The Limits Of My Language Mean The Limits Of My World (Brené Brown’s “Atlas”)

Brené Brown’s latest book, “Atlas of the Heart,” is a deconstruction of the language we (can/should/could) use to understand our emotions and experiences. Here’s the “limits of my language” quote, what it means, and how “Atlas” applies to ourselves and others, personally and professionally. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In an interview, Brené Brown added, “The lack of self-awareness in folks is not overcomable without language and the study of emotion.”* 

It’s a familiar thought. It’s the reason poetry exists too. Describing stuff is hard. Spending the time to learn to describe hard stuff is even harder. 

Brown’s research says most people can only recognize if they’re happy, sad, or angry. Talk about a limited color palette. The finding implies we go around reducing others’ feelings and emotions by an equally short list, on top of telling stories to ourselves that deserve Shakespeare but instead get See Spot Run.

Atlas of the Heart adds to those 3. Specifically, it gives us 87 words with definitions and examples to better explain what we’re thinking and feeling at any point in time. These are the building blocks to cultivate meaningful connection, within ourselves and with others. 

While I’m not planning to memorize them all, I’ve got an increasingly marked-up book I’ll be referencing often. I’ve learned how to differentiate between when I’m stressed and overwhelmed for example. It’s not redundant – I can turn stress into motivation to work harder, but overwhelm requires me to take a break from whatever I’m doing so I don’t burn out. These definitions are powerful. 

Professionally, Atlas can help us see others more clearly, set better boundaries, and communicate our own thoughts and expectations with specificity. If the mission of the book is to help cultivate meaningful connections, this applies to more valuable connections too. There’s power in helping others find their words.  

The more limited the language we have to describe what we’re feeling to ourselves and others, the more room for confusion we leave on the table. Get a copy of this book. Check in with yourself, head to the appendix, and start increasing your understanding alongside your vocabulary. 

*check out “Atlas of the Heart” and her 3-part podcast series discussing the book with her “sisters bookclub” on the Unlocking Us podcast.

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