Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

The Book in A Few Sentences

Forming meaningful connections with ourselves and others requires learning the language of emotions and human connection. Having a nuanced vocabulary around labeling our emotions can be transformative. Usually, we look outside ourselves for solid ground, but emotions are internal and always available to anchor us wherever we are. 

Atlas of the Heart summary

This is my book summary of Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown. The summary includes the full Atlas of the Heart List of emotions. My summaries are casual and include what I believe are the most important concepts, ideas and insights from the book, as well as direct quotes from the author.

  • So aversive are we to pain that we act out in ways that create more pain.
  • Are you more likely to love yourself or make others comfortable?
  • Trying to outrun vulnerability and pain only creates more suffering and exhaustion.
  • The more we avoid unpleasant feelings through distractions like food, movies, work, even caretaking, the less we will understand our thoughts, feelings, moods and behaviors.
  • People who are being mean are showing what they are afraid of.
    If someone is held accountable for their behavior, and they feel shame, that is different than shaming.
  • We are responsible for respectfully holding others accountable, but we’re not responsible for others’ emotional reaction to that accountability.
  • Most people can only name three emotions: happy, sad, angry.
    Increasing our emotional vocabulary can be life-changing because without language, we don’t have the words needed to describe our experience, so we remain trapped in darkness not knowing ourselves and our behavior.
  • “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.” - Susan David
  • People who can distinguish between a range of emotions are much better able to manage the ups and downs of daily life.
  • “As human beings we can only experience life emotionally.” - Eduardo Bericat
  • Being able to label emotions is healing.
  • Knowing the language of emotions lets us adventure and explore the complexity of human life without losing ourselves.
  • Often we look outside ourselves for safety and comfort, but solid ground is always available within us.
  • Connecting with ourselves is the key to grounded confidence.
  • Our ability to connect with others is directly proportional to our ability to connect with ourselves.

Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much

Stressed. Feeling stressed comes from believing we aren’t capable of handling what is before us. It’s a reflection of our mind, not our body.

Overwhelmed. An extreme level of cognitive and/or emotional stress.

Anxiety. Anxiety can be both a temporary state and a personality trait. Generalized anxiety disorder is excessive worry about everyday issues.

  • All anxiety derives from intolerance for uncertainty, which leads to two coping mechanisms: worry or avoidance. Worry is doubt about future events. Avoidance is distracting ourselves from the unpleasant sensation of anxiety.
  • “The entire premise of this book is that language has the power to define our experiences.”
    “…labels are important because they help us know what to do next.”
  • Anxiety is future-based, while fear is now.
  • The typical responses to fear are fight, flight, or freeze.
  • Social and physical pain are experienced in the same parts of the body.
  • The way to work with anxiety and fear is to discover why they keep showing up and what they have to teach us.

Vulnerability. An emotion borne of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is a measure of courage.

Places We Go When We Compare

Comparison. Trying to fit in and stand out at the same time. We are hardwired to compare ourselves to others, but we can choose whether or not it affects our mood and self-perceptions. Choose connection over comparison.

Envy. Can be attributed to one of three categories: attraction, competence, wealth. Often confused with jealousy.

Jealousy. What we think in response to how we feel. Usually related to relationships, including loss of attention, affection, or other resources. More satisfied couples are less likely to experience jealousy. If I’m scared I’m losing something important to me, what kind of conversation do I need to have with that person?

Resentment. Part of envy. If you want to know what’s likely to trigger shame for you, just fill in this sentence stem: It’s really important for me not to be perceived as _____________________.

Schadenfreude. Driving pleasure from someone else suffering. A way to build “counterfeit connection” with others. Decreased brain activity in the empathy centers and increased activity in the reward centers.

Freudenfreude. Enjoying another’s success, a subset of empathy. Shoy: intentionally demonstrating interest in another’s success. Bragitude: intentionally being grateful for another’s success.

Places We Go When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Boredom. Desire for satisfying activity without the ability. Can leave us feeling either frustrated and restless or lethargic.

Disappointment. Unmet expectations. The greater the expectations, the greater the disappointment. An intense emotion, one of the most frequently experienced. Are you setting goals and expectations that are completely outside of your control?

