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[Book Summary] Atlas of the Heart – Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Atlas of the Heart (2021) is a guide to understanding your emotions and learning how to regulate them. Everyone experiences strong emotions, but most people can’t identify what it is they’re feeling, or work out where the feelings come from. Developing your emotional vocabulary will transform your relationship to yourself, and the people around you.

“Research shows that the process of labeling emotional experience is related to greater emotion regulation and psychosocial well-being.” – Brené Brown

Book Summary: Atlas of the Heart - Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Content Summary

Genres
Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Learn to navigate your own emotional map.
A child with magic powers.
You can’t stop walking on eggshells if they’re taped to your feet.
Expand your emotional vocabulary.
Places you go when you’re hurting.
Anguish comes for the bones.
Hope is a skill, not an emotion.
Happiness and joy are not the same thing.
Become comfortable with paradox.
Insights from Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Self Help, Personal Development, Mental Health, Relationships, Leadership, Adult, Personal Growth, Business, Counseling, Personal Success, Social Psychology, Emotions, Emotional Self Help, Popular Social Psychology and Interactions, Personal Transformation Self-Help

Who is it for?

  • Curious adventurers interested in exploring their own emotional landscapes
  • Anyone who feels flooded by painful emotions that they can’t understand or control
  • Fans of Brené Brown’s work wanting to learn more about her latest insightful theories of emotion

Learn to navigate your own emotional map.

Imagine you’re stumbling around in the dark, in an unfamiliar city, trying to find your way to a bright light twinkling on a distant hill. You see dark shapes that you think you recognize, but you’re not quite sure what they are. You know you want to get to that light, but the way there involves crossing deep gorges and climbing menacing hills. And there’s no clear path in sight.

You might feel lost like this – without a clear sense of where you really are in your emotional landscape. You might struggle to even name your feelings. Or to understand feelings that come on strongly. Like why is it that that particular person always pushes your buttons? Is there a deeper meaning to the emotions that you’re feeling, or is it just a sign that you need to get some rest?

You want to understand, but the answers to those questions lie just out of reach, in that foggy darkness. And in your search for answers, you’re rocked by emotions, blown off course, left feeling lost and bewildered, and sometimes in despair. You know you want to get to a place where you feel grounded, and content – but it seems elusive, like that bright light on the hill: always around that next bend, never coming closer in view.

Nowadays, it’s becoming more common to talk about emotions. Talk shows now use words like “trauma” regularly, and we can talk about experiences of vulnerability and depression much more openly than we used to. But do we really understand what these words mean? Can we recognize the difference between joy and happiness? What about shame and guilt?

We still have so much to learn about emotions. And that’s where Brené Brown comes in: she’s able to offer clarity on the things that shape our lives.

In these summaries, we’ll gain some orientation of our emotional landscapes with an atlas – the Atlas of the Heart. We’ll learn how to start navigating our feelings with more nuance and more clarity. So, let’s get into it!

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why hopelessness and despair are the most dangerous emotions you can experience;
  • How understanding your emotions will transform your relationships; and
  • why happiness and joy are not the same.

A child with magic powers.

Growing up, Brené Brown was sure she had magic powers – that she could predict the future, and make connections no one else around her could.

She remembers how her high-school swim coach had an explosive temper, and that all her classmates were terrified of him. They couldn’t quite figure out why he would suddenly get so angry all the time. But Brené knew. She’d noticed he’d freak out when people weren’t trying hard in practice. It didn’t matter how talented you were – if you weren’t one hundred percent committed to improvement, you’d set him off. On the other hand, if he saw you were taking the practice seriously, he’d never get angry at you, even if you were a mediocre swimmer. And he loved the backstroke.

So, Brené worked on her backstroke. In order to stay under the radar and not piss off her teacher, she gave it her all.

