Growing up includes some challenges for everyone, I expect. For me, life often felt huge and confusing, living in a farming community amid a fairly large and loud Portuguese and Hispanic family with generations-deep blood ties to the Azores and a sort of grandiose pride in clinging to European roots while also grasping for The American Way. The closest family members belligerently professed connections to conservative politics in public in order to “blend in,” while behind closed doors they retained a rebellious devotion to more progressive candidates and ideas. (Under questioning, they encouraged 8-year-old-me to never vote by political party affiliation but by candidates’ character.) Both my parents lost their fathers while they were still young and lived unstable lives. They came from a generation that survived the Great Depression and a World War. They didn’t talk about feelings.
Drama flourished within the community of my youth, though. Booze launched family gatherings, with cousins spilling out back doors and aunties organizing food while uncles bickered. Then arguments grew louder until somebody walked off, red-faced, or took a swing at someone else. Kids and women would scatter until things calmed down. Over food, jokes that I rarely understood drew guffaws and eased tensions until a few folks dusted off their favorite funny stories to share and share again. And then, whew. Sometimes we headed home. Other times, the wine from dinner urged someone to play fado, sad music featuring, most often, a heart-broken woman singing in Portuguese, or non-English versions of songs like Ave Maria. My mom, who spoke only English, and any nearby children, all of us forbidden to speak Portuguese or Spanish, would brace ourselves when those tunes started. We waited, amazed, until the big bossy manly men wept, blew their noses on cloth handkerchiefs, and ran out of energy. The evening wrapped up with folks patting shoulders and heading quietly home. That’s the closest we ever came to disclosure of feelings.
No surprise, I grew up with a limited ability to identify emotional states. I knew about four that I would have named as Fearful, Angry, Happy, and Sad. I read a lot and tried to figure out how to control emotional states and where they originated, but eventually I set the whole thing aside because of conflicting information. A few decades later I found a chart of emotions that helped me to understand some nuance so I could say, “That talk left me feeling content, hopeful, inspired” instead of “That was good.” Still, it felt as if feelings primarily mattered to me.
Several books inspired me, starting with HeartMath (the book helped me consider the importance of the heart and offered techniques to feel calm), the books Blue Zones and Thrive (helped me view emotional and physical health through a cultural and holistic lens), and the book I want to talk about, Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success by Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
This book came to my attention during a podcast, and I picked it up because I want to improve my own skills and hoped to help my grandsons identify emotions beyond the common 4 I knew as a child. Along with engaging and well-written text, the book contains opportunities to pause and consider how we’re feeling or to practice a technique. There are 3 sections to the book. The first is more background information. The second section covers the method in more detail. The third is about applying the method. Because I’m looking for tools to help in the real-world I inhabit, the opportunity to engage with the material inspired me and initial trials have boosted my appreciation for the material.
Though the book warns against judging others’ feelings, I’ve used some observed encounters to build my own vocabulary. Because I completely acknowledge we’re often not as skilled as we think, I also take opportunities when it’s safe to do so to reality-check my observations with friends/family. I wondered how often my grandkids feel irritated, frustrated, and disappointed but hold in their feelings until they’re ready to burst.
Last spring, when schools were wrapping up for the year and before I’d read Permission to Feel, the grandchildren and I started a related discussion. We began learning about the brain, focusing primarily on the pre-frontal cortex (the Wise One), the hippocampus (the Library), and the amygdala (the Guard Dog) based on the Hawn Foundation MindUp Curriculum: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning—and Living[i]. I hoped by teaching the grandsons brain-basics, they would better understand feelings, recognize anger and fear are designed to protect them, and develop ways to regulate emotions. We had fun discussing parts of the brain and how our Guard Dogs go berserk.
We only finished two lessons, though, before schools closed and our household schedules were upended by other changes. We haven’t yet gotten back in the groove and in online school the children checked in with their teachers on feelings with a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-sideways.
