When we’re overwhelmed by emotions, we’re usually not our best selves. We may blow up, say hurtful things or burst into tears. But what if we had a tool we could use to turn down the temperature at those times? Psychologist Marc Brackett has a helpful strategy.

As founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Marc Brackett has devoted the past 25 years to conducting research and developing RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning which has been integrated into more than 2,000 schools in the US and around the world. Here, he writes about a particularly useful tactic that all of us can use to defuse potentially destructive responses.

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. You might take a few deep breaths, a few steps back, a walk around the block.

Or, 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.

“Pausing helps you refrain from making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion,” says author and consultant Justin Bariso.

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 — 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 gives us the chance to ask two useful questions: “How have I handled situations like this in the past?” and “What would my best self do right now?”

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 may think of a set of adjectives such as “compassionate”, “intelligent” or “conscientious”. Other people could picture an image or look at an object. A good friend who is 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 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.

I took myself out of the moment, visualized my best self as ‘the feelings master,’ and paused. In that small window of time, I calmed myself.

More recently, I was giving a presentation to a large group when someone challenged me on a point. She didn’t ask a question or offer a dissenting opinion; she just came at me to put me down. “A lot of us in the room would not necessarily agree with that model,” she said. My first impulse was to fire back and embarrass her with a comment like “A lot of us, meaning you and your 30 personalities.”

But I didn’t allow myself that petty pleasure. Instead, I took myself out of the moment, visualized my best self as “the feelings master,” and paused. In that small window of time, I calmed myself. “I’d love to connect with you later to hear your thoughts,” I said. Nobody in that room knew how close I came to losing it.

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.”

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?

I count these as victories for the Meta-Moment.

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”?

When your daughter won’t do her homework, do you argue, threaten, plead, grimace in disgust, explode in rage … or do you take a deep breath, evoke your best self, think about the most effective strategy with this particular child and calmly take action?

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.

There are a few final aspects of this kind of emotion regulation to keep in mind. Because regulation requires brainpower — moving from automatic and unhelpful to deliberate and helpful strategies is hard work — it also depends on factors such as diet, exercise and sleep. When we eat poorly, our minds don’t function properly. Too much sugar or refined flour can cause our blood glucose to spike and then plummet, which affects cognitive functioning and self-control.

I think Mike Tyson had it right when he said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’

Too little physical activity also has a negative effect on mental capacity and moods, as does poor quality or insufficient sleep. Sleep serves a restorative function. When we don’t get enough or get too much, we can show more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Inadequate sleep is associated with reduced connections between the brain regions responsible for cognitive control and behavior and the use of effective emotion regulation strategies.

We can take two other measures to safeguard our overall well-being — the first is to do things we love. Spend time with family and friends, pursue passions and pastimes, get in touch with our spiritual side, immerse ourselves in nature, read a good book, watch a great movie. We build up cognitive reserves that way, which help us when emotional turmoil inevitably strikes.

The second measure is to practice mindful breathing. Daily practice enhances our ability to be present, accept the feelings that arise, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by them.

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. I think Mike Tyson had it right when he said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What’s true in the boxing ring is true everywhere else. It’s easy to say that from now on we’ll master all our emotional responses, until our significant other or child or neighbor or boss triggers us with a word or look and all our training goes out the window.

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 the new book 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.

Watch his TEDxGoldenGateED talk here: