The vulnerability hangover
"we’re all struggling, even the people who say they’re doing fine." Photo: Getty
When it comes to hangovers, I’m one of those irritating people that just doesn’t seem to suffer from them. I can drink vodka until the cows come home and then skip merrily to the pool in the morning for a few laps (where I swim the length underwater and moan “OH GOD MY HEEEEAAAAD” like the spectre of Davy Jones).
A vulnerability hangover, on the other hand, is something a lot of us have experienced, and sadly there’s no fast-acting gel-cap or Berocca variety that can dispatch one of those in a hurry.
Coined by research professor Dr Brené Brown in her “shame-resilience curriculum” Connections, a vulnerability hangover is “the feeling that sweeps over us after we feel the need to connect… and we share something deeply meaningful. Minutes, hours, or days later, we begin to feel regret sweep over us like a warm wave of nausea.”
(My Dad, rather more concisely, describes something similar as those moments in the shower where you suddenly bark “AAARGGH!” at the memory of a particular emotional indignity.)
Dr Brown herself experienced just that following her wildly popular TED talk, The Power Of Vulnerability, in which she discussed her own breakdown. In a follow-up talk last month, she admitted, “I woke up the morning after I gave that Talk with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life. And I actually didn't leave my house for about three days.”
We’ve all been there: we open up too much on a date, or tell a personal story at a dinner party, or write a heartfelt blog that feels hideously raw when we look back at it a week later and rush to delete it. We’re gripped by regret, and vow to keep a lid on it next time. After all, nobody likes an over-sharer. Have some decorum. We feel the regret because we’re taught that vulnerability is something we should be ashamed of.
So what do you do about persistent vulnerability hangovers? You may or may not be surprised to find that I think the best remedy is to keep sharing - and I’m pretty sure Dr Brown would agree with me.
People sometimes ask if I regret “sharing so much” in my writing. As one of my many fans so charitably noted last week, I write about my life a lot; I’ve written about my sexual and mental health, my dating history, my family, and I did a stand-up comedy show about depression and Healthy Choice meals. So do I regret it? The answer can probably be boiled down to “not really”.
I used to feel intense vulnerability hangovers, until I worked up a resistance to them. (Please don’t take this as an analogy for my drinking habits.) And I did this by keeping on sharing.
The thing is, we’re all struggling, even the people who say they’re doing fine (especially the people who say they’re doing fine). Whenever I read somebody honestly and openly discussing something they’ve been through, I feel a sense of relief. I might not have gone through the same thing, but I appreciate the fact that they’ve shared it with me, even indirectly.
Obviously there’s a difference between a completely unedited 2am existential howl via Facebook status (one of the reasons I’m so proud and relieved to be eight months Facebook clean) or drunken phone message, and a more measured “overshare”, but at the heart of both is a desire to connect with one another.
Up until the end of last year, I spent over a decade working as a music journalist, which was great because the actual act of writing music is completely alien to me. But what became clear after over 650 interviews with musicians was that you can’t set out to write a song that will be universally embraced; only by sharing the personal can people truly connect.
Think about what Dr Brown learned from her vulnerability hangover: “If we're going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it's seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I'm going to go in there and kick some ass when I'm bulletproof and when I'm perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.”
If we can embrace vulnerability, by not thinking “Oh, I should probably keep that to myself” next time we want to share something, maybe we’ll make life a little bit easier for each other. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a miracle cure for the vulnerability hangover.