Brené Brown and her team started this project by gathering comments from an online class Brown was teaching where she asked two questions: What are the emotions and experiences that emerge the most often, and which emotions and experiences do people struggle to name or label?
From this list of about 150 emotions and experiences, they invited therapists from various backgrounds to rate these with one statement in mind: In my experience working with clients, the ability to name this emotion or experience is essential to being able to process it in a productive and healing manner.
There was some more processing and they ended up on the following 87 emotions and experiences. They are neatly organized by how they relate to each other, thoroughly researched, and clearly explained to give us a guide to the emotions and experiences that we all have as humans, all in an effort to cultivate more meaningful connections with others.
Language and emotional granularity matter. Without accurate language, we are limited in our ability to make sense of what is happening in our lives and share it with others. We don’t get the help that we need. We don’t regulate our emotions in a productive way. Our self-awareness is diminished.1
A Model for Cultivating Meaningful Connection
“Cultivating meaningful connection is a daring and vulnerable practice that requires grounded confidence, the courage to walk alongside others, and story stewardship.”
Grounded confidence is centered around curiosity, learning, and improving. Its near enemy is knowing and proving and its far enemy is protecting fragile self-worth. The specific skill sets are practicing courage, rumbling with vulnerability, staying curious, practicing humility, committing to mastery and practice, and feeling embodied and connect to self.
Practicing the courage to walk alongside others is about being “other-focused, using language in the service of connecting, practicing compassion, empathy, and nonjudgment.” The near enemy is controlling the path and its far enemy is walking away. The specific skill sets are committing to be other-focused, practicing compassion, practicing empathy, practicing nonjudgment, sharing “power with” and “power to”, being relational, and setting and respecting boundaries.
Controlling the path is a very dangerous near enemy that we often do without thinking. Help can quickly turn into controlling the path. Remember that walking alongside is other-focused and control is self-focused.
Just Associates define three different variations of power within the social justice and activism fields. “Power with is based on mutual support, solidarity, collaboration and recognition and respect for differences. Power to is based on the belief that each individual has the power to make a difference. Power within is defined by an ability to recognize differences and respect others, grounded in a strong foundation of self-worth and self-knowledge.”
“Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story—the ones we share and the ones we hear—and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care.” Its near enemy is performing connection while driving disconnection. The specific skills are rumbling with story (listening, discovering, and staying curious) and building narrative trust (believing, acknowledging, and affirming).
It is very difficult to know exactly what someone is feeling. So many emotions present the same way so that it is impossible to know if someone is crying because of anger, despair, grief, or any other range of feelings. Even physical expression can be difficult to read. Instead, we need to ask questions and listen to their story empathically.2
Performative connection is “acting interested or invested.” What drives the disconnection is that we want to be the knower, give advice, and solve the problem when others are suffering. The best way to practice story stewardship in these moments is to say something like “I’m grateful that you’re sharing this with me. What does support look like? I can listen and be with you, I can help problem-solve, or whatever else you need. You tell me.”
The two near enemies to building narrative trust are narrative takeover and narrative tap-out. Narrative tap-out looks like disinterest or complete shutdown, either because the story makes us uncomfortable or we don’t care about the other person enough to care about their story. We can also tap-out of our own stories when we lack grounded confidence that our stories matter.
Narrative takeover happens when we hijack the story and make ourselves the center of it. This can look like “shifting the focus to us, questioning or not believing what someone is sharing because it’s different than our lived experience, or diminishing the importance of an experience because it makes us feel uncomfortable or, worse, complicit.”3
For each of these three parts of the model, a key property is knowing and applying the language of human experience and emotion. The near enemy of this is shaping emotion and experience to fit what we know. This means feeling our complex emotions and experiences and shoving them into a word that we have like “sad”, “glad”, “mad”, or “fine.”
Chris Germer defines, “Near enemies are states that appear similar to the desired quality but actually undermine it. Far enemies are the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.” Jack Kornfield explains that “near enemies may seem like the qualities that we believe are important, and may even be mistaken for them, but they are different and often undermine our practices.”
Brown tells us that “on the surface, the near enemies of emotions or experiences might look and even feel like connection, but ultimately they drive us to be disconnected from ourselves and from each other. Without awareness, near enemies become the practices that fuel separation, rather than practices that reinforce the inextricable connection of all people.”
“The near enemy of love is attachment.” Attachment says that you’ll only love someone because you need something from them or you’ll love them only if they will be the way you want. They can look very similar but at the root of it, “true love allows, honors, and appreciates; attachment grasps, demands, needs, and aims to possess.”
“The near enemy of equanimity is indifference or callousness.” Again, these can look really similar but “indifference is based on fear” and has a sense of withdrawal tied to it. True equanimity is stable and stems from an engagement with life as a whole rather than a withdrawal. They can look similar but the near enemy actually drives us away from equanimity.
We should “pressure-check” our responses often to make sure that a near enemy isn’t lurking. For example, are we showing compassion or are is it really coming across as pity? Near enemies destroy connection and they are often very difficult to spot.
When Things Are Uncertain Or Too Much
“We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.”
Stress is different from pressure which arises when we feel like an important outcome depends on us. Stress comes from too many demands and not enough resources in our environment.
“Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.”
When experiencing overwhelm, we have intense emotions, our focus on them is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we are feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions. (Carol Gohm)
“The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as ‘an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.’”
