How to Nurse a Vulnerability Hangover

In early August, Erin Pedati told a group of friends at a Washington, DC tiki bar that she was struggling with depression. They were good friends and responded with empathy and compassion, but the next day Ms 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 go over the conversation in your head and you’re like, ‘They didn’t respond to my texts, did I tell them too much?’”

Instead of a hangover from too many mai tais — “which, frankly, would have been easier to treat,” she joked — Ms. Pedati experienced a “vulnerability hangover,” a term coined by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, to describe the fear, shame, and regret felt after revealing something personal.

As humans, we have competing needs “to connect with other humans by being ourselves, but also to conform to social norms like not sharing too much,” said Emma Seppala, scientific director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and author of The Happiness Track.

The problem is that balancing these needs at the same time can be difficult. While sharing brings with it the potential bliss of intimacy, it also leaves us open to fears of judgment or rejection, said Dr. Seppala. “We might think, ‘Will this person think less of me now? Have I shown weakness? I’m sure?'”

A weak spot hangover may be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be crippling — and can even be helpful.

First, be aware that other people probably don’t think about your disclosure as much as you do. Thanks to a phenomenon called the “beautiful chaos effect,” we generally view our own displays of vulnerability more negatively than those of others.

Think about how you react to other people’s vulnerable moments, said Dr. Seppala. Do you feel more connected to the partygoer who gets upset and pompous or the one who spills something all over their shirt and is ashamed of it? For most of us, it’s the latter “because they’re natural,” she said. “And when someone is natural, that gives us permission to be natural too.”

Take comfort in the fact that any regrets you feel will likely be short-lived. Research suggests that while we focus on things we wish we hadn’t done in the short-term, over the longer term our regret affects the things we didn’t do, said Amy Summerville, a research scientist at Kairos Research in Dayton. Ohio studying repentance.

“It makes sense that at that moment you would feel, ‘Ugh, why did I say that?'” said Dr. Summerville. But, she added, that feeling generally goes away when you look back on the years you’ve known someone.

Studies show that vulnerability can increase closeness and build trust, a phenomenon important during an ongoing pandemic when many of us still feel isolated.

At a work event with people she hadn’t seen since 2019, Nicole Baker, 43, revealed she had recently undergone breast cancer treatment. That prompted another participant to admit that she had a stroke earlier in the year, “so we had this great conversation about health challenges at work that we wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t shared it first,” said Ms Baker, who works for a non-profit organization in Denver.

And vulnerability isn’t just beneficial among friends and co-workers. Research shows that vulnerable bosses are better leaders. “People feel more comfortable around you,” said Dr. Seppala. “What you’re showing is, ‘Hey, I’m human.’ That calms people down.”

The researchers who first described the Beautiful Chaos effect also found that people who practiced self-compassion were less critical of their own perceived “chaos” than those who didn’t.

One way to remove the judgment you feel about yourself for sharing is to turn it into something constructive, said Michael Tennant, creator of Curious Actually, a card game that builds empathy and trust. “Rephrase it as ‘What can I learn from this?'”

Investigate why Sharing something personal — whether it was an unintentional slip-up or you were intentionally trying to bond — can help inform your future decisions, said Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California. Replacing self-flagellation with curiosity can help determine your well-being “and realize, ‘OK, maybe I’m good at talking about my anxiety or my depression, but I want to be more careful about talking about my finances,'” said Dr . Manly.

Regret is the psychological version of the pain you get from putting your hand on a hot stove, said Dr. Summerville; It’s useful because it can keep you from making the same mistake twice. But it can also send you into a rumination loop — or repetitive intrusive thoughts with no satisfying outcome.

“If you tend to think about things — if it’s something that pops into your head involuntarily and you don’t get anything new by chewing it through — that can be a problem,” said Dr. Summerville, whose research has uncovered a correlation between thoughtful thinking and depression, although it’s unclear if one causes the other.

“But if you actually learn something like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t the right thing to say to that person in that moment,’ it will help you do better in the future.”

Despite the potential benefits of revealing something personal, there are still times when you want to keep your cards close to your chest.

The problem is that it feels good to talk about ourselves. In a small 2012 study, participants given money to answer questions found it so rewarding to get their thoughts out there that they sacrificed 25 percent of the payment to share their answers rather than keep them private.

After the past few years, it’s especially difficult when we’re desperate for connection, but our rusty social skills could lead us to share too much, said Jared Dalton, a registered social worker and psychotherapist in London, Ontario.

Adding alcohol that impairs judgment can further weaken our defenses. “Once we bring alcohol on board, we often have more to share than if we met for coffee,” said Dr. Manly.

Mr Dalton, who often works with ADHD sufferers on impulse control strategies, suggested taking “a mindful pause” — whether it be a deep breath or a bathroom break — before revealing anything personal.

“Where does this urgency to say something come from?” he said. “Is it because you really want to get closer to that person? Or is it because you’re lonely and you just want to connect?”

If you consider your end goal, “it might help you scale back if needed,” he said. And that goes for internet sharing too, where the connection you’re looking for might be harder to pin down. Baring your soul on social media can make you feel particularly exposed if you’re “not getting the payout you expected,” Mr Dalton said. “When you have a thousand friends and you share something very personal and you get 10 likes, it can be really disappointing.”

The aftermath of vulnerability can be uncomfortable or surprising, but it’s often worth it, said Dr. Seppala. In the emotional intelligence seminars she teaches at Yale University, she has noticed “that the more vulnerable and real I am with my examples, the better I can convey my message.” Being content with the aftermath of vulnerability, ” takes guts at first, but then it’s like that muscle you build.”

Mr. Tennant, who is working on a book on vulnerable bravery, said he’s started to think of it as a superpower. “So many of us are so used to hiding that edge or moving away from that edge,” he said, “that people are usually moved when I step towards it.”

Holly Burns is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and a regular contributor to The New York Times.

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