This is a guest post written by Toni Nieuwhof.  Toni and Carey Nieuwhof met in law school and have been married for three decades. Toni is the author of Before You Split: Find What You Really Want For The Future Of Your Marriage (available for pre-order). 

How much of your personal story should you share with your audience or congregation?

It’s a great question and a tough one. Some leaders overshare. Others hardly ever share anything personal. Both are traps.

There are a few things that you and I have discovered are true about emotional pain:

  • Pain is self-absorbed or selfish.
  • Pain is urgent; it demands your attention.
  • Pain is an effective teacher (way more effective than comfort or pleasure).

Sharing the learnings that your journey through emotional pain taught you may be so helpful for others. We all need guides who are a few steps ahead.

But, the self-focus and the sense of urgency associated with emotional pain can mislead you into thinking that you have a message for your followers, or the public, that needs to get out there NOW.

Your motives are good: you want to be real. You know that suffering in isolation is unhealthy. Maybe you want to let others know that they’re not alone in the ways they’re suffering when no one else is looking.

Perhaps this isn’t your problem, but you’re seeing it in someone close to you. You haven’t stopped to articulate why this is bothering you so much.

Recognize these?

Let’s look at a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

Tania is a friend of a friend on social media. She’s had years of tension and distress in her marriage, and every once and a while she posts about it in a moment of crisis. For example, she wrote “I don’t understand why he’s always ‘my way or the highway.’ I don’t get how he can be so mean to me. What did I do to deserve this?” While venting may serve a purpose, venting on social media doesn’t make it through the filter of ‘will what I’m posting be helpful for others?’ This kind of venting is more likely to lead to confusion, a sense of betrayal and divisiveness.

Jake is a leader who’s gained a profile and he guests on podcasts. He recently said on an interview, “Our CEO decided not to close our operations to the public during this local crisis in the pandemic, and personally I think he made a big mistake. He didn’t take into account how critical it is to our company’s goodwill to be seen to be community- minded…”. While pushing back on the senior leader’s decision is critical to an organization’s success overall, doing so in public does more harm than good. Public disloyalty is a problem of character.

Your character as a leader will make or break you, much more so than your skills or competency.

The problem is not that you, or your friend, is poorly motivated, or lacks good intentions. The problem is one of timing and wisdom. Personal pain needs to be processed before you can gain perspective.

You need time to wrestle through the source of your pain, your responses to it and the impacts on your relationships with others before the redemptive aspects of the story emerge.

Just as an unmatured wine leaves a bad taste in your mouth, so does oversharing pain in public too early.

The Inverse Relationship

Here’s the principle I’m proposing:

What I’ve discovered is true in processing the pain in our marriage is that there’s an inverse relationship between the intensity of the pain we’re personally experiencing, and the public sharing of it.

It goes like this: When your emotional pain is very intense, public sharing needs to be very low. You talk to only your closest friends – the ones who have proven to be vaults. You talk to your counsellor, and work through the difficult aspects of your intense emotions, what’s underneath them, and the insights you need to take action on.

But then – once you’ve worked through the hurts with forgiveness, you’ve gained wisdom, exposed your blind spots and personally grown – the intensity of your pain has subsided. You have a redeemed perspective on what was an agonizing experience. With all of this behind you, now what you have to say, others need to hear.

We need to hear your story of redemption. We just need you to let it mature first.

Three Clarifying Questions

Okay, so how low is low enough? When do you know you’ve worked through your pain to the point where you have something valuable to offer your audience?

Three questions to ask:

  1. Have you reached the point of perspective? Can you both recognize and articulate a redemptive aspect of your crisis, issue or problem?
  2. Have you made the decision to forgive, and moved a significant way along the forgiveness journey? Are bitterness, resentment and contempt dealt with? In regard to the person or people who hurt you, are you reconciled, or if you’ve had to release them, can you sincerely wish them well?
  3. Have you tested out your message on a small (but representative of your audience) group of people? (note here: I’m not asking whether you’ve tested out your message only on the cheerleaders around you. Present your message to some people who are not invested in you or your community’s success) Did your message resonate? In what ways did they find it helpful?

Here’s Our Example:

I’ve recently written a book about marriage in which I share stories about the painful season of my marriage with Carey. I also share some perspectives I gained through my work as a divorce attorney. Here’s a short excerpt from Before You Split:

This day’s argument followed the same old pattern. I got upset over something Carey said and shut down. Carey responded by trying, progressively more insistently, to provoke a response from me. The more he tried, the more upset I became. The angrier I felt, the more I withdrew into my silent and zoned-out world. And then at some point, I would break the silence and explode into either anger or tears. It was as though this pattern had worn a rut so deep, neither of us could steer us out of it. We were stuck.

