By Marc Ph.D. Brackett, Celadon Books, September 3, 2019, 1250212839

Marc Brackett had an emotionally difficult childhood, but his Uncle Marvin helped him see his way through it. Brackett went into psychology due to this experience. This book is full of autobiographical anecdotes, which demonstrate his vulnerability, and helps him connect to his audience. I didn’t have the greatest childhood so I related to Brackett’s.

The book is part sales pitch, part self help, and part plea for societal change. The end of the book goes on and on about how Brackett gave this lecture or that, and how he connected with his audience. He comes off as a Besserwisser instead of being vulnerable and connected, it distances. I read it all, but you can skip Part Three, and not miss much.

The RULER concept is a good one. It’s similar to many “stop and think” strategies that try to decouple your emotions from your actions. I think the idea of a Meta Moment (“how would my best self respond?”) is powerful. According to the book, labeling your emotions reduces their strength. There are many other ideas in the book like this.

There are many discussions about our schools and workplaces (and schools as workplaces). I don’t agree with them all, but the idea of being a kinder and gentler places is obvious to me. I don’t agree that it would always improve productivity, but I do believe it would improve society as a whole. If people are less stressed at work, there would be less stress in society and fewer stress-induced incidents, e.g. fewer car accidents.

[k161] It’s 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.

[k173] But we also think of emotions as being disruptive and unproductive–at work, at home, and everywhere else.

[k180] We may also fail to understand exactly how we feel when things are going great.

[k188] American youths now rank in the bottom quarter among developed nations in well-being and life satisfaction, according to a report by UNICEF.

[k218] Let’s suppose that children today do lack the emotional strength we, or some other generation, had in abundance. Let’s assume that in the past kids were just as challenged–maybe more–but they were able to buckle down and deal with it.

So what?

[k221] If they do require a little help, isn’t it our job to give it to them, without judging?

[k236] I was saying that we need to remake education so that it includes emotion skills–so that professional interventions become less necessary.

[k252] Most of us don’t enjoy dealing with anger, whether it’s our own or someone else’s.

[k263] Here are the five skills we’ve identified.

  • We need to recognize our own emotions and those of others, not just in the things we think, feel, and say but in facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, and other nonverbal signals.
  • understand those feelings and determine their source–what experiences actually caused them–and then see how they’ve influenced our behaviors.
  • label emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.
  • express our feelings in accordance with cultural norms and social contexts in a way that tries to inform and invites empathy from the listener.
  • regulate emotions, rather than let them regulate us, by finding practical strategies for dealing with what we and others feel.

[k278] Educators and parents have to demonstrate the ability to identify, discuss, and regulate their own emotions before they can teach the skills to others. Our classroom research shows that where there is an emotionally skilled teacher present, students disrupt less, focus more, and perform better academically.

[k300] We all want our lives, and the lives of the people we love, to be free of hardship and troubling events.

We can never make that happen.

We all want our lives to be filled with healthy relationships, compassion, and a sense of purpose.

That we can make happen.

[k306] Emotions Are Information

[k321] They experience everything so intensely–boredom, frustration, anxiety, worry, excitement, elation. And they sit for hours in a classroom, expected to pay attention to every word spoken by a teacher who’s probably under similar emotional pressures.

[k324] It’s a wonder anybody learns anything.

[k329] We humans have a long history of disregarding our feelings, however. It goes back millennia, even before the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece argued that emotions were erratic, idiosyncratic sources of information.

[k335] Scientists didn’t like emotions because, unlike intelligence, they can’t be measured with standardized tests.

[k339] That’s why the study of intelligence, formalized around 1900, continued the tradition of disregarding emotions.

[k351] First was the rediscovery of Charles Darwin’s functional view of emotion. Back in the nineteenth century, he pioneered the idea that emotions signal valuable information and energize adaptive behavior central to survival.

[k356] Research showed that emotions give purpose, priority, and focus to our thinking.

[k357] Psychologists proposed the idea of a “cognitive loop” that connects mood to judgment.

