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Vulnerability in Storytelling

Storytelling, especially when it comes to telling personal stories, is inherently a vulnerable act. You are sharing a part of yourself - sometimes a deeply intimate part - with an audience of strangers who may or may not respond in the way you expect. It is brave and takes courage and can be an incredibly self-empowering act. However, it's important to remember that as a storyteller it is always vital to protect yourself first and foremost, meaning sometimes a story may be the perfect thing to tell but you aren't healed enough to share it yet.

One of my favorite nonfiction authors and researchers is Brené Brown, and in her book Daring Greatly she speaks at length on vulnerability. (Note: It really is a great and valuable read and I highly recommend it). One thing she does mention is the idea of oversharing or people who seem to share very intimate details with... well, everyone on every platform. Brené makes the distinction that it is not really vulnerability when oversharing in situations where someone hasn't earned the trust necessarily for this true vulnerability to transpire.

That being said, I want to further make the distinction that for the purposes of storytelling or public speaking the goal is different than just being vulnerable in personal relationships. As speakers and storytellers, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable so that we can create a bridge between perspectives. We are pulling back veils of misconception or untapped ideas so that our listeners can connect with experiences that tie us all together. However I want to refer back to Daring Greatly because sharing a vulnerable story before you're ready is parallel to Brené's example of oversharing. It is not honoring or protecting yourself, and at the end of the day that is the first thing you, as a storyteller, need to do. It is also not honoring or respecting your audience, which outside of caring for yourself and your boundaries is another primary goal.

Caring For Yourself

During an interview, I was asked if one should tell a story that is shocking or bears all because it will be more poignant or have a bigger impact. My answer to that is that impact lies in the art of storytelling. A good storyteller can describe the most mundane event, but if done well and in a way that connects to a deeper, universal experience it will be a good story and have a strong impact. Vulnerability for shock value doesn't respect the experience and can end up cheapening the story, much like emotional junk food - satisfying an immediate urge for strong feelings but leaving us ultimately unsatisfied.

You are the vessel, the medium, the channel through which the story unfolds and passes to the audience. You are also a human being with feelings, emotions, and sometimes traumas that need to be cared for. You may have heard the idea in relationships that it's important to love yourself before loving anyone else - while it's a saying that has some problematic elements, the takeaway here is that as a storyteller you need to make sure that you are well cared for and safe first. You should never be in emotional or traumatic harm for the sake of sharing a story - it puts unsafe stress on you, and that isn't worth it. You come first.

Now, that's not to say sharing a more intimate, personal, or even storytelling for the first time won't feel anxiety-inducing or vulnerable. I still get nervous before every major event. However, there is a difference between the pre-nerves and post-euphoria of having told a story one is ready to tell and sharing something that is still an active trauma or pain.

Caring For Your Audience

As a storyteller, especially if you are in the position of a host, during the time you are telling or speaking you are responsible (within reason) for your audience. Of course you can't control how they feel, react, and so fourth, but you are responsible for respecting them and honoring them with your story as they honor you by listening. They are there to hear you and absorb what it is you have to say. They are not, however, a collective therapist.

Sharing a story that is still too raw, too personal, or needs to be worked through privately with an audience puts your emotional burden onto them, and it's not their responsibility nor is it fair for that burden to be thrust on them. Referring back to Brené Brown's above example, when you share that particular type of close vulnerability with someone who has earned that level of trust, they have also shown that they are willing and consent to bearing the emotional burden with you. An audience is not that.

Knowing When You're Ready

Now, I can confidently say that I have been in therapy essentially my entire life and am still working on traumas I experienced when I was a child (aren't we all?). That said, how do we know when a story is ready? If we're still working through certain fallout from past events, will we ever be able to share those stories?

For the easy answer first, you definitely can share a story you may still be working through parts of - again, some things can take literally years to process. However you need to be healed enough that you can talk about it with some emotional distance. An example I've used is try telling a story that you're unsure of in front of a mirror. Look yourself in the eyes once or twice. How does it feel? How do you feel?

I think another good barometer is whether you can think and talk about whatever the topic of the story is without feeling overwhelmed with pain, anger, sorrow, etc. Because that's what you'll be doing... just in the format of retelling/living the experience in front of strangers, so bear in mind whatever you do feel multiply the intensity by a bit because it will be more intense than simply thinking it over or talking to a friend.

So how do you know when you're ready? Aside from trying the above tactics (telling the story in front of a mirror and gauging how you feel talking about it), the only real way to know is to be vulnerable with one of the most difficult people I've found to be vulnerable with: yourself.

Take some time and really allow yourself to feel without judgment or conclusions. Be honest with yourself and be gentle. Allow yourself the space to explore where your emotions lie and allow that to be okay. I've found personally that journaling and even just short meditation practices (five minutes) in the mornings are helpful in checking in to see how I'm feeling about certain things. At the end of the day, only you can answer whether or not you are or aren't ready to share a certain story.

Your story matters, and a big part of that is that you matter. Take care of yourself, take care of your audience, and really incredible things can happen.

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