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On this episode of Unlocking Us

We’re celebrating the audiobook release of Atlas of the Heart with a bonus Unlocking Us episode! The excerpt in this episode is from chapter 10, titled “Places We Go When the Heart Is Open.” We’re talking about love, lovelessness, and heartbreak. I’m excited to give you a first listen here, and I’m grateful that we’re learning and working to reconnect with ourselves and with each other, together.

About the guest

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Show notes

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown

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.


Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure how legit of a holiday this is actually, but given that it is one, we thought we would do something special for you today. It’s an extra episode of Unlocking Us, a bonus episode to celebrate Atlas of the Heart releasing an audio book. I have to tell you two things about the audio book. Where’s Barrett? Come here, Barrett.

Barrett Guillen: Here, present.

BB: Okay, tell them how I feel about recording audio books.

BG: It’s her most favorite thing in the whole world.

BB: You liar.

BG: It’s so hard.

BB: I have never… It’s one of the hardest things in the whole world. You can’t just go fast. I had this great producer Karen, and she’s always like, slow down, especially like when I get to the end of a chapter, or it’s almost…

BG: Or the end of the book.

BB: Or the end of the book. Or it’s time for me to go home for the day. I’m like, “bahdadada, thank you.” It’s just, I have such appreciation for the people who do it well, like the people who read audio books, it’s hard. So the two things I wanted to tell you, one, it’s really hard, but it’s also a labor of love, but the second thing is I had so much fun reading this one because I had some freedom to.

BB: I mean, I stayed on course with the book, but I had some freedom to tell you some thoughts on some things that are actually not even in the book. And because it’s an audio medium, and there’s pictures in the book, I get to describe the pictures, tell you kind of where I found them, why they’re in the book, and then the audio book actually comes with a PDF of all the illustrations, so I think it’s a really good audio book, and I’m excited about it. The excerpt that we’re going to share with you today is from “Chapter 10: Places we go when the heart is open. Love, lovelessness, heartbreak, trust, self-trust, betrayal, defensiveness, flooding.” Oh my God, flooding, and hurt. So I’m real excited to give you a first listen, and thank you so much. I know that a lot of times the audio books come out at the same time as the actual book release, which for us was like November 30th, Atlas came out. I still so appreciate the support, it’s still on the New York Times Bestseller List, actually along with Dare to Lead, which is fun. I couldn’t do it because of the really quick timeline that we did… We wrote the book and got it published in, and so I wanted to read it myself, so this was the quickest we could get it to you, so Happy Valentine’s Day, Galentine’s Day, however you celebrate today, if you do. And I want to also say thanks to Penguin Random House audio for allowing us to exclusively share this excerpt from the audio version of the book. Let’s take a listen.

BB: “Chapter 10: Places We Go When The Heart Is Open. Love, Lovelessness, Heartbreak, Trust, Self-Trust, Betrayal, Defensiveness, Flooding and Hurt.” I open this chapter on love with a quote from someone whose work has shaped, formed, and changed my life, the incredible bell hooks, who was generous enough to let me share this quote with you here. This is from her book, All About Love. “Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing.  We still hope that love will prevail, we still believe in love’s promise.” Distinguished emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson describes the umbrella term love as including “the pre-occupying and strong desire for further connection, the powerful bonds people hold with a select few and the intimacy that grows between them, the commitments to loyalty and faithfulness.” In Fredrickson’s view, love permeates everyday interactions with others (ranging from strangers and acquaintances to friends and spouses), forming the emotional context from which to strengthen relationships.

BB: Interestingly, there is debate among researchers about whether love is an emotion. That’s me laughing, y’all. I’m going to read that sentence again, and I’m going to laugh again. Are you ready? Interestingly, there’s a debate among researchers about whether love is an emotion, [chuckle] however, among everyone else, love is clearly thought of as an emotion. In a study conducted by Shaver and colleagues, undergraduates were asked to rate 213 emotion words in terms of whether they would call the word an emotion. (One was, “I would definitely not call this an emotion,” to four, “I definitely would call this an emotion.”) The word “love” received the highest rating, 3.94 out of four, beating the word hate, which scored 3.9 out of 4. You know, look, as someone who’s committed to research that reflects our lived experiences, I find that Shaver’s study and Frederickson’s description both align with what my team heard: Love is an emotion that we’re capable of feeling in many different contexts, from intimate partner relationships and family bonds to friends and pets.

