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Emotional Exhibitionism

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.

6 Comments
  1. Hi Josh,This is so fitting for me today. For the past 10 weeks I've been going to grief counselling and it is so easy to have verbal diarrhea there. Thanks for reminding me to keep that in check. Is it alright if I read this post to the group tonight?

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    March 15, 2011
  2. Sure. I'm glad this helped you.

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    March 15, 2011
  3. Ouch…and ouch again. Timely–I wrote an "apology" email last night and (simply to explain what I was certain was a misunderstood emotion) it quickly degenerated into "emotional exhibitionism." Ouch. The questions at the end provide a good test of my true motives…thanks.

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    March 15, 2011
  4. Don't be too hard on yourself. Everyone has areas where improvement is needed, but few are bold enough to admit it. Good for you.

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    March 15, 2011
  5. Great post! Somehow I missed it before… I'm trying to catch up on the last couple of posts you wrote. :]Blessings.

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    April 15, 2011
  6. Excellent advice: A wonderful interpretation of the complexities of human behavior and well balanced. This merits more study, for sure. At the moment; here are a few thoughts that this has evoked in me.The highest emotions are meant to be shared with one person; a spouse (same goes for sex, of course), to God (as in prayer), or to a close friend. Yet, emotions do need to be expressed. Now, there are forms of public emotions if you join in with the emotions of a crowd (at Church, at a sports event, family dinner, etc. But, if you take over, by introducing your own emotional agenda, I can see that it becomes a form of emotional exibitionism. But, again, emotions do need to be expressed, and we all need to find the right forum to express these. Now, if you lock youself in your room and express your emotions to yourself, either by reflection or verbal "self-talk" that is very bad. I won't attempt to find a phrase to name this type of behavior, but it will lead to depression for sure. This is what makes therapy so helpful and what makes solitary confimement so torturious.

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    April 20, 2011

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