Before I dip into this highly requested topic, I want to make one thing clear. This in no way is a discussion about clients. Clients are supposed to share their personal details and tribulations. I am honored by clients who have had the courage to share the details of their life, and the tenacity to do what was necessary to not let life’s obstacles rob them of well being and a meaningful life.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, oversharers, let’s talk about them! Oversharers are complete strangers that find a way to share the most intimate details of their and often other people’s lives with you. They do not ask permission and seem to have a carefree attitude about the burden you may be assuming in holding these details, and of course, their experience.
Let’s paint a scene. You are on a bus, and a women in her mid fifties wearing an assortment of painted wooden necklaces, a shirt covered in glitter that says Fancy and Todd’s big day, what appear to be pajama pants, and snow boots notices a book you are holding that is appropriately named social psychology. She goes on to tell you that she is very interested in psychology, and you think to yourself this lady is interesting and she likes psychology! Then, she tells you that she does not know if therapy is for her, and before you can say that she is entitled to her opinion, she tells you that her late mother was a lesbian, which she did not find out until her mother threw her dad out, who was always embittered because his family was full of lifetime criminals. It turns out that dad is also gay, which she found out when dad was found with one of her uncles, who it turns out was not actually her uncle just one of dad’s friends, and that she tells you is why she hates gluten. This last bit of information does not make sense to you until she tells you that both of her parents were bread lovers, and she has read a great deal of literature to support that bread consumption makes you gay and selfish. Wondering how any of this could be connected and why you still have four more stops to go before you can get off the bus, she tells you that she often thinks of becoming a man because of the comfortable clothes men get to wear and asks you if you feel guilty that you get to wear such comfortable clothes. She then launches into a fast paced soliloquy about how her inability to tolerate uncomfortable clothes has been the reason she has been unable to stay in a committed relationship. Wondering if hell is really worse than this, she gets off at the stop before yours looking like a new woman, while you wait one more stop to get off looking like your next destination is the hospital or the dry cleaners but only if the dry cleaners are willing to clean the clothes with you in them since you are now too tired and stressed to move.
For those of you reading this who think this is too farfetched to be true, I would love to introduce you to the therapists reading this, who are shaking their heads in agreement and summoning their own bus war stories.
The problem for most people is that we like the oversharers, at least initially. They are colorful and unique, and appear to be full of life that is both interesting and entertaining. Their dress attire says to hell with social conventions I would rather be me. They all seem to be trying to connect (which we can relate to) and are desiring of companionship (which we wish for them). Although they overwhelm us with their details, we often secretly pull for them, wishing there was a happy medium in which we might be able to provide them some opportunities to heal and seek connection in a healthy way.
Now imagine me in slow motion saying nooooooooooo dooooooon’t dooooo itttt! When folks come to us with blurred boundaries, we have to be careful not to enable or accidently validate an unhealthy means of seeking help and support. As clinicians, we need two very important things to be effective: objectivity and boundaries. Boundaries are built into our professional relationships. There are the health seekers and the health providers, and there are well-established rules to therapy. The problem with supporting oversharers is that there are no clearly defined boundaries. This is occurring in your personal life, which means your objectivity is compromised, and your roles are not clearly defined so you have no means of recourse should the conversation threaten your emotional or physical safety.
From a self-compassion perspective, because you both are suffering, you are both deserving of kindness and compassion. Kindness for you is to actually set some boundaries. You can tell her that she has led a very interesting life and that it sounds like she might be a great candidate for therapy or perhaps a support group, but that for the safety of all people there are specific ways of getting into therapy and working with clients that she deserves and a bus ride simply will not do the trick. This act recognizes her personhood, and both of your needs, which is the kindness we give to her. No matter how much we want to help others, if we do not recognize our own limitations, we will actually put other people in harm’s way.
If it helps, you can use your self-compassion practice for the oversharer. May she be free from suffering and harm. May she be kind to herself. May she accept herself just as she is. May she live with ease. Here’s the rub though. You have to follow that up by wishing the same for yourself. Thought you were going to get away with just helping her, and then guilting yourself, eh? This is self-compassion psychology. Guilting Psychology will be the next psychology I study, so stay tuned if you think you can’t get enough of that!
If you struggle to use self-compassion for the oversharer, take the time to acknowledge your feelings. Perhaps you feel angry, or frustrated, or sad, or overwhelmed, or even all of the above. Honor these feelings. Acknowledge that in circumstances like this it is hard to give yourself and others compassion, but do it anyway.
A big part of the work is acknowledging that it is difficult, and doing it anyway. We do this not to punish ourselves, but rather to persevere with kindness in the wake of suffering. I am sure you can think of a time when you were the oversharer. I certainly can. It’s ok. Life is like magical chairs. We all move to the music and hope to have a chair to sit in, and sometimes it is just our turn to make the mistake and other people’s turn to provide us with understanding and kindness. Whether you are the offender or the offended, lead with kindness. It is the one thing you just can’t have too much of.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 36. In the Books.