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.
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:
- Have you reached the point of perspective? Can you both recognize and articulate a redemptive aspect of your crisis, issue or problem?
- 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?
- 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.
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!