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Yale Professor Marc Brackett, Ph.D. Reminds Us That We Have ‘Permission to Feel’


Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says our children are facing a crisis of their mental well-being and he wants to fix it. He believes that too many children and adults are suffering, ashamed of their feelings and emotionally unskilled, and they don’t have to be.

His prescription for healthy children–and their parents, teachers, and schools–is a system he calls RULER, a high-impact and fast-effect approach to understanding and mastering emotions. In his new book “Permission to Feel,” Brackett reveals how RULER has been proven to reduce stress and burnout, improve school climate, and enhance academic achievement.

1. Tell us about your new book, “Permission to Feel.”

I wrote this book because what I’ve noticed over the last 25 years of running around the world trying to get people to talk about their feelings is that most people literally don’t have the words to express themselves.

I’d ask, “how are you feeling?” – and someone would say “fine” or “okay.” I’d say, “no, really, how are you feeling?” and most of the people I met just didn’t have the words to answer the question.

What I’ve also learned is that many people don’t have good strategies to help them manage their feelings. And that’s kind of what I call the “recognition to regulation pathway,” which is that people just tend to not be very self-aware about how they’re feeling or even how other people are feeling – and many don’t have the strategies to help themselves to regulate very effectively, nor the strategies to help others.  Think about it: how many of us had a comprehensive emotion education?

2. We hear a lot about using mindfulness as a tool to self-soothe and de-stress. What’s the difference between a mindfulness-focused approach to emotional regulation and what you’re calling for?

My argument is that mindfulness is one piece of it. I believe in mindfulness and I try to practice it regularly. I do the best I can to be in the present moment.

But take, for example, my students at Yale. Many of these students say they’re stressed, but when I did the qualitative work to actually unpack their stress, what I learned is that they’re actually envious. So, the question is, should they just sit and be mindful of their envy or do they need other strategies to deal with the fact that they’re endlessly making social comparisons?

I would argue that mindfulness alone will not help them change the way they think about themselves and the people they go to school with. At some point, you’ve got to start having a different perspective. You got to shift your self-talk and reappraise; you’ve got to say things to yourself that make you less envious.

3. What does the research say about how social media has exacerbated our tendency to self-compare to others?

What we know from research is that adolescents and teenagers spend on average 6 hours a day using technology and social media tools. And we know there is a direct correlation between time spent on technology and anxiety and depression-like symptoms.

In fact, a recent survey showed that for the first time in America’s history, teenagers prefer to communicate via text rather than in person. So, what is that telling us about the human condition? How are we going to find life partners? How are we going to deal with conflict in real-life relationships if we’re in a time when people are preferring to communicate through technology?  It’s the scariest thing to me because we’re human and we’re meant to be connecting with other people, and yet our preference now is to not be with people.

4. What are some strategies we can use to improve how we regulate our emotions?

I think there are classes of strategies. For example, when you’re being triggered by someone who is saying something mean or cruel, that’s when breathing can be very helpful. Breathing helps to deactivate our nervous systems, because when we’re activated it’s very hard to think and problem solve.

The second important strategy is self-talk. Somehow or another many of us have been programmed by our parents or by our peers early in life to have a negative self-view. What people say to us as kids or as teenagers to make us feel bad about ourselves like you’re a loser, your nose is too big, you’re too skinny, you’re too fat, you’re too dark, you’re too light – if it happens long enough with no one intervening, then we start to believe it and that becomes our default self-talk.

So, what I’m pushing for is a school system that takes this really seriously – and teaches parents and teachers how to self-regulate and monitor how they talk to people. And that encourages kids starting at a very young age to check in with that self-talk – to become emotion scientists!

We, as the adults, who are raising and teaching kids, have to protect kids. Things will inevitably go wrong, but when they do, we’ve got to spend time helping kids manage their feelings, to re-think and check-in with their self-talk – so they don’t let mean comments have that power and control over their psyches.

And if you do that consistently overtime, the positive self-view becomes your default as opposed to the negative.

5. Explain to us your RULER method.

RULER is an approach to social and emotional learning that is now in over 2,000 schools around the country. It’s a systemic approach to teaching all the skills I mentioned. RULER is an acronym for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions.

What we’ve learned over the last 20 years of trying to make this really become a part of a school, is that social and emotional learning can’t just be a program, an assembly, or a one-hour lesson – it has to be integrated into the way leaders lead, the way teachers teach, the way students learn, and the way families parent. So, when you think about emotional intelligence as a set of skills that helps everybody have a greater well-being, helps everyone build and maintain positive relationships, and helps everyone achieve their goals in life – it’s a different mindset in terms of what has to happen at school or at home.

Anxiety and stress levels are higher than ever before, bullying has flatlined for the last twenty years, and children are feeling lonelier than ever before. We are no adequately preparing our children to thrive at home, school, or the workplace. My vision is that we get our nation’s education system to understand that emotional intelligence is as important as academics and give it the time that it needs for students to develop the skills.


Cydney is an editor of The Sunday Paper. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two dogs.