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A Rumor of Empathy in Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (Reviewed)

Review: Brené Brown, (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. New York: Random House, pp. 304. 

This is three books in one. It is a psychology “how to” book filled with tips and techniques about how to identify and name emotions, feelings, affects, and their triggers and consequences. This inquiry is engaged in order to build connections and community. It works.  People who are able to name their emotions and feeling experience expanded power in getting what they want and need from other people. They also get expanded power in contributing to building meaningful connections and community. 

Second, the Atlas is a research report on what might be described as “crowd sourcing” (my term, not Brown’s) what emotions were important to some 66,625 persons in Brené Brown’s massive online classes in 2013/14. 

Comments and narratives were solicited from the participants. This input was anonymized, color coded, aggregated, filtered, subjected to expert selection as to which emotions and emotion-related experiences were significant in promoting “healing.” The terms were then defined using 1500 academic publications. What falls out of this complex and interesting, though not entirely transparent process, are emotions, emotional triggers, emotional consequences, experiences, lots of experiences, and, well – an atlas of the heart. Readers are all the richer for it. 

Cover art: Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Finally, Atlas is an art book. The text on high quality paper is interspersed with color photos, cartoons, and enlarged quotations of key phrases such as one would find on social media. Take a tip or technique and using large and colorful type, put it on a page by itself: “I’m here to get it right, not to be right [p. 247. Note: there is no close quote. Is that a typo or poetic license?] 

I especially liked the photos of Brown’s hand written journal (or college essay?), saying “throughout our lives we must experience emotions and feelings that are inevitably painful and devastating” (October 9, 1984). Early on, Brené showed promise, and she movingly shares her struggles and what she had to survive in her family of origin. The photo of the dog with the guilty, “hang dog” expression, next to the torn up upholstered chair was genuinely funny. Never let it be said that dogs don’t experience emotions! The artistic aspects will be deemphasized in this review, but the book definitely has possibilities for placement on the “coffee table” to invite browsing and conversation prompts.

The book succeeds in all three of its aspirations, though to different degrees. 

At this point, an analogy may be useful. People are not born knowing the names of colors. Children applying to start kindergarten are quizzed on such basics as the names of the letters (ABCs), their address and phone number, and the names of the colors. The spectrum from red through orange, yellow, green, blue, to violet is indeed a marvelous thing. But no one assumes anyone knows what these distinctions are called without guidance. Why then is it that children (and of all ages) are assumed to know the difference between basic emotions fear, anger, sadness, high spirits, much less more subtle nuanced feelings such as envy, jealousy, resentment, shame, guilt, and so on? 

This is the first challenge that Brené Brown addresses with her book. She provides a guide, an atlas of the heart, to people struggling to identify the emotions and emotion-ladened experiences they are feeling, sensing, or trying to express. Even though Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy, have taken decisive steps to put this aspect of emotional intelligence – x identifying and naming the emotions – on the school curriculum map, large numbers of people of all ages struggle with the basics. What is this feeling that I am feeling? What is this emotion, if it is an emotion, that I am experiencing?

Brown begins with a nod to the innovative body of work on the emotions by Paul Ekman (e.g., Emotions Revealed. New York: Owl (Henry Holt), 2003). Ekman put facial micro-expression on the map as the key to emotions with a seven year plus study resulting in his Facial Action Coding Scheme. According to Ekman, a relatively small set of some seven basic emotions are universal, evolutionarily based, and part of a biological affective program that is “hardwired” into our mammalian biology. These basic emotions (sadness, anger, agony, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, and maybe enjoyment) get elaborated and transformed in a thousand ways by social conventions, community standards and cultural pretenses. 

The human face is an emotional “hot spot,” according to Ekman. The micro-expressions are the “tells” that disclose a person’s underlying feeling or attitude, regardless of the facial expression the person may be adopting for social display purposes. Thus, a person may smile to express agreement with his friends, but his eyes do not participate in the smile (also called a “Duchenne smile”) and something looks not quite sincere. More concerning, the would-be suicide bomber puts on a calm, happy face, but a micro-expression of contempt momentarily steals across his face, expressing his hatred for the system he is about to try to destroy. Notwithstanding Ruth Ley’s penetrating and trenchant critique of loose ends in Ekman’s approach (see Ley, The Ascent of Affect. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2017), his approach remains today the dominate design in emotion research. Enter Brené Brown’s contribution. 

