There was a period of time, when my kids were young, when a good number of people I’ve never met knew more about my kids than many of my close friends.

These people knew a little about me, too, that I was a minister, for example. But about my kids, they knew all sorts of things. How Gracie would not sleep, how we were worried about Josef hitting his milestones.

These were minor things, really not too big a deal, for strangers to know.  But they also knew other things.  About my kids’ birth mom, and their foster care journey – things that still some of my close friends don’t know, things I’d consider too intimate to share from the pulpit, let alone with a bunch of people I’ve never even met.

These people, as far as I know, shared only two obvious things in common, first, they likely lived in or near Olympia, Washington; and, second, they all had a need for new furniture, and all decided to go look for that new furniture at a Macy’s furniture store near the Olympia Mall….where my mom worked for over two decades.

And, where my mom loved to share all the things about all her people with all those who came shopping for furniture.

My mother has been a good sport given all the times I’ve talked about her in sermons, and I have talked about her A LOT. Sometimes not in the most flattering light.  I appreciate this, so much, because my mom does make for really good stories.  Other than asking me to sometimes make sure people know that – even though she had a hard time when I first came out, she came around and is now my partner’s biggest fan.

Other than that request, she mostly just runs with it.  Which, I’ve always thought had to be because she knows, given her impulse to share with anyone and everyone – anything and everything – it’s all kind of fair game in return.

My mom’s tendency for TMI has meant I have spent much of my life trying to sort out the question of what to share, or when, and with whom.

TMI – that is, too much information, isn’t just about providing too much detail – it’s more – when what’s being shared is too personal, or intimate to be shared at all, or at least with the person or persons you are sharing with.

The phrase didn’t exist when I was growing up, or I would’ve said it a lot, both to my mom, and sometimes to myself. As a kid I was simultaneously the one that always had their hand raised wanting to share, and the kid that felt total shame and embarrassment after having actually shared, anything, even if it wasn’t actually TMI.

Researcher and writer Brene Brown calls the shame that comes after sharing a “vulnerability hangover.”   Brown is well known for her work around vulnerability, which she describes as the birthplace of true belonging, the practice of showing up with our “authentic imperfect selves” and “letting ourselves be seen.”

The flip side to this courageous practice, however, is – as she says, “that feeling when you wake up and everything feels fine until the memory of laying yourself open washes over you and you want to hide under the covers” forever.  That feeling is a vulnerability hangover.

Thinking back over the past few Sundays at Foothills, and our Be Real series, one of the moments that stands out for me is the Sunday after our #MeToo service.

It was Easter Sunday, which is usually one of the most up-beat services in the year, everyone comes in with that hopeful, spring-like feeling….but in the first few moments in all three services, there was an uncharacteristic tentativeness in the room, a shyness, a tenderness – did you notice?

Between the services Sean and I checked in – what was going on – though we got to the usual Easter feeling by mid-way, all the services started out nervous.  I think Sean was the one to wonder aloud – maybe, they have a vulnerability hangover.

The #MeToo service was intensely vulnerable, for many of us, and coming back into the space as a community for the first time, consciously or sub-consciously, maybe it just hit that space in us that I felt as a little kid – first, so grateful to have raised my hand, so happy to be called on, and to get to share – and then after having talked, wondering what in the world I was thinking.

Vulnerability is a tricky thing, and not just for me, or my mom. It’s tricky for all of us.  It’s the thing we are drawn to in others – think of anyone who you’ve heard speak that you found powerful and engaging, it’s usually someone who has shared something vulnerable.  But, as Brown says, but it is also often “the thing we are repelled by in ourselves. We see it as courage in others, and inadequacy in ourselves.”

The vulnerability hangover – unlike other sorts of hangovers – doesn’t necessarily mean we overdid it, but more that we pushed ourselves outside our comfort zone – and the “hide under the covers feeling” reflects the fear that what we have shared will have revealed us as unworthy, less than – that we will become reduced to our disclosure rather than heard in the fullness of our truth – and that rather than the connection we were seeking, we will experience the opposite –  judgment, rejection, more shame.

This is why I almost always assume that the thing that someone talks to me about may not be the thing they actually want to talk to me about.  People want to be seen, and heard, and known –not just want, need.  We need to be seen, heard, and known.

It’s why we did a series called “Be Real” in the first place – it’s a basic human need – this longing to belong, not as the person you wish you were, or the person the world says you should be, but as you, flawed and also whole, and good, and still learning.

But we are also scared of being seen, heard, known, which means we are often unpracticed at sharing and revealing. So instead of saying the thing that would allow us to be seen and heard and known, we say other things that keep us mostly safe and hidden. We share opinions and disclose our expertise, sometimes at length; we debate ideas and politicians that we don’t know personally; we offer our insights that for the most part keep our real selves shielded, but also inevitably frustrated and angry that we aren’t being seen, or heard, or known.

I try to remember when someone is especially heated in their idea sharing, or especially passionate in their analysis of a situation large or small – that behind that fire is a huge longing to connect, to be seen, and heard, and known.

In a small group I was leading a couple of years ago, we were exploring these sorts of questions, and one of the participants shared that one of the main reasons she was in the group was because really wanted to learn “how to share and express her feelings, in an appropriate way.”

When she said that, I thought to myself, that is maybe the most Unitarian thing to say ever.

Because this is so often what Unitarian Universalists struggle with.

