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  • Writer's pictureBeth Pandolpho

Finding Your Way with Atlas of the Heart

I am basically a fan of everything “Brené Brown”, but when I preordered Atlas of the Heart, I somehow failed to notice that it is very different from all of her other books.

First of all, it is more of a “coffee table book”. It’s printed in color, and includes images, quote cards, photography, and even comic book art. It is also more like a reference book, not necessarily a book to be read in one sitting. Brown calls it an “Atlas”, a book of maps that seeks to offer us pathways to more deeply connect to ourselves and each other, “of the Heart” that clarifies the language of emotions.

Brown often says that she sees herself as both a “mapmaker and a traveller”. as she is both the creator of these maps, and a fellow traveler on the same journey that we are. In Atlas of the Heart, she seeks to answer the questions:

Where am I?

How did I get here from there?

How do I get there from here? (xxix)

In Atlas of the Heart, Brown shares what she’s learned through her research both to empower readers to accurately identify their emotions, and to help us engage in productive conversations towards mutual understanding and healing.

To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves, but to do either, we must first establish a common understanding of the language of emotion and human experience.” Atlas of the Heart (xxx)

Atlas of the Heart includes 87 emotions which are organized into sections with their similar counterparts in order to offer a more nuanced understanding of our emotional realities. Brown explains the reason for this structure on her podcast, "Unlocking Us", she says, "What’s helpful is understanding how the things are the same and how they’re different, and if you’re talking about a metaphor of a map, which of these emotions live close together, which do you guess are close together, but live continents apart. Brown decided to group the emotions by how people could “ learn them best”.

Here’s an example of how the emotions in the book are organized:

Places We Go When We Fall Short

Shame, Self-Compassion, Perfectionism, Guilt, Humiliation, Embarrassment

Places We Go When Life Is Good

Joy, Happiness, Calm, Contentment, Gratitude, Foreboding Joy, Relief, Tranquility

Emotional literacy, in my opinion, is as critical as having language. When we can’t name and articulate what’s happening to us emotionally, we cannot move through it” - Dare to Lead, (p. 146)

Over and over, reading Atlas of the Heart prompted me to more deeply reckon with my relationships and experiences, which both helped me gain further clarity and brought a sense of calm.

Brown defines calm as “creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity” (p. 208). This perspective and more nuanced understanding of my emotional life has been soothing in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.

Let me explain. . .

Without sharing too many of the specifics, recently, I was feeling very emotional about something that was happening with my kids. I kept repeating to my partner, “I feel so guilty”. In response, he went to great lengths to explain to me in the most specific ways and on the most granular levels (as the engineer he is) why I was not responsible for this situation; and yet, hard as he tried, it still didn’t make me feel any better.

At the time, I was in the middle of reading Atlas, so it occurred to me that maybe the reason his efforts seemed to be in vain was because perhaps I wasn’t accurately articulating my feelings. Brown offers this example:

Imagine if you had a shooting pain in your left shoulder that was so severe it actually took your breath away. . . . When you finally arrive at the doctor’s office and she asks what’s going on, there’s suddenly tape over your mouth and your hands are tied behind your back. You try yelling through the tape and freeing your hands so you can point to your shoulder, but there’s no use. You’re just there - inches and minutes from help and possible relief - but you can’t communicate or explain the pain. (xxi).

I decided that maybe I should reread the section about guilt to see if it indeed represented how I was feeling. It didn’t take me long to realize that what I was actually feeling wasn't guilt at all, which is defined as feeling as if I had “done something wrong” (p. 146).

And the more I thought about it, it became clear that what I was really feeling was more of a deep sadness, which I ultimately realized (much to my surprise) was grief. In Atlas of the Heart, Brown includes this definition of grief from Robert A. Neimeyer, “A central process in grieving is the attempt to reaffirm or reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss” (p. 110).

When I shared this new understanding with my partner, he was then able to empathize, and be with me in my sadness. Almost immediately, I could feel the soothing comfort of his support. My newfound ability to express exactly what I was feeling helped me feel seen and understood, and it then enabled me to heal. In retrospect, this makes sense - for the way to console someone who is grieving is very different than trying to convince someone of their innocence. Brown writes, "Language matters. It’s the raw material of story, it changes how we feel about ourselves and others, and it’s a portal to connection.” (p. 235).

To read Atlas of the Heart is to realize how woefully inarticulate we are in the language of emotions. Brown reports that over the course of five years of research with data from 7,000 participants, the average number of emotions that people could recognize and name was three: happy, sad, and angry. She writes, “What does it mean if the vastness of human emotion and experience can only be expressed as mad, sad or happy?” (xxi)

If you are open to the lessons of Atlas of the Heart, the deeper and more nuanced understanding it will bring can be unsettling at first as its descriptions may conjure up the words and actions of, let's say, coworkers, friends, or even ex-husbands. You may read and reread as you realize, “Oh, her perfectionism is actually shame-based”, and “His hubris is a result of his fear of being ordinary”. And then you may think, “Now what do I do with that? Does that make me feel less angry? Does it deepen my compassion? Or does it just make me feel sad?

If you’re like me, these questions will prompt you to flip the pages, underline passages, and finally just push the book aside in order to absorb it all. And yet, as you move through each moment of reckoning, reading Atlas of the Heart can be as expansive for your heart and your mind as a meditative practice, a symphony, or a sunrise.

I think the real power of Atlas of the Heart is in the repeated practice of referencing it when you're struggling to find your way.

It is an atlas, after all.

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