For example, Brown’s first constellation of emotions engaged include “stress, overwhelm, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability” (p. 2). She quotes the American Psychological Association Definition of anxiety (so we know where that definition came from!): “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increase blood pressure” (p. 9). 

Worry and avoidance, not exactly emotions as such, are ways of dealing with the painful aspects of anxiety. Excitement seems to be the physiological aspects of anxiety given a positive spin, valence, or trajectory. Add “negative event approaching” and “present danger” and you’ve got dread and fear. Stress and overwhelm are the again physiological aspects of anxiety, elaborated, for example, by having to be a waitress in a restaurant at its busiest (as was Brown while working her way through college). “Stressed is being in the weeds; overwhelm is being blown.” 

For Brown, vulnerability is a key emotion, since it initially shows up as a weakness to hide, but has the potential, when approached with a willingness to embrace risk, to be transformed into courage, accomplishment, and what people really want from inspirational speakers – inspiration. Never was it truer, our weaknesses are our strengths. Dialectically speaking. 

At this point, I am inspired by Brown’s contribution, and will not split hairs over what is an emotion and what an emotional fellow traveler. Vulnerability is the perception and related belief, thought, or cognition, whether accurate or not, that the person is able to be hurt whether physically or in social status. Keep your friends close but your enemies, including your near enemies such as flatterers and people who ask you to lend them money, closer?

This is a good place to point out that if you really want to “get” the emotions, you may usefully engage with Brown. Definitely. But do not overlook Paul Griffiths, What Emotions Really Are (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Emotions may not even be a natural kind. A mammal (for example) is a natural kind, emotions arguably are not. Emotions are a “kludge” cobbled together by the scientific community from an evolutionary affective program, moral sentiments such as righteous indignation in the face of social injustice (a strategic, energetic, passionate reaction to enforce the social convention of promising among distrustful neighbor), and social pretence such as romantic love. 

In a famous one line statement in Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time (1927: H139), he says that the study of the moods, affects, and emotions has not made a single advance since Book II of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (347? BCE). He then proposes that anxiety is the way the world is globally disclosed as a limited finite whole. It is tempting for purposes of being collegial to write, “Finally an advance on Aristotle, Brené!” but she would surely be the first to acknowledge that would indeed be a high bar. Suffice to say, Brown’s contribution is significant and in many ways, impressive. Aristotle is still Aristotle. (See Agosta 2010 in the References.)

Since this is not a softball review, and in spite of saying a lot of interesting things about love, it is not defined in Brown’s book. I applaud Brown’s decision to leave the definition of love to the poets and artists, whether intentionally or by omission. Anyone who tries to define love is likely to end up with more arrows in the back than Cupid has in his quiver.

A definition would be something like Freud’s statement: Love is aim-inhibited sexuality. Or Aristophanes narrative that love is the search for one’s other half and the joining with that half if/when one finds it. Or Bob Dylan’s “love is just a four letter word.” No inhibition here; just hormones all the way down. 

The research challenge present here is how to finesse the canonical interpretation of the data by her team of experts, assembled from her extensive network of colleagues, which data after all is highly survey-like yet without controls, randomization, or rigorous sampling dynamics. The outer boundary of the demographic respondents seems to be the 66K plus followers who signed up for her massive online courses. 

Other features of the book that became wearing for this reviewer were the seemingly endless rhetoric of stipulation, how inspiring to her has been everyone else’s research from which she liberally borrows, always with a slew of well-crafted footnotes, and an epidemic of near enemies to authenticity and courage. This is perhaps inevitable when one has to give 87 definitions. 

Still, the question invites inquiry: Where after all did the definitions of these 87 emotions and experiences really come from? I cannot figure it out. My best guess is “the team” made it up based on reading 1500 research articles and extensive input from the “lead investigator,” Brené Brown. To be sure, Brown is generous with her recognition and acknowledgements of a long list of thinkers, mentors, scholars, spiritual guides, and researchers. She really lays it on thick with how much she has learned from her friends and colleagues; and it indeed must be thrilling to have one’s name called out by a celebrity academic. I am green with envy – not one of the positive emotions – that I am unlikely to make the short list with my seven books on empathy, especially given this review. 

