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Sewing: Brené Brown taps into our emotions with new book, 'Atlas of the Heart'

Brown credits her interest in emotions to being a fifth-generation Texan with the ability...

Like many of us, Brené Brown has been living a somewhat socially distant life at home in Houston as the pandemic continues to run its course.

The New York Times best-selling author and University of Houston research professor is also a visiting professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, where she has been teaching her “Dare to Lead” program. Aside for the travel to Austin, she’s been pretty much locked down.

“I think, maybe I’ve been to two restaurants and sitting outside. My kids are back in school and playing sports, and we’re just careful, vaccinated and masked,” Brown said in a recent interview.

The pandemic has yielded a new book, “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience,” which is based on her 20 years of research. It takes a deep dive into emotions, the ones we have trouble naming and the ones we don’t know at all.

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“Atlas of the Heart” is unlike any of Brown’s previous five best-sellers. It’s her first full-color book with oversize type to emphasize the things we need to write down on sticky notes and remember. There are illustrations and even a few personal items, like the Brown’s 1984 letter titled, “Why we feel the pain we feel,” with a photo in which she’s wearing an asymmetrical bob haircut and hoop earrings.

It’s likely the guidebook we need right now when so many of us are emotional wrecks.

“One of the things that we’re experiencing collectively right now is, we’re lonely, disconnected, and I think we’re desperate to find our way back to each other and back to ourselves first,” Brown said. “Connection with each other is only going to be as strong as our connection to ourselves. So I think language is the most powerful portal we have.”

Brown’s research of more than 7,000 participants found most people only can label a few emotions, like “happy, sad or mad or pissed off.” My daily commutes in Houston’s traffic have made me quite familiar with the latter.

With a team of clinicians, Brown discovered there are actually 87 emotions and experiences. If we learn to recognize and understand what they are, we are better able to replicate the positive emotions and experiences that help make life better. “We just don’t have language that’s as expansive as our human experience,” she said.

Brown referenced her own life to explain how the language of emotions can help us better understand ourselves.

“I can really struggle with resentment,” she said. “I always thought that resentment lived very close to anger. That resentment was a function of anger. I’m angry and resentful because the people around me are not working hard enough. We’re not getting stuff done to the level I want to get it done. But it turns out that resentment is not part of the anger family at all. It’s a function of envy. And that when I feel resentment, it’s not because you’re not doing what I think you're doing. It’s because I need something I’m not asking for.”

She also said many of us tend to confuse emotions, like anxiety and excitement.

“Both show up in the same ways in our bodies. Our heart rate increases, we get kind of scattered but also focused. We know from the research that when you're feeling that, if you label it excitement, you're much more likely to have a positive outcome than if you label it anxiety.”

Then there’s schadenfreude — a German term that literally means feeling joy or deriving pleasure from someone’s pain.

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So how does knowing this make life better? Well, it all relates to connection.

Brown is a master, connecting with millions of people globally through her research and books, Netflix special, podcast, TedTalk and, most of all, her willingness to be vulnerable about her own life. Though she’s neither a priest nor a pastor, she also held 15-minute church services on her Instagram page and connected with a pandemic-weary world looking for something to hold on to.

“In order to create meaningful connection with other people and with ourselves, there are three components that have to happen. One, we have to have some level of confidence and self-awareness. We have to be curious about other people. Our ego has to be shored up enough that we don’t have to be knowers. The second piece is that we have to have the courage to be with people in pain, to really walk alongside other people. And then, the last part is we have to learn how to be stewards of people’s stories.”

While the book is new, Brown’s fascination with emotions started in childhood. She was raised in a family “where we just really had ‘pissed off.’ Everything else was too vulnerable.”

“I’m a very good pattern hunter and, as a kid, I learned to put together the pattern of this conversation and these emotions are going to lead to this kind of thinking, and they’re going to turn out in this kind of behavior. And I was able to predict with really uncanny accuracy with parents, with my teachers, with coaches. I actually stayed in a state of disbelief for most of my childhood that other people were not using this trick and were walking straight into disasters,” she said.

Brown also credits her interest in emotions to being a fifth-generation Texan with a combination of hyper-vigilance and the ability to understand how emotion, thinking and behavior work together.

As a parent, I felt compelled to ask Brown how to raise emotionally connected children in a “happy, sad and mad” world.

“We just have to be the adults we want our kids to be,” she said. “So I think we have to model. I know, doesn’t that suck? We need to use those words and in an age-appropriate way. Sometimes if you lift the blanket on mad, there are other emotions underneath it, like worried, scared or unsure. It’s okay to feel that. So I think we can teach our kids the language, but, most importantly, we can use it.”

As unsure as I am about how to do that, I will lean into my vulnerability. Thanks, Brené.

joy.sewing@chron.com

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