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Last Updated on May 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062

Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart attempts to map the varying emotional experiences we encounter in our lives. Brown believes that by detailing the interrelations between emotion and language, the finer differences between particular emotions, and the way our history and circumstances can shape our emotional reactions and identities, she...

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Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart attempts to map the varying emotional experiences we encounter in our lives. Brown believes that by detailing the interrelations between emotion and language, the finer differences between particular emotions, and the way our history and circumstances can shape our emotional reactions and identities, she might provide us with the tools we need to productively navigate our life experiences. Along the way, she utilizes her experiences as a social worker to emphasize that though emotions are universal, the same situations can take on different emotional meanings depending on one’s background (e.g., being ignored at work can feel different for men and women). In Brown’s view, authentic displays and celebrations of emotion are invariably intertwined with a respect for human connection and vulnerability, and therefore a genuine pursuit of social justice.

Brown groups the emotions in Atlas of the Heart according to the circumstances in which they arise. First, she discusses the emotional family of anxiety, those emotions that arise from uncertainty and overstimulation. She also stresses the necessity of time-outs in order to recuperate from the fatigue that accompanies these emotions. Next, she examines the family of envy, those feelings that arise when we compare ourselves to one another. Brown also includes resentment as a form of envy—as, for example, when people are burdened by responsibility, they tend to resent people with more freedom.

She then takes a look at the family of disappointment: the emotions we feel when we don’t get what we want. The underlying cause of these emotions is often the expectations that we don’t bother communicating with others—which, Brown asserts, we should work toward correcting. On the other hand, when situations exceed our expectations, we experience emotions in the family of awe and surprise. These emotions arise when we encounter something extremely beautiful, awesome, or much bigger than we can comprehend. They can inspire in us a sense of spiritual connection or a desire to learn more.

More subtle or deliberate forms of expectation subversions give rise to the family of amusement and irony. Brown argues that ambiguity and uncertainty are a natural part of human life and that admitting whenever we feel unsure, uncertain, or conflicted means we are engaging in self-awareness. However, emotions such as nostalgia can lead us to romanticize and cling to dangerous ideas like that of a glorious lost past.

Next, Brown explores our personal reactions to pain and hurt—such as anguish, which is a combination of shock and grief that causes the body to regress to a catatonic state. Rather than avoiding these emotions, she urges us to let them find their place as transformative forces in our lives. When other people are hurt, we can either approach them with compassion and empathy or distance ourselves with pity. Through her research, Brown has found that boundaries are still a crucial element in compassion and empathy, as it is essential not to lose or risk our emotional well-being if we wish to truly help someone.

Some specific forms of hurting have to do with our self-worth and image. The emotions surrounding these forms belong to the family of shame and humiliation. Whereas shame involves a negative assessment of our own self-worth and a desire to hide this fact, humiliation is the sense that we are being degraded by other people. Interestingly, research has found that feelings of humiliation may be a strong possible cause of extreme and often fatal interpersonal violence.

Brown also looks at the family of belonging and loneliness, emotions we feel with regard to being part of a social group. She then differentiates between belonging and simply fitting in: when we belong, we feel accepted for who we are; when we simply fit in, however, we feel accepted because we’re not markedly different from everyone else in the group.

Once we begin to open up the more vulnerable part of ourselves, Brown asserts, we experience the family of emotions that have to do with love and trust. Love, while difficult to precisely define, commonly involves desire, affection, intimacy, and trust. It also implies a set of ethics that centers on pursuing good for other people. Brown cites the writer bell hooks, who argues that lovelessness is not the absence of affection, but the absence of ethics or a willingness to change how one acts.

Emotions that relate to happiness, joy, and gratitude all possess recurring overtones of appreciation and thankfulness. Joy is a positive feeling of intense connection with the present moment, while happiness is a more general appreciation of one’s life circumstances. Brown advises us to consistently practice gratitude and contentment through humble celebrations of the good things already present in our lives.

When we think something wrong is happening, Brown explains, we may react with anger, contempt, disgust, hate, or self-righteousness. Anger can be useful as a catalyst emotion, when we are able to transform it into a more productive force. However, it can be destructive and unsustainable if we hold onto it. Contempt is the view that something is inferior to us and undeserving of our attention or effort. Meanwhile, disgust is a mixture of emotions such as fear and hatred; it is underlined by a wish to avoid both metaphorical and literal “contamination.” Disgust has been found to lead to dehumanization, as it causes us to see others as less than human and therefore deserving of mistreatment. Lastly, hatred tends to be fueled by a lack of contact and understanding; it’s an extreme negative emotion that culminates in the desire to completely eliminate a particular thing.

While pride and hubris are often conflated, the former is a positive, authentic, and pro-social emotion. Pride is the validation and celebration of achievement. Hubris, meanwhile, is the assertion of one’s own importance through the use of dominance and force, with almost no regard to actual achievement or social opinion. Humility, on the other hand, is more than a question of our worth and importance. It goes hand in hand with curiosity as a willingness or openness to learn from others, or engage with something on its own terms.

Brown closes the book by asserting that grounded confidence and “the courage to walk alongside” (to be other-focused and to consciously practice compassion and empathy) are essential in forming and cultivating meaningful connections.

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