Still, Brown’s contribution is a strikingly original synthesis of existing ideas. I have been known to say, “Research also includes talking to people.” Yet the risk is scientism. The air of scientific authority without the fallibility of human subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. It may not matter. The value lies in the tips and techniques that can be used to build community and connection. If it is scientism, then it is scientism at its best. 

Once again, since this is not a softball review, I join the debate about one of the most troubling of emotions, anger. Brown properly raises the issue of whether anger is fundamental or derivative. Anger often seems to be a front for something else = x, such as shame, guilt, jealousy, humiliation (this list is long). In spite of the dramatic display of being angry, there is something inauthentic about anger. Anger is a burden to those who experience it, and this burden often gets discharged in maladaptive and self-defeating ways by acting out aggression and violence. Brown’s position is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. I agree. 

My take on this? If you want to see or make people angry, then hurt their feelings. If you see an angry person, ask: Who hurt the person’s feelings and/or did not give the person the respect, dignity, or empathy that the person deserves or to which the person feels entitled. You see here the problem? Entitlement, legitimate or otherwise. 

This was Heinz Kohut’s point: When people don’t get the empathy they need and deserve, they fragment emotionally – and one of the fragments is narcissistic rage (extreme anger). From this perspective, empathy is not a mere psychological mechanism but the foundation of community, connection and intersubjectivity. Donna Hicks makes the same point in Dignity (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 2011). If you see anger in the form of conflict, substitute the word “dignity” for “empathy” – someone has experienced a dignity violation, a breakdown, a loss of dignity, which loss must be restored to have any hope of resolving the conflict (whether in Northern Ireland or the bedroom). 

As regards empathy, Brown engages it along with compassion, pity, sympathy, boundaries, and comparative suffering. Like many psychologists, Brown regards empathy as a psychological mechanism not empathy as a way of being and the foundation of community. For the latter, the foundation of community, like a good Buddhist, she privileges compassion. Nothing wrong with that as such. Heavens knows, it is not an either-or choice – the world needs both expanded empathy and compassion. 

Another point of debate. When Brown says that taking a walk in the other person’s shoes is a myth that must be given up, she is rather overthinking what is a folk saying. Key term: overthinking (occupational hazard of all thinkers and academics). 

“Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes” is the folk definition of empathy. Consider the situation from the perspective of the other person, especially if that individual is your critic, opponent, or sworn enemy. Especially if the latter is the case. 

This is folk wisdom and appreciating the point requires a folkish charity. Key term: charity. It is uncharitable to take a saying and read it in a way that willfully distorts or makes it sound implausible or stupid. Ordinary common sense is required. This is what Brown properly calls a “near enemy” – for example, the way “pity” is the “near enemy” of empathy – a way of dismissing it. 

Therefore, when one says take a walk in the other’s shoes, this is not a conversation about shopping therapy or shopping for shoes. It is a conversation about taking the other person’s perspective with the other’s life circumstances in view in so far as one can grasp those circumstances. If one wants to unpack the metaphor, the idea is to get an idea where the other person’s shoe pinches or chafes. One might argue that the metaphor breaks down if one uses one’s own shoe size. It does. It breaks down into projection, which would be a misfiring or breakdown of empathy. In being empathic, I do not want to know where the shoe pinches me, but rather where it pinches the other individual. 

And that is a useful misunderstanding – as noted, what Brown elsewhere calls a “near enemy.” Empathic interpretation breaks down, fails, goes astray as projection. If I do not take into account differences in character and circumstances, then one is at risk of attributing one’s own issue or problem or emotion to the other person. It may be that we have to dispense with the word itself. “Empathy” has become freighted with too much semantics and misunderstanding. That is okay – as long as we double down and preserve the distinction empathy as a way of being in community and authentic relatedness, what Brown elsewhere calls meaningful connectivity. Still, the word “empathy” has its uses, and if the reader substitutes “empathy” for “meaningful connection” the sense is well preserved in both directions. Okay, keep the word. 

If you have seen Brené Brown’s Netflix presentation (The Call to Courage”), then you know this woman is funny. Not standup comedy funny, she is after all an academic who broke out of the ivory tower into organizational transformation and motivational speaking. She knows how to tell a good story, often in a funny self-depreciating way, that makes one laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies. Like packing three books for a vacation with the kids at Disney World. Who is one kidding, once again, except perhaps oneself? This approiach does not translate as well into print as one might wish. No one is criticizing Brown for not being Dave Barry, but, unless you are familiar with her “in person” routine, much of the humor is lost in translation. The author is sooo compassionate, that by halfway through the work, I was actually starting to experience compassion fatigue.