Expectations. Communicating expectations is vulnerable and brave. Being vulnerable fosters connection with ourselves and others. Many would rather live disappointed rather than risk feeling disappointed. This can look like numbing, foreboding joy, cynicism, being critical, or never fully engaging.

Regret. Short term, we tend to regret actions taken. Long term, we tend to regret actions not taken. 90 percent of regret falls into six categories: education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure. What can regret teach us about ourselves?

  • “Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.”

Discouraged, Resigned, and Frustrated. When things don’t go as planned. Anger and frustration can result from thwarted desire. Frustration is thinking the situation is unresolvable. Anger is thinking something can be done.

Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us

Awe and Wonder. Wonder desires to understand and fuels curiosity. Awe lets phenomenon shine. Both are often experienced with nature, art, music, spiritual experiences, or ideas.

Confusion. Vital for learning, motivates and triggers learning. Learning is effortful, and the mind feels discomfort.

Curiosity. Involves both emotion and thinking. Interest that sparks investigation to bridge a knowledge gap. Shutting down is not a skillful way to resolve pain.

Interest. Openness to engaging with a topic or experience.

Surprise. Emotion with the shortest duration, it is information that is unexpected.

Places We Go When Things Aren’t What They Seem

  • Contradictory thoughts and emotions reveal our human complexity, and complexity is one of our greatest teachers. Uncertainty is a function of grounded confidence.

Amusement. Relaxed, pleasurable excitation from humor. Different from the general sense of pleasure of happiness.

Bittersweet. Simultaneously feeling happy and sad. Like watching children grow up, divorce or retiring.

Nostalgia. Yearning for an idealized and often self-protective version of the past. Tends to elicit negative emotions for those prone to rumination and depression. Rumination is psychologically unhealthy; reflection is healthy.

Cognitive Dissonance. Holding two psychologically inconsistent ideas, attitudes, beliefs or opinions at the same time motivated by self-justification.

Paradox. Two ideas that appear contradictory. Example: Vulnerability is the first thing we look for in other people and the last thing we want to show them about ourselves.

  • “The paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions…only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” - Carl Jung
  • “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” - F. Scott Fitgerald

Irony and Sarcasm. Forms of communication that are different from the intended message. May include elements of ridicule and humor. Are you dressing something up in humor that actually requires clarity and honesty?

Places We Go When We’re Hurting

Anguish. A mix of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness. Powerlessness is particularly painful. Coming back to our bodies can be difficult after experiencing anguish.

  • “…so much of effective trauma work today is not only about reclaiming our breath, our feelings, and our thinking, but also getting our bones back and returning to our bodies.”

Hope. Hope = realistic goals + means for achievement + sense of agency. A thought, not an emotion. Hope helps us get through adversity and discomfort. Gil Fronsdal once said we need a certain amount of hope, otherwise, we’d just give up on life.

Hopelessness. An emotion arising out of negative events and negative thought patterns, especially self-blame, and believing nothing can be done about it. We don’t believe that we have the ability to get what we want. It may be related to a specific situation or life in general. Strongly related to suicidality.

Despair. A sense of hopelessness about one’s entire life and future combined with extreme sadness. “…the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.” - Rob Bell. Realistic goal-setting is a skill and a prerequisite for hope.

  • Hope practice can help with despair: being intentional with goals, thinking through solutions, and cultivating belief in ourselves and our ability to accomplish. Will this issue be a big deal in five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five months? Five years?

Sadness. An important emotion that we need and owning it is courageous and necessary for knowing ourselves and others. It comes from loss or defeat — real or imagined. It is not depression and not grief. Acknowledging our sadness is vital for developing compassion and empathy. Sadness moves us, lets us feel human, and connects us to the rest of humanity.

Grief. A process of multiple emotions, including loss, longing, and feeling lost. When unable to articulate our loss, longing and feeling lost to others, we feel alone and disconnected.

Places We Go With Others

Compassion. A daily practice of acknowledging the beauty and pain of our shared humanity so that we may respond to ourselves and others with loving-kindness and take action in the face of suffering. It’s feeling with doing and a relationship between equals. To the degree that we can be present with our own pain is the degree that we can be present for the pain of others.