Staying under the radar was the main function of the heightened levels of awareness she’d developed as a kid – what felt like her magic powers. It helped her navigate her home life, with her complicated parents. In public, her parents were sociable, kind, and fun. But, behind closed doors at home, their behavior was unpredictable. Their moods would swing wildly, and they could get pretty angry without much, if any, warning. It was confusing, and it made Brené and her four siblings feel ashamed. After all, their parents only behaved like this when they were at home – so it was only natural that it made Brené and her siblings feel it was their fault that they got so upset. On top of that, Brené was the oldest of the kids, so she felt like it was her job to protect everyone else from their outbursts.

And so she became very observant. She learned to identify people’s soft spots, or what she now calls everyone’s “shame triggers” – like the ill-timed jokes or misjudged requests that might set someone off.

Besides just her parents, she began to notice how other adults around her would channel their anger into everyday moments, like watching sports or road rage. She understood that those situations were often completely unrelated to what was really making them angry.

At the time, Brené didn’t know what to do with all this emotional awareness. Nobody at home talked about their feelings, or expressed them much at all. The only acceptable emotion was anger – and just because Brené could predict the outbursts, it wasn’t any less painful when she was on the receiving end of them.

Of course, emotional awareness is precisely what Brené Brown is known for today. It’s a superpower she’s honed over a stellar career, and a skill she passes on in Atlas of the Heart.

An image describing the emotions underneath anger

You can’t stop walking on eggshells if they’re taped to your feet.

We often say that someone who’s very sensitive to other people’s moods or reactions is walking on eggshells. In her own words, Brené felt like the eggshells were “duct-taped to the soles of her shoes.” She was hypersensitive to the world around her – so attuned to what might go wrong that it felt excruciating.

She tried drowning out those feelings through partying, smoking, and drinking. And while all of that did succeed in numbing her, it also meant the world got blurry. She could no longer observe what was going on inside of people. She was fearful and anxious, and was so scared of feeling pain that she chased experiences that made her feel even more pain. She was, as she says, “taking the edge off” through alcohol. But taking that edge off was also muffling her magic – her superpower.

Recognizing this, with the help of a good therapist, Brené started a long, hard process of regaining her edge. She stopped drinking, and started learning how to feel again, how to embrace pain and messy vulnerability and feelings that are not exactly pleasant or easy to experience.

Today, Brené values her sensitivity to emotions. It shows her where her boundaries are. It teaches her what she needs. It allows her to tune into the people around her. And it’s fueled quite an extraordinary career.

With Atlas of the Heart she created a guide for people who, like her, are scared of pain. People who feel all the things, but don’t know what to do with their intense emotions. People who want to find another way to relate to others when they’re fearful. People who are yearning for vulnerability.

So, let’s start exploring this atlas in greater detail. The book itself covers 87 emotions. We’re going to take a closer look at just a few of these. And though the emotions are very common, you just might be surprised about what’s actually underlying them.

Expand your emotional vocabulary.

But hang on. Is there a point to all of this? We can’t all be world renowned emotions experts like Brené, so why should the rest of us spend the time learning more about our feelings?

Well, consider this. Imagine you have a sharp, shooting pain in your shoulder. It’s excruciating and won’t go away, and it’s starting to get in the way of your life. So, you rush to the emergency room. A kind, caring doctor comes in and tries to find out what’s wrong. As you start to tell her, something strange happens: you can’t get any words out. You can only point to the general part of your body where the pain is occurring, but you can’t pinpoint the exact location. So she can’t help you. You’re frustrated, and your shoulder continues to hurt.

The point is . . . language is important. It’s a bridge between ourselves and other people – It allows us to express how we’re feeling, and, crucially, get the help we need. But when it comes to emotions, most of us are just like that person with the painful shoulder. We just don’t have the words to describe what’s happening in us to others . . . or to even understand it for ourselves. Here’s something fascinating: Brené describes how she and a team of researchers asked 7,000 people to identify all the emotions they experienced. And guess what? The average number of emotions people listed were – wait for it – three: sad, angry, and happy. That’s it: mad, sad, glad. Of all the emotions in the world, all the nuance of human experience, most people could only describe them in three categories.

And the reason that’s a problem is just like the painful shoulder: it’s as if you could only tell the doctor that you have a pain somewhere in the upper half of your body. And you could only describe that pain as “bad,” instead of say, that it’s throbbing, or aching, or shooting pain.

