Healthy Vulnerability vs. TMI

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So here is a question I’ve been asking myself, and I really don’t know the answer:  Where is the line between being open and vulnerable and Too Much Information?

Obviously, the immediate answer is, “It depends on the context.”  Of course.  If you’ve ever experienced sharing something too personal with someone/some group and had it backfire, you have learned the hard way that context is everything.

Let me lay out some quick parameters here:  I believe that openness and transparency are helpful, empowering, and potentially life-changing.  I believe we experience God’s grace for ourselves and others through being vulnerable.  So if your simplest answer is, “Play it safe, don’t tell anyone anything that could come back to bite you,” we disagree.  Respectfully.

A good friend and hiking partner of mine told me, during one of our hikes, “hearing your struggles has helped me to see that I can be a Christian, too.  If that’s what it is, I can do that.”  He had grown up in a church environment that was very committed to right appearances, and he had left that life behind.

“Clowns are not in the center of the events. They appear between the great acts, fumble and fall, and make us smile again after the tensions created by the heroes we came to admire. The clowns don’t have it together, they do not succeed in what they try to do, they are awkward, out of balance, and left-handed, but . . . they are on our side. We respond to them not with admiration but with sympathy, not with amazement but with understanding, not with tension but with a smile. Of the virtuosi we say, ‘How can they do it?’ Of the clowns we say, ‘They are like us.’ The clowns remind us with a tear and a smile that we share the same weaknesses.”
— Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome 

“Of the clowns we say, ‘They are like us.'” I am convinced that letting people see our weaknesses and sins and screw-ups does more to encourage them that God could love them, too, than having them see our strengths, our accomplishments, or even our virtues.

Yet having said this, having lived this most of my adult life, I still wrestle with the question of what is TOO Much Information?


One angle might be that we are revealing too much of ourselves whenever our motives grow too cloudy (I assume that our motives are always mixed to a certain degree). If I want people to feel sorry for me, if I am seeking for people to reassure me that I’m alright, after all, if I am trying to manipulate a certain response, then I must re-examine why I am sharing.  Of course it’s fine to ask someone to reassure us that we’re alright, but I need to be clear that’s what I am doing, to be honest with them and myself.  Sharing under the guise of “I want to let you know who I am,” with the agenda of getting a particular reaction, well, that’s manipulation.

So maybe we can make this a more general category of “Meeting my own needs.”  From this perspective, we’re not so much discussing what specific info crosses the line as we are what’s happening in my beady little heart.

How do I know when I’m doing this?  Great question.  I think it requires ruthless honesty with myself.  It requires having trusted friends who will ask the hard questions.  And it probably requires the ability to discern between the voice of criticism and that of conviction.  So…I have trusted friends.


 

Another angle on our question:  I am sharing too much if I am hurting someone else with my sharing.  I don’t mean “making someone uncomfortable.”  I’m all about that, and it’s kind of a litmus test for my friends.  I decided this was okay when I carefully looked at Jesus and asked, “Does he avoid making people uncomfortable?”

Uh, nope.

No, I mean telling someone else’s secrets or reveaingl their weaknesses in a way that they have not agreed to.  This is a fine line, because telling my stories that involve others can easily shade toward making them part of my transparency.  Often I speak of them anonymously, or change a few details to make identifying them unlikely.  The trick here comes when we are involved in a community in which we know enough about one another to start guessing, “Ohhh, you means Garfield’s toupee!”*

I believe for this we do best to err on the side of caution.  Even though I believe in the value of transparency, forcing it on others is not the same thing.  That could cause harm, break trust, or even feel abusive.


 

Finally, getting into specifics…I still don’t know.  What’s the worst thing you’ve told people about yourself?**  Again, context is everything, and the campfire with closest friends functions very differently than the Sunday sermon.

Whenever we start going down the road of specific disclosures/confessions/admissions, we risk changing how people see us.  On one level, this is precisely the point of being open with others:  they might see who we really are and not carry false or unrealistic projections of us.  On another level, losing people’s respect hurts.  This response might be the other person’s problem, but it can still feel like a very high cost.

My wife would say “You need to discern whether or not the other person can handle it.”  Do they show grace?  Are they judgmental?  Do they tend toward valuing others for what those people can do and having a hierarchy of who counts and who doesn’t?  These are pretty good criteria.  Again, though, this helps more with a one-on-one or bunch-of-friends-talking discernment than with something like a sermon or a class.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

As Lewis says, we choose to be vulnerable for ourselves as well as for others.  Refusing to be vulnerable at all will kill us.  Love is vulnerability.  The person who cares least in a committed relationship has the power, because that one is less invested in keeping the relationship intact.  Sad, but true.  Risking vulnerability may hand the other person power.  That’s a risk we take.  It also may be another measuring stick for deciding what qualifies as “too much.”

