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Book Club - Atlas of the Heart

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Each month as part of our Intentional Growth Club, we read a book and hold a discussion night to talk about our takeaways from the book.

Red cover of the book Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

This month, as part of our theme of "Becoming More Aware," we read Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown.

Author and researcher Brené Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, is a catalog of emotions and how they are related. Brown has spent more than 20 years researching emotions and created this book as a “map” to help us put an accurate name on what we feel.

The book groups the emotions into categories like “Places We Go When We’re Hurting,” and “Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much.” By grouping them together, she helps us recognize how some emotions are similar but can have crucial differences.

While the list of emotions is interesting and useful, the biggest takeaways from the book come from the overall themes we can extract by taking it as a whole.

1) The Importance of Accurately Identifying Emotions

One of the biggest keys to the book is the emphasis on how important it is to be able to accurately name our emotions. In the Introduction, Brown says during a survey she and her colleagues did asking participants to name all the emotions they could recognize, the average number was three - happy, sad, and angry.

If we are unable to articulate how we feel, then we’re unable to truly express those feelings and to manage them. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to go through life having to fit all of your emotions into the categories of happy, sad, or angry?

“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 severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.”

Many of the emotions that Brown discusses in the book are similar, but with key differences. For example, the terms “shame” and “guilt” may often be used interchangeably, but the nuance between the two can make a world of difference.

She describes shame as, “I am bad. The focus is on self, not behavior. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change.” And guilt is, “I did something bad. The focus is on behavior. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behavior.”

As you can see, the subtle difference between thinking “I am bad” vs “I did something bad” can make a huge impact on a person’s subsequent thoughts and actions. There are many other emotions with slight differences that can add up to big changes in our behavior, including stressed and overwhelmed, hopelessness and despair, and compassion and pity.

2) Near Enemies

Atlas of the Heart introduced me to the concept of emotional “near enemies.” The idea originally comes from Buddhism, and Brown borrows a definition from fellow researcher Chris Germer - “‘Near enemies are states that appear similar to the desired quality but actually undermine it. Far enemies are the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.’”

Examples include pity as a near enemy of compassion and attachment as a near enemy of love. Sometimes we make think of these emotions as the “real thing,” but in reality, they are moving us further away from our goal and the person we want to connect with.

When we think we are treating someone with compassion but are actually treating them with pity, our actions push them away instead of bringing them closer. Circling back to my first takeaway, this is just another reason why it is so crucial to accurately identify the emotions we are feeling. It can be easy to mistake one for another.

Brown sums it up best: “On the surface, the near enemies of emotions or experiences might look and even feel like connection, but ultimately they drive us to be disconnected from ourselves and from each other. Without awareness, near enemies become the practices that fuel separation, rather than practices that reinforce the inextricable connection of all people.”

3) Understanding Emotions Helps Us Connect

Most importantly, emotions are the way we connect with ourselves and with others. Think about times you have felt a strong connection with other people. Perhaps you were sharing the joy of a family gathering, the excitement of a ball game, comforting one another after the loss of a friend, or anxiously studying for exams together in the library at midnight.

When you can articulate and express your emotions, you are able to share how you feel with another person and also understand how they may be feeling. The shared emotional language builds connection.

On the flip side, when we can’t express our own emotions or understand another person’s feelings, it leads to separation. We push them away, whether intentionally or not. Emotional confusion causes us to lash out in frustration or withdraw.

It’s also important not to underestimate the value of being able to connect with ourselves. In the last chapter of the book, Brown goes into detail about how we can create these connections, but reminds us, “Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves. If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

Brown’s ultimate goal with this book was to create a “map” to guide us along the way to creating connections. When we can all look at the map and see where we are, we can figure out how to get to where we want to be.

Being able to accurately decipher our emotions and the emotions of others is a skill that takes a lot of hard work and practice. It's even more difficult in the heat of the moment to take a step back and determine whether you're really feeling envy or jealousy (or whatever other emotions you might be feeling).

I hope that reading Atlas of the Heart is the start of a journey toward increased awareness of your own feelings and the ability to better connect with others.

If you enjoyed this post or want to learn more about Atlas of the Heart, join us on April 26th at 6:30 CST for our monthly book club discussion. You can also check out the Atlas of the Heart series streaming on HBO.

Next month, our book will be Dear Female Founder edited by Lu Li.

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