Permission to Feel
The pathway for education leaders to build inner resilience in troubled times begins with applying emotional intelligence
BY MARC A. BRACKETT/School Administrator, June 2021

Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, meets with students in Bronx, N.Y.,  who are part of his organization’s social-emotional learning program. PHOTO COURTESY OF YALE CENTER FOR EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Our emotions are a big part — maybe the biggest part — of what makes us human. Decades of research shows that emotions drive our attention, memory and learning; influence our decision making; affect our mental and physical health; shape the quality of our relationships; and impact our everyday workplace performance.

Yet many of us go through life trying hard to pretend otherwise.

For a school administrator, emotions influence everything from leadership effectiveness to maintaining complex relationships, from innovation to school board relations. It’s a leader’s emotional intelligence that impacts the ability to motivate and show compassion, engage productively in a difficult conversation, deliver critical feedback, and lead a successful organization through uncertain and stressful times.

Still, as leaders, we do our best to deny or hide our feelings — even from ourselves. We toughen up, squash it down, behave irrationally. We avoid the tough exchange with a parent, snap at a school board member or criticize a colleague — and often have no idea why.

Why? Our true feelings can be distressing, exhausting and confusing — especially during a pandemic. They leave us vulnerable and exposed. They make us say or do things we regret. Too often, they seem out of our command.

Productive Use of Emotion

When we deny ourselves the permission to feel, a long list of unasked-for outcomes arises. We often lose the ability to even perceive what we’re feeling. Because of that, we’re unable to label our feelings, so we can’t express them clearly, either, especially in ways the people around us would understand. And when we can’t identify how we’re feeling, it’s impossible for us to do anything productive about our feelings — to use them wisely, to accept and embrace them all, and to learn to make them work for us, not against us.

Giving ourselves and others the permission to feel doesn’t mean we become a doormat or that we agree with everything everyone else says or does. It doesn’t give us license to act on every emotional impulse and behave as though we have no control over what we feel. It means understanding that all emotions contain purpose and information. It means being curious, open and compassionate as opposed to critical and closed about our own and others’ emotions.

Consider this: In May 2020, my colleagues and I at Yale conducted a survey to understand how more than 1,000 school leaders were feeling during the COVID-19 crisis. We asked them to describe, in their own words, the emotions they had been experiencing the most during that time. The top three emotions likely won’t surprise you. They were anxiety, overwhelmed, and stressed. In a survey of more than 100 superintendents this past February, the top emotion expressed was exhaustion followed by anxiety and over-whelmed. The toll of the coronavirus on our nation’s school leaders was (and still is) palpable.

During the pandemic, I gave a talk titled “Permission to Feel” to superintendents who were interested in social and emotional learning. As an activity, I asked them to describe the difference among anxiety, overwhelmed and stressed. Would you believe the top response was “no difference”? This speaks volumes to our difficulty with understanding emotions. It makes you wonder how we can expect schools to implement SEL with high fidelity when the adults who lead our schools have not had a formal education in emotions. More professional development for adults is greatly needed.

At first glance, the aforementioned three feelings might seem interchangeable, but they are in fact distinct, each with its own source and solution. Anxiety is a feeling of uncertainty and inability to control the future. Overwhelmed is the feeling we have when we are overpowered by thought or feeling. Stress is a response to adverse or very demanding circumstances, especially when we feel we don’t have enough resources to cope. All interconnected, certainly, but distinctly different. We must first untangle our emotions if we’re to understand them and eventually figure out how to manage them.

Channeling Emotions

Where do most of us instinctively go to counter our difficulty with understanding emotions? By believing we should mostly suppress negative emotions and express positive ones such as happiness.

This is the result of another, profound misunderstanding about the emotion system: that happiness is the best emotion we should feel, and if we are not happy, if our leaders, educators and students aren’t showing visible signs of joyfulness, then we have failed. But what happens to a child who comes to school feeling grief because a grandparent just passed away? What happens when someone is a victim of racism in your school community? What happens to a leader, educator or child who is more temperamentally subdued?

Positive emotions do open the mind to new possibilities, creating flexibility and openness. But they cannot fix everything. Un-pleasant emotions have a constructive function: They help narrow and focus our attention. Too much excitement won’t bring needed consensus to a school board meeting. Sadness is good for being detail-oriented and for evaluating and fine tuning a district improvement plan with a realistic approach.

Pessimism can transform anxiety into action. Imagining worst-case scenarios prepares you to tackle important problems during a pandemic. Guilt acts as a moral compass. Enthusiasm won’t be convincing when you need to make a crucial point. For that, you have to touch the forcefulness of anger.