Anxiety can be both a state and a trait.
Brown offers a helpful analogy to describe anxiety: the Willy Wonka shit tunnel. This comes from the scene in Willy Wonka when they ride the boat on the chocolate river through the tunnel of “escalating loss of control, worst-case-scenario thinking and imagery, and total uncertainty.”
“Worry is described as a chain of negative thoughts about bad things that might happen in the future.”
Worry is one of two coping mechanisms for anxiety, the other being avoidance. Worry, unlike anxiety, is not an emotion. It is completely cognitive.
“Avoidance, the second coping strategy for anxiety, is not showing up and often spending a lot of energy zigzagging around and away from that thing that already feels like it’s consuming us.”
“Excitement is described as an energized state of enthusiasm leading up to or during an enjoyable activity”
Excitement isn’t always a good feeling. We get a similar feeling as when we are feeling anxiety. We usually use “anxiety” to describe a negatively perceived sensation and “excitement” for positively perceived ones.
“Dread occurs frequently in response to high-probability negative events; its magnitude increases as the dreaded event draws nearer.
“Fear is a negative, short-lasting, high-alert emotion in response to a perceived threat, and, like anxiety, it can be measured as a state or trait.”
“For anxiety and dread, the threat is in the future. For fear, the threat is now—in the present.”
Fear and anxiety are necessary emotions that are helpful in our quest for connection.
“Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
Being vulnerable does not mean oversharing and spilling out our hearts to everyone we meet. It is “sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories and our experiences.” We are vulnerable with those that we trust with our stories.
When We Compare
“Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out.”
frequent social comparisons are not associated with life satisfaction or the positive emotions of love and joy but are associated with the negative emotions of fear, anger, shame, and sadness.
“We feel admiration when someone’s abilities, accomplishments, or character inspires us, or when we see something else that inspires us, like art or nature.”
Usually when we experience admiration, we want to improve ourselves. I am currently in admiration of Brené Brown after reading her thoughts in this book and it makes me want to absorb all of it so that I can be similarly well-equipped for meaningful connection.
“Reverence, which is sometimes called adoration, worship, or veneration, is a deeper form of admiration or respect and is often combined with a sense of meaningful connection with something greater than ourselves.”
While experiencing admiration drives us to improve ourselves, reverence gives us a desire to be closer to the thing or person that we revere.
“Envy occurs when we want something that another person has.”
Most envy experiences stem from one of three categories:
- Attraction. We want to look like someone else, be as popular as someone else, want the romantic partner that person has, etc.
- Competence. We want to be as smart or as skilled as someone else.
- Wealth. We want to be rich and able to afford all the cool stuff that person has.
“Jealousy is when we fear losing a relationship or a valued part of a relationship that we already have.”
Jealousy is a cognitive function. We think jealousy and that can lead us to feel anger, sadness, or fear.
“Resentment is the feeling of frustration, judgment, anger, ‘better than,’ and/or hidden envy related to perceived unfairness or injustice. It’s an emotion that we often experience when we fail to set boundaries or ask for what we need, or when expectations let us down because they were based on things we can’t control, like what other people think, what they feel, or how they’re going to react.”
“Resentment can be recognized by a thought pattern: What mean and critical thing am I rehearsing saying to this person?”
“In the case of “schadenfreude,” it simply means pleasure or joy derived from someone else’s suffering or misfortune.”
We don’t have a specific word for this experience in English but luckily German does. Schadenfreude doesn’t necessarily stem from a lack of empathy. Often, we are “grateful for the healing that accountability brings to those who have been affected by wrongdoing” rather than celebrating someone’s suffering.
“Freudenfreude, which is the opposite of schadenfreude—it’s the enjoyment of another’s success. It’s also a subset of empathy.”
There are two behaviors to increase freudenfreude:
- Shoy. Intentionally sharing the joy of someone relating a success story by showing interest and asking follow-up questions.
- Bragitude. Intentionally tying words of gratitude toward the listener following discussion of personal successes.
When Things Don’t Go As Planned
“Boredom is the uncomfortable state of wanting to engage in satisfying activity, but being unable to do it.”
Doses of boredom or mundane tasks can be good. It allows our minds to wander, imagine, and create. Barbara Oakley, in her popular MOOC Learning How To Learn, calls this diffuse thinking. It allows our brains to relax and create new links between seemingly unrelated topics in our minds.
“Disappointment is unmet expectations. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”
“It didn’t work out how I wanted, and I believe the outcome was outside of my control.”
“When we develop expectations, we paint a picture in our head of how things are going to be and how they’re going to look.”
When the picture in our hand doesn’t match up to reality, it leads to disappointment.
Expectations can be unexamined and unexpressed and can be a slippery slope towards disappointment. It is best to think through and vocalize your expectations of a situation so that you can prepare accordingly. Ask yourself, “What expectations do you have going into this? What do you want to happen? Why? What will that mean to you? Do you have a movie in your head? Are you setting goals and expectations that are completely outside of your control?”
Lowering our expectations is one way to minimize disappointment but that can lead to living a cynical life full of foreboding joy and never really engaging. Instead, examine and express your expectations. Express what you need and the why behind the expectation.
“Both disappointment and regret arise when an outcome was not what we wanted, counted on, or thought would happen. With disappointment, we often believe the outcome was out of our control (but we’re learning more about how this is not always the case). With regret, we believe the outcome was caused by our decisions or actions”.
