Self-Disclosure: Definition, Examples, & Tips
What is self-disclosure and what are the benefits of doing it? Here, we’ll talk about the science behind self-disclosure and offer some tips to help you self-disclose effectively in your own life.
What Is Self-Disclosure in Psychology? (A Definition)
Self-disclosure is an aspect of communication that involves intentionally sharing personal information about ourselves with another person—information that others generally could not know without us sharing it. Technically, any form of communication reveals something about ourselves—the topics we choose to discuss, the self-assuredness in our voice, and the clarity or levity in our storytelling all communicate to others things about us.
In psychology though, none of these are examples of self-disclosure, as they do not intentionally reveal something—like a belief, thought, feeling, experience, hope, or dream—that others would not know if not for us sharing it. Perhaps this is why some researchers have suggested that self-disclosure might be better named “willful disclosure”. Or, it may be thought of as the process that grants other people access to our secrets or ‘real self’ (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
The Meaning of Self-Disclosure
Psychology research often focuses on the disclosure of highly personal information but in reality, self-disclosure exists on a spectrum. We could disclose something fairly easy like “My favorite food is lasagna”. We could disclose something a bit more personal like “I’m having problems with my boyfriend.” Or we could disclose extremely personal things like “I was raped as a teenager.” Of course, the experience of sharing personal details of our lives depends crucially on how personal they are.
The intensity and frequency with which we self-disclose personal details shape the types of relationships with have with people in our lives—our family, friends, coworkers, and other communities (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). For example, if we disclose virtually nothing at all, people often have a hard time connecting to us—they don’t really know who we are. If we disclose too much, too often, others might feel overwhelmed or burdened by the content of our self-disclosure. That’s why I think of self-disclosure as a Goldilocks tool. Not too little, not too much, but just the right amount of sharing is what we’re aiming for.
Features of self-disclosure messages
In addition to the intensity of self-disclosure, there are several other features of self-disclosure that scientists have explored (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). They are:
In addition to these features, it’s important to keep in mind that self-disclosure is a transactional process that occurs over time. Let’s take the example of Shaik and Melinda who are good friends. While they were getting to know each other, Shaik disclosed some information about his family and what his life was like growing up. Then Melinda did the same.
These self-disclosures went well—both conversational partners were supportive and felt safe sharing their secrets. So later on in their friendship, Melinda felt comfortable talking to Shaik when she was having trouble with her boyfriend. That went well so Shaik later felt comfortable telling Melinda about his mother, who was beginning to show signs of dementia. Both partners gained a confidant and began to feel increasingly connected to each other.
In this example, each partner self-disclosed a little at a time. The intensity (or intimacy) of their self-disclosures increased as they achieved success with easier and less intense topics. This is how self-disclosure usually works in real life—it builds grows between two people to create closer, more intimate relationships. Each person relies on the others’ cues to determine how much self-disclosure is appropriate in the given relationship.
The opposite also seems to be true. That is, self-disclosure decreases in breadth and depth as a relationship declines (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
What stops us from self-disclosing?
If self-disclosure is so good for our relationships and emotions, what keeps us from disclosing things? Some common reasons include:
Video: Self Disclosure - Improving Communication Skills
Interpersonal benefits of self-disclosure
Self-disclosure is thought to be beneficial (and perhaps even necessary) for forming close, intimate social connections. Three things seem to explain why this is:
This is how self-disclosure not only builds on itself but generates upward cycles of self-disclosure that help build strong, intimate relationships.
Intrapersonal benefits of self-disclosure
In addition to the interpersonal benefits of self-disclosure, we often experience intrapersonal benefits—or internal (mental health) benefits. For example, self-disclosure can help us achieve a sense of catharsis, clarification on the topic, and increased social support (which feels good; Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). In contrast, research suggests that concealing personal thoughts and feelings—or not self-disclosing them—can be a stressor on the body, harm immunity, and even possibly lead to disease. Revealing this suppressed or silenced information can help alleviate this stress and improve health (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
Overall, self-disclosure is thought to be good for mental health. Of course, the benefits depend largely on the response of the person hearing the self-disclosure. If the response is negative, the benefits aren’t there.
