overshare, don’t care
SOCIAL MEDIA IS HELPING TO SMASH TABOOS AS WE SHARE MORE ABOUT OUR LIVES THAN EVER BEFORE. BUT TMI DOESN’T ALWAYS TRANSLATE IRL. MEG MASON ASKS, WHEN IS ENOUGH ENOUGH?
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.