Marc Brackett, whose RULER is being used in 200 Connecticut schools, wants you to wield it with everyone around you.
That’s a lot gentler than it sounds; Brackett is founding director of Yale University's Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale. His new book is called “Permission to Feel,” available Tuesday from Celadon Books.
And RULER is an acronym for Recognizing emotions, Understanding causes and consequences of emotions, Labeling them with precise words, Expressing emotions smartly and Regulating them to achieve goals and well-being.
In a phone interview the other day, Brackett said he wrote the book because after 25 years of studying emotions, he and others have learned that if people take these mindful steps, “they’re healthier, they’re happier and more effective.”
Sounds like a plan. Even through each era can be a scary time, this one seems particularly divided over negative emotions (sometimes manipulated by politicians, companies and other governments). Too many feel the burn without concern for what they can learn. It’s Brackett’s turn:
“In our nation right now, we have anxiety levels the highest they’ve ever been, depression levels are higher than they’ve ever been,” Brackett said. “We have bullying; at least a third of kids in schools report being bullied. In the workplace, we have burnout and disengagement at the highest level they’ve ever been.”
Folks aren’t doing well with their emotions, suppressing them with drugs or alcohol, taking anger out on classmates (or others) and misreading the emotions of other people, Brackett points out.
“That’s why my book is called ‘Permission to Feel,’ which is that we’ve got to give people permission to have their feelings, but we also have to be in a position to listen to them and help them strategize,” he said.
Brackett notes that constant stress can impede a child’s creativity and memory, and encourages negative behaviors such as poor diet and, eventually, smoking and other bad behaviors.
“The use of substances ... is a strategy in and of itself,” said Brackett. “It’s just not a good one. It’s not one that helps you have better relationships, helps you have good physical and mental health and achieve your goals.”
Brackett’s goal is to make everyone an emotion scientist, replacing “How are you?” with “How are you feeling?” And instead of the cursory response of “Good” or “OK,” you might get something else that’s not as quick or pleasant. But it should be helpful.
“It’s not about getting rid of your negative feelings (since) a moderate amount of negative emotion like anxiety, stress or frustration, even boredom, actually can be helpful,” Brackett said. (Consider fear leading you to be a cautious driver.) “They have a really important role, but we tend to want to negate them, to suppress them, to deny them instead of using them wisely.”
Brackett’s approach — supported by celebs such as Hugh Jackman and Lady Gaga and corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft — is not of the simplistic self-help variety.
“It’s very difficult; it’s tricky because you’ve got to be that scientist who says, ‘Is this feeling helping me or is it getting in the way of my goals?’ ” he said. “Is this feeling helping me achieve good relationships?”
Brackett’s life hasn’t been some privileged joy ride. He says in the book that he was sexually abused by a neighbor, was bullied and felt scared, angry and isolated. But a miracle arrived by way of his Uncle Marvin, who showed him (via an IQ test) that he was bright and asked him, “Marc, how are you feeling?” — which led to catharsis and changed his life, eventually leading him to his career path.
“I had a pretty traumatic childhood from the abuse and from the bullying. But the blessing that I had was that I had this Uncle Marvin. ... And I don’t think everyone has an Uncle Marvin, that caring adult that knows them and supports them in growing.”
Along the way, he went through therapy, did martial arts and studied psychology. Today, he works with corporate clients via his digital Oji Life Lab, and his RULER program is in schools such as Bridgeport and Hamden (and in other states). But he’s trying to get the word to a broader audience — “to parents, to people who are managers, people in the workforce, because emotions are experienced by all people, and people need to know how to regulate them effectively.
“...One thing I learned very early in my career was that if you want to reach kids and help them grow, you’ve got make sure the adults who are raising them and teaching them have the skill that you are trying to teach the kids.”
Are you guys feeling this? Guys? Yeah — Men are notoriously slow to talk about or analyze emotions, but they will come aboard if they consider the data, said Brackett.
“There is abundant research,” he said. “You know, people ask me sometimes, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ And having a center at Yale, I’m not worried about people being able to do their work ... but I’m worried about how they feel. Because if they feel demoralized ... if they feel chronic stress, if they feel disrespected, then they’re not putting their best effort in.
“Every CEO, in my opinion, every manager should want to know how their people feel ... because then you could decide whether or not you have to work on helping them either regulate more effectively or changing your behavior so they feel more pleasant than unpleasant emotions.”
Brackett said American individualism is double-edged.
“What we fail to recognize is we’re mostly working in relationships, whether it’s teacher-student, whether it’s parent-child, whether it’s manager-employee. And if you’re working in a team, and the team is toxic in the workplace, and you go for therapy but you’re going back to the same workplace and toxic team, it’s not going to get better.
“...My book really is about saying, ‘This is not just about the person; it’s about creating emotionally intelligent ecosystems and communities.’ ”
The book credits Yale President Peter Salovey, quoted praising the book on its back cover, and fellow psychologist John D. Mayer for publishing the initial paper on emotional intelligence in 1990.
“Permission to Feel,” well-notated with just enough science for support but many examples of personal situations to keep a reader’s interest, notes that people have actually gotten worse at reading each other’s emotions.
“Well, they’re not practicing it because they’re looking at their phones all day,” Brackett said with a chuckle.