How to Respond to Others' Self-Disclosure
Given everything we’ve talked about so far, you probably have a hunch that how one responds to self-disclosure has a big impact on how successful it is. Although we cannot control how others respond to our self-disclosures, we can control how we respond to others’ self-disclosure. Our response can affect their self-esteem and connection to us (their response can affect us in the same way). So being thoughtful about how we respond is essential for healthy happy social and romantic relationships (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
If we are dismissive, we teach others that sharing personal information with us is not rewarding. Others might assume that you don’t want a closer relationship with them or that your personal information doesn’t matter to them.
Responding with ridicule is even worse. If someone shares a feeling or belief with you and you chastise them for it, they’re not going to feel safe in the relationship. Plus, without the ability to share “their truth”, the relationship can likely not grow and get stronger.
Keep this in mind when trying to improve your relationships. Try to respond to self-disclosure by asking questions, showing interest, and providing social support. It’s key to make the other person feel understood, validated, and cared for. Offering your own “matching” self-disclosures during the conversation may also make the other person feel more comfortable opening up fully about whatever topic they want to discuss (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
How to Use Self-Disclosure in Communication
How to self-disclose
There are several different ways to use self-disclosure in communication. To start, it can be helpful to decide if you want to disclose information in person, through a letter, in a phone call, through video, or through another medium. The medium you choose for self-disclosure can change how effective it is or help you to manage some of the more difficult parts of self-disclosure.
For example, self-disclosing in a letter or over the phone may enable you to share the content of self-disclosure without revealing bodily cues like averted eyes, hunched posture, or even tears—things which many people find uncomfortable to reveal to others. Writing a letter may also enable you to get the benefits of catharsis without having to be as concerned over a potentially negative response. For example, if you foresee a negative response but feel you need to share something, a letter can sometimes help you get over the hump and share what you need to share.
Still, face-to-face self-disclosure seems like it may just be the best approach for building intimacy and gaining social support. Getting a hug or the immediate social support characterized by empathetic facial expressions and an offer to help may be what you’re looking for. So taking some time to think through the exact approach you want to take when self-disclosing can help you get the rewards you are seeking.
Where to self-disclose
The location in which you choose to self-disclose can also affect how it goes. For example, you might choose to self-disclose at home in private to increase intimacy and enable you both to disclose a greater breadth and depth of topics. However, if you are aiming to reduce the likelihood of a negative response, you might opt to self-disclose in public or in a restaurant. This can prevent the listener from responding in ways that are not acceptable in public. You may have seen this classic technique used in movies or TV shows when one character wants to break off a relationship with the other without them causing a scene.
When to self-disclose
When to self-disclose is probably the hardest part to figure out. For example, large self-disclosures at the beginning of friendships or relationships are often thought to be inappropriate (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). Unplanned (spontaneous) self-disclosure in response to a question or another person’s disclosure can also be tricky. We may end up sharing more than we intended or get an undesirable response that we were not prepared for.
That’s why it can often be helpful to plan a self-disclosure for the middle of a conversation. That way you can ascertain how ready the other person is to hear what you have to say. You might also try to gauge their mood to determine if it’ll fit what you have to say. Keep in mind that disclosing at the end of a conversation can be upsetting or disorienting for the listener if they don’t have enough time to process the information or respond in the way they wanted (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
Given how important self-disclosure seems to be for mental health and relationship satisfaction, let’s talk about some additional ways to begin developing this skill.
Self-disclosure through expressive writing
If you’re new to self-disclosure (or you’re not confident in getting positive responses to your self-disclosure) it may be helpful to start with self-disclosure through writing or journaling. This type of emotional expression through writing has been suggested in research to be beneficial for mental health, even when another person is not involved (Pennebaker, 1997).
A decision tree for deciding when to self-disclose
Another way to self-disclose successfully is to ask yourself a few questions first. Ask yourself:
Self-disclosure through capitalization
Another good way to self-disclose is through capitalization—or the sharing of positive events with others (Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004). Personal benefits linked to capitalization include increased positive emotions, subjective well-being, and self-esteem, and decreased loneliness. Relationship benefits associated with capitalization processes include satisfaction, intimacy, commitment, trust, liking, closeness, and stability (Gable & Reis, 2010).
Examples of Self-Disclosure
Although we’ve already provided a few examples of self-disclosure in this article, we thought giving you a list of self-disclosure examples may help you think through all the ways in which you might self-disclose in your daily life. Here they are:
There are a zillion examples of self-disclosures. Here are just a few that show you a bit of the range. By sharing these personal things about ourselves we help people to better understand our true selves and where