“It didn’t work out how I wanted, and the outcome was caused by my decisions, actions, or failure to act.”
The idea of living life with “No Ragrats” seems romantic, spontaneous, and outgoing. But when you live without regrets, really you are just living without reflection. You don’t learn anything or improve yourself if you don’t reflect on past experiences and ask yourself, How could I have done that better?
“I’m losing my confidence and enthusiasm about any future effort—I’m losing the motivation and confidence to persist.”
“I’ve lost my confidence and enthusiasm about any future effort—I’ve lost the motivation and confidence to persist.”
“Something that feels out of my control is preventing me from achieving my desired outcome”
Frustration often overlaps with anger. The difference is that, with frustration, we don’t think we can do anything to fix the situation. We think there is something we can do when we are angry.
When It’s Beyond Us
“Wonder fuels our passion for exploration and learning, for curiosity and adventure.”
"‘Wonder inspires the wish to understand; awe inspires the wish to let shine, to acknowledge and to unite.’ When feeling awe, we tend to simply stand back and observe, ’to provide a stage for the phenomenon to shine.’”
“Confusion is critical for learning.” Learning needs to effortful and work our brains like we work our muscles at the gym. There is a zone of optimal confusion where learning is at it’s peak. Too little confusion and we don’t get deep learning and we’re not problem-solving. Too much confusion and we get frustrated, resign, or become bored.
“Interest is a cognitive openness to engaging with a topic or experience.”
“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.”
A notable difference between interest and curiosity is the heart and head investments. When we are interested, we are cognitively open to seeing what’s there. When we are curious, we are emotionally invested to closing the gap in our knowledge.
This also means that we have to have some level of knowledge or awareness before we can become curious. We aren’t curious about things we don’t know about or are unaware of. Some research shows that the more we know, the more we want to know.
“Surprise is ‘an interruption caused by information that doesn’t fit with our current understanding or expectations. It causes us to reevaluate.’”
Surprise is an emotional amplifier. It intensifies the emotion that we feel once our brains work out the unexpected thing that is happening.
When Things Aren’t What They Seem
“The definition of amusement that aligns with our research is ‘pleasurable, relaxed excitation.’”
Amusement can be identified from other positive emotions by two themes: an awareness of incongruity (something unexpected) and feeling playful with others around us.
“Bittersweet is a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness.”
The sadness comes from having to let go of something and the happiness comes from what has been experienced or what is coming next. Bittersweetness is not being unsure whether we are happy or sad (ambivalence), it is feeling both at the same time.
“We define nostalgia as a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.”
Nostalgia is usually positive and context-specific. It is similar to bittersweetness in that it combines “happiness and sadness along with a sense yearning and loss.” It can also be used as a tool for disconnection when we yearn for “the good old days” and resist important change and growth in the world due to our discomfort.
Nostalgia can also lead to rumination where we involuntarily “focus on negative and pessimistic thoughts” which can lead to depression. Rumination is different from worry in that we are focused on the past rather than the future. Rumination is also different from reflection which is a healthy and productive coping strategy.
“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.”
When we feel cognitive dissonance, we immediately want to make the discomfort of it go away by resolving the dissonance by rejecting or avoiding one of the cognitions. We will go to great lengths to lie to ourselves or avoid just to reduce the dissonance. Instead, we should sit with new information and rethink and unlearn and “stay curious and resist choosing comfort over courage” to reduce the dissonance.
“A paradox is the appearance of contradiction between two related components.”
Where cognitive dissonance drives us to resolve the tension between two conflicting cognitions, paradox invites us to understand the tension and recognize that both cognitions can be two. Like cognitive dissonance, paradox is not an emotion in and of itself. It starts with cognition and then emotion comes later when we feel the pull of two different ideas.
Irony and Sarcasm
“Irony and sarcasm are forms of communication in which the literal meaning of the words is different, often opposite, from the intended message. In both irony and sarcasm, there may be an element of criticism and humor. However, sarcasm is a particular type of irony in which the underlying message is normally meant to ridicule, tease, or criticize.”.
Using irony and sarcasm is a slippery slope. For irony to land as intended, the recipient has to “infer other people’s mental states, thoughts, and feelings.” They hear the actual words and tone and have to make a guess at the intended meeting. This can easily and quickly become misunderstood. We also often use sarcasm to soften the blow of criticism.
Because of this, we should use irony and sarcasm thoughtfully and with the right people. Ask yourself, are you dressing something up in humor that actually requires clarity and honesty?
When We’re Hurting
“Anguish is an almost unbearable and traumatic swirl of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness.”
There is another alternative to not addressing the trauma of anguish—we can convince ourselves that we’re okay and keep ourselves upright by hanging our crumpling anguish on rigidity and perfectionism and silence, like a wet towel hanging on a rod. We can become closed off, never open to vulnerability and its gifts, and barely existing because anything at any moment could threaten that fragile, rigid scaffolding that’s holding up our crumpling selves and keeping us standing.
“Hopelessness arises out of a combination of negative life events and negative thought patterns, particularly self-blame and the perceived inability to change our circumstances.”
