Jun 112013

Finding the right level of self-disclosure can be like walking a tightrope. Too much and we make ourselves vulnerable, too little and we never get close to a person: it’s a tricky balance.

They say true friends are those who know us intimately and love us anyway, and that seems to me an excellent definition of a healthy and sustaining relationship with anyone, friend or relation. The question is, how do we get to that point with someone, of knowing each other intimately and feeling unconditional love and regard for each other? It’s a process that usually takes years and generally works best without the pressure of undue scrutiny but I think it’s worth being aware of the dangers of over- or under-doing self-disclosure in the early stages of getting to know people.

After decades of parading my innermost secrets, flaws and hang-ups in front of all sorts of unsuitable audiences, I finally realised this was self-defeating behaviour. Longing for affirmation, I splurged my insecurities to anyone who would listen, overwhelming them with my neediness and causing me to wake up the next morning paralysed with shame at having over-exposed myself so badly. Some people were kind but I never got what I thought I wanted from these exchanges – mainly, I see now, because I wasn’t really asking for help so much as throwing such a heavy net of negativity over someone I hardly knew that it would force them to back away, thus reinforcing my belief that I was unlovable.

Once I realised what was happening, I went almost to the other extreme and became very cagey about my personal life. This has kept me safer but it has also prevented some of my acquaintances becoming friends, since my reticence to share is keeping them at arms’ length. For the moment, I prefer it like this but I also know that Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard hit the nail on the head when he said, “Perhaps the most important reason for self-disclosure is that without it we cannot truly love”. Intimate relationships are built on mutual trust and mutual vulnerability.

Self-disclosure leads to intimacy but it must be done gradually and in step with a similar level of revelation from the other person. Before you spill any private beans, take a few seconds (or more) to consider whether this is really a good idea, whether it will benefit the relationship at the stage it’s at now. You can always share your secret at a later date but you can’t take it back once it’s said.

Sidney Jourard’s point is valid and important but it’s also useful to bear in mind this advice from an anonymous source: “Be careful who you open up to. Only a few people actually care, the rest just want to have something to gossip about”.

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