Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

Atlas of the Heart• My hope for this book is that together we can learn more about the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human—including the language that allows us to make sense of what we experience. I want to open up that language portal so even more of us can step through it and find a universe of new choices and second chances—a universe where we can share the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with each other in a way that builds connection.
• I want this book to be an atlas for all of us, because I believe that with an adventurous heart and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves. Even when we don’t know where we are.  
• The entire premise of this book is that language has the power to define our experiences, and there’s no better example of this than anxiety and excitement.  
• In the following chapters, we’re going to explore eighty-seven emotions and experiences that have been organized into groups. …I say emotions and experiences because some of these are not emotions—they’re thoughts that lead to emotion.  
• Therefore, the emotions and experiences categorized in this book span beyond what many researchers would call “basic.”
• The average number of emotions named across the surveys was three. The emotions were happy, sad, and angry. …What about shame, disappointment, wonder, awe, disgust, embarrassment, despair, contentment, boredom, anxiety, stress, love, overwhelm, surprise, and all of the other emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human?  
Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience


“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.” — Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth

I think of this quote from M. Scott Peck as often as any other quote from any book I have ever read. We grow weary of such difficulty.  But, it is always there; always the challenge.  Life IS difficult.  And struggling with the difficulty of the moment is what the stuff of live seems to be all about.

I thought of this again as I read the new book by Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. I presented my synopsis of this book at the January, 2022 First Friday Book Synopsis.  It was quite a hard book to present.  It is an “atlas,” of the heart — eighty-seven emotions and experiences that have been organized into groups — and how does one prepare and present a synopsis of such an atlas?

For this book, the table of contents provides the starting point for the reader.  Though you can read it front to back, you can also pick the human emotion that is troubling you, or pleasing you, at this moment, and then you can read that chapter. (Let me state again:  she has sections on eighty-seven emotions!).

But, as always with Brené Brown, you end up with great insight about your own life, your work life, your family life…life!  — Yes, I am an appreciative fan of Brené Brown.  (I have also presented her still best-selling book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts).

As I do in each of my synopses, I begin with “What is the point?”  Here is my answer for this book:  We need to name and label our human emotions, to understand ourselves, and to effectively connect with others in our lives. This atlas of the heart will help you do that.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a thorough tour of the human emotions that we all share.
#2 – This book takes us on a deep dive into these emotions; a comprehensive list of the human emotions.
#3 – This book is a soft-skills, emotional-intelligence companion volume that will inform and guide your attempts to develop your soft skills and emotional intelligence.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are a number of the best of the best from this book:

• As it turns out, being able to see what’s coming doesn’t make it any less painful when it arrives. 
• Last, I know I will never have to stop learning these things. Over and over. …The learning will never stop. 
• We are meaning makers, and a sense of place is central to meaning-making. 
• Where am I? How did I get here from there? How do I get there from here?  …We need landmarks to orient us, and we need language to label what we’re experiencing.
• 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.  
• High levels of perceived stress have been shown to correlate with more rapid aging, decreased immune function, greater inflammatory processes, less sleep, and poorer health behaviors. 
• …an experience where our emotions are intense, our focus on them is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we’re feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions. …In other words: On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m feeling my emotions at about 10,  I’m paying attention to them at about 5, and I understand them at about 2.  …This is not a setup for successful decision making.  
• Worrying is not a helpful coping mechanism. 
• We’ve found that across cultures, most of us were raised to believe that being vulnerable is being weak. This sets up an unresolvable tension for most of us, because we were also raised to be brave.
• …There is no courage without vulnerability. Courage requires the willingness to lean into uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
• Here is my definition of comparison: 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.”   
• Due to the physics of how grass grows, when we peer over our fence at our neighbor’s grass, it actually does look greener, even if it is truly the same lushness as our own grass. 
• Other research has found that frequent experiences of jealousy combined with problematic alcohol use are related specifically to higher levels of physical assault and sexual coercion.
• Abby Wambach’s book Wolfpack. …“You will not always be the goal scorer. When you are not, you better be rushing toward her.” 
• Some of my own biggest regrets include failures of kindness, including failures of self-kindness.  
• The idea of “no regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe we have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with our lives. 
• “I need time for my confusion.” Confusion can be a cue that there’s new territory to be explored or a fresh puzzle to be solved.—ADAM GRANT, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.
• Again, it’s counterintuitive, but acknowledging uncertainty is a function of grounded confidence, and it feels like humility to me.  
• Researchers believe that rumination is a strong predictor of depression, makes us more likely to pay attention to negative things, and zaps our motivation…
• The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions—especially the wrong ones—is the unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” …Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent with each other, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”  
• As Adam Grant writes, “Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”
• Talking about grief is difficult in a world that wants us to “get over it.” 
Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.
• There’s compelling research that shows that compassion fatigue occurs when caregivers focus on their own personal distress reaction rather than on the experience of the person they are caring for.
• Here are my shame 1-2-3s: 1. We all have it. 2. We’re all afraid to talk about it. 3. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over us.
• 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. pg. 186
• 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.  
• Looking back, I’ve never once regretted calling a time-out at home or work. Not once.
• And I wish you joy and happiness. But above all of this, I wish you love. — DOLLY PARTON, “I Will Always Love You” …Can you believe she wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” in the same day?   
• When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. • But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, “Oh yes—I already have everything that I really need.” — The 14th DALAI LAMA
• Hatred will always motivate people for destructive action. — AGNETA FISCHER, ERAN HALPERIN, DAPHNA CANETT
• But any mechanism that helps one understand things from others’ points of view—love, critical thinking, wisdom, engagement with members of target groups—at least makes hate less likely, because it is harder to hate people if you understand that in many respects they are not all so different from you.

