Expanding our Emotional Vocabulary

Unpacking the multitude of mysteries around our human emotions could be a daunting task — and yet the more we really understand, the more intriguing it becomes. For starters, Brene Brown’s research revealed that most of us operate under the guise of three basic emotions — happy, sad and angry.

In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, she unearths 87 emotions and experiences that are woven into the fabric of our lives, our relationships and how we make sense of our world. From 3 to 87 — imagine that! Now imagine what it might be like if we really understood the complex and nuanced landscape of each of those 87 emotions and emotional experiences. It literally changes everything — from self talk, to relationships, to parenting, to better understanding others.

Although Brene Brown is a decade and half younger than me, her childhood experiences and learned behavioral patterns mirror many of my own and those of my friends. For far too long now, prior generations were taught not to show –or even acknowledge — their emotions. Is it any wonder that we found a lot of creative, but unhelpful, ways to navigate rocky emotional terrain? This is especially true of negative emotions because it is human nature to avoid what hurts.

As Brene recently shared on The Happiness Kit podcast, “Many of us grew up with the belief that we are “thinking, doing” people who on occasion feel — and that can get us sidelined.”

The truth is our emotions play an instrumental role in the quality of our lives. What really sidelines us is not paying attention to our emotions. We can change the old belief system that feelings are best left unacknowledged. That meaningful work starts with us.

How empowering to really get to know our full range of emotions, to understand why some are stronger for us than for others. Building a more expansive vocabulary to help us articulate clearly what we are feeling could be a bridge to better communication and deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. Most importantly, we can teach younger generations to embrace their emotions, and to learn from them. No more hiding our true emotions and our authentic selves.

What happens when our language is not as expansive as our human experience. What does it mean when we have to shove an experience of despair or disappointment into one of these 3 buckets? (sic. happy, sad, angry) It cripples our ability to own and communicate our emotions. — Brene Brown, The Happiness Lab Podcast 1/2/2022

Brene highlights how neuroscience informs and supports her research and findings especially as it relates to how our bodies instinctively respond to our emotions. It is our personal history that often snags us and amplifies an emotion even decades later. We refer to this as being “triggered”.

Having better language to name our emotions can be a catalyst for loosening the grip of our emotional triggers and help us better respond biologically. Our bodies not only react to an emotion, if we label an emotion incorrectly, our bodies will respond to that too. Brene shares an example of how we often misuse the word “overwhelmed” and that sends an emergency message to our bodies to begin a major shut down. Once you understand what happens when the brain releases chemicals in direct response to your emotions, you will be motivated to learn more about emotional regulation.

About 4 -5 years ago, we started seeing how language doesn’t just communicate emotion, but it also shapes it. We are individually and collectively in trouble if we don’t have language.” –Brene Brown in her interview with Dr. Laurie Santos on The Happiness Lab Podcast, January 2, 2022

If you are familiar with Besser Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, you will recognize the intrinsic value of helping our bodies process emotions, anxieties and trauma in a more immediate and healthier way.

Perhaps the most eye-opening discovery that Brene makes is how languages shapes our relationships. She admits that for many years, she believed that we just needed to get better at reading other’s emotions. At the conclusion of all her research for Atlas of the Heart, she now acknowledges that this is not possible.

One compelling reason is that so many emotions present the same way.

In Atlas of the Heart, Brene gives us not only language, but relatable definitions and real life examples for these 87 emotions and experiences. She explains the impactful differences in words that we often use interchangeably such as envy and jealously. She’s organized the book in chapters that help us recognize “The Places We Go When (fill in the blank with your own emotion)”. It is an incredible guide to understanding where we go in our bodies, our old narratives and our actions when emotions are in the driver’s seat.

Once we begin to realize all the ways we ourselves are impacted by our own emotions, we can gain greater empathy and patience with others.

While we can’t read emotion in people, we can get curious — and connect with them deeply – as opposed to diminishing, questioning or challenging the stories and the emotions they share with us.” — Brene Brown

Along with an expanded vocabulary for our wide array of emotions, Brene sheds much needed light on the reality that our emotions show up in layers. She offers these four B’s to help us understand these layers:

Biology — Emotions are called “feelings” because our body is the first responder — we FEEL emotion. Emotion is physiological — Where in your body are you feeling it and what are you feeling?

Biography – What did you grow up understanding, believing or learning about this feeling?

Behavior – How are you showing up when you are triggered by a strong emotion? Do you want to punch the wall, hide and cry, feel like you are coming out of your skin?

Backstory – What is your personal history and lived experiences? How do they impact your emotional responses in life?

I’ve been on my own self-discovery journey for over six years and it required a lot of unpacking of emotional baggage and entangling myself from behavioral patterns I developed as a young child to help me navigate an often confusing, disruptive environment. None of that was serving me well as I matured organically through life. I believe that we can all benefit from the game-changing research of Brene Brown and the field of neuroscience about emotions. It is time to bring our emotions to the forefront of our self-improvement work and get to know them intimately. They power our lives and have so much to teach us.


This January 2, 2022 episode of The Happiness Lab podcast is a great introduction for anyone who wants to hear directly from Brene what she offers to us in her newest book, Atlas of the Heart.

The Happiness Lab podcast is brought to you by Dr. Laurie Santos and this coming year she is focusing her attention on learning from our negative emotions with dynamic guests and relatable stories.

This will become one of your greatest reference guides in your home. It is a coffee table book — and will require lots of conversations over coffee to fully appreciate its value.

Published by

Inspired New Horizons

I am blogging about reinventing myself in my retirement years as an independent woman free to fully enjoy life's adventures, while practicing mindfulness and discovering my life's purposes.

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