The ability to have the awareness of, and the precise language to describe your emotions is what researchers call “emotional granularity.” This granularity can benefit your life in many ways.

Having the right words allows you to identify your feelings and figure out where they come from. And if you can identify your triggers, you’ll be much better equipped to find ways to comfort yourself.

Brené believes that having those insights into your emotional states allows you to feel connected to yourself, instead of feeling numb and disembodied. And that connection with the self creates the foundation for genuine, loving connections with other people.

Perhaps most importantly, being able to precisely articulate your feelings means that you’ll be able to ask for – and receive – the specific help that you need.

So let’s take two commonly discussed emotions – sadness and happiness – and see how expanding your emotional vocabulary will help you to better understand and navigate your inner landscape.

Places you go when you’re hurting.

We’ve all been there, many times. Something happens that causes us to feel bad, and we usually describe the emotion we have in response as feeling sad. But what does that mean, exactly?

“Sad” is not the same as being depressed. Depression is a chronic condition, while sadness can be a fleeting feeling we experience in response to a particular situation.

Feeling sad is an important part of being human. It’s a natural reaction we have to loss or defeat – something we all experience. Because we all know sadness, we can recognize it in others and empathize with our friends when they’re hurting. Empathizing with your friend and making time for them comes from your own lived experience of sadness. Feeling sad allows you to feel alive, and connected to other people. It can also help us to make better decisions, because we become more sensitive to our surroundings.

One thing I really related to was when Brown addressed the difference between belonging and just fitting in.

Think about how popular sad movies are, and how satisfying it can be to cry on the couch in front of the TV. Those experiences make you feel moved, and connected to other people.

So, this is what it means to feel sad. But there are other emotions and experiences that we have when we’re hurting that are very distinct, but are often lumped under the “sad” label. For example, people can experience anguish, or grief, or hopelessness, or despair. These emotions have very different qualities and require different reactions from us.

Anguish comes for the bones.

Anguish. Anguish feels shocking, unexpected, and often traumatic. And it can hit us on a primal, physical level, too. This happened to Brené one day when she got a call from a childhood friend out of the blue. The friend told her that she’d felt suicidal due to a childhood trauma Brené didn’t know about. When she heard this from her friend, she physically crumpled to the floor.

In Brené’s words, anguish “comes for the bones” – it strikes us at our core. People are resilient, and can heal from this kind of trauma. But they need support. Otherwise, they may go through the motions, while remaining internally numb or “crumpled.” Or they may respond to the pain by becoming rigidly perfectionist, shutting out all vulnerability to try and stay upright. Good support allows you to experience the pain while learning how to rebuild your life. Some of the best support comes from body-centered therapies that address the physical manifestation of trauma in the body.

Anguish is sudden, and bewildering, and painful. But it’s not nearly as dangerous as two other emotions we can experience when we’re feeling bad: hopelessness and despair. These two are connected, but they’re not the same.

A feeling of hopelessness comes when you’re not able to set realistic goals for your life. If you do have a goal, you can’t figure out how to achieve it. And if you try and fail, you become discouraged and start beating yourself up. You have no faith in your own abilities, or sense that you have agency in your life.

While feeling hopeless often relates to a specific situation, like your relationship or finances, despair encompasses your entire life. It’s the feeling that your whole life is hopeless, and that it will never change. You’re stuck and can’t find a way out.

Feeling like this often leads to suicidal thoughts and attempts. If you’re in emotional pain, and feel like there’s no way out, then it makes a distorted kind of sense that ending your life is the only thing you can do, the only way to have some agency in the situation.

In order to strengthen your resilience in the face of hopelessness and despair, there are a number of important and practical things you can do, which is what we’ll find out in the next chapter.

Emphasize examples of meaningful connection alongside

Hope is a skill, not an emotion.