In contrast, Permission to Feel provides a 100-word feelings chart (for adults) in full color with 4 sectors divided from high-energy to low energy and low pleasantness to high pleasantness. For example, “enraged”=high energy/low pleasantness, “ecstatic”=high energy/high pleasantness, “serene”=low energy/high pleasantness, and “despairing”=low pleasantness/low energy. The method includes steps we can take to guide ourselves away from being a feelings-judge. These steps are abbreviated as RULER (Recognize feelings, Understand the causes and consequences, Label emotions correctly, Express emotion(s), Regulate emotions).
Two of the many very helpful ideas for me include suggestions about how to question children regarding feelings and a technique called “Meta-Moment.” Please note that this book overflows with useful information. This is a glimpse and, hopefully, encouragement for you to read this yourself.[ii]
Questioning children. Asking children simple questions after they’ve had an outburst or seem upset sounded like straightforward advice. The author provided some sample questions that I remember as WHY. What happened? How did you feel (when that happened)? Why do you think you felt that way? In brief practical experience, I’ve discovered waiting too long to bring up the feelings may give the memory time to clear from a child’s memory. Ask too soon and it can restart a tantrum.
One day I just didn’t know what else to say when my youngest grandson seemed angry and revving up. He raised his fist as if he planned to hit me. Normally I talk about hitting as an inappropriate response that can cause more problems than it solves, then suggest deep breathing. He always refuses the breathing suggestion. Instead, this time I said, “I feel soooo frustrated right now. I love you so much and want to figure out what’s happening. I feel disappointed in myself because what I usually do doesn’t help you and I feel sad because I don’t know what to do to help you feel calm.”
By movie-moment standards, his response registered as far from miraculous. He looked at me, lowered his fist, and emphatically responded, “I feel frustrated, too!” And I said, “Isn’t it awful to feel snarled up like this? I need to take a break.” He nodded and walked away to take a break of his own. Later I tried to open the discussion about feelings, but he seemed to have moved on to more interesting topics.
The following morning, though, he came to me and said, “When I was little, (so-and-so) pushed me and bit me and hit me and it hurt.” I told him I felt really mad that someone would do that to him, told him it was mean and not fair to him. “You deserve to feel safe and be treated with love.” He simply said, “Thank you” and walked away. No happily-ever-after, but a good start.
Though he seems to have some trauma-based anger to deal with, we’re working on small things. The next time I noticed his frustration escalating (while completing homework), instead of asking him to pay attention, I mentioned he seemed really stressed and asked how I could help. He wasn’t quite sure, but I made a few suggestions and he accepted one. Quickly, we returned to task.
There have been some failed attempts. When we’re tired or haven’t eaten, things can go off the rails fairly quickly. I’m learning to ask about his feelings sooner. To be frank, re-reading the book sounds helpful, too, since it’s packed with so much information that I barely offer a glimpse.
Meta-Moment. This suggestion, with multiple emotion-regulation techniques, spoke to me. Normally I can react semi-intelligently, but things have been stressful lately. The pool (my “happy place”) I depended on for exercise is closed and I’ve failed rather spectacularly at substitute endeavors, my schedule has been chaotic, the political and social climates have been erratic and sometimes scary, and we’re currently socially distant from friends and family. I’m destined to practice this technique a lot.
In most basic terms, it’s about taking a brief time-out when life feels overwhelming to the point we’re ready to act out. Instead, the book suggests: Take a deep breath (or a few). Clock it (sense the shift). Stop it (pause). See your Best Self in the situation. Consider options and take the road that helps close the gap between your “triggered” self and your Best Self.
Again, this book has a lot to offer if you’re someone who wants to dig in and try some techniques to better recognize and regulate your emotions. Whether you’re curious or you really want to learn ways to integrate emotional openness into your life, consider inviting Permission to Feel into your world.
Next week, book 3 of my recent (for me) top 3 “self-help” books.
Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iii] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[iv] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.
[i] Visit www.mindup.org for more info and https://mindup.org/mindup-for-teachers/ for additional materials, including links to free training videos. The curriculum can be purchased on Amazon or at other book retailers.
[ii] If you’re on a budget, check with your local library or see if you can borrow from a friend! My current income is limited and my bookshelf is full, so I understand!
[iii] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .
[iv] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.