How to nurse a 'vulnerability hangover'
A vulnerability hangover is a fear of judgment or rejection after sharing intimate information with someone, experts say. It might be uncomfortable, but it doesn't have to be debilitating – and it can even be helpful.
In early August, at a tiki bar in Washington, DC, Erin Pedati told a group of friends that she’d been struggling with depression. They were good friends, and they responded with empathy and compassion, but the next day Pedati, 40, felt weird.
“Part of me was relieved, because it’s important to have these discussions,” she said. “But another part was like, ‘Oh my god, what did I say?’ You replay the conversation in your head and you’re like, ‘They haven’t replied to my text, did I tell them too much?’”
Instead of a hangover from too many Mai Tais – “which honestly would’ve been easier to treat,” she joked – Pedati was experiencing a “vulnerability hangover", a term coined by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, to describe the anxiety, shame and regret felt after divulging something personal.
As humans, we have competing needs “to build connection with other people by being our real selves, but also to conform to social norms, like not sharing too much,” said Emma Seppala, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and author of The Happiness Track.
The trouble is, it can be tricky to balance those needs simultaneously. While sharing brings the potential boon of intimacy, it also leaves us open to fears of judgment or rejection, Dr Seppala said. “We may think, ‘Is that person now going to think less of me? Did I display a weakness? Am I safe?’”
A vulnerability hangover might be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating – and it can even be helpful.
PUT IT INTO PERSPECTIVE
First, know that other people probably aren’t thinking about your disclosure as much as you are. Thanks to a phenomenon dubbed “the beautiful mess effect", we generally view our own displays of vulnerability more negatively than those of others.
Think of how you react to other people’s vulnerable moments, Dr Seppala said. Do you feel more connected to the party guest who’s posturing and pontificating or the one who spills something down their shirt and gets embarrassed about it? For most of us, it’s the latter, “because they’re being natural", she said. “And when someone is being natural, it gives us permission to be natural too.”
Take comfort that any regret you feel will likely be short-lived. Research suggests that, while we tend to focus in the short term on things we wish we hadn’t done, our longer term regrets are about the things we didn’t do, said Amy Summerville, a research scientist at Kairos Research in Dayton, Ohio, who studies regret.
“It makes sense that in the moment, you would have that feeling of ‘Ugh, why did I say that?’” Dr Summerville said. But, she added, that feeling generally disappears when you look back over the years you’ve known someone.
KNOW THAT YOU MAY HAVE HELPED SOMEONE
At a work event with people she hadn’t seen since 2019, Nicole Baker, 43, found herself revealing that she’d recently gone through breast cancer treatment. That led another attendee to confide that she’d had a stroke earlier in the year, “and so we had this great conversation about health challenges at work, which we wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t shared first", said Baker, who works for a nonprofit in Denver.
And vulnerability isn’t just beneficial among friends and colleagues. Research has found that vulnerable bosses also make better leaders. “People feel more comfortable around you,” said Dr Seppala. “What you’re displaying is, ‘Hey, I’m human.’ It puts people at ease.”
REFRAME IT AS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
One way to remove judgment you feel toward yourself for sharing is to turn it into something constructive, said Michael Tennant, the creator of Actually Curious, a card game that builds empathy and trust. “Reframe it as, ‘What can I learn from this?’”
Examining why you shared something personal – whether it was an unintentional slip or you were deliberately trying to bond – may help inform your future choices, said Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, Calif. Replacing self-flagellation with curiosity can help determine your comfort level “and realize, ‘OK, maybe I’m fine talking about my anxiety or my depression, but I want to be more careful when I’m talking about my finances,’” Dr Manly said.
Regret is the psychological version of the pain you get from putting your hand on a hot stove, Dr Summerville said; it’s useful because it can keep you from making the same mistake twice. But it can also send you into a loop of rumination – or repetitive intrusive thoughts with no satisfactory outcome.
“If you have a tendency to ruminate on stuff – if it’s something that’s popping into your mind unwillingly and you’re not getting anything new out of chewing it over – that can be a problem,” said Dr Summerville, whose research has uncovered a correlation between ruminative thinking and depression, though it’s unclear if one causes the other.
“But if you’re actually learning something, like ‘Wow, that was not the right thing to say to that person in that moment,’ that’s going to help you do better in the future.”
MAKE A PLAN FOR NEXT TIME
Despite the potential benefits of revealing something personal, there are still times you may want to keep your cards close to your chest.
The problem is, talking about ourselves feels good. For instance, in one small 2012 study, participants who were given money to answer questions found it so rewarding to broadcast their thoughts that they gave up 25 percent of the payment to share their answers instead of keeping them private.
It’s particularly difficult after the past few years, when we’re desperately craving connection, but our rusty social skills might cause us to over-share, said Jared Dalton, a registered social worker and psychotherapist in London, Ontario.
Adding alcohol, which impairs judgment, can further lower our defenses. “The minute we’re bringing alcohol on board, we can often share more than we would if we met for coffee,” Dr Manly said.
Dalton, who frequently works with ADHD patients on impulse control strategies, suggested taking “a mindful pause” – whether that’s a deep breath or a bathroom break – before divulging something personal.
“Where is that urgency to say something coming from?” he said. “Is it because you really want to get closer to this person? Or is it because you’re lonely and you just want to connect?”
Considering your end goal “might help you scale it back if you need to,” he said. And that goes for sharing online too, where the connection you’re seeking may be more elusive. Baring your soul on social media can leave you feeling particularly exposed if you “don’t get the payoff you’re expecting,” Dalton said. “If you’ve got a thousand friends and you share something super personal and you get 10 likes, that can feel really disappointing.”
Still, don’t let a vulnerability hangover scare you off.
The aftermath of vulnerability may be unpleasant or surprising, but it’s frequently worth it, Dr Seppala said. In the emotional intelligence classes she teaches at Yale University, she’s noticed “that the more vulnerable and real I am with my examples, the more I can communicate my message.” Being comfortable with vulnerability’s aftereffects “requires courage initially, but then it’s like this muscle you build.”
Tennant, who is working on a book about vulnerable bravery, said he’s started thinking of it as a superpower. “So many of us are used to hiding that edge, or walking away from that edge,” he said, “that when I have stepped toward it, people are usually moved.”
By Holly Burns © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.