February 4, 2022 | LIFE | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Kira Schulist

I am drawn to Brené Brown because she has spearheaded important conversations about aspects of the human experience that we might prefer not to talk about.

Brown wears many hats: social worker, researcher, and professor. She is known for her research around vulnerability and shame. However, Brown did not start out her social work education knowing that she wanted to dive headfirst into these hard-to-talk-about phenomena.

She explains on her website that she wanted to learn about “the anatomy of connection.” Soon enough, Brown posited that you can’t understand connection if you don’t understand the way that shame can drive us apart from others, and the way that vulnerability can bring us together.

Brown’s research has certainly struck a chord with people. Brown first rose to fame when her 2013 Ted Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” went viral. It remains one of the most viewed Ted Talks in the world. Since then, she continues to prove herself to be a powerful storyteller. She has shared her research with the world through ten books. Brown also hosts two podcasts where she has talked to guests including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Dolly Parton.

I was scrolling through Instagram when a quote posted by Brown caught my eye. She shared a comment she had made as a guest on the Happiness Lab podcast: “It’s a huge part of the mythology around emotion that if we look it in the eye, it gives it power… the reality is, if we look it in the eye and name it, it gives us power.”

This idea forms the premise of Brown’s newest book, “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience.” The book, which was released in late November 2021, features some pages that are entirely filled by a single quote. It’s also only available as a hardcover, which is fitting; with its artistic details, it’s the kind of pretty tabletop book that you might prefer to flip through over time rather than read all at once.

According to Brown, many of us have limited language around emotions, and this hinders our ability to accurately pinpoint and describe the emotions that we are feeling. Throughout her research, she has found that many people lump complex, nuanced emotional experiences into three nebulous categories: happy, sad, and angry.

By building up our vocabulary around emotions, we can live richer lives. Brown cites research demonstrating that creating a habit of labeling our emotions is associated with improved emotion regulation and well-being. Additionally, a robust language base improves our ability to recognize and conceptualize emotions in others. It also helps us to communicate our feelings.

All of this comes back to the crux of Brown’s research: connection. Brown believes that connection is why we are here and is what brings meaning into our lives. In the introduction to “Atlas of the Heart” she shares that, “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.”

Throughout the book, Brown walks you through 87 emotions and experiences, categorized into 13 chapters. For example, “places we go when it’s beyond us” features emotions such as awe, wonder, and surprise. “Places we go to self-assess” includes pride, hubris, and humility.

As you flip through “Atlas of the Heart,” you’ll read about emotions and experiences such as freudenfreude (the enjoyment of another’s success), bittersweetness, cognitive dissonance, gratitude, tranquility, dehumanization, reverence, heartbreak, and amusement. You are bound to think of emotions in ways you never have before. You are also likely to come across an emotion that you’ve never known the name of until now.  

Brown is skilled at bringing in poignant anecdotes and stories to bring her research to life. She also frequently draws on other people’s work. For example, she uses excerpts from bell hooks’ writing to describe lovelessness and includes quotes about loneliness from Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.

The only way through the uncomfortable emotions is to experience them. In her aforementioned Ted Talk, Brown shares that you cannot “selectively numb” emotions. If you try to numb the uncomfortable emotions, you will just end up numbing your full spectrum of emotions, including joy, gratitude, and contentment.

Through acknowledging and labeling uncomfortable emotions head-on, we can learn to regulate them better and learn more about what it means to be a human. By allowing ourselves to fully lean into the more pleasant emotions such as gratitude, contentment, and trust, we can enhance our experiences of them. Ultimately, we can tell richer stories about our experiences in a way that promotes connection.

You can also look forward to diving into “Atlas of the Heart” visually later in the spring, as HBO Max has ordered an eight-episode series based on the book. 

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