There’s an electric fence between intimate conversation and oversharing. The feeling of honour and connection when someone is open with you about deeply personal information is so very dissimilar to the sense of awkward dread as you find out much more than you’d like about that individual you barely know and would probably rather avoid.
We all know the difference between someone confiding in us in a constructive way and manipulative oversharing. Yet they can look remarkably similar and, either way, we feel a burden of responsibility to that person, though the quality and weight of that responsibility is quite different.
Sharing emotional and experiential information, what we’ll call personal transparency, can be productive or unproductive, perhaps even destructive. What defines each? How should we respond to each? How do we move people from the unproductive to the productive?
Regardless of how effectively someone is disclosing personal information, personal transparency has three main goals driving it. Integration, courage, and balancing power and vulnerability. Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each.
Social scientists and MDs such as Dan Siegel (clinical professor of psychiatry) and Curt Thompson (psychiatrist, specialising in interpersonal neurobiology) talk extensively about integration. Integration is defined by differentiation and connection.
Take the example of a large corporation which needs different though connected companies to achieve expansive productivity. Likewise, the human brain’s health and productivity is dependent on an astounding level of integration. Insane fact time. For the first few years of life, humans manufacture 250,000 neurons per day… oh I’m sorry, I meant PER MINUTE! So by the time you have the prescribed 100 billion neurons our brains are then faced with the task of wiring those cells together and regulating the connections between them. To become more mentally intelligent and efficient is a matter creating stronger connections to useful information and forming healthy patterns of which neurons fire when, and in relation to what other neurons they are wired with. Easy, right?
This shape is true of our relationship with ourselves and with others. If we have a bunch of random, isolated thoughts and concepts in our heads then we’ll likely be confused, inarticulate and emotionally immature and lacking the organising principle of a robust worldview (a set of values and convictions), practised with integrity (holistic commitment to being the type of person that aligns with those values and convictions). If we have an aspect of ourselves, some personal fixture that we do not want, then to differentiate ourselves from that thing (e.g. physical trait, personality trait, sexual orientation) without accepting it (i.e. suppression) is a recipe for mental health issues.
Does this mean that you have to indiscriminately accept parts of yourself that you don’t believe are good? Yes and no. No in the sense that you may be fully aware that you have a glaring flaw in your personality that you’re intent on weeding out. Yes in the sense that you can’t deal with something without accepting it, and you can’t accept something that you’re not facing.
In fact, the willingness to feel vulnerable as you encounter your more broken parts is a pillar of transparency. For this kind of integrated wholeheartedness or wholemindedness or whatever you want to to call it, openness to finding something different to what you think you should have as part of you is necessary. Subsequently, it’s necessary to connect yourself to your experience, your body, your thoughts. Not only that but having an openness to change within and without is central for maintaining stability in your relationship to yourself. E.g. your body as it ages or brings children into the world, or the shifting of beliefs as you learn more about the world.
In our relationships with others, integration is necessary to avoid isolation and close-mindedness and instead share in intellectual and emotional growth. Think about one without the other. If you only have differentiation in your social network, that is to say a wide array of friends, without connection you’ll likely be lonely and lacking in integrity, a bit of a social-Chameleon perhaps. But if you have little differentiation and a massive amount of connectivity then your community is probably very insular and impenetrable to new-comers and perhaps even quite hyper-dependent (cults, anyone? An extreme example).
Just as it’s difficult to grow in intelligence and emotional maturity if you’re forever in shallow conversation with lots of people, so too, your thinking and capacity for empathy are stunted if you only ever talk with the one, small network.
This is not to say that you have to be the type of person who has many, many friends with a great deal of depth to all of those relationships. It’s not saying that you can’t have a wide friendship group either. It’s not saying that you have to share your entire life with people as soon as you meet them. What it IS saying is that you should be open-minded about the amount of people and the type of person you build connection with.
Let me give you two examples from my own life…
I would have few friends and a pretty miserable relationship with family if I weren’t open to creating connection with people different from myself as I’m something of a rare breed and an oddball.
I have gone through a significant amount of doubt over the last two and a half years regarding my Christian beliefs. But choosing to work them out, not just in relationship with people who share my convictions but also with those that think quite differently, has proved to, I think, make me more convinced of what I actually know and believe, while being less arrogant about what I don’t. The whole experience has also made me more able to communicate better with various other people about what I think to be true.
Productive transparency integrates rather than disintegrates. Rather than alienating yourself from some part of your mind and being, honesty and acceptance are necessary for mental and emotional flourishing. Rather than cutting yourself off from various kinds of people, diversity with relatability is integral for empathy and social intelligence.
Oversharing leads to a burden on other people while highlighting a fixation on the self. It perpetuates an internal cycle of shame, “I’m not enough and I’m in constant need of other people’s validation of my experience”. It can look kind of like a binge eating disorder but, rather than failing to recognise when they’ve had enough food, the person can’t seem to recognise when they’ve had healthy social interaction nor how much of it they need.
Productive transparency on the other hand creates real connectivity and compassion.
As we look at transparency’s relationship to courage, power and vulnerability over the next few posts I hope to shed some light on why productive personal transparency can be so difficult to practice and perhaps how we can move people towards it.