BB: It is always a risk to define a term like “love.” I personally think it might be best left to poets and artists and possibly yacht rock songwriters.  However, a definition did emerge from our research and it’s withstood the test of new data. Here’s the definition that emerged from our research: We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Love is not something that we give or get, it’s something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can be cultivated between two people only when it exists within each one of them. We can love others only as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can survive these injuries only if they’re acknowledged, healed and rare.

BB: That’s our definition. And look, I’ll confess that I don’t think we’ll ever be able to fully unravel the mysteries of love, or to be honest, many of the other emotions we experience, at least I hope not. I mean, I think attempting to better understand ourselves and each other is essential, but I think mystery is also essential. Let’s talk about lovelessness. The quote that opens the section on love is from bell hook’s book All About Love. hooks was a professor, social critic and writer, who again, her work has shaped my life. In fact, I often say that her work is responsible for 90% of the stretch marks on my mind. As a first-time university teacher, I carried her book Teaching to Transgress with me at all times, and I slept with it next to me on my nightstand. She teaches that the injustice and systemic oppression that we see in the world today stem from a deep collective lovelessness, and she calls for an ethic of love. It sounds overly simplistic, but when you read her work, you understand that a love ethic is a rigorous calling. hooks writes, “Refusal to stand up for what you believe in weakens individual morality and ethics, as well as those of the culture.

BB: No wonder, then, that we are a nation of people, the majority of whom across race, class and gender, claim to be religious, claim to believe in the divine power of love, and yet collectively remain unable to embrace a love ethic and allow it to guide behavior, especially if doing so would mean supporting radical change. Fear of radical changes leads many citizens of our nation to betray their minds and hearts.” I don’t want to betray my mind or my heart, I want to live by a love ethic. We need more love between us, but also among us, and not rainbow unicorn love or commercialized love, we need more real love.  Gritty, dangerous, wild-eyed, justice-seeking love. Let’s talk about heartbreak. I researched heartbreak when I was writing Rising Strong. I learned that heartbreak is more than just a painful type of disappointment or failure. It hurts in a different way, because heartbreak is always connected to love and belonging. Joe Reynolds, a retired Episcopal priest, has taught me the most about heartbreak. I shared his essay in Rising Strong, but I want to share it here again, I just don’t think we can read it enough. So this is Joe’s essay.

BB: Heartbreak is an all-together different thing. Disappointment doesn’t grow into heartbreak, nor does failure. Heartbreak comes from the loss of love or the perceived loss of love. My heart can be broken only by someone (or something like my dog, though a part of me really believes my dog is a person) to whom I have given my heart. There may be expectations both met and unmet in a relationship that ends in heartbreak. But disappointment is not the cause of the heartbreak.  There may be failures within the relationship, indeed, there certainly will be, for we are imperfect vessels to hold the love of another person, but the failures didn’t cause the heartbreak. Heartbreak is what happens when love is lost. Heartbreak can come from being rejected by the one you love, the pain is more intense when you thought the other person loved you, but the expectation of returned love isn’t necessary for heartbreak. Unrequited love can be heartbreaking. The death of a loved one is heartbreaking. I didn’t expect them to live forever, and death is nobody’s fault, regardless of smoking, bad diets, no exercise or whatever, but my heart is broken anyway. Or related to heartbreak is the death of something unique, maybe even essential, in someone I love.

BB: I didn’t want my children to stay children all their lives, but at times, the loss of innocence was heartbreaking. The loss of love doesn’t have to be permanent to be heartbreaking, moving away from a loved one can break your heart. Change in another person I love may be a good thing, it may be a significant personal growth, and I may be happy about it and proud of it, it can also change our relationship and break my heart. The list goes on. There is a plethora of ways in which a heart can be broken, the common denominator is the loss of love, or the perceived loss of love. To love with any level of intensity and honesty is to become vulnerable. I used to tell couples getting married that the only thing that I could tell them with certainty was that they would hurt each other. To love is to know the loss of love. Heartbreak is unavoidable unless we choose not to love at all. A lot of people do just that. Every time we love, we risk heartbreak. Despite how lonely heartbreak feels, it’s universal. I remember sitting next to a woman in an airport terminal waiting for our plane to board, and she started weeping. She was probably in her early 60s, and she was by herself.

