When vulnerability backfires

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It’s the final episode of a six-part series documenting a celebrity’s ‘journey to sobriety’. She’s getting flak for being unreliable during the shoot. “Nobody knows this, and I never told anybody before, but I actually had a miscarriage during filming,” she says, eyes wandering. Off camera, we hear someone gasp. The celebrity wipes at a tear then smiles at someone at the producer. “You guys love this shit when I cry.”  

These days, we barely raise an eyebrow when a miscarriage doubles as a ‘season finale’. ‘Shocking revelations’ no longer shock us, and in some circles, leaking your sex tape is a savvy career move.    

Once, we would have baulked at revealing such painful information publicly – who can handle that kind of vulnerability? But we’re in an interesting time, when oversharing intersects our growing willingness to embrace vulnerability as a way to connect. But can we really use vulnerability as a way to fast-forward intimacy?

Using vulnerability is not the same as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armour,” says Dr. Brene Brown. Brown spent years researching shame and connectivity, and her resulting TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ is one of the most watched TED talks of all time.

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Brown describes the kind of oversharing depicted above as 'floodlighting' – where we use vulnerability as a manipulation tool. “When we use vulnerability to floodlight our listener, the response is disconnection,” says Brown in her book, Daring Greatly. Closely linked, she says, is the ‘smash and grab’, in which you “smash through people’s social boundaries with intimate information, then grab whatever attention and energy you can get your hands on … In our social media world, it’s increasingly difficult to determine what’s a real attempt to connect and what’s performance.”

Of necessity, I think most of us have an intuitive sense of when someone is making a legitimate attempt to connect, and when we’re being floodlit. So comedian Tig Notaro’s now famous stand-up routine, delivered a day after being diagnosed with breast cancer became a surprise hit, and yet when The Voice contestants share their deepest personal troubles with the camera before they even walk on stage, we sense, as Brown writes, it’s ‘an attempt to hotwire a connection’. 

I remember in highschool, a friend of a friend casually revealing his bandaged wrists over a cigarette. I’m usually quite empathetic, and yet it felt distancing, like I was being shown a puppy at show and tell. As an adult, I’m never sure how to respond when someone on twitter reveals the depths of their depression. Because of the nature of the forum it feels like a false intimacy. Empathy feels more intellectual response than an intuitive one.

The truth is, most of us overshare from time to time and it’s not always intentional. And yet I would rather risk oversharing occasionally than be completely guarded.  

So how, when we're increasingly being exhorted to 'embrace our vulnerability', can we find the line between ‘Ok sharing’ and oversharing?

 

Only tell your story to those who've earned the right to hear it

“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who’ve earned the right to hear them,” says Brown,

This, I think, can depend on context. Under the right circumstances (long flight / drunk at 3am) it can often be easier to share personal stories with strangers than, as Brown exhorts, “people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story.” Similarly, it seems reasonable for someone like Oprah to make deeply personal revelations on her show, because in a way she’s spent 25 years cultivating a ‘relationship’ with her core audience, so in that sense they have ‘earned the right to hear.’

Don’t share fresh wounds in public

Sharing your story publicly is emotionally safer when it’s lost its charge. There’s nothing getting your voice breaking halfway through telling a story to make you realise you’re not over something. Awkward!

So what if it’s your job to be open – actors, writers, musicians? Brown’s rule of thumb here is a good one: “I don’t tell stories or share vulnerabilities with the public until I’ve worked them through first,” she says.

Working through it first means those listening aren’t distracted by worry that you’re ok. When Pamela Anderson recently revealed her history of sexual abuse at the launch of her new animal welfare charity, several decades had passed since the incidents, and it didn’t feel like she was making herself uncomfortably vulnerable.

Only share when there are no unmet needs you’re trying to fill

Similarly, Anderson’s revelations didn’t feel like a simple ‘smash and grab’ for attention, because she made them in the context of talking about how her distrust in people had led to her campaigning for animal welfare. Says Brown, it all comes down to intention. From her interviews, she collated a checklist which most of her research subjects used to determine what to share and when:

- What need is driving this behaviour?

- What outcome am I hoping for? Does it align with my values?

- Is this sharing in the service of connection?

(And the hard one) – Am I genuinely asking the people in my life for what I need?

I do love an over-sharer, and the world would be immensely dull without them. So if the line between ‘delightfully indiscrete’ and ‘smash ’n’ grab’ lies in intention, checking our motivation first doesn’t seem to arduous. Particularly when you think of it as the difference between having J-Law as your totem animal or … La Lohan.

 

Alice Williams is a Melbourne writer. @AliceWillalice