To combat hopelessness and despair, let’s start with hope. We think of hope as being a warm and fuzzy emotion. But that’s actually not true. In fact, being hopeful is a skill that you can learn. Being hopeful comes from being able to set realistic goals, figure out how to meet the goals and believe in your own abilities. Hope comes from encountering adversity, and discovering that you can be resilient in the face of it. To learn hopefulness, you need to practice setting goals that you can actually meet.

Even more important, you need to become comfortable with failure and be prepared to try new approaches if the first one doesn’t work. The best thing about learning to be hopeful is that it’s infectious. For example, researchers have shown that hopeful parents generally have hopeful children.

Apart from practicing your hopeful skills, you can also practice increasing your resilience by working with what researcher Martin Seligman calls “the 3 Ps”: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. In the last chapter, we were talking about how despair feels all encompassing and permanent. People in that state often take it very personally, beating themselves up for failing or letting down their families.

When you’re feeling flooded by despair, stop to ask yourself the 3 Ps. First, personalization: if you’re taking it personally, ask yourself, “Is this situation really about me? What outside factors play a role that I haven’t accounted for?” If it feels like the situation will last forever – which is the second P, permanence – do a quick thought experiment, and ask yourself: “Will this be a big deal in five minutes? Or five days? Or five months?” And if it feels like the problem is pervasive and has consumed your whole life, take a moment to stop and really consider its impact. You may have screwed up at work, but does that really mean you’ve destroyed your family and all your friendships

These strategies offer a pause button when you’re feeling flooded and overwhelmed. They offer your rational brain a chance to rejoin the party, and help you to put your experiences in perspective.

Sadness, anguish, and despair are all painful, and difficult. But they can also be incredible teachers. As resilient humans, it’s possible for all of us to move through these feelings, becoming more engaged and empathetic and courageously vulnerable as we do. But you can’t do it alone. You need to be able to ask for help, and get the right kind of help that’s appropriate to that specific emotion.

Happiness and joy are not the same thing.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s happiness. We all know what that word means, right? After all, how many love songs have been written about it?

Well, actually, even the most expert happiness researchers – people who spend their whole lives studying the emotion – can’t agree on exactly what it means. Most research to date has been about happiness as a trait, or part of who we are, rather than as a state – something we experience at times.

Even more confusingly, happiness is often conflated with joy. Those words are used interchangeably to describe a positive state. But in her research, Brené has discovered that, in fact, happiness and joy are very distinct.

Happiness is a long-lasting emotion that usually comes as a result of feeling in control. Happiness makes us focused on ourselves, or our own achievements.

Joy, on the other hand, comes on suddenly without warning. It’s short and fleeting, and very high intensity. It focuses our attention outwards, instead of inwards, and makes us feel connected to other people, or God, or the universe. It makes us feel free, and alive, and awake. Joy is intensely pleasurable, and is accompanied by a sense of gratitude and appreciation.

Joy is also a bit unsettling, even scary. Feeling joyful is so wonderful that it can make you feel vulnerable and afraid of losing that joy. Brené describes that experience as foreboding joy. It’s what happens when you watch your children while they’re sleeping, and feel an enormous stab of joy accompanied by a deep and irrational fear that something terrible will happen to them. It’s a way of rehearsing tragedy in your mind in an attempt to make it feel less painful when it actually happens because in the moment of joy you realize how much you actually have to lose.

Most of us are so used to foreboding joy that we don’t even consciously realize what we’re doing. We start to feel like it’s normal, or realistic to expect the worst. But living that way costs you the incredible benefits of freely experiencing joy.

There’s a man who Brené interviewed in her study on vulnerability who’d gone through his life expecting the worst, as a kind of emotional armor. And then the worst actually happened to him. His wife died in a car accident. He realized that his previously pessimistic outlook had done nothing to prepare him for that painful event. All it did was rob him of the ability to fully enjoy the time he’d had with his wife when she was alive.

To allow yourself to experience joy is to practice appreciating what you have, in the moment that you have it. In fact, researchers have found that joy and gratitude are linked, in what they describe as a positive “upwards spiral.” If gratitude is one of our traits, we’ll have more experiences of joy in the moment. If we’re joyous types, we’ll have more moments of feeling grateful. The emotions positively reinforce each other.

