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R&V Reflections: Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Image © Brené Brown

I know, logically, that there is more to explore beyond the county line where I live, with houses and towns and highways winding their way to other metropolises, but beyond state outlines, when it comes to certain regions of the country, the map in my mind is blank. I know the state of Montana exists, for instance, but I couldn’t tell you how to get to its most populated cities or what the sunset looks like through a stand of trees. I’ve never been there. I lack the language and the experience to form meaningful connections. I need someone else to articulate for me. I need someone else to show me the way into and through Montana.

Stories rooted in particular places captivate me. As authors use common vocabulary to describe somewhere I’ve never been, it’s as if the blank map in my mind begins to fill with swerving topographical lines, Main Streets, coffee shops, rows of corn. Nowhere becomes Somewhere, all because someone put vocabulary to the map and gave me a way to navigate through it.

We require a shared vocabulary to explore physical places. The same is true for the states of mind we inhabit.

Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Published November 30, 2021. Random House Publishing.

Brené Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, is a catalog of the many, many emotions humans experience and how these emotions create or hinder meaningful connections with others. Brown says that having a vocabulary to describe how we feel is essential to understanding “how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together. … When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other.”

How many emotions can you name as you are feeling them? Can you recognize shame? Embarrassment? Grief? Amusement? 

If you have young children, you are probably acquainted with Mo Willems’ characters, Elephant and Piggie. In I Love My New Toy, when Elephant breaks Piggie’s new toy, Piggie shouts at Elephant, “I am… MAD. And sad. I am mad and sad!” It is necessarily simple vocabulary for young readers to be able to read and identify two core emotions we experience.

As we advance into adulthood, you would think we’d graduate to a more advanced vocabulary, a richer understanding of how we’re feeling. In a study conducted 15 years ago, Brown asked participants to “list all of the emotions that they could recognize and name as they were experiencing them. Over the course of five years, we collected these surveys from more than seven thousand people. The average number of emotions named across the surveys was three. The emotions were happy, sad, and angry.”

This limited ability to describe how we’re feeling at any particular time makes dealing with complex emotions, and the way we behave related to those emotions, particularly challenging.

“Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness,” writes Brown. “Having access to the right words can open up entire universes. When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is extremely limited. … Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.”

One such way language matters to understanding ourselves and our world is evidenced by the first exposure I had to Brown. Brown gave a TED Talk in 2012 on “Listening to Shame.” In it, she defined the difference between guilt and shame; shame says, “I am bad,” and guilt says, “I did something bad.” There is a world of difference between those two sentences. Shame is all about who we are, and who we are is very hard to change. Guilt is all about our behavior, what we did, and behaviors are much easier for us to change. This was transformative for me. You can listen to the full talk here. Brown defines these two again in Atlas of the Heart. They are among the 87 emotions and experiences explored in her book.

Meaningful connections with others, argues Brown, are the cornerstone to finding meaning in our own lives. But in order to connect in meaningful ways, we have to be able to connect with ourselves and the landscape of emotions that inhabits our hearts. Otherwise, our connections with others become clouded by behaviors that find their origin in negative emotions we don’t know how to articulate.

To me, this is gospel work, the most important commandment work. Meaningful connections are what “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” is all about. It’s the “one another-ness” of Jesus’ calling on us. But in order to be able to step into loving your neighbor, we have to be able to love—and to understand— ourselves.

To help us out, Brown groups together 13 families of emotions and plots them out in an “atlas of the heart.” Using this atlas, we can understand the “places we go” when certain things happen to us, when things are uncertain, when we compare ourselves to others, when things don’t go as planned, when things aren’t what they seem, when things are beyond us, when we’re hurting, and more. 

Equipped with the vocabulary of our emotions, our map isn’t just one long, empty country labeled “sad;” it has hills and valleys, hundreds of species, small towns and big cities, each populated with nuanced ways we experience each other in this great, complicated world.

The book’s work and the writing inside is beautiful, but on top of that, the book itself is beautiful, a pleasure to read and to hold. It is a book I expect to reference again and again, like a traveler’s guide to a beloved country, until the map of the place itself is written on my heart, and I am able to travel the land of meaningful connection with a reliable and well-trained internal compass, naming landmarks and crossroads with confidence.

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