ELLE (Australia)

over­share, don’t care



Lena Dun­ham has en­dometrio­sis, once bled for al­most a month and re­cently opted to have a hys­terec­tomy. She also has OCD and couldn’t re­sist check­ing out her sis­ter’s vagina as a child. Lady Gaga has bat­tled anorexia and bu­limia since her teens and Demi Lo­vato has bipo­lar dis­or­der. Shai­lene Wood­ley reg­u­larly suns her vagina, Khloé Kar­dashian has a “puffy pussy” and Adele had bowel is­sues be­fore go­ing on stage once. But you al­ready knew all that. And not be­cause seedy tabloid jour­nal­ists hacked phones, stole med­i­cal records or paid off exes to ac­quire the in­ti­mate in­for­ma­tion. All of the women shared th­ese de­tails vol­un­tar­ily, in mag­a­zines and in mem­oirs, on In­sta­gram and their own re­al­ity shows, as jaunty asides while pro­mot­ing work.

We live in a cul­ture of con­fes­sion. Rad­i­cal hon­esty has be­come our high­est so­cial virtue and au­then­tic­ity our end goal, achieved through to­tal trans­parency. “There’s no such thing as over­shar­ing,” de­clared colum­nist Caitlin Mo­ran, who’s writ­ten ex­ten­sively about her abor­tion and dis­cov­er­ing mas­tur­ba­tion at a young age. “I’ve never seen a taboo that I didn’t want to run into the mid­dle of and smash up with a wooden spoon... But in or­der to write about taboos, you have to talk about the things you’ve done, be very hon­est and make your­self very vul­ner­a­ble. Any­time any­body says, ‘Okay, you’ve shared and that makes it eas­ier for me to be me,’ I feel I can share more.”

Mostly, that’s why celebri­ties say they do it – to help oth­ers, break down stig­mas and nor­malise what, a gen­er­a­tion or so ago, was con­sid­ered un­speak­able. So­cial me­dia has made it easy for them to share so much di­rectly, and nor­mal for us to see women of in­flu­ence liv­ing with­out in­hi­bi­tion. And whether we ad­mire them per­son­ally or sim­ply thirst for the specifics of their sex lives, men­tal-health and body­im­age is­sues, men­strual cy­cles and break­fast choices, we are with­out a doubt em­u­lat­ing them. “[Over­shar­ing] is hap­pen­ing a lot th­ese days thanks to re­al­ity TV and so­cial-me­dia sites, where it’s per­fectly nor­mal for peo­ple to share ev­ery sin­gle de­tail of their lives, no mat­ter how mun­dane or per­sonal,” writes The Wall Street Jour­nal’s El­iz­a­beth Bern­stein. “In the cul­ture we live in, it’s hard to re­mem­ber that some things should be pri­vate.”

Al­though it’s tricky to shape some­thing as ab­stract as our per­cep­tions of pri­vacy into data, in a UK study, 51 per cent of re­spon­dents agreed that talk­ing ex­plic­itly about sex is more ac­cept­able now than it was in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Just un­der a third of peo­ple said they openly dis­cuss their salary and state of their fi­nances, and 40 per cent would share the specifics of their health prob­lems. But just how ea­ger would we be to hear that kind of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion from some­one who lacks the so­cial cap­i­tal of Lena Dun­ham or a sundry Kar­dashian? Some­where be­tween “Not very” and “Vi­o­lently op­posed”, prob­a­bly, be­cause what works for a celebrity rarely works the same way for us. In fact, for we the non-fa­mous, over­shar­ing may not serve us at all.

“Celebri­ties are re­warded for di­vulging their per­sonal lives in our cli­mate of over­shar­ing,” says clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Lil­lian Ne­jad. “There may be down­sides as well, but we don’t nec­es­sar­ily see them.” And when we fol­low their ex­am­ple, Ne­jad says, “We are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence those neg­a­tive con­se­quences with­out the re­ward.”

