Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett


We all experience emotions every moment of every day. Our emotional state is one of the most important parts of our lives. It is incredibly important to be able to identify, express, and harness our feelings to lead effective and satisfying lives. Some think emotional intelligence or emotion skills are something fuzzy or too squishy for them.1 But emotion skills, like other mental skills, allow us to think better and enrich our own lives and the lives of those around us. “There’s nothing squishy about that.”

Brackett encourages us to become emotion scientists rather than emotion judges. Instead of judging emotions as good or bad, decrease judgement and allow yourself to listen and learn with curiosity. Emotion scientists are able to pause, identify, and understand their feelings so that they can respond effectively.

An emotion comes from an interpretation of what is happening in the world through the lens of your present concerns. A feeling is an internal response to an emotion. A mood is more long term and more diffuse than an emotion or a feeling.

Emotion skills, like any other skill, can be learned. We can all learn to identify, understand, and express our emotions. Emotion skills are not things like resilience, grit, or emotional stability. Brackett has identified five key skills that form the basis of the rest of the book and his RULER model: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating.

R: Recognizing Emotion

James Russell came up with “the circumplex model of emotion” that is the foundation for the main tool in the RULER approach, the Mood Meter. Russell found out that human emotions have two main dimensions that you can use to identify them: pleasantness and energy. The Mood Meter is split into four quadrants based on these dimensions. High energy and low pleasantness are emotions like anger, fear, and anxiety. Low energy and low pleasantness are emotions like sadness, boredom, and loneliness. Low energy and high pleasantness are emotions like calmness and serenity. High energy and high pleasantness are emotions like joy and happiness.

The goal of Recognizing is to simply read nonverbal cues and figure out the general area of where the emotion exists. Don’t overthink it. Pause and check in with your mind and your body and ask yourself: Am I feeling pleasant or unpleasant? Energized or depleted? Also check for physical cues. Is my jaw tight or is there a knot in my stomach? Am I raising my voice?

U: Understanding Emotion

Understanding emotions (either your own or someone else’s) boils down to asking why. Why do I feel this way? What is the underlying reason for this feeling? What is causing it? The primary skill of Understanding is figuring out the underlying theme or potential cause that is fueling the emotion.

Appraisal theory tells us that emotions are caused from our perception (appraisal) of a situation. Emotions have underlying themes but their individual causes vary from person to person as the perception of an event varies from person to person.

When evaluating emotions, we tend to focus on behavior rather than the root cause. Behavior can be a clue to Understanding but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, someone raising their voice and pointing their finger at someone can be feeling jealousy, anger, or disgust. We need more context to understand the underlying cause of the emotion.

L: Labeling Emotion

Labeling is the pivot point of the RULER process. This is where we take the information from Recognizing and Understanding and start to put words and actions to it. Labeling is the act of putting a specific word to a feeling.

We tend to put our feelings into a few general categories like “fine”, “happy”, “busy”, “stressed”. There are thousands of words out there to describe our feelings and the more granular we get, the more likely we are to get the empathy we need and the more ownership we have over our emotional lives. In addition, the more granular we are, the less likely we are to mislabel. For example, saying we are stressed about your interview when you are actually feeling pressured. Yes, there is a difference.

The Mood Meter can also be used here to identify labels. After you Recognize what quadrant you are in and Understand why, the Mood Meter provides comprehensive vocabulary for each category.

Labeling is also an effective emotion regulation strategy. Simply putting a word on a negative emotion can decrease its intensity.

E: Expressing Emotion

Expressing is where we start to put action to our feelings and start to involve others. When we express our emotions, we are telling others: here is what I feel and why, here is what I want to happen next, here is what I need from you right now.

Expressing our emotions does not mean letting it all out and acting on every emotional impulse that comes across our minds. It is important to be honest about our emotions but we also need to account for what we might provoke from those we are expressing our emotions to.

As we develop our language and understanding of our emotions, our emotional needs become more complex and so does how we express those. At the same time, we also develop the ability to hide our emotional needs. We hide behind “fine” rather than Expressing with honesty.

There are all kinds of factors that increase or decrease emotional labor or our ability to express our emotions: gender, race, culture, class, etc.2 Some people have a big gap between what they feel and what is safe to express. We can help by truly listening without judging their feelings and letting them know that we are sympathetic and there for them.3

R: Regulating Emotion

The skill of Regulating is first to manage our own emotional responses and later the skill develops into co-regulation of emotions with others.4 Regulation is not about being stoic, exerting control over what we feel, or banishing negative emotions. Instead, Regulation is owning our feelings and managing them in an appropriate and effective way.

There are endless tools and strategies for regulating emotions. Strategies that work for you might not work for others and strategies that work today might not work tomorrow. Be flexible and try new things when your current Regulation tools don’t work.

There are five broad categories that emotional regulation strategies fall into:

  1. Mindfulness. Breathing and calming your mind and body to be present and less reactive.
  2. Forward-looking strategies. Anticipating some unwanted emotion and avoiding or altering the situation or environment.
  3. Attention-shifting strategies. Moving your attention away from the source of the emotion to something else.
  4. Cognitive-reframing. Analyzing the source of the emotion and finding some new way of seeing it.
  5. Best-self thinking5. Being proactive by visualizing what your ideal self would do instead of reacting directly to emotional stimuli.

To summarize, the five skills in Brackett’s emotional intelligence model are: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating. These are skills that can be built through consistent, daily practice to improve our emotional health and increase empathy between one another. We can also develop these skills by becoming curious and kind emotion scientists rather emotion judges for ourselves and others.

My Thoughts

This was less practical and concrete than I would like. I was expecting more of a handbook of how to use the RULER model. Instead, there were a lot of stories, out-of-pocket examples, personal woes, and business struggles to slog through. Some of the stories and dialogue made me think, “Did that really happen?”

Still, I have been using this model in my life and feel like I unlocked something useful. Did I automatically become more emotionally intelligent? Definitely not. But, as Brackett describes, this is a skill that can be built up.

One way I have been building this skill is with an app called How We Feel developed with Brackett using the same RULER principles. It provides a way to track your emotions using the Mood Meter. You get periodic notifications throughout the day to Recognize, Understand, and Label how you are feeling. Those few reminders help me to stop and honestly think about my feelings using the RULER model as a lens.

There are similar ideas between this book and Nonviolent Communication. The four components of NVC are observations, feelings, needs, and requests. That sounds a lot like Recognizing, Labeling, Understanding, and Expressing. NVC focuses more on empathy and communication between people while RULER has a bit more general emotional intelligence skills.

  1. Me included until a few months ago. Peace Corps really encourages you to think about and talk about your feelings and this is something I had never really done before becoming a volunteer. I thought our resiliency training and reflection times were going to be sitting in a kumbaya circle that I dreaded. It turns out that talking about your feelings in a safe environment feels great and that’s why I have been studying emotional intelligence since. ↩︎

  2. I still struggle reading how Moroccans express their emotions. I’ve had times where people have seemed, from my American perspective, absolutely livid but then shake hands and have a standard goodbye and all is perfectly fine. ↩︎

  3. It already came up in the footnotes of my summary of Nonviolent Communication but this reminds me of a John Green quote: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” ↩︎

  4. This reminded me of the maturity continuum model from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Throughout our lives, me tend to move from being Dependent as children, move to being Independent, and ultimately become Interdependent with those around us. ↩︎

  5. Brackett actually calls this the Meta-Moment but that seemed a little cheesy for me so I am going with a more on-the-nose name. ↩︎

Last Modified: 2023-06-29