Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

by Brené Brown

In Atlas of the Heart, Brown takes us on a journey through 87 emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human. Over the past two decades, Brown’s extensive research into the experiences that make us who we are has shaped the cultural conversation and helped define what it means to be courageous with our lives. Atlas of the Heart draws on this research, as well as on Brown’s singular skills as a storyteller, to show us how accurately naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power; it gives us the power of understanding, meaning, and choice.

Summary Notes

Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much

“Worrying and anxiety go together, but the worry is not an emotion; it’s the thinking part of anxiety. Worry is described as a chain of negative thoughts about bad things that might happen in the future.”

We tend to confuse stress with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Being stressed is related to fear of the unknown or unpredictable things happening to you. Being overwhelmed, on the other hand, is a state of mind marked by extreme and constant stress, in which thoughts and feelings completely overpower your mind and body. 

Anxiety is different from these feelings too. We experience anxiety when we feel tense, have constant worrying thoughts, and experience bodily changes, such as increased blood pressure. Stress is a prolonged period in which our worry impacts our body. Overwhelm is the feeling of not being able to cope anymore with your fears.

Vulnerability is another emotion that we experience when feeling uncertainty and emotional exposure. For example, you may feel vulnerable when you try to get pregnant after another miscarriage or go on the first date after your divorce. Even though people may feel this, these events do not show any kind of weakness; instead, it shows courage. Since courage is what it takes to face risks and uncertainty, vulnerability is a sign of courage.

Actions to take

Places We Go When We Compare

“Comparison says, “Be like everyone else, but better.”

Comparing ourselves to others is a common feeling we experience involuntarily, and it can trigger mixed emotions, both positive and, more often, negative feelings. This manner of comparing ourselves to others stems from within us.

For instance, we feel admiration when someone’s skills impress and inspire us. This is a positive emotion because it can motivate us to improve ourselves. This is different from feeling jealousy and envy, which are two completely distinct emotions. 

We are envious when someone has something we don’t, and we are jealous when we fear losing a relationship or part of a relationship we value. When we can properly express them in small doses, it can nurture healthy relationships instead of leaving them flavorless.

When it comes to resentment, things can get a little more complicated. Resentment is a negative emotion that hides feelings like frustration or anger related to unfairness. We can be resentful when our boundaries are crossed, our expectations aren’t met, or we fail to ask for what we need. We can control this emotion if we learn to express our inner desires and not lash out at people who cannot dictate our feelings. 

In addition to these emotions, we may also feel two opposing feelings when seeing someone experiencing misfortune or success. 

“Schadenfreude” is a German term that reflects the joy we get when someone suffers or experiences misfortune. The underlying feeling behind this is envy, aggression, narcissism, or anger, which can be dangerous and lead us to more negativity. 

“Freudenfreude” on the other hand, is a term used to describe the joy we feel when we see other people succeed. This positive feeling helps us improve and maintain healthy relationships.

Actions to take

Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned

“The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”

We often tend to set expectations for ourselves and others. When these expectations are not met, especially when they are not expressed in the first place, we tend to feel disappointed. This disappointment is similar to what we feel towards ourselves when we fail or set the bar too high.

To deal with this negative emotion, we must realize that we are being too harsh on ourselves and not expressing our needs properly. Then, directly communicate with others so that they will know how to meet these needs.

Actions to take

Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us

“Wonder inspires the wish to understand; awe inspires the wish to let shine, to acknowledge and to unite.” When feeling awe, we tend to simply stand back and observe to provide a stage for the phenomenon to shine.”

Awe and wonder are two emotions that are vital for our human experience. Awe motivates our inner desire to show our abilities, and wonder motivates us to explore. When we’re in awe, we take a step back to observe; when we wonder, we tend to look for answers. 

Confusion is also important to our existence. It drives our curiosity and the ability to solve problems. When we put in some effort to motivate ourselves to learn, we make learning a vital process for our wellbeing. 

Interest and curiosity are two other factors necessary to our evolution. Interest arises when we are open to a topic or experience, while curiosity, on the other hand,  is acknowledging a gap about something that interests us, which motivates us to explore and learn more.

Actions to take

Places We Go When Things Aren’t What They Seem

“There’s nothing more limiting than tapping out of tension and oversimplifying the thoughts and feelings that have the power to help us understand who we are and what we need.”

Amusement is a feeling we often confuse with happiness. This feeling of amusement is deeply correlated to our sense of humor. The difference between amusement and other positive emotions is its randomness (we often laugh when we hear something unpredictable) and the playful sensation we get around the people we share this connection with. 

