A car swerves in front and you slam your brakes. Though you are safe after the near miss, the loud music and the insensitive laughter of the passengers in the car ahead arouse your angry demons.
By Aruna Sankaranarayanan,
A car swerves in front and you slam your brakes. Though you are safe after the near miss, the loud music and the insensitive laughter of the passengers in the car ahead arouse your angry demons. You get down, bang on their windows, giving vent to a stream of expletives. The partying group, possibly drunken, alights, and you realize your folly. It’s late at night on a deserted road. It’s five of them versus you alone.
In another instance, a friend texts you that she has just gotten a much-coveted job. Barely three months ago, you had been rejected by the same company. When you see your friend’s message, the humiliation you felt at the interview courses through you again. Worse, your friend’s lack of empathy when you told her about the dismal interview stings more potently now. You give yourself a few minutes to process the situation, and then, gritting your teeth, type out a warm, congratulatory message. Weirdly, you feel better.
In his book, Permission to Feel, Marc Brackett, Professor, Founder & Director of the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, provides a model to help us engage with our emotions constructively so that we can lead richer and more fulfilling lives. Learning to manage our emotions dexterously also has carryover effects to other domains, including our health, work, relationships and creativity. If we learn to regulate our feelings, we can handle the unexpected twists and turns of life with equanimity. In the first of a two-part article, I discuss what emotional management entails and outline the first two steps of Brackett’s RULER model to help manage feelings.
First, we need to understand what it means to regulate our emotions. If we don’t learn to monitor our emotions, at times, they can spiral out of control and overwhelm us, often leading to behaviour that we may later regret. But that does not imply that we simply ignore or suppress uncomfortable emotions because doing so will only strengthen their invidious hold over us. Brackett reminds us that our feelings are a source of information about what’s going on inside of us as we experience various life events, both momentous and trivial. If we tap into that information, we can then make considered choices on how best to respond.
Further, Brackett differentiates integral and incidental emotions. The former refers to emotions that are triggered by a current situation. We may panic if a snake slithers by, or feel elated when our IPL team snatches another win. In contrast, incidental emotions aren’t evoked by what’s happening in the present. Rather, the rancour after a dispute with a colleague may linger as we return home, prompting us to snap at our kids. Usually, we are unaware of incidental emotions colouring our interactions.
Brackett uses the acronym RULER to spell out the steps of his model. The first ‘R’ involves recognizing emotions, both in ourselves and in others. Detecting emotions in ourselves involves being attuned to changes in our thoughts, energy levels and body signals. Similarly, noticing changes in others entails being attuned to their tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. Brackett avers that all emotions can be plotted along two dimensions, pleasantness and energy.
If you are excited or euphoric, you will rank high in both pleasantness and energy. On the other hand, low energy and diminished pleasantness suggests that you are sad or depressed. Anger and fear are characterized by high energy but low pleasantness, whereas low energy but high pleasantness signify calmness or serenity. The first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to recognize emotions. When it comes to yourself, you may first try to determine whether your body or thoughts are signaling changes in energy or pleasantness. At this point, there is no need to zero in on the exact label. Likewise, you may try to identify changes in the emotional tone of people you interact with. Brackett adds an important caveat: You only have partial information, especially regarding others, and you can often be wrong.
The second step of RULER is to ‘U’nderstand the emotion. Why am I feeling this way? When emotions course through us, we automatically attribute causes to them. But instead of simply believing the first automatic thoughts that pop into your head, try and step back from yourself so that you can understand the emotion with more clarity. Did something in the immediate environment trigger the feeling? Or, are you reacting to the spillover effects of last night’s quarrel with your roommate? Similarly, when other people express feelings, either covertly or overtly, your own evaluations of the situation may cloud you from actually seeing their perspective. Asking them for their viewpoint and enquiring how you might support them may be more effective. To be truly empathetic, suspend judgments of others.
So, the first two steps of emotional regulation are to recognize and understand emotions. In the next article in this column, I will cover the last three steps of Brackett’s RULER model.
(The author is an avid blogger. Her forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know will be released by Rupa Publications.)