Hope is a cognitive process, not the warm, fuzzy emotion we see in movie and book plots. Specifically, we experience hope when:
- We have the ability to set realistic goals
- We are able to figure out the pathways to achieve those goals
- We have agency and believe in ourselves
Setting good (SMART) goals is a skill and is necessary to have hope. When we don’t have proper goal-setting skills, small disappointments quickly grow into hopelessness and despair.
“Despair is a sense of hopelessness about a person’s entire life and future. When extreme hopelessness seeps into all the corners of our lives and combines with extreme sadness, we feel despair.”
Like hopelessness, becoming resilient to despair requires us to build our capacity to set realistic goals, think through the pathways to achieve those goals, and develop a strong belief in ourselves. This is called a hope practice; it’s intentional and requires patience and effort.
Along with a hope practice of goals, pathways, and agency, we can look to Martin Seligman’s three Ps of resilience:
- Personalization. We believe that we are the problem and forget to think about larger issues and context. Remember to think of all the outside factors that are playing a role in your struggles.
- Permanence. We believe that our struggle will never end. Remember the temporary nature of most struggles by asking yourself Will this be a big deal in five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five months? Five years?
- Pervasiveness. We believe that our struggle has leaked into every single part of our lives leaving them all stained or changed until nothing good is left. Will this struggle at work ruin your relationship with your loved ones, for example?
Sadness is not depression. Depression is a whole host of other emotions and experiences that persist over a long time. Similarly, sadness is not grief. Grief is also a group of emotions and experiences.
Sadness is often thought of as this evil emotion that we should never feel. Instead, it is an important and necessary emotion with some positive aspects. Most importantly, sadness is critical in developing empathy and compassion. When we are sad, we often look to connect with others. That is why we like sad movies and books. Sadness leads to feeling moved and connected to what it means to be human.
“Three foundational elements of grief emerged from the data: loss, longing, and feeling lost.”
- Loss. This can obviously include death or separation but could also be the loss of normality or the loss of what we thought we understood about something or someone.
- Longing. This is an involuntary yearning for wholeness, meaning, or the opportunity to regain what we’ve lost.
- Feeling lost. When experiencing grief, we need to reorient every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds.
Like a lot of these experiences that hurt, grief is a process with many different emotions involved. Grief does not follow a linear “stages of grief” process like many of us were taught. Robert Neimeyer writes, “A central process in grieving is the attempt to reaffirm or reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.”
When experiencing grief, we need connection to heal. Our grief needs to be witnessed and talked about without our grief being lessened or reframed. We need others to be completely present to help us make meaning of our loss.
When We Go With Others
Compassion and cognitive empathy are the most effective ways to be in connection with and in service to someone who is struggling, without taking on their issues as our own.
“Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering.”
Compassion is fueled by understanding and accepting that we are all humans. We all go through pain and suffering. It’s not about being “better than” others or being able to “fix” them. Compassion is a “practice based in the beauty and pain of shared humanity.” It is “not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals” as American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes.
“Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one’s own or another’s pain without despair, resentment, or aversion. It is the wish to dissipate suffering. Compassion embraces those experiencing sorrow, and eliminates cruelty from the mind.”
“Pity involves four elements:
- a belief that the suffering person is inferior;
- a passive, self-focused reaction that does not include providing help;
- a desire to maintain emotional distance; and
- avoidance of sharing in the other person’s suffering.”
Pity is the near enemy of compassion; the difference is the separation. When we pity someone, we feel different from them whereas when we are compassionate we recognize the suffering as a reflection of our own pain. Pity is “Oh, that poor person. I feel sorry for people like that.” versus “I understand this; I suffer in the same way.”
“Empathy, the most powerful tool of compassion, is an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.”
Cognitive empathy specifically is “the ability to recognize and understand another person’s emotions.” This does not mean feeling the same emotion they are feeling for them. It means reaching back into our own experience with an emotion so that we can understand and connect with that person. It isn’t relating to an experience, it’s connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.
Empathy is also not walking in someone else’s shoes. Instead, empathy is listening “to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.” As soon as you try to put yourself in someone else’s place instead of trying to understand from their perspective, it is no longer an empathetic connection. You either take on their emotions too much or you doubt what they are telling you because their experiences don’t match yours.
You don’t need to be the expert or experience what they’ve experienced. You need to connect to your own experiences in a “thinking” way that creates emotional resonance: Oh, yeah. I know that feeling. I’m not going to fall into it right now, but I know it and I can communicate with you in a way that makes you know you’re not alone.
Theresa Wiseman developed four attributes of empathy and Brown’s team added a fifth from Kristen Neff:
- Perspective taking. What does that concept mean for you? What is that experience like for you?
- Staying out of judgement. Just listen, don’t put value on it.
- Recognizing emotion. How can I touch within myself something that helps me identify and connect with what the other person might be feeling? Check in and clarify what you are hearing. Ask questions.
- Communicating our understanding about the emotion. Sometimes this is elaborate and detailed, and sometimes this is simply, “Shit. That’s hard. I get that.”
- Practicing mindfulness. This is not pushing away emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it.
- Sympathy Versus Empathy - I feel sorry for you. The person who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there”). The subtext of this response is distance: These things don’t happen to me or people like me.
- Judgement - You “should” feel shame! The person who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. The friend gasps and confirms how horrified you should be.
- Disappointment - You’ve let me down. The person who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. This person can’t help you because they are too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let this person down.
