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Permission To Feel


How are you feeling? This morning, on 5th January 2021, I woke up with the feeling of anxiety that I experienced during the first lockdown. Not only are we coming to terms with another national lockdown, but the news of high infection numbers and the national closure of schools is making me feel sick. 

Having recently finished Dr Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel’ and according to his Mood Meter app, my feelings are in the red quadrant - unpleasant, high energy feelings. Brackett explains that before we can manage our feelings, we have to recognise, understand and label them. I look at the Mood Meter diagram that is now on our fridge and consider whether I feel anxious, apprehensive or uneasy (My youngest child has already informed me that she’s “in the blue” today because she’s tired). It’s surprisingly difficult to label our feelings accurately. Brackett argues that our emotion vocabulary is “woefully insufficient” and yet without being able to articulate how we feel, how are we meant to regulate our emotions or show empathy towards others?

As professor at Yale’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Brackett introduces us to the RULER system for understanding and managing our emotions. He explains these skills in clear detail with suggestions for putting them into practice in the home, in school and in the workplace - 

R: Recognising Emotion

U: Understanding Emotion

L: Labelling Emotion

E: Expressing Emotion

R: Regulating Emotion

My feelings of uneasiness and concern are not welcome, especially with 2 small children who are watching my every move. As with all unpleasant emotions, I don’t want to feel this way and my default response is to snap at those around me and distract myself with tasks. Brackett points out that we lack the vocabulary and understanding of difficult feelings because we simply don’t want to dwell on them. We can also experience shame, embarrassment and guilt, adding layers to our unpleasant feelings. The book gives a detailed examination of how this plays out culturally and socially, with minority groups experiencing huge stigma around the expression of emotion.

Brackett makes a passionate argument that ALL feelings are valid and that we have to give ourselves and others permission to feel  if we are to develop emotional resilience. Once we have worked through the ‘RUL’ of the system, we can then consider how to express our feelings and learn to regulate them (‘ER’). This is where the work really begins and Brackett gives useful and practical suggestions for ways in which both children and adults can develop this, including mindful breathing, looking-forward strategies and cognitive-reframing strategies.

Rather than my typical, “I’m FINE!” response I use around my husband, I choose to explain that I’m feeling anxious and we talk about the latest news and logistics of managing the new lockdown. I don’t need the feeling fixed, nor do I necessarily need solutions. I need the space to sit with this feeling before thinking of how I can best regulate it, rather than ignoring, suppressing or fixing it. The ‘Meta-Moment’ strategy suggests that by pausing in the moment and asking ourselves, “what would my best self do?”, we are able to move away from the stressor and towards our core values, which then allows for more positive self talk. Like everyone, I can think of thousands of occasions when I have been far removed from my best self when caught up in an emotion. Yet while this is common human behaviour, we often punish our children for doing so, choosing to see shouting, crying or having a tantrum as ‘bad behaviour’.  Brackett emphasises that we cannot help an angry or distressed child manage their behaviour until we have explored the root emotion first and given them permission to have their feelings. He also points out that rather than condoning the behaviour, this method helps a child understand and learn how to manage their feelings in the future.

If we are to really work on preventing mental health problems and build a more resilient generation, teaching emotional intelligence is our foundation. Brackett’s strategy is not only simple and flexible enough for a preschooler, it teaches us to take ownership for our emotions and learn ways to manage them. His message is at the heart of so many theories on parenting and the wellbeing of children that I have come across and I would urge any parent, carer or professional working with children to read it. The RULER strategy is already proving effective in schools around the world and I will be exploring how this can be implemented in the schools I work with.

If you would like to share your experience of the RULER system and the Mood Meter app, I would love to hear from you. 

For more information on Permission To Feel and Marc Brackett's work, go to https://www.marcbrackett.com/

Hear Marc Brackett in conversation with Brené Brown on the Unlocking Us podcast - https://brenebrown.com/podcast/dr-marc-brackett-and-brene-on-permission-to-feel/

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