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Permission to feel

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2020 - Winter

Our vocabulary for emotion is impoverished. We’re stressed or we’re good; we’re bummed or we’re okay. The meagerness of this lexicon tells us something about ourselves, according to psychologist Marc Brackett, PhD: It shows how hazily we perceive our feelings.

And physicians on average may be particularly undiscerning. It’s an occupational hazard: As doctors rush from patient to patient, they can’t take time to reflect on feelings. And when they witness the suffering caused by illness and death, one way they cope is to drive emotions underground.

Except suppression doesn’t work, said Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in the Child Study Center. When doctors habitually suppress their feelings, they burn out, even get sick. And patients view emotionally blank doctors as heartless. On the other hand, patients don’t benefit from seeing their physicians sobbing uncontrollably. “You don’t want other people to think they need to take care of you,” said Brackett.

In his new book, Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, Brackett helps readers find an emotional equilibrium, or a “best self.” That self is at once collected and compassionate, Brackett writes. Using stories of deprivation and distress from his own childhood, Brackett provides a method for realizing that best self: recognizing and regulating emotions, and learning to express feelings judiciously in accord with the situation. Acknowledging feelings, he said, “prevents emotions from having undue influence over our actions.”

The best self shows sympathy not only for others but also compassion for the self. For instance, when a patient dies, a doctor might tell himself or herself, “You really did everything possible to support this person.” Brackett also recommends giving priority to self-care. “My workouts and yoga sessions are in my calendar,” he said. Recently, he’s begun using meetings to take walks.

Groups of colleagues will also fare better if they share feelings. For instance, at a casino where Brackett served as a consultant, workers quit frequently because they were worn down by being around gamblers who were drunk or angry about losing money. Scheduling time for the workers to talk over the emotional toll of their work reduced turnover. Brackett suggests that group medical practices schedule time for meetings whose sole aim is to “to provide time and space to just process.”

Checking in with one’s emotions also prevents a reaction to one situation from coloring the next interaction. “If you name it, you can tame it,” Brackett said. “Once you attribute that emotion to its source, it no longer will have a subconscious influence on how you interact in that second setting.”

Understanding the emotions of another person, he writes, “requires the use of our storytelling ability, perspective-taking skills, and pattern-seeking to piece together the concatenation of feelings and events that led to the current situation. It begins with being an emotion scientist, not a judge.”

Just as understanding emotions requires listening, so does finding the best way to help someone in distress. Brackett suggests asking such open-ended questions as, “What do you need right now? How can I support you?”

Brackett teaches a course at Yale College called Emotional Intelligence that draws hundreds of students. Sometimes a student will tell him, “I didn’t need emotional intelligence to get into Yale, so why is it so important?” And doctors have said, “I’ve gotten here without those skills.” Brackett’s answer: “ ‘What about the quality of your relationships? What about your physical health? What about your mental health?’ It’s a narrow definition of success.” Real flourishing, he argues, for the individual and for society, will arise when we give ourselves—and others—permission to feel.