Here's a scenario that might sound familiar. You have a problem or worry. Maybe you are angry at your spouse, or you've done something embarrassing, or you feel particularly insecure. So you pick up the phone and call a friend. You are feeling vulnerable and unsure, so you spill the beans. You lay it all out there. You expose yourself emotionally.
I am an emotional stripper.
If something is going on in my life, those close to me (and even some total strangers) know every gory detail. I feel agitated until I can verbalize my inner churnings and bounce my thoughts off another person. I need that emotional and verbal give and take to process the situation. Most of the time, these conversations are just what the doctor ordered, especially when I'm sharing with a dear and trusted friend.
But boy oh boy, that unfettered emotional regurgitation can really backfire on you if you are not careful.
(A little aside here first. If you are a man reading this, you might see this as a problem/situation exclusive to women. Women talk. Men clam up. But please read on, as I think this will be useful for you, particularly if you have an emotional stripper in your life.)
The downside of being an emotional stripper is the potential for getting really hurt. Inevitably, you will encounter people who don't share your open heart or who view your exposed underbelly as an opportunity to draw a little blood — or at least to gain some level of emotional control. For someone who is real, open and emotionally trusting, this can come as quite a shock.
Here are some of the types of people who can strip your dignity and take advantage of your vulnerability:
The Emotional Voyeur
This is someone who enjoys hearing juicy gossip or looking into someone's soul out of fascination or curiosity. They might feign real concern, or even feel some real concern, but at some point you feel a shift from an engaged listener to a peeping Tom. You feel more like a sideshow than a friend.
The teaser is a person who is a fair weather friend. When things a going great, they are right by your side. But if your life becomes difficult or you go to them for help, they quickly become unavailable or uncomfortable. You don't feel safe to share the full spectrum of your life and emotions with them.
You share everything with this person, but they open up very little of themselves to you. They might be great listeners or give useful advice, but they create a dynamic of power or superiority by closing their own life off to you. This person becomes less of an equal friend or partner and more of a counselor or even a Svengali. You might feel manipulated or controlled.
The Fixer might be very well-intentioned, but they don't give you space to think through an issue and come to your own conclusions. They seem to know the answer for you and want to provide the solution. Sometimes we may want someone to offer a fix for us, but most of the time, we just want to be heard. The Fixer can make us doubt ourselves and our own judgment. We feel confused.
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The Bait and Switcher
This is someone who invites and encourages you to share what's on your mind. Once you've presented the issue and laid yourself bare, they find a way to claim the problem as their own — but worse. Instead of listening, they seize the opportunity to present their latest crisis. You leave this conversation still burdened by your own concern, but now irritated and further overloaded by the bait and switch.
The Gossip is a close cousin of the Emotional Voyeur. A Voyeur often can't wait to share your salacious tidbits with others, even if they've promised to be discreet. Somehow they let it slip or say something to another person out of “real concern” for you, but mostly because of the delectable power a secret-bearer carries. It's just too good to hold in. The Gossip will use any irritation with you as justification for spreading your stuff. When this happens, you feel used and betrayed. Your trust is undermined.
The Wounder is a Gossip on steroids. The Wounder is either deeply wounded themselves or just plain mean, and they have no qualms about using the private information you entrusted with them as a way to hurt you. They will throw it back in your face, share it with others, or dismiss it as drivel. Not much is sacred with a Wounder — they will lash out like an animal when threatened or hurt and go right for the jugular. This is the deepest and most shocking of hurts.
If you are emotionally over-exposed like me and have been hurt by one of the characters listed above, you can learn strategies for protecting yourself while still getting your emotional needs met.
One or two bad experiences might have made you wary of sharing too much of yourself, but it has taken me a long time to learn that there should only be a handful of people with whom you can stand completely naked and vulnerable.
Here are some of the lessons I've learned:
1. Develop a relationship with a really good counselor. They are required to keep your confidence and are trained to listen and respond in appropriate and emotionally healthy ways. Plus, they are not personally involved with you.
2. Know your friends really well before you share. I have had the temptation to share something in a crisis with someone who happened to be handy and available. It takes self-control, but wait. Wait until you are with a person you trust without reservation. Then you won't have regrets.
3. Share sparingly with developing friendships. Trust must be established over time. You build trust by mutually sharing and honoring the information that you share with each other. As time goes on, you may begin to feel more trusting and more willing to open yourself to this person.
4. Be trustworthy yourself. You can't expect others to treat your problems and secrets with dignity if you don't do that for them. Don't gossip about other people to your friends. Err on the side of reserve if you don't know whether information is or isn't private.
5. Forgive an indiscretion or two. But after that, call it quits on sharing info with this person. We have all gossiped and revealed things we shouldn't have, but a history of this behavior is fair warning that you are going to get burned. Don't keep going back for more.
6. Learn some self-coping techniques. I get all discombobulated if I can't talk to someone when I have a problem. But when a trusted friend or counselor isn't handy, I've learned other ways to coach myself through a situation. I journal, write down pros and cons, ask myself coaching questions and write the answers, or distract myself with exercise. I have even had an imaginary conversation with my deceased mom, who always listened and gave great advice.
If you are authentic, open, and trusting, nurture those beautiful qualities. Many people will be attracted to you because you are warm and real and wear your heart on your sleeve. But those same qualities also can leave you exposed to others who don't share your tenderness. Protect this unique side of yourself by creating boundaries, developing deep friendships with trustworthy people, and by being the kind of friend to others that you want for yourself.