A vulnerability guru on what it means to be human

In her new book, 'Atlas of the Heart', Brené Brown offering readers tools for expressing and understanding more than 87 emotions and experiences

19 June 2022 - 00:00
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Professor Brené Brown.
Professor Brené Brown.
Image: Supplied

That electric feeling we get when we connect with other people is a way out of the quagmire of isolation and fear into which the pandemic world has sunk. To help do that, the global leader on vulnerability, US researcher and author Professor Brené Brown, has released a groundbreaking atlas steering us in this direction.

The first step to connecting with others is being able to identify our emotions with the precision of a GPS. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Brown and her team identify 87 emotions and experiences that affect us all.

But why bother to accurately identify our emotions beyond the default of “glad, sad and mad”? In an interview, Brown says: “The ability to accurately recognise, label or name an emotion is positively correlated with positive life outcomes, a better relationship, more resilience and the ability to bounce back — and, in the case of positive emotions, the ability to replicate that experience.”

When she was growing up, her family buried emotions, writes Brown in Atlas of the Heart. She was raised as a straight-talking Texan in a "tough, suck-it-up, get-it-done and don’t-talk-about-feelings family”, with intense, unpredictable parents. This sharpened her powers of observation.

But these powers were dulled in her late teens and early 20s by “a thick layer of beer, cigarettes, dance halls and behaviour that constantly jumped the line between girls-just-want-to-have-fun and self-destructive self-medicating”. Inspired by her mother’s actions post-divorce, Brown started therapy, got help, got sober and began her own research.

 “If we want our kids to have a full emotional vocabulary, we (adults) need to talk about emotions. If we want them to think about what they're feeling, they have to see us do that,” says Brown.

WATCH | A TED Talk by Professor Brené Brown.

As she regained her “superpower” of understanding the way humans feel, think and act, Brown caught the world’s attention. Her TedX talk in 2010 on vulnerability is among the five-most viewed globally, with 58 million views at last count.

Based at the University of Houston, her scientific work on vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy influences powerful agendas. Companies like Google are among those that consult her. Outside work, the 56-year-old professor does her best to “talk the talk” and “walk the talk” with her husband and two children.

Expressing the emotions that inform parenting decisions is part of this, she says, giving an example: “When you say to your child: ‘I need you to call me when you get to your friend’s house and again when you leave' (be open about the emotion behind this), What I’m actually feeling is anxious. Your driver’s licence is new, and I worry. This is not about trust but about my own anxiety.”

Laughing, she admits that she falls short of this ideal sometimes. "I move too fast in the world and don’t always have time. Sometimes it's just: ‘Just call me or you're grounded’.”

She's also honest about flaws in her earlier work. "I no longer believe we can recognise emotion in other people”.

Her reasons: too many emotions present the same way, like tears; also, only a small number of emotions have universal facial expressions. “So how do we know what people are feeling? We ask them ... we listen, and we become trusted stewards of their story,” she writes in Atlas.

There aren't enough ways to describe our emotions, says Professor Brené Brown.
There aren't enough ways to describe our emotions, says Professor Brené Brown.
Image: Unsplash

Lindiwe Mkhondo, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist and executive coach, has found in her practice that recognising emotions is critical to connection. “The key to our authenticity is being able to own our emotions and express them directly and accurately,” she says.

“When you say ‘I feel sad or I feel afraid’ your energy shifts to an authentic place. You become vulnerable and this opens you up to connecting to others. It's important to avoid making someone else responsible for our feelings.”

The next step in forming relationships is avoiding the “near enemies” of connection, emotions or states which sound supportive but have the opposite effect, according to Brown.

The Buddhist concept of near enemies is the key to her new work, says Brown, flagging “near enemies” as more damaging to relationships than “far enemies”.

“Near enemies are more likely than far enemies to unravel relationships,” she says. For instance, the near enemy of love is attachment, typically accompanied by need, clinging and fear.

“The concept of near enemies unlocked everything to finish the framework of meaningful connection which I've been working towards for years,” she says. “It has applications across family systems, with our partners, at work and across macro systems like politics.”

Control is the near enemy of true connection, she says, giving an example of this. “When a child says ‘my friend hurt my feelings,' the first inclination is to fix: to say ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean it’ or ‘who cares what they say?’ or ‘I’m going to call their mama’. What we’re trying to do is to control the pain and discomfort someone's feeling, as opposed to being with them in it.”

Given the diversity of people’s “biology, biography, behaviour and backstory” it's impossible to walk in their shoes, says Brown, urging us instead to listen and have “the courage to walk alongside them”.

