This post was originally written for The Startup.
I’ve been writing blog posts since I was 13 years old.
I’d like to say that, as an only-just teenager, I was publishing hard-hitting journalism or meaningful social critiques. But most of what I wrote then, and most of what I’ve written since, had at least tangential relevance to my life. The majority of my posts have always started off as little notes written to myself, which later seem like they might be of interest or use to others.
In the early days, my posts were glorified (and sometimes not even that) diary entries. I wrote about my life and my feelings with little filter. My world was small.
Since then, it’s grown at times and shrunk at other times. Still, I’ve ended up mostly writing about my own life.
After all, we all know our own lives better than any other subject. It’s the most accessible topic, the one with the lowest barrier to entry, the only one where we can’t be wrong.
The question has always been: how much to share? Where is the line between the public and the private? When does authenticity turn into oversharing?
It seems like many of those of us who grew up online grapple with the same questions. We wonder what we should keep for ourselves. We wonder where we’re helping to overcome stigma and where we’re just being gross. We wonder if the rawest emotions are the realest ones or the ones that reek the greatest of unwarranted drama. We wonder if hiding the darker sides of our existences — the night spent sleeping in a closet to make the world seem smaller, the shaky collapse on an almost stranger’s porch, the clawed palms — makes us seem supernaturally strong or like liars.
For the most part, I consider myself a relatively private person.
I don’t have an online presence outside of my blog, where I don’t share much of the actual details of my life. There are significant areas I’ve never mentioned and probably never will.
Yet it’s impossible to write regularly without revealing anything.
How much has varied over time. I have floundered in search of the line between authenticity — writing in an honest way about my life so other people can relate and perhaps feel less alone — and oversharing — dispensing an excessive amount of personal information to my own detriment.
For the first few years, the question was always how much I could risk sharing without facing humiliation if someone at school found my blog.
Eventually, it became apparent that writing anything was sufficient to draw mirth. I watched friends seem to delight in tearing to shreds their peers’ innocuous Instagram posts, Youtube videos, and Tumblr musings. It left a bad taste in my mouth. But once I understood that it wasn’t the actual content that mattered, I stopped looking for the line.
Being visible was, in itself, the transgression.
There were times, particularly in my late teens, when I decided to embrace the notion of complete honesty and openness in my writing.
Again, it seems like many of us go through the same. We get so tired of the intense shame and self-loathing that characterised our teenage years and want to discard the notion that anything is inherently shameful. Someone told me recently that in the early days of social media and individuals creating little online worlds there was a point where they truly believed privacy was dead and shame was antiquated. I believed that too.
That illusion faded as it usually does. I’ve become more private as my world has grown.
These days, my blog is very much a hobby and the main way I relax and recharge outside of work. For that reason, it makes sense to keep it as a means of reflection and documentation. The line is set at trying to keep my writing authentic, in a way that took a long time to figure out.
The key distinction between authenticity and oversharing, as I see it, is the response we expect.
Oversharing is about poor boundaries. It’s a misplaced request for emotional labour or support that is inappropriate for the wider situation or the relationship with another person. It comes from a purely selfish place.
But oversharing isn’t entirely about the content itself. It’s more a matter of expecting other people to do the emotional work we don’t want to do; to process and make sense of it all. I’ve written before that we misunderstand the point of emotions when we treat them as something that exists purely be shared and not as a signal. We overshare when we dispense our emotions without considering what they’re telling us. It absolves us of the need to reflect too hard, harming us in the process.
No topic is inherently oversharing. When writers are frank about taboo, emotional, difficult, unusual, or supposedly gross topics, they might put off some (or a lot) of their readers.
But they also provide a point of education and comfort to other readers. I owe so much to writers who have the bravery to be frank about topics I wouldn’t have the guts to cover. Overcoming unnecessary shame and the moralising of amoral acts requires that people speak out about their experiences.
There’s a restaurant near me which serves one dish they don’t appear to ever change.
No side orders, no modifications, no puddings, bring your own drinks. Everything serves on a plastic dish. The waitstaff don’t fawn and the decor is scruffy.
Everyone seems to love it. Because that restaurant has achieved the elusive goal of authenticity. It is what it is. It’s not trying to pretend to be anything else. It’s not doing anything for the sake of a particular response, nor is it aiming to cultivate a defined aesthetic.
That exemplifies the distinction between authenticity and oversharing in writing. Authenticity loses its meaning when it’s for the sake of a particular impression or reaction, when it’s not an act of honest expression.
Here’s how I weigh up the difference before publishing:
Have I given myself enough time to process whatever I’m writing about?
If I wrote this while experiencing any kind of strong emotion, am I editing and publishing while calm?
Did I write this for the enjoyment of it, or am I chasing a particular response?
Have I removed or disguised anything which could possibly be identifiable for myself or anyone else mentioned?
Am I expecting emotional labour from the reader?
It’s always going to be a balancing act. We owe it to ourselves to figure out what makes sense for us to share.