On this episode of Unlocking Us
Dr. Marc Brackett has dedicated his life to studying emotions and to teaching us what he’s learning. In this episode, we talk about how emotional literacy – being able to recognize, name, and understand our feelings – affects everything from learning, decision making, and creativity, to relationships, health, and performance.
Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett, Ph.D. combines rigor, science, passion and inspiration in equal parts. Too many children and adults are suffering; they are ashamed of their feelings and emotionally unskilled, but they don’t have to be. Marc Brackett’s life mission is to reverse this course, and this book can show you how.
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us. Today I’m talking with Dr. Marc Brackett, and he is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and is a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University. His research focuses on the role that emotional intelligence plays in learning, decision making, creativity, relationships, physical health, and performance. I know him from his many, many scholarly articles. I think he’s published over 100 scholarly articles. You may know him from places like The New York Times, or Good Morning America, The Today Show, PBS. He’s just dedicated his life to emotional literacy. In his ground-breaking work at Yale, he is the lead developer of RULER, which we’ll talk about in the podcast, which is an evidence-based approach to social-emotional learning that is now inside of over 2,000 schools, from preschools to high schools, around the world.
BB: Now I’m going to tell you right now, we’re going to dig into his book, Permission to Feel,which just came out. The full title is Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive. You’re going to hear me at my most nerded out, geek on-ness – if that’s a thing – in this podcast, because I’ve been working on a project in emotional literacy for the last two years, something that’s going to be coming out in 2021. He’s one of the people who I really look up to the most, I’ve learned from. He said a couple of things during this podcast that blew my mind, just not only as an emotions researcher, but as a person. So, settle in, put your ear pods in and get ready for your walk or grab your mug of tea – wherever you are. I hope you can get your emotions on, your geek-ness on with me in this, because I think Marc has a lot to teach us.
BB: Alright, so Marc, I think you know what question I have to start with after reading your new book. Do you want to guess?
Dr Marc Brackett: It’s probably going to be about how I’m feeling.
BB: [laughter] I wanted to be an original here. Come on. I wanted to be the “Feeling OG.” How are you feeling right now?
MB: Well I’m excited to be here with you. I’m a little overwhelmed about what’s happening in our world right now, so I’m having a lot of feelings.
BB: A lot of feelings.
MB: And how about you?
BB: I need to ask you this. This is going to be like a free session for me, y’all, and y’all can listen to me get fixed. So, here’s what’s interesting for me, and I don’t know what to make of this. I am exhausted and I am hopeful. I am weary and I am grateful. And there’s this weird thing going on right now. So, we start all of our meetings on Zoom with my team – there’s probably 30 of us – with a two-word check-in, a feeling check-in. That’s how we start our meetings. And what I’m seeing right now are these weird paradoxical feelings and emotions. What is that?
MB: I think it’s normal. Actually, I just did a study last week with 5,000 people across the nation asking them how are they feeling. Of course the number one emotion was anxiety. It just blew up. But then there were people who felt grateful and hopeful and optimistic. I think it’s more of a regulation strategy that it’s, “I’ve got to say that because I’ve got to have hope because I just gotta have that right now.”
BB: Oh wow. So is there a difference between a regulation strategy and bullshitting people? Like what’s the difference there?
MB: Well, our brains like to tell ourselves stories, right? So, I think it’s a helpful strategy. It’s a self-talk strategy. You know, “I’ve got to be grateful. I’ve got to be hopeful. It’s going to make a difference and I’m going to get through this.” And having that positive self-talk makes all the difference.
BB: Man, I knew it y’all. I knew this was going to be good. Okay, so before I start and before I dig into your book, Permission to Feel, I have to say that social-emotional learning, emotional literacy has been a big part of my work for 20 years. Your work is amazing.
MB: Thank you. I appreciate that.
BB: I mean, just incredible. Okay, so I want to start with this quote. You write, “It is one of the great paradoxes of the human condition. We ask some variation of the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ over and over, which would lead one to assume that we attach some importance to it. And yet we never expect or desire or provide an honest answer.”
MB: Yeah, I know. I did write that.
BB: What the heck? You did write that.
MB: You know, I think the problem is, is that we don’t want to spend time dealing with people’s feelings. So, we want people to just say “fine, okay, good”. And we can move on. Think about teachers. Think about parents. Like parents are getting up in the morning at 7:40. They gotta be in the car at 7:45. The kids’ gotta get on the bus. You know they say, “Good morning honey. How are you feeling?” And what if they hear, “hopeless, disappointed, sad?” “I’m angry. I’m overwhelmed. I’m anxious.” That means you’ve gotta stop what you’re doing and provide that unconditional love and support. And it sounds crazy, but people don’t have the time for it, so why bother asking? And I think that’s something that really needs to change in our nation, in the world.
BB: Okay. I’ve got to tell you that when you just went through that role play, I wish y’all could see my hands right now. My palms are sweating because I do what I do for a living; Steve’s a pediatrician. So if we at 7:35 said, “How’re you feeling sweetie?” and one of our kids said, “Overwhelmed, anxious, maybe a little depressed… ” I would be like, “Ah, can we talk about it on the way to school?”
MB: Exactly, and think about your profession…
BB: I know, I know.
MB: This is what you do, and imagine parents who have not had an emotion education, teachers who have not been trained in social emotional learning. It’s a lot of information to deal with.
BB: Okay, before we dig into everything you have to teach us, which is so much and so good…
MB: Thank you.
