In our confessional culture, it can be difficult to find the line between being vulnerable and spilling too much.
St. Augustine wrote what is perhaps the first autobiography in western literature. His Confessions traces a long, interior journey from playboy youth to Catholic philosopher. In it, he shares intimate details about his past sins, horrible life choices, and guilt. He recounts intimate conversations with his mother and how he dealt with her death, remembers friends he played with as a boy, and gives way to all sorts of abstract musings about the nature of time and the motivations for why we do what we do. His level of honesty and vulnerability must have shocked his first readers. At that time, literature didn’t reveal emotions and inner dialogue, so this new, confessional style of writing may have struck readers as too much — what we might call “oversharing” today.
But Augustine wasn’t oversharing. He didn’t take pictures of all his meals and post them on the internet; he didn’t vaguebook how disappointed he was in some unnamed person; and he didn’t update his work constantly with bloggy, formless entries in a stream-of-consciousness style. Although Augustine gets into intimate details about his life, it all adds up to a piece of literature that is poetic and thematic. He carefully guides his readers through his life story in the hope that we will learn from his mistakes and develop awe at the miraculous circumstances that influence every human life.
Fast-forward to today, and the use of confessional-style writing has exploded. We’ve all encountered it; we’ve all probably done it. Going on social media to share scandalously intimate details about ourselves and revealing way too much, we offer ill-conceived communications that lack the nuance and purpose of Augustine’s confessionalism. We now confess for the sake of confession. Our culture is saturated with it. Would-be celebrities are convinced to appear on reality television and spill embarrassing details about themselves to millions of strangers, politicians are asked to reveal everything about their private lives and what they did in high school, movie stars form relationships and break up in the tabloid pages, athletes write tell-all books. Nothing is hidden, nothing is private, nothing is sacred.
Here are some lessons from St. Augustine about finding that fine line between honest vulnerability and oversharing.
1Vulnerability is not a weapon
There are times we share something horrible about ourselves not out of humility but rather because we crave attention. Vulnerability becomes a weapon we wield. It’s an odd sort of grasping for power, a way of controlling a relationship. When St. Augustine shares his vulnerabilities, he does so not to play the victim but to illustrate how far God has brought him. He encourages those who feel lost, hopeless, and guilty to see that life can turn around in through grace, prayer, and making amends. When we decide to reveal a seriously embarrassing flaw about ourselves, we might first ask what our purpose is – Is it to comfort a friend? To show solidarity? To make right a past wrong? If so, share away!
2Don't use oversharing as a crutch
When in a highly emotional state, oversharing can be used for a quick rush of brain-calming chemicals called dopamine. Because of this, a particularly confessional communication provides a sense of well-being, especially if it garners a strong response. Our brains are hardwired to take pleasure particularly in the digital interactions that might result. I suspect a similar result occurs face-to-face. There’s a rush of relief at saying something totally embarrassing because it causes a distinct reaction in those around us. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with vulnerability, but we should take care we aren’t doing so only for the quick fix that seems to come along with it. A wave of chemically induced well-being does not mean everything is suddenly okay. St. Augustine shares not to feel better about himself, but to encourage us to do some serious, introspective thinking about our interior selves. This is the hard work that comes after the sharing, but it is what creates true, lasting reconciliation with our flaws and provides the basis for lasting change.
3Oversharing isn't a substitute for a genuine confession
Publicly expressing a dark secret doesn’t resolve underlying issues. It might be a first step, but there’s a lot more to a genuinely healthy confession. Particularly when struggling with guilt, only a true confession will do – a direct apology with an offer of reparations, a shared-confidence with a trusted friend to get advice, or confession to a priest to receive God’s forgiveness. All these types of confession create lasting bonds and have follow-up. St. Augustine wrote his confessions to describe how dealing with his issues created motivation to change his life. He wants to help his readers do the same. We should have an equally noble motive.
4Don't use oversharing as an easy out
We’re quick to admit huge, embarrassing details about ourselves, but slow to do anything about it. In fact, the opposite often happens. If someone were to suggest that the content of the confession is the basis for doing better in the future, that person is immediately accused of being judgmental. The person who confessed the problem then doubles down on justifying themselves. In this scenario, the confession was not a sign of progress at all, merely a way to normalize and dismiss ongoing issues. Even if the confessor admits the flaw is a flaw, admitting it does not actually absolve him of guilt. For me to go on social media and blab about how arrogant I am and how bad I feel about it does not then mean that, because I was honest about it, I get to continue being arrogant. This isn’t what St. Augustine does. When he admits to thievery, for example, he does so in order to point out that his actions were unacceptable and his sorrow about it led to major life changes.
So what’s good about confessional culture? Well, honesty, humility, and vulnerability are virtues we could all benefit from practicing. The example of St. Augustine shows that there’s real value to being open and honest. What he also shows us, though, is that a public confession isn’t a substitute for the hard work of self-examination and striving for spiritual progress. A good, genuine confession always has follow-up, always has purpose, and is the first step in a life-long journey towards peace happiness.