How to take a Meta-Moment

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By Marc Brackett

As we all know, our best attempts at calm, thoughtful reflection work only when we feel in control of our emotions. If you’re raging with resentment or crushed by disappointment, you’re probably not capable of the reasoning required to see a situation in a new light. You first need to bring down your emotional temperature, lower your activation, and give yourself the space required for rational thought. Maybe you take a few deep breaths, a few steps back, a walk around the block.

Then, maybe you’re ready for the Meta-Moment. A decade ago, Robin Stern, psychoanalyst and associate director of our center, and I were wondering why so many people in our society are addicted to strategies that derail them from achieving their goals. Robin had worked with hundreds of patients who were unsuccessful even after learning new tactics, and I observed schoolchildren and educators who didn’t employ the strategies they were learning, even when they knew they were helpful.

Many of us were exposed to destructive responses early in our lives--negative talk, screaming, blaming and so on. They require little cognitive control, and they’re often effective at getting rid of negative feelings and providing temporary gratification. But at the time, we fail to realize these strategies also can ruin our relationships and derail us from achieving our goals. 

So we developed a tool we call the Meta-Moment. In simplest terms, it’s a pause, a hitting of the brakes and stepping out of time. We call it meta because it’s a moment about a moment. It might mean mentally counting, as in “1, 2, 3,” or 1 to 10, depending on the severity of the emotion. Taking one or several deep breaths may also be a part of it--anything to give ourselves room to maneuver and deactivate.

A Meta-Moment is when we stop the action and say, “Am I hearing this correctly?” Or maybe we might say, “I need to pause and take a deep breath right now so I don’t blow my top, break down sobbing, or react in some way I will probably regret.” This helps us go beyond our first impulse and find a wiser response. As the author and consultant Justin Bariso put it, “Pausing helps you refrain from making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.”

Pausing and taking a deep breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This reduces the release of cortisol, a major stress hormone, and naturally lowers our emotional temperature. Pausing also gives us the chance to quickly ask two useful questions: “How have I handled situations like this in the past?” and “What would my best self do right now?” 

To tap into their best selves, some people think of a set of adjectives such as “compassionate”, “intelligent” or “conscientious.” Other people picture an image or look at an object. A good friend who is the principal of a middle school has a Smurf on her desk to remind her to be her best self. Visualizing our best self can redirect our attention away from the triggering person, words or event and back towards our values. 

A couple of years ago, a student raised his hand in class and said, “I have a question that I don’t think even you’ll know how to answer.” To say that I was activated is an understatement--arrogance is a trigger for me. I wanted to reply: “I might not know the answer, but remember I grade your papers!” Instead, I reached into my “professor of emotional intelligence” self and asked, “How about if I get questions from some of the other students now, and we can chat after class?” Then, I politely informed him that his question could have been worded more diplomatically.

The Meta-Moment is not just for regulating unpleasant emotions. Sometimes our best selves help us to stand up for what’s right. Once, during a speech, a colleague bullied me in an unusual way--he joked about the fact that I was bullied as a child. My first impulse was to run onstage and deliver a flying dropkick to his head; I regressed to that middle schooler being pushed around in the locker room. But I took a Meta-Moment and I waited until after the presentation. I went up to him and said, “I have no idea what motivated you to say those words, but it wasn’t cool and you can’t ever do it again.”

How skilled are you at taking a Meta-Moment? What adjectives characterize your best self? What are your go-to strategies when you are triggered or caught off guard? Do you ignore your feelings, act out, or meet them head-on?

When your boss criticizes your work and you feel disappointed, devastated or resentful, how successful are you at taking a Meta-Moment and saying to yourself something like “Feedback is a gift, there is always something I can learn”? 

Here are the steps to take for a Meta-Moment.

  1. Sense the shift. You are activated, caught off guard, or have an impulse to say or do something you might regret. You feel a shift in your thinking or body or both.
  2. Stop or pause. Step back and breathe. Breathe again.
  3. See your best self. Think of adjectives or an image that helps your best self appear in vivid detail, or look at an object that reminds you. You might also think about your reputation: How do you want to be seen, talked about, and experienced? What would you do if someone you respect were watching you?
  4. Strategize and act. You reach into your tool kit of healthy responses -- positive self-talk and reframing are two good options -- and choose the path that will close the gap between your triggered self and your emerging best self. This should always be the last step.

Recently, after an exhausting day of delayed flights, missed connections and other irritations, I felt on the verge of a meltdown. So I asked myself: “If a college professor with a doctorate in psychology has difficulty regulating emotions, what must it be like for a nine-year-old child or an adult under genuinely challenging pressures who have had little to no training in emotion skills?” 

That calmed me down in a hurry. 

Along with permission to feel, we must also give ourselves permission to fail. When that happens, we can only try again -- take a deep breath or two, envision our best selves, and start over. We also need the courage to apologize and forgive ourselves as we’d forgive others. Courage might even mean seeking professional help when all else fails. We’ll never stop having to work at being our best selves. But the payoff is worth it: better health, better decision making, better relationships, better everything.

Excerpted from Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett. Copyright © 2019 Marc Brackett. Reprinted with the permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, LLC.

Marc Brackett, PhD, is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor in the Yale Child Study Center, lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based, systemic approach to social and emotional learning, and author of Permission To Feel

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