“I’ve been feeling down lately, and I’m not sure why.” The pregnant pause between my words, and my girlfriend’s compassionate concern, feels like an eternity. She inquires and admits she doesn’t quite understand. “One way to describe it is that, even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t be happy.” My adolescent self finds words that best fit, to give an inclination of the looming shadow within, the depression that arrived and didn’t shift.
Over the years I’ve shared my inner world as a means of survival, or necessity. It started with my girlfriend, then my sister, then my parents, then my friends, then the wider world through writing online and hosting events. I used to be afraid of being a burden, talking too much, lowering the mood. I was afraid that whatever words left my mouth could never be unsaid. Would people always worry? See me as weak? Judge me?
Shame is a common symptom of depression. And most people feel unsure about sharing personal information. The paradox is that sharing how you feel is essential, to show you’re not alone, to get support, to lighten the load, and halve the problems that lay heavy on your shoulders. Healthy self-disclosure is needed to navigate inner experiences, from mental illness to the stresses and strains of day-to-day living.
Here, we will explore the nature of healthy self-disclosure, and its link to psychological resilience. How do you share, without oversharing? How do you know when to talk, and what to talk about? And what qualities ensure self-disclosure is beneficial?
What Is Self-Disclosure?
In psychology, self-disclosure “involves sharing thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others, typically surrounding emotionally relevant and often times difficult life experiences.” Self-disclosure has been studied in-depth, particularly how it influences relationships, communities, and general wellbeing. It’s a central concept of Social Penetration Theory, which explores the way people build trust and understanding by slowly sharing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
A formative study by Rimé et al. in 1991 led to the ‘social sharing of emotions’ theory. Although healthy individuals were initially seen as those who were self-contained and independent, social psychologists started to understand the bridge between self-disclosure, processing emotional experiences, and the development of bonds. Disclosure appears to be a natural tendency to deal with hardship; people tend to talk about traumatic experiences, with evidence that disclosure of difficulties leads to more altruism and engagement in the community.
The ability to share emotions is a key part of social learning, and can improve group problem-solving. Many mental illnesses and traumatic events lead to a sense of isolation, or separation. Factor in stigma, which amplifies feelings of shame, and it can be incredibly difficult to talk. Yet when people open up, they reduce their levels of suffering. The very nature of talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is healing through sharing with a trained professional.
Other studies have found that simply putting feelings into words has therapeutic effects, as ‘verbalizing’ experiences makes difficult emotions such as sadness and anger less intense, with visible changes in the brain. Research has even found that 30-40 percent of speech relates to sharing information about the self. All in all, self-disclosure is vital in mental wellbeing, trust-building, and social dynamics.
On the other side of the spectrum, a lack of self-disclosure has been linked with increased mental rumination, increased stress, and a lack of social support. Despite its obvious importance, not all self-disclosure is equal. A recent study in the journal Interpersona looked to explore its nuances. They discovered two factors in healthy self-disclosure: self-esteem and self-compassion.
The Role of Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion
There are a number of theories as to why self-disclosure has positive benefits. Sharing is seen to reduce the likelihood of suppressing emotions, in addition to the ability to add structure to emotional events. The recent study in Interpersona explored how positive outcomes are typically linked with disclosure that is informed by emotions, not just recounting facts. In addition, the study speculated that self-disclosure may be linked to higher levels of self-esteem.
“If one has a high perception of self-worth, then the reflection and expression of emotionally relevant life-experiences, may simply serve to bolster their perception of themselves as a resilient individual,” the study says. Because self-esteem is linked to the way people perceive how they’re viewed by others, there could be a link between how comfortable people are with disclosing personal experiences.
In addition, higher levels of self-compassion correlate to a lower desire to conceal experiences with others, perhaps due to a lower fear of judgment. And people with high self-compassion tend to be more authentic in their self-disclosure. If you’re able to accept your inner self, you’re more likely to assume others will accept it, too. The authors suggest that “disclosure allows one to cognitively engage with, and reflect on, meaningful personal beliefs, thoughts, and experiences, that then cultivate a greater sense of kindness and benevolence toward the self.”
The findings suggest that disclosure improves self-esteem and self-worth. Paradoxically, those with high self-esteem are more likely to disclose. Working on self-esteem can have a snowball effect, improving psychological resilience, and in turn making the ability to share easier by reducing the fear of sharing. Self-compassion mediates self-disclosure and resilience by creating a mindful approach to experiences whilst tapping into the shared experience of suffering, a foundational Buddhist concept.
