Brendon Towle Coaching

Friday Bonus Book Review: Atlas of the Heart

Continuing my periodic series of reviews of books that have been important or valuable to me (disclaimers here), I’d like to talk about Atlas of the Heart (commission link) by Brené Brown.

A little backstory: the book was originally intended to be a discussion of how to build meaningful connection in relationships, but the author discovered along the way that she needed to talk about emotions. It turns out that building meaningful connection with others requires some amount of emotional fluency and literacy. And, in survey after survey, the average person can identify only three feelings in the moment they’re being experienced; happy, sad, and angry (or, as she likes to call them, “glad, sad, and mad”). So, the first three quarters or so of the book is devoted to an exploration of 70 or so emotions—what they mean, what sorts of situations provoke them, and some tips on how to identify them in the moment.

I know that emotions aren’t my first language. I didn’t grow up in a household where emotions were freely or fluently discussed, and so I’ve had to learn how to do that as an adult. Through that process, I’ve done a fair amount of work over the years about how to recognize, understand, and express my feelings.

Nonetheless, I was stunned at how many things I learned from reading this book, and how incomplete my emotional learning had been. To pick just a few examples:

One of my favorite lessons in the book is about empathy, where she highlights the difference between sympathy and empathy, as well as talking about two different kinds of empathy. I’m summarizing and paraphrasing pretty hard here, but basically sympathy is “You poor thing” and empathy is “Yeah, me too.” The important point to note is that when I respond to you with sympathy, it introduces distance. It defines you (or your situation) as somehow different than me, and that interferes with meaningful connection. Empathy, on the other hand, emphasizes our similarities, and builds closeness.

This ties into another very useful thing I learned from the book, which was her explanation of the Buddhist distinction between near and far enemies (of helpful practices). Both enemies are harmful to the goal, but while far enemies are obvious, near enemies are subtle and often can be mistaken for the helpful practice itself. So, for empathy, the far enemy might be cruelty or judgment, which are obviously not helpful to build connection. But, the near enemy is sympathy, which can at first seem like a connection-building tool, but in fact introduces distance and is harmful to connection.

The book also really helped me to understand the difference between two different kinds of empathy. While we think of empathy as a good thing, she makes the point that unfortunately one kind is helpful and one kind is not (again, I’m paraphrasing pretty hard). Roughly speaking, “affective empathy” is feeling what the other person is feeling, and “cognitive empathy” is recognizing and understanding what the other person is feeling. And, unfortunately:

Affective empathy, feeling something along with the person who is struggling, is a slippery slope toward becoming overwhelmed and not being able to offer meaningful support.

On the other hand, cognitive empathy is required for meaningful connection. If you’re feeling lonely, connecting with you doesn’t require that I feel lonely along with you. I just have to have had the experience of being lonely, remember and understand what loneliness feels like, and then share that understanding with you.

On a lighter note, I really enjoyed the distinction she drew between wonder and awe. Basically, wonder inspires us to want to learn more, and awe inspires us to want to watch and be amazed. I’ve definitely had both of those in my life, and try to cultivate those feelings as much as possible. (Long-time readers will remember me talking about the hummingbirds at our feeder as something that consistently gives me a little burst of awe.)

There’s much more here; it’s a big book that I can’t possibly summarize completely in a short review, nor do my descriptions of what I learned do justice to the content in the book. And, although empathy does feature strongly in the book, it also covers lots more ground that I don’t have the space to go into here. If you’re interested in expanding your own emotional experience, better understanding both yourself and others, and connecting more with the people in your life, it’s well worth the read. Highly recommended.

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