Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive

A professor at Yale University explains why the mental wellbeing of children is suffering, and what parents can do.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Permission to Feel. Written by Marc Brackett.

In this title, the professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence develops a remarkably effective plan to improve the lives of children and adults. It’s a blueprint for understanding emotions and using them wisely so that they help, rather than hinder, our success and well-being.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, why do some children lack the skills to recognize and regulate their emotions, while others seemingly have high levels of emotional intelligence?

Vincent: As we grow up, many of us are taught to push our feelings away, making it hard to express how we feel. So for example, we often ask each other how they’re doing, but we don’t actually listen or give an honest response when we’re asked that question.

Marc Brackett, the author of this title, says that suppressing our emotions has serious consequences. Mainly that our feelings become magnified and distorted, which can lead to chronic stress and depression along with negatively impacting our physical health.

Karsen: I assume the author has some suggestions for how to improve these areas.

Vincent: Yes, of course, in Permission to Feel, the author shares that we can identify and deal with our emotions in a healthy way. The author shares that when he was a young boy, he was in constant emotional pain. He was often bullied at school and sexually abused by a neighbor who was a family friend. When the abuse was discovered, he was socially ostracized by the community.

He didn’t have a lot of support because his mother was an alcoholic and his father was always enraged. In short -- he didn’t have good ways to deal with his emotions.

Karsen: That’s really tough, and unfortunately it’s pretty common to push your feelings and emotions to the side hoping they’ll disappear.

Vincent: Right, I think that’s a natural thing to do. Professor Brackett says that when you ignore your emotions, it makes those emotions stronger and even more toxic. For him, it affected his behavior, he acted out at school, fought with his parents, and just generally misbehaved. He said that while most found him unpleasant and avoided him, no one took the time to find out why he was acting out until he had an interaction with his uncle Marvin.

His uncle was a teacher and took the time to listen. One day, he asked a simple question: “How are you feeling?”

Since no one had asked him that before, all of Brackett’s sadness, loneliness, and anger flooded out. He sobbed and let all his feelings out for the first time. Even though it was painful, releasing those years of bottled-up emotions allowed him to start connecting with himself.

Karsen: It sounds like that was necessary to start his journey of healing.

Vincent: Yea, the author attributes that to the start of his healing as well as his career helping others deal with their emotions as well.

Karsen: What exactly is emotional intelligence?

Vincent: So emotions help us understand ourselves and how to navigate the world and make decisions, concentrate, or even influence what we think about.

Greek philosophers long proclaimed that our emotions should not be trusted. They believed that emotions would distract from our logical reasoning. That lasted all the way up to even the 1980s when psychologists treated emotions as a distraction.

Then in 1990, there was the first published research that changed how psychologists thought about emotions. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer formulated the first theory of “emotional intelligence.”

They defined emotional intelligence as the ability to identify feelings and emotions in oneself and others and to use this information to guide our behavior.

Then after that, a series of research confirmed that emotions are a key part of our cognitive processes.

Karsen: How do emotions have an impact on our cognitive processes?

Vincent: I think the most interesting finding is how we feel actually impacts how we perceive the world. The psychologists call this a cognitive loop. So when you’re feeling happy, you’re more likely to notice things around you that make you feel even better.

You’ll even spend more time thinking about happy memories, which can improve your mood.

When you feel sad, the opposite happens. You’ll be more likely to notice things that make you feel worse and get trapped thinking about negative thoughts.

Karsen: That can definitely have an impact on decision-making, right?

Vincent: Yes, you’re spot on here. Brackett points out that if you’re feeling anxious, then that makes you more cautious because you assume a negative outcome. So your decision-making may be more conservative.

On the other hand, if you feel excited, then it may make you overly optimistic and you’ll underestimate the risks.

Karsen: Yes, avoiding negative emotions is not good long-term.

Vincent: The author would agree with that. No one wants to feel depressed or easily agitated so that’s why many people hide difficult emotions. However, doing so can lead to chronic stress, which can take a toll on your body. This extreme stress can keep the body in survival mode and suspend the “building and repair” projects that actually help strengthen your body.

