Review: Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown

Review by Tony Hoffart

My lovely wife has a saying: “Be like Nob Hill Road; Always be working on things.”  She’s so funny.  So with her words echoing in my head, one day between novels I cracked open Atlas of the Heart.  I’d gotten the general impression that Brene Brown was a writer to take seriously in the self-help and Psychology world and so I looked past the kitschy name to see what was up.

My verdict?  There are two books that anyone seeking self awareness should read and this is one of them.  Yes.  It’s that good.

From the title and the bold red cover, I expected some Chicken Soup for the Soul style anecdotes.  And there are those, and they’re very good.  But these anecdotes are merely in service of what this book really is: a Glossary of Emotional Terms. Meticulously researched and up on the latest science.

So I can hear the brakes pumping.  You’re saying “Hold-up Tony. You’re saying a dictionary is an invaluable and interesting book on self help?.”  Yes, I’m saying that.  This book along with The Body Keeps the Score are the must reads if you need to take stock of what you’re feeling.  

So I’ll unpack that some.  Research shows that the majority of people can identify three emotions.  Happy.  Sad.  Angry.  This is a concern, because if you cannot name what you are feeling it makes it harder to understand.  Just as with colors, if you cannot recognize taupe, or beige, they could just be shades of yellow or green.  Incidentally like many guys, I’m not great at identifying non-primary colors. And until I became like Nob Hill, I wasn’t very good at knowing what I was feeling either.  Men and boys of my generation are often taught that being emotional is shameful.  “Boys don’t cry.” The problem with this is that in service of this manly ideal, I did my best to ignore my emotions for most of my life.  Ignoring them didn’t make them go away, they were just feedback that was inexplicably influencing my actions.  

I posit that if you want to teach your boy to “be a man” you should teach them what the emotions they feel are.  Teach them that feeling them isn’t shameful, but a “man” (or any functional human being really) acts after considering what they’re feeling but not under the influence of them.  That’s why this book is valuable.  Not just for boys or men, but everyone.  I discovered that my blind spot was Joy and that I would sometimes feel ashamed when I was feeling Joyful. Apparently this is not uncommon.  

If you want a book to enhance your self understanding, this one is simple, concise and truly useful.  I cannot recommend it enough.