How to Prevent a ‘Vulnerability Hangover’ as an HSP

a highly sensitive person experiences a vulnerability hangover

If you feel raw and exposed, like you’re standing naked on a brightly lit stage, you might be experiencing a vulnerability hangover.

Your stomach feels like you ate a bag of lemons. You feel a bit raw and exposed, like you’re standing on a brightly lit stage in your birthday suit. You feel like you’ve placed a tender piece of yourself at the feet of an apex predator.  

You’re experiencing a vulnerability hangover. 

I heard the phrase “vulnerability hangover” for the first time at a women’s circle, a monthly or weekly gathering that allows women of all ages to reflect and connect with one another. We had a new member join our group and she shared her life story with us right away. “You might have a ‘vulnerability hangover,’” one of our seasoned members explained. “It’s totally normal, so don’t stress about it.”

Since then, I’ve read loads of material by research professor Dr. Brené Brown, so the terms “vulnerability” and “hangover” are now a part of my empathic, highly sensitive lexicon. Brown has written and talked a great deal about a massive vulnerability hangover she suffered from after her first 2010 TED Talk titled The Power of Vulnerability. At the time, it gutted her, but she turned those bitter vulnerability lemons into sweetened, courageous lemonade. 

According to Brown, “Vulnerability hangovers only happen when we tap into the deepest parts of ourselves — the parts we want to hide, the parts that are scary, and the parts that define who we are.”

And, moreover, Brown says it takes massive amounts of courage to be vulnerable, which is a mental paradigm shift for many of us highly sensitive people who view it as a weakness, not a strength. Although we easily absorb the emotions of those around us, sharing our own may not always be as easy. As HSPs, we can find ourselves emotionally flooded, with internal and external feelings. It is so important that we accept and understand that about ourselves, so we, in turn, can navigate through the flood, instead of being pulled under. 

Defining Vulnerability — What It Is (and Is Not)

Before we jump into how to prevent anything, let’s define it. According to the Goddess of Vulnerability, Brown: 

“Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.”

As the Peter Parker Principle, The French Revolution, or the Bible says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The same could be said for vulnerability, I think.

Being a super sensitive soul who often wears her empathetic heart on her sleeve, I’m learning how to embrace my vulnerability more and more every day. Honestly, the deep connections I’ve formed with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers I owe to my ability to be vulnerable. If I only had a dime for every time I spilled some personal beans that I wasn’t really ready to share — only to feel raw and exposed — I’d have paid for my coffee habit 10 times over. 

Navigating the deep dark waters of vulnerability isn’t easy for anyone, especially us highly sensitive people. Here are some ways that you can be vulnerable without getting a dreaded soul-pounding hangover. After all, we sensitive types are already prone to experiencing “HSP hangovers” or “emotional hangovers” — so we don’t need another one to add to the mix right?

7 Ways to Prevent a ‘Vulnerability Hangover’

1. Break your oversharing habit.

I’m so guilty of this one. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s because I’m so empathetic that when someone shares something personal, I feel like I need to return the share, often doubling down with something even more personal. Or, even worse, there’s a silent pause, and I need to fill it with feelings. I can’t just let it simmer. 

This is just a bad habit, and it undermines the person sharing their vulnerability with me. There are times when we need to sit back and listen without returning the share. True empathy is allowing our loved ones to be seen and heard without piling on our innermost thoughts and feelings, too.

2. Set firm vulnerability boundaries.

Around boundary-setting and empathy, Brown discovered something that shocked even her: The most compassionate people knew how to set firm boundaries. Mind-blowing, right? You can be empathic and know how to set firm boundaries, too. What the what?!

