Vulnerability Hangover

Closeup of caucasian woman taking a nap on the couch

Patti here. Have you ever had that experience where you open up and share of yourself and then afterwards you feel, well, kind of emotionally hungover? Kristen Neff and Chris Germer of The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion call it backdraft (like what happens in a fire when you open a door). Grace calls it a shameover. You know, it’s like a hangover but with shame and vulnerability instead of dehydration and a queasy stomach. Well, you might still have a queasy stomach but for a very different reason.


There are lots of ways you can feel this...depending on who you are and how you respond to life. Personally, I want to crawl into a hole and just be alone and not talk to anyone after I have exposed parts of myself that feel tender. It’s not because I feel ashamed per se, but because I feel unsafe. When I feel unsafe I prefer to be alone. I typically trust myself more than I trust others. 


Now, that is just me. I grew up in a ridiculously unsafe environment. This gift from my parents earned me the keys to long term therapy (I was hoping for a car, but...). Each week my therapist encourages me to share a little more, dive a little deeper, and feel a little more.  But truth be told, I hate that. Really hate it. And yet I go. Again and again.


Over the years I have learned that the way past these old miseries lies through them. Sidestepping them with humor or distractions doesn’t actually work. They are remarkably persistent. I have learned that I can’t really hide from these horrible feelings because the little buggers find me some other way. They remind me of heat seeking missiles, always locked onto their target. But unlike those missiles, when I actually FEEL my feelings they do less harm. 


That is in the long run. 


In the short run, feeling that deeply or sharing that much, even in the company of someone who is there showing me what it means to be trustworthy, makes me want to run and hide. I walk out of that room and hightail it to my car where I can ride home alone, in peace, with nobody asking me to do hard things. By the time I get home I am exhausted (where is the promised “you will feel better after you do this”??).  Typically I crawl on the couch, cover myself in a thick pile of blankets to binge on Netflix or take a nap. My head hurts. I am so thirsty and my body literally aches with exhaustion. No part of this is fun. However, if I show up with fortitude and do that hard work, things do change over time. I just have to live through my personal encounter with vulnerability first.


What you feel after these instances of deep vulnerability when you share the things that really matter, depends on you and your history. Lots of people fall into hateful self talk category where they scold themselves for even diving into the pool of vulnerability. They pick apart every word they uttered and find reasons why they never should have said them in the first place. Their psyche comes up with every reason they shouldn’t have shared those things and tries to convince them how stupid they were for doing so. 


These parts of our psyches have spent their lives protecting us from great hurt. It’s their job and they do it well.  When we start changing the rules and share the things we were SUPPOSED to keep hidden, it freaks out our protective self. Don’t we know how dangerous that is? How wrong? How stupid? (Supply your own adjective here.) 


The truth is this is how change happens. We take a big step forward and then all of our protective mechanisms come rushing in to “help” us. They try to show us how wrong we were and then they work hard to get us to change back and never do that again. They want us to use way with a proven track record for survival. It helps to know that this is how change happens so we’re prepared for it. 


When those feelings arise we can be prepared to talk ourselves in new ways. From deep beneath a pile of my blankets, I can remind myself that sharing was actually safe this time. Or that even though it hurts like heck in the moment, it does make things better. I can use new words to tell myself how proud I am of myself for being vulnerable even when it was hard. I can affirm that it is ok to rest now. Netflix is just what the doctor ordered. I can thank my old protective parts for doing such a good job of keeping me alive all these years. I can thank them and still do something new. 


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