Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Permission to Feel

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

Marc Brackett

Celadon Books



Permission to Feel


Given the subject of this book, it’s a reasonable question. I may ask it more than once before we’re through. In theory, given that it’s something we’re asked so often in one form or another, that should make it the easiest question ever, instead of the hardest—depending on how honest we’re going to be when we answer.

I’m speaking now not only as a psychologist and director of a center devoted to emotional well-being but also as a fellow human. To be perfectly honest, I wish someone had asked me that question when I was a kid—asked it and really, truly, wanted to know the answer and had the courage to do something about what I would have revealed.

I was not a happy child.

I felt scared, angry, hopeless. Bullied. Isolated. And I suffered.

Boy, did I suffer.

When I was in middle school, you only had to look at me to see that something was seriously wrong. I was a poor student in school, mostly Cs and Ds. My eating was so messed up that I went from severely thin to overweight. I had no real friends.

My parents loved me and cared for me—I knew that. But they had their own miseries. Mom was anxious and depressed and had a drinking problem. Dad was raging, scary, and disappointed in a son who wasn’t as tough as he was. But they had at least one thing in common: no clue about how to deal with feelings—neither their own nor mine.

I would spend hours alone in my room, crying or anguishing over the bullying I silently endured at school. But my main response to life was rage. I would talk back to my mother, yell, scream. “Who do you think you are to talk to me like that?” she would holler back. “Wait till your father gets home!” When he did, my mother would tell him how I had mistreated her, and then he would storm into my room, shouting, “If I have to tell you one more time to stop speaking to your mother that way, I’m going to lose it!” Sometimes he’d spare me the lecture and just start hitting.

Then my mother would jump in, and the two of them would battle over how he was handling the situation. Finally, he would give up, and my mother would come into my room and say, “Marc, I saved you this time…”

I wondered: What did she think she had saved me from?

Without meaning to, they taught me a powerful lesson. Keep my feelings to myself. Definitely do not allow my parents to see them. That would just make a bad scene worse.

This was around the time they learned my most terrible secret—that a neighbor, a friend of the family, had been sexually abusing me. When my parents finally found out, my father grabbed a bat from the basement and nearly killed the man. My mother almost had a nervous breakdown. The police came and arrested the neighbor, and soon the whole neighborhood knew. It turned out my abuser had been violating dozens of other children as well.

You’d think everyone would be glad that I had come forward and exposed this horror. But you’d be wrong. I became an instant pariah. Every adult warned their kids to stay away from me. The bullying got even worse.

Suddenly, the source of my constant emotional meltdowns was clear to my parents. My bad grades. My bulimia. My social isolation. My despair. My rage.

My parents did what many people do under similar pressures.

They freaked out.

That’s not entirely accurate—they knew enough to send me to a therapist. They were too overwhelmed by their own problems, just trying to survive, to be able to deal with anybody else’s emotional life. They either missed or ignored all the signals I was sending, which doesn’t really come as a surprise. Maybe they felt safer not asking too many questions about my life at school or in our neighborhood. Maybe they were afraid of what they’d find out—afraid that once they knew, they’d have to do something about it.

Perhaps if their parents had asked them the right questions, and taught them how to deal with their feelings and what to do when problems arose, my life back then might have been different. Maybe my parents would have been able to see the pain I was in and know how to help me.

Never happened.

Some of this may sound familiar to you. In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who spent their childhoods as I did. Unseen, unacknowledged, bad feelings buried deep inside. No two stories are identical. People tell me how they were physically abused. Or ignored and silenced. Or made to suffer emotional abuse. Or smothered by parents who lived vicariously through them. Or neglected by parents who were alcoholics or addicts. It’s our responses that are the same.

Sometimes the tales aren’t nearly so dramatic—just people who grew up in homes where everyday emotional issues were ignored because no one had ever learned how to talk about them or take actions to address them. Your life didn’t have to be tragic for you to feel as though your emotional life didn’t matter to anyone but you.

Here’s how I responded: I became numb to how I felt. I was under emotional lockdown. Survival mode.

And then a miracle took place.

Its name was Marvin. Uncle Marvin, actually.