Recently, I had the opportunity to practice this one when I lost my mother. Her last week with us was beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time. After she passed, well-meaning loved ones reached out to see how I was doing. I got the sense that they wanted to hear the play-by-play of her death. I couldn’t do it. And I didn’t want to. It was my story to share when and how I wanted, and this was (and still is) a way for my sensitive soul to protect my energy

If I’m out and about and friends ask me how I’m doing, if I’m up for it and the time is right, I’ll tell them. If it isn’t, I’ll say, “I’m good.” Then I’ll ask them a question, deftly changing the topic. 

3. Trust your gut — it always knows.

When you’re about to make a meaningful connection with someone, you want it to be authentic and real. One of the benefits of being a highly sensitive person is that we are tuned into our intuition. 

Before sharing, take a breath and do a gut check. How does it feel in your gut (which is also known as your “second brain”)? There’s some exciting science behind this connection between our brains and our bellies — we often refer to it as “having butterflies” or a nervous stomach. When, in fact, it may be the neurons communicating with each other. If it feels right, then all systems go. And if it doesn’t, then you can table it for another time. 

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4. Know when to journal about it.

I love to have juicy heart-to-hearts about my hopes, dreams, fears, concerns — you name it and I’ll process it with you. And vice-versa — you have something on your mind, hit me up, and let’s process all those emotions and feelings together.

What I have learned from the guidance of my therapist is the power of internal processing through journaling. Sometimes, we need to sit with it, pray on it, write about it, and dialogue with ourselves before we can process it with another person. In this internal process, I’ve found insights into myself and my thoughts that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. And because HSPs can be deep thinkers, journaling is a perfect way to reflect deeply, too.

5. Realize that not everyone deserves to hear your story.

As a chronic people-pleaser, this one is so hard and is a lesson I’m still working on. My all-time favorite quote from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s book Becoming is, “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

Yes, owning our story is important. When — and how — you share it is completely up to you. I encourage you to be the one to write your own story: Don’t let others do it for you and don’t let that negative voice in your head write it either. You claim it. You name it. And you share it (or not).

I had a rough and tumble childhood. I have two versions of my story; one, I’m comfortable sharing with the outer circles that I encounter. I have another, deeper story that I share with the people in my inner circles. Both stories are true. Both stories are completely authentic. But it’s the level of intimacy and detail that’s different. 

This comes into play in my creative life, too. I know the importance of truth-telling in writing fiction or nonfiction. Yet there are some stories, good stories, maybe even great stories, that I might never tell.

6. Set your own vulnerability timeline.

Remember in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris looked right into the camera and told us, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”?

That was in the ’80s before social media! Now life moves at lightning speed. Here’s the deal. Even though we can post our innermost thoughts to Insta in an instant, we don’t have to. We can take a beat and digest what is happening to us, especially during an emotionally vulnerable time, like a job loss or the death of a loved one. 

After my mom died, I was just a big raw nerve. The pandemic was winding down (at least for the moment). I wasn’t working and didn’t know what was next for me. I was juggling so much loss and grief. I’d spent so much time caring and worrying about her. My life was put on hold. I went to lunch with a friend and came home, ready to curl up into a fetal position. I wasn’t ready for real life. I wasn’t ready to be amongst the living with their everyday life problems. I really couldn’t hang. 

Life can throw a lot at us all at once. Life does throw a lot at us all at once. When it comes to sharing our vulnerability, we can set the timeline. We decide when (and if) we’re ready to share. After all, it’s our mental health and we need to protect it.

7. Remember, vulnerability really is your superpower.

The best way to prevent a vulnerability hangover is to change how you perceive your ability to be vulnerable. For me, I no longer view my ability to be vulnerable as a weakness, or worse, a character defect. I now wear it as a badge of courage. My hope for you, my highly sensitive friend, is that you, too, wear yours with pride. Let’s think of ourselves as vulnerability superheroes. We just need a bit of training on how to use our superpowers for love, not fear.

P.S. If all else fails, and you do get a vulnerability hangover, do what I do: Eat two squares of dark chocolate and phone a trusted ally, a person who deserves to hear your story, or journal on it. Works every time.

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