BB: Tell me about Uncle Marvin and tell me about…can we talk a little bit about your own experiences with emotions and…
MB: Of course.
BB: The big permission you got in your life?
MB: So as you know from reading my book, I was sexually abused as a child, and it was from when I was very young, until I was in around 5th or 6th grade, so from five years old to 10 years old. And you can imagine when there’s an adult who basically threatens you and says, “If you share what’s happening, you’re going to be hurt. If you tell your parents, there are going to be repercussions.” You’re trapped with your feelings. You feel shame, you feel disgust, you feel hate, you feel anger, anxiety, and the list goes on, and you have nowhere to go with those feelings. Now, I was blessed in life that my mother’s brother, who was Uncle Marvin, who happened to be a middle school teacher in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, was working on a book and on a curriculum to deal with kids’ feelings. And so, when I disclosed what was happening, he was the only adult who was there for me. He just listened. He didn’t say, “Toughen up!” like my father did, and he didn’t have a breakdown like my mom did, and God bless my parents, they did everything they could, but they just had no resilience, they had no strategies to deal with their feelings.
MB: But Uncle Marvin just had that, as I call it, he was a compassionate emotion scientist. He was open and curious, never judgmental, great listener, and didn’t tell me what to do, but rather he was my coach. He helped me to think through what the alternatives were, and he gave me hope. I dedicate my entire career to him.
BB: First of all, thank you for sharing it, because so it’s such a hard thing to share and talk about, and yet it’s such a prevalent form of trauma and violence that we just don’t talk about enough, and not everyone has an Uncle Marvin.
MB: I know, and I hear people tell me that all the time, they didn’t have that adult in their life. And what I know from research is that about two-thirds of our nation’s youth don’t feel they have a supportive adult like in their school. Think about that, going to school every day, not feeling like there’s an adult who cares about you or is there for you.
BB: Do those same research participants, those same children also feel like they don’t have anyone at home either?
MB: There are lots of kids who feel the same way at home as well, for sure.
BB: Right. And then what’s hopeful about the story to me when I was reading your book, I kept thinking, “Be the Uncle Marvin.”
MB: Hundred percent.
BB: Be some kid’s Uncle Marvin. Be the person who, when you say, “How are you?” look genuinely into someone’s eyes as if you really care, and then if the answer makes you late for school, screw it, be late for school.
MB: I couldn’t agree more. That’s my dream, is that I’m going to make a world filled with Uncle Marvins.
BB: Yeah, we need that, right?
MB: We do, we really need…
BB: I’m a fan.
MB: Right now, we need it more than ever.
BB: So I want to get into some nitty-gritty, and I think it’s because I’ve been working on a project for the last couple of years around emotional literacy, and of course, I read your book, like I ate it, I took every page out and I ate it, it’s just incredible, and the data and the way you approach things with equal parts scientific rigor and big juicy heart like…we don’t see that a lot in our profession, right?
MB: Appreciate that.
BB: But we don’t see it a lot, is that true?
MB: It took me a long time to figure out how to do it, and it took me til I was 50 to write my book for the real world.
BB: Because we’re trained that if it’s too accessible, we’re not that smart.
MB: There you go.
BB: Yeah, that’s the training in academics, and so you’ve just taken this incredible science and made it not just digestible; it’s like a page turner for people. I just loved it.
MB: Very sweet, thank you.
BB: Yeah, and so I have a question that I think is helpful. Can you talk about, what is an emotion? What is a feeling?
BB: How do you think about those? Differently or the same?
MB: So, they’re related, and I think for most of us, it doesn’t matter if it’s an emotion or if it’s a feeling or if it’s a mood, or…it’s an experience that we want to connect with and understand. But in the basic sense, think about it in the morning. You wake up, and you’re kind of appraising the world around you, like from your own inner dialogue to what’s happening around you. You’re saying, “I want to approach, I want to avoid; I feel pleasant, I don’t feel so pleasant today.” And then you’re checking in with your body and you’re saying, “I’ve got a lot of energy or I feel kind of depleted and tired or exhausted.” And that’s how that Mood Meter tool that is in my book was derived from research in that area. And so, like the feeling, “I feel like approaching, I feel like avoiding”, is this kind of core experience. But the emotion is more granular, it’s more specific: anger is about injustice, disappointment is about unmet expectations, anxiety is about uncertainty. The language of emotion is what I think we really need to get at, in order to help ourselves and other people thrive.
BB: I had to share this with you because I think it’s really interesting, and everything that I find in my work mirrors so completely what you find in your work. So, for the last, since 2006, we’ve been asking folks who go through our curriculum to write down the name of the emotions that they can recognize in self.
BB: And name, and what they can recognize in other people and name. And so we have, I don’t know, maybe 15,000 pieces from surveys back. The mean number that people can identify and name in self and others: three.
MB: Wow. Yeah. It’s just that people have no training in emotion recognition. I have a whole theory about that. The firstly, it’s not part of the curriculum. How much time do we spend in school learning about feelings and emotions and moods? When you analyze the curriculum from math to language arts to science to whatever you’re learning, even with social and emotional learning, it’s still an add-on. It’s not integrated, it’s not part of our education system.
BB: God, I hate that. Yes.
