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  • Dan Connors

Emotions- do you control them, or do they control you? Here's a look at 87 of them...

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

Brené Brown 2022

What's the purpose of having emotions? How do they help and/or hurt us as human beings to connect with ourselves and each other? And just how many emotions are there?

There's a condition called Alexithymia, common among those with autism, that prevents people from recognizing or expressing emotions at all. Who is better off- someone who can't understand emotions, or someone who gets emotionally triggered all of the time?

Best-selling author Brené Brown tackles the many thorny questions around human emotions and connection in her book, Atlas of the Heart. In this book, Brown details 87 different emotional states and how they can affect our lives. This is not your typical dry self-help book. It contains splashy colorful pages with inspiring quotes, drawings, diagrams, and comic strips to make her points in a reader-friendly way. Covering 87 emotions means that she rarely goes into great depth about any one of them, but Brown provides food for thought with every emotion she examines. Author Dan Pink used an entire book to cover just one emotion- regret- so this is a fertile field for authors to cultivate.

Brené Brown is an author and research professor at the University of Houston, and has devoted her life to examining emotions like courage, shame, empathy, and her favorite- vulnerability. She has five NY Times best sellers and one of the top five ever TED talks on the power of vulnerability. Brown also has two podcasts, and is bringing the ideas from this book to HBO Max for a five-part series.

In the popular Pixar movie, Inside Out, there were only 5 emotions- joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. (Pixar considered many more for the movie, but settled on these five.) People have been trying to define emotions and their purpose for centuries, and I will choose here to focus on ten of the ones from this book that struck me the most. With an Irish Catholic background, I was brought up to suppress my emotions, as many men in our society still are encouraged to do, and the freedom to release and understand my emotions can be both scary and liberating. Here are my top ten.

Sadness. Being sad once in a while is essential to being human. Sadness helps us process disturbing events and make sense of them. If it weren't for sadness and grief, death, loss, and mistakes would lose their meaning. Feeling sad helps us realize that something bad has happened and gives us information that we need to change our behavior to correct for that bad thing and move on. Too much sadness can be destructive and even deadly, but just the right amount prompts us to appreciate what we've lost and replace it with something better. I've always wondered why people like sad songs and sad movies, but I think that these things help unlock the unexpressed sadness within us so that we can eventually feel better and more alive.

Boredom. Is being bored even an emotional state? This book thinks so. "Boredom is your imagination calling to you", is a quote from Sherry Turkle that struck me. With the advent of smartphones, we have infinite resources to avoid being bored, but to become aware of boredom is actually a good thing. It means that there are other pathways out there that you aren't looking at. Boredom in a job, relationship, or life is an emotion we'd rather not face, but sitting with the boredom and asking questions about what would make it happier is the only way to find the answers that will lead to growth.

Anxiety. Most of the things we worry about will never happen. Yet 1/3 of all adults will eventually get some form of anxiety disorder in their lives. There are plenty of things to be anxious about in this world, but paralyzing fear does no one any good. Avoiding things that cause anxiety only works temporarily. Brown stresses her two favorite strengths- courage and vulnerability as ways to combat anxiety. It's okay to be vulnerable to the unknown and uncertain, as long as you have the courage to face it and be okay with doing the best that you can do about it.

Anger. Brown is in the school that believes that anger is only a secondary emotion- an indicator that something deep down is wrong. When we have emotions that we don't want to face, like fear, shame, or sadness, we mask them with anger by blaming another person or the world for why things aren't working out. I once took part in a weekend retreat where we banged pillows and chairs while screaming to get out our anger, only to be led down a path towards all of the other emotions below the anger, ending at love and appreciation once we got it all out. Expressing anger is easier than most other emotions to express, because it puts the blame on others. But too much anger can be destructive both the physical and mental health. At its best, anger, like sadness, can alert us to something wrong, and produce productive behaviors that correct and repair things.

Contempt. This is one of the most destructive emotions out there, and is destroying our public sphere in the 21st century. Contempt is when anger gets so ingrained that it divides entire groups of people into warring tribes incapable of compromise, discussion, or even co-existence. Politics today has devolved into a blood sport where we assume that those who don't agree with us have bad motives, bad information, and are just plain evil. That's poison to a healthy society.

Schadenfreude. This is my vocabulary word for the year. I've heard it used occasionally, but experienced it too. This is the pleasure you get when seeing someone else suffer, like when Russians and Vladimir Putin are hurting after their invasion of Ukraine. We feel good when we see people who we think deserve to suffer experience karma, but should we?

Love. This isn't really an emotion, but more like an emotional state. Probably more has been written about love than any other emotion. Brown says that we cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known. You cannot find love while hiding your true self, and you must be ready to experience heartbreak by putting yourself out there.

Belonging. Again- not really an emotion. But Brown spends a lot of time on it and how belonging is different from fitting in. Most of us try to fit in and not make waves, but to truly belong, you have to feel free to show your true self to others and be accepted by them for who you are. "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." Without this feeling, we lose connection to others and begin to feel loneliness and shame.

Curiosity. There is an entire chapter about emotions that take us out of ourselves. Surprise, awe, wonder, interest, and curiosity come about when we see something new that intrigues us. When we see a gap in our knowledge, we can either double down on what we think we already know and deny that the gap exists, or choose to be open and vulnerable, surrendering to the uncertainty that he new knowledge offers. Again with the courage and vulnerability- that is Brown's mantra over and over, and it works.

Gratitude and Joy. One of my favorite parts of the book explores the connection between gratitude, which isn't really an emotion, and joy, which definitely is. The two ideas form an upward spiral when applied faithfully, as being grateful for the things in our life, big and small, makes us more joyful. Being more joyful makes us appreciate what we have, which only goes to create more joy and happiness. Feeling disappointment and envy because our lives aren't good enough produces an opposite negative spiral, that leads to unhappiness. Being grateful doesn't mean putting up with misery, but it does mean finding the silver lining in every cloud- the only way to put yourself into a positive mindset that can produce happiness no matter what your circumstances.

Atlas of the Heart concludes with a surprising chapter on connection, trying to bring all of the teachings of the book together in one little theory that Brown calls "cultivating meaningful connection." This chapter could be a book all on its own, and she adds charts and drawings to make her important points. While most of the book is a look at the 87 different emotions out there, this last chapter emphasizes the usual things, courage, vulnerability, curiosity, and humility to become available and able to connect at a deep level with other people.

Brown distinguishes between what she calls far enemies and near enemies. The far enemies are the usual suspects- indifference, fear, hubris, and contempt. But the near enemies are the more dangerous to her because they give us the feeling that we are doing something to tackle emotions, but we are still falling short. This gives us a false sense of security and prevents further exploration beneath the surface. Near enemies include things such as showing pity instead of empathy, listening to people in pain but then changing the subject, or trying to stay in control of a messy situation rather than surrendering to it and truly understanding it.

I look forward to the HBO special to hear more of her thoughts, but Brown clearly has put a lot of thought and energy into the topic of handling emotions, and she points to a more difficult and powerful path that could help those who still struggle with their emotions. Being able to name, detect and understand your emotions is the first step to dealing with them. They can either control you or can make your life worth living. They can connect you strongly with others, or disconnect you from even yourself. This book is a welcome atlas of how to be more human.

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