Pity. The near enemy of compassion. Despair is also an enemy of compassion. Being pitied feels isolating. Includes four elements: belief that the person suffering is inferior; does not include help; emotionally distant; avoids sharing in another’s suffering.

Empathy. Empathy is a tool of compassion and emotional skillset, allowing us to understand and reflect back what someone else is experiencing. Only when we are willing to be present for another’s pain can we respond with empathy. It’s not the commonly held belief that we put ourselves in another’s shoes, but rather it means connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.

Boundaries. Compassion and empathy can’t exist without boundaries. Connection happens when we know where we end, and others begin otherwise, it’s enmeshment.

Sympathy. Sympathy is related to pity. It is a way of implying that whatever is happening to you doesn’t happen to me.

Comparative Suffering. Comparing one’s suffering to another either by inflating or deflating our own suffering compared to others. For example, “My husband died, and that grief is worse than the grief over missing your daughter’s wedding.” Or “I’m not allowed to talk about how disappointed I am about my job changing because my friend just found out that his wife has COVID.”

  • Empathy and compassion are not finite resources. In fact, the more we share these qualities, the more they grow. Each time we honor our own pain and sorrow and that of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the resulting healing affects us all.

Places We Go When We Fall Short

Shame. A feeling that I am bad, not my behavior. It is an intensely painful feeling of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. We keep shame hidden because we believe we deserve to feel that way and are not enough. Examples include raging at my kids, bankruptcy, and DUIs.

  • Shame often fuels narcissistic behaviors. When shame is present, empathy is almost always absent. It is not a catalyst for positive change, but empathy and self-compassion can help us move through shame.
  • Four elements of shame resilience: Recognizing shame and its triggers; practicing critical awareness; reaching out to others; talking with others about our shame.

Perfectionism. It is about trying to earn approval and acceptance. It is the feeling that if I can look perfect, live perfectly, work perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. Shame comes from perfectionism.

  • While healthy striving is internally driven, perfectionism is externally driven by the question, “What will people think?” That’s why perfectionism is one of the biggest barriers to mastery because it doesn’t allow for mistakes or failures. Perfectionism limits success and often leads to depression, anxiety, addiction, life paralysis, and not pursuing our dreams for fear of failing. “It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.”

Guilt. Doing or not doing something that goes against our values. It is a feeling that I behaved badly. This discomfort of cognitive dissonance can be a force for positive change.

Humiliation. Someone belittled me, and I felt disgusted with myself and unworthy of connection, but it was unfair, and I didn’t deserve this.

Embarrassment. Doing something that makes us uncomfortable while knowing others do these kinds of things too. The more sensitive we are to social norms and acceptance, the more susceptible we are to embarrassment.

Places We Go When We Search For Connection

Belonging and Fitting In. Feeling loved and finding a sense of belonging is essential to well being because we are social animals. True belonging starts with being true to ourselves and being who we are. Seeking approval and acceptance are the greatest barriers to belonging. Sacrificing who we are separates us, not only from others but ourselves too. Our sense of belonging is proportional to our level of self-acceptance.

Connection and Disconnection. Deriving strength from relationship from feeling seen, heard and valued without judgment. Disconnection is painful, and chronic disconnection leads to isolation, loneliness, and feelings of powerlessness. Disconnection can cause people to lose touch with their own feelings and inner experience. Pretending we don’t need anyone to avoid being hurt is a recipe for loneliness. Perfectionism is about avoiding being rejected, and yet perfectionism itself causes us to show up in ways that lead people to reject us.

  • “The need for connection in which growth is a priority is the core motivation in people’s lives. In growth-fostering relationships, people are able to bring themselves most fully and authentically into connection.” - Judith Jordan.

Insecurity. Self-security is “the open and nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s own weaknesses.” Even if we have high self-esteem, we can still be critical of ourselves. The more secure we are, the more vulnerable we can be, and the closer our relationships.

Invisibility. One of the most painful human experiences. It is when we don’t feel seen, know, or loved.

Loneliness. The absence of meaningful social interaction. Social connection gives us strength, not rugged individualism. We are genetically predisposed to interdependence rather than independence.