- Discharging Discomfort with Blame - This feels terrible. Who can we blame? You? This person immediately needs to discharge the discomfort and vulnerability of the situation by blaming and scolding. They may blame/scold you: “What were you thinking?” Or they may look for someone else to take the fall: “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his butt.”
- Minimize/Avoid - Let’s make this go away. We minimize and avoid when we want hard feelings to go away. Out of their own discomfort, this person refuses to acknowledge that you’re in pain and/or that you’re hurting: “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
- Comparing/Competing - If you think that’s bad! This person confuses connecting with you over shared experiences with the opportunity to one-up you. “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”
- Speaking Truth to Power - Don’t upset people or make them uncomfortable. You hold someone accountable for language, comments, or behavior that marginalizes or dehumanizes others, and it causes discomfort or conflict. When this person observes this or hears your story of what happened, they respond with, “I can’t believe you said that to your boss!” or “I can’t believe you went there!” or “You can’t talk about that stuff with people” versus an empathetic response of “That must have been hard—you were really brave” or “It’s hard to stand up for what you believe in—thank you.”
- Advice Giving/Problem Solving - I can fix this and I can fix you. Sometimes when we see pain our first instinct is to fix it. This is especially true for those of us whom people seek out to help with problem-solving. In these instances, rather than listen and be with people in their emotion, we start fixing.
“Sympathy is the near enemy of empathy.” It is also very similar to pity in that it creates a disconnection via a separation between you and them. When you show sympathy towards someone, you are saying that you two are different and that thing you’re dealing with doesn’t happen to me or to people like me.
“Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” One good way to set boundaries is to say what is okay and what is not okay. This way you can set boundaries without denying others their right to thinking or feeling. It is simply the expression of the thinking or feeling that is the problem. For example:
- It’s okay to be pissed. It’s not okay to raise your voice and pound on the table.
- It’s okay to change your mind. It’s not okay to assume that I’m okay with the changes without talking to me.
- It’s okay to disagree with me, but it’s not okay to ridicule my ideas and beliefs.
“Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world.”
“Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.”
When We Fall Short
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”
Brown’s shame 1-2-3s: We all experience shame. We are all afraid to talk about it. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over us.
When we feel shame, the focus is on our being, not on our behavior. We fear that something we’ve done or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection, like no one could love us and like we don’t belong. Most importantly, shame thrives on secrecy, silence, and judgement.
Empathy is the cure for shame. When we share our experience with shame with someone who responds with empathy, the shame starts to go away. Similarly, we can’t show empathy when we are feeling shame because the “inward focus overrides our ability to think about another person’s experience.”
There are four elements that came up when researching shame resilience. These aren’t necessarily steps but they all need to happen to build resilience to shame.
- Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Mindfulness is critical here to recognize when we are feeling shame and what triggered it.
- Practicing critical awareness. Reality check the triggers and expectations that are causing you to feel shameful.
- Reaching out. Own and share your story by connecting empathically to others.
- Speaking shame. Talk about how you feel and ask others for what you need. Staying silence makes shame worse.
“According to [Kristin] Neff, self-compassion has three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”
- Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.”
- Common humanity vs. isolation. “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.”
- Mindfulness vs. over-identification. “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be ‘over-identified’ with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, work perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
Perfectionism is one of the biggest barriers to working toward mastery.4 Curiosity is a prerequisite to learning and achieving mastery. Perfectionism kills our curiosity by telling us that we have to know everything or risk looking less than.
Perfectionism is not striving to be our best or working toward excellence. Healthy striving is internally driven (How can I improve?). Perfectionism is externally driven by a simple but potentially all-consuming question: What will people think?
Perfectionism is self-destructive. There is no such thing as perfect and perfection is an unattainable goal. Perfectionism is about trying to earn approval and be perceived as perfect. We cannot control other people’s perceptions.
Perfectionism is addictive. When we inevitably fall short (because, again, there is no such thing as perfection), we believe it was because we weren’t perfect enough so we strive to be more perfect. Perfectionism increases the odds that we experience shame.
Perfectionism causes “life paralysis”, all of the opportunities we don’t take because we are too afraid that what we do or put into the world could be imperfect. Life paralysis is also all of the dreams we don’t follow because we are scared of failing or making mistakes.
“Like shame, guilt is an emotion that we experience when we fall short of our own expectations or standards. However, with guilt, our focus is on having done something wrong and on doing something to set things right, like apologizing or changing a behavior.”
We feel guilty when we compare something we’ve done against our values and they don’t match up, when we live without integrity. The focus is on our behaviors, not our self like it is with shame. With reflection, guilt can be a driver of positive personal change.
“We can define humiliation as the intensely painful feeling that we’ve been unjustly degraded, ridiculed, or put down and that our identity has been demeaned or devalued.”
Humiliation causes us to feel unworthy of connection, like shame, but we don’t believe that we deserve that feeling of unworthiness. With shame, we do believe that we deserve our feeling of unworthiness.
“Embarrassment is a fleeting feeling of self-conscious discomfort in response to a minor incident that was witnessed by others.”
Embarrassment is fleeting and is often seen as funny or something that could have happened to anyone. Embarrassment can be triggered from three types of events: committing a faux pas or social mistake, being the center of attention, and being in a sticky social situation.
When We Search for Connection
Belonging and Fitting In
“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.”
When we have a deeper sense of belonging and connection to a larger humanity actually gives us more freedom to express our individuality without fear of jeopardizing belonging. Belonging means sharing our authentic selves with the world. “True belonging doesn’t require us to change who are; it requires us to be who we are.”
