Word Prompt: Find | Story Prompt: from the book “Atlas of the Heart” by Brene Brown

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“We asked around seventy-five hundred people to identify all of the emotions that they could recognize and name when they’re experiencing them. The average was three: glad, sad, and mad — or, as they were more often written, happy, sad, and pissed off. Couple this extremely limited vocabulary with the importance of emotional literacy, and you basically have a crisis. It’s this crisis that I’m trying to help address in this book.

Over the past two decades, when research participants talked about being angry, the story never stopped there. Their narratives of anger unfolded into stories of betrayal, fear, grief, injustice, shame, vulnerability, and other emotions. Ultimately the combination of data showing how limited emotional vocabularies can be with our experiences of interviewing people about anger and watching them consistently reveal other emotions behind the anger led me to challenge the idea that anger is a primary emotion.

The more data we collected, including interviews with more than fifteen hundred therapists and counselors, the more certain I became that anger is a secondary or “indicator” emotion that can mask or make us unaware of other feelings that are out of reach in terms of language, or that are much more difficult to talk about than anger. We live in a world where it’s much easier to say “I’m so pissed off” than “I feel so betrayed and hurt.” It’s even easier to say “I’m angry with myself” than “I’m disappointed with how I showed up.””


This book is just so helpful – both from a personal perspective as well as from the perspective of storytelling. If I don’t have a full emotional vocabulary, then my writing is flat – my characters end up with only three emotions. And in my personal life… well, it is entirely inadequate to roll an entire range of emotional possibilities into one of three.

I have to admit I’ve never thought of a vocabulary of emotions before, an “emotional literacy”, especially not explicitly in the way Brene Brown spells it out. It feels very expansive to understand I’m not actually “pissed off” about a multitude of things, that instead I might feel isolated or helpless or even outraged. And, in case I find these new words confusing or I misinterpret them, she dedicates batches of them to different chapters where she defines and differentiates them. So helpful – for me as well as the characters in my stories. So much to learn!

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