Real-Life Skills

I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to unpack these issues. Through academic research, leading the development of an evidence-based approach to SEL and working with thousands of schools across the U.S. and in other countries (in addition to plenty of real-life experience), I’ve seen the terrible cost of our inability to deal in healthy ways with emotions, including illicit drug use, bullying, mental health problems, dysfunctional relationships, burnout, disengagement and poor performance. I’ve also learned that we prefer to spend much more money and effort on dealing with the results of our own and others’ emotional difficulties rather than trying to prevent them.

Because I never received formal education in emotions and mostly learned unhelpful ways to deal with my feelings, I had to cultivate the skills of emotional intelligence (and am still learning them). And emotion skills are real-life skills, not so-called soft skills. Leaders of all ages from all backgrounds with all personality types will find them accessible and even life-changing. So what are the skills?

Emotional intelligence represents five key emotion skills that help us to:

»recognize emotions by unpacking our own and others’ emotional experiences;

»understand emotions by knowing the causes for and consequences of feelings;

»label emotions by developing the vocabulary to be precise about emotional experiences;

»express emotions by helping us skillfully share our emotions with others; and

»regulate emotions by supporting us in using helpful strategies for managing our feelings.

The best application of emotional intelligence is throughout a community, so a network emerges to reinforce its own influence. A true commitment to SEL means grounding its implementation in the larger context of equity and justice efforts to ensure all children and adults in our schools can thrive. This includes rolling back policies that create wide inequality.

I have seen this happen. RULER, our whole-school approach to SEL developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is being deployed in hundreds of school districts across the U.S. with positive results. Districts include Washington’s Highline Public Schools under the leadership of Susan Enfield, over 250 schools in my home state of Connecticut where we’re working to build a statewide approach to SEL and 450 schools throughout New York City’s public schools.

RULER infuses emotional intelligence and culturally responsive pedagogy into the DNA of a school to support leaders, educators and staff, students and families. In addition to programming to shift mindsets, develop skills, build positive classroom and school cli-mates and evaluate policies, RULER has tools such as the Mood Meter to help all stakeholders develop a nuanced emotion vocabulary and a repertoire of helpful strategies to handle all emotions. That way, when difficult emotions arise, everyone has a common language and the knowledge and skills to accept and work with their emotions.

Teaching emotional intelligence and intentionally building emotionally safe learning environments can help educators and students spend more time feeling as they told us they want to feel across multiple studies: appreciated, valued, supported, connected, inspired and excited. Evidence to date shows that RULER has a positive impact on academic performance, social and emotional skills, classroom climate, bullying, teacher instructional supports and teacher stress and burnout.

Long-Term Commitment

In the late 1990s, my Uncle Marvin and I set out together to bring SEL to schools. As a middle school teacher in upstate New York, Marvin had unusual success with the students who passed through his 6th-grade classroom. He had figured out instinctively that something often was missing in a child’s journey toward success: the ability to embrace and use emotions wisely. Uncle Marvin knew if children acquired emotion skills as they grew, they would be better learners, decision makers, friends, parents and partners, better able to maintain health and well-being and deal with life’s ups and downs and achieve their dreams.

I knew firsthand, from a young age, that his ideas worked because they made it possible for me to navigate my childhood trauma, including extreme bullying in middle school.

Uncle Marvin and I had some successes, but implementation of our classroom curriculum was uneven at best. The message became more and more apparent: Educators were mostly uncomfortable talking about emotions — their own and those of their students. We were too narrow in our approach.

Quickly, we realized we would never reach children until we first enlisted teachers who understood the importance of emotion skills and then secured commitment at the very top, among principals, school boards and superintendents.

We often think of leadership as being driven by talent, brain power, charisma, experience and the hunger for accomplishment and measurable results. All those things are in the mix, of course, but emotions are one of the most powerful forces inside an education leader, as they are in every human.

When leaders have emotion skills, the educators in their buildings report feeling more inspired, less frustrated and burned out, and more satisfied with their work. In turn, educators’ relationships with their colleagues and students are warmer; classrooms have more positive climates; and greater opportunities exist to apply practices that cultivate creativity, choice and autonomy. When children have greater connections to their teachers and school community, they’re more likely to take risks, persist in the face of diversity, focus more and perform better academically.

It’s up to all of us to launch an emotion revolution by systemically integrating SEL into our nation’s school districts.

But the first step in the process is giving ourselves and others the permission to feel.

MARC BRACKETT is director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor in the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., and author of Permission To Feel. Twitter: @marcbrackett

Additional Resources

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence is part of the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.

The center offers training to educational leaders, teachers and school staff to support the systemic implementation of SEL and to develop those skills in families and out-of-school time settings.

Working with both district-level and preK-12 school-level teams, the center applies a systemic approach known as RULER to help educators understand the value of emotions, build the skills of emotional intelligence and create and maintain positive emotional climates.

More details are available at