An important aspect of maintaining relationships and finding support in those relationships is being able to share our emotional experiences. Health psychology research supports this as being important, not just in the development of strong relationships, but also as important to our health. Check out the following quotes:
“On the basis of research over the past decade, psychologists now have a strong sense that talking or even writing about emotions or personal upheavals can boost autonomic nervous system activity, immune function, and physical health.” (Pennebaker, 1995)
“…the failure to talk or acknowledge significant experiences is associated with increased health problems, autonomic activity, and ruminations….” (Pennebaker, 1995)
“There are considerable data to suggest that when individuals actively inhibit emotional expression, they show measurable immunological changes consistent with poorer health outcomes.” (Petrie, Booth, & Davison, 1995)
The research tells us pretty clearly that we can improve our physical health by talking with others about our emotional experiences. Likewise, holding in our emotions can lead to poorer immune functioning, and increased health problems.
Emotional expression is thus an important part of our overall well-being. At the Springs of Emotional Expression, you’ll find a discussion of two avenues for letting out emotions. In the Self-Disclosure section, we’ll focus on talking about ourselves and our emotional experiences in relationships. In Written Emotional Expression, we’ll explore how to let out our emotions through writing – a helpful alternative form of expression.
Self-Disclosure is a term that is used to refer to the information we share about ourselves with others. This information comes in all forms, from life experiences to personal circumstances, to feelings or reactions we have experienced, to sharing dreams and opinions. A key part of what it means to “self-disclose” is that the information we share with someone else is honest, real and genuine. In other words, putting on a social mask or presenting just our good side is not self-disclosure.
We can think about personal information in a number of ways. The Johari Window offers one way of looking at different aspects of ourselves.
The Johari Window is a large square divided into 4 quadrants. Each quadrant represents a different kind of personal information.
Look at the top left quadrant, the one with the word Open in the middle. That quadrant represents the information that we know about ourselves and that also is obvious to others. For example, when you see someone you absorb all kinds of important information about them: their gender, approximate age, skin colour, if they appear to be fit and healthy or not. You might also notice if they are wearing a wedding band, which might mean that they are in a committed relationship. If you talked with them, you might be able to determine if English is their first language, or even if they are from the prairies or somewhere else in Canada. All of this is information for which there is no privacy at all. Simply in the way we look, how we speak, what we wear lets others know something about ourselves.
The quadrant labelled Hidden represents personal information that is known only to us: our life experiences, our thoughts, feeling, dreams…all of that information is within you and it is this information that we share with others. We’re always making decisions about how much of this information we disclose to others. For example, you probably share much more of your “hidden” information with your partner or a close friend than you do with a colleague, and likewise, more with a colleague than you would with a new acquaintance. This hidden aspect of ourselves is the piece we’re focussing on when we talk about self-disclosure. But, the other quadrants are also important, because they also tap into personal information that influences relationships.
The quadrant labelled Blind refers to information that others know about us, but that we don’t know about ourselves. That may seem funny. You might be asking yourself: “How could someone know stuff about us that we don’t know?” If you think about it, you will realise that it happens all the time. Others pick up information about us that is blinded to us. For example, a colleague may point out to you that you drum your fingers on your knee when you’re bored in a meeting. That could come as a surprise to you. If you were not award that you did that, then that would fall into the category of Blind information. Now that you know that about yourself, you will probably notice it the next time you’re sitting in a meeting and drumming your fingers because you are now aware of it. Does it matter? Well, actually, it does matter because knowing that means that it has shifted from being Blind information to being Hidden information and you are able to control it if you wish.
The last quadrant titled Unknown refers to personal information that is known to no one—not even ourselves. It is information that is outside of our awareness but still may affect how we think, feel, and behave. Sometimes this type of information is called unconscious material, and what this means is that we can’t get conscious access to it. Some psychologists believe that everything that happens to us, indeed, all of our experiences somehow shape us. But, we are not always able to remember those things, especially the experiences we had in infancy or before we developed language and sophisticated thought. So that information gets stored in our memories and we don’t realise that it is even there. You might want to think of this as the mystery piece that may shape or influence who we are as individuals.
Benefits of Self-Disclosure
So now that you know about the different kinds of personal information that make up who we are, let’s move to finding out why it’s important to tell others about ourselves. As we saw in the introduction to Springs of Emotional Expression, researchers have been finding that expressing our emotions and disclosing our experiences leads to better health. There are also some important relational and personal awareness/growth benefits that come with self-disclosure.
