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Did I Say Too Much? The 411 on Vulnerability Hangovers

Vulnerability is essential to human connection, but can leave you feeling exhausted and anxious. Here are tips to help you recover.

by Kelsey Yandura
August 10, 2020 | Living

"Hey, thanks again for talking to me last night! Sorry to dump all that on you. I know it was a lot." 

I drafted and re-drafted the text four times, trying to say "please completely forget that thing I shared!" without sounding weird or desperate.

The night before, I had revealed a few less-than-flattering things about myself and my personal life to a friend, thanks to deep conversation and a pour of whiskey. 

By 10 a.m. the next day, I was dealing with stomach pangs and a low-key sense of dread. Why did I have to go there?

I had been vulnerable with another person, and now I was feeling self-conscious, anxious and a little ashamed.

As it turns out, there's a name for this feeling. Researcher and author Brené Brown calls it a "vulnerability hangover." 

Vulnerability feels dangerous

At its most basic definition, vulnerability is the act of opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt or injured. 

For me, it looked like letting my emotional guard down and allowing my friend to see a part of myself that I perceived as ugly. I was trusting her to be gentle and kind to me in a place where I was sensitive to hurt. 

"The basic experience is that you have opened yourself up and exposed yourself in a way that can render you in some kind of danger," said Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist and author.  

You’re in damage control mode

In Brown's research, she explains that vulnerability inherently requires a great deal of risk and courage. Whether the vulnerability you experienced was intentional or unintentional, planned or unplanned, it exposed you to possible hurt or pain. 

A vulnerability hangover is the emotional cringe that happens afterward — your mind and body go into "damage control" mode, trying to mitigate the risk your heart took in revealing yourself to another person. 

"It happens the moment you come back to awareness … what are the ramifications now of this exposure and will it come back to hurt me in some way?" said Hendel. 

"Often, the risk is to be shamed, which is an excruciating and painful experience."

You might feel drained

As I read accounts of vulnerability and spoke with friends, family and experts on the subject, the most common word I heard in relation to these hangovers was "exhaustion." 

When Margot Hill had a conversation with a family member about emotional boundaries, she felt completely drained afterward. 

"I had hours of emotional processing afterward to determine if I said what I wanted to say and if I hurt her by doing it, and that was so exhausting," she said.

Karen Walrond, a leadership coach, author and certified facilitator in Brown's work, says vulnerability requires concentration and emotional resilience, which can wipe us. 

"Disappointing your kids, revealing a diagnosis, saying you want a divorce — when you've spoken truth or stood in your values, you're just drained afterward," she said.  

It looks different for everyone 

"Just like taste is personal, vulnerability is personal," Hendel said. "What we experience as vulnerable will be different for everyone." 

Line drawing of woman thinking with phone in hand. Rewire PBS Love Vulnerability
Vulnerability requires concentration and emotional resilience, which can wipe us.  |  Credit: Adobe

Some people fear being too needy, asking for help, expressing an emotion, asking someone out or even eating in front of a date.

"I get vulnerability hangovers when I'm just out too much," Walrond said. 

"Being open with people and around people a lot is really tiring. But you can also get a vulnerability hangover when you're telling your abuser you're not going to take it anymore. A lot of it is contextual." 

For Moriah Obrecht, sharing her emotions in a romantic relationship requires a leap of vulnerability. 

"It takes me a lot of amping up to share that thing, and then usually it's the night of or morning after where my mind is racing — how could they have misconstrued the words I said? My mind starts doing somersaults," she said.

Recovery Tip 1: Name what’s happening

"The first step (to recovery) is to recognize the experience and be able to name what's happening," Hendel said. "Work through to your core emotions to reconnect with your core self." 

This can look like sitting and thinking about what happened, journaling or writing about it, or talking to a trusted friend. 

Recovery Tip 2: Positively affirm yourself

"I try to remember to be kind to myself," Walrond said. "Be cognizant of what you're experiencing. Don't push yourself too hard, don't beat yourself up too much. Be calm." 

Hendel also suggests taking a pause to positively affirm yourself. 

"Validate your own emotions, remind yourself of who you are and who you want to become," she said.  

Recovery Tip 3: Practice self-care

Hendel also suggests practicing self-care to bring yourself back to the present. 

She suggests finding five to 10 productive ways to change your state of mind, whether it's going for a run, taking a hot shower, listening to music or making some tea. 

So, why be vulnerable at all?  

If vulnerability leaves us feeling this way, what's the point? Is it worth the risk? 

For Brown, the answer is "Yes." 

"What most of us fail to understand … is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity," she writes in her book, Daring Greatly

Begrudgingly, I have to admit that she's right. Despite the next-morning anxiety and nervous text message, that vulnerable night with my friend strengthened my trust in our friendship. 

Vulnerability may give you a morning-after headache, but its long-term effects will help you grow and develop your relationship with yourself and others.

Kelsey Yandura
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).
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