I remember one of the first times I barfed out my feelings to a group of people.
I was 13-years-old, my family was coming apart, and I needed to talk to someone. Around that time, a caring teacher invited me to a peer counseling group. When it was my turn to talk, it didn’t take long before all the pent-up frustration boiled over into emotion.
When I finished, the group was quiet – respectfully quiet – and I was relieved. The experience was cathartic; but over the coming weeks, the group dynamic changed.
With all that was going on in my family, there was a lot more to tell – and boy, did I ever tell it. As I shared deeper and more tawdry revelations, I began to notice that everyone, including the teacher, was fixated on me, their faces lit with shock.
Although I was genuinely upset about my broken family, the group’s rapt attention gave me a bit of a high – and I liked it. But something felt wrong about it. I was dominating the room, using my family members as props, entertaining the crowd – or perhaps entertaining myself.
As adults, we still have to watch ourselves when sharing our frustrations, failures, or need for healing. If we’re not careful, a healthy exercise in self-disclosure can – over time – become a self-serving, verbal exercise in emotional exhibitionism.
These unhealthy interactions are marked by gossipy rants, exaggerating the faults of others, highlighting our own best qualities, or finding cheap significance in our self-appointed role as the eternal victim.
As I have written before, I think there’s an enormous value in having friends who will allow us to be unashamedly transparent, even to talk too much. And many people (especially men) rarely muster the courage vulnerability requires.
But we must check our motives on a regular basis if vulnerability is going to be a source of healing and friendship-building. We can do that by asking ourselves questions like:
- Why am I sharing this information?
- Have I left out certain details of the story? If so, why?
- Am I the only one who’s doing the talking?
- Do I ever ask the other person questions?
Believe me, I’m not trying to discourage people from confessing their faults, sharing traumatic memories, or verbally processing their issues. All of that can be very healthy, and it may require hours of conversation.
But when sharing our issues becomes a way to command the stage, to exaggerate our importance, or to dominate conversations with our sob stories, we need to recognize that we may have reduced ourselves to emotional exhibitionists. And unfortunately, there may be a price to pay if we don’t rein it in.
Like all exhibitionists, we’ll find people who will initially stare in shock, but if they’re healthy, they’re probably going to run away at some point.