First of all, sharing personal feelings and thoughts helps to create and deepen friendships. It helps others to get to know you and feel comfortable sharing things about themselves. It’s in mutual sharing that friendships can develop and flourish.
Second, sharing information about ourselves often leads to discovery – finding out that others do the same thing, or feel a similar way, or would have reacted like you did in that situation. This can lead to self-acceptance: realising that you are not a bad human being – that your thoughts and feelings are pretty normal. Many people find that sometimes they are their own worst critics!
Third, and ironically, sharing information about yourself can lead to increased self-acceptance which in turn leads to more self-disclosure and the deepening of relationships. It is often at this level of friendship that others are able to give you feedback about how they see you…remember the blind quadrant? This is an opportunity to learn more about you. Sometimes, of course, it may be feedback that you would rather not have. Sometimes it is feedback that is hard to hear or it may even hurt. But, that leads directly to the fourth reason it is important to self-disclose…
As we grow in self-acceptance and a gain a greater sense of security about who we are, then we are more able to look deeper inside us without being afraid of what we may find there. A greater sense of self acceptance and more insight into the reasons behind some of our actions and reactions leads us to be able to share much more intimately with others, and we know from research that emotional connections with others is important to our well-being.
The big message that we’ve tried to get across so far is that Self-Disclosure is really important for building and deepening relationships and for helping us to grow as individuals. But, the 65 million dollar question is … How much disclosure is appropriate???
Have you ever been in a situation where someone revealed too much personal information? Just imagine this situation: you get on a bus and sit beside someone who starts telling you all about the problems they are having at home or giving you details about their medical concerns, or…you get the idea. How does this make you feel? Are you likely to think that this is someone you would like to know better or do you want to get up and move to another seat? The main point is that self-disclosure needs to be appropriate to the situation. Too much disclosure or inappropriate disclosure can actually be harmfulto relationships.
Under-Disclosure is another problem: the exact opposite to Over-Disclosure! Keeping too much information hidden from another person can cause problems in an intimate relationship. Imagine that your partner comes home from work. He/she is obviously bothered by something but denies that there is anything wrong. You are concerned and ask what it is that is troubling him/her. Your partner brushes off your concern and says that “everything is fine”. In this situation, there is already an intimate relationship established and therefore it is appropriate and usually expected that personal information will be shared. Withholding such information from your partner or dearest friend, may actually cause problems in the relationship. The other person may feel shut out of your life or emotionally disconnected. The mutuality in sharing is compromised. Over time, that can be a relationship killer.
If you answered the first 2 questions with “a” or “b”, you probably have a good handle on not over-disclosing to strangers or acquaintances. We all have instances where we’ve really hit if off with a stranger, and do choose “c” – we talk more and about more personal topics, and it feels fine. We’ve also probably all had occasional experiences where we’ve talked more than we intended (response “d”) to a particularly sympathetic listener – a seat companion on the plane for example. If you’re doing this with every brand new acquaintance, however, you may have a tendency to over-disclose information. Have a look at the “how to” section for some suggestions on how to gauge disclosure.
If you answered questions 3 and 4 with “c” or “d” , you are likely disclosing an appropriate amount of information in your close relationships, without your friend or partner having to do all the work! If you answered “a” or “b”, you likely have a tendency to under-disclose, and you may be limiting the amount of support others can give you, and/or how close your relationships can grow. To find out if your friend/partner would like to hear more from you, try asking them if they ever feel frustrated with how much or how little you tell them. It can be very hard to ask for this type of feedback, but it can also be an important step to helping a relationship to grow.
Knowing how much self-disclosure is appropriate in particular situations is kind of an art. This is partly because the guidelines about what is appropriate or not appropriate often vary by culture, sex, even age.
Being aware of the subtleties of the interaction is one of the keys to knowing how much or how little to reveal. There are gauges that can help you to determine the level of self-disclosure that is fitting in any situation.
Notice how the person is responding to you.
Pay attention to what they say, how they say it (e.g., tone of voice).
Pay attention to their body language (e.g., are they fidgeting, avoiding eye contact with you?).
Monitor your own comfort level.
Typically, there is a natural back and forth rhythm that occurs in the exchange of information. This is called the “volleying effect”. Remember that the sharing of more and more personal information happens gradually and over time.
The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules that can be applied to every situation. The most effective means of determining the appropriate level disclosure in a conversation is through paying attention to your internal signals and the verbal and non-verbal cues from others.