Book Summaries

Book Summary: The Atlas of the Heart by Bene Brown

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In Atlas of the heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Bene Brown describes the various emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human – including the language that allows us to make sense of what we experience. She sought to open up the language portal – a universe where we can share the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with each other in a way that builds connection.

The book explores  eighty-seven emotions and experiences (thoughts that lead to emotion) organized into groups. The emotions Brown explores in book  first emerged from a content analysis of comments from an online course she was teaching that had several main sections on emotion and story.

From 2013 to 2014, 66,625 participants were enrolled in the course and there were more than 550,000 comments. The comments were de-identified (no names) and exported to spreadsheets. After going through the human subjects approval process, she analyzed the data using two questions:

What are the emotions and experiences that emerge the most often, and which emotions and experiences do people struggle to name or label?

This yielded approximately 150 emotions and experiences. From here, they invited a group of experienced therapists who work in diverse mental health settings to a focus group process that she led.

Human emotions and experiences are layers of biology, biography, behavior, and backstory.

In order to recognize, name, and make sense of our feelings and experiences, we have to:

1. Understand how they show up in our bodies and why (biology)

2. Get curious about how our families and communities shape our beliefs about the connection between our feelings, thoughts,

and behavior (biography)

3. Examine our go-to (behaviors), and

4. Recognize the context of what we’re feeling or thinking. What brought this on? (backstory)

Understanding Emotions

So often, when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, that solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal. To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves, but to do either, we must first establish a common understanding of the language of emotion and human experience.

Without understanding how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together, it’s almost impossible to find our way back to ourselves and each other. When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other.

The Power of Language

Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes. When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.

Our understanding of our own and others’ emotions is shaped by how we perceive, categorize, and describe emotional experiences—and these interpretations rely heavily on language.

Emotional Granularity: Our ability to accurately recognize and label emotions.

Harvard psychologist Susan David on Emotional Labelling

In the words of Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.” David explains that if we don’t have a sufficient emotional vocabulary, it is difficult to communicate our needs and to get the support that we need from others. But those who are able to distinguish between a range of various emotions “do much, much better at managing the ups and downs of ordinary existence than those who see everything in black and white.” In fact, research shows that the process of labeling emotional experience is related to greater emotion regulation and psychosocial well-being.

#1: Places We Go When  ings Are Uncertain or Too Much

Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability


We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.

Stressful situations cause both physiological (body) and psychological (mind and emotion) reactions. However, regardless of how strongly our body responds to stress (increases in heart rate and cortisol), our emotional reaction is more tied to our cognitive assessment of whether we can cope with the situation than to how our body is reacting.


Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

In a world where perfectionism, pleasing, and proving are used as armor to protect our egos and our feelings, it takes a lot of courage to show up and be all in when we can’t control the outcome. It also takes discipline and self-awareness to understand what to share and with whom. Vulnerability is not oversharing, it’s sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories and our experiences. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.

#2: Places We Go When We Compare
Comparison, Admiration, Reverence, Envy, Jealousy, Resentment, Schadenfreude, Freudenfreude


Comparison is actually not an emotion, but it drives all sorts of big feelings that can affect our relationships and our self-worth. More often than not, social comparison falls outside of our awareness—we don’t even know we’re doing it. This lack of awareness can lead to us showing up in ways that are hurtful to ourselves and others.

Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, “Be like everyone else, but better.”


Jealousy doesn’t seem to be a singular emotion but rather a cognitive evaluation in response to feeling anger, sadness, and/or fear. In other words, we think jealousy in response to how we feel.

 “Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.” – Maya Angelou

#3: Places We Go When things Don’t Go as Planned

Boredom, Disappointment, Expectations, Regret, Discouragement, Resignation, Frustration.


Boredom is the uncomfortable state of wanting to engage in satisfying activity, but being unable to do it. When we’re bored we experience a lack of stimulation, time seems to pass very slowly, and if we’re working on tasks, they seem to lack challenge and meaning.

Discouraged, Resigned, and Frustrated

  • Disappointed: It didn’t work out how I wanted, and I believe the outcome was outside of my control.
  • Regretful: It didn’t work out how I wanted, and the outcome was caused by my decisions, actions, or failure to act.
  • Discouraged: I’m losing my confidence and enthusiasm about any future effort—I’m losing the motivation and confidence to persist.
  • Resigned: I’ve lost my confidence and enthusiasm about any future effort—I’ve lost the motivation and confidence to persist.
  • Frustrated: Something that feels out of my control is preventing me from achieving my desired outcome.