Fitting in is the near enemy of belonging. Because we have an instinctual desire to be a part of a group, we will go to great lengths to fit in. We try and make some fake figure of ourselves just to fit in and as soon as we do or say something that is true to our authentic selves, we risk our (false) comfort of belonging. There can’t be true belonging if people don’t really know who we are. “Authenticity is a requirement for belonging, and fitting in is a threat.”
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
As described by Judith Jordan, “The need for connection in which growth is a priority is the core motivation in people’s lives. In growth-fostering relationships, people are able to bring themselves most fully and authentically into connection.”
“Disconnection is often equated with social rejection, social exclusion, and/or social isolation, and these feelings of disconnection actually share the same neural pathways with feelings of physical pain.”
There are two big things to look out for when it comes to disconnection. The first is that sometimes we would rather hide and pretend that we don’t need connection rather than make a bid for connection and risk that bid being ignored or rejected. The second is about perfectionism. There is research that shows that people with perfectionist traits tend to do things that cause perceived or actual rejection from others. “Authenticity is a requirement for connection, and perfectionism is a threat.”
Insecurity is more than just self-doubt or lack of confidence. There are three types of insecurity:
“Domain-specific insecurity occurs when we are insecure about a specific domain or resource in life, for example, food insecurity, financial insecurity, or a lack of physical safety. Combating domain-specific insecurity is about access and resources.”
“Relationship or interpersonal insecurity occurs when we don’t feel we have a supportive and trusting relationship. It can happen either in a specific relationship or as an overarching feeling about all of our relationships. It makes us feel uncertain about being loved, trusted, protected, and valued. This kind of insecurity varies based on the relationship partner.”
“General or personal insecurity occurs when we are overly critical of our weaknesses. This may include being overly critical of our body image or our performance at work.”
Self security is “the open and nonjudgemental acceptance of one’s own weaknesses”, according to Alice Huang and Howard Berenbaum. The more self-secure we are, the more successful we are at cultivating meaningful connection with others and developing healthy relationships. Like how perfectionism is a threat to connection, our insecurities can cause us to become disconnected.
“I define invisibility as a function of disconnection and dehumanization, where an individual or group’s humanity and relevance are unacknowledged, ignored, and/or diminished in value or importance.”
Invisibility causes people and groups to be looked over and ignored. This can look like not getting proper credit, having limited cultural representation in the group you belong to, or being viewed as a symbol of your overall group without being recognized as an individual.
“At the heart of loneliness is the absence of meaningful social interaction—an intimate relationship, friendships, family gatherings, or even community or work group connections.”
Loneliness and being alone are not the same; being alone can be rejuvenating for introverts. Instead, loneliness comes from a lack of social connection. Just like we feel hungry when we need food or we feel thirsty when we need water, we feel loneliness when we need social connection.
So, to combat loneliness we first need to identify and have the courage to acknowledge that we are feeling lonely and are deprived of social connection. To alleviate it, we should look to find quality social connection. Quality is much more important here than quantity.
When The Heart Is Open
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can be cultivated between two people only when it exists within each one of them—we can love others only as much as we love ourselves.
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.”
We all need love and we need it to truthfully guide decisions and behaviors.
“I learned that heartbreak is more than just a painful type of disappointment or failure. It hurts in a different way because heartbreak is always connected to love and belonging.”
There are many ways that heartbreak can happen but the common thread is a loss (perceived or real) of love. Whether from rejection, death, or unrequited love, heartbreak only can be broken by something that you gave your heart to.
Every time that we offer love, we risk heartbreak. It takes bravery and courage to risk that but the reward for loving someone or something often far outweighs the risk. As Joe Reynolds describes, “heartbreak is unavoidable unless we choose not to love at all.”
“Charles Feltman defines trust as ‘choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.’”
Brown’s team identified seven elements of trust, condensed to 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. This means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise.
- Accountability. You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
- Vault. You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with my any information about other people that should be confidential.
- Integrity. You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice you values rather than simply professing them.
- Nonjudgment. I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment. We can ask each other for help without judgement.
- Generosity. You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others. You assume that people are doing their best with all of their abilities, resources, and knowledge they have now.
“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.”
We can also use the BRAVING framework here:
- Boundaries. Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay?
- Reliability. Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do?
- Accountability. Did I hold myself accountable?
- Vault. Did I respect the vault and share appropriately
- Integrity. Did I act from my integrity?
- Nonjudgment. Did I ask for what I needed? Was I nonjudgmental about needing help?
- Generous. Was I generous toward myself?
“Betrayal is so painful because, at its core, it is a violation of trust. It happens in relationships in which trust is expected and assumed, so when it’s violated, we’re often shocked, and we can struggle to believe what’s happening.” We can also betray ourselves.
Betrayal is difficult to heal because it “requires significant courage and vulnerability to hear the pain we’ve cause without becoming defensive.” To come back from betrayal, we first have to acknowledge the pain that was caused without minimizing it or making excuses. Then, we have to be accountable, make amends, and take action.
“At its core, defensiveness is a way to protect our ego and a fragile self-esteem.”