The cat­a­logue of down­sides runs to pages, but un­less we’re fresh off a dis­as­trous episode of self-dis­clo­sure, still rid­ing out the hang­over feel­ing that in­vari­ably fol­lows, we pay lit­tle at­ten­tion to what we share, when and with whom. And be­cause we’ve be­come at­tuned to the risks of shar­ing too much on­line, we’re apt to for­get that do­ing so in real life can cause just as much damage to our friend­ships, re­la­tion­ships, ca­reers and rep­u­ta­tion. “Very of­ten shar­ing has the op­po­site ef­fect to what we think it will,” says life coach Alex Kingsmill. “Al­though in a sur­face sense we value open­ness and au­then­tic­ity, be­neath that we also value reli­a­bil­ity, good judge­ment, trust

and an abil­ity to self-reg­u­late. Over­shar­ing speaks against those qual­i­ties and can leave you ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble.”

Imag­ine, for ex­am­ple, com­ing into work the day af­ter re­ceiv­ing a di­ag­no­sis of adult ADHD. Al­though you’re yet to fully process it your­self, your de­sire to be open and hon­est sees you di­vulge it to your boss straight away. But as sym­pa­thetic and un­der­stand­ing as she may seem, it’s im­pos­si­ble to tell if her sub­se­quent de­ci­sion to take you off a project or re­de­fine your role stemmed from an even-sub­con­scious shift in per­cep­tion of you. The con­di­tion isn’t all of who you are, but if a cur­sory Google search tells her that peo­ple with adult ADHD are for­get­ful, dis­or­gan­ised and bad time-man­agers, it may be the only thing she sees you as.

“We can never con­trol what other peo­ple will do or think or say,” says ca­reer coach Lucy Allen. “Ev­ery ‘share’ car­ries a risk and al­though it can be good and pow­er­ful, you have to con­sider each in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stance. Al­ways as­sume that what you share will be passed on and de­ter­mine if you can deal with the rip­ple ef­fect of that.”

When it comes to love, we’re told hon­esty is the be­drock of in­ti­macy. But early on, lay­ing out your en­tire sex­ual his­tory, ev­ery break-up, Tin­der hook-up and al­most-in­fi­delity, is more likely to sab­o­tage fledg­ling trust than make you seem like a won­der­fully open book to a new part­ner. And as re­la­tion­ship ex­pert Es­ther Perel ex­plains, hon­esty is not the same thing as trans­parency. Healthy in­ti­macy al­lows a mea­sure of in­di­vid­ual pri­vacy and “de­sire is fu­elled by the un­known”.

With friend­ships, be­ing fil­ter-free is just as com­pli­cated. “Peo­ple are eas­ily over­whelmed by hear­ing too much per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially when you’ve just met,” says Ne­jad. “As a means of build­ing so­cial con­nec­tion, it’s likely to back­fire.” Al­though ex­treme hon­esty can strengthen ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ships, it can’t cre­ate them. More of­ten, it marks you out as needy, in­tense, off-key. And then there’s some­thing called spon­ta­neous trait trans­fer­ence – when you share your neg­a­tive opinion of another per­son, deep-div­ing on how in­se­cure or sloppy or whiny she is, sub­con­sciously the lis­tener will at­tribute those qual­i­ties to you.

So why do we do it? And why, when we’re fire­hos­ing some­one we barely know with our most in­ti­mate and not-to­tallyap­pro­pri­ate thoughts, is it so hard to pull back? Be­yond cul­tural in­flu­ence, be­yond so­cial me­dia, the Kar­dashi­ans et al (bar­ring Kylie Jen­ner, of course, who kept her re­cent preg­nancy un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally quiet), there are so many in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal trig­gers to over­shar­ing that, when con­sid­ered to­gether, it’s amaz­ing we’re able to with­hold a sin­gle fact at all. Phys­i­cally, talk­ing about our­selves has been shown to set off the same kind of “bio­chem­i­cal buzz” as sex and food, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Har­vard Univer­sity. It’s be­lieved that phys­i­cal touch can also stim­u­late a feel­ing of emo­tional in­ti­macy, which is why your fa­cial­ist knows the minu­tiae of your mar­riage break­down. Another study showed the kind of high you get af­ter ex­er­cis­ing can trig­ger TMI, driv­ing us to share things even when we don’t re­ally want to.

