A Comforting But Misleading Consumable That Obscures a More Important Message
Reviewed in the United States on 3 December 2021
"Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience" is giftable and physically substantial. The book is weighty; the thick, glossy pages are photo book quality. My copy even smelled sweet. Like all Brene Brown books, throughout it, you'll find many passages and memorable lines worth pondering because Brene Brown has a remarkable gift for turning a phrase. The cartoon illustrating how not to "tap out" during a difficult conversation is helpful. (It is exactly what you'd find in a college-level Interpersonal Communication text book.)
The reason for my 2-star review is that "Atlas of the Heart" fails to provide the guidance about "meaningful connection" that it promises. Essentially, the book is premised on the belief that ordinary people, non-researchers, don't know how to name their emotions, nor do they know how to recognize them. And so, the book is filled with short instruction on 87 emotions. Each instruction begins with Brene Brown's definition of a term. It is followed by something along the lines of "You THINK you know what X is. What I have learned is Y."
You THINK you know what disappointment is, or grief, or gratitude, or belonging or surprise or curiosity. But no. You don't. So here is the correct definition, and here is the correct way to think about your experience. And this "Atlas" will provide the guidance you need. The reason to read it: "With an adverturous heart and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves. Even when we don't know where we are."
Fundamentally, the book is saying, You don't have to go out and be in the world with other people to learn about any of this, you merely read the book and believe that Brene Brown and her research team is correct. And then your learning is done. This is a problem with all self-improvement books, but "Atlas of the Heart" is especially egregious because the promise is that the book will help you connect with others more meaningfully. It does not deliver on that promise. There is almost zero proof in the book that anyone who used Brene Brown's definitions of the emotions and her instruction changed their lives in any meaningful way. Often Brene Brown concludes a passage with "This is how I want to live." After five best sellers, she's still searching and searching for the right formula. If you belong to the "Always Seaching" tribe and want a book that will help you make a long aspirational list of how you want to live, then this book might be for you. But if you aspire to do more than read books and make aspirational lists, consider investing your time and money elsewhere.
The central problem with this book is that Brene Brown makes EVERYTHING in life so hard when it is not always that hard. For example, about curiosity she writes "Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn't be asking, and sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort."
In certain contexts, she's right. In certain contexts, like going up against a powerful person or group who benefits from the truth being obscured, then, yes, curiosity is a risk and your questions and discoveries will threaten the status quo. For sure, you will be vulnerable to criticism and you will probably experience scapegoating. Curiosity is very threatening to people in power who want things to remain the same. When you are curious about things that people in power and authority are doing, you ought to expect discomfort. You ought to anticipate and weigh the risk.
But to define the experience of "curiosity" the way Brene Brown does is to ignore three quarters of the human experience in which curiosity is a function of a healthy human mind. Curiosity is NOT "choosing to be vulnerable." It is exercising a natural human ability that has led to the most beautiful music, painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, dance and design. A better message would be: Do the very opposite of "surrendering" to uncertainty. Go be curious with a group of people who have each other's backs.
The number of times words like "surrender" is used is hugely problematic. It is the recipe for even more vulnerabilty. It increases the demand for more books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown and other advice-givers. Our problem in our culture is how rarely anyone advises us "Go do X with a group of people who have each other's backs."
"Atlas of the Heart" is dangerous because it claims to provide "the Language of Human Experience." It offers a view of human experience as Brene Brown experienced it -- as a child who grew up with alcoholism, projection, excesses, and hurt after hurt. Tenuous friendships ended because her family relocated so many times. No one had her back until she married her awesome husband Steve. Brene Brown believes that this experience of life is what the experience of human life is for everyone. Everything is hard. Writing the book was so hard. Living up to expectations is so hard. Curiosity is so hard.
Isn't it time to point out that not everything in life leads potentially to discomfort or to hurt? Not everything requires this much thinking, analyzing, researching, sorting, coding, defining, puzzling, introspection or self-disclosure. Not everything leads to so much potential exposure and vulnerability. Again and again.
When are we ever going to learn that a balanced and happy life can not be found in some kind of written "Atlas" (filled with academic research and an experts' definitions) that depicts life as endlessly difficult but then magically leads to a better life and more meaningful connection?
Readers already know what disappointment is, or grief, or gratitude, or belonging or surprise. This book is helpful in that it adds depth to our ways of perceiving and understanding our experiences, and it will improve readers' ability to discern one type of experience from another, but the amount of hype surrounding this book obscures a much more important message. The person you need in your life is not Brene Brown. The person you need is the person who has your back, and you have theirs. Find that person (or ideally persons) and make your own map of the world together.
Surprisingly, this is exactly what Brene Brown did. What is remarkably different about "Atlas of the Heart" as compared to Brene Brown's five best-sellers is not the look and feel of this book. What is remarkably different is that for the very first time ever she openly acknowledges from the start the people who helped her and had her back.
In the past, Brene Brown presented herself as the lone researcher, holed up alone coding the data, and then alone on the stage facing criticism. Her husband Steve and her therapist Diane were the only ones named as people who were there for her consistently. Yet, in this book, on page xxvi, she includes a photo of the nine therapists who helped her identify the set of emotions most important to be able to name. She then acknowledges Dr. Ronda Dearing and writes "I couldn't have done this work without her." In the past, this would have appeared in the "Acknowledgements" section. By moving this information about her process up front, Brene Brown is suggesting the recipe for a better life. With the right people, our lives are better, our work is better, things turn out to be, as she puts it "an amazing experience!" So it took her a long, long time to learn how to find the people to take the journey with.
The one take-away from the book that is truly helpful is that whatever work we are doing (including the work of parenting) is less hard and is more amazing when we're with people we can trust and can turn to. I hope that in the interviews and the promotion for the book Brene Brown will shift the discourse from what she ~alone~ did to write the book and what she ~alone~ hopes that the book will achieve to what she and her colleagues did to write the book and what they together hope the book will achieve.
There is an important message for the 21st century suggested in the book: With an adverturous heart and ~the right people~ we can travel anywhere and experience less hurt, less uncertainty, less risk, less shame, less distress, and more meaningful connection. In the ideal world, this "Atlas of the Heart" would be the last self-improvement book anyone would purchase. First order of priorities: do what Brene Brown did and find your people. Have each other's backs. Then go out and experience life as it can be: amazing.
After five best sellers, after searching and searching for the right formula, Brene Brown finally found it. It wasn't what her publisher contracted her to write about. It didn't fit the self-improvement-by-reading paradigm. Good for her for putting it up front instead of in the "Acknowledgements." We don't need more granularity around our emotions, more distinguishable pieces around our emotions. We need each other.
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