#4: Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us

Awe, Wonder, Confusion, Curiosity, Interest, Surprise

Curiosity and Interest

Curiosity seems to be both a trait and a state. You can be a curious person and, regardless of having this trait or not, you can feel curious about something in the moment. Interest is more of a state (“interested” is not who we are but how we are at a specific time).

Curiosity seems to involve both feeling (emotion) and thinking (cognition), while interest is really more about thinking.


  • Interest is a cognitive openness to engaging with a topic or experience.
  • Curiosity is recognizing a gap in our knowledge about something that interests us, and becoming emotionally and cognitively invested in closing that gap through exploration and learning. Curiosity often  starts with interest and can range from mild curiosity to passionate investigation.

In addition to the state and trait differences, the big things to understand here are the heart and head investments. With interest, our mind is open to seeing what’s there, but with curiosity, we’ve acknowledged a gap in what we know or understand, and our heart and head are both invested in closing that gap. There is a thinking challenge and an emotional experience of the satisfaction or potential satisfaction of closing the gap.

#5: Places We Go When things Aren’t What they Seem

Amusement, Bittersweetness, Nostalgia, Cognitive Dissonance, Paradox, Irony, Sarcasm.


The bittersweet side of appreciating life’s most precious moments is the unbearable awareness that those moments are passing. — MARC PARENT, Believing It All

Bittersweet is a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. Here are some of the most commonly shared experiences and a few notes on the context:

  • Watching children grow up
  • Leaving a job
  • Divorce/Ending a relationship
  • Graduating
  • Letting go of friendships that aren’t working
  • Moving
  • Death of a loved one
  • Teachers watching students graduate Retiring
    • Coming home from vacation

What all of the comments have in common is sadness about letting go of something, mixed with happiness and/or gratitude about what’s been experienced and/or what’s next. Bittersweet is not the same as ambivalence (when we’re unsure whether we’re happy or sad), it’s feeling both at the same time.

#6: Places We Go When We’re Hurting
Anguish, Hopelessness, Despair, Sadness, Grief.

We experience hope when:

1. We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).

2. We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative pathways (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate Hope is a function of struggle—we develop hope not during the easy or comfortable times, but through adversity and discomfort. Hope is forged when our goals, pathways, and agency are tested and when change is actually possible. Unfortunately, there are times when hope isn’t sufficient to combat entrenched systemic barriers. It doesn’t matter how much hope we have if the deck is stacked or the rules apply to some but not others— that is actually a recipe for hopelessness and despair. We think we should be able to overcome an obstacle; however, the system is rigged so there is no possible positive outcome.disappointment and try new paths again and again).

3. We have agency—we believe in ourselves (I can do this!).

#7: Places We Go with Others
Compassion, Pity, Empathy, Sympathy, Boundaries, Comparative Suffering

Compassion and Empathy

What’s the most effective way to be in connection with and in service to someone who is struggling, without taking on their issues as our own?

The Relationship Between Compassion and Empathy

  • Compassion is a daily practice and empathy is a skill set that is one of the most powerful tools of compassion.
  • The most effective approach to meaningful connection combines compassion with a specific type of empathy called cognitive empathy
  • Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering.
  • Compassion is a “virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action.
  • Compassion is fueled by understanding and accepting that we’re all made of strength and struggle—no one is immune to pain or suffering. Compassion is not a practice of “better than” or “I can fix you”—it’s a practice based in the beauty and pain of shared humanity.

Boundaries: Hard to set, Hard to live by

Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.

Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously – Prentis Hemphill

If  we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.

Too often we forget about the “what is okay” part, and that leads to unnecessary disconnection. When people set a boundary with us, we can feel that they’re denying us our right to our thinking and feeling. When we explain up front what’s okay, we move the focus to where it belongs: This expression of your feelings or thinking is the problem.