He was my mother’s brother, a schoolteacher by day and a bandleader at night and on the weekends. Our family would travel from New Jersey up to the resorts in the Catskill Mountains to see our family celebrity perform. Uncle Marvin was truly an outlier—unique among all my relatives and every other adult I knew. He was like the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society.

In his day job, even back then in the 1970s, Uncle Marvin was trying to create a curriculum that would encourage students to express how they felt. He believed it was the missing link in their education—that emotion skills would improve their learning and their lives. I would help Uncle Marvin by typing his notes as he read them aloud. I encountered terms such as “despair,” “alienation,” “commitment,” and “elation” and recognized myself in many of them.

One summer afternoon, while we were sitting in our backyard together, he asked if he could give me an IQ test. Turns out that I was smarter than my dismal report cards suggested. I also think he suspected that I had a lot of turmoil going on deep inside having to do with school and being abused. It led Uncle Marvin to ask me a question I had rarely, if ever, heard coming from an adult or anyone else:

“Marc,” he said, “how are you feeling?”

With those words, the dam inside me broke, and out came the torrent. Every horrible thing I was experiencing at the time, and every feeling I had in response, all came tumbling out in a rush.

That one little question was all it took to change my life. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he said it. Truly wanting to hear the answer. Not judging me for what I felt. He just listened, openly and with empathy, to what I was expressing. He didn’t try to interpret me or explain me.

I really let loose that day.

“I have no real friends, I suck at sports, I’m fat, and the kids at school all hate me,” I wailed, sobbing.

Uncle Marvin just listened. He heard me out. My uncle was the first person who had ever chosen not to focus on my outward behavior—snarky, withdrawn, defiant, definitely unpleasant to be around—and instead sensed that something else was going on, something significant that no one, not even I, had acknowledged.

Uncle Marvin gave me permission to feel.

* * *

Given all that, it’s no surprise that for the past twenty-five years I’ve been researching and writing about emotions and running around the world talking to people about their feelings. It’s become my passion and my life’s work. I’m a professor in the Yale Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. At the center, I lead a team of scientists and practitioners who conduct research on emotions and emotion skills and develop approaches to teach people of all ages—from preschoolers to CEOs—the skills that can help them thrive. Our center’s goal is to use the power of emotions to create a healthier and more equitable, innovative, and compassionate society.

Each year I give dozens of talks to educators, schoolchildren, parents, business executives, entrepreneurs, political leaders, scientists, medical practitioners, and every other kind of person you can imagine, all over the world. My message for everyone is the same: that if we can learn to identify, express, and harness our feelings, even the most challenging ones, we can use those emotions to help us create positive, satisfying lives.

Whenever I speak to a group, I start by asking people to spend a few minutes thinking about how they’re feeling right in the moment. Then I call on them to share. Their answers reveal a lot—not necessarily about their emotions but about our difficulty in discussing our emotional lives. What I find is that we don’t even have the vocabulary to describe our feelings in useful detail—three-quarters of the people have a hard time coming up with a “feeling” word. When the words do come, they don’t usually tell us very much. People fumble around a bit, hem and haw, and then use the most commonplace terms we all rely on—I feel fine, good, okay …

It makes you wonder: Do I even know how I’m feeling? Have I given myself permission to ask? Have I ever really asked my partner, my child, my colleague? Today, when nearly every question can be handled instantly by Siri, or Google, or Alexa, we’re losing the habit of pausing to look inward, or to one another, for answers. But even Siri doesn’t know everything. And Google can’t tell you why your son or daughter is feeling hopeless or excited, or why your significant other feels not so significant lately, or why you can’t shake that chronic low-level anxiety that plagues you.

It makes perfect sense that we’re uncomfortable and awkward when expressing our emotional lives. This is true even when we’re experiencing positive feelings. But it’s especially so when they’re unpleasant—sad, resentful, scared, rejected. Those all connect us to our weaknesses, and who wants to show those off? The instinct to protect ourselves by hiding our vulnerability is natural. Even animals in the wild do it. It’s self-preservation, pure and simple.