And, like so many emotions, gratitude can be practiced, and learned. Keeping a gratitude journal, or taking a moment each day to name one thing that you’re grateful for out loud, trains your brain to look for more similar experiences.

Become comfortable with paradox.

Over the course of these summaries, we’ve traveled to two emotional places: where we go when we’re hurting, and some places we go when life is treating us well. As you’ve already discovered, there’s nothing simple about this inner exploration. The seemingly neat categories of “sad” and “happy” are bursting with nuance and contradictions.

We’ve gone over how sadness can make us feel good, and that happiness can be less rewarding than joy. We’ve discovered that emotions can lodge themselves in your body, as well as your mind. And that, to a surprising degree, you can influence how you feel by practicing skills like hopefulness.

Emotional granularity is messy. To go there, really go there, you need to get comfortable with paradoxes. Paradoxical elements seem opposite to each other. But, really, they’re linked. Like light and dark. One doesn’t really exist without the other.

As the navigator of your own emotions, you’ll need to become more and more comfortable with emotional paradoxes. How you crave closeness to others, but act in ways that shut yourself off; or how you can lead a board meeting with confidence, but crumple every time you need to speak to your mother.

Holding these paradoxes with warmth and curiosity will help you on your journey to discovering and celebrating the terrain of your own heart. Like any journey worth taking, there are no shortcuts. You’ll need to clamber over many obstacles, and find your sharp edges. Keep going. Lean into the messy stuff and contradictory stuff. Embrace the sheer vulnerability of being alive.

Insights from Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Going far and achieving incredible feats with people require deep and meaningful connections. The road to meaningful connections goes through three towns: Envy town, Pity town, and Disappointment town

When you find yourself in these ‘emotional towns,’ use the following maps to identify where you are and what road you should take to get out of each town:

Envy town

In most relationships, there will come a time when you want what the other person has. Maybe your partner has an exciting new career opportunity, your coworker gets an award, or your friend wins a vast sum of money. How you respond to your envy will either move you closer to a meaningful connection or drive a wedge between the two of you.

We can’t help but compare ourselves to others, so envy is simply part of the human experience. But if you let envy run unchecked, it can turn hostile as you go from thinking “I want that too,” to “If I can’t have that, I don’t want you to have that…” The latter thinking leads to an emotion called schadenfreude, which is a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. If you’ve ever enjoyed a story of a rich person losing their money, then you’ve experienced schadenfreude. When you find yourself in envy town, avoid the ‘schadenfreude road’ and take the ‘freudenfreude road.’ Freudenfreude is a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s success ‐ the opposite of schadenfreude. Psychologists find that people who lack strong connections with others experience a lack of freudenfreude.

Experience more freudenfreude in your life by seeing yourself as a member of a huge team. When a teammate (i.e., friend, family member, or coworker) scores a goal, eagerly sprint towards them and celebrate their success as though it was your success. Then keep other people’s joy alive by showing interest in their joy and asking follow‐up questions.

Pity town

When someone in your life experiences a loss or setback and you think, “That must suck for them.” Or you say, “I’m so sorry for you.” ‐ You’ve entered pity town.

Pity is the near enemy of compassion. Pity and compassion seem like similar emotions, but they have profoundly different impacts on a relationship. Compassion fosters connection by conveying the message “me too.” Whereas pity conveys the message, “I’m glad that’s not me,” and “That couldn’t happen to me,” which undermines connection. When you feel sorry for someone but want to keep your distance, you’re in pity town. Get out of that town by getting on the ‘compassion road.’

Start by recognizing someone’s suffering and thinking “Yup, that could be me.” Then hit these three ‘compassion road’ checkpoints.

  1. Ask what their experience is like.
  2. Accept their pain and suffering as they say it is and don’t downplay it.
  3. Clarify what you hear and show understanding.

The job is not to entirely relate to someone’s pain or to walk in their shoes. The job is to listen to the story someone is telling you about their pain and believe them even if it doesn’t match your experience. Your willingness to listen and believe someone in pain will give them the strength to face their suffering and move through it.