#8: Places We Go When We Fall Short
Shame, Self-Compassion, Perfectionism, Guilt, Humiliation, Embarrassment

  • Shame—I am bad. The focus is on self, not behavior. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change.
  • Guilt—I did something bad. The focus is on behavior. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behavior.
  • Humiliation—I’ve been belittled and put down by someone. This left me feeling unworthy of connection and disgusted with myself. This was unfair and I didn’t deserve this. With shame, we believe that we deserve our sense of unworthiness. With humiliation, we don’t feel we deserve it.
  • Embarrassment—I did something that made me uncomfortable, but I know I’m not alone. Everyone does these kinds of things. Embarrassment  is fleeting, sometimes funny. Your teacher is handing out quizzes and you come back from the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe.


Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism. Perfectionism is not striving to be our best or working toward excellence. Healthy striving is internally driven. Perfectionism is externally driven by a simple but potentially all consuming question: What will people think?

  • Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (good grades, good manners, nice appearance, sports prowess, rule following, people pleasing).
  • Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that we use to try to protect ourselves from feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. It is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight
  • Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect.

#9: Places We Go When We Search for Connection
Belonging, Fitting In, Connection, Disconnection, Insecurity, Invisibility, Loneliness


In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found the following:

Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.

#10: Places We Go When the Heart Is
Open Love, Lovelessness, Heartbreak, Trust, Self-Trust, Betrayal, Defensiveness, Flooding, Hurt.


  • We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
  • Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can be cultivated between two people only when it exists within each one of them—we can love others only as much as we love ourselves.
    • Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can survive these injuries only if they’re acknowledged, healed, and rare.


Self-trust is normally the first casualty of failure or mistakes. We stop trusting ourselves when we hurt others, get hurt, feel shame, or question our worth.

Use the BRAVING tool to think about self-trust:

B—Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay?

R—Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do?

A—Did I hold myself accountable?

V—Did I respect the vault and share appropriately?

I—Did I act from my integrity?

N—Did I ask for what I needed? Was I nonjudgmental about needing help?

G—Was I generous toward myself?

#11: Places We Go When Life Is Good
Joy, Happiness, Calm, Contentment, Gratitude, Foreboding Joy, Relief, Tranquility

Joy is sudden, unexpected, short-lasting, and high-intensity. It’s characterized by a connection with others, or with God, nature, or the universe. Joy expands our thinking and attention, and it fills us with a sense of freedom and abandon.

Joy as an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation.

Happiness is stable, longer-lasting, and normally the result of effort. It’s lower in intensity than joy, and more self-focused. With happiness, we feel a sense of being in control. Unlike joy, which is more internal, happiness seems more external and circumstantial.

#12: Places We Go When We Feel Wronged
Anger, Contempt, Disgust, Dehumanization, Hate, Self-Righteousness


Anger is an action emotion—we want to do something when we feel it and when we’re on the receiving end of it. Additionally, according to Charles Spielberger, an influential anger researcher, angry feelings can vary in intensity, “from mild irritation or annoyance to fury and rage.

Anger is also a full-contact emotion. Because it activates our nervous system and can hijack our thoughts and behaviors, it can take a real toll on our mental and physical health. Researchers explain that regulating and coping with anger rather than holding on to or expressing chronic anger is crucial for the health of our brain (it reduces psychiatric problems) and other organs in the body. There is also an interesting biological component to anger. A substantial amount of research indicates that our propensity for anger and aggression is partially hereditary, but the specific gene locations have not yet been identified.

1. Anger often masks emotions that are more difficult to name and/or more difficult to own.

2. Just as an indicator light in our car tells us to pull over and check things out, anger is a very effective emotional indicator light that tells us to pull over and check things out.

3. Anger, in response to experiencing or witnessing injustice, pain, and struggle, can be a powerful catalyst for change. But, by definition, a catalyst sparks change, it’s not the change.

#13: Places We Go to Self Assess
Pride, Hubris, Humility

  • Pride is a feeling of pleasure or celebration related to our accomplishments or efforts.
  • Hubris is an inflated sense of one’s own innate abilities that is tied more to the need for dominance than to actual accomplishments.
  • Humility is openness to new learning combined with a balanced and accurate assessment of our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth.

The real gift of learning language, practicing this work, and cultivating meaningful connection is being able to go anywhere without the fear of getting lost. Even when we have no idea where we are or where we’re going, with the right map, we can find our way back to our heart and to our truest self.

All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile |

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