What I’m Reading: Atlas of the Heart

I should actually call this post “what I’m re-reading and still trying to wrap my head around”—Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart isn’t a one-time quick read. It’s like a big beautiful coffee table book, filled with deep insights that make you go away and come back to it later. It’s been visually designed for that, with quotations highlighted and featured like they should be up on your wall or mirror as a daily reminder (apparently her house and office are full of post its with words of wisdom on them).

The theme of my life in recent years–unmet expectations. I’ve been feeling a lot of bitterness about unmet expectations.

-My generation was told that we had to get a good education to get a good job—and we are now the most educated and lowest paid.

-I was told that I was gifted and I expected that to translate into a successful career. It hasn’t.

-I expected to be able to establish my career within the first 5 years after finishing my PhD. Now I’m nearly 8 years post-PhD and haven’t even managed to keep my foot in the door.

-I expected to have a lovely maternity leave with Paul, meeting up with other mom friends over coffee while George was in school. Instead, we were stuck at home, juggling distance learning and baby care and pandemic survival.

Everybody’s had a terrible time over the past couple of years, of course, and it makes me feel like I shouldn’t complain–my close friends and family have all survived, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, etc. At the same time, how can you not complain when you’re trying to process all of…this? The politics, the climate crisis, the pandemic, the gun violence, the racial reckoning, Brexit, Ukraine, the cost of living, wage stagnation, food banks…Comparative suffering doesn’t help anybody, but it’s hard not to go down that route.

The main point of Atlas of the Heart is to develop our language around emotions. Using more precise language can help us better understand our emotions, and those of others, too. I really liked the disambiguation pages, where she explains how different terms relate to each other. On p. 54, she explains how feeling discouraged is about losing confidence and enthusiasm, whereas if you feel resigned, you’ve already lost your confidence and enthusiasm. It’s a step further down that path.

As long as I apply to jobs and get rejected, I’m discouraged, but once I fully give up and stop applying, then I’m resigned. At the moment, I still have academic job applications pending, so I’m not quite at the point of feeling resigned, no matter how discouraged and frustrated I might feel.

Knowing these definitions and understanding that distinction between different shades of disappointment, discouragement and resignation actually does help to make sense of it all.

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