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Emotional Connections

A Review of “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience”



Children are born with emotions, but we aren’t born with the ability to identify and talk about them. That’s something caregivers must do: help a child learn from what is happening in their body what emotion(s) they are feeling, giving them the appropriate label(s) for the emotion(s), and helping them figure out what to do with them.

Many of us didn’t have this instruction.

Maybe our parent(s) or caregiver(s) were too busy or exhausted to spend this kind of concentrated attention on us. Maybe their own emotional range was very limited, say from dismissive to angry to rageful. Or maybe they themselves were never taught about emotions. The latter has the fancy name of alexithymia: being unable to use language to label emotions.

Most of us can discuss at least some of our emotions, but often our range is also quite limited.  Brene Brown reports that when she began teaching about emotions 15 years ago and asked her audiences to list all of the emotions that they could recognize and name as they were experiencing them, the average was three: happy, sad, and angry.

A limited emotional vocabulary can be particularly harmful for trauma survivors. With only a limited emotional vocabulary, Brown says, “it is difficult to communicate our needs and to get the support that we need from others.” “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.” Not talking about emotions can also cause shame: “For children, it’s easy for everything to become a source of shame when nothing is normalized. You assume that if no one is talking about it, it must be just you.”

In her new book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Brown has taken an important step toward helping those of us who struggle with emotions. It’s a big, gorgeous book (lots of white space, full-page and colorful quotes, pretty pictures) that’s organized like an old-fashioned atlas. Chapters group similar emotions together with a descriptive label: “Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much: Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability” and “Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned: Boredom, Disappointment, Expectations, Regret, Discouragement, Resignation, Frustration.” She covers a total of 87 emotions and experiences, divided into thirteen “places.”

Each chapter describes the covered emotions one by one, defining them and differentiating them from similar feelings in the same chapter. Where they’re available, she includes stories and relevant findings from others who study emotions. The feeling is informal, like a fireside chat between friends: “This is how I think about this emotion.” Sometimes the insights are delightful. About comparison (which she admits is not truly an emotion) she quips, “Comparison says, ‘Be like everyone else, but better.’”

It’s not until the very end that she tells us the book’s goal: cultivating meaningful connection. 

CONNECTION is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

She says three major categories support cultivating meaningful connection.

Brown says “…[I]t’s not fear that gets in the way of courage, it’s armor – how we self-protect when we feel uncertain or fearful. Our armoring behaviors keep us from showing up in ways that are aligned with our values. As we learn to recognize and remove our armor, we replace it with grounded confidence,” one of the cultivating meaningful connection triad.

Practicing the courage to walk alongside is the second part of the triad. I envision a practice simultaneously both very simple and very difficult: being able to sit with someone who is in pain or feeling some other strong emotion and just listen to and witness them. That includes not advising them, not trying to talk them out of their feelings, and not feeling helpless yourself because you can’t fix things. It isn’t about fixing: the gift is the walking alongside, the witnessing of their experience.

The third part of the triad, practicing story stewardship, is quite similar to the above. “Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story – the ones we share and the ones we hear – and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care.”

Although I like Brown’s book very much, to me it’s missing a key piece needed by those of us with deficient emotional training: how do we recognize our feelings? Brown’s descriptions may do it for some readers, but they are all cerebral: this is how this emotion differs from that emotion. What we may also have missed is the piece where informed and caring adults help us figure out what our bodies are telling us, and tying that back to an experience or thought. For that piece, we’re going to have to look elsewhere. Try starting here.