Disappointment town

Whether you realize it or not, you have a movie playing in your head about how others should act. When people deviate from your internal movie, you experience disappointment. You can largely avoid ‘disappointment town’ by examining the movie playing in your head and letting people know what role you expect them to play.

At work, Brown has developed the habit of painting a perfect picture of her expectations so she doesn’t hold her team to unrealistic expectations and resent them for not doing things she silently expects them to do. Her expectation expressing habit is called “painting done.” In the book, she says, “Painting done” means fully walking through my expectations of what the completed task will look like, including when it will be done, what I’ll do with the information, how it will be used, the context, the consequences of not doing it, the costs—everything we can think of to paint a shared picture of the expectations. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have.”

The next time you find yourself in ‘disappointment town,’ ask yourself:

  1. “Did I have any ‘stealth expectations’ that weren’t properly expressed?”
  2. “Could I have done a better job of expressing my expectations?”
  3. “Were my expectations violated for reasons largely outside of anyone’s control?”

Examining, reality‐checking, and expressing your expectations will ensure you spend as little as time as possible in ‘disappointment town.’

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries is that:

Emotional granularity means being able to identify our emotions and experiences and express them to other people. The more nuanced and specific the words are that we have for emotions, the more expansive our inner worlds will be. Becoming attuned to our emotional states allows us to build loving relationships with ourselves, and the people around us.

And here’s some more actionable advice: Take a time-out when you’re overwhelmed.

If you feel flooded by emotions like fear or anger, the rational part of your brain shuts down. That’s not a great state to be in during a fight, or in a situation where you need to make a decision. Build time-outs into your communication with people you love. When you’re overwhelmed, take some time by yourself to breathe deeply and process. When you’re feeling calmer, you can pick up where you left off.

About the author

Brené Brown is a research professor at The University of Houston and a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. She’s spent the past two decades researching emotions like vulnerability and shame, and her TEDx talk on the subject has been viewed more than 50 million times. Her previous New York Times best-selling books include Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. Brown has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers: Atlas of the Heart, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead, which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience. She hosts the Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead podcasts, and her TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world with more than 50 million views. Her Netflix special, The Call to Courage, is the first filmed lecture by a researcher on the streaming service. Brown lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

#1 Places We Go When Things Are uncertain or Too Much
Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability

#2 Places We Go When We Compare
Comparison, Admiration, Reverence, Envy, Jealousy, Resentment, Schadenfreude, Freudenfreude

#3 Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned
Boredom, Disappointment, Expectations, Regret, Discouragement, Resignation, Frustration

#4 Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us
Awe, Wonder, Confusion, Curiosity, interest, Surprise

#5 Places We Go When Things Aren’t What They Seem
Amusement, Bittersweetness, Nostalgia, Cognitive Dissonance, Paradox, Irony, Sarcasm

#6 Places We Go When We’re Hurting
Anguish, Hopelessness, Despair, Sadness, Grief

#7 Places We Go with Others
Compassion, Pity, Empathy, Sympathy, Boundaries, Comparative Suffering

#8 Places We Go When We Fall Short
Shame, Self-Compassion, Perfectionism, Guilt, Humiliation, Embarrassment

#9 Places We Go When We Search for Connection
Belonging, Fitting In, Connection, Disconnection, Insecurity, Invisibility, Loneliness

#10 Places We Go When the Heart Is Open
Love, Lovelessness, Heartbreak, Trust, Self-Trust, Betrayal, Defensiveness, Flooding, Hurt

#11 Places We Go When Life Is Good
Joy, Happiness, Calm, Contentment, Gratitude, Foreboding Joy, Relief, Tranquility

#12 Places We Go When We Feel Wronged
Anger, Contempt, Disgust, Dehumanization, Hate, Self-Righteousness

#13 Places We Go to Self-Assess
Pride, Hubris, Humility

Cultivating Meaningful Connection

Gratitude

Notes

Overview

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In her latest book, Brené Brown writes, “If we want to find the way back to ourselves and one another, we need language and the grounded confidence to both tell our stories and be stewards of the stories that we hear. This is the framework for meaningful connection.”

