We need books about emotions because emotions are confusing, even for fully grown adults. Maybe we’re feeling a lot of emotions too quickly. Maybe we’re not feeling what we expect at the time we expect to — or the opposite: we’re feeling too much and we’re just hanging on for dear life, trying to make sense of it all. If that’s you at the moment, I have a few suggestions to help you sort out some of that rollercoaster.
Often a list like this just focuses on positive emotions and minimizes or ignores the negative ones. However, I was raised on the stark and liberating understanding that all beings suffer. Therefore, humans should, “Suffer what there is to suffer and enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life…” That is exactly how I ground myself when emotions become too much. Rather than pretending that we do not suffer, I think it’s much more beneficial to acknowledge that suffering is a part of life and that we can and should deal with our negative feelings. So heads up, this list will not just be about how to feel shiny and happy all the time, since no one can do that anyway. Instead, let’s look at various emotions that adults have to deal with, some of which are naturally more pleasant than others.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
While Ross Gay does of course focus on delight in this title, his collection of essays is not without its difficult moments, including racism and unethical human subjects research — or abuse. I’m not sure it qualifies as research even if that is what it was called in the past. I love that Gay started on his birthday, and as someone who is also, “closer to my death than my birth, despite all the arugula and quinoa” and good intentions possible, I couldn’t help but love immersing myself in his perspectives and imagining my life as full of a string of unending daily delights. My list might not be even close to identical to the author’s, but then again, that’s not really the aim, is it? There is something deeply joyful in reveling in others’ happiness, regardless of the exact catalyst for that joy. If you like this, there is also The Book of (More) Delights: Essays. I haven’t read this one yet, but I am grateful that I have it to look forward to. I like that anticipatory delight.
Tough: My Journey to True Power by Terry Crews
I rarely choose to read memoirs by actors. The only recent one I enjoyed was Viola Davis’s Finding Me, which as an aside is phenomenal. Before that, I don’t think I had read many titles, and I am incredibly glad I added Crews’s book to that small group. He tells you what it was like to grow up in his family, play in the NFL, and break into Hollywood — all while explaining in moving terms how feelings like anger and shame fueled his interactions with others for decades. He tells his story in a very straightforward way, while also dismantling and untangling some very difficult emotions and the way they commonly play out, especially among men, in a society that places so much value on toughness. Read or listen to the prologue before jumping into his story: it sets the stage for everything that follows and helps you understand his perspective immediately. His ability to self-reflect and make changes to how he handles his feelings are truly impressive. Also, as someone who was not born as a man in this lifetime, I found his story to be both complex and well-explained for a reader like me who has never had to move through life in this way.
Feelings: A Story in Seasons Written and Illustrated by Manjit Thapp
This is a comforting book about emotions for anyone of any age who wants to spend some time on feelings, including anxiety and worry. Thapp illustrates this in colors tailored to the warmth or coolness of her feelings, and used an approach to seasons that includes a monsoon season and splitting autumn or winter into two periods. I read this in one quick gulp, but I could also imagine dipping in and out to savor the feelings and illustrations more slowly over a longer period of time.
I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki: A Memoir by Baek Sehee and Translated by Anton Hur
You may have seen this title around, because it was a huge bestseller in Korea. It was also recommended by BTS’s RM, so I’m not sure what took me so long to pick it up. The translator, Anton Hur, has been nominated for two other titles for the International Book Prize, so many thanks to him for doing some important heavy lifting here. This is a fast read in which Sehee describes what it is like to be her and feel her feelings, mostly via conversations with her psychiatrist. The English edition of this book includes a lovely author’s note in which Sehee quotes one of her readers saying that she returns to this person’s sentiments when things get tough: “I love and cherish your story. And I am your friend.” If only we could all feel this generous toward our fellow human beings and toward ourselves on a regular basis. May you cultivate this approach in your practice of dealing with your own feelings.
The Power of Voice: A Guide to Making Yourself Heard by Denise Woods
I sometimes wonder how much of our feelings are coming from a sense (rightly or wrongly) of being unseen and unheard in our lives. I realize this may be a simplistic reading of conflict and anger in particular, but it still speaks to me on a certain level. If you have a similar inkling about your own life, take Woods’s book and sit down with it for a while. Learning to tell your own story in a way that is authentic and that feels powerful to you might help you discover some of what your feelings are trying to tell you. If not, then it’s still an interesting read that may make you hear your voice and the voices of others around you differently.
Letters of Note: Grief by Shaun Usher
This is a slim book I hesitate to carry around with me, especially to work. Grief is a very powerful emotion and one that I don’t know that I wish to evoke in others in spaces that weren’t designed for that sort of thing…that, and I also found myself openly weeping while reading some of these. If you are encountering a lot of conflicting feelings in your life, consider for a moment if some sort of grief might be behind it. I used to think of grief as something people only felt after losing a loved one, but a more expanded sense of grief and grieving seems much more appropriate to me now. Have you lost anyone? It does not have to be a recent loss. Have you ended an important relationship, moved somewhere new by choice or by requirement, been recently surprised by a new and startling diagnosis? The list could go on and on. Pick this up and see if it strikes a chord of any kind with you. I especially appreciated Edith Wharton’s “A Great Desert Lies Ahead of Me” as well as “You Will Not Have My Hatred,” which was written from Antoine Leiris to his wife’s killers. However, rest assured that you may start anywhere. I wish you some emotional release and healing from this book.
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown
This book is about a lot of emotions, so it seems only appropriate to bring it to this list. While I know Brené Brown is hugely popular, there are still a few people on the planet who may not have heard of her, so I add it for anyone in that demographic. Brown offers not only explanations of a wide range of emotions, but also approaches to further clarify these feelings and deal with them in pragmatic ways. This may be very enlightening and helpful to anyone grappling in the dark with their own emotions, so give it a try. See how it lands for you.
How We Live is How We Die by Pema Chödrön
Like most people, I avoid thinking about death and prefer to pretend that I will live forever. While this makes no sense, given that I am not a vampire, I find thinking about death to be terrifying and exhausting, even in small doses. Let me offer you the opposite approach from my own. Chödrön is of course a very famous teacher and many have spent hours listening or studying with her through her books already. Perhaps they have managed to take all of this in calmly. While I cannot claim to have mastered any of this, it is comforting to have someone guide you through an approach that could be so clearly beneficial. Wishing you and myself a long life with which to practice.
It does help to slow things down at times, and feel your feelings however they decide to crash your internal party. No matter what is going on for you right now, what I wish for you most is calm. It’s one of those emotions that is like money: no matter our circumstances, it is always useful, and almost all of us could use a bit more in our lives. Sending you calm, peace, and also unicorns that fart glitter and rainbows, because really, why not?
If you are still with me but want to change gears, read these 20 books about how to live your best life or a reading resolution for shopping one’s own shelves. I also enjoyed these questions for your reading practice if you want to bring more reading into your life right now.