Atlas of the Heart

I just finished another Brené Brown book, Atlas of the Heart.  it is a beautiful book, with great illustrations, and some of the best quotes in the book are highlighted in big colorful type on their own pages.

Emotions often get such a bad rap: I mean, if someone calls you emotional, it’s not usually a compliment. But what I love about Brown’s work is her insight into the deep connections between our feelings, our thoughts, and our behaviors. Our emotions are not theoretical, nor are they simply internal: we live out our emotions and experience them in the world with other people. Our emotions both affect and are effected by our thoughts and perceptions.

She shares a great definition of embodiment that expresses this perfectly. She quotes the researcher Prentice Hemphill who says that embodiment is “the awareness of our body’s sensations, habits, and the beliefs that inform them. Embodiment requires the ability to feel and allow the body’s emotions. This embodied awareness is necessary to realign what we do with what we believe” (261). It’s the point about alignment that is so critical: if we are seeking to be authentic, our feelings, our behaviors, and our thinking all need to be in line–there needs to be coherence. And for that to be possible, we have to develop a much deeper emotional intelligence–for ourselves and for others. And this is hard.

But, we have to go there. Very early in the book, she shares one of her signature values: “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage” (15).  And, in some ways, you have to be willing to show some measure of vulnerability to delve into your own emotions. Examining how other people make us feel, how we respond to certain events and individuals, and how we react in certain situations is risky. Let’s face it, we aren’t always our best selves; there are many situations that trigger counterproductive responses and painful feelings, and there are many, many ways that we protect ourselves–many of which wound other people, sometimes deeply; many of which wound ourselves in significant ways.

So, I appreciate that each of the chapters in the book is titled “Places We Go When…”–when things don’t go as planned, when we’re hurting, when we the heart is open, etc.; and each chapter offers examples of emotions that are constructive and build connection, and emotions that inhibit connection, and drive us away from each other–and from ourselves.

There isn’t really room to analyze the whole book here, so what I want to do instead is just lift up a few quotes and insights. If you like them, check out the book–I highly recommend it. I found it really insightful, and it has given me so much to think about, in how I show up and relate to others both personally and professionally. This is work that is rich and fulfilling, but life-long.

So, here are some insights, in no particular order.

There is a whole great section about “communicating expectations,” and how disappointment and hurt are often caused by unexamined and unexpressed expectations–expectations we have of others, and expectations we have of ourselves. So often, we don’t communicate those to partners, children, friends and colleagues (we don’t even voice them to ourselves), but they are there, lurking in our interactions; and when they are not met, it can cause all sorts of problems. However, while it is scary to share hopes and dreams with others–What will they do with that information?–it is also an important way that we deepen connections with others and build lines of communication.

She also talks about the importance of curiosity–staying open to receiving new information, and being willing to learn, rather than turning everything into a argument, or writing someone off immediately because they have a different perspective than we do. She writes, “In these challenging moments of dissonance, we need to stay curious and resist using comfort over courage. It’s brave to invite new information to the table, to sit with it and hear it out. It’s also rare these days” (83). I think we all can resonate with that.

Also very relatable to our current context is her discussion of grief. She names three foundational elements of grief: loss (of course); longing–“an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning); and feeling lost–the disorientation of our physical, emotional and social worlds (111). Yep; I’m sure many of us have ticked most of those boxes these past two years.

She also talks about anger. She says, “Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.” I like that insight, because it balances the perspective that anger can be a very unhealthy, destructive emotion, but it also can be a powerful tool for engagement.

This leads to a final insight, appropriate for MLK Day. Toward the end of the book she talks about power, and she highlights the 1968 speech Dr. King gave to striking sanitation workers in Memphis. In that speech, he defined power as “the ability to achieve purpose and affect change.” In order to do that, we need to replace “power over”–which is so seductive, and which often we are lured into thinking is “real” power–with these three versions of power: “power with,” mutual support and collaboration; “power to,” empowering others to make a difference; and “power within,” which is grounded in a strong foundation of self-worth and self knowledge (263).

One more thing: the last thing I want to want to lift up is something that she ends the book with, a practice she calls “story stewardship.” She defines it as honoring the sacred nature of story, and treating the stories people share with us with respect and care. And, importantly, she lifts up the twin dangers of narrative takeover, and narrative tap-out, both of which get in the way of cultivating meaningful connections. As you can imagine, narrative tap-out is when we offer a quick response to someone and then move onto our own agenda. (You’ve been on the receiving end of that, I’m sure, and you know how that makes you feel: pushed aside and unheard). Narrative takeover, however, is when we stop listening to what someone else is saying and put ourselves at the center of the story and take the narrative out of their hands, deciding on the ending and meaning of the story ourselves. (There is a great little cartoon that goes with this on pages 267-270, and I definitely saw myself in the “takeover” model. That was hard to face.) What she emphasizes is that in order to really hear people we need to center the other person’s experience and be the learner, not the knower. It takes time and it requires vulnerability. And, I would say, it takes practice.

I could say more, but that is enough for you to get the gist of the book. If self-discovery, relationship-building, or emotional healing/development are on your new year’s resolution list, this book is definitely worth a read.

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