When we are exposed to information that differs from how we view ourselves, we get defensive. We make excuses, minimize, blame, discredit, or refute it to avoid it. We get tunnel vision and start thinking of our response rather than actually listening. Becoming defensive keeps us from understanding feedback we get from others and keeps us from reflecting on our attitudes and behaviors based on that feedback.
“According to the Gottman Institute, flooding is ‘a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.’”
We can only take so much negativity before it is too much and flooding begins. It is critical to take breaks during times of flooding instead of making the conflict worse. The more often we experience flooding, the more we dread communicating.
A team of researchers led by Anita Vangelisti write, “Individuals who are hurt experience a combination of sadness at having been emotionally wounded and fear of being vulnerable to harm. When people feel hurt, they have appraised something that someone said or did as causing them emotional pain.”
It is vulnerable to admit and express that our feelings are hurt. We lash out, cry, get angry, or internalize the pain instead of saying “my feelings are hurt.”
People usually don’t mean to hurt our feelings. It is usually caused by thoughtless, careless, or insensitive actions.
Hurt can be a mix of different emotions but they all culminate to a unique emotional experience. Because of the variety of emotions involved, hurt can look like many different things.
When Life Is Good
“Based on our research, I define joy as an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation.”
Joy is different from happiness. Joy is more sudden, unexpected, and higher intensity than happiness. There is some connection with others, nature, or the universe. Experiences of joy are difficult to articulate. The “very nature of joy pushes the boundaries of our ability to communicate about live experience via spoken language” as hypothesized by Matthew Kuan Johnson.
“While experiencing joy, we become more truly ourselves. Colors seem brighter, physical movements feel freer and easier, and smiling happens involuntarily. Some researchers even describe spontaneous weeping as part of the overwhelming experience of joy.”
“I would define the state of happiness as feeling pleasure often related to the immediate environment or current circumstances.”
Happiness is often talked about as a trait (something you are) rather than a state (something we experience). As a trait, happiness is relatively stable and usually the result of effort and practice.
As a state, it is important to have happiness in our lives. However, what makes us happy in the immediate environment may hinder us from experiencing deeper feelings like joy and gratitude.
“I define calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity.”
Calm is contagious, just like anxiety is. There are three behaviors/questions for cultivating and maintaining calm:
- Do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?
- Do we match the pace of anxiety, or do we slow things down with breath and tone?
- Do we have all the information we need to make a decision or form a response?
“I define contentment as the feeling of completeness, appreciation, and ’enoughness’ that we experience when our needs are satisfied.”
In one piece of research, 71% of the variance of life satisfaction is measured by one question: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”
If we are not satisfied, do we need to buy or do more stuff to make us satisfied? Or do we need to stop taking things for granted so that we can be satisfied?
“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 prevents us from “adapting to goodness.” We get used to the new car, the new spouse, the new job until they are no longer exciting or bring us happiness. When we are grateful, we appreciate the value something brings us and we extract more benefits from it. Gratitude allows us to move into contentment.
Like most things, gratitude is a practice. It is a way of thinking and doing that allows us to participate more in life, to magnify the pleasure we get from life.
“If you’re afraid to lean into good news, wonderful moments, and joy—if you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop—you are not alone. It’s called ‘foreboding joy,’ and most of us experience it.”
Joy is the most vulnerable human emotion. When we experience joy, there is a fear that we are inviting disaster into our lives. When we feel that glimpse of vulnerability, instead of using it as a warning sign that something bad my happen use it as a reminder to practice gratitude.
“Ira Roseman and Andreas Evdokas describe relief as ‘feelings of tension leaving the body and being able to breathe more easily, thoughts of the worst being over and being safe for the moment, resting, and wanting to get on to something else.’”
"‘Tranquility is associated with the absence of demand’ and ’no pressure to do anything.’”
Tranquility allows us to restore ourselves from the drain of mental fatigue and attention depletion. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan identified four elements of a restorative environment:
- a sense of getting away
- a feeling of immersion
- holding attention without effort
- compatibility with one’s preferences
Contentment and tranquility are similar but hold an important distinction. We often have a sense of having completed something when we are content and we relish the feeling of doing nothing when we are tranquil.
When We Feel Wronged
“If you look across the research, you learn that anger is an emotion that we feel when something gets in the way of a desired outcome or when we believe there’s a violation of the way things should be. When we feel anger, we believe that someone or something else is to blame for an unfair or unjust situation, and that something can be done to resolve the problem.”
Anger is an indicator emotion that masks our other feelings that are harder to talk about than anger. Many emotions and experiences present as anger. “It’s much easier to say ‘I’m so pissed off’ than ‘I feel so betrayed and hurt.’ It’s even easier to say ‘I’m angry with myself’ than ‘I’m disappointed with how I showed up.’” When feeling anger, dig in and ask yourself what is behind the anger. Is it shame? Is it disappointment? Is it loneliness?
Anger can be a catalyst for change. It is often a compassionate response to be angry when witnessing social injustice. It is important to remember that the anger is a catalyst for change, not the change itself.
“Contempt, simply put, says, ‘I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.’”
John and Julie Gottman identified four damaging negative communication patterns that predict divorce, dubbed The Four Horsemen:
- Criticism. Verbally attacking or blaming your partner’s character.
- Defensiveness. Victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack or to reverse the blame.
- Contempt. Attacking your partner’s sense of self with insulting or abusive language that communicates superiority. “What separates contempt from criticism is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.”
