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Brené Brown, Ph.D., MSW, research professor at the University of Houston, is well-known for her many books and podcasts on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. While conducting training …
Brené Brown, Ph.D., MSW, research professor at the University of Houston, is well-known for her many books and podcasts on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. While conducting training workshops in shame resilience, she asked participants to list all the emotions they could recognize and to name them as they were experiencing them. Over five years, 7,000 people responded, and the average number of emotions named was three. Three! Just happy, sad, and angry.
She asked, “What about shame, disappointment, wonder, awe, disgust, embarrassment, despair, contentment, boredom, anxiety, stress, love, overwhelm, surprise, and all of the other emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human?” She remembered a quote from her college days from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
We have all seen toddlers get so frustrated when they’re struggling to do something without success or attempting to express needs or ideas when they don’t have the needed vocabulary. They may throw a tantrum, toys, or themselves on the ground or retreat into stubborn silence. I saw one little guy who wanted to get a drink from a drinking fountain that was way too tall for him. He desperately wanted to do it himself, fiercely resisting my offer of help. He stomped his feet in frustration, yelling, “Me! No! Me!!”
Similarly, Brown asks us to imagine going to the doctor’s office in severe pain, only to find our hands are tied and our mouth is duct-taped, so we can’t describe our pain. She suggests that the despair and rage we would feel parallels the frustrated hopelessness and possibly destructive level of anger we feel when we are unable to articulate our emotions.
She dug in with three years of research and distilled 87 emotions and experiences which she laid out in a “map” in her most recent of eight books, “Atlas of the Heart.” Opinions about what constitutes emotions vary with the perspectives of philosophy, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, medicine, mental health, and other disciplines. Brown chose to include experiences in the categories of emotional realities in our lives rather than arguing about what is an emotion and what is not. She maps them out into chapters by families of associated words, such as: places we go when we search for connection, places we go when things are uncertain, places we go when life is good. She pairs up many words that are often used incorrectly for each other such as empathy/sympathy, envy/jealousy, awe/wonder, stress/overwhelm, sadness/depression, sadness/grief. She felt the same questions that maps address were central to understanding the physical world and our internal worlds: “Where am I? How did I get here from there? How do I get there from here?”
I admire Brown’s advocacy for lifelong learning and the requisite mistakes along the way coupled with her honesty and transparency about her own process. She admits publicly when she has been wrong in her previous teachings, and then offers her updated perspectives. She recognized she had been regularly misusing some words, and her thinking on emotions shifted. For example, with a life full of demanding commitments, she would often say she was “overwhelmed” instead of “stressed.” Through her research, she came to realize that stress can be alleviated by getting a massage or eliminating some demands, while being overwhelmed means an inability to function, requiring a complete break from life as usual to regain balance. She saw that her dramatic overuse of “overwhelm” to describe her life was also increasing her internal stress.
As with most of us, a look into Brown’s childhood dynamics foreshadows her interests and choices of work as an adult. Brown’s parents looked good from the outside: caring neighbors who were smart, funny, well-liked people, but inside the home, they were “wildly unpredictable.” There were no normal discussions of anything important in their lives. The family motto was, “We are all good,” and no one better question that nor damage the façade. As kids do, she thought she and her siblings must be the cause and she took on the blame and shame as the eldest. She was the observer, the one who could read people and the vibes, the one to sense a storm coming. She was the one who learned how to sidestep blowups by understanding people and what she needed to give them to avert unpleasantness. She felt weird because she could read people and situations and could see what was coming. She was surprised by “how little other people seemed to understand or even think about the connection between feelings, thinking, and behavior.” She was pained by the hurt people were capable of inflicting.
After several years of destructive self-medicating, she worked on her issues in therapy and figured out boundaries for herself. She said, like everyone, she had to learn how to choose loving herself over making other people comfortable. She added that it was the hardest work she had ever done and continues to do.
I struggled with the same issues and experienced similar dynamics in my family home. My father was charming, confident, and successful in his career, but he could not abide “negative” feelings or difficult personal conversations or situations that required him to be emotionally present, vulnerable, and understanding. His response was to escape into silence, leaving the room or the house. Eventually he walked out on my mom, leaving a note after 26 years of marriage. We had fearfully walked on eggshells, careful not to disturb him, although he was engaging and playful when things were going his way. My mother’s motto was, “What will people think?” She did not have the tools to provide emotional support for my brother and me either. Her self-medication of choice was alcohol, fitting right into their cocktail social set. I became the timid observer, the watchful one, the peacemaker, and turned to writing to process my puzzlement about the family and the world, full of adults who couldn’t be relied on for explanations, guidance, or emotional support. Fortunately, my curiosity remained intact. It’s easy to understand why clear communication and processing became priorities for me, and I applaud Brown’s commitment to defining human emotions and experiences to improve our understanding of each other.
She knows that courageous curiosity is key in all areas of life, and particularly in relationships and communication. She recognizes that when we stop learning, we stagnate in uninteresting, ineffective, and often dysfunctional ruts. Children can be great models for, and leaders into, open-minded exploration of the world around us. Unabashedly, they ask a million questions, including the ones we may find difficult to answer. When that open curiosity is nurtured and maintained into adulthood, the result is a many-layered asset, which can be a conduit for joy into our lives while also building resilience. Both are useful survival tools in our world that can be a very difficult home. Having an excellent understanding of the language the natives speak makes it easier.
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