BB: When I asked her if she was okay and if I could get her anything, she didn’t reply, she just shook her head and looked away. I returned to reading my book until about 20 minutes later, the woman said, “We had to put our dog down. My heart is broken.” She wasn’t looking at me when she said it, she was looking straight ahead. I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I squeezed her forearm. We ended up talking until we boarded, and when we deplaned in Houston, she gave me a hug. That happened about 15 years ago. I had never had a pet of my own at that point in my life, but having experienced heartbreak in several other contexts, I could connect with the sense of loss and longing that she was feeling. I didn’t question her grief, but I remember thinking to myself, Man, I’m glad I do not have a dog. I don’t think a dog would be worth heartbreak. Fast-forward to two years ago, when my very first dog, Daisy a rescue bichon, got untreatable cancer after 10 healthy and wonderful years with us. The drive home from the vet’s office without her was unbearable. That night, all four of us were sobbing in a big heap on the couch.

BB: I looked at my kids who were inconsolable and said,  “We loved Daisy so much. This is heartbreak.” Then I looked over at Lucy, our second bichon, who was also missing Daisy, and thought, “God, this hurts. And it’s totally worth it.” As I often say, the broken-hearted are the bravest among us. They dared to love. Let’s move to our next section, which is on trust. In The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, author Charles Feltman defines trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” He defines distrust as a general assessment that “what’s important to me is not safe with this person in this situation or any situation.” These definitions perfectly capture what emerged from our data on trust and mistrust. Trust is more of a cognitive assessment than an emotion, but as we all know, conversations about trust can bring up a lot of emotions, especially hurt and defensiveness. It’s difficult to talk about trust in our personal or professional relationships, because it’s such a big concept. If someone says, “I don’t trust you,” it feels like a general assault on our character. We’ve spent the past 10 years trying to figure out exactly what constitutes trust, what are the specific behaviors we’re talking about when we talk about trust? Seven elements of trust emerged from our data, and we use the acronym BRAVING to identify them.

BB: Let’s go through it together. B, boundaries. You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no. R, reliability. You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t over-promise and you’re able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities. A is accountability. You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends. The V in braving is vault. You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential. The I in braving is integrity. You choose courage over comfort, you choose what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy, and you practice your values rather than simply professing them. The N is for non-judgment. I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment, we can ask each other for help without judgment. And the last is the G, and that’s for generosity. You extend the most generous interpretations possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.

BB: When we bring Dare to Lead training into organizations, this is one of the most adopted tools. It gives us all a framework to get specific about what’s working in our trust building and what needs our attention. I can say to someone, Hey, we’re working hard on developing trust in our relationship in these areas, and I feel like we need to work more in these areas. What’s your experience? We most often think about trust between people and groups, but we often forget about the importance of self-trust. Self-trust is normally the first casualty of failure or mistakes, we stop trusting ourselves when we hurt others, get hurt, feel shame, or just question our worth. I recently celebrated 25 years of sobriety, Woo-Hoo! and when I was reflecting on what that’s meant in my life, I couldn’t stop thinking about self-trust. Returning to the definition from Feltman that I read earlier, I realized that my sobriety has taught me that I can trust myself and my actions when it comes to protecting what I value. There are still occasions when I have to slow down and get intentional, so I don’t end up distrusting or betraying myself, but I know increased self-trust has been one of the biggest gifts of sobriety.

BB: Here’s how we use the BRAVING tool to think about self-trust. B, Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay? R, Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do? A, Did I hold myself accountable? V, Did I respect the vault and share appropriately? I, Did I act from integrity? N, Did I ask for what I needed? And here’s the big important question here, was I non-judgmental about needing help? And then, G, Have I been generous to myself? So, as we talk about trust, I think BRAVING is an incredibly helpful framework for operationalizing what is a big emotionally loaded word.

BB: So, we can’t talk about trust without talking about betrayal, and that’s the next section in the book. The quote that opens up that section is actually a quote from Suzanne Collins, who wrote the book The Hunger Games. She writes, “For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.” Betrayal is so painful, because at its core, it’s a violation of trust. It happens in relationships in which trust is expected and assumed, so when it’s violated, we’re often shocked, and we can struggle to believe what’s happening. It can feel as if the ground beneath us has given way. Most betrayals happen among spouses, romantic partners, friends, co-workers and occasionally family members. The most common types of betrayals include extra-marital affairs or cheating on a steady dating partner, lying, betraying confidences, and rejecting or abandoning a partner. When betrayal is the result of physical or sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted partner or family member, such as in the case of domestic violence or child abuse perpetrated by a parent, it’s referred to as betrayal trauma.

