Do we Sometimes use Vulnerability to Manipulate? ~ Alice Williams

Via Alice Williams
on Jul 30, 2014
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What can Lindsay Lohan teach us about vulnerability?

It’s the final episode of the six-part series documenting her “journey to sobriety,” and she’s getting flak for being unreliable during the shoot.

“Nobody knows this, and I never told anybody before, but I actually had a miscarriage during filming,” she says, eyes wandering. Off camera, we hear someone gasp. The celebrity wipes at a tear, then smiles at the producer.

“You guys love this sh*t when I cry.”

These days, we barely raise an eyebrow when a miscarriage doubles as a season finale. “Shocking” revelations no longer shock us, and in many circles, leaking a sex tape is a savvy career move.

Once, we would have balked at revealing such painful information publicly—who can handle that kind of vulnerability? But we’re in an interesting time, when oversharing intersects our growing willingness to embrace vulnerability as a way to connect. But can we really use vulnerability as a way to fast-forward intimacy?

Using vulnerability is not the same as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite—it’s armour,” says Dr. Brene Brown. Brown spent years researching shame and connectivity, and her resulting TED talk The Power of Vulnerability is one of the most watched TED talks of all-time.

Brown describes the kind of oversharing depicted above as floodlighting—where we use vulnerability as a manipulation tool. “When we use vulnerability to floodlight our listener, the response is disconnection,” says Brown in her book, Daring Greatly. Closely linked, she says, is the smash and grab, in which you “smash through people’s social boundaries with intimate information, then grab whatever attention and energy you can get your hands on…in our social media world, it’s increasingly difficult to determine what’s a real attempt to connect and what’s performance.”

Of necessity, most of us have an intuitive sense of when someone is making a legitimate attempt to connect and when we’re being floodlit. So comedian Tig Notaro’s now famous stand-up routine, delivered a day after being diagnosed with breast cancer became a surprise hit, and yet when The Voice contestants share their deepest troubles with the camera before they walk on stage, we sense, as Brown writes, “an attempt to hotwire a connection.”

I remember, in high school, a friend of a friend casually revealing his bandaged wrists while we smoked a cigarette. I’m usually empathetic, and yet it felt like I was being shown a puppy at show and tell. As an adult, I’m never sure how to respond when someone—on twitter—reveals the depths of their depression. Because of the nature of the forum, it feels like a false intimacy. Empathy is more of an intellectual response than an intuitive one.

The truth is, most of us overshare from time to time—and it’s not always intentional. And yet I would rather risk oversharing occasionally than be completely guarded.

So how, when we’re being constantly exhorted to “embrace our vulnerability,” can we find the line between “Okay sharing” and oversharing?

Only tell a story to those who’ve earned the right to hear it.

“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who’ve earned the right to hear them,” says Brown.

This can depend on context. Under the right circumstances (say, a long flight, or, drunk at 3 a.m.) it can often be easier to share personal stories with strangers than, as Brown urges, “People with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story.” Similarly, it seems reasonable for someone like Oprah to make deeply personal revelations on her show, because she’s spent 25 years cultivating a relationship with her core audience, so in that sense they have ‘earned the right to hear.”

Don’t share fresh wounds in public.

Sharing your story publicly is emotionally safer when it’s lost its charge. There’s nothing getting your voice breaking halfway through telling a story to make you realise you’re not over something. Awkward!

So what if it’s your job to be open—actors, writers, musicians? Brown’s rule of thumb here is a good one: “I don’t tell stories or share vulnerabilities with the public until I’ve worked them through first,” she says.

Working through it first means those listening aren’t distracted by worry that you’re ok. When Pamela Anderson recently revealed her history of sexual abuse at the launch of her new animal welfare charity, several decades had passed since the incidents, and it didn’t feel like she was making herself uncomfortably vulnerable.

Only share when there are no unmet needs you’re trying to fill.

Similarly, Anderson’s revelations didn’t feel like a simple ‘smash and grab’ for attention, because she made them in the context of talking about how her distrust in people had led to her campaigning for animal welfare. Says Brown, it all comes down to intention. From her interviews, she collated a checklist which most of her research subjects used to determine what to share and when:

> What need is driving this behaviour?

> What outcome am I hoping for? Does it align with my values?

> Is this sharing in the service of connection?

(And the hard one)—Am I genuinely asking the people in my life for what I need?

I do love an over-sharer, and the world would be immensely dull without them. So if the line between “delightfully indiscrete” and smash ’n grab lies in intention, checking our motivation first doesn’t seem to arduous. Particularly when you think of it as the difference between having J-Law as your totem animal or…La Lohan.

 

 

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Editor: Waylon & Travis

Photo Credit: elephant archives

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About Alice Williams

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher. She teaches media writing at the University of Melbourne. Say hello on The Twitter or The Facebook! Read more from A.V. Williams...

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