How to Apply the Learning
At Goalcast, we focus on the practical ways to develop and grow, based on useful knowledge. The findings related to self-disclosure and resilience can be applied to improve your mental wellbeing. They’re not definitive answers or magic solutions, but useful guides to try for yourself, to see if they work. Related to my personal experience, I see how self-disclosure has had a positive influence, and how I disclose has changed as my self-esteem and levels of self-compassion have improved.
Those early days of sharing were terrifying! But over time, I’ve turned self-disclosure into a superpower, often writing about my experiences in a way that, hopefully, allows others to feel less alone. Openness around inner experiences enhances connection and intimacy and gives others permission to do the same. Combining insights and lessons I’ve learned over the years, with the above findings, has led to four steps to integrate healthy self-disclosure:
1. Consider the content and context
There are degrees of intensity with disclosing, which requires discernment around what you share, and when. Are you recounting mildly challenging experiences, or diving into the depths of trauma? Be aware of the content you wish to share, the person you’re sharing with, and what your intentions are. Is this someone you trust, who you wish to share a difficult experience with? Is this person in a position to receive the information?
Having a supportive environment is crucial. That means sharing with people who are able to listen, without placing high expectations on them. If what you share is deeply personal, consider asking the person if they’re in the right mindset to listen and process, or set aside time for a conscious conversation.
Look out for cues that it’s safe to share more intimately. If you’re in the middle of a heart-to-heart conversation, you’re asked about certain situations, or someone shares something meaningful, chances are the space is relevant. Equally, if you have relationships where the disclosure is imbalanced (e.g. someone shares a lot about themselves, but doesn’t listen to you), it’s probably best to share elsewhere.
2. Learn to self-regulate
It’s not always easy to be logical and calm when disclosing. I’ve had my fair share of breakdowns, where the floodgates open. One memory that always stays with me was leaving work at lunchtime when I was 18-years-old because I was overcome by anxiety. I got home, saw my mum, and broke down in tears. Sometimes self-regulation isn’t possible, and excessively trying to ‘manage’ how you share could lead to suppression.
The more you suppress, the more likely you’ll share in outbursts or with higher emotional intensity. These are moments where it could be relevant to see a professional in a therapeutic setting, where all the emphasis is on what you’re experiencing for that period of time. Healthy self-disclosure also involves healthy forms of communication.
With less intense sharing, self-regulation is a powerful tool. This is a way to process within, before talking to others, to avoid emotionally unloading or oversharing. Journaling is an incredibly useful way to self-regulate. Another is to make sure you feel connected to the emotion before attempting to put words to it. By having self-awareness of the intensity and urgency of your inner world, you’ll be clearer on when it is appropriate to share.
3. Learn to self-validate
When you’ve experienced depression for a long period of time, you become attuned to the ways in which people subtly disclose their pain. Most people don’t want to be burdensome, or take up too much space, so they might ‘feel out’ their environment before sharing. Working in a coaching capacity, these skills of perception are vital in order to guide someone to share parts of themselves they usually hide or ignore.
When I first experienced depression, it took a lot of courage to open up. My self-esteem was lower then, as was my self-compassion, and I was afraid of being judged. When I did open up, even if only in small ways, I’d become hyper-vigilant of how it was received. If there was silence, or someone didn’t respond in a certain way, I’d feel shame or regret.
As my confidence built and I reduced the stigma within myself, I started to self-validate my experiences. Of course, to this day, I often run by my experiences with trusted friends. But the quality of my experience, or my self-worth, isn’t linked to how that sharing is received. Self-validation is the process of inwardly acknowledging the validity of your experience; such as anxiety or sadness, without needing others to confirm. This leads us to…
4. Practice self-compassion
The study linking psychological resilience and self-disclosure emphasized the role of self-compassion. Caring friends and family can act as external reflections that allow you to build inner acceptance and compassion. For example, having an understanding friend who always reframes what you’re going through, or can acknowledge your pain, gives you an opportunity to integrate that approach within. This is to say that, at times, when unable to accept or love yourself, you do need to rely on loved ones to do that for you.
But there is a balance between relying on others and being able to cultivate compassion within. Joining a few dots, we know that self-disclosure improves intimacy, boosts wellbeing, and enhances trust. Self-compassion, which is at the core of healthy disclosure, could enable you to share authentically, without overly relying on others to validate your experiences.
Better yet, self-compassion takes the focus away from your external environment. We all need support. But by taking ownership within, to approach experiences, thoughts, and feelings with kindness, you reach equilibrium, which leads to self-disclosure in a healthy way.
In doing so, you may inspire others to do the same, giving people permission to talk out. And talking is life-saving.