BB: When we’re injured by betrayal, we can suffer high levels of anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, jealousy, decreased self-worth, embarrassment, humiliation, shame, and even trauma symptoms. When I read these symptoms, the first thing I thought about was the times I’ve betrayed myself, as we just covered self-trust is so important, and when we violate that often to make someone else happy or in a bid for acceptance, I think we can feel self-betrayal too. There have been times in my life when I have said something that I didn’t believe, or I did something I didn’t want to do, in order to avoid feeling left out. The harshest consequence of that for me was dealing with my own betrayal.

BB: I’ve been thinking a lot about Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles pulling out of competitions to protect their mental and emotional well-being. God, it’s so inspiring to watch these women choose to disappoint others and endure this kind of cheap-seat criticism over their refusal to betray their bodies, minds, and spirits. There’s another type of betrayal called institutional betrayal, researchers explained that this type of betrayal occurs when “an institution causes harm (by action or inaction) to an individual who trusts or depends upon that institution.” Factors that contribute to institutional betrayal include strict membership requirements.

BB: We see that in military training or elite sports, the existence of prestige or power differentials, caregivers versus patients, clergy versus parishioners, and rigid priorities such as extreme efforts to protect their reputation of an organization. Perhaps the most devastating organizational betrayal is a cover-up. In Dare to Lead I explain cover-ups are perpetuated not only by the original actors but by a culture of complicity and shame, sometimes individuals are complicit because staying quiet or hiding the truth benefits them and/or doesn’t jeopardize their influence or power. Other times, people are complicit because it’s the norm, they work in a cover-up culture that uses shame to keep people quiet. Either way, when the culture of a corporation, a non-profit, university, government, church, sports program, school, or family mandates that it’s more important to protect the reputation of that system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of individuals or communities, you can be certain of the following problems. One, shame is systemic. Two, complicity is part of the culture. Three, money and power trump ethics. Four, accountability is dead. Five, control and fear are management tools, and last, you can be absolutely certain, that there’s a trail of devastation and pain. It’s possible to heal betrayal, but it’s rare because it requires significant courage and vulnerability to heal the pain we’ve caused without becoming defensive.

BB: In our research, we found that the only way back from betrayal is accountability, amends, and action, none of these things are possible without acknowledging the pain and possibly trauma that we’ve caused someone, without rationalizing or making excuses. We’re also much better as individuals and as a culture at shaming and blaming than we are at actual accountability. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into defensiveness. At its core, defensiveness is a way to protect our ego and a fragile self-esteem. Our research team member Ellen Alley explains that our self-esteem is considered fragile when our failures, mistakes and imperfections decrease our self-worth. In our work, the opposite of a fragile self-esteem is grounded confidence. With grounded confidence, we accept our imperfections, and they don’t diminish our self-worth, it makes sense that defensiveness occurs in areas of our lives where we have fragile self-esteem or across several areas of our lives, if the fragility is more general. Any perceived call out of our weakness is experienced as an attack on our self-worth, so we fight hard to defend ourselves against it. In order to try to limit our exposure to information that differs from how we think of ourselves, we get defensive and over justify, make excuses, minimize, blame, discredit, discount, refute, reinterpret.

BB: Defensiveness blocks us from hearing feedback and evaluating if we want to make meaningful changes in our thinking or behavior based on the input from other people. In our Dare to Lead training, we work with participants to figure out what defensiveness looks like for them, what it feels like, and whether there are some situations that are more likely to trigger it than others. To increase self-awareness, we ask folks to think back to a time when they received difficult feedback and try to remember what their bodies were doing, what thoughts were coming up and what emotions they were feeling, the vast majority of people struggle to remember the exact thoughts and feelings, which makes sense, given that many of us go into fight-or-flight mode in these situations. However, for the most part, people can remember their physical responses, folding their arms over their chest, shoving their hands into their pockets, getting tunnel vision, feeling their heart race, looking down, getting dry mouth… These are just a few of the examples. It’s worth thinking about the physical cues that show up for you when experiencing defensiveness and devising a strategy that can help you pull back into the present moment.

