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You Should Talk About Your Problems More

Here are some instructions for self-disclosure.

Key points

  • There are two major benefits that make self-disclosure worthwhile, especially when you're struggling with something.
  • You'll better understand the ins and outs of your problems when you have to explain them to someone else.
  • You'll learn which friends and family members you can trust when you open up about your problems.
Alex Fu/Pexels
Source: Alex Fu/Pexels

If you’re like most of my clients, you’re worried it will make you look weak to tell someone you’re struggling. By keeping quiet about your problems, you can pretend like they don’t exist. I’m guessing that you’d prefer to solve your problems on your own.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is still an American cultural mantra. There’s pride in the solitary struggle. But what happens when you get stuck because the problem is too complex? And what do you do when the problem is permanent?

There are two main benefits to talking about your problems.

Talking them through will help you better understand the problem, and the conversations will bring you closer to the people you trust.

Notice that fixing the problem isn’t on that list. Solving the issue may be a secondary gain of these conversations, but it’s not the primary goal. Talking about a problem requires you to arrange your thoughts in an order that someone else can easily understand. You are forced to think about the problem from an outside perspective. Describing a building from the outside would be very different from describing it from the inside. It’s helpful to know the details from both vantage points.

The illusion of explanatory depth is the belief that you thoroughly understand a topic until you’re asked to explain it. All of a sudden, you realize how little you know about this complex idea. I’m sure you can think of an example for yourself. Maybe how smartphones work or why tornadoes exist? Explaining your problems will give you clarity on what you know as well as what information you’re missing.

If the person you want to talk to hasn’t experienced your particular problem before, that’s a good thing because you won’t be able to use shortcuts to explain a point. You will have to dig into the details and find new ways to define your problem if the listener isn’t comprehending.

Describing your problems is a skill.

You have to practice to become better at it. Start by saying the problem out loud. Then mention it to someone. Then explain the problem in detail. You can do all three at once or practice one at a time.

In my life, I’ve started by saying, “I’m depressed, and sometimes I have suicidal thoughts” out loud. Then in conversation, I would mention, “I can relate to the main character in the movie because I’ve been depressed before and have had suicidal thoughts.” I don’t have to give more detail if I don’t want to.

Eventually, I’d practice telling someone, “I have had episodes of depression on and off since I was about 16 years old. Usually, the episodes are triggered when I feel forced to make a big decision or I’m not taking good care of my body. If I’m just starting to feel depressed, I’ll spend more time alone. When my depression is at its worst, I’ll have thoughts about suicide.”

I can talk about my suicidal thoughts with the same ease that I talk about my seasonal allergies because I’ve put in the reps. The ability to talk about your problems grows like a muscle.

How self-disclosure affects relationships

Once you open up to someone about your problems and they understand what you’re going through, you’ll start to feel differently about that relationship. Think back to a time you and a friend talked about your favorite shows or favorite authors. What feeling were you left with? Shared interests, like shared understanding, make people feel connected.

Now imagine you are the source of that connection. The person you’re telling your problems to doesn’t have to have the same opinions or perspective as you, but being able to talk openly about yourself can give you a sense of closeness. Be careful, though. You don’t want to open up to just anyone. Some people might not feel close enough to you to listen to your problems, or they may misuse the information you share.

You should only invest in these kinds of conversations with people you trust or people that you want to trust. Just like with money, no investment is guaranteed; there’s always some risk. But the more often you practice, the better you become at learning who is worth trusting.

The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally used sarcastically because it’s impossible to pick yourself up off the ground. But no matter how deep of a hole you’re in, reaching your hand up for help shows you exactly how far you have left to climb and who is willing to pull you up. Talking about your problems fosters connection and can help you get to a deeper understanding of yourself.