[k392] All learning has an emotional base. – PLATO

[k428] Negative emotions have a constructive function: they help narrow and focus our attention. It’s sadness, not happiness, that can help us work through a difficult problem.

[k482] Interestingly, anger makes people more optimistic than does sadness, possibly because angry people feel in greater control of their lives.

[k495] No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. – THEODORE ROOSEVELT

[k523] There’s plentiful scientific research showing the enormous influence they have on our well-being–people with robust social networks enjoy better mental and physical health and even live longer, while unfavorable outcomes are associated with a lack of connections to other people.

[k548] Research shows that high-powered individuals tend to be less responsive to the emotions of people around them.

[k554] This dynamic rules much of human interaction–when we need emotional support most is when we’re least likely to receive it.

[k559] There was a great moment in the film Broadcast News where a character asks, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If ‘needy’ was a turn-on?” Unfortunately, we humans don’t work that way (yet).

[k585] Researchers studying this region of the brain have found that early-life exposure to mild, everyday stressors enhances our future ability to regulate emotions and confers lifelong resilience. But exposure to extreme or prolonged stress does just the opposite–it induces hyperactivity in the HPA axis and lifelong susceptibility to stress.

[k616] According to one study, a thirty-minute argument with your significant other can slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day.

[k619] The stress associated with knowing you have to deliver a speech can double the severity of allergy symptoms for two days.

[k753] An emotion scientist has the ability to pause even at the most stressful moments and ask: What am I reacting to?

[k756] In 1990, Peter Salovey and John Mayer published a landmark paper, “Emotional Intelligence,” in a little-known journal (after it was rejected by multiple top-tier publications). That article has since served as the academic foundation for most research into emotional intelligence. In it, they asserted that the majority of life tasks are influenced by emotion. We all have emotion skills, the authors wrote, but to varying degrees.

[k775] In fact, sometimes–out of pure necessity–people who are high in neuroticism also demonstrate great emotion skills. They need them in order to regulate their own tumultuous inner lives. But neither stability nor neuroticism equals emotional intelligence.

[k818] Emotional intelligence doesn’t allow feelings to get in the way–it does just the opposite. It restores balance to our thought processes; it prevents emotions from having undue influence over our actions; and it helps us to realize that we might be feeling a certain way for a reason.

[k832] Labeling emotions accurately increases self-awareness and helps us to communicate emotions effectively, reducing misunderstanding in social interactions.

[k839] In the RULER framework, the first three skills–Recognizing, Understanding, and Labeling–help us to accurately identify and decode what we and others are feeling. Then, the two remaining skills–Expressing and Regulating–tell us how we can manage those emotions to achieve desired outcomes–our ultimate goal.

[k927] On the road to becoming emotion scientists, we need to avoid the temptation to act as emotion judges.

[k943] Emotion scientists share the mindset that says education is possible. To an emotion judge, all that remains is to deem someone’s emotional state helpful or harmful, positive or negative, good or bad, without a hope for growth and improvement.

[k1060] Words can lie or hide the truth. Physical gestures rarely do.

[k1069] All the obvious signs were there. But loving me was not synonymous with seeing me.

[k1073] In my childhood, I was a textbook example of self-defeating outbursts and calculated seclusion.

[k1230] Our perception of emotion is easily swayed by the opinions of others.

[k1255] In one study, sixth graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone or other digital screen were better at reading emotions than their peers from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their phones, tablets, computers, and so on.

[k1442] If I ask about your feelings but I’m glancing at my phone or at the clock on the wall, or if I’m leaning away from you with my arms crossed and my eyes narrowed, the message is clear: I don’t really want to know.

[k1461] An emotional outburst signals that something is going on, but it doesn’t tell us what.

[k1556] Can you imagine being so eloquent about fermented grape juice but so limited in describing your inner life?

[k1683] Their emotional lives are often a mystery to us precisely because they haven’t yet learned to process and express what they feel. The more words that children can use, the better able we’ll be to support them.

