Why is it that people are quick to say they’re jealous of someone, but will not admit to being envious? What’s the difference between shame and guilt? Does feeling helpless equal feeling depressed? These are the questions that Brené Brown, the sociology professor turned best-selling author and leadership consultant, tries to answer in her new book, Atlas of the Heart – Mapping Meaningful Connectivity and the Language of Human ExperienceAvailable Nov. 30,
These may sound like trivial taxonomic queries to others, but Brown strongly believes that the ability to accurately name emotions is crucial, particularly in these days of division. “If we want to find the way back to ourselves and one another, we need language,” she writes, “and the grounded confidence to both tell our stories and to be stewards of the stories that we hear.”
Brown’s team and 7,000 respondents surveyed over 5 years. They found that people could identify three emotions when they feel them, and only one of these was happiness. For Brown, who made her name by illuminating the finer contours of humans’ emotional landscape, this is not nearly enough. In conclusion, Atlas of the HeartShe sets out in order to identify the distinctive features of 87 emotion types.
Brown’s Ted talks and five other No.1 bestsellers are a great example of the distinction between guilt or shame. The difference between guilt and shame, as Brown’s five previous No. 1 bestsellers and the Netflix lecture series, is that people feel guilty when they do something wrong. While people who are ashamed of their actions may be feeling bad about it, they also experience guilt. The difference between envy and jealousy is that envy materializes when one wants something somebody else has—looks, status and wealth are the big trio—while jealousy is the feeling that a relationship is being threatened. A feeling of hopelessness can be a temporary fear that the task will prove too hard, or despair a feeling that it is impossible to live your life. So on.
Brown is a strong candidate as a cartographer to the human experience. She’s the Dr. Fauci of feelings; she can take complex subjects that require years of study and explain them in a comprehensible and reassuring way. But unlike America’s most famous public health official, Brown has the freedom to be much more of a sharer. In Atlas of the HeartShe often references her own personal history as an example of how she explains things. Brown mentions in passing that she came from a dysfunctional but high-performing family, and that she’s a recovered alcoholic, a committed swimmer, a former waitress, resentful, a perfectionist and prone to comparison, among other things.
Even more than her usual advice, she takes it to heart and admits that she made mistakes in previous work. “For two decades, I’ve said, ‘We need to understand emotion so we can recognize it in ourselves and others,’” she writes. “Well, let me go on the record right now: I no longer believe that we can recognize emotion in other people, regardless of how well we understand human emotion and experience or how much language we have.” This is not to dismiss psychotherapy (we presume), but to encourage people to talk about what they’re going through rather than expecting others to know—and to listen, rather than guess.
This formula, very human life + very rigorous research, has powered Brown’s work for 20 years, since the Ted Talk that made her famous. Brown wants people to “lean in” to their feelings, but she also wants to make it fun. (At her request, I conducted part of my interview in a park swinging. You can read the rest of my article here. Atlas of the Heart, the 87 emotions she describes are gathered into 13 land masses, each labeled as a destination: “Places We Go When We Compare,” for example, or “Places We Go When it’s Beyond Us.”
Numerous comic-book-inspired illustrations can be found throughout. And Brown introduces—or tries to popularize—new concepts. “Story-stewardship” is when somebody explains their problem and the listener neither dismisses nor tries to immediately solve their issue. “Near enemies” are similar to misapprehensions; when a response to a situation looks like the appropriate one but actually makes that situation worse. While sentimentality and compassion are the enemies of compassionate empathy, pity is the enemy of love.
The book, sold to HBO Max as an unscripted series even before it was published, is her most reader-friendly yet—but it may also be her thinnest. Explaining 87 emotions, exploring the research around them, suggesting responses and encouraging people to examine themselves, all in an easy-to-digest 300 pages—it’s a tall order. You can even feel the strain marks. The book contains a lot of oversize quotations, as well as sections that are less persuasive. Isn’t “bittersweet” self explanatory? What is “irony” doing in a list of emotions?
The pleasure of reading Brown’s previous work has been the dawning self-recognition, as she carefully and diligently loosened the knots that bound readers’ hearts and hindered their ability to cope with their circumstances. The book is more of a guidebook to help readers reorient themselves, rather than a collection of short hits. Brown’s attempt to help people find their way to each other is laudable, but she has compiled an atlas when we need a GPS.