 

Are we moving closer to an answer?  I don’t know.

Too much for what other people can handle may be a different issue than too much for what is “appropriate.”  Circling back around, “appropriate” may also largely depend on context.  A presidential candidate should not share his xenophobia, because others cannot handle it and are incited to violence…and perhaps the entire viewing/reading/internet accessed public is not the appropriate context for that kind of sharing, because if people actually knew that about you, they wouldn’t vote for you…

Would they?tangent1

–Sorry, that’s on my mind a lot these days.  Tangent.

 

Where is the line between healthy vulnerability and TMI?  I don’t think there can be a clean and concise answer to this question.  But just because a question eludes any neat resolution does not mean we should give up trying to answer it.  Those may be the questions most worth asking.  For me, it’s worth batting around and trying to gather a little wisdom.  If you have some to share, I am interested.

 

*Go ahead, try to guess who and what I meant by that.

**I’m asking to help you ponder, not asking for you to tell me.

7 thoughts on “Healthy Vulnerability vs. TMI

  1. I appreciated this post in particular. I have often erred on the side of TMI. Most people don’t know how to respond, so they stop talking to me. And yet…I keep crossing the line. Maybe I hope people will go away if they can’t handle what I really think or feel. And that I’ll finally feel a real connection when someone either says “me too” or shares their own story.

    • Thanks, Kate Lynne.
      Yeah, I was only half-kidding about the litmus test. I have definitely lost some friendships (or had some people pull way back) because I made them too uncomfortable with what I was willing to talk about. But it’s beautiful when someone does share a real story in return. I think for that it’s worth the risk. And do people really prefer to play pretend for appearances? I don’t get that.

      I suspect that your sharing has helped more people than you know. How many artists are trying to survive and keep creating? You give voice to that process. I know I can relate with my writing. Blessings, Sister.

  2. Loren Meloy

    Ah, the tangent. I still remember putting my arm above my head to indicate a tangent on Monday nights in high school. There was a whole lot of walking the TMI line in those days…

  3. Holly Sumner

    This is a tough one… Maybe this is along a separate thread, but I have realized that I often share things solely in order to receive some kind of external verification that my experiences, feelings, etc., are valid. This (at least the way I go about it) is definitely not super healthy or constructive, and I think you are correct in saying that sharing with these motives can be a form of manipulating others. Another related struggle is going to people with issues that should really just be brought before God.

    In the end, it seems to often be an issue of prioritizing intimacy with God and choosing to rest in the knowledge that I am loved by and precious to him. Thoughts?

    • Holly, I’ve identified the same thing. I think there is a place for that, but it’s much healthier if we are consciously acknowledging, “Okay, this is what I’m asking for, would you validate me here?” When I do it that way, I’m a)much more selective about who I’m asking, and b)not being manipulative, just making myself vulnerable in a different way with my request.
      And YES, great point about talking with others about things we should keep with God. I didn’t even address that, but it’s certainly another element of this discussion.
      “In the end, it seems to often be an issue of prioritizing intimacy with God and choosing to rest in the knowledge that I am loved by and precious to him.” I think this is the remedy to sharing for some of the wrong motives, and perhaps would help with preventing our sharing with folks who aren’t ready/open to receiving this level of openness. And with that priority, we’re in a stronger place when we do take risks. My only hesitation would be that I don’t think we are to say, “Okay, I’m telling God so I don’t need to tell anyone else.” I think we–and others–lose too much when we make that choice.
      Thanks for you insights!

  4. Amber A

    I’ve lived my whole life in the TMI range, not because I wanted to but I felt an imperative toward honesty and transparency. And I think I injured myself doing so and possibly others. I’ve been reading and watching Brene Brown a lot lately, particularly, THE GIFST OF IMPERFECTION and DARING GREATLY and both are helping me reframe the importance of vulnerability but also wisdom and clarity in when to be. Good topic Mike. 😉

    • Thanks, Amber! I am excited to read both of these. I have seen so little written on these topics, and like you, I feel responsible to live this way in front of others. I have definitely experienced some harm in opening myself to some people who did not/would not get me and made me pay for it. Life lessons are painful!
      Looking forward to learning more from others’ perspectives. And remember, we are NOT…!

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