Karsen: So, becoming comfortable with identifying negative emotions is the first step towards forming a healthy relationship with your emotions.

Vincent: Yes. The author says that ignoring these painful emotions can lead to chronic illnesses like depression and anxiety. This unresolved pain often is paired with unhealthy habits like poor diet, smoking, and lack of exercise… which then contribute to health issues like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

When you have intense outbursts of anger, it can also lead to heart disease. The outbursts flood your body with adrenaline and make your heart rates go up.

Karsen: Isn’t a little skepticism or fear good though?

Vincent: There’s a healthy balance for sure. When making important decisions like changing jobs or buying a house, a healthy dose of fear is good. The short-term stress will actually help you focus, allowing you to catch all the details. It brings out behaviors of perfectionism and keeps you motivated to work harder while considering all the potential future risks.

If you were overly-optimistic about the situation, then it inadvertently minimizes the risk and you may miss some important details.

Karsen: Are there any benefits to feeling angry?

Vincent: Brackett explains that feeling angry is uncomfortable, which is why most people try to avoid it. However, he continues to say that anger is actually one of the most useful emotions. It shows you what’s important, reveals your personal boundaries, and forces you to confront what angers you.

Ignoring or suppressing these negatives emotions though makes them more intense. That’s when the emotions can go from being useful to being toxic. One consequence maybe instead of using anxiety to make better decisions, we might ignore it until we have a panic attack.

Karsen: With that being said, how do we become better at practicing these emotional skills?

Vincent: Well, you just said it. It happens with more practice. The author argues that we aren’t born with emotional intelligence. However, we can build these skills with practice.

Having emotional intelligence is about learning how to identify and manage emotions. The author calls this becoming an emotion scientist.

He says that this starts by being able to identify emotions and understand where they are coming from. Having good emotional intelligence helps you recognize why something happens and learn how to manage the triggers better next time.

It’s not hard to do, Brackett says, because experiments with grad students showed that even just 16 hours of training greatly improved their skills at recognizing emotions.

Karsen: Okay -- so what’s the first step?

Vincent: The author put together a framework called “RULER” with the five key skills. It’s an acronym that stands for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating.

The first three skills focus on identifying the emotions, and the last two help you develop skills to deal with the emotions.

Karsen: That sounds simple enough. How would you apply this to a child or teenager who’s angry?

Vincent: Well, let’s say you have a teenager who comes home from school combative. They yell out that they hate you, they hate everything, and then they slam the door to their bedroom.

If you start yelling back, then it just escalates into a fight. But the author says, more importantly, you miss out on an opportunity to find out what is actually happening.

So applying the “R” and “U” of RULER would be recognizing and understanding the emotions.

Karsen: How would you Recognize the emotions?

Vincent: James Rusell, a psychologist, created the mood meter to help with this. It’s a simple matrix that’s used to categorize hundreds of moods into four key types using two attributes: energy and pleasantness.

So anger and panic, for example, would be high energy and high unpleasantness. Being depressed would be low energy and high unpleasantness.

You would use the other person’s facial expressions, body language, and words to give cues to recognize and understand their emotions.

Karsen: So that’s Understanding, and you mentioned the next step was Labeling?

Vincent: That’s right. The “L” in RULER is Labeling. By being able to label strong emotions accurately, it makes them less scary to deal with. And the specificity actually helps you process the emotions.

If you’re experiencing a high energy and very unpleasant feeling, there’s a big difference between being furious and being merely irritated.

Karsen: I guess the same applies with the difference between being terrified and being just a little bit worried.

Vincent: Right, it’s not always black and white. The author explains that there are gradients to emotions.

Research from UCLA actually backed this up as well. Researchers placed participants with arachnophobia—a pathological fear of spiders—in the same room as spiders.

One group was instructed to describe the events in neutral language, while the other group was instructed to describe their feelings about it. The emotion-focused group was able to get much closer to the caged spiders, so labeling their feelings actually made their phobia less powerful.