However, notwithstanding Brown’s aspiration to rigorous science, and she does have a claim to “big data.” For me, this is not the most valuable part of her contribution. I have been known to say, “We don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy.” The good news is that Brown displays both in abundance. As noted, one could substitute the word “empathy” for her uses of “connection” and “meaningful connection,” the topics of her dissertation and research program, and not lose any of the impact, meaning, or value. Empathy is no rumor in Brené Brown. Empathy lives in Brené Brown’s contribution. 

References

Lou Agosta. (2010). “Heidegger’s 1924 Clearing of the Affects Using Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II.” Philosophy Today, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 333–345. [Download paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/AGOHC-2 ]

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and Vulnerability

One of the misunderstandings of empathy is that “empathy means weakness.”  Not so. Why not?

Empathy means being firm but flexible about boundaries. The most empathic people that I know are also the strongest and most assertive regarding respect for boundaries. Being empathic does not mean being a push over. You wouldn’t want to mess with them. Where such people show up, empathy lives—shame and bullying have no place. (For a working definition of empathy, see the note at the bottom of this post.)

Empathy thus solves the dilemma of how to deal with a bully without becoming a bully oneself. Bullies are notoriously causal about violating the boundaries of other people, because it is easier to cause pain than to feel pain. Bullies are taking their pain and working it out on other people. Bullies do not acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and they work out their issues – I almost said “shxt” –on other people. Bullies are offloading their distress on other people. But what to do about it from an empathic perspective? 

I am going to answer that question directly, but first take a short step back: Once the stones start flying back-and-forth, there is nothing to do but defend oneself or try to escape if outnumbered – retreat. If it is a school year brawl, hit ‘em back in self-defense if one is able. If the corporate boss is a bully, document and escalate – and update your resume just in case. If the bully is a politician, speak truth to power like Malcolm-X did: “You did not land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on you” – use humor to bring down arrogance and privilege. 

Once the stones start flying, the conversation is no longer about empathy or vulnerability. It is about who has the biggest cudgel or stone. Empathy did not work – empathy is in breakdown along with common courtesy and decency – call for backup! However, if things are still at the stage of name calling, remember what to my secular ears the ultimate empath of the spirit, Jesus of Nazareth, said and did. He was outnumbered with the woman “taken in adultery” confronting an angry mob of scribes, elders, and Pharisees, armed with large stones: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 7:53 – 8:11). Nothing happened. No one dared be the first to assert his perfection. While the originality of this passage may be debated – did John really write it and who the heck is John, anyway –  the pasage’s psychological power is beyond question.

In the face of loss of power, authority escalates to violence. Jesus dared to make himself vulnerable by aligning with the woman who had violated the community’s standards, which were so rigid that a case of infidelity threatened to below up the entire fabric of civilization. Otherwise, why would the authorities need to stone her to death? (And it really was all men who were about to do the stoning – so you can see there were many problems here!) 

Always the astute practitioner of empathy, Jesus got inside their heads. He knew the authorities wanted to look good and claiming to be better than everyone else would make them look bad. Instead of shaming the woman Jesus turned the tables and put the authorities to shame.  To get power over shame one has to allow oneself to be exposed and vulnerable to it. Be proud!

Thus, Brené Brown makes a parallel observation about vulnerability – she does research on vulnerability and shame – and asserts that it is a myth that “vulnerability is weakness.” Thus her project is to expand our appreciation of the power of vulnerability.  

As Brené Brown uses the distinction “vulnerability,” she means living with uncertainty, living with risk, and living with emotional exposure. She understands vulnerability to mean letting go of “looking good” or fear of being ashamed. She means it to go in harm’s way emotionally or even physically and spiritually by having difficult conversations and taking actions about the things that make a difference – relationships, finances, careers, values, fairness, and so on. The inner game of vulnerability is different than the behavioral vulnerability that consists in leaving the password to your bank account on a yellow sticky pasted to your computer. 

