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The Secret to Revealing Your Secrets

This guide to self-disclosure can help you build deeper connections.

In any new relationship, figuring out the right amount to self-disclose can feel like walking near a dangerous precipice: Show your feelings too soon, and you run the risk of seeming inappropriate, if not desperate. Wait too long, though, and you could seem distant, remote, and standoffish.

When it comes to self-disclosure, the Goldilocks principle seems to apply—but it’s hard to know what the “just right” amount might be. You need to figure out how to strike that perfect balance between sharing too much and too little, according to the stage of a relationship. Complicating matters, if you’re typically an over-sharer, you tend to show your true feelings well before you know how the other person feels. On the other hand, if you tend to run toward the introverted side, you might never feel like it’s the right time to let your guard down.

The study of self-disclosure has a long history in psychology. Carl Rogers, founder of client- (or person-) centered therapy believed that the majority of people with psychological difficulties were afraid to let their feelings show. According to Rogers, you feel anxious because, growing up, parents, teachers, or other adults made you feel deficient—and that anxiety has translated into an unwillingness to let others know your true self. To counteract these tendencies, Rogers encouraged counselors and therapists to use a heavy dose of self-disclosure. The self-disclosing therapist would reveal the kinds of anxieties and insecurities about which clients themselves felt ashamed, and clients would feel that it was okay to show their own feelings.

Self-disclosure is also integral to the study of intimacy. In a truly intimate relationship, partners feel that they can reveal everything because they believe they can trust each other with their innermost secrets. However, reaching that point doesn’t happen suddenly. As a couple’s bonds deepen, they are continually testing how much, and in what areas, they can self-disclose. It’s okay to tell even an acquaintance that you really dislike kale, no matter how hard you try to incorporate it into your diet. You’d be unlikely to tell someone you barely know that your first marriage ended because your spouse was unfaithful to you.

In a 2013 study, Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University and colleagues examined self-disclosure reciprocity among strangers to see how the mutual sharing of personal information influenced the degree to which they liked each other. The scenario was similar to the real-world situation of meeting someone for the first time and hoping to make a positive impression. In other words, the type of self-disclosure that influences your success on a first date or job interview.

Once a conversation gets going, people tend to reciprocate the extent to which they self-disclose. When someone shares personal information with you, it’s likely that you’ll respond in kind with a similar degree of candor. Sprecher and her team wondered if people like each other better or not after engaging in reciprocal self-disclosure. After all, you might find yourself sharing some very personal details with a seatmate on a train ride who is similarly self-disclosing. However, do you end up actually liking that person better than you would if you simply exchanged pleasantries (or complaints) about the commute?

One theory of self-disclosure proposes that you tend to reciprocate because you assume that someone who discloses to you likes and trusts you. The more you self-disclose in turn, the more the partner likes and trusts you, and then self-discloses even more. This is the social attraction-trust hypothesis of self-disclosure reciprocity. The second hypothesis is based on social exchange theory, and proposes that we reciprocate self-disclosure in order to keep a balance in the relationship: You disclose, therefore I disclose.

Typically, people who are the listeners tend to like people who disclose to them. When someone discloses their thoughts and feelings, you feel like you know that person better and that you can predict how he or she will react in a given situation. We’re constantly trying to figure out what people will do, and why. The clues you receive from your self-disclosing acquaintances and friends can guide your behavior with them. If you know your co-worker is having problems at home, you’ll better understand why she seems so stressed on the job.

The pace of self-disclosure over the course of a relationship is another wrinkle. You may do more listening than talking at one point, but then swap roles with your partner later on when you feel you need to get something off your chest.

There’s a lot to take into account, then, when you consider the many complexities involving self-disclosure.

Sprecher and her colleagues were interested in the effect of immediate reciprocity in an interaction among strangers. They devised a somewhat artificial situation in which pairs of participants (college undergraduates) were assigned to a reciprocal or non-reciprocal disclosure condition involving two interactions. In the reciprocal condition, they were instructed to engage in back-and-forth self-disclosure during two interactions—12-minute Skype conversations. In the non-reciprocal condition, one person self-disclosed for a full 12 minutes while the other listened, and then they swapped roles.

To get the self-disclosure going, participants were asked to answer questions that became increasingly personal over the course of the interaction. The first set of questions were typical ice-breakers (favorite hobbies, etc,). The second set asked deeper questions (would you like to be famous), and the third broached emotional topics (such as favorite childhood memories). After both 12-minute interactions ended, the participants rated each other on liking, closeness, perceived similarity, and enjoyment of the interaction.

Engaging in reciprocal interactions clearly influenced the extent to which participants liked each other. The "liking" scores in the reciprocal condition were higher than in the non-reciprocal condition. Even after the non-reciprocal pairs swapped roles, they never caught up to the pairs who exchanged in back-and-forth self-disclosure.

These findings, which took place in a virtual face-to-face situation, present interesting dilemmas for people trying to forge new online relationships. Consider the typical dating site—in which you share information about yourself, then wait to hear back from potential partners. Because these interactions don’t occur in real time, they're comparable to the non-reciprocal condition in the experiment. But to get these online partners to like you, Sprecher's results would recommend that you don’t self-disclose with them until you have the chance to talk or meet—probably a good idea in any case.

The findings also suggest that people who stay away from self-disclosure because they’re reticent, shy, or socially anxious may be starting new relationships at a distinct disadvantage. Instead of jumping into a conversation that’s getting personal, they may hesitate too long and lose out on the opportunity to connect.

The Take-Home Message

Reciprocity is the key to making self-disclosure work for you. Someone has to get the ball rolling, and this study suggests that you’ll be liked more when it’s you who self-discloses first. However, as in the study, it may be best to start with fairly neutral topics before delving into secrets from your deep-dark past. You can, though, be self-disclosing in those neutral areas—even the weather. You can say, for example, that you love cold weather because it reminds you of your hometown, which is more self-disclosing than simply noting that it's cold but you don't mind.

By sharing in a reciprocal manner, you show that you value the give-and-take of relationships in which people reveal how they’re feeling. You can also self-disclose more appropriately as you take things one step at a time. If you sense that the other person doesn’t want to go deeper, you can pull out before you reveal more than the other person is comfortable with.

Goldilocks eventually found the "just right" bowl of porridge—and you can find the right degree of self-disclosure so that your own personal story can have its own happy ending.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014

Reference: Sprecher, S., Treger, S., Wondra, J. D., Hilaire, N., & Wallpe, K. (2013). Taking turns: Reciprocal self-disclosure promotes liking in initial interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 860-866. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.03.017

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