This day I gave up holding them back. Once again, more tears. Head tilted toward the passenger window, I watched as drops patterned the sleeve of my navy suit. I looked at my hands clenched in my lap. Gripped with despair, I pulled at my wedding ring and forced it off my finger.

“There,” I said, throwing the ring on the floor at Carey’s feet. “You have it. I don’t want it anymore.”

So, how does this public sharing of our marriage struggles meet the above tests? Well, first, this story in the excerpt happened about 15 years ago. Since then, we took the long, slow journey to uncover the root causes of our angst and our mutual grievances.

When we were in the midst of our rough days, we didn’t share about it from the platform. We also didn’t talk about it in mid-size groups, because at that point, all we had to share was the intense pain we were both in. Only our few closest friends and our counsellors knew what was going on.

Gratefully, we agree that after all these years our marriage has gone from that bad to this good.

In regard to the second, it took us time to authentically forgive each other for the hurts of the past, but also to learn to consistently practice forgiveness. If we’d tried to share our learnings about marriage before reconciling in a heartfelt way, our unresolved resentment or bitterness would have leaked out.

And to address the third test, there’s a group of about 30 people who read Before You Split and provided detailed feedback before the book was typeset.

We’re all being touched by broad sweeps of communicating like never before. In this context, you have a choice. We’re all seeing that there’s a lot of pain in this world. You can add to the burden of it. Or you can add to pain’s redemption. Let’s choose the latter.

You’ve got less than a week to get pre-order bonuses for Before You Split!

“I didn’t sign up for this!”
“I can’t do this anymore!”
“That’s it – I’m done!”

Ever said or thought these things? Or, are you feeling disconnected, like you’re drifting apart?

For practical help on how to find what you really want for the future of your marriage, my new book, Before You Split releases on January 12th, 2021.

If you pre-order now, you’ll get instant access to a workbook and six-part video series featuring me, my husband Carey, Carlos Whittaker, Toni Collier and professional marriage counsellor, Craig Brannan.

Together, we’ll show you some ways to leave your unhappiness behind instead of your spouse.

But that’s only available if you pre-order now.

Got any stories? 

Without naming any names, I’d love to hear if you’ve witnessed someone overshare publicly before. How did it make you feel?

Leave a comment below!

The Fine Line Between Oversharing and Undersharing As a Leader

15 Comments

  1. Louis Karman on January 10, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    I’ve listened to many married couples grief’s and makes me very afraid 😟😳 to get involved in a relationship.

    • Jim on January 12, 2021 at 11:17 am

      Parts of married life can be hard and painful, but in my 40 year journey that was ended by cancer, the years of contentment and moments of joy are so worth the effort. The lessons learned carry through to whatever comes next, in my case a second marriage to a woman who is grateful to benefit from the lessons I learned and willing to walk with me through those I have yet to learn. Both relationships were so worth the work and the pain. Cheering for whatever comes your way.

  2. Steve Cuss on January 7, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Toni, thanks for sharing the wisdom in this post! Your new book sounds like it will be very helpful to a lot of people. I’m grieved at how tenuous some marriage vows have become. Thank you for stewarding your pain and also showing that it is worth it. Best wishes on the success of the book.

    • Toni Nieuwhof on January 7, 2021 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks for your encouragement, Steve! I hope what I share will motivate people to make one change in the direction of a better marriage story. We need all the pro marriage and relationship unity voices to speak up these days, I think.

  3. Tim Tice on January 6, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    Good stuff, … a pastor friend of mine, would say, “Hurt people hurt people, healed people heal people!” Maybe an oversimplification, but seems to apply to this concept.

  4. Jim V on January 6, 2021 at 11:19 am

    As a former state trooper, now pastor, I’ve made this mistake on a few occasions. Often, it has been me just trying to find a point of common ground, trying to be understood, remove the social isolation I felt for years, and in the same moment, crying from pain that is still present from things I saw, things I had to do, or even who I was at the time (some might call some of that PTSD, but I’m not sure its so unique as to get that label, unless PTSD is so widespread in that line of work that its part of the culture). I would get blank stares. And its precisely at the that point where I knew I had crossed a line. I brought them into my shell-shock, instead of using the shell-shock to lend perspective.

    Other times, on situations I’ve walked through with mentors and a counselor, those shell-shocked moments and seasons become life-giving teaching moments, and its precisely because of what you illustrate so beautifully in your graph, and its explanation. That perspective gained also gives clarity into how much detail to share. Folks don’t need to know exactly what I saw unless I want them to feel exactly like I did in the moment (which may just make them tune out, i.e. blank stares). They only need enough, if I’m trying to share and help them in their journey, to help them go from where I was to where I am now in enough of a shorthand way as to help them appreciate not only my pain, but also God’s presence and help in the struggle up to the present point.