We are so often well versed in academics, or in business or with social and political activism. But knowing how we feel, as individuals, in our own lives, and then learning how to name those feelings, and the stories behind them, and maybe even the underlying need they connect to, and then sharing those stories in an appropriate way with others.  We’re beginners.

Which means, that sometimes in our attempts to be seen and known, we do the opposite of holding back from our stories, and instead go all in, and suddenly find ourselves knee-deep in TMI.

You know, that impulse when you’ve just met someone and they seem really great, and you have a lot in common, and you’re sure that they could totally be your friend…and suddenly find yourself disclosing a really vulnerable story or reality about your life – I wish I could say I didn’t have an example that immediately comes to mind.

But a couple of years ago, I was having coffee with a potential new friend.  We’d hung out a little before, but this was our first sit down and chat, and after a few sips, I launched into a struggle that I was working through, and gave lots of detail, and….I way overshared.  I knew it about three quarters of the way through.  But it was too late.  I still blush when I think about it.

It’s not easy to make friends as adults, and so sometimes we try to jump ahead. It happens.

What’s interesting about these moments of oversharing is that actually they have the same impact as not sharing at all. Which is why Brown theorizes that oversharing is just as much a strategy to avoid vulnerability as under-sharing.  Because oversharing attempts to manifest connection before the connection has actually been earned – tries to gain a connection without risking real intimacy, and “tests” a relationship to see if it is actually trustworthy for real connection.

But since oversharing often “results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement,” the answer to this trust question usually ends up being a resounding, “no,” which just reinforces the skepticism that led to the over-share in the first place.

I have found that this question of what to share, and with whom, and how much – has not gotten any easier as a minister – where connection is like the main point of the job, but also so are boundaries.  This is true for any of us in a public role, or in a position of trust – or even for any of us who are on social media – which, as congress has been trying really hard to work out this week – is far from a “private” conversation.

Carey Nieuwhof, a Christian pastor and leadership teacher talks about trying to navigate the question of sharing, and oversharing, and how early in his career, he was reticent to disclose anything personal about himself, and definitely didn’t want to “share [his] struggles, [because he] thought [he] had to have it all together.”

As he started to get more experience in ministry, however, he started to share more, until at one point, he had just gone through a time of serious burnout, and he was coming out of it, and he decided to share with people what he had just gone through with a class he was teaching.  Afterwards, one of the organizers of the event came up to him and said,

“‘Wow….that was tough…Are you sure you don’t need more counseling?’”

He realized instantly the mistake he had made –  It wasn’t that he shouldn’t share the stories of his burnout with someone – but at that tender stage where they weren’t fully processed, it probably wasn’t yet time to be sharing with these strangers enrolled in his leadership seminar.

Nieuwhof says that since then, he’s been clear about that you shouldn’t share something with strangers that you haven’t fully processed yourself.  What you share in “public” are those things that you’ve worked through to some degree – the Rev. Nancy Bowen says – I believe in a wounded healer, just not one that’s actively bleeding.

Whatever stuff you are currently still trying to work through – that stuff doesn’t belong with anyone other than your “inner circle,” your trusted friends, and family, which means you need an inner circle of trusted friends, family, mentors.  And I mean, really, one, or two, maybe three – that’s a lot.

Sometimes our culture gives us an idea that we should have a whole host of close friends – but that just isn’t the way it works.  One. Maybe two.  Three if you are the luckiest person ever.  These are the people that can hear all of it – in whatever state the story is in – processed or totally raw…the ones who, as Brown says, wade into the deep with you. 

And then maybe there’s another layer beyond that of people that you can share most of the stuff with.  Another two, three, four.  Maybe.

I already said it’s hard to make friends as adults, so I understand the struggle here, truly.

But also, this week….this week has been another week that reminds me how much this all matters – for all of us – and for our world – that we are going to make it in these times, if we are going to find a way forward – this seeing each other, hearing each other,  holding each other – it needs our attention, commitment, and discipline. Which makes it sound way less fun than it is!

My inner circle, when we get together, we spend a lot of time laughing.  Even when we’re wading in the deep. Belly aching, tear-mixed, healing laughter.

It’s often a reason that people will come to church, to make these sorts of friends (if we talk to any of our new members I’m guessing a good portion would mention friends as a motivator) – but even here, how to go about it isn’t obvious.  Because, if you go up to someone in the social hall after the service, with your coffee, and launch into that story you’ve been needing to share and be heard and seen for…I’m thinking you’re going to get that same look my potential friend gave me when she and I went for coffee.

Even here it takes time, commitment, discipline – laughter – join a gather group or other small group if you haven’t yet, serve with others, show up, join in, be real – as our series since January have been encouraging.   There’s no magic route to developing an “inner circle.”  There’s no fast track here, or anywhere.

It takes time, and worse than that, it takes failure.  It takes being willing to trust people that end up being unworthy of your trust, and it takes opening yourself up to rejection, and the ways that love just will not promise to stop breaking our hearts.

But then the amazing thing is that sometimes….it works.  Suddenly that friend you’ve been building relationship with, being vulnerable with, sharing your stories of struggle with – they hear us into speech, listen us into belonging, hold us with an openness that feels both like home, and the wide open sky, all at once.  We find ourselves laughing our way into healing, and resilience, and a capacity to keep going.

And so we keep trying, keep practicing, keep sharing our stories, and keep making space for the real, the brave, and the becoming more brave – together.

May it be so, and amen.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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