Don’t miss the five-part HBO Max docuseries Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart!

In Atlas of the Heart, Brown takes us on a journey through eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human. As she maps the necessary skills and an actionable framework for meaningful connection, she gives us the language and tools to access a universe of new choices and second chances—a universe where we can share and steward the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with one another in a way that builds connection.

Over the past two decades, Brown’s extensive research into the experiences that make us who we are has shaped the cultural conversation and helped define what it means to be courageous with our lives. Atlas of the Heart draws on this research, as well as on Brown’s singular skills as a storyteller, to show us how accurately naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power—it gives us the power of understanding, meaning, and choice.

Brown shares, “I want this book to be an atlas for all of us, because I believe that, with an adventurous heart and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves.”

Video and Podcast

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

An Amazon Best Book of December 2021: In Atlas of the Heart Brené Brown unpacks the complex web of emotion, behavior, and thoughts that are triggered by our experiences, and gives us the nuanced language to fully understand our feelings and express them to others. At first glance, this seems like a very thorny subject, but Brown engages the reader through anecdotes, humor, and data to create a narrative that makes total sense. The book’s map metaphor and chapter titles guide readers through the places we go when we are experiencing different emotions, illustrating how a seemingly singular emotion or experience—regret, for example—has multiple categorizations (six in this case), each of which feels distinct from the others. As I read Atlas of the Heart I had the overwhelming sense that Brown “got” me so clearly it gave me the chills, and I think others will also feel seen, understood, and changed for the better by what this book has to offer. – Seira Wilson, Amazon Editor

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much

Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability

Stressed and Overwhelmed

The restaurant is packed. It’s loud, every table is full, and people are lined up out the door. There’s at least one angry person at every table who is desperately trying to wave down a waiter.

“We never got our bread!”

“We need more tea!”

“We’ve been waiting on our salads for twenty minutes!”

“We need our check unless you don’t want us to pay for this crappy service!”

You can hear the kitchen manager’s booming voice through the swinging doors:

“The food on the line is dying—let’s go, let’s go!”

“We’ve got desserts ready for table 10 and bread ready for tables 3, 4, and 8.”

But only one waiter showed up for the shift. And it’s me. And I can’t speak, for some reason. And I’m wearing a bathing suit and huge fins that make it hard to walk and impossible to run.

This is one of my least favorite recurring bad dreams. I hate it because, after six years of waiting tables and bartending for a high-pressure, high-expectation restaurant group through college and grad school, I know that feeling all too well. We made a lot of money, but we worked our asses off. And the pressure left a mark.

Still today, if Steve is in the kitchen and I walk behind him, I’ll shout, “Behind you!” And if I spy someone leaning against the counter during a family kitchen clean-up after dinner, I have to stop myself from saying, “Hey! If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” The language and habits of that job were survival, and they stuck.

Weirdly—or maybe not—the majority of my current leadership team have significant restaurant experience. Maybe we attract one another, or maybe I’m just drawn to the capacity for grind. If you work on our team and you step over a sugar packet on the floor because picking that up is someone else’s job—you’re not a good fit.

Stressed and overwhelmed remind me of two restaurant terms that my team and I often use today: “in the weeds” and “blown.” Back in the day, if I walked into the kitchen and told another waiter “I’m in the weeds”—the response would be, “What do you need?” I might say, “Can you take bread to tables 2 and 4, and re-tea tables 3 and 5, please?”

Being in the weeds and pulling out of the weeds happened to everyone on almost every shift. It was just part of the job, and you learned to manage it.

Walking into the kitchen and saying “I’m blown”—well, that’s completely different. The kitchen gets really quiet. No one asks what you need. Normally, someone runs to the hostess stand to find out what tables you’re running that shift—they don’t even assume you know at this point. The kitchen manager, who would never get involved in an “in the weeds” situation, pulls all the tickets for your guests to evaluate what’s happening and immediately assigns your tables to other waitstaff.