- Stonewalling. Withdrawing from interaction to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation.
Contempt results in distancing in a way that signifies that they are not considered worthy of your time or energy. We look down on the other person and want to exclude or ignore them as a sign of superiority.
“According to emotions research pioneer Paul Ekman, disgust ‘arises as a feeling of aversion towards something offensive.’”
“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).” Like how regular disgust prevents us from ingesting contaminants, interpersonal disgust “protects” us from contamination of the soul.
Disgust causes dehumanization and distinguishes it from contempt. When we are disgusted by someone, it “implies that human dignity is perceived as alienable.” By performing a bad action that we view as disgusting, “one has responsibly degraded oneself to sub-human.” Another dangerous side of disgust is that it seems to be permanent. An apology or reparation doesn’t make the judgement of disgust go away.
Michelle Maiese defines dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.”
David Livingstone Smith explains that “dehumanization is a response to conflicting motives. We want to harm a group of people, but it goes against our wiring as members of a social species to actually harm, kill, torture, or degrade other humans. Smith explains that very deep and natural inhibitions prevent us from treating other people like animals, game, or dangerous predators. He writes, ‘Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions.’”
We use language to reduce people to things that we find physically disgusting to dehumanize them. It is crucial to be aware of this so that we can call out dehumanizing language when we recognize it.
“According to researcher Robert Sternberg, hate is a combination of various negative emotions including repulsion, disgust, anger, fear, and contempt.”
Hate is fueled by our need of connection, a concept known as common enemy intimacy. “I may not know anything about you, but we hate the same people and that creates a counterfeit bond and a sense of belonging.” This belonging hinges on the agreement that neither party will challenge those ideas of hate.
The “goal of hate is not merely to hurt, but to ultimately eliminate or destroy the target, either mentally (humiliating, treasuring feelings of revenge), socially (excluding, ignoring), or physically (killing, torturing), which may be accompanied by the goal to let the wrongdoer suffer.”
This is why dehumanization is always involved in hate. We dehumanize entire groups so that we can then terrorize individuals based on their affiliation to that group or identity.
Sternberg writes, “It is not clear that there is any magic bullet for curing hate. 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.”5
“Self-righteousness is the conviction that one’s beliefs and behaviors are the most correct.”
When we are self-righteous, we see things as black and white and we don’t consider other opinions. We feel morally superior and try to convince others (or ourselves) that that is true.
When We Self-Assess
“Pride is a feeling of pleasure or celebration related to our accomplishments or efforts.”
We refer to pride here as authentic pride which is a healthy feeling of accomplishment. We also use pride in ways like “too proud to accept help”, or “pride got in the way.” Usually there is a deeper driver of these feelings like shame, hubris, or defensiveness.
“Hubris is an inflated sense of one’s own innate abilities that is tied more to the need for dominance than to actual accomplishments.”
Hubris differs from authentic pride in that hubris is centered around dominance and authentic pride is centered toward attaining prestige. People experiencing hubris feel good about themselves and don’t care about respect or social acceptance.
Hubris is positively correlated with narcissism, the shame-based fear of being ordinary. Jessica Tracy explains that “for the narcissist, positive views of the self are too essential to leave to the whim of actual accomplishments, for they are what prevent the individual from succumbing to shame and low self-esteem.” They assert themselves into the world without any actual accomplishments so that they can feel good about themselves and ignore the shame they feel of not having those accomplishments.
“Humility is openness to new learning combined with a balanced and accurate assessment of our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth.”
Humility is not “downplaying yourself or your accomplishments” (this is called modesty) and it is not “low self-esteem or meekness or letting people walk all over you.” Instead, it “involves understanding our contributions in context, in relation to both the contributions of others and our own place in the universe.”
Intellectual humility is a “willingness to consider information that doesn’t fit with our current thinking.” When we have humility, we admit when we are wrong and recognize that “getting it right is more important than needing to ‘prove’ that we are right.”
This is a life changer that I would recommend to just about everyone. Atlas of the Heart gives me the tools to understand and handle the sorrow, anguish, joy, awe, or any other emotion that I will inevitably experience in this life. I can be there for myself and for others, empathically and wholly. “Even when we have no idea where we are or where we’re going, with the right map, we can find our way back to our heart and to our truest self.”
I struggled making notes for this because I wanted to just highlight the whole damn book. It seemed like every sentence spoke to me. I want to absorb the whole thing.
I liked the overall theme throughout of meaningful connection. Why learn a bunch of emotional vocabulary? It’s for truly understanding and recognizing these experiences so that we can connect with ourselves and with others.
It’s important to remember that this is all a practice. We aren’t going to know it all or have the best answers or be compassionate all the time. We have to actively choose to use and develop these skills every single day to get better with them.
Brown uses the BLM movement as an example of narrative takeover that was really enlightening. Instead of listening and believing the stories of racism and injustice, people started crying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter” when there was no narrative of white lives or police lives not mattering. They hijacked the story and made themselves the center. ↩︎
This goes along with developing a craftsman mindset from So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Becoming a master at something involves deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means trying, failing, learning, and repeating so if you are afraid of failure, deliberate practice will be extra painful and keep you from reaching mastery. ↩︎
Maybe it is cheesy or a lofty goal but I think this is why Peace Corps is so important. Volunteers are on the ground actively trying to increase understanding between two very large groups all in an effort to reduce hate. ↩︎