Charting the Atlas of the Heart: Why Humans Need a Language of Emotions

Thomas Harrison on Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. And if we are to believe Brené Brown in her Atlas of the Heart, the dimensions of that world are shrinking. In a dispiriting survey that opens her study, 7,000 Americans, when asked what feelings they could name while experiencing them, came up with an average of three: anger, sadness, and happiness. While we are capable of deciphering trillions of bits of data each minute, and coining words for astronomical events that can hardly be imagined, we are decidedly less articulate about how we feel. 

“I love my husband, I love my dog, I love God, I love this hamburger.” Nuances are in short supply. We even say “I love you” as shorthand for “goodbye” when dropping off our children for school. How many fine distinctions are washed away by one blubbery term? And what a variety of things provoke the same feeling of “sadness.” If we understood that we are not always feeling sad, but rather offended by something someone said, or just lonely, we probably would not even reach for a single remedy (often administered in the form of a pill). We might turn to more productive action, individually as well as a collectively. It is sad, indeed, to reflect on how the limits of our language limit our world.

The Atlas of the Heart takes up a challenge alluded to by the poet Rumi in the book’s epigraph: “Heart is sea, language is shore. Whatever sea includes, will hit the shore.” These verses express faith in the power of mind. The components of our deep emotional sea will eventually come to words. Beholding the great sea, Brown narrows her sights on its Guantanamo Bay, where everything is imprisoned, under indictment, not authorized to plead its case before the court of law. While artists, psychologists, and philosophers have explored that sea for centuries, our current understanding of it has been diminished in inverse proportion to increased knowledge about the material paraphernalia surrounding and confining those feelings, driving them into worldly irrelevance. How much does it matter, after all, how individuals feel? And yet it matters a great deal how they pack boxes for Amazon. Why do we demand precision in some things and not in others? 

Brené Brown. Atlas of the Heart. Random House, 2021, pp. 336, $30.00 (hardcover).

Like all humanistic researchers, Brené Brown has little doubt that self-understanding will help us improve our lot on the planet. This leads her to parse a handful of slovenly feelings into a treasury of many dozens of finely distinguished emotions, where envy is distinguished from jealousy, grief from hopelessness, and contempt from disgust. By mistaking one for the other, we only make a mess out of things. If we think our pity entails compassion, we fail in the very compassion we believe we serve. The two feelings are not close friends at all, but “near enemies,” as Brown astutely notes. Perfectionists may seem to be focused on self-improvement, but many are just working to put down others, to make them appear comparatively worse. We had essentially the same idea in the “bad faith” of Jean-Paul Sartre: you tell yourself you are doing X while you are really aiming for Y. Recognition of our own emotions is the very foundation of the great goal endorsed by both East and West since philosophy began: self-actualization. As a young woman in college Brown wrote a paper that already called for better communication between mind and heart as the project’s prerequisite. By claiming that we need to put our finger on “the reasoning behind sorrow,” it fathomed the fact that feelings are not spontaneous or natural human reactions. They are outcomes of modes of thought. If so, a map of our emotional topography is more critical to our daily movements than a GPS. We need to become better oceanographers, exploring our experiences and feelings in such an effective way that “we can name them, think about them, and make choices that reflect our values and our heart.”

Notwithstanding this call for clear-sighted analysis, Brown’s atlas is not “scientific.” For feelings are symptoms of culture. They pertain to societies, age groups, genders, and ideologically specific historical periods. Even if we succeeded in associating each feeling with a precisely neurological or physiological activity (anger with a flushing of the face, for example), we would still have to acknowledge that none is caused directly by raw experience. Each expresses a subjective take on that experience. And this brings the mind back into the picture. Like all conscientious psychologists, Brown highlights the trouble we get into in the concrete lives that we lead, in our 21st century, in the company we keep, under the pressures of social mechanisms. A hundred years after Freud it has become clear that most secrets to psychology do not lie in the mind, but rather in sociology and political science. The point is amply illustrated, to take only three examples, by Harmut Rosa’s Resonance (2018), Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts (2011), and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009). All steer our understanding of mental health toward the crippling effects of the organization of everyday life. 

