I’ve been writing parent questionnaire responses for Number 71’s middle school applications. It’s actually my favorite part of the process – getting to sit down and really think about how to encapsulate a person I love so well in a way that allows others to love her too. It’s a lot like writing a celebrity profile for People Magazine – you want to be glowing and praise-full with just a hint of intriguing foibles. It wouldn’t be good to go full New Yorker on a parent response and introduce all that lovely complication and human frailty – despite those being some of the most interesting and lovable things about her.
When I applied to law school, my personal admissions essay went full New Yorker. I wrote about my relationship with my mother and remember crying hysterically as I typed. I know I let other people read it and nobody talked me out of it, but I think it probably wasn’t the most rational or sane moment of my life. In the end it was fine (thx Georgetown for letting me in), but at the time it maybe went beyond the limits of necessary and useful self disclosure. I’ll never forget my acceptance letter with a hand written note at the end of the form letter thanking me for the “deeply personal essay that really let the admissions committee know [me]”. Yikes.
It makes me wonder about vulnerability and what the limits are that we should observe with others. I’ve always had somewhat porous boundaries. I remember telling a friend of my then-boyfriend (now-husband) about a genetic quirk of mine, that he probably didn’t need to know about, at a party once. In a way, such over-disclosures can sometimes help to keep vulnerability at bay. I often find that the people that seem most keen to over-disclose are actually the most guarded and resistant to true connection. The firehose of self-disclosure actually serves to blast people back and prevent them from seeing anything but what the person sharing wants them to see. Over-disclosure can be a sub-conscious effort to control the message and conversation.
I often encourage my clients to practice a steady pattern of escalating vulnerability with new relationships. Don’t start off with your biggest fears and guilty thoughts, but start small and build as the other person proves reliable and safe.
As an over-discloser, I know that this is a difficult line to walk. I think we tend to think about vulnerability in a black and white way. Same goes with relationships. We tend to think of it as all or nothing. This came up in my DBT skills group last week – we were talking about having different levels of intimacy with different friends. I think it’s an important skill to develop – a sense of what level of vulnerability is appropriate and safe in each relationship. When I was young I tended to wear my heart on my sleeve at all times – ready to be everyone’s best friend. As I’ve aged – as I was discussing yesterday – the desire to pull in has increased. I’m working to identify and modulate those urges because I do think connection beyond immediate family/spouse is SO important.
Still, vulnerability on behalf of someone else is even more fraught. My tendency to over-disclose becomes even more of a wild-card in an application process for one of my children. I love them for their quirks, but definitely want to modulate the disclosure of them when writing parent responses. Again, I return to the People Magazine profile level of quirk being appropriate. That said, you have to introduce some quirk in order to make it clear that you see your children clearly.
As I said, it’s a tough line to draw and walk.