MB: Yeah. That’s my hope. My career goal is to make social and emotional learning a permanent part of our children’s education. And this is where the…in my book I talk about the RULER skills. And that first is that core experience. Do I want to approach? Am I on the Yellow, which is that high energy, pleasant place? Or the Green, or Blue, or Red which are…the Red is that high activated, unpleasant; the Blue, low-energy, unpleasant, and then you say, well what’s going on for me right now? Like, what’s the story I’m telling myself? Well, I’m about to do a podcast with Brené Brown. Oh, wow, am I anxious, or am I excited? Apprehensive, or am I eager? I’m about to go give a presentation. I just got bad news. So, you’re trying to figure out the story behind the experience. And what I find is that it’s really helpful to then find the word. It helps you label the feeling.
BB: But, all the majority of people we work with know – and this is from CEOs to prisoners, people in correctional facilities – when all they know is happy, sad, pissed off. I call it the “mad, sad, glad trilogy”. You asked yourself questions, very nuanced questions just now.
BB: Am I anxious? Am I… Before we get into RULER, which I think is so brilliant, you talk about five areas where feelings matter the most. Make the case to me why (not that I need it, PS), but make…because I am so on board. I am behind you paddling.
MB: I appreciate that.
BB: Make the case why understanding emotions matters?
MB: Well, that’s what I call…when I do my presentations, I call that slide my “Money Slide”.
MB: Because for anybody who’s a naysayer, I just say, “you just don’t know the research”. Because once you understand the data and the science behind this, there’s no way that you won’t want to take this seriously. So, the first is…
BB: Hit us…
MB: That emotions matter for attentional capacity. Let’s be…I’m going to be honest with you. I was a C and D student in elementary school. And with all modesty aside, I’m a pretty smart guy. But I couldn’t function academically. Think about it. When you’re feeling nervous, since I was bullied horrifically, I have parents who had troubles, so I was being abused. Do I really want to learn about the Roman oligarchy? Am I really going to be able to focus and concentrate? Let’s get real. I just want friendships, I want love, I want safety, I want to get home without being bullied and hurt. So, we know that our emotion system is inextricably linked with our cognitive system and our attention. The second is decision making. Think about it. We like to think we’re rational creatures. Here’s an example in a study we did with teachers. We randomly assigned them to be in a good mood or a bad mood. It’s pretty easy. Take five minutes and think about a good day. Take five minutes and think about a bad day. And then we had them grade the exact same paper.
MB: Lo and behold, one to two full grades difference. When we asked the teachers, do you believe that how you felt had any influence over the way you evaluated that essay? 98% said no. So think about that. Their emotions clearly shifted the way they viewed the same content, but we don’t want to believe it.
BB: That’s so powerful.
MB: We don’t want to believe it, because we don’t want to…that means we have no control. That means there is no free will. The third is relationships. I like to say in the simplest form, emotions are signals to approach or avoid. So, my facial expression, your facial expression, other people’s. How we feel on the inside sends messages: approach, avoid. Have you ever worked with someone who is like that disgruntled character? Think about that person. Do you say to yourself, “Gosh, I’d like to work with them for the rest of my life”?
MB: No. You’re like, “I’ll do… I’ll go down this hallway. I’ll do anything to avoid them.” The fourth has to do with our physical and mental health. Here’s an example. In our work with educators, what we found is the following. The culture and climate of their school was highly correlated with their anxiety, their stress, their negative feelings, which also was correlated with their mental health problems, with their sleep troubles, and their body mass index. So think about that. This is how our emotion system and our environment are all linked together and connected to our physical and mental health.
BB: There’s no question. I mean God, it just makes sense to me.
MB: Yeah. And then there’s this vicious cycle because cortisol, insulin levels change. I want the fatty foods and I want immediate gratification and then it just loops and loops and loops.
BB: Then I’m in shame for having eaten that. Yeah, it’s crazy.
BB: I speak from just research, not from personal experience.
MB: Yeah. There you go. Me too. [chuckle] And then the final one we call performance and creativity. One thing that people often say is your cognition…my students, for example, here at Yale where I work, often say to me things when I teach my classes, “Professor Brackett, I didn’t need emotional intelligence to get into Yale.” and I say, “Well you’re going to need it to get out.” And…
MB: Because no one’s going to hire someone that has that kind of attitude. And of course, many of my students are fabulous, most of them are. But they didn’t have an emotion education. They went to good schools and they got in because of their SAT scores and their grade point averages. But the truth is, when you go to the real world, I get CEO’s that I work with they say things like, “We can’t stand these Ivy League graduates. They’re so entitled, and they don’t work well in teams, and they just think they know everything. We want people who are flexible, people who are inspiring.” The skills that we never teach. So, I think that we need to rethink education to make sure that, A.) our educators are taught emotion science, and B.) our kids get these skills from preschool until whenever.
BB: God. I just…it’s so…the microphone’s working, I just have no words because I spend so much time working with leaders of these Fortune 100 companies, and 60% of the work they have to do is social-emotional learning. People are coming with skills, people can code, people can think about financial strategy, but people lose their shit in meetings, people don’t know how to talk to one another, people avoid hard conversations because they don’t know that awkward is okay to feel. It’s incredible that… What is it going to take, do you think, to make this case?
MB: It’s going to take all the students who are going through this training now to become the next generation of leaders. I have faith that adults can learn these skills and I’ve demonstrated that. But the mindset of adults, this is an example. So, I gave a talk in one of our big departments here, I won’t name it right now.
BB: To protect the innocent.