Bittersweetness is a combination of happiness and sadness. Take leaving a job, for example. We feel happy about getting better pay from the new company we’re going to, but we’re also sad to leave our friends behind. This feeling is something we experience until after the age of ten or eleven. Before that, we are unable to distinguish them. 

The difference between bittersweetness and nostalgia is that the latter adds a sense of loss. Nostalgia can be a positive or negative feeling depending on the individual’s personality. If they tend to feel depressed often, nostalgia may cause them more harm than good. 

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that happens when an individual maintains two different cognitions (ideas, attitudes, or beliefs) that are psychologically contradictory to each other. 

For instance, you may know that smoking is dangerous to your body, but you still smoke twice daily. You can only overcome this feeling when you rethink and unlearn these contradictory ideas. 

On the other hand, a paradox is between two related components. This happens when we search for vulnerability in others, yet we avoid showing it. While this is not an emotion, it teaches us deeper and allows us to do more complex thinking; thus, we must embrace it. 

Lastly, we need to differentiate between irony and sarcasm. Irony and sarcasm are ways of communication in which the exact meaning of the words is often opposite from the intended message we want to transmit. We may want to express an element of criticism and humor. 

However, sarcasm is a specific type of irony in which the real message is normally meant to tease or criticize. While it may be fun to use these methods, we should still be careful when to use them. Ask yourself: Am I concealing something that actually requires honesty?

Actions to take

Places We Go When We’re Hurting

“We need hope like we need air.”

Anguish is a traumatic experience combining shock, grief, and the feeling of losing power. This negative emotion often makes us feel defeated. Some choose to keep a brave face and ignore this feeling even though it doesn’t get away. The best way to overcome this is to get professional help. 

Hope is a powerful cognitive process that helps us grow and achieve goals. We develop this attitude when getting through tough times. Contrastingly, despair is an emotion that stems from our inability to set realistic goals. 

Sadness is a natural emotion, utterly different from depression. While sadness is often considered a negative emotion, it can positively impact us. It makes us more prone to avoiding judgemental errors and more motivated and sensitive. Owning our sadness takes courage and keeps us growing as individuals. 

Grief is another traumatic experience for an individual, especially the grief of losing someone. While many think that griefing is a passing emotion, it becomes manageable for some with time, but they can never get past it. Working through grief is a long process, often requiring mental health support from professionals.

Actions to take

Places We Go with Others

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

Compassion is a common feeling we need in order to accept that we are all made of both struggle and strength. The mentality of always trying to fix our problems or others’ doesn’t always improve things. We need to take a moment and feel our discomfort. 

Pity is the enemy of compassion, often leading to feelings of exclusion. When we pity someone, we view them as inferior and maintain an emotional distance. This doesn’t do any good to them. 

Empathy is a set of skills that allows us to understand another person's experiences better while also self-reflecting. You don’t have to feel the same emotions as the other, but you need to be able to understand their emotions. This practice pulls us closer to others, connecting with them on a deeper level. 

Setting boundaries is another very healthy way of connecting with others and maintaining compassion and empathy. Showing someone what’s right to do and what’s not right to do can help you increase your self-worth. For example, it’s right for someone to change their mind, but not when they assume you’ll be fine with these changes.

Actions to take

Places We Go When We Fall Short

“Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.”

Avoiding shame is self-destructive behavior. Shame is the fear of feeling excluded because we did not accomplish a goal we set for ourselves or because we failed to do something important to us. This makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, unaccepted, or unwelcome someplace. 

Shame means the absence of empathy. When we feel shame, we’re thinking about ourselves, not others. It is also the root of perfectionism, a belief that having a perfect job, body, partner, etc., will prevent us from feeling shameful or judged. Constantly aspiring to be perfect will put more pressure on yourself. 

Guilt is very similar to shame. The only difference between the two is that guilt results from the feeling of doing something wrong or having to make things right. Other negative emotions associated with this include humiliation and embarrassment. 

Humiliation arises from our belief that we don’t deserve something, while embarrassment appears during a minor incident that was witnessed by others.

Actions to take

Places We Go When We Search for Connection

“We have to belong to ourselves as much as we need to belong to others. Any belonging that asks us to betray ourselves is not true belonging.”

Belonging and fitting in are essential for us as living individuals. Since we are social species, we thrive more by belonging to a group. Remember that true belonging does not mean we need to change who we are; rather, we need to be who we truly are. Love and the feeling of belonging are vital human needs. 

