I recently read an article by Hannah Braimes that clarified the difference for me between being vulnerable and oversharing. It’s one that I wish I’d had back in 2015, when I was struggling to succeed at my very first job out of school.
In 2015, I started my first job. I was 15% excited, 10% nervous, and 100% hopeful. Optimistic and fresh out of school, I never imagined that I would struggle so much!
I worked in an unstructured, fast-paced start-up. I didn’t have a job description. And while I had a boss on paper, I felt like I rarely saw or spoke with him. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing at work. None of my colleagues else knew either, so things at the company often moved forward without me.
That year was hard. I cried. A lot. I stress-baked and -ate. But mostly I sat around, completely unsure of myself and everyone else as I waited, waited, and then waited some more…for a reason to quit.
Three years have passed since, but I still think about the year I spent in that job often. I find myself coming back to it whenever I learn something new about communication. As I’ve grown so too has my understanding of why I struggled so much at that time. Previously, it’s been a case study of how my Chinese roots affect my ability to express negative emotion. Today, after having read this post by Hannah Braime, it is a case study on the difference between oversharing and vulnerability.
At my job, I approached my boss for help several times. This is how our conversations usually went:
Me: “C, I’m really struggling–“
My Boss, C (his phone rings): “Hello? Hi, yeah. Let me call you back in a few minutes.”
Me: “I’m just…I’m really unhappy. I’m really struggling. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here–“
C (phone rings again): “Jay, hi. I’ll call you back in a few minutes. Kristen, I have a sales call in five minutes. How can I help you?”
Me: “I–I don’t know.”
My boss would then pitch me on why I should stay and, not knowing what I wanted or needed, I stayed.
It always went the same way: I would tell my boss I was struggling, he would ask me how he could help, I would say “I don’t know,” and then I’d let myself be talked into staying.
After reading Hannah’s work, I now see that the way I managed myself in that conversation was unproductive in part because I was oversharing, not being vulnerable.
Based on my current understanding, I believe that vulnerability is when you can stand by the fact that you care. You care deeply about something, which informs your choices. You then share your journey which creates the possibility for deeper, more meaningful connections with others.
Oversharing, on the other hand, is different. Hannah Braime calls “splurging” and it’s when we share information and expect a level of support that is “incongruous or inappropriate for the context or level of trust in the relationships.” It leaves the sharer feeling isolated and the receiver feeling “confused about why the other person is telling them this, helpless to [provide] the support that the other person expects, and burdened with expectations they didn’t ask for.”
What unrealistic expectations was I unknowingly laying on my boss at that time? The expectation that he would spend excessive amounts of time talking through solutions to my problem? The expectation that he would know what I needed at that moment (a.k.a., know me better than I knew myself)?
It seems to me that the difference between vulnerability and oversharing is that oversharing is fraught with expectation, whereas vulnerability is not.
I think that this subtle contrast is also why vulnerability opens the possibility for a deeper connection, whereas oversharing is guaranteed to create a disconnection.
Those conversations always left me feeling even more disconnected from my boss and the company. That feeling, as well as knowing that I lacked the answers to the questions below, are how I know that I was not being vulnerable. I was oversharing.
How could I have turned that conversation into a productive, vulnerable one?
I could have thought through the answers to this list of questions, also in Hannah’s post. Most of the questions are taken from Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, but the last two are by Hannah:
A Pre-Vulnerability Checklist
- Why am I sharing this? Because I’m struggling and my boss is the only person who is in the position to help me.
- What outcome am I hoping for? A formal job description, clear project guidelines, and clear deadlines
- What emotions am I experiencing? Confused, ignored, angry
- Do my intentions align with my values? Yes, I value being a good worker
- Is there an outcome, response, or lack of a response that will hurt my feelings? If I can’t get a job description and project guidelines/deadlines, then I can’t succeed in this job and I know that I need to find a new one
- Is this sharing the service of connection? Yes, we’d be working together towards progress that serves the company
- Am I genuinely asking the people in my life for what I need? Yes
- Does our relationship have the “earned trust” to hold this kind of topic or disclosure? Yes, if he is my boss he wants me to do well at my job.
- What are my expectations here and do they take into account the other person’s boundaries and preferences? Yes. Job description, basic guidelines, and deadlines are all basic needs of a worker from a boss.
It’s a long list of questions, but I think it’s a sensible framework for having a conversation in which you need to ask for help and feel emotionally vulnerable. If I had had it, I could have made the conversations with my boss more productive, given him the opportunity to support me in more helpful ways, and even had a better gauge for when it was time to move on.
Don’t have time to think through every item on the list? I think it’s a good idea to least know why you choose to share something and what you hope to get out of the conversation.
I know I’ll be putting this list to use soon and look forward to sharing the results!
But my main point is we should all think carefully about vulnerability because of how easily it can turn into oversharing, which disconnects you from your listener and holds you back from progress in your relationship, and at least for me in 2015, in life.
For now, this case study is closed! Thanks, Hannah!
I hope the questions in this post are a helpful tool for you if you seek to share more thoughtfully. Is there anything you would add when it comes to the difference between being vulnerable and oversharing?