BB: When I get defensive, I get tunnel vision almost every time, and I start planning what I’m going to say instead of listening, but I have found a couple of ways to disarm my defensiveness. My strategy is to subtly open my palms, even if my hands are just hanging by my side or on my lap, and actually say, “I’m sorry, can you say that again? I really want to understand.” It can look weird. But it’s pretty effective. If I’m having a really hard time, I might say, “I’m sorry, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m going to get a glass of water. Can we sit down in 10 minutes and start over again?”

BB: This leads me right to our next section in this chapter, which is on flooding, this is a perfect place to talk about this concept, the body can become overwhelmed when it senses danger, and for a lot of us, a difficult conversation, hard feedback, arguments. It’s enough to leave us feeling overwhelmed, attacked, and confused. According to the Gottman Institute, flooding is “a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.” In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, And How You Can Make Yours Last, John Gottman explains, “We each have a sort of built-in meter that measures how much negativity accumulates during such interactions. When the level gets too high for you, the needle starts going haywire and flooding begins, just how readily people become flooded is individual.”

BB: Gottman, also shares that flooding is affected by how much stress you have going on in your life, the more pressure we’re under, the more likely we are to be easily flooded. One of the worst patterns that I brought to my marriage from my family was, “Get back in here and fight with me right now.” Growing up, we did not take breaks during fights, no one ever said, “Hey, this is no longer productive, and we should take a time-out before something bad is said or someone gets their feelings hurt,” our strategy was get louder and meaner until you win, or someone else is crying. When I first married Steve, in the middle of a heated argument, he would say, “Hey, let’s stop and take a break.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” At some point, I think I realized that stopping the fight scared me, fighting together seemed less painful than hurting alone.

BB: Looking back, I just didn’t know how to do it, I had never been taught or seen it modeled. Gottman’s work helped me understand the mechanics behind, “Okay, can we circle back in 20 minutes?” or “Okay, how much time do you need?” Knowing that we’re coming back to finish the discussion, and when is really reassuring to me in an important way. The research also helped me realize that it’s not just Steve who gets overwhelmed, I get overwhelmed too. The difference is our strategies. He shuts down when he’s flooded, I think I lash out, which is disastrous. I don’t think I understood before I studied this that I thought flooding always caused shutting down, the haywire needle always meant all systems shutting down, but I think when my needle goes haywire, I just lash out. It’s a terrible combination. Now, when I get flooded, I’m as likely to say, “Time-out,” as he is, and this is a good thing because according to Gottman, chronic flooding sets us up to dread communicating. Gottman discusses this effect in the context of marriages and partnerships, but I’ve seen the same thing in organizations. I’ve interviewed many research participants who experience chronic flooding with their bosses, so much so that every time they’re called into the office, they’re already on the path to overwhelm.

BB: There’s just so much our bodies and nervous systems can stand before they flip the survival switch and stop communicating and start protecting or attacking, looking back, and this is true, this is not hyperbole y’all, I have never once regretted calling the time-out at home or work, not once. I’ve never experienced a little time and space being a bad thing. I do, however, have a lot of regrets the other way around. Let’s talk about hurt. I’m not sure there’s a braver sentence in the human catalog of brave sentences than “My feelings are hurt.” It’s simple, vulnerable, and honest, but we don’t say it very often, we get pissed off, we hurt back, or we internalize the hurt until we believe we deserve it, and that something is wrong with us, but rarely do we say, “This really hurt my feelings.” The definition of hurt from a team of researchers led by Anita Vangelisti goes a long way in explaining why acknowledging hurt is so difficult. They write, “Individuals who are hurt experience a combination of sadness at having been emotionally wounded and fear of being vulnerable to harm. When people feel hurt, they have appraised something that someone said or did as causing them emotional pain. ”

BB: I want to read again. It’s so powerful, but so simple. So again, a definition of hurt that comes from a team of researchers led by Anita Vangelisti at the University of Texas at Austin, “individuals who are hurt, experience a combination of sadness at having been emotionally wounded and fear of being vulnerable to harm. When people feel hurt, they have appraised something that someone said or did as causing them emotional pain,” we all know that it’s really scary to put our heart on the line and say, “I feel wounded and sad about what happened yesterday, and I’m afraid to get hurt again.” It’s deeply vulnerable, but it’s also universal, all of us have felt this way often and a lot. It’s impossible to be in relationships and avoid ever feeling hurt, just as it’s impossible to know love without knowing what it feels like to have a broken heart. Vangelisti and team explained that hurt happens through social interaction, in fact, hurt feelings are most often caused by people with whom we have close relationships, when we feel devalued or rejected by the other person, most behaviors that result in hurt feelings are not intended to be hurtful. They typically involve actions that are… Are you ready? Thoughtless, careless, or insensitive.