In my synopses, I then include some of the key points that I found especially helfpful and useful from the book.  Here are a number from Atlas of the Heart. (Note:  if I did not make any mistakes, when you see something below in italics, it is directly from the book):

  • When Brené Brown was a waitress…
  • “In the weeds” – How can we help?
  • “Blown” – get fully away (even if only for 10 minutes)
  • Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown.
  • We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.
  •  Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function. …Feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed seem to be related to our perception of how we are coping with our current situation and our ability to handle the accompanying emotions.
  • It’s all unfolding faster than my nervous system and psyche can manage it.
  • I’m sure experience taught the managers that doing nothing was the only way back for someone totally overwhelmed.
  • This book is Atlas of the Heart – an atlas…you kind of turn to the part of the book you need, and check out the terrain… {Atlas: a book of maps or charts}…  Therefore… The challenge of preparing and presenting this synopsis
  • this book is almost a dictionary/glossary
  • With the right map, we can find our way back to the heart and to our truest self. 
  • Emotions as state and trait:
  • Anxiety can be both a state and a trait.
  • This is a book about the human emotions.
  • The average number of emotions named across the surveys was three. The emotions were happy, sad, and angry.
  • What about shame, disappointment, wonder, awe, disgust, embarrassment, despair, contentment, boredom, anxiety, stress, love, overwhelm, surprise, and all of the other emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human? 
  • This is a book about language and vocabulary.
  • “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” What does it mean if the vastness of human emotion and experience can only be expressed as mad, sad, or happy?
  • Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness.
  • 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.
  • Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.
  • Language does more than just communicate emotion, it can actually shape what we’re feeling.
  • Newer research shows that when our access to emotional language is blocked, our ability to interpret incoming emotional information is significantly diminished.
  • “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.”
  • This is a book about the human side – the human challenges – of working with others… 
  • Maybe this book says, simply and clearly, to name and face and admit and share your emotions.
  • work on cultivating the “better” emotions
  • get help when you need it (and, you may need it!)
  • work on not embracing the harmful emotions; especially work on not harming others in the midst of your struggles with these harmful emotions… 
  • She stresses:
  • pay careful attention to your emotions – self-care, with self-work
  • Maybe think about it this way:
  • Here’s what -_____________ (anxiety, e.g.) does to you. Here’s what to DO when that is happening.
  • Thoughts on Vulnerability…
  • Vulnerability is not oversharing, it’s sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories and our experiences.
  • Thoughts on Learning
  • It turns out that confusion, like many uncomfortable things in life, is vital for learning. According to research, confusion has the potential to motivate, lead to deep learning, and trigger problem solving.
  • “To be effective, learning needs to be effortful.”
  • and…curiosity and interest…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
  • “More freudenfreude, less schadenfreude.”
  • (R.M.; Weep with those who weep. Rejoice with those who rejoice).
  • Thoughts on expectations
  • And in this perception-driven world, the big question is always: Are you setting goals and expectations that are completely outside of your control?
  • I can’t wait to share my project presentation with the team tomorrow. They’re going to be blown away and really appreciate how hard I’ve worked. Is there a way to feel validated other than your team’s saying something? It’s dangerous to put your self-worth in other people’s hands. 
  • Thoughts on the Buddhist concept of “near enemies” and “far enemies”
  • ‘Near enemy’ is a useful Buddhist concept referring to a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state—hence it is ‘near’—but actually undermines it, which is why it’s an enemy.
  • e.g., Pity is the near enemy of compassion; cruelty might be the far enemy of compassion.
  • Thoughts on belonging and connection
  • Expanding on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, recent research shows that finding a sense of belonging in close social relationships and with our community is essential to well-being.       
  • You can’t study the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human without constantly bumping into belonging—it’s just too primal.
  • Belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. 
  • Seven elements of trust emerged from our data, and we use the acronym BRAVING:
  • Boundaries: You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
  • Reliability: You do what you say you’ll do.
  • Accountability: You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
  • Vault: You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share; and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.
  • Integrity: You choose courage over comfort. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
  • Nonjudgment: I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need.
  • Generosity: You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.
  • Thoughts about gratitude:
  • There are about as many definitions of gratitude as there are researchers, poets, and writers who examine the emotion in their work. Many of the existing research definitions don’t resonate with the way people described their experiences of gratitude to me in interviews or in writing. Here’s what emerged from our work: Gratitude is an emotion that reflects our deep appreciation for what we value, what brings meaning to our lives, and what makes us feel connected to ourselves and others.
  • gratitude is a practice: An attitude is a way of thinking; a practice is a way of doing, trying…
  • Thoughts on contempt, and disgust
  • With contempt, we look down on the other person and we want to exclude or ignore them. With disgust, inferiority is not the issue, the feeling is more physical—we want to avoid being “poisoned” (either literally or figuratively).
  • This element of dehumanization seems to be one of the characteristics that distinguishes disgust from contempt.
  • {• Note; and, this is quite important:  disgust, leading to dehumanizing thinking and speaking, leads to horrors such as the Holocaust. You can’t hurt fellow humans.  Therefore, you define them as less than human; as disgusting…as “vermin;” as “mongrels.”  Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or evil}.