  • “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” - Dr. Vivek Murthy

Places We Go When the Heart Is Open

Love. Love between two people is cultivated. It is when we reveal our most vulnerable selves and are deeply seen and known and when the relationship is treated with respect, kindness, and affection. To the degree that we love ourselves, we can love others.

Heartbreak. Heartbreak comes from losing love, and heartbreak is inevitable unless we choose not to love at all. To be brokenhearted means you dared to love.

Trust. Risking making something we value vulnerable to another person’s actions.

Betrayal. A painful violation of trust.

Defensiveness. An attempt to protect our ego and self-esteem. It is the opposite of grounded confidence.

Flooding. When we get overwhelmed physiologically and physically and are unable to have a rational, productive conversation.

Hurt. Fear of being vulnerable due to emotional wounding. We cannot be in relationship without experiencing hurt. “My feelings are hurt” is perhaps the bravest and most vulnerable sentence we can say. Responding to hurt feelings with anger tends to elicit equal or greater anger.

Places We Go When Life Is Good

Joy. An intense, short-lived feeling of spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation often in relation to God, nature, or the universe. In joy, we become more ourselves. There is a strong relationship between joy and gratitude.

Happiness. A stable, longer-lasting feeling of being in control that is more internal than external.

Calm. An intention to be mindful and non-emotionally reactive. Do I have enough information to freak out? Will freaking out help?

Contentment. When our needs are satisfied, we feel complete, appreciative, and enough. Associated with greater life satisfaction and well being. “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life these days?”

Gratitude. Deep appreciation for what we value, what is meaningful to us, and what connects us to ourselves and others. Gratitude is correlated with better sleep, creativity, decision-making skills, decreased entitlement, and decreased hostility and aggression.

  • “…with gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.” - Robert Emmons

Foreboding Joy. Joy is the most vulnerable human emotion. Foreboding joy is when we can’t enjoy joy because we’re worried about when it will end. Those who practice gratitude tend to experience deep joy.

Relief. Relief of tension in the body and being able to breathe easier while looking forward to getting onto the next thing.

Tranquility. The absence of demand or the pressure to do anything while relishing the feeling of doing nothing.

Places We Go When We Feel Wronged

Anger. Anger is frustrated desire, or when we think things should be different than they are. Regulating anger rather than suppressing or expressing it is crucial for the health of our mind. Holding onto anger diminishes joy and spirit, and externalizing anger reduces our ability to effect change and connection.

Contempt. Contempt is when we believe others are incapable of change, and we put them beneath us in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. According to John and Julie Gottman, “contempt is perhaps the most corrosive force in marriage.”

Disgust. Disgust is trying to avoid being poisoned by something or someone. Once we dehumanize others, it’s easier to justify harming them.

Dehumanization. Demonizing others to make them seem less than human and therefore not worthy of being treated humanely.

Hate. A combination of emotions, including repulsion, anger, fear, disgust, and contempt where lack of contact strengthens these feelings. Hate crimes are generally perpetrated against people for who they are, not what they’ve done.

Self-Righteousness. It is believing that our beliefs and behaviors are correct. This thinking tends to be black and white, closed-minded, inflexible, intolerant of ambiguity, and less likely to consider other’s opinions.

Places We Go to Self-Assess

Pride. Pride is a feeling of pleasure or celebration related to effort or accomplishments. Authentic pride and feeling good about our accomplishments is healthy.

Hubris. Hubris is an inflated sense of one’s abilities related to dominance. The lower our self-esteem, the more likely we are to exhibit hubris.

Humility. A quiet, genuine groundedness, including openness to learning, and an accurate assessment of our strengths and limitations. Downplaying ourselves is modesty, not humility.

Cultivating Meaningful Connection

  • Cultivating meaningful connection requires grounded confidence, the courage to walk alongside others, and story stewardship.

Developing Grounded Confidence

  • Developing grounded confidence comes from a commitment to learning and growing. Being embodied and connected to ourselves facilitates this process, and without that connection we suffer insomnia, injuries, exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. Knowing and proving are its near enemies. Armor, or self-protection when we are uncertain or fearful, not fear, is what gets in the way of courage.