    Thank you for reminding me and helping me think through once again!

  5. Bill Stauffer on January 6, 2021 at 10:44 am

    I must say that I am struggling deeply with the first point regarding pain, but I may be misreading it.

    “Pain is self-absorbed or selfish.”

    This seems unhelpful and potentially damaging. Our responses to pain can certainly be self-absorbed or selfish, but pain is not. Pain is pain. It is non-moral. If my therapist had said those words to me, I would have shut down, because the shaming voices inside my head would have latched onto that and short-circuited my work. It is unwise to label pain in this way.

    Having said that, the point that “there’s an inverse relationship between the intensity of the pain we’re personally experiencing, and the public sharing of it” is wise.

    • Toni Nieuwhof on January 6, 2021 at 11:52 am

      Bill, you’re making a very good point. In hindsight, I agree that point 1 would be better re-phrased, perhaps as ‘Pain can make us self-absorbed’ or ‘pain is blinding’. People in painful seasons of life tend to act in ways that fail to notice or respond to the feelings or needs of others at home or work or church. I’m not saying that critically, but as an observation. I don’t want to convey the sense that addressing pain is in any way selfish, and I certainly don’t want the effect of what I’m saying to shame or discourage people from addressing their personal pain.

      Again, thank you for your comment!

      Toni

      • Bill Stauffer on January 6, 2021 at 1:51 pm

        Thank you, Toni. I appreciate the dialogue.

    • RJ on January 6, 2021 at 7:56 pm

      This article makes a Great point. In fact needful for todays leaders. I am a senior Pastor and I have worked with small churches and mega churches. One of the first things you learn is that without purpose overshadowing all that you do, You become the focal point of your experiences and yes it is selfish. I have suffered this and it can consume you and hinder what maybe an otherwise effective ministry. When people lead for themselves as opposed to a healthy purpose , and you can tell nearly right away because it’s all about them, not what is being done.

      I was always taught that when the people of God suffer pain, we need to stop and examine what we are doing and how God feels about it. If it is not something we can do anything about, then we have to trust God and keep doing what is right. Pain does not exist by itself, it is a result or consequence. It is not an entity or even a goal but something that happens along the way. It can be a teacher or it can be a breaker. There is value in an old saying; Trouble (or pain) will either make you better or bitter! I dont like pain but I cant exist without it at times. the marines say,”embrace the pain.” I am unsure about that but I know that I cannot avoid it and its generally not personal, it is just part of the process or the journey. Before you tell me i dont know :-). I have suffered great loss and hurt. losing my wife and kids. Church splits and those who would steal my reputation and credibility. disloyalty and traitorous actions towards me when I have stood by them in their difficulty. I think i know about pain. but if the word of God is true then, “all things work together for good to them who love the Lord and are the called according to His purpose.”

  6. Christine on January 6, 2021 at 9:15 am

    Valuable insights! I have been listening and reading different viewpoints on sharing with authenticity vs. oversharing and recently heard this quote “Share your scars, not your wounds” meaning scars have healed but wounds are still healing. Sharing when healed is so different than sharing in the midst of healing. Make the choice to share after the work of healing is completed! “We’re all being touched by broad sweeps of communicating like never before. In this context, you have a choice. “We’re all seeing that there’s a lot of pain in this world. You can add to the burden of it. Or you can add to pain’s redemption. Let’s choose the latter.” Well done.

  7. Dan C. on January 6, 2021 at 8:57 am

    I recall a similar concept which was summarized as:
    “We need to see your scars — not your still bleeding wounds.”

  8. Chris Wignall on January 6, 2021 at 8:56 am

    I think it is valuable to distinguish why I am sharing. Is it to satisfy a gnawing insecurity in my own heart or truly for the benefit of others? Sometimes sharing in the midst of struggle can be appropriate if it can be done with perspective. I also think leaders are often in danger from hiding their struggles from the small, safe (but not soft) circle we really need to make healthy progress.

  9. Kirstie Diver on January 6, 2021 at 5:42 am

    This is an incredibly helpful article Toni, I have been in church leadership for over 10 years and I have always struggled with not knowing how “authentic” and how “guarded” to be with my teams. There has been a conflict in me, for my teams to see the real me but also be the leader that I think they need. This article explains the balance so well. This quote right here “You need time to wrestle through the source of your pain, your responses to it and the impacts on your relationships with others before the redemptive aspects of the story emerge.”
    I have been through a relatively short period of ill mental health but does my story need to be told? Yes, maybe, probably but only when there are redemptive aspects to share. Thank you Toni.

  10. buyessays on January 6, 2021 at 3:33 am

    The leader must see and correctly interpret the emotions, motivation, intentions of colleagues and subordinates. Developed emotional intelligence, as one of the flexible skills, helps to manage your own and others’ emotions.

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