"After I wrote it I had a vulnerability hangover," I said to an old friend as we sat talking about life and writing over dinner. "Isn't that the best term?" he said. He also writes, and often about close-to-the-heart topics where truth and poignancy emerge alongside some level of self-revelation. "I often get a vulnerability hangover after I post too."
We got the term from Brene Brown, whose book Daring Greatly we'd coincidentally both recently read. It's about shame, vulnerability, and resilience- thought-provoking in that that it's both research-based (Brown's a professional researcher on the topic of shame) and also rich in real life stories, mostly Brown's. Brown introduces the 'hangover' concept early in the book as she relays her experience of speaking about shame during a TED talk, her first ever. She writes: "The morning after the talk, I woke up with one of the worst vulnerability hangovers of my life. You know that feeling when you wake up and everything feels fine until the memory of laying yourself open washes over you and you want to hide under the covers?"
Yes. I know that feeling.
Brown defines vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure" and says without it, we can't live a wholehearted life. Brown actively shunned vulnerability into her thirties; she forced herself change because of her research findings. What she learned made her want to become "wholehearted." The wholehearted people were the one who happiest and most rooted, and the ones she most aspired to emulate.
She titled and themed the book around Teddy Roosevelt's famous statement (edited for gist, because man, did TR have the knack for a run-on sentence): "The credit belong to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood... who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and what the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly." Being vulnerable is exposing your authentic self even when it feels nerve-wracking... And that, in Brown's conception, is daring greatly. She says, "Often the result of daring greatly isn't a victory march as much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue."
So being vulnerable's a battle. It's fascinating that being real and showing up with honesty merits warfare language. Isn't it? But it does. Because being vulnerable means pushing past shame triggers and the fear of being criticized or rejected, and that's innately challenging and uncomfortable. "We need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us (e.g., our children) how to accept discomfort as a part of growth." Vulnerability means willingness to be uncomfortable, and it means harnessing courage.
But oversharing's not vulnerability. Because wait, you ask - isn't "being vulnerable" actually commonplace today, with every Tom, Dick and Harry hastening to post their frustrations on social media outlets around the clock? Great question, and I love that Brown handled it so adeptly. "Vulnerability is based on mutuality (in a relationship)... It's not oversharing, it's not purging, it's not indiscriminate disclosure, and it's not celebrity-style social media information dumps." Later Brown describes a common modern practice called "floodlighting," in which people relay too much personal information too soon (or widely), eliciting a negative response from listeners because the relationship depth necessary to bear the weight of the disclosure doesn't exist. The distinction's helpful - and does, I think, explain what to me is an important truth about modern life. True and appropriate vulnerability is generally in short supply, whereas oversharing and imitation vulnerability can be found in hefty doses.
There's a balance inherent in being appropriately vulnerable, and figuring it out takes time and practice. This bit is really relevant, I think, for folks who write. "When we stop caring what people think, we lost our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness be vulnerable." Walking this tightrope, Brown says, is "worth the energy and risk." I think she's right.
Bottom line? The vulnerability hangover, by and large, is a good kind of hangover to wake up with. It generally means you did something right and noble, even if it feels awkward. It reflects the right kind of growth, and the right kind of expansion of the true self. That's the kind of hangover I can raise my glass to, and keeping raise it... And I hope I will.
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