Practicing the Courage to Walk Alongside

  • This is a way of being with people, not pushing from behind or leading from the front, but walking side-by-side. The near enemy of walking alongside is controlling the path.

Practicing Story Stewardship

  • Story stewardship means acknowledging the sacredness of people’s stories and treating those stories with respect, and care. Good stewardship means listening, being curious, affirming and believing people’s experiences. How do we know what others are feeling? We ask. “I’m grateful that you’re sharing this with me. What does support look like? I can listen and be with you, I can help problem-solve, or whatever else you need. You tell me.”
  • Common hindrances to good stewardship include: being the knower, giving advice, and problem-solving. Often we hijack the story with our own narrative and make it about us, which is about protecting our ego, behavior, or privilege. Being careless with others’ stories diminishes our own humanity.

Language and Meaningful Connection

  • The key to all of the emotions is knowing them and having the vocabulary to communicate what we are experiencing so we can cultivate greater connection and heal ourselves. Having language and expressing it is key to grounded confidence, walking alongside, and story stewardship.
  • The near enemy of knowing and applying language is conforming experience and emotion to what we already know. In doing this, we miss the subtleties and nuances of lived experience that hinder connection and healing.
  • Understanding emotions and how they show up in our bodies, are affected by our family of origin, and how they affect our behavior is our life’s work. Understand that we can only connect as deeply with others as our connection to ourselves.
  • The real gift of learning the language of emotions, sharing with others, and developing meaningful connections is knowing you can go anywhere without getting lost. In other words, this practice enables us to always find our way back to our hearts and our purest self.

Related Resources

  • This is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts and concepts mentioned in Atlas of the Heart, which might be useful for future reading.

People

  • Susan David, Harvard psychologist
  • Eduardo Bericat, sociology professor
  • Alan Fridlund, social and clinical psychologist
  • Sherry Turkle
  • Jerry Suls, Rene Martin, and Ladd Wheeler, researchers
  • Alicia Njorte, researcher
  • Ulrich Weger and Johannes Wagermann, researchers
  • Mary Slaughter and David Rock, NeuroLeadership Institute
  • Sascha Topolinski and Fritz Strack, researchers
  • Stephanie Coontz, historian
  • Albert Camus
  • Leon Festinger
  • Carl Jung
  • Ranata Suzuki
  • C. R. Snyder, researcher
  • Robert A. Niemeyer, researcher on grief
  • Tassel Bordere
  • Judith Jordan
  • Alice Huang and Howard Berenbaum, researchers
  • John Cacioppo, social neuroscientist
  • Rebecca Neel and Bethany Lassetter
  • Julianne Holt-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton
  • Barbara Fredrickson
  • Joe Reynolds, retired Episcopal priest
  • Anita Vangelisti
  • Mark Leary and Carrie Springer, researchers
  • Matthew Kuan Johnson, researcher
  • Anne Robertson, theologian
  • Harriett Lerner, psychologist
  • Robert Emmons
  • Ira Roseman and Andreas Evdokas, researchers
  • Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, researchers
  • Martin Seligman
  • Charles Spielberger, anger researcher
  • Jonathan Haidt
  • Paul Ekman
  • Maria Miceli and Cristiano Castelfranchi, researchers
  • Michelle Miese, philosophy professor
  • Robert Sternberg, researcher
  • John Mark Green
  • Lisa Williams and Joel Davies, researchers
  • Jessica Tracy, researcher
  • Dr. Paul Raffoul
  • Fred Berlinger
  • Peter Hemphill

Books, Podcasts, and Articles

  • Wolfpack by Abby Bambach
  • Unlocking Us podcast
  • The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson
  • Think Again by Adam Grant
  • “The Psychology of Curiosity” by George Lewenstein
  • Believing It All by Marc Parent
  • Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  • Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
  • Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield
  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
  • Finding Fish by Antwone Fisher
  • Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
  • Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Dr. Vivek Murthy
  • All About Love by bell hooks
  • Rising Strong by Brené Brown
  • The Thin Book of Trust by Charles Feltman
  • Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman
  • Less Than Humans by David Livingstone Smith
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