On vulnerability hangovers


On Thursday, I bought two audiobooks: You are a badass by Jen Sincero, and The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.


This was an unintuitive pair. While I haven’t gotten very far in it, I have a feeling that You are a badass is going to be unapologetically, ball-bustingly self-helpy. I expect to have several moments of thinking I can do this followed by several more moments of thinking Am I being manipulated?


In contrast, while I haven’t gotten very far in Haidt and Lukianoff's book either, I have a feeling that The Coddling of the American Mind is going to be about how everyone in Gen Z has clinically significant anxiety or depression because they have been shielded from anything resembling reality their entire lives, and then they were out on a walk one day and bumped into it and ouch, turns out reality bites.


In retrospect, maybe that pair is not so random. The need for books like You are a badass might be directly related to a lifetime of coddling. A person who has been coddled from day one has no particular reason to think of themselves as a badass, after all. Self-efficacy is built through facing challenges, or else through facing the self-help aisle at age 25.


If my mom were reading this (and she better be), she might kindly direct me to get to the point: I bought two audiobooks in one day. Both were nonfiction, and both speak to the nervous and wretched state of the human psyche. What is going on?


Here’s what’s going on: I’m having a "vulnerability hangover." This term was first coined by - you guessed it - Brene Brown. I'm not sure what it entails for Brene, but I think of vulnerability hangovers as what happens when you lead with your heart, and then your brain comes home and the house is a mess. It’s the unique feeling of thinking “What did I just do?” and simultaneously knowing “I did that on purpose.”


This happens a lot. Most recently, I'm nursing a vulnerability hangover because I'm learning to do something new in writing this blog, and I'm learning to do it publicly. It’s closely related to the one and only dream I really have in life, which is to be a writer. Each day, my heart steps onto the court, while my brain looks nervously on from the sidelines. Sometimes I feel closer, and other times farther from that dream.

And that's just the most recent. I've also experienced vulnerability hangovers after sharing my story in a recovery meeting; after telling someone how I feel, without knowing if they'll match my feelings; and after quitting jobs or relationships that were cozy but not right. The common thread is losing security and gaining possibility.


And the thing with “possibility” is that it happily coexists with vulnerability. So the good feeling doesn’t cancel out the scary feeling - instead, you just net more feelings overall. Raw deal.


Let’s be clear about the type of person I am. On the best-validated (and least-interesting) personality measure, the Big 5, I am high neuroticism, high conscientiousness, low extroversion, low agreeableness, and medium openness to experience.

If you wanted to assemble a robot who was allergic to risk-taking yet unfathomably compelled to do it anyway, you’d load them with that exact personality type.


I know what you’re thinking -- ok, I don’t, but I just assume it’s what I’m thinking -- and that's this: why just medium openness?


I’ll tell you. Too much openness, and simply making a blog would feel dull, diluted, even offensive, like bringing your iPhone to Burning Man. Too little openness, and you wouldn’t know what a blog is -- only that it’s inferior to a book. But combine medium openness with high neuroticism, and a blog is ruthlessly real.


On Thursday evening, I had a conversation with an incredibly wise friend. In life, she routinely finds herself in situations which test and scare her. She seems to do a massive overhaul every couple of years, throwing out anything with which she is too comfortable. She remarked that there is nothing really to do about this pattern, only to observe it. Although it’s distinctly aversive in the moment, it appears to also be what she prefers - otherwise, she wouldn’t keep doing it.


While I don’t conduct massive overhauls, I do seem to routinely arrange for vulnerability hangovers. In the same way that I trust others’ behavior more than their words, my own behavior is a better indicator of what I actually want than the dramatic and maladaptive inner workings of my mind.


And apparently, based solely on behavioral observations, I’ve decided that actions which result in the thought, “I’m doing this,” followed closely by the thought, “What did I just do?” are good and necessary parts of existence. My mind takes one look around and says "OK, WHAT HAPPENED? WHO BROKE THE VASE?" My heart says, “I did! Isn't it beautiful?"

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