Brené Brown’s coaching is to expand vulnerability in the sense that I have my vulnerabilities; not my vulnerabilities have me. Her lesson “no courage without vulnerability” means that the courageous person goes forth into risk and danger in spite of being afraid. The person who imagines he is without fear is precisely the one who behaves in a foolhardy way, for example, Colonel Custer at the Little Bighorn, about to be wiped out, saying “We’ve got them now!” completely unaware of the risks he was taking. He did not have his vulnerability; his vulnerability had him – and did him in along with his regiment. 

I hasten to add that empathy and vulnerability are different phenomena, not to be confused with one another. They are not either/or – the world needs more of each one – expanded empathy as well as the power conferred by expanded vulnerability. 

You cannot do empathy alone. I get my empathy from the other individual. The other individual expands my empathy by giving me his; and I acknowledge the other individual’s humanity by giving him my empathy. The baby brings forth the parent’s empathy and is socialized by it – brought into the human community. The student brings forth the teacher’s empathy and is educated through it – brought into the educated community. The customer arouses the businessperson’s empathy and is served by it – brought into the community of the market. The list goes on. 

Likewise, you cannot do vulnerability alone. The more armored up and defensive a person becomes, the less vulnerably, the less uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure the person incurs. However, without uncertainty, risk, or exposure, such essential results as innovation, productivity, courage, relatedness, satisfaction, and, yes, empathy, get lost. 

Even though empathy and vulnerability are distinct phenomena, when they occasionally breakdown and fail, the component fragments are remarkably similar.  Empathic receptivity breaks down as emotional contagion; likewise, in vulnerability a person is overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment. 

Empathic understanding breaks down as conformity. Instead of relating to the other person as an authentic possibility, one conforms to the crowd and what “one does.” Likewise with vulnerability, risk is replaced with playing it safe, not rocking the boat, and remaining as invisible as possible. 

Empathic interpretation breaks down as projection. Instead of taking a walk in the other person’s shoes to appreciate where they pinch the other person, one projects one’s own reactions and responses onto the other. Likewise with vulnerability, uncertainty is replaced with being right, making the other person wrong, and shutting down inquiry and innovation in the interest of not rocking the boat. 

Empathic responsiveness breaks down in getting lost in translation. Instead of acknowledging the other person’s struggle as disclosing aspects of one’s shared humanity, one tries to “cap the rap,” get the last word in, and win the argument. Likewise with vulnerability, one talks about the other person instead of talking to them. Free speech is alive and well; but what has gone missing is listening. People are [mostly] speaking freely – no one is listening. It doesn’t work. 

In each of the breakdowns of empathy, I do not have empathy – rather my break down in empathy has me. Instead of asking, what is wrong? Rather ask, what is missing? And, in this case, what is missing, the presence of which would make a difference, is a radical acceptance that empathy requires emotional exposure to the uncertainty and risk taking of related. That is precisely vulnerability. 

When vulnerability is added to empathy the result is community. Since we are on a roll with our secular but empathic interpretation of spiritual readings, in the defining parable of community, empathy is what enables the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37) to be vulnerable to a vicarious experience of what the survivor of the assault and robbery is experiencing. 

In contrast, the priest and Levi experience empathic distress – are armored up and defensive in the face of vulnerability – and have to cross the road. The Samaritan’s empathy tells him what the survivor is experiencing; and it is the Samaritan’s vulnerability and ethics that tell him what to do about it. The two are distinct. Yet empathy expands the boundary of who is one’s neighbor to be more-and-more inclusive, extending especially to those whose humanity has been put at risk by the vicissitudes of vulnerability. Be inclusive.

Note: the short definition of empathy is that it is a multi-phase way of relating to people individually and in community with receptivity to the other’s affects, understanding of the other as an authentic possibility, an appreciation of the other’s perspective, and responsiveness in acknowledgement of the other’s humanity in the other’s communication.

Bibliography

Brené Brown. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery, a Division of Random House Penguin.

Lou Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: PalgraveMacmillan.

_________.  (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot. 

________. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

_________. (2018). Top Seven Lessons on Empathy For Leadership (webcast): Chicago: 2018: https://youtu.be/GrgDWDt4uqg

________. (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pears Press. 

_______. (2018). A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy. Chicago: Two Pears Press. 

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.

For further details and additional tips and techniques see Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

© Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project