MB: At the end of my presentation one of the senior professors stood up and he looked at me and he goes, “What happened to Yale?” and I said…and I’m a bit of a self-saboteur so I said, “Tell me more.” And he goes, “Marc, this is Yale. We produce Nobel Laureates, not nice people.” And I was like, “Okay.” and then I… I can facilitate a group. And I said, “Does anyone else have a different perspective?” Lo and behold another professor stands up and looks at me and he goes, “Here’s what I learned, Marc. Sometimes you just have to be a blank because then the people who work for you just shut up and do what you tell them to do.” And I looked at the Chair of this whole School, and I said like, “Are we making a movie here? What is going on? I don’t know. What is happening?” And I thought the Chair of this department was just going to cry. He was so embarrassed, and he looked at me and he goes, “Why do you think I asked you to come in?” And so, we have a lot of work to do to get people to be on that “emotions matter” bus. And that’s why I do the science and that’s why you do your work, and I’m going to keep going until I get everyone to understand that data and to understand that our cognitive abilities matter, but how we deal with life…
MB: I always say things like, so many of our children don’t reach their fullest potential because they can’t deal with the feedback they get, they can’t deal with the disappointment, the frustration, the anxiety around the content. It’s not their ability to be creative. It’s that when they fail at being creative and when they get harsh feedback, they can’t deal with the feelings around it, and they give up not because of their ability but because of their inability to deal with their feelings.
BB: I have to say I was thinking about this in prep for our conversation and I have never met a truly transformational leader in my career. And I’ve worked with a lot of leaders – just like you – in all the big companies. I’ve never met a truly transformational leader that did not have a deep understanding of their own emotional landscape and the emotional landscape of other people. I just never have.
MB: I agree. We did this study a couple of years ago with 15,000 people across the workforce, and we asked them about their feelings. How did they feel each day at work? And we found, not like the anxiety that we had today in our…the study I mentioned earlier, but 50-60% of the feelings were negative on a daily basis. But here’s what the magic ingredient was: we also learned about the emotional intelligence of their supervisor or their leader. We found a 50% difference in inspiration. That someone felt inspiration 50% more when they were in an organization with a leader with higher emotional intelligence. Their frustration levels were 30-40% less, their intentions to leave their profession were significantly lower, their burnout lower. So, these are skills for us, but they’re…our leaders have to have these skills because we also found ethical behavior was related to the emotional skills of the supervisor and leader.
BB: Oh, yes. No question.
MB: So many variables are related to the person who is in charge having the skills to manage people and manage their own feelings.
BB: And it’s so funny too, because you talk about your “money slide”, and I think for me, the moment where I get people’s attention is when I talk about courageous leadership, requiring the ability to attend to fears and feelings of the people we lead and serve and support. And just like in your Yale experience, so many people jump up, arms tightly crossed over their chests and say, “I’m not a therapist, I’m a financial strategist. And I don’t need to attend to fears and feelings.” And inevitably I will say, “Tell me your biggest struggle. Tell me your biggest time suck?” “Dealing with problematic behaviors.” I’m like, “Right, because you can either spend a reasonable amount of time attending to fears or feelings or an unreasonable amount of time dealing with problematic behaviors. You’re not digging enough.”
MB: Couldn’t agree more. I call it, we need to be preventionist not interventionist.
BB: Oh God, I love that.
MB: If we are preventative and we help people develop the skills they need to navigate their lives; we don’t have to spend millions and trillions of dollars like we are right now intervening.
BB: That’s right. That’s just the science. That’s right. Okay, let’s talk about RULER. Tell us what it is, tell us how it came about, and let’s walk through it together.
MB: So, RULER is an outgrowth of the theory of emotional intelligence that was developed by my mentors, Peter Salovey, who is now the president of Yale, and Jack Mayer, who is a professor at the University of New Hampshire. And so as I was working with them as both graduate student and a postdoc, I was working with my uncle on this curriculum, and I was playing in the real world and I was playing in the scientific world, and I was parsing out the different skills that the scientists have come up with and that my uncle had been working on, and essentially it came together as RULER. And so, RULER is recognizing emotions in oneself and others. So, paying attention to the cues in my body, the cues in my mind. It’s recognizing emotions in other people, so face, body, voice, behavior. Understanding of emotion has to do with knowing the causes and the consequences of our feelings. Going back to our example earlier, I’ve given, I don’t know, 3,000 presentations. I ask people, “What’s the difference between disappointment and anger?” Do you know that three people in the last 10 years could really define the difference? People say things like one is internal, one is external, one is a secondary emotion. But what’s the psychological difference?
MB: And which is, disappointment – unmet expectations; anger – perceived injustice. And the reason why that matters is because it helps us to then label that feeling properly. And then you can decide, “Am I angry or am I enraged? Am I just irritable, or am I annoyed?” So that’s the R, the U and the L of RULER: Recognizing, Understanding, and Labeling.
MB: I call that the skills that help us create meaning of our experience. So now I know what I’m feeling by the R the U and the L, or how someone else is feeling.
BB: So I want to stop you, I want to stop you before you go to the E and the R. We’ll stop at RUL. Okay, R is recognizing the occurrence of an emotion by noticing a change in your own thoughts, energy, or body or in someone else’s face, body or voice?
BB: Recognizing. Tell me what you find as the greatest barrier to the R, to recognizing.