BB: However, “the more intentional an action is perceived, the more hurtful it feels.” Our hurt feelings are typically experienced simultaneously with other emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, jealousy or loneliness. As a result, they don’t always feel the same way as most other emotions do. However, research indicates that even though hurt feelings are a mix of several emotions, they are a distinct emotional experience, not just a combination of other negative emotions. Let me say that again. The research indicates that even though hurt feelings are a mix of several emotions, they are a distinct emotional experience, not just a combination of negative emotions. As I was explaining this to my teenage son, all I could come up with is the rainbow snow cone analogy. There’s grape, cherry, lime, lemon, orange, and blueberry, but you don’t really taste all of those when you eat it, it just tastes like rainbow snow cone. Like, it’s not a mix of all those flavors, it just becomes its own flavor. Our reactions to hurt feelings can be self-blaming, or we might cry, lash out, or retaliate by trying to hurt the other person and/or seek out other relationships to find comfort.

BB: When reparation doesn’t seem possible, hurt feelings can turn into anger or sadness. One thing that motivates me to be a little braver in how I handle my hurt feelings is research that shows that when we respond to hurt feelings with anger, the other person tends to match our anger with more anger. I can tell you that this has happened in my kitchen about 1,365 times, however, when repair seems possible, and we share our hurt feelings and try to reconnect without the anger, the other person tends to respond with constructive actions, including apologies and amends. I’ve actually tried the, “I’m so pissed off right now because you’re a jerk, but I’m going to say that my feelings are hurt, so you apologize right this second,” but I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. One last note about hurt feelings, researchers, Mark Leary and Carrie Springer have interesting thoughts on the language of hurt feelings. Unlike most other emotions, the expression ‘hurt feelings’ lacks obvious synonyms. The words ‘wounded’ and ‘pained’ have similar connotations, but these words are typically not used to describe emotional experience. Also, although many emotions such as sadness or grief can be described as distressing or painful, ‘hurt feelings’ seems to have a more specific connotation than general emotional pain.

BB: An example might be grief, if I’m grieving over the loss of someone close to me, I might tell you “I’m really hurting,” but I probably would not say, “Her death hurt my feelings.” It’s a great reminder of the power of language. When we’re expressing emotion, it’s important to differentiate “experiencing hurt” from “having hurt feelings.” I think I should read that to y’all again. This is again, Mark Leary and Carrie Springer. I wish y’all could see me right now. I’m standing in this recording booth, thinking about y’all, thinking about walking with you, driving with you, folding socks with you, and I’m like, “How can I get you to understand how cool this was,” maybe it’s just like the nerd part of me, like the research nerd, but unlike most other emotions, the expression “hurt feelings” lacks obvious synonyms, we can say wounded or pained, but we don’t really use those normally to describe emotional experience. Although there are many emotions like sadness or grief, that can be described as distressing or painful, “hurt feelings” has a very specific connotation that’s more than just emotional pain, so the example they use is, if I’m grieving over the loss of someone, I might tell you “I’m really hurting,” but I’m not going to say, “her death hurt my feelings,” it’s just… This is the language thing, when we’re expressing emotion, get clear on experiencing hurt versus my feelings are hurt, love that.


BB: Again, thank you to Penguin Random House Audio, the full audiobook is available now, we’ll put links to where you can get it on our episode page. Just writing the book kicked my ass, recording the book kicked my ass, but now that I’ve had a breather, and I’ve been able to stand back and think about it, I’m really proud of the book, and I’m grateful that this community is on this journey. That we’re doing it together that we’re learning together, just hopefully a contribution in our efforts to reconnect with ourselves and with each other. Y’all stay awkward, brave, and kind. See you next week.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, it’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil, and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.

© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved

Brown, B. (Host). (2022, February 14). Brené on Places We Go When the Heart Is Open From Atlas of the Heart. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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