People can bridge divisions, even in a country like SA with its systemic injustices and racism, she believes. “We need to believe people when they share their experiences, even when they don't match ours. Even if it makes us feel sad or conflicted and guilty, or we'll continue to make choices in our blind spots and contribute (to social problems)."

“Don’t deny people’s experiences!” says Brown. The negative responses to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US are examples of such denial.

Black Lives Matter is a life-affirming accountability movement to call attention to the violence being perpetrated against Black people

“#BlackLivesMatter is a life-affirming accountability movement to call attention to the violence being perpetrated against Black people. But instead of listening, learning and believing the stories of injustice, systemic racism and pain, groups of white people centred themselves with ‘all lives matter’ and ‘blue lives matter’…. an attempt to, once again, decenter Black lives and take over the narrative.”

To avoid this harmful cycle, Brown advises: “We need to ask people: ‘What does support look like for you? What's a friend in this situation?’”

Mkhondo says that real listening means showing acceptance, humility, gratitude, and curiosity (being open, non-judgmental, fascinated). “You become fully present, flowing effortlessly, immersed in the space with the other. This fosters deep connection.”

Vulnerability, which people avoid, is a common theme across Brown’s work.

“I was training in London five years ago with diverse people from 50 countries. What they shared was being raised to believe that vulnerability was a weakness,” says Brown.

Unless people are honest about how they feel, vulnerability will be out of reach.

Cape Town clinical psychologist Mark de la Rey says: “ Firstly, we must be honest with ourselves about our feelings and fears, which brings authenticity to our interactions."

Cape Town clinical psychologist Mark de la Rey.
Cape Town clinical psychologist Mark de la Rey.
Image: Linkedin

An expert in cross-generational communication, De la Rey heads the adolescent unit at Netcare’s Akeso Kenilworth clinic, Cape Town.

"Start from a place of wanting to understand and hear a person from their experience of the world, not from the predetermined space of your experience. This doesn't mean that you give up your ethics or morals but we hold judgments at bay. This will always be imperfect, but is an attempt to move closer to each other.”

Identifying our emotions is fundamental to self-discovery, he says. “We're more likely to have inaccurate information about our true self if we're unable to accurately identify what we're feeling.”

But, research shows, most people opt for versions of “glad, sad and mad” when asked how they feel. Brown and a fellow academic, Dr Ronda Dearing, reviewed nearly 1,500 academic papers for her latest work on emotional nuances.

Cape Town clinical psychologist Mareli Fischer says the book has helped develop the language of emotion, necessary to reflect on our lives, including trauma and beauty, and to understand our personal narratives about “who we are and where we’ve been”.

The 87 emotions and experiences in the book — identified by therapists as important to healing — were distilled out of 150 common, yet difficult to label emotions. Those 150 came from more than half a million comments by nearly 67,000 people in an online course Brown taught.

In Atlas, similar emotions are grouped together - there are 13 chapters for each group. Envy and jealousy, for example, both end up under Places We Go When We Compare. The difference: envy is about wanting something someone else has, jealousy is sparked by a fear of loss.

The risks of comparing ourselves to others, which drive 'big feelings', tensions and block creativity, is a theme in the book

The risks of comparing ourselves to others, which drive “big feelings”, tensions and block creativity, is a theme in the book.

De la Rey says: “All of us, but especially young people and teens, are being judged and judging ourselves by artificial, often unrealistic representations of what's 'perfect', a completely subjective construct.”

Perfectionism is another threat to connection in Brown’s framework, a view widely shared by therapists.

Mkhondo says: “It wreaks havoc to your wellbeing, sapping energy, creating constant frustration, anger, stress and anxiety.”

A perfectionist lens makes us judgemental and critical. In contrast, dropping our armour and self-protective behaviours lets us develop what Brown calls the “grounded confidence” to forge meaningful relationships.

“We should lean into emotional uncertainty and emotional exposure. That's the only path,” she says. “Who do you know who doesn't have a healthy dose of uncertainty and risk every day? That's life.”


"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 ... they fuel separation,” writes Brown in Atlas of the Heart. “Near enemies can feel like manipulation and even gaslighting. Of course, the far enemies destroy connection too — but you can see them coming.” 

Here are two examples: 


  • I understand this pain, I feel our shared humanity, I know how it feels to suffer
  • Near Enemy: PITY: I feel sorry for you, for people like you, you are different to me, creating separation
  • Far Enemy: CRUELTY  


  • Near enemy ATTACHMENT: I will love you because I need something, if you love me back, if you will be the way I want you to be
  • Far enemy: HATE   

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