MB: Pausing to just be self-reflective; we don’t do that. I always ask people, “How many times during the day, before when you hang up the phone with one person, and you go into the next meeting, do you take that breath and just check in with how you’re feeling?” People are like, “What are you talking about? I don’t have time for that.”
MB: So, there’s that piece in the self-awareness. The problem with the other awareness is that we like to attribute emotions to people, right?
BB: Oh God, yes.
MB: We don’t want to really know how they’re feeling.
BB: Yes, right.
MB: “Brené, why are you so angry? Why are you so anxious? Why are you so this?” I’m like, wait a minute. I have an aunt who used to say, “What’s wrong?” I’m like, “You. I’m fine.”
MB: “I’m doing okay, like, you’re projecting all your stuff onto me.”
MB: So we do a lot of that. We don’t pause to just observe. The other big barrier to R is that we have been trained to fake our feelings, you know? We mask them. It’s emotional labor. I was at a big company in New York City giving a talk, and the CEO came up to me and he’s like, “Interesting talk.” I was like, “Thanks”. He goes, “Not for me”. I’m like, okay, “Well, what do you mean?” He’s like, “Well, maybe I’ll have you train the people who work for me, because then they’ll be able to better deal with me.” I was like, “This is so layered.” But…and my point is he just had no interest in recognizing people’s feelings. He had the big corner office. So we have to want to gather this information.
MB: Another big error that we make is mis-perceived behavior for feeling. So, for example, I come home, “I hate you”. I’m screaming and my arms are up, I’m clenching my fist. How am I feeling? Angry. Well, you don’t know that because that’s my story. I would come home screaming, yelling all the time, and the real feeling I was having was shame.
BB: Oh, yeah.
MB: But I’m not going to go to my father who was a tough guy from the Bronx and say, “Daddy, I’m feeling shame.” I’m going to yell, I’m going to scream, I’m going to tell him, “I hate you and I’m not going to school.” So then I got punished because my parents didn’t know how to RUL me.
MB: Happens all the time.
BB: Okay, so I have a question about R. When you say people have to want to know more. Does curiosity play a role? I find some people are more curious about their emotions and other people’s emotions. Do you find that to be true?
MB: 100%. And that’s why I talk about in my book, this idea of an emotion scientist versus the emotion judge, right. The emotion scientist…
BB: Ooh, I want to be both. Okay, go ahead.
MB: Well, you don’t want to be the judge about your feelings, right? So that’s…
BB: I want to be the judge about your feelings. [laughter]
MB: I don’t want to be the judge of anybody’s feelings.
BB: But I kinda like it sometimes. It’s terrible. Let’s go on.
MB: Well you know, it’s funny because some people say things like, “I’m the scientist for the people I love the least.”
BB: Oh, that hit too close to home.
MB: It’s like automatic, right? You have to want to know the information, so that’s all that attitudinal piece that contributes to our skill development.
BB: Okay, so R, clear on what that is, clear on the barriers. U, understanding. Kind of same barrier set, same…
MB: You know, that’s a little bit more cognitive, because that’s where you have to learn the underlying themes around feelings. So that, for example, we know that the anger family is around injustice, that the disappointment is around unmet expectations, that jealousy is this feeling that you’re threatened that someone you care about is going to be taken away from you, or envy is about just wanting what someone else wants. Fear is about impending danger. Joy is about achieving your goal.
MB: And when we understand these feelings, what happens is that when I’m asking you to tell me, “what’s going on, Brené?” I, as the emotion scientist, am listening for these themes. “Oh, I’m hearing an injustice theme”; “Oh, I’m hearing an unmet expectation theme”; “my kid is yelling that they hate me because we can’t go visit his friend, but I don’t think he’s really angry, I think he’s disappointed and so I have to help regulate disappointment, not punish for anger.” And that understanding piece is what helps us to label, and then in the labeling, we want to get granular, we want to get really nuanced in terms of how much fear. Is it a lot of fear, a little fear? Because it’s a lot easier to regulate a little fear than it is a lot of fear.
BB: And, like you, the example you used around shame and fear, there are just some more socially, culturally acceptable ways of being, that are based on gender, class, every descriptor. Would you agree?
MB: Well that’s now getting to the E, the expression.
MB: So the R, the U and the L is all about our experience and the E and the R expressing and regulating emotion is all about what we do with these feelings. So, you have to have permission to express, you have to have someone who’s going to listen to you, someone who wants to listen to you. And we know there are so many barriers to that, right? There are racial barriers, there are cultural barriers, there’s power dynamics, right? People who have greater power can express whatever the heck they want; people with lesser power have more fear around expressing.
BB: That’s right.
MB: I even… In our center, the Center for Emotional Intelligence that I direct, it’s funny because I tell everyone like, “Listen, this is the Center for Emotional Intelligence. I really want to know how you’re feeling.” But because I’m the Director, people are afraid, for example, often times to tell me they’re nervous about a project they’re working on, or anxious about a statistical analysis, and it baffles me, but yet there’s this, “if Marc thinks I’m anxious, that means he also thinks I’m weak”.
BB: Right. Oh, yeah.
MB: And so, we have a lot of barriers to break in terms of people’s…we call those meta emotions, right? We have feelings about feelings. And personality, right? People often think that I’m very extroverted, because I do a lot of public speaking, but I’m really not. I much prefer to be quite alone and that leads to the strategies, right? So, an introvert might choose different strategies than an extrovert in regulating their feelings.
