Being vulnerable with people is one of the hardest things we can do. Opening ourselves up to others with our inner feelings, emotions and thoughts puts us in the mode of fear – fear of being rejected and disliked for showing our real selves.
But a study from the University of Tübingen has found that being more open with our emotions causes people to find us more attractive. And the same idea is applied to creating closeness through revealing personal experiences and thoughts with those we want to build a friendship with.
People who form close bonds with others are mastering the art of self-disclosure but how can we do this effectively? After all, isn’t revealing our deepest thoughts and secrets straight away a bit too off-putting to others? Self-disclosing at the right moment is key to successful relationships and can subtly create bonds instead of an uncomfortable long-term sense of misunderstanding and alienation.
Why Disclosure Yourself Is So Important for Your Interpersonal Relationships
We can reveal a lot about ourselves through the clothes we wear, our body language or the throw-away comments we make but they aren’t a real window into our true selves. Self-disclosure is seen as more purposeful – in other words, we are choosing to reveal something about ourselves that we see as a slight risk and subsequent vulnerability.
There are three theories that help to explain different reasons why we go through the process of self-disclosure and how it allows us to develop deeper bonds with others.
Social Penetration Theory: Self-Disclosure Helps Let Your Guard Down
This refers to the reciprocal process of self-disclosure that we create when building up a relationship with another person and how it deepens over time. Everyone has layers to their personality and this process is the back and forth gradual penetration of these layers. It’s a natural process which can sometimes be a fine balance especially in friendships or relationships that contain tension but revealing self-disclosure at the right moments can lead to a deeper understanding of each other.
Social Comparison Theory: Self-Disclosure Helps Spot Your Tribe
Another reason why we self-disclose is through social comparison and sometimes to seek validation from others. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on how we compare with other people. This isn’t necessarily vindictive behaviour but it’s a way of finding out how inferior or superior we are to somebody else. From here we can evaluate how well we may get on with this person and whether their values or beliefs are similar to ours based on their positive or negative reaction. This determines whether or not we want to continue building the relationship.
Self-Disclosure Reciprocity: Self-Disclosure Builds Trust
This is the idea that revealing more intimate thoughts and beliefs with someone allows them to feel like they are trusted and liked, therefore reciprocating their own inner feelings and beliefs back to you.
A study by Susan Sprecher and colleagues from Illinois State University was conducted to see how self-disclosure reciprocity between strangers influenced each others’ likability for one other. They found that the degree to which people reciprocate is directly proportionate to the extent to which they self-disclose. In other words, more trust was built between strangers the more each of them self-disclosed to one another.
How To Use Self-Disclosure to Build Relationships
So what does this mean for our own relationships and how can we use self-disclosure to create stronger bonds?
Timing: Revealing your inner-most secrets on a first meeting is probably not the best time to get the self-disclosure ball rolling. Small talk is usually the best way to start a connection with somebody and a good way to get a basic feel of the other person’s personality. Sensing that the other person is open to developing a friendship with you (which may be after a few small interactions or a couple of longer ones) now would be the time to initiate the process of self-disclosure.
The Best Situation: Self-disclosure works best in a one-on-one situation rather than in a group. A group has differing dynamics and self-disclosing in this situation can lead to it backfiring especially if it’s a more personal piece of information. Keep your self-disclosing to one person at a time since this elicits more trust between the two of you.
What to Disclose: It’s always best to start off with something humorous – a funny or embarrassing story can come across as natural and an act of self-mockery. This causes people to find others instantly more likeable and opens up a feeling of trust to self-disclose back to you. Once your relationship with the person progresses, self-disclosing personal, in-depth information on a gradual basis will deepen the bond further.
How Much to Disclose: This is very dependant on the type of relationship you’re looking to develop. If you’re looking to forge a close friendship then how much you disclose is up to you depending on the amount of trust developed but there is rarely much limitation. If it’s a romantic relationship, the process should be more gradual. This is because an element of secrecy is seen as more alluring in order to keep the attraction going for longer. Once you’ve reached a more stable and trusting stage you can start to self-disclose a little more.
Pay Attention to the Other Person: Remember, when self-disclosing it’s really important to pay attention to the other person’s reactions to what you’re saying. It could be through their body language e.g fidgeting or just lack of a positive reaction but if they come across as uncomfortable as a result of your self-disclosure, then it’s important to adjust it accordingly. They may feel it’s too inappropriate or too soon to open up. Remember, everyone is different and it doesn’t mean a negative reaction automatically equates that the relationship can’t get past the initial stages. Sense the type of person that they are and self-disclose at the appropriate pace.
|||^||Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: A neural link between affective understanding and interpersonal attraction|
|||^||Wiley Library: The benefits of turn-taking reciprocal self-disclosure in get-acquainted interactions|