And, here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Learn about the full array of human emotions.  Learn their words; their meanings.
#2 – Pay attention to what these emotions do to you, and through you (to others).
#3 – You are not alone. You share these emotions with others – with all others.
#4 – Sometimes, you will need help.  Get the help you need.
#5 – It is likely that studying these emotions in your life will be a lifelong project of much attentiveness, some pain, much learning, and plenty of changing.
#6 – If you want to effectively connect with others, this work is not optional.

I find it difficult to work on the inner life.  Sometimes, quite painful.  But, I also find it essential.  The inner life (or, call it the spiritual life, or the interior life) is where it all starts. Becoming a better human starts on the inside, I think.  This book will help.

I strongly recommend that you add this book to your reading list.


Here is the Table of Contents for the book: Read it through carefully, a time or three. Then, maybe buy the book, and read the sections that your find yourself drawn to:

  • The book:

#1: Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much:
Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability
#2: Places We Go When We Compare:
Comparison, Admiration, Reverence, Envy, Jealousy, Resentment, Schadenfreude, Freudenfreude
#3: Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned:
Boredom, Disappointment, Expectations, Regret, Discouragement, Resignation, Frustration
#4: Places We Go When It’s Beyond Us:
Awe, Wonder, Confusion, Curiosity, Interest, Surprise
#5: Places We Go When Things Aren’t What They Seem:
Amusement, Bittersweetness, Nostalgia, Cognitive Dissonance, Paradox, Irony, Sarcasm
#6: Places We Go When We’re Hurting:
Anguish, Hopelessness, Despair, Sadness, Grief
#7: Places We Go with Others:
Compassion, Pity, Empathy, Sympathy, Boundaries, Comparative Suffering
#8: Places We Go When We Fall Short:
Shame, Self-Compassion, Perfectionism, Guilt, Humiliation, Embarrassment
#9: Places We Go When We Search for Connection:
Belonging, Fitting in, Connection, Disconnection, Insecurity, Invisibility, Loneliness
#10: Places We Go When the Heart Is Open:
Love, Lovelessness, Heartbreak, Trust, Self-Trust, Betrayal, Defensiveness, Flooding, Hurt
#11: Places We Go When Life Is Good:
Joy, Happiness, Calm, Contentment, Gratitude, Foreboding Joy, Relief, Tranquility
#12: Places We Go When We Feel Wronged:
Anger, Contempt, Disgust, Dehumanization, Hate, Self-Righteousness
#13: Places We Go to Self-Assess:
Pride, Hubris, Humility Cultivating Meaningful Connection  


I presented my synopsis of this book early in 2019

I presented my synopsis of this book early in 2019

Here is my blog post on her earlier book: Dare to Lead by Brené Brown – My Six Lessons and Takeaways.


My synopsis, with the audio recording of my presentation, and my comprehensive, multi-page handout, will be available soon on this web site.  Click here for our newest additions.

We have many synopses available. Click on the buy synopses tab at the top of this page to search by book title.


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