MB: In the emotion regulation piece, which is at the top of that RULER hierarchy, is the… probably the most important skill, because it’s how we handle our feelings, it’s what we do with them. Do I prevent this feeling? Do I reduce it? Do I initiate it or create it? Do I want to just maintain it? Do I want to enhance a mood? And then, what are the strategies? And there are so many strategies, just briefly, this last week, the last two weeks, I’ve been asked to do a lot of webinars on emotion regulation because people are suffering. It’s so broad, this emotion regulation piece, because part of it is self-care. Do you get enough sleep? Are you eating healthy, are you getting your movement?
BB: Moving your body. Yeah.
MB: That’s like all the stuff that contributes to whether or not you regulate well, then there’s the relationship piece, there’s the cognitive strategies, it’s endless really. It’s quite interesting when you think about how much there is to learn about dealing with your feelings.
BB: I have so many questions. Tell me the difference between you find yourself overwhelmed with an emotion, let’s just say it’s resentment. You put resentment on a continuum with disappointment around expectations, where do you see it normally?
MB: I think it goes toward the envy family, because if it’s…I have to get a lot of philanthropy for my center, so I’m oftentimes envious of their homes and their lifestyle. Resentment is that I hate them for having it. And I don’t ever feel that way in general. So, it’s like the negative side of envy in many ways.
BB: Okay, so I’m overwhelmed with resentment or any grief or anxiety, whatever it is, what is the difference between self-regulation and what we see a lot in the lexicon of the working world, which is personal management of self? Like we’ve got a problem with Brené. She really doesn’t have the skill set to personally manage herself when she’s in really hard feelings. Do you think there’s a difference? Different nomenclature? What do you think?
MB: I think the field of emotion regulation is huge, and people call it coping, and there’s emotion management, self-control and co-regulation, and there’s so many terms. I prefer to call it emotion regulation because it’s…what we’re doing is we’re regulating a feeling. Regulating does not mean not feeling, it doesn’t mean getting rid of the feeling. Like I’ve been telling people, as you would too, around the anxiety they’re experiencing, “You’re not going to not feel anxious, there’s a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability going on, but you don’t have to watch the news 10 hours a day, and being bombarded with crazy information that’s going to make you go nuts.” So, you can be with the feeling and not let the feeling have power over you, that’s the ultimate form of acceptance of that feeling.
BB: So, what about the person who says to you, “I do have feelings, but I regulate them, and I don’t feel them. I stuff them down.”?
MB: Yeah, that’s what we all learned: the suppression, the repression, the denial. Again, it’s easier. The way I like to think about it is that emotion regulation is effortful. You have to want to regulate, you’ve got to be motivated to regulate, you gotta see that it’s going to help you have greater well-being, that it’s going to help you build better relationships, that it’s going to help you attain your goals, but most of us aren’t taught to think that way. So we think that just by suppressing or repressing, we can move on, and we all know that doesn’t happen. These emotions don’t go away, the suppression doesn’t mean it goes away, it means it gets buried in your belly, or in your heart or in your lower back.
MB: So those, I would just call those maladaptive or unhelpful strategies.
BB: I think it’s hard for people to understand… I read this somewhere…I always say to people, emotions don’t go away, unfelt emotions are not benign, they metastasize. And you have this great thing, I can’t find it in the book right now, but maybe you can help me since you wrote it. Sometimes I don’t remember what I write. Do you ever find yourself like that?
BB: Okay, so maybe we could do it together, but I always say unprocessed emotions don’t dissipate, they’re not benign, they metastasize. You say something like, something about the debt is going to be called out, like they, like…
BB: Do you know what I’m talking about?
MB: I do. Yeah.
BB: Can you tell me?
MB: Going back to the expression of feelings, I mean, I’m at home with my partner and my mother-in-law right now, and we haven’t been together like this ever. In my whole life, I’ve not spent this much time with anyone.
MB: I’m used to the traveling, teaching and running around, and so, we’re having strong feelings. I’m getting feedback about my cooking that I’m not asking for, and it’s endless. Like in the hallways, do we look at each other this time, or do we just like, avoid each other? And anyhow, so my point here is, think about the people that we’re in relationship with, and how many people have not been taught how to talk about their feelings or express their feelings with the people they love the most, potentially?
MB: And you realize that, you don’t really know the person you’ve been living with for 20 years, because you’re not… You’re not willing to be vulnerable, you’re not willing to be your true self and share the feelings that you’re having, and that just…it pains me that we have gone through life with the inability to just be our authentic selves with the people we love the most, and so my question is, what do we need to do to create a society where that’s part of the past?
BB: Yeah, it’s the heartbreak and the driver for me with my work is all we really want, I think, are the core human needs to be seen and known and loved.
BB: And if we don’t understand the emotional landscape in our own lives, much less of the people that we are trying to see, and know, and love, we can’t get there, and so many people die without ever getting there.
MB: It’s terrible. And when you think about it, in terms of the stuff that we do, it’s like being vulnerable means a number of things. I have to have the comfort and the skill to communicate, I have to be aware and really skilled at communicating my experience, but I also have to know that I’m with that Uncle Marvin.
MB: Right? Because if the Uncle Marvin isn’t on the other side, it’s not worth sharing, because then you’re going to be judged…
BB: The risk, it’s not worth the risk.
MB: Exactly. So, there’s so many variables that go into whether or not we talk about our feelings because we’re going to be judged oftentimes by having them.
BB: We can’t stop the podcast until we talk about something that I’m seeing a lot right now.