Emo­tion­ally, we’re more likely to over­share when we need re­as­sur­ance, when we feel lonely and want con­nec­tion, or be­cause we’re still har­bour­ing a Year 9-ish de­sire for pop­u­lar­ity and at­ten­tion. Be­tween close friends, there can be a kind of peer pres­sure to go deep or com­pe­ti­tion to be the train­wreck-iest of all the train­wrecks present. Con­nect­ing over fail­ures is eas­ier and more ef­fec­tive, it feels like, than shar­ing suc­cess. In a so­cial set­ting, con­cern for the emo­tional state of a near-stranger can see us fill an awk­ward si­lence with a hard­core gas­tro anec­dote, de­signed to put them at ease and achiev­ing the op­po­site.

Above all, how­ever, anx­i­ety is what drives us to over­share. “Hu­mans are nat­u­rally look­ing to es­tab­lish con­nec­tion with each other,” says psy­chother­a­pist Nata­jsa Wag­ner. “When we don’t feel con­nected, we ex­pe­ri­ence a so­cial pain that our brain reg­is­ters the same way as phys­i­cal pain. Peo­ple who over­share are gen­er­ally more anx­ious, emo­tion­ally stressed or highly sen­si­tive to re­jec­tion.” Be­ing that kind of keyed-up at work, an event or in an in­tense re­la­tion­ship mo­ment sets up the vi­cious cy­cle that is say-too-much-feel-hor­ri­ble-apol­o­gise-talk-even-more. “Of­ten over­shar­ing serves to in­crease anx­i­ety not re­lieve it,” adds Wag­ner.

So wine then? Or some­thing else? Ac­tu­ally, there is a lot we can do to train our­selves out of over­shar­ing. First is to iden­tify when we’re most prone to it, so we can work out why cer­tain sit­u­a­tions have us di­vulging. “We al­ways share with in­ten­tion,” says Allen. “So ask your­self what pur­pose you’re hop­ing it will serve. Are you

“Peo­ple are over­whelmed by hear­ing too much per­sonal in­for­ma­tion. As a means of build­ing so­cial con­nec­tion, it’s likely to back­fire”

seek­ing ap­proval? Ad­vice? Ac­cep­tance?” While age and ex­pe­ri­ence gen­er­ally im­prove judge­ment around shar­ing, “we have to put steps in place to make that a re­al­ity,” says Allen. “It’s a mus­cle, and once you start us­ing it, it be­comes more nat­u­ral.”

In the mean­time, there is slow­ing down, phys­i­cally and men­tally, tak­ing a con­scious breath be­fore we speak, ask­ing ques­tions when we feel a mono­logue com­ing on. There is telling a ther­a­pist in­stead, try­ing to be okay with si­lence, writ­ing it down and tak­ing one tiny mo­ment to work out whether the per­son you are about to un­leash on is in­ter­ested, in­vested and emo­tion­ally avail­able to you – or whether they just hap­pen to be stand­ing right there.

De­cid­ing, just some­times, to with­hold some­thing of our­selves isn’t the same as be­ing dis­hon­est. You can be au­then­tic with­out be­ing over­ex­posed. “The things we re­veal in those mo­ments of over­shar­ing don’t re­flect who we ac­tu­ally are, only what’s at the fore­front of our mind at the time,” says Kingsmill. “The funny thing is, the more se­lec­tive you are about what you share, the more able peo­ple will be to form a true pic­ture of you.” Whether or not you’ve ever sunned your vagina doesn’t have to come into it.

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