guiding your emotions. It’s the idea that we can accept the emotions that come up and recognize that we do have power over where we take it from there. This is often reflected in skills that most of us have never been taught.
Brackett outlines five broad categories of emotion regulation approaches (including attention-shifting strategies, cognitive-reframing strategies, and forward-looking strategies to name a few), and within each category, he gives specific, actionable strategies. Brackett gets really practical and tactical with this section, making it a must-read for anyone looking for a healthier and more productive relationship to emotions.