Connection is the energy we feel when we believe we are seen and valued by others. However, the lack of these feelings equates to a sense of disconnection, making us believe we are rejected in our group. 

Similarly, we may also feel a form of rejecting ourselves. This is known as insecurity. When we learn to accept all our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we begin to experience self-security, the opposite of insecurity. 

Loneliness starts to mend when we lack a sense of belonging or fitting in and feel disconnected from others. When you’re lonely, you will begin to feel physically ill. This feeling is deeply related to our bodies. To overcome loneliness, we need to recognize this feeling and perceive it as a warning sign to start satisfying our social needs.

Actions to take

Places We Go When the Heart Is Open

“We need more real love. Gritty, dangerous, wild-eyed, justice-seeking love.”

There is no accurate and full definition of what love is, yet it is one of our most important needs. We experience love when we are vulnerable, totally honest, and open. It is not something we give and receive but rather nurtured. 

Contrastingly, experiencing heartbreak is more than just the loss of love. It is also the loss of the feeling of belonging, and it comes in many forms (not just related to romantic relationships). The bravest people choose to love regardless of how many heartbreaks they may face. They take what’s there to be learned and move forward. 

Trust is also an important element in love. It is not an emotion but a cognitive assessment. While we perceive trust as influenced and nurtured toward others, self-trust is also important. When our trust in others is violated, we experience betrayal. To heal from this, we need to acknowledge our pain and trauma, make amends and take action.

Hurt is different from betrayal or heartbreak as it is a combination of sadness and fear of being vulnerable. It depends on our relationships. Only the people we value can hurt our own feelings. To overcome this, we need to control how we react to others. If we respond to hurt feelings with anger, the other person will match our energy.

Actions to take

Places We Go When Life Is Good

“Gratitude is an emotion that reflects our deep appreciation for what we value, what brings meaning to our lives, and what makes us feel connected to ourselves and others.”

While joy and happiness sound similar, they are completely distinct. Joy is an intense feeling of spiritual connection, appreciation, and deep pleasure. Happiness, on the other hand, is caused by immediate circumstances. Both of these feelings are essential in our lives. 

Calmness and contentment are two different feelings too. Calmness is a state of mind resulting from our ability to control our emotional reactivity, while contentment arises when we feel complete, having all of our needs satisfied. 

On top of these feelings is gratitude, a very powerful emotion that positively influences how we think and respond to different situations. To increase its power, we need to constantly practice it by keeping a gratitude journal or simply reciting what we’re grateful for daily.

Actions to take

Places We Go When We Feel Wronged

“Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge a connection.”

Anger is the most compassionate response we usually give when experiencing or witnessing injustice. It often masks emotions that are too difficult to express. But internalizing it can harm us; thus, we should learn to transform it into courage, actions to show love, compassion, or even actions to do things right. 

Disgust is different from anger, and it has many forms. When we are disgusted with people, it makes us more prone to judging others or forming certain emotions toward them that can’t be easily fixed. Unlike anger, disgust cannot be fixed with just an apology.

Hate is one of the most powerful emotions one can feel as it combines negative emotions such as anger, disgust, repulsion, and fear. We feel hatred toward people who view us as unwilling to change. When we start having these feelings, we should look at ourselves. Often, hate brings out our need for connection.

Actions to take

Places We Go to Self-Assess

“I’m here to get it right, not to be right.”

Pride is a pleasure or celebration we experience due to our achievements and efforts. 

Hubris is an overestimated sense of one’s natural skills motivated by a desire for dominance rather than accomplishments. Humility is being open to new experiences while also accurately assessing our contributions (strengths, imperfections, opportunities for growth).

Feeling pride is a healthy thing, especially for our mental health, as it boosts self-esteem. However, we often mistake pride with other factors like our egos. For instance, we think we can’t apologize for something because of our pride when it’s because of something else.

Hubris is correlated to low self-esteem, narcissism, and even shame. The higher our hubris, the more likely we are to adopt these perceptions. If you recognize these traits in yourself, you should change this behavior as it can cause chronic anxiety, aggression, struggle with your relationships, and hostility. Remind yourself that having dominant behavior won’t make you more loved and appreciated by others. 

While we may have heard that being humble and showing humility is wrong, the opposite is actually true. When people are willing to change, learn and grow and admit they are wrong or don’t know something, they have great self-esteem and will achieve everything they dreamt of.

Actions to take

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