And yet we all ask this question or something like it countless times a day, and we’re called on to answer it just as often:

How are you? How are you doing? How are you feeling?

We ask it so reflexively that we scarcely hear ourselves. And we answer in the same spirit:

Great, thanks, how are you? Everything’s fine! Busy!

Without pausing for even a second to think before we reply.

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.

Imagine what would happen if next time an acquaintance (or the barista at Starbucks) says, “Hi, how are you?” you were to stop and take the next five minutes to give a detailed—unedited—response. Really bare your soul. I guarantee it would be a long time before that particular person inquired again.

There’s something meaningful going on in there—in that huge disconnect between our willingness to ask how we feel and our reluctance to respond thoughtfully. We now know that, aside maybe from physical health, our emotional state is one of the most important aspects of our lives. It rules everything else. Its influence is pervasive. Yet it is also the thing we steer around most carefully. Our inner lives are uncharted territory even to us, a risky place to explore.

Our lives are saturated with emotions—sadness, disappointment, anxiety, irritation, enthusiasm, and even tranquility. Sometimes—often—those feelings are inconvenient. They get in the way of our busy lives, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. So we do our best to ignore them. It’s everywhere, from the stiff upper lip of our country’s Puritan founders to the tough-it-out ethos of schoolyards and playgrounds. We all believe that our feelings are important and deserve to be addressed respectfully and fully. But we also think of emotions as being disruptive and unproductive—at work, at home, and everywhere else. Until the 1980s, most psychologists viewed emotions as extraneous noise, useless static. Our feelings slow us down and get in the way of achieving our goals. We’ve all heard the message: Get over it. Stop focusing on yourself (as though such a thing were possible!). Don’t be so sensitive. Time to move on.

The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.

And I’m not talking only about the times we’re feeling something unpleasant. We may also fail to understand exactly how we feel when things are going great. We’re content just to enjoy the emotions and not probe too deeply. It’s a mistake, of course. If we’re going to make positive choices in the future, we need to know what will bring us happiness—and why.

Proof of our inability to deal constructively with our emotional lives is all around us. In 2015, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Born This Way Foundation (founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta), we conducted a large-scale survey of twenty-two thousand teenagers from across the United States and asked them to describe how they feel while in school. Three-quarters of the words they used were negative, with “tired,” “bored,” and “stressed” topping the list. This wasn’t surprising given that around 30 percent of elementary and middle school students now experience adjustment problems severe enough to require regular counseling. In economically disadvantaged schools, this runs as high as 60 percent.

American youths now rank in the bottom quarter among developed nations in well-being and life satisfaction, according to a report by UNICEF. Research shows that our youths have stress levels that surpass those of adults. Our teenagers are now world leaders in violence, binge drinking, marijuana use, and obesity. More than half of college students experience overwhelming anxiety, and a third report intense depression. And over the last two decades, there has been a 28 percent increase in our suicide rate.

How clearly will kids think when they are feeling tired, bored, and stressed? How well do they absorb new information when they are anxious? Do they take their studies seriously? Do they feel inclined to express their curiosity and pursue learning?

Here’s a story that tells me a lot about the emotional atmosphere in schools.

The superintendent of a major metropolitan district was out making classroom visits. As she walked the halls with the principal, she saw a little girl headed to a classroom and greeted her, attempting to start up a conversation.

The girl refused to acknowledge her.

“She wouldn’t say hello to me,” the superintendent told me. After a moment of mutual confusion, the little girl put her head down and continued on her way. Apparently, students had been told they could walk only on the white line painted down the middle of the corridors. “Stepping over to talk to me would mean breaking the rules,” said the superintendent.

We’ll never know how that conversation might have gone. The natural instinct of both student and educator to engage with each other was squelched by the school’s demand for order above all else.

What can happen in a single exchange? A moment of small talk in a hallway? Probably very little. Although if you are like me, you have some memories from early childhood that stand out from the fog of years, that have endured over time for no other reason than that a grown-up made space in his or her life, for a moment, for you. A small thing like that, if it is heartfelt, can reverberate.