This is to say that Brown’s book is essentially about Americans in the 2020s. While it is perfectly possible that a half-dozen emotions are shared the world over, what causes jealousy in Kazakhstan is not likely to stir much attention in France. Some feelings hypertrophy here, and others atrophy there. I imagine that a whole other atlas of the heart would be required for many parts of Asia, and different ones still for communities in Africa. The over-arching sore spot that emerges from this geo-psychical panorama of America is disconnectedness, a clear consequence of social atomization. Once upon a time, an equally extended family of psychological problems like those that we encounter in this book might have been grouped around the issue of self-esteem, with its collateral damage of shame and isolation, resentment and envy, defensiveness and rivalry. Brown does not assign a spot to each of these feelings in the places of her atlas—where we go “when we compare,” “when we’re hurting,” “when we fall short,” or “when the heart is open” (nor does she name others: torment, frustration, or victimization, in both passive and active senses). There are thirteen major destinations or places mapped out in her atlas, with eighty-seven specific sites within them. Most of the sites are feelings proper, but others are experiences and thoughts that foster these feelings.

Readers from other parts of the world may have more critical perspective to bring to bear on how we fall prey to these experiences in the unreflective and hostile United States, with disconnection ballooning into a national Super-Feeling and provoking the smaller feelings called out by Brown’s diagnosis, and urgently calling for others as remedies: belonging, gratitude, trust, self-trust, contentment, and so on. The epidemic of this Super-Feeling explains the presence of an epilogue in this book, devoted to what may be the single most pressing task in American social psychology today: “Cultivating Meaningful Connection.” This does not seem to be such an issue in the traditional communities of Bali, or in the family-based lifestyles of Italy. The pall of disconnectedness that looms over this atlas reminds us that psychological problems are social; and their only remedy is cultural.

In the meantime, while awaiting collective change, we can only strive to better understand where we stand. We can look more in the mirror and less at the screen, seeking to discern the contours of an inner landscape that seems steadily to recede from our gaze. We can pursue more precision in matters of the soul. “If names be not correct,” as Confucius reasoned, “language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” A basic observation of Aristotle is equally pertinent: emotions play a large role in the judgments we make, as current politics continue to remind us. We may have needed to reach this politics in order to understand, too, how the reverse of Aristotle is true: that judgments affect feelings (as in “This person is ignorant, homeless, a migrant, a thief …”). We think as we feel and we feel as we think. This is why several of the places we go with our psycho-emotional system are simply notional, as in the case of self-righteousness: “Part of my sobriety,” Brown quotes a member of AA as saying, “is letting go of self-righteousness. It’s really hard because it feels so good. Like a pig rolling in shit.” The starkness of the formulation makes us see the illuminating power of words. 

Assigning the right word to things is the first productive step. The second is finding an appropriate definition, like this one: “Narcissism is the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” Its opposite may well be humility: a word that comes from the Latin humilitas, originally meaning groundedness. Neither modesty nor self-abnegation, its inner principle is, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Beyond definitions and etymology, a third step in the quest for a language of the feelings consists in entering that great storehouse of words which is literature. No science, psychology, or sociology can get around Madame Bovary, King Lear, and hundreds of other supreme novels, stories, poems, and plays, which are dedicated precisely to the depth and complexity of human feelings, knowing that they cannot be plotted in lists. Able to show the absurdity of a person who uses the same word for six different feelings, literature aims even to transcend names and definitions. Instead of fitting experiences into boxes, it tries to present them as unique and absolute embodiments of life, to which thousands of readers can relate their own feelings. Maybe this is the only way that the lack of empathy analyzed by Brown can actually be healed: by enhancing the imaginative mediations between self and self, which necessitates more time and more incentive to read, in order to reflect better on others. 

Poems and novels illustrate nuances of feeling more completely than expository prose. They bridge gaps between people through articulate writing—in descriptions, metaphors, symbols, and conceptual networks drawing one mind, and one world of concern, into the place of another. The vastness of the human sea of feelings is what first inspires this literary journey, revealing that every place on the atlas is both utterly different and yet surprisingly close to home, and that all emotions are complex and mutually affecting. Every event that motivates human beings, claimed Robert Musil, is born from the imagination, and it is that which we need to cultivate.

Thomas Harrison, Ph.D., is the Vice Chair of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of European Languages & Transcultural Studies at UCLA. His most recent book is Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account. He is also the author of 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, a study of European expressionism across the arts, and of Essayism: Conrad, Musil and Pirandello. He has edited Nietzsche in Italy as well as The Favorite Malice: Ontology and Reference in Contemporary Italian Poetry. He has also penned dozens of  scholarly articles.