When you’re blown, you can either step outside or into the cooler or go to the bathroom (and cry). Whatever you need. You’re expected back in ten minutes, ready to go, but for ten minutes, there’s a complete takeover. In six years, it happened to me twice, both times due to pure exhaustion at the end of triple shifts that I was working because tuition was due. Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown.

Stressed

We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.

Stressful situations cause both physiological (body) and psychological (mind and emotion) reactions. However, regardless of how strongly our body responds to stress (increases in heart rate and cortisol), our emotional reaction is more tied to our cognitive assessment of whether we can cope with the situation than to how our body is reacting. I found this really interesting because I always assumed that my emotions responded to my body freaking out. But really, my emotions are responding to my “thinking” assessment of how well I can handle something.

Just as getting in and out of the weeds is a part of every waitstaff shift in a restaurant, navigating stressors is a daily part of living. However, daily stress can take a toll. In fact, chronic exposure to stressors can be detrimental to health. High levels of perceived stress have been shown to correlate with more rapid aging, decreased immune function, greater inflammatory processes, less sleep, and poorer health behaviors.

Overwhelmed

If stress is like being in the weeds, feeling overwhelmed is like being blown. Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function. I love this definition of “overwhelmed” from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “completely overcome or overpowered by thought or feeling.”

We all know that feeling that washes over us and leaves us completely unsure of what to do next. Even when people ask “How can I help?” or “What needs to be done?”—responding with organized thoughts feels impossible. This is also when I can get really crappy and think to myself, If I had the wherewithal to figure out what comes next and how we need to approach all of this, I wouldn’t be walking around in circles crying and talking to myself.

Feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed seem to be related to our perception of how we are coping with our current situation and our ability to handle the accompanying emotions: Am I coping? Can I handle this? Am I inching toward the quicksand?

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes overwhelm as the all-too-common feeling “that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.”

This really resonates with me: It’s all unfolding faster than my nervous system and psyche can manage it.

When I read that Kabat-Zinn suggests that mindful play, or no-agenda, non-doing time, is the cure for overwhelm, it made sense to me why, when we were blown at the restaurant, we weren’t asked to help problem-solve the situation. We were just asked to engage in non-doing. I’m sure experience taught the managers that doing nothing was the only way back for someone totally overwhelmed.

The non-doing also makes sense—there is a body of research that indicates that we don’t process other emotional information accurately when we feel overwhelmed, and this can result in poor decision making. In fact, researcher Carol Gohm used the term “overwhelmed” to describe an experience where our emotions are intense, our focus on them is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we’re feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions.

In other words: On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m feeling my emotions at about 10, I’m paying attention to them at about 5, and I understand them at about 2.

This is not a setup for successful decision making. The big learning here is that feeling both stressed and overwhelmed is about our narrative of emotional and mental depletion—there’s just too much going on to manage effectively.

Anxiety

For me, anxiety feels like what I lovingly call the “Willy Wonka shit tunnel.” There’s a frightening scene in the original Willy Wonka film that starts out as a sweet boat ride through a magical land of supersized candy and turns into an escalating scene of fear and loss of control. As the boat enters a dark tunnel, the mood turns. The boat starts going faster and faster while terrible images flash on the walls, including a close-up of a millipede crawling over someone’s face, a chicken getting its head cut off, and a lizard eating a bug. None of it makes narrative sense; it’s just scary and confusing.

All of this is happening while the passengers—children and their parents—are freaking out and Willy Wonka, played by the incredible, wild-eyed Gene Wilder, is maniacally reciting this poem at an increasingly frenetic rate:

There’s no earthly way of knowing

Which direction we are going.

There’s no knowing where we’re rowing

Or which way the river’s flowing.

Is it raining?

Is it snowing?

Is a hurricane a-blowing?

Not a speck of light is showing

So the danger must be growing.

Are the fires of hell a-glowing?

Is the grisly reaper mowing?

Yes! The danger must be growing

For the rowers keep on rowing.

And they’re certainly not showing

Any signs that they are slowing!

That’s what anxiety feels like to me. Escalating loss of control, worst-case-scenario thinking and imagery, and total uncertainty.

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