BB: And you call it, I think, meta-emotion. Like emotion about emotion. Is that right?
MB: That’s correct.
BB: I did this podcast where it was just kind of me talking about some observations since the COVID pandemic began, about how much shame people are feeling about their grief. How much shame people are feeling about their disappointment, how much shame people are feeling about their anxiety. Are those examples of meta-emotion?
MB: Completely, yeah. It’s just having feelings about your feelings, “I’m embarrassed and I’m anxious that I’m not skilled at this” or whatever it is. Yes.
BB: So for me, coming from my lens, I talk about how comparative suffering is just a bankrupt idea because empathy and compassion are not finite. And so, we don’t have to… Everyone’s hurt matters, right? How do we apply kind of your RULER concept to these stacked feelings that we’re experiencing right now, where we don’t think we have it as bad as other people, so we’re denying our feelings?
MB: And this reminds me of something similar, which is, I was in a school with children with severe learning problems and emotional challenges. And this boy came in, because we were filming that day, and he’s like, “I’m feeling 15 feelings.” And his teacher was getting embarrassed, because she was like, “He’s just trying to be a showman.” And I said to the little boy, “Well, tell me what happened?” He goes, “Well, I knew we were filming today, and I woke up feeling excited. And then I missed my bus and then my mother yelled at me, and then this happened… ” And this kid was so articulate about his…
BB: Oh, yeah.
MB: Fifteen different feelings. And I looked over at the teacher and she’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I said, “You just gotta ask him to tell the story.” To me, it’s all about taking that breath, pausing, and applying the RULER principles, just asking yourself, “So why am I having the feeling about my feeling? What’s the cause of that?” And it’s really just that reflection on, “What is the story that I’m telling myself right now?” And you can go deeper and think about where that might have come from.
MB: One of the things that drives me crazy is how our negative self-talk often comes from the adults who are raising us, right?
BB: Oh, yeah.
MB: Programming us that way.
MB: I’m too fat. I’m too skinny. I’m too tall. I’m too short. My nose is too big, it’s too short. I’m too dark. I’m too light. And then when you really go into your history, you start realizing that, “My goodness, that was what my mother said to me when I was 7, and 10, and I have now become that person.” So then you’re having these meta-feelings, and then you’re kind of reflecting, and it gets complex. That’s why we have to just…oftentimes just take a step back and pause. Sometimes write it out, and just try to figure out that theme. Like, “Where is this coming from?” And then, maybe we can label the real feeling and then go to that regulation.
BB: So much of emotion…this is what I’m finding in the work we’re doing right now. So much of emotion is biography. God. I mean, I took your test in the book. And of course, I self-scored very high. [laughter]
MB: I’m sure. And you read the paragraph after that, right? Which says…
BB: Oh, I did. “The biggest threat to validity is how high we self-score.”
BB: I also read the part where, “evidence shows that men self-score higher than women.”
BB: But when the rubber hits the road…as a professor, this is just so funny. I did this whole feminist pedagogy approach for several years, where people…I had the learnings that we had to do for the semester. But then I let people write their own syllabi and grade themselves based on their own learning objectives. I had my preformed idea of what I think their grade should be at the end, and it was so gender-stratified. Because I would say, “Oh, man. She really…she earned an A. I mean, top grade in the class.” I hate to be comparative, but it just happens in your head, right? The woman would say – and these are all graduate, masters, and PhD students – ” I gave myself a B- for the semester.” And I was like, “What?” And then the guys…and the guys would be like, “A+”. I was like, “What? I did not give you an A!” And so I was like, “This strategy is not good. I’m going to have to change my strategy. I’m going to have to weigh in here.”
MB: That’s funny.
BB: So when I read that about your self-scoring around gender lines, I thought, “Yeah.”
MB: I think importantly about that, is that it’s not like… My other career has been in the martial arts. So when I was being bullied as a kid, one really important thing that my father did for me was drop me off at a karate school. And it happened to be with an amazing teacher, so I got really hooked into martial arts. But it’s interesting, I’ve made the comparison between martial arts and emotional intelligence. So yellow belt, five kicks, five punches. Blue belt, green belt, red belt, black belt. You are given…you’re given specific instruction and you’re given feedback. And you’re tested to get through these belts. But where do we have that for our emotion system? How do you get a black belt in emotional intelligence? So that’s, I think, what I’m hoping to do, is provide the…
BB: Oh, love that.
MB: The structure for schools to give our students their black belts in social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence.
BB: And you know it’s not…it has to happen in schools, because what I find…I don’t work with…I don’t work with K through 12, and I really don’t even work with college students; I mostly work with people in the workforce already. And it’s not that they’re neutral. It’s that you have to unlearn a ton of shit before you can get your black belt.
BB: It’s not like they’re starting at no belt. They’re starting with their belts 500 miles away now. Do you know what I mean?
MB: Couldn’t agree more.
BB: I can’t say more.
MB: Totally. Because you’ve been practicing the suppression, denial, blaming for 30, 40, 50 years. You can’t just snap it to the next one, right? You’ve gotta back up a little bit.
BB: No. Unlearn, yeah. Okay, so as we sign off, tell me before…I’ve got a speed round of 10 questions for you that we’re going to do last. But before we get to those, someone’s listening, they’ve got… just like the kid in the classroom that the teacher was embarrassed about. But he proved to be a prophet, an emotion-literacy prophet. You have 15 things swirling in your head right now. You’ve given this RULER tool, you’ve given us Permission to Feel, the book, and permission to feel.
