In Atlas of the Heart, Brown takes us on a journey through eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human. As she maps the necessary skills and an actionable framework for meaningful connection, she gives us the language and tools to access a universe of new choices and second chances—a universe where we can share and steward the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with one another in a way that builds connection.
Over the past two decades, Brown’s extensive research into the experiences that make us who we are has shaped the cultural conversation and helped define what it means to be courageous with our lives. Atlas of the Heart draws on this research, as well as on Brown’s singular skills as a storyteller, to show us how accurately naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding, meaning, and choice.
Brown shares, “I want this book to be an atlas for all of us, because I believe that, with an adventurous heart and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves.”
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Read an Excerpt
Places We Go When Things Are Uncertain or Too Much
Stress, Overwhelm, Anxiety, Worry, Avoidance, Excitement, Dread, Fear, Vulnerability
Stressed and Overwhelmed
The restaurant is packed. It’s loud, every table is full, and people are lined up out the door. There’s at least one angry person at every table who is desperately trying to wave down a waiter.
“We never got our bread!”
“We need more tea!”
“We’ve been waiting on our salads for twenty minutes!”
“We need our check unless you don’t want us to pay for this crappy service!”
You can hear the kitchen manager’s booming voice through the swinging doors:
“The food on the line is dying—let’s go, let’s go!”
“We’ve got desserts ready for table 10 and bread ready for tables 3, 4, and 8.”
But only one waiter showed up for the shift. And it’s me. And I can’t speak, for some reason. And I’m wearing a bathing suit and huge fins that make it hard to walk and impossible to run.
This is one of my least favorite recurring bad dreams. I hate it because, after six years of waiting tables and bartending for a high-pressure, high-expectation restaurant group through college and grad school, I know that feeling all too well. We made a lot of money, but we worked our asses off. And the pressure left a mark.
Still today, if Steve is in the kitchen and I walk behind him, I’ll shout, “Behind you!” And if I spy someone leaning against the counter during a family kitchen clean-up after dinner, I have to stop myself from saying, “Hey! If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” The language and habits of that job were survival, and they stuck.
Weirdly—or maybe not—the majority of my current leadership team have significant restaurant experience. Maybe we attract one another, or maybe I’m just drawn to the capacity for grind. If you work on our team and you step over a sugar packet on the floor because picking that up is someone else’s job—you’re not a good fit.
Stressed and overwhelmed remind me of two restaurant terms that my team and I often use today: “in the weeds” and “blown.” Back in the day, if I walked into the kitchen and told another waiter “I’m in the weeds”—the response would be, “What do you need?” I might say, “Can you take bread to tables 2 and 4, and re-tea tables 3 and 5, please?”
Being in the weeds and pulling out of the weeds happened to everyone on almost every shift. It was just part of the job, and you learned to manage it.
Walking into the kitchen and saying “I’m blown”—well, that’s completely different. The kitchen gets really quiet. No one asks what you need. Normally, someone runs to the hostess stand to find out what tables you’re running that shift—they don’t even assume you know at this point. The kitchen manager, who would never get involved in an “in the weeds” situation, pulls all the tickets for your guests to evaluate what’s happening and immediately assigns your tables to other waitstaff.
When you’re blown, you can either step outside or into the cooler or go to the bathroom (and cry). Whatever you need. You’re expected back in ten minutes, ready to go, but for ten minutes, there’s a complete takeover. In six years, it happened to me twice, both times due to pure exhaustion at the end of triple shifts that I was working because tuition was due. Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown.
We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.
Stressful situations cause both physiological (body) and psychological (mind and emotion) reactions. However, regardless of how strongly our body responds to stress (increases in heart rate and cortisol), our emotional reaction is more tied to our cognitive assessment of whether we can cope with the situation than to how our body is reacting. I found this really interesting because I always assumed that my emotions responded to my body freaking out. But really, my emotions are responding to my “thinking” assessment of how well I can handle something.
Just as getting in and out of the weeds is a part of every waitstaff shift in a restaurant, navigating stressors is a daily part of living. However, daily stress can take a toll. In fact, chronic exposure to stressors can be detrimental to health. High levels of perceived stress have been shown to correlate with more rapid aging, decreased immune function, greater inflammatory processes, less sleep, and poorer health behaviors.
If stress is like being in the weeds, feeling overwhelmed is like being blown. Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function. I love this definition of “overwhelmed” from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “completely overcome or overpowered by thought or feeling.”
We all know that feeling that washes over us and leaves us completely unsure of what to do next. Even when people ask “How can I help?” or “What needs to be done?”—responding with organized thoughts feels impossible. This is also when I can get really crappy and think to myself, If I had the wherewithal to figure out what comes next and how we need to approach all of this, I wouldn’t be walking around in circles crying and talking to myself.
Feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed seem to be related to our perception of how we are coping with our current situation and our ability to handle the accompanying emotions: Am I coping? Can I handle this? Am I inching toward the quicksand?
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes overwhelm as the all-too-common feeling “that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.”
This really resonates with me: It’s all unfolding faster than my nervous system and psyche can manage it.
When I read that Kabat-Zinn suggests that mindful play, or no-agenda, non-doing time, is the cure for overwhelm, it made sense to me why, when we were blown at the restaurant, we weren’t asked to help problem-solve the situation. We were just asked to engage in non-doing. I’m sure experience taught the managers that doing nothing was the only way back for someone totally overwhelmed.
The non-doing also makes sense—there is a body of research that indicates that we don’t process other emotional information accurately when we feel overwhelmed, and this can result in poor decision making. In fact, researcher Carol Gohm used the term “overwhelmed” to describe an experience where our emotions are intense, our focus on them is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we’re feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions.
In other words: On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m feeling my emotions at about 10, I’m paying attention to them at about 5, and I understand them at about 2.
This is not a setup for successful decision making. The big learning here is that feeling both stressed and overwhelmed is about our narrative of emotional and mental depletion—there’s just too much going on to manage effectively.
For me, anxiety feels like what I lovingly call the “Willy Wonka shit tunnel.” There’s a frightening scene in the original Willy Wonka film that starts out as a sweet boat ride through a magical land of supersized candy and turns into an escalating scene of fear and loss of control. As the boat enters a dark tunnel, the mood turns. The boat starts going faster and faster while terrible images flash on the walls, including a close-up of a millipede crawling over someone’s face, a chicken getting its head cut off, and a lizard eating a bug. None of it makes narrative sense; it’s just scary and confusing.
All of this is happening while the passengers—children and their parents—are freaking out and Willy Wonka, played by the incredible, wild-eyed Gene Wilder, is maniacally reciting this poem at an increasingly frenetic rate:
There’s no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going.
There’s no knowing where we’re rowing
Or which way the river’s flowing.
Is it raining?
Is it snowing?
Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing
So the danger must be growing.
Are the fires of hell a-glowing?
Is the grisly reaper mowing?
Yes! The danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing.
And they’re certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing!
That’s what anxiety feels like to me. Escalating loss of control, worst-case-scenario thinking and imagery, and total uncertainty.