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To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

5 tips to consider when disclosing personal trauma.

Self-disclosure of sexual trauma is a question many survivors contemplate. “Do I disclose or not, and if so, to whom, under what circumstances, and how is it best to do it?” Some choose to disclose widely (e.g., posting a social media message to friends and family) while others may choose to never disclose (e.g., never telling a soul, not even to one's spouse).

A recent study by Gundersen and Zaleski (2020) found that the motivation of those who posted their sexual assault stories online fell into four major themes: “I didn’t want to be silenced anymore”; “I named myself a resource”; “The fence begins to have holes in it once you disclose (a metaphor for barrier with others)”; and “Disclosing myself was a form of renewal.” Those who participated were motivated to disclose for personal empowerment and to contribute to a broader online narrative of survivors.

However, the choice to disclose can be conflictual with concerns of backlash, impact on relationships, or feeling exposed/vulnerable. It may be risky to disclose, not only for fear of receiving invalidating responses but also for a real concern of retaliation or escalated danger. A poor response from others may halt future disclosures. As Ahrens (2006) research shows, when people experience negative responses following disclosure, they are less likely to disclose again, potentially interfering with receiving treatment and healing. Yet, there may be pressure to disclose to healthcare workers, family members, or to one’s intimate relationship.

Let’s say you choose not to disclose, as this does have its benefits. For example, non-disclosure may protect against judgment, snide remarks, blame, using the information as a weapon against you, or somehow tainting a relationship. While non-disclosure may solve some issues regarding privacy, it may create other issues such as feeling that there is an emotional barrier between you and others. If you chose not to disclose, you may feel a part of you is inauthentic and hiding something that is important in your life. Non-disclosure also means no support regarding what happened. What if you are triggered or have a trauma-related reaction, others will not understand nor will they be able to help you. Also, if you withdraw from others, they erroneously may wonder what they did wrong, or why you don’t like them anymore.

On the flip side, some may choose to disclose to others, maybe confide in a few close friends, or a counselor, or romantic partner. There may be several benefits to disclosure such as helping yourself and others make sense of what happened, improving intimacy, trust, and connection with others, giving you a platform to communicate about coping strategies, feeling more authentic and honest, and freeing yourself from carrying a weighty burden of the past. And of course, there are potential risks involved with disclosure. Some may or may not understand or respond in a supportive manner.

So once again, the question arises, to disclose or not to disclose? You are the owner of your story and the choice and content of what you disclose and to whom is yours. There may be different considerations when thinking about disclosing depending on who (e.g., healthcare worker, family member, co-worker, a close friend, a spouse, or a new relationship), the context of the relationship, and what you hope to achieve by the disclosure. (There are more specific issues related to sexual relationships that will be addressed in a different post.)

If you do decide to disclose here are a few considerations:

  1. Consider the quality of the relationship. Before you choose to disclose, it is helpful to evaluate the quality of your relationship. How has this person received personal information in the past? Were they supportive? Has the recipient also shared some private things with you? This exchange builds a foundation of trust in the relationship.
  2. Consider the timing of your share. Ideally, you are both relaxed, focused, and not pressed for time. Sharing while watching a movie, sports, or on the phone is not ideal if you want someone’s attention. It’s also not ideal to share right after intimacy, on a holiday or during someone’s special occasion (birthday, wedding, valentine’s day, etc.).
  3. Consider how much to share. Just because you choose to let someone know what happened, this does not mean they need to know every detail. You are not required to share any more than you want to. If you find yourself over-sharing, and the recipient is asking questions that you don’t want to answer, then stop. Take a breath. Ground yourself. Sometimes people ask questions because they don’t know how else to respond. You can communicate that you don’t want to talk about it anymore. Then, refocus on what you do want to talk about.
  4. Wanting to receive a certain response. Be aware of your expectations for why you want to disclose. While you may hope for a caring, empathic, comforting, and supportive response, more likely, the person may have a flood of reactions. While you have been dealing with this issue for a while, this is new and unexpected information for the recipient. From the recipient’s perspective, this may be shocking, scary, and difficult to understand. They may feel angry, helpless, and guilty. It may be unrealistic that the recipient of your disclosure will be able to have the perfect response for you, while they are having their own upset and response for themselves. It is helpful to realize that they may be both genuinely concerned for you and overwhelmed while they scramble to make sense of what happened.
  5. Not understanding the recipient’s experience. It may be realistic to allow this person some space to process this information (in digestible bites). Maybe the first reaction is a form of resistance (“No! this can’t be”) and he or she may say something inappropriate or blaming. Again, breathe and give this person a little space and time to react. Then come back and ask if they want to talk about it again. Maybe you will be able to process their reaction or your reaction to their reaction.

If you view disclosure as a test of someone’s love for you, it can be a set up for emotional disaster. Instead, the recipient may need guidance on how to respond. Given them a short introduction, have empathy for how it might be for them, give them time to process, avoid too much detail too soon. Help them to help you.

One idea is to start with general statements, such as, “I wanted you to know that I experienced sexual trauma when I served in the military (in childhood, etc). I am not interested in going through details, but I do want your support as I work on my healing.” Although it may sound counter-intuitive, after all, you were the one who suffered the trauma, disclosure is about sharing and enhancing the relationship with whom you are disclosing. If it feels appropriate, you can thank, reassure, and support the recipient. For example, “I know this must be hard to hear. Thank you for being such a good friend, I really appreciate you.” It may also be helpful to let the person know what you would like from them. “I just want you to listen.” Or, “I wanted you to know why I have anxiety.” Or, “What would really help me is if you could do this__when I do/say this__.”

Depending on the relationship, there may or may not be follow-up conversations. You have the power to direct a conversation, share or not share, take a break, and/or express yourself as you would like. While disclosure may be tricky to navigate, remember you are not alone and there is support for you.


If you see a forest of trees, it appears that they are separate and disconnected. But in reality, their roots are intertwined and they can communicate with each other. So too, we may appear separate, but in reality, we are all intertwined. And just as you are reading this article right now, we are communicating.


Ahrens, C. (2006). Being silenced: The impact of negative social reactions on the disclosure of rape, American Journal of Community Psychology, 38 (3), 263-274.

Gundersen, K.K. and Zaleski, K.L. (2020) Posting the story of your sexual assault online: a phenomenological study of the aftermath, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2019.1706605

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