A few years ago I was on the phone with one of my friends. I was sharing with her an experience I’d had the day after a recent speaking engagement: I felt really anxious and couldn’t stop thinking about all of the ways I had screwed up this particular public talk and all the things I would have changed if I could do it over again. My heart was beating fast and my stomach was in knots. “You were having a vulnerability hangover,” she said to me matter-of-factly. “A what?” I asked. It was a notion she’d learned from her friend writer and researcher, Brené Brown. In short, a vulnerability hangover is what happens when we do or share something that is big (or vulnerable) for us and the next morning we wake up and think, “Holy shit! Why did I share that? I want to run into a hole in the ground and hide!”
The truth is that this particular vulnerability hangover was not an isolated event for me. I’ve been having vulnerability hangovers my whole life. Not only do I have them every day after I give a public talk in front of an audience (which I do several times a year) — I also have them the day after art openings, book signings and sharing long personal essays (like this one) on this blog. They are part and parcel of my professional life. In my personal life, I sometimes have them after dinner parties in which I fear I’ve shared too much or after spending an hour revealing something deeply personal to a friend or family member.
But while vulnerability hangovers might seem like a horrible thing we should avoid, Brené argues that if you don’t feel a vulnerability hangover you haven’t gone far enough. In fact, she argues that vulnerability is good for you. It is “our most accurate measure of courage”.
This past Monday I had a Seattle book signing event for my latest book Fortune Favors the Brave (in which the quote above by Brené Brown is featured). I get really nervous before each book signing that no one but a few committed friends will show up. And then sometimes I worry that even those friends will decide they have better things to do. I mean, how embarrassing would that be if no one came? What might it mean about my worth as a writer or artist? This fear never loosens its grip on me, no matter how many books I publish and how many book events I schedule.
I was having one of those afternoons this past Monday — we’ll call this a preemptive anticipatory vulnerability hangover. My wife Clay and friend Kristen who were accompanying me to the signing were saying all of the right things to encourage me. “It’s going to be great!” and “We know at least five people will come!” After dinner as we walked into the venue, we could see from behind that the room of chairs was almost full. A wave of relief washed over me and I winked at my wife.
Crisis averted for the time being. I walked to the podium and I gave my reading & short talk and then answered questions from the audience. You cannot prepare for questions from the audience (you never know what they will ask). And sometimes they ask questions that lead to very personal responses. And sometimes people ask questions that I’m not sure I know how to answer. Most of the time I try to be as honest as possible and to share as much of my experience as I feel comfortable doing in the moment. I like it when I make people laugh, mostly.
Fast forward to later that night at my friend Kristen’s apartment. I went to bed feeling generally very happy. What a successful book event! People came! I signed so many books! Everyone was so nice! And then I fell asleep.
Fast forward again to about 3:30 in the morning when I woke up to go to the bathroom. I got back in bed after relieving myself and the replay of previous evening begins in my head.
“When that woman asked about that, I should have said this instead of what I actually said.”
And “I hope I didn’t come off as too negative or complain too much about my career. I wonder if I sounded like an entitled asshole?”
And “I could have said that way more articulately.”
And “I wonder if anyone understood anything I said at all? I must have sounded like an idiot!”
And on and on.
My vulnerability hangover didn’t even wait until the sun came up.
Eventually I forced myself to think of something different and I fell back asleep. When I woke up in the morning I had a clearer head (I am not my best at 3:30 in the morning in the dark). Immediately I named what was happening: I’m having a vulnerability hangover. And I began to think about a lot of things related to that, including the fact that while I think I want to give perfectly polished talks and perfectly well thought out answers at book event Q&A’s, I am not a perfectly polished person. And, in fact, I think that might be what people like about me. To the extent I can, I share the truth about my experience. And if I’m going to keep being real, I’m not always going to say things exactly right, or think of all the right things to say in the moment. That’s just life.
The truth is, I really like book signings. People who actually come to book signings show up because they want to be there. They like my work or they feel inspired by my non-traditional path as an artist. And I always feel so much gratitude in the moment at book events, because people say the nicest things and without fail they share very personal things with me in the few minutes I have with them while I am signing their book. I make so many incredible (albeit brief) connections with people at my book signings. It’s like a big vulnerability party.
And then I realize that the fact that I’m feeling raw isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. All the uncomfortable things I have done in my life (including making art and books and sharing them with the world), are the things that have brought me the deepest connections with other humans.
For the record, I had another book event & public talk last night, and today I feel just fine. I am hoping that means I am just getting more comfortable with being vulnerable. Or maybe the hangover will come later this afternoon. 🙂
On that note, I wanted to share if you don’t know already that the amazing Brené Brown as a new book out called Rising Strong, which I am just starting to read this week. Thank you Brené for all of your amazing work. It has changed my life.