This is not a ‘ten ways to be more mindful during lockdown’ article. I considered writing something similar given that these have their place; and at the same time I’m cautious of endorsing a ‘quick fix’ mentality.
So, this is me starting to unpick the relationship between self-disclosure and peace, instead. I choose this topic because this is ultimately what many clients are grappling with: the fear of being – and showing – themselves. Of disclosure. The great Dane-ish philosopher Soren Kierkengaard said that an individual’s deepest despair lies in choosing to be another than themselves.
For self-disclosure: fear – and courage
I don’t much feel the need to protect myself these days. This means that it isn’t usually fear that stops me from self-disclosing – both personally and professionally. If anything, I’ve always felt more acutely the alternative; the risk not to disclose. No doubt this is linked to having been burnt by not sharing strong feelings in the past; the inaction clawed at me from the inside. I struggled to find clarity – and courage. Now, I fear more the risk of keeping myself out of a relationship, of not communicating. In clients’ relationships too I often witness the damaging consequences of not sharing the big and the small.
Against self-disclosure: when keeping shtum is king
As in my article below, I’m not evangelical about self-disclosure and ‘the talking cure’. Keeping shtum I’ve occasionally found would have been vitally protective. For example, when I’ve disclosed something personal and difficult, and have not been ‘received’ in that communication. Self-disclosure of course does not guarantee connection and empowerment. We need the receiver to sufficiently understand and accept us often for this to be the case.
We are each well within our rights not to disclose – or answer – anything we don’t want to. I’m reminded of the writer Rebecca Solnit’s statement, ‘not all questions have to be answered’. For me, as long as it isn’t fear that’s stopping me from speaking, I’m good.
Power, power, power
Decisions not to self-disclose, if not made with awareness, tend to have a power implication. That is, the more ‘mysterious’ I am, the more likely I am to have power over others. Power over others is the last thing I want. In my personal life, if I’m needing to hold back – not disclose – then this probably speaks of some insecurity in me. It may be fruitful to check your motivation if your tendency is to be private, not just for you but so that you are not inadvertently exerting power over another.
Other players in the choice to disclose: context, content and trust
Self-disclosure is, like every other aspect of human relating, far from a binary issue. In my professional context, clients tend to feel like they know me well, even if I rarely disclose about my personal world. I believe this is because I’m pretty open with clients about how I am impacted by them. I would even say that, other than sexually, there is no part of my world that is categorically off limits to clients. And at the same time it has thus far never occurred to me to share things like my romantic status or how I feel about my mum because I have not found it relevant to another’s therapy.
Self-disclosure is nuanced: I am not discussing here sharing ‘stats’ like whether I have a partner or siblings, but how I am impacted by another. It is possible to create intimacy – like the kind I have with clients – without in some ways sharing many ‘facts’ at all.
Content: I may feel easy sharing my political persuasion but less so talking about how I feel about my beloveds – the latter is more personal to me. The nature of the content impacts my choices around disclosure, naturally.
Although I have thus far referred to self-disclosure as a singular choice, in my experience it is rarely this. It is more often a back and forth conversation between two people involving clarification, interest, digestion and so forth. I need to have sufficient trust in a confidante that they would be willing and able to engage in such a conversation. The role and person of the receiver – and my relationship with them – sits tightly alongside the value to me in disclosing. Given this, as a confidante I strive to be non-judgemental; to be trustworthy. Lofty but true: I strive to be worthy of the honour.
Disclose on your terms (mainly)
Some friends have found me positively guarded. Others have found me overwhelmingly open. I don’t know if it makes a difference that the latter experience has been with British friends. I have felt pulls in both directions: both to be more open and to be more contained.
Contorting myself too much to suit others rarely leaves me feeling at peace. I understand of course that I must mediate myself socially to some degree. And, a theme across the board in my own therapy and witnessing clients tends to be a movement away from pleasing others. Generally speaking, we are all doing too much of this. Being aware of the pull to please – including telling people things because they want to know rather than stemming from any need in me – helps me not to do this habitually.
In the absence of disclosure: are your fantasies helping you?
When I don’t have information – such as when it is not disclosed – I can automatically fill those gaps with assumption or fantasy if I’m not aware of myself. I think this is a common phenomenon.
When clients dare to trust me with their fantasies about me it tends to help their therapy. Note, I don’t need to put fantasies right by correcting with disclosure; I do need to explore how a client’s fantasy affects their therapy. For example, an assumption about me having or not having children may impact how an individual relates to me, and how they reflect on the topic in our conversations.
Outside of therapy, it may be trickier to check out fantasies we hold about others. Still, consider it if you don’t already do this, especially where there is sufficient trust between you and the other. If that’s a struggle, being aware of assumptions and fantasies we hold is in itself in the direction of health – and peace.
My favourite A-word: awareness. It’s worth noting where you are on a spectrum of disclosure (closed/private at one end and open/public on the other). Is fear affecting your position? If so, the eminent therapist Carl Rogers’ observation after decades of research might help here: ‘what is most personal is most universal’.
Notice your own choices in how much you show who you are – and who you include in that privilege. Consider what you are not disclosing – with loved ones, a therapist, or even yourself – and why. The answers to these questions may be a golden ticket to a more peaceful place.