It’s not only students who feel oppressed. What about their teachers? In 2017, in collaboration with the New Teacher Center, we surveyed more than five thousand educators and found that they spend nearly 70 percent of their workdays feeling “frustrated,” “overwhelmed,” and “stressed.” This conforms with Gallup data showing that nearly half of U.S. teachers report high stress on a daily basis. A frightening snapshot of our educational system, wouldn’t you agree?

How effective are our educators when they feel just as frustrated, overwhelmed, and stressed as the kids? Will they give 100 percent to their lessons? Do they snap at students unintentionally, or ignore their needs, because they are emotionally exhausted? Are they leaving work feeling burned out, dreading tomorrow’s return to the classroom?

If we don’t understand emotions and find strategies to deal with them, they will take over our lives, as they did for me as a child. Fear and anxiety made it impossible for me to try to deal with my problems. I was paralyzed. The science now proves why. If there had been someone to teach me the skills—if there had been someone to even tell me there were such skills—I might have felt more in control of my situation. Instead, all I could do was endure it.

During presentations, I’ll often make the observation that many children today are in serious crisis mode. Usually this will prompt someone to ask a question that’s really more of an opinion: “Don’t you think these kids lack the toughness and moral fiber that people had generations ago?”

My response to this has matured over the years. Once, a statement like that would really rile me. It sounded like somebody looking for a reason to feel superior and blame the victims. Now I think it’s irresponsible.

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?

Would that mean we abdicate responsibility for doing our best to help today’s kids? If they do require a little help, isn’t it our job to give it to them, without judging? And if they need so much support, how did they end up that way? Did it have anything to do with how we raised them?

There was a time, not so long ago, that children did have a serious need that was not being met. Our national response was instructive. In 1945, while World War II was still raging, a general (and former teacher) named Lewis B. Hershey testified before Congress that almost half of all army draftees were turned away for reasons owing to poor nutrition. He was in a good position to know: Hershey was in charge of the Selective Service System. He saw the underfed and malnourished young American men and realized their unfitness for war.

Congress did not issue a proclamation condemning the fecklessness of the younger generation. It passed a bipartisan bill: the National School Lunch Act.

In other words, we fed our kids.

* * *

It’s time to feed our kids again.

At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, that’s all we think about: how we can help people to identify their emotions, understand the influence of their feelings on all aspects of their lives, and develop the skills to make sure they use their emotions in healthy, productive ways.

Once, after a talk to mental health professionals at a major hospital, the head of child psychiatry approached me. He said, “Marc, great job. But, you know, according to our data we’re going to need another eight thousand child psychiatrists to deal with the problems these kids will be having.”

I was stunned.

“You misunderstood me. I want to put you all out of business,” I said half-jokingly.

He was thinking that all those troubled children would need professional interventions in order to deal with their lives. I was saying that we need to remake education so that it includes emotion skills—so that professional interventions become less necessary.

It’s been nearly thirty years since the idea of emotional intelligence was introduced by my mentors, Peter Salovey, professor of psychology and current president of Yale University, and Jack Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. It’s been a quarter century since Daniel Goleman published his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, which popularized the concept. And yet we’re still grappling with the most basic questions, such as “How are you feeling?”

Feelings are a form of information. They’re like news reports from inside our psyches, sending messages about what’s going on inside the unique person that is each of us in response to whatever internal or external events we’re experiencing. We need to access that information and then figure out what it’s telling us. That way we can make the most informed decisions.

That’s a major challenge. It’s not as though every emotion comes with a label telling us precisely what prompted it, and why, and what can be done to resolve it. Our thinking and behavior absolutely change in response to what we’re feeling. But we don’t always know why or how best to address our emotions. For parents, this might be a familiar scenario: we see a child who’s clearly suffering, and the reason isn’t apparent. Ask simply, “What’s wrong?” and the answer will almost never reveal the source of the anguish. Maybe the child doesn’t even know what’s wrong.

Here’s an example: Anger can sometimes seem unprovoked or inexplicable, but in almost every case it’s a response to what we perceive as unfair treatment. We’ve suffered an injustice of some kind, big or small, and it makes us mad. Someone cut in front of you in line—and you’re irritated. You were up for a promotion at work, but it went to the boss’s niece—and you’re outraged. But it’s the same basic dynamic at work.

