Naming Emotions and Experiences

The latest Brené Brown book – Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience – had me waiting in a very long queue at the Beaverton Library. Her research, her distinctive voice, and her passion for improving the human condition resonate with me. They help me make sense of the world and improve my experience of it.

In this latest book, Brown serves as a cartographer who explores the land of human emotion and experience for purposes of creating a map the rest of us might follow. This enterprise began by asking 7,500 people to identify all of the emotions that they could recognize and name when they’re experiencing them. The average person only came up with three – glad, sad, and mad. To say the least, Brown deemed this lack of emotional literacy highly problematic.

“Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves. If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

In short, if we are unable to name our emotions and experiences and discern their relationship to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, we’re navigating the journey of life without a map. By contrast, when recognize and label our emotions and experiences accurately, we enjoy greater emotional regulation and psychosocial well-being.

Brown organized findings according to states of being when emotions or experiences arise. It afforded her the opportunity to draw distinctions between sensibilities and how they operate in those contexts. Here are the topics covered:

  • Places we go when things are uncertain or too much: stressed, overwhelmed, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability
  • Places we go when we compare: comparison, admiration, reverence, envy, jealousy, resentment, schadenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at other’s misfortune), freudenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at another’s good fortune)
  • Places we go when things don’t go as planned: boredom, disappointment, regret, discouraged, resigned, frustrated
  • Places we go when it’s beyond us: wonder, awe, confusion, curiosity, interest, surprise
  • Places we go when things aren’t what they seem: amusement, bittersweet, nostalgia, worry, rumination, cognitive dissonance, paradox, irony, sarcasm
  • Places we go when we’re hurting: anguish, hope, hopelessness, despair, sad, grief
  • Places we go with others: compassion, pity, empathy, sympathy
  • Places we go when we fall short: shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, perfectionism
  • Places we go when we search for connection: true belonging, connection, disconnection, insecurity, invisibility, loneliness
  • Places we go when the heart is open: love, heartbreak, trust, betrayal, defensiveness, flooding, hurt
  • Places we go when life is good: joy, happiness, calm, contentment, gratitude, foreboding joy, relief, tranquility
  • Places we go when we feel wronged: anger, contempt, disgust, dehumanization, hate, self-righteousness
  • Places we go to self-assess: pride, hubris, humility

Brown asserts that knowing and applying the language of human experience are prerequisites for supporting meaningful connection with ourselves and others. The practice of meaningful connection entails:

  • Developing grounded self-confidence with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement
  • Acting with courage and integrity to present your authentic self when being with other people and committing to walking side-by-side with them
  • Practicing story stewardship by asking people how they are feeling, listening deeply, and honoring the sacred nature of their lived experience

As Brown says, “story stewardship is not walking in someone else’s shoes; it’s being curious and building narrative trust as they tell you about the experience of being in their own shoes.” Learning the language of emotion and experience makes this task possible.