[k1745] Another common mistake is waiting so long to identify our feelings that they become daunting. We skip over irritated or nervous or apprehensive and, left unattended, they turn into livid or panicked. We ignore apathetic or drained until they metastasize into hopeless or depressed and we’re forced to deal with them.

[k1871] “When you’re a woman, talking about your feelings only makes you seem weak.”

[k1904] Because of their still developing vocabularies and powers of communication, we need to listen extra closely to our children if we’re interested in knowing what they feel and why.

[k1949] But habitual, unhealthy methods of expression–yelling, gossiping, verbal or physical aggression, among many others–almost always creates havoc in our lives.

[k1972] How many of us have been on the brink of some seriously emotional moment, and we’ve looked up to see our loved one checking their email, or posting something on Instagram, or looking out the window, possibly dreaming of escape. This likely is someone who either doesn’t care, is addicted to technology, or is fearful that you’ll say something they’d rather not hear.

[k1978] We must be conspicuously open, patient, and sympathetic to whatever’s being said.

[k1979] By our responses to what we’re hearing–by our words, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact–we send the message I’m here for you. I’m not judging. I want to understand you and help you.

[k1986] In truth, many of the controversies that dominate the news today have their roots in differences in how we experience and express our feelings.

[k1992] Researchers say that while women smile more often than men, that gender divide doesn’t begin to appear until children are in middle school. Women have always been expected to smile, which is now part of the ongoing realignment of relations between the sexes–women have begun to reject strangers’ exhortations that they smile and instead see these encounters as a form of harassment. Their anger is understandable–the constant pressure to always appear happy is a requirement that doesn’t exist for the men who are doing all the urging.

[k2206] Too often we look for strategies that will shift people out of negative emotion spaces, but that’s not always possible. During difficult times, sometimes we just need to be there for one another.

[k2304] Procrastination must be effective, otherwise we wouldn’t make such abundant use of it.

[k2320] Jason Moser wrote, “Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similarly to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain.[…]”

[k2322] Essentially, third-person self-talk is a way of being empathetic to ourselves.

[k2335] “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet. That idea is the basis for our fourth, most sophisticated, intellectually engaged method of emotion regulation–cognitive-reframing strategies, better known in the research literature as reappraisal.

[k2347] The basic principles of reframing are that we consciously choose to view a situation in a way that generates the least negative emotion in us or we attempt to take the perspective of the person who is activating you and assume the best intention.

[k2361] Other studies show that people who endorse the stress-is-enhancing mindset have a stronger desire to receive feedback.

[k2387] When it comes to reappraisal, we need to ask ourselves: Am I doing this simply to justify avoiding a difficult, sensitive problem?

[k2389] But it’s also a poor long-term strategy, because ducking the issue now will only ensure that it will reemerge later on.

[k2403] Many of us were exposed to destructive strategies starting early in life–negative talk, screaming, blaming, and so on.

[k2406] They fail to take in long-term consequences and derail us from achieving our goals.

[k2408] So we developed a tool we call the Meta-Moment. In simplest terms, it’s a pause.

[k2414] As the author and consultant Justin Bariso wrote, “Pausing helps you refrain from making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.”

[k2416] Pausing and taking a deep breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the release of cortisol, a major stress hormone, and naturally lowers our emotional temperature.

[k2488] I think Mike Tyson had it right when he said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

[k2492] So, along with permission to feel, we must also give ourselves permission to fail.

[k2533] Given this, what steps can we take to create healthy home environments, places where our children and loved ones will feel supported, valued, treasured, understood, heard? Homes filled with patience and acceptance and humor and joy?

[k2685] Pausing to breathe when challenged is an ancient technique for mastering our responses to life.

[k2694] If during the Meta-Moment we ask ourselves, How would my best self respond?, we will at the very least know how we’d like to behave at this critical juncture.

[k3076] The best SEL approaches are systemic, not piecemeal

SEL has to have buy-in from the top and the bottom. If the principal is less than completely committed, teachers will get the message, and students will be shortchanged by half-hearted efforts.

[k3096] If students are going to learn, they need to feel the teacher’s emotional investment.