Karsen: Wow, I would have a hard time with that but that’s really interesting that if you can label emotions, it makes them easier to handle. I suppose it would help others understand how you’re feeling as well.

Vincent: Yea, labeling your own emotions helps others be more empathetic and willing to provide support. But your understanding of others’ feelings will also improve as well.

Karsen: Okay, so RULER is Recognize, Understand, Label… what’s next?

Vincent: Next is Express and Regulate your emotions. By doing so, you’ll be able to manage the situations that trigger your emotions.

Brackett talked about a study with 5,000 school teachers that revealed that 70 percent of the emotions they felt were negative… yet when they were asked in public how they were doing, most of the teachers claimed to be happy most of the time.

Karsen: Why would the teachers hide their true emotions?

Vincent: The researchers hypothesized that they hid their true feelings because of fear. So the teachers might be concerned that others might judge them or no longer want to be around them if they knew the truth about their difficult emotions.

Karsen: What should they do instead?

Vincent: So the E in RULER, Expressing emotions… expressing emotions is different than acting out or dumping our feelings on others around us when we’re in a bad mood. Expressing just means being vulnerable enough to let other people in on the feelings behind your bad mood.

Karsen: And that makes it possible to do the last step, which is Regulate your emotions?

Vincent: Yes, Regulating your emotions is different than suppressing them. It’s about accepting them and learning how to live with them in a productive way. The author explains that before you’re able to help your child with Regulating their emotions, that you have to be able to deal with your own emotions as parents first.

Karsen: Got it, regulating your own emotions as a parent helps you teach children how to deal with their emotions.

Vincent: Yea, so before children can regulate their emotions on their own, they depend on parents to help them with regulating their emotions. When they’re younger, this can be as simple as hugging a child when they’re distressed, or providing some distraction so they calm down during a tantrum.

As adults, when we model this behavior for children, it teaches the child the skills as well.

Karsen: What’s an example of being able to model Regulation with your children?

Vincent: So let’s say that you get upset when you come home to a messy house. When you feel that way, you can take a few deep breaths to help with the regulation process. Then you can take a moment to reflect on how your best self would behave or think about how you want to be like as a parent.

It’s a mental time-out that lets you focus on your intention. Then you can create strategies to anticipate them in the future. So if you always feel like exploding when you get home, you could create healthy practices to blow off steam on your commute. Things like signing to loud music, walking around the garden, or taking a bath while you’re frazzled. These are all ways of regulating your emotions.

When your children see you modeling your emotional skills, it teaches them how to apply RULER to their own emotions.

Karsen: The world would be really different if everyone used RULER in their day to day lives.

Vincent: Yes, the author has taught the RULER framework in thousands of schools and workplaces. He says that students and teachers who proactively applied emotion skills in the classroom saw improvements in stress levels and well-being.

The same impacts were seen in workplaces as well. Employees who used RULER felt more engaged and inspired. They were more creative and productive and experienced less burnout.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that emotions impact how we think and make decisions, influences our relationships with our children, and how we all behave at school and work. When we take time to develop our emotional intelligence, it can help build healthy relationships with our emotions. By using the RULER framework by Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating our emotions, we can dramatically improve our well-being.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


The mental well-being of children and adults is shockingly poor. Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel, knows why. And he knows what we can do.

Marc Brackett is a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In his 25 years as an emotion scientist, he has developed a remarkably effective plan to improve the lives of children and adults – a blueprint for understanding our emotions and using them wisely so that they help, rather than hinder, our success and well-being. The core of his approach is a legacy from his childhood, from an astute uncle who gave him permission to feel. He was the first adult who managed to see Marc, listen to him, and recognize the suffering, bullying, and abuse he’d endured. And that was the beginning of Marc’s awareness that what he was going through was temporary. He wasn’t alone, he wasn’t stuck on a timeline, and he wasn’t “wrong” to feel scared, isolated, and angry. Now, best of all, he could do something about it.

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