Vulnerability Vs. Over-sharing: Where to Draw the Line?

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We’ve all had the moment: we’re sharing something about ourselves, our lives, or someone we know in a bid for connection and empathy, only to be greeted by an awkward silence and uncomfortable shifting from the other person. Or, we’re talking to an acquaintance and they start telling us about something deeply personal or sharing a vulnerability, but in a way that feels laden with expectation—of support, intimacy, emotional care-taking and more, at a depth we’re not ready to offer.

I have a word for this: splurging. It means sharing personal or sensitive information, expecting emotional support or intimacy that’s incongruous or inappropriate for the context or level of trust in the relationships.

The problem with this is it can seem like vulnerability. But it’s not vulnerability—it’s the opposite.

We all have different personal boundaries and comfort levels, so what feels appropriate to one person might not to another. Some people feel fine diving straight into the deep stuff while other people take a while to warm up before they feel comfortable sharing more personal information. Neither of these approaches is better or worse than the other. The difference between vulnerability vs. oversharing, however, is the expectation. When the person doing the oversharing doesn’t get the response they’re looking for, they can feel hurt, frustrated, annoyed, angry, vengeful, entitled or any combination of the above.

While the person oversharing might feel momentarily closer to the person they’re oversharing to, they’re a) not self-protecting by interacting with appropriate boundaries, and b) not empathising with the impact their oversharing will have on others in the conversation. It’s a self-defeating behaviour.

Who Really Gets Hurt by Over-Sharing

Vulnerability is a quality that brings people closer together and leaves them feeling more connected. Oversharing does the opposite. It’s an uncomfortable and unsatisfying experience for both parties. It can leave the person on the receiving end of the oversharing feeling mystified about why the other person is telling them this, helpless to give them the support they want or need, and burdened with expectations they didn’t ask for.

It also leaves the person doing the oversharing exposed: they are entrusting personal experiences and information with someone they don’t know, and if they don’t get the validation and reciprocity they are looking for, they end up feeling left out alone in the cold. The act of oversharing hides many buried motivations and needs, including a desire for intimacy, connectedness, and belonging – none of which will be met by over-sharing.

I’ve been a splurger at various points in my life, and I learned that there is no more effective way to alienate people and freak them out. And when that happens, it feels gut-wrenchingly horrible and humiliating.

As Brené Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:

“Oversharing is not vulnerability. In fact, it often results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.”

And I understand why: I don’t enjoy being on the receiving end of oversharing either. I want to empathise when people tell me about challenging and difficult experiences they’ve had. When the motivation for sharing isn’t clear or seems incongruous within our relationship, I find it hard to do that.

The line between vulnerability and oversharing

In Daring Greatly, Brené addresses the difference between vulnerability and oversharing:

Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armour.” (Emphasis added)

When we're “being vulnerable” with an ulterior motive, it feels manipulative and icky to the other person. When we’re just vulnerable, we’re being authentic. And being authentic is how we really develop genuine heartfelt and deep intimacy.

How to Stop Oversharing and Stick with Vulnerability

Brené offers a selection of questions we can ask ourselves to stop over-sharing (and the negative consequences) before it happens. These questions are for people on the verge of the splurge, but I think they’re also useful for counteracting the “Ack, now I need to share something vulnerable too so the other person doesn’t feel uncomfortable” urge that can arise when we’re on the receiving end of oversharing:

  • Why am I sharing this?
  • What outcome am I hoping for?
  • What emotions am I experiencing?
  • Do my intentions align with my values?
  • Is there an outcome, response, or lack of a response that will hurt my feelings?
  • Is this sharing the service of connection?
  • Am I genuinely asking the people in my life for what I need?

I would also add:

  • Does our relationship have the earned trust to hold this kind of topic or disclosure?
  • What are my expectations here and do they take into account the other person’s boundaries and preferences?

Where is the line between vulnerability vs. oversharing for you? Are there questions you would add to the list above? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Further reading: Brené Brown and the Power of Vulnerability & Struggling with Authenticity? Read This for Inspiration


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