When should we talk?

Over the past couple of months it feels as if I’ve been doing a lot of self-disclosure. That is, I’ve been sharing more and more of my mental health history secrets with those around me. And it’s a bit scary.

But it’s made me ponder - when is the right time to share your mental health history with a new partner, a workplace, and new friends?

Self-disclosure is a process of communication by which one person reveals information about himself or herself to another. The information can be descriptive or evaluative, and can include thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, failures, successes, fears, and dreams, as well as one's likes, dislikes, and favourites.

In any new relationship – romantic, collegial, friendship - figuring out the right amount to self-disclose can feel like walking near a dangerous precipice: Show our feelings too soon, and we run the risk of seeming inappropriate. Wait too long, though, and we could be perceived as 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. We 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 we’re typically an over-sharer, we tend to show our true feelings well before we know how the other person feels. On the other hand, like me, if we tend to run toward the introverted side, we 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-centred therapy (and Sam’s psychological hero) believed that the majority of people with psychological difficulties were afraid to let their feelings show. According to Rogers, we feel anxious because, growing up, parents, teachers, or other adults made us feel not okay in some way—and that anxiety has translated into an unwillingness to let others know our true self. To counteract these tendencies, Rogers encouraged 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 make it into ‘chips’ amd incorporate it into our diet. It’d be less likely to tell someone we barely know that when we suffer from episodes of depression, we can binge watch episodes of 90210 for weeks on end.

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 us, it’s likely that we’ll respond in kind with a similar degree of candour. Sprecher and her team wondered if people like each other better or not after engaging in reciprocal self-disclosure. After all, we might find ourself sharing some very personal details with a seatmate on a train ride who is similarly self-disclosing. However, do we end up actually liking that person better than we 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.

When we decide to tell someone about a mental illness we have the opportunity to self-disclose on our own terms and in a calm, collected frame of mind. Self-disclosure of this type is vulnerability. And being vulnerable can be scary. But when we take that leap of faith, it gives the other person license to do the same. As expected, I’ve found that vulnerability becomes a strength when it comes to relationship building. We get to acknowledge that we’re all human. Perfectly flawed in some way.

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