BB: What can you say to people right now who are not only, maybe overwhelmed by their own affect and their own emotion but also in a house or at a job that they can’t, they don’t, can’t be at home right now. What do you say to people as the first step? Back me up one step before RULER.
MB: The first step is permission to feel. Give yourself the permission to feel all these emotions. There’s no bad emotion. There’s no such thing as a bad feeling. Feelings are feelings, emotions are emotions. Allow yourself to experience them all.
BB: Permission to feel.
MB: That’s it. Just…if I can get everyone in the world to just give themselves and the people they love and the people they don’t even love so much, right? The permission to experience all of their emotions. I think I’ve made it.
BB: So I’m listening to this right now and I said, “Okay, I’m going to get this book. I’m going to practice RULER. I’m going to read more about this.” What does permission to feel look like for myself, and what does it look like for my partner and my child, when I get back from my walk listening to this podcast?
MB: It looks like those five things – that Money Slide. It looks like someone who can be present, who can be a great learner. It looks like someone who is going to make really sound decisions. It looks like someone who can build and maintain the best possible relationships. It looks like someone who is going to take care of themselves and have good mental and physical health. And it looks like someone who can, in my world, achieve their dreams. Because I really do believe that people who take these skills seriously can achieve their dreams.
BB: I have zero doubt about that. Yeah, I’m with you 100%. And thank you.
MB: Thank you.
BB: It’s just so invaluable. And not only is your work invaluable, I think, but your commitment to getting the work out in an accessible, meaningful way, is just, I know it’s hard.
MB: It really is hard. It’s the hardest part, because the theories are there, we have the tools to teach people, but there’s the barriers to implementation, are the hardest part.
MB: Breaking through the barriers of people not wanting to talk about their feelings or ask other people how they’re feeling and listen, and then strategize.
BB: Alright, you ready for the speed round?
MB: I’m a little afraid, but I’m ready. [chuckle]
BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me.
BB: Vulnerability is?
MB: A strength.
BB: Number two, you’re called to do something brave, but your fear is real. You’re in real fear about it. You can feel that fear in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
MB: Take a breath.
BB: Something that people often get wrong about you.
MB: That I’m outgoing and sociable.
MB: Which it’s a little pathetic that I’m not, but I’d like to be more.
BB: No, I get it, I live it. I’m same. Okay. Last show that you watched, binged and loved?
MB: Alright, this is a little scary, but I don’t really watch television except for reality television, so I like The Voice and American Idol.
BB: Love it. Favorite movie?
MB: I always go back, I don’t know why, but to The Color Purple. It just, it’s a movie that just always gets me and it just reminds me of the world that we don’t want and the world that we want to create.
BB: Okay, a concert that you’ll never forget?
MB: It’s a Pearl Jam concert about 25 years ago and I just remember it because my cousin is a publicist, and she was working with the band. And I was in the backstage and I was looking out over the audience and Melanie Griffith was there and she was waving to me like, “Can I get backstage?” And I was like, “Wow, I’m cool.” [chuckle]
BB: I got backstage access. Okay, favorite meal?
MB: I think my favorite meal, if I had a dream come true, I’d be sitting in a village in Italy and just, beautiful village, and having a great Italian meal with a good bottle of wine. And, gosh, with what’s going on right now, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to go back.
BB: Oh, yeah. What’s on your nightstand right now?
MB: A diffuser, and probably five books that have been there for five years that I have wanted to read.
BB: I’m so glad I’m not the only one, okay. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life? Just a single moment that brings you joy.
MB: I’m a coffee fanatic, and so I have an espresso machine and my, the moment of joy in my morning is when I have the espresso and I watch the espresso coming out and I make my cappuccino, it’s like bliss.
BB: Oh. Last question, what are you deeply grateful for right now?
MB: Well, I’m deeply grateful for two things. One is, thank you for giving me the permission to be my full feeling self today. And I’m grateful that I have the opportunity in life to hopefully make a difference in other people’s lives.
BB: Definitely making a difference in my life and I know a lot of people’s lives. So, thank you so much Dr. Marc Brackett, the book is Permission to Feel. And you can go on the Episode page on brenebrown.com to figure out how to follow Marc, find Marc, find the book. I just cannot recommend it enough. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about since reading it is, we might do just an in-the-house family book club with Permission to Feel, I got a 14…
MB: And I can lead your book club for you, if you like.
BB: Could you imagine, “Kids, now… ” No, I’ve got a 20-year-old who’s interested in studying emotion and I’ve got a 14-year-old son who really cares about it, and I can see he’s struggling for the vocabulary sometimes, and thank you for helping us and walking us through, I think the center of our being, which is our feelings and our emotions. Grateful for you.
MB: And I’m grateful for you, so thank you so much.
BB: I appreciate y’all listening. If you want to find out more about Marc, you can find him on twitter @Marcbrackett, M A R C B R A C K E T T, Instagram he’s @marc.brackett and Facebook, Dr. Marc Brackett. His website is www.marcbrackett.com. It’s M A R C B R A C K E T T.com and you can also always go to brenebrown.com and we have a full episode page with show notes and everything you need for each of our shows. You can find all of his information. You can also find out how to get his new book, which I highly recommend, practical, tactical, actionable, my favorite kind of book. It’s Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive. Have a great week y’all.
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