Most of us don’t enjoy dealing with anger, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. When a parent or teacher is faced with what might appear to be an angry child, often the first impulse is to threaten discipline—if you don’t stop yelling, or speaking rudely, or stamping your feet, you’ll go sit in the corner, or I’ll send you to your room, or you’ll lose your privileges!

When it’s an adult who’s angry, our response isn’t much different. We immediately pull back. We stop listening sympathetically. We feel under attack, which makes it nearly impossible for us to deal with the information the person is conveying. But that anger was an important message. If we can try to mollify the injustice that sparked it, the anger will go away, because it’s outlived its usefulness. If not, it will fester, even if it seems to subside.

Thankfully, there’s a science to understanding emotion. It’s not just a matter of intuition, opinion, or gut instinct. We are not born with an innate talent for recognizing what we or anyone else is feeling and why. We all have to learn it. I had to learn it.

As with any science, there’s a process of discovery, a method of investigation. After three decades of research and practical experience, we at the Yale Center have identified the talents needed to become what we’ve termed an “emotion scientist.”

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 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.The rest of this book is devoted to teaching those skills and how to use them.

In the late 1990s, Uncle Marvin and I set out together to bring these skills to schools. We failed. We were prepared to deliver classroom instruction only to children. But some teachers were resistant. “Teaching kids about anxiety makes me nervous,” one said. “I’m not opening that Pandora’s box of talking about how these kids feel,” said another. If the teachers didn’t believe in the importance of these emotion skills, they’d never be effective at instructing their students. So Marvin and I, along with new colleagues at Yale, went back to the drawing board. We saw that we would never reach children until we first enlisted teachers who understood the importance of emotion skills. And soon after that we realized that only if there was commitment at the very top, at the school board, superintendent, and principal levels, could entire school systems be transformed.

Then it became clear that the skills must be even more widely shared. We adults all need to understand how our emotions influence us and everyone around us, not just schoolchildren. We need to develop the skills and be positive role models. 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. Our studies show that where there is an emotionally skilled principal, there are teachers who are less stressed and more satisfied. And where there is an emotionally skilled parent, there are children who have a greater ability to identify and regulate their emotions.

Once our children grow into emotionally skilled adults, the entire culture will change—for the better. But learning the skills and improving the way we respond to our feelings doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly become happy all the time. Perpetual happiness can’t be our goal—it’s just not how real life works. We need the ability to experience and express all emotions, to down- or up-regulate both pleasant and unpleasant emotions in order to achieve greater well-being, make the most informed decisions, build and maintain meaningful relationships, and realize our potential.

But that starts with all of us. If you’re a parent, ask yourself this: What are the qualities you most want your children to possess as they grow into adults? Is it math skills, scientific knowledge, athletic ability? Or is it confidence, kindness, a sense of purpose, the wisdom to build healthy, lasting relationships? When we consult with corporations, they tell us they’re searching for employees who persevere with a task, who take personal responsibility for their work, who can get along with others and function as members of a team. Not technical abilities or specialized knowledge—they’re looking first for emotional attributes. A colleague from the RAND Corporation told me that technology advances so rapidly today that companies don’t hire workers for their current skills—firms are looking for people who are flexible, who can present new ideas, inspire cooperation in groups, manage and lead teams, and so on.

We may acquire some of those skills by osmosis—by watching and emulating others who possess them. But for the most part they must be taught. And they are best learned in communities. Emotion skills are both personal and mutual. They can be used privately, but their best application is throughout a community, so that a network emerges to reinforce its own influence. I have seen this happen—these skills are being deployed in thousands of schools all over the world, with dramatic results. The children benefit, naturally: there is less bullying and emotional distress, better attendance, fewer suspensions, and greater academic achievement. But we have also seen that schools where these skills are taught have teachers with lower levels of stress and burnout, fewer intentions to leave the profession, greater job satisfaction, and more engaging classrooms.

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.

Uncle Marvin showed me how. It starts with the permission to feel, the first step of the process.

Copyright © 2019 by Marc Brackett