I wasn’t always the one in the room self-disclosing my mental health diagnoses, substance abuse history, and/or current foray into treatment for an eating disorder.
Before I grew into who I am now, I stayed quiet about my story. I stayed perfectly put together and well, stuck. Stuck and longing to spill some overdue secrets. I sat with my silence while it slowly eroded at my insides, challenging the very essence of my being.
People self-disclose for a variety of reasons. I speak my truth to change the world through perception because silence is complacent; I self-disclose because I have to. I have to because I tried keeping quiet. Self-disclosing helps me get my needs met, connects me to the people around me and allows me to uphold a value very near and dear to my heart—living an honest life.
Authenticity has led me to become a self-identified self-discloser.
I’ve disclosed to dear friends, doctors and mental health professionals. I’ve disclosed to family, friends and co-workers. I’ve self-disclosed in articles and blogs. I’ve disclosed to bosses and entire meetings.
Disclosures themselves can vary widely. It could be a divorce or an affair, infertility or abortion, nervous breakdown, drug addiction, abuse, rape, violence and/or fear.
It could be a fight with a loved one, a sickness or a stressful day. It could be suicide. It could be burnout. “Disclosure” is sharing oneself in a way that creates vulnerability. Disclosing in the midst of a power dynamic is basically superstar status. It’s that taxing, that life-altering, that complex.
I know a thing or two about what to do when someone self discloses. And I know we have a long way to go to care for each other in this regard. We can do better. These seven steps can help make the world a gentler, kinder, more livable place to be for anyone letting those hard bits of themselves hang out:
1. Say something. Ideally, relate a time or experience in your life to what they’ve just said. Or say how this information makes you feel. If you can’t access any of this, say something about how the discloser appears: (“You look relieved.” “You seem sad.”). If you really can’t pull any of this off, just say thank you. But you must acknowledge. This step is imperative.
2. Bring your best self. This is a chance to drop a piece of your own armor and connect to another person. Connection doesn’t occur when you’re wrapped up in your own ego with judgments of what someone else should or shouldn’t have said or when the best place to say might have been. That part is over. Let it go and be there for this person.
3. Know your vulnerability. Have you ever heard of a vulnerability hangover? Brené Brown coined the term and it refers to “an intense regret and subsequent actions” (hiding, drowning in self-doubt, criticism, etc.) that can follow a vulnerable experience. Know that disclosure is intensely vulnerable and can have both immediate and long-term effects in a person’s life. Even if they seem pulled together, even if they’re the strongest person you know, intense vulnerability often comes with intense regret. Any voice speaking opposite that critical inner dialogue is welcome and necessary. Be that person.
4. Open the door for ongoing conversation. Regular texts as simple as. “just checking in to see how you are,” can be engaging and connecting. Let the person know you are there if they ever want to talk or if negative feelings or fears arise from their disclosure.
5. Get your gossip on. With extreme vulnerability often comes hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is a sign that someone is feeling unsafe or attempting to increase safety by monitoring danger and threat. Debriefing the way other people in the room did—and didn’t—respond to a disclosure is a necessary step to ensuring safety and stability for the discloser. Help them make space for that conversation and don’t be afraid to be honest.
6. Don’t “crazy-make.” Crazy-making is when someone is being convinced out of their actual reality. During no point in this process should someone be told after a self-disclosure that it’s “no big deal” or it “won’t change how people think of you.” Stick with statements based in truth and always make room for the actual lived experience of the other person.
7. Say something again. You aren’t off the hook after one interaction. Check in. Follow up. Ask simply, “How are you doing?” or, “How is it going for you after what you said the other day?” Or simply, “ I’m still really thinking about what you said and I appreciate the bravery it took to say it”.
As someone who has willingly dished out dirty personal details of the challenges and hardships in my life, I speak from experience when I say that support is the greatest gift a listener could give. (And a little bit of non-judgement always helps too.)
Author: Ashley Lewis Carroll
Apprentice Editor: Elizabeth Gottwald
Editor: Travis May