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Brené Brown's New Docuseries Is the Emotional Education We All Need

I admit it…I am a Brené Brown super fan. I have read every one of her books, seen her TED talks ad infinitum, watched her Netflix special “The Call to Courage” at least four times and listened to all of the episodes of her two podcasts, “Unlocking Us'” and “Dare to Lead.” I was on the advanced pre-sale list when her new book “Atlas of the Heart” came out and am slightly embarrassed at how marked up and highlighted my copy is.

When I saw that HBO would be making a docuseries of Atlas, I squealed with glee and started counting down the days until its release. It may sound hyperbolic to say, but I truly believe that every human being should watch this five part series. It brilliantly teaches the observer how to identify and name  30 emotions through the use of movie/TV clips, storytelling and the down to earth humor that fans have come to know and love about Brené.

While it’s daunting to try to distill five hours and 18.5 pages of notes down to one article, I wanted to provide a summary that would encourage people to watch the series. The central question posited at the outset of the series is “how do we cultivate meaningful connection with ourselves and each other?”

The basic answer… language. Human beings are fundamentally feeling creatures that think, and if we don’t have the correct words to express what we are experiencing, we cannot make meaningful connections with ourselves or others. Sounds pretty straightforward right? Let’s just say that there isn’t a feelings wheel on the planet that’ll help prepare you for what you’ll learn from Brown’s astounding research.

This work began for her by asking 7,000 participants to identify what they were feeling as they were experiencing those feelings. On average the participants could only name three feelings: sad, mad, and glad. A pretty sobering statistic that she pokes fun at by quizzing the audience on how much time they spend trying to find just the right emoji while composing a text message. Brown’s solution to this lack of emotional attunement was to pull together a research team of professionals within the mental health field to distill down the most fundamental basic emotions we all experience and to define them. A Herculean task indeed.

What emerged from the data, as Brené often says, was that emotion is made up of four factors: biology, biography, behavior, and backstory. It’s called a feeling because it occurs in our body (biology), it is filtered through our socialization (biography) and it needs to be viewed through the lens of context (backstory) in order for us to interpret the individual behavior motivated by it. The implication of this is that there’s no way to read emotion in others. We can never walk in someone’s proverbial shoes. All we can do is listen to and believe what someone tells us about their lived experience and walk alongside them. We have to become curious about others in a way that we have never been curious before.

To navigate this journey of emotional curiosity, Brown delves into four categories of her Atlas: places we go when things are uncertain or too much, places we go when we compare, places we go when things are not what they seem and places we go with others. Through each of these portals we discover not just specific feelings: like awe, anguish, nostalgia and (my favorite) Schaudenfreude — but the ways in which these feelings illustrate greater concepts, including: constructive and destructive nostalgia, upward vs. downward comparison, state vs. trait emotions and near vs. far enemies of feelings. These concepts are the filter through which we begin to develop a greater capacity to understand how others experience the world and how that perpetuates various social structures.

One of the most poignant moments of the series was a question and answer segment where two individuals brought up how some feelings don’t translate to a different language. English is inherently limited in its ability to describe nuances of emotion, so it is integral to ask people to describe what they are feeling (context questions that factor in culture) in order to be able to truly connect with another person. This is equally as relevant between English speaking cultures as words have vastly different meanings in different countries like England versus the U.S. and even between unique regions of the U.S.

Sadly I cannot go into all the nuanced definitions of every emotion Brown delves into in this series, as much as I’d love to. You will have to watch it to glean all that mind-blowing knowledge. But I will include a bit of a spoiler alert.

The culmination of all of this research is a “Framework for Meaningful Connection,” a grounded theory that Brown has been trying to cultivate since she graduated with her PhD. It is comprised of three parts—developing grounded confidence, practicing the courage to walk alongside, and practicing story stewardship. Underlying all of this is a detailed discussion about empathy, which is the most powerful tool of compassion and which cannot exist without boundaries. The most compassionate people on earth are those with the strongest boundaries. You cannot feel compassion or empathy toward someone who is disrespecting your boundaries and walking all over you. That doesn’t fuel connection. This wasn’t totally unexpected but as someone who has struggled to set and uphold boundaries, it was reinforcement that I need to continue cultivating this skill.

This series, like the book, is chock full of information. The concepts are big and require not just understanding but practice. What Brené Brown is able to do with the series is to humanize and put a face on these big ideas. She’s got the unique capacity to take complex data and synthesize it in a way that we can all comprehend. And she doesn’t pretend to be an expert. Instead, she makes it a point to highlight the ways in which she is still very much a work in progress. She might be the teacher, but she’s prepared to walk alongside us all as we learn together how to curate the emotional awareness to cultivate more meaningful connections.

Image via HBO Max’s YouTube

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