We would like to believe the best of ourselves; that we are straightforward and 100% honest. Yet, the reality is we have variations of opacity. Parts of us we hold back or magnify; perhaps we fear that the what-you-see-is-what-you-get version will somehow be found wanting.
If you have ever worked with a drawing program, one of the choices you get to make is the the level of transparency for the item being worked with. How solid? How much do I want to let show through? And of which layers? It is an apt metaphor for people.
In my coaching and counseling practice (and in my friends), I see people err on either side of this question. There are individuals who spill 100% of their information, regardless of the other individual’s trustworthiness. As a result, these poor souls often become bruised. They feel betrayed by their friends, family members, co-workers and even bosses. This is especially seen with people they are dating.
The other side of the spectrum are those who reveal little, holding their cards tightly. When you have relationship with someone like this, you can know them for years, sometimes decades and not actually know anything about them. When these people die, their co-workers struggle to say anything personal about them – ‘“They were always on time.” “They worked hard.” Neighbors say things like, “Their yard was always well kept.”
Each of us leans one direction or the other – I, myself, am a tight-card-holder; but sometimes I wish I didn’t hold them quite so closely to the vest. I believe, as humans, we all desire to be known. Sometimes that yearning is cloaked by shame, afraid to be seen, for fear that others won’t like or accept what they see. Yet if you dig below the fear, there still is the deep inner pull to be seen and valued. It is a reaction to this desire that creates the extremes of what is shared or not revealed.
When I am contemplating how much of myself to give to others and with whom, I utilize a couple of questions to help me determine my transparency:
How emotionally safe is this person? We all know people who take what you tell them and use it against you later in a fight or in a business situation. Generally, if an astute person is burned once, they don’t continue to share themselves with untrustworthy people. However, I am repeatedly surprised at how often people continue to share with unsafe people even after they have realized that it usually doesn’t turn out well for them. My guideline: if I don’t know how safe someone is, I choose to see how they do with a little bit of information before I give them more. I let them earn the right to hear my story, rather than assume that they will treat it with the respect that it deserves.
I recommend people experiment with this and actually practice giving someone 15% of their information for a while. For some, it is a struggle to stop once they have started giving of themselves. For others, it is difficult to actually start the sharing. Give people something that is unique to you, but not a problem if the other person mishandles it. That top 15% of me is like the information I wouldn’t mind sharing on Facebook. Before I give someone my deep heart, I’m going to see how they do with some general things.
How close do I want the relationship with this person and myself? Information connects you. If you tell a date your whole life story during the first outing together (assuming that they are wanting to hear the saga) this can be quite bonding. I see this with young people all the time – the first time they go out, they stay up until 4 in the morning sharing back and forth – the problem with this is that you now feel very integrated with the other individual, though in reality, you’ve known them less that 24 hours. It is the emotional equivalent of having sex on your first date. The converse of this is true as well – if you share nothing of any depth, you have no connection and they have no real reason to come back to you. I often ask myself, “How attached to I want to become to this person?” And this helps me decide how much of myself I give at any given time.
What is appropriate for the context of the relationship? There are many situations where equal disclosure is unwarranted and obvious – the doctor / patient relationships, the therapist / client relationship – really, most professional relationships are generally unequal in terms of the transparency. I see these boundaries struggle in places where it is not clearly defined how we are to engage, such as work relationships and sometimes in faith-based situations, like church or small groups or book clubs. In these contexts, people push toward disclosure of 5% or 95% when what is healthier a 30-50% sharing, until you know how trustworthy and genuine the other party is. Often men struggle with this. They tend toward the 5% too much of the time. Generally, we want to be known at work and in our extracurricular groups. But if you aren’t intentional about how you go about this, you will err either too much or too little.
In an age where people are so worried about the use of their personal information (account numbers, social security numbers, etc.), it is intriguing to me how sloppy they are with their true heart information. Under- and over-sharing leaves you feeling either too known and therefore vulnerable, or completely unknown – consequently isolated and lonely. Neither leaves you feeling satisfied and happy. And really, who doesn’t want to be happy?
Do you have a story of where you either over- or under- shared? What was your indicator that it was the wrong amount? How did this impact your current level of sharing?