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Avoiding the Vulnerability Hangover

Choosing what we share and what we keep inside.

As I write this piece, I’m 32 years out from losing my father to suicide. I am also on the cusp of turning the age he was when he died. In a way, I have been waiting for this year for a very long time. I knew that I would have feelings not only about turning this particular age, as it seemed so far away for so long, but also about its greater meaning. Soon, I will become older than my dad. Forever.

Each year since 2009, I have written a piece around the time of the anniversary of my father’s death. Sometimes I have written about what it meant to lose a parent to suicide. Sometimes I have written about being open about mental health challenges in one’s family. This year, I wanted to try to write about what it has meant to me to be a parent who lost a parent.

So, I wrote a whole post, or 99% of a post. And then I sat on it for days. I read it and re-read it. And each time, I got a terrible feeling in my gut that it wasn’t meant to be shared.

Brené Brown calls this feeling a “vulnerability hangover,” and I couldn’t think of a more apt term to describe what I was going through. Even just reading the piece – not even posting it – made me feel like I’d shared something that I couldn’t take back, but wanted to. Paying attention to this feeling made me realize that what I was writing about wasn’t ready to be shared.

Brown advocates for giving yourself a “vulnerability hangover” in certain circumstances, like when you know that you have people who can really be there for you to hear the stories that are hard to share. Who will accept you regardless of the shame you may feel or the struggle you may express? Is there a positive outcome possible on the other side of that risk? Could being vulnerable bring you a deeper and more meaningful connection, a greater sense of worth?

I’ve been writing about my dad for over a decade. I started writing about my son, who is named for my dad, about seven years ago. Sharing these stories, and their connections to each other, with a public audience has been exactly the experience Brown would want me to have: I have received positive feedback for being open with these stories and have helped others with shared or similar experiences in the process. I’ve gotten a greater sense of belonging by sharing, by being vulnerable. I’ve gotten to have the experience of stepping forward into courage and being respected and cared about for doing so.

But, as a social worker, I am also always thinking about the goal of sharing something personal. Self-disclosure, or sharing a part of oneself with others, is particularly nuanced for those in the helping professions. Sharing personal information should always be done carefully, thoughtfully, and with a specific goal in mind.

Brown encapsulates a piece of this ethos when she says, “Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: ‘Who has earned the right to hear my story?’”

When I went to write about my dad this year, I found that I actually wanted to write about myself. (That caught me by surprise.) And as I tried to courageously, vulnerably dive deep into it, I realized that is something better done privately, at least for now.

On my own and with some help, I’d like to explore these questions: As someone who has a pretty significant experience of childhood trauma, what do I need to be thinking about as a parent? What’s been harder for me than I expected? What supports have I discovered that I need? What personal work do I still need to do? All of this is done better not through writing for the public, but likely through therapy with a trauma-informed therapist.

We live in a pretty wonderful time of openness, where we are permitted to share a lot about ourselves in ways that we may not have been able to do before. For many people, myself included, this openness has been empowering and has led to less shame, more connection, and making a contribution to decreasing the social stigma of previously-hidden parts of life.

But there is a lot that we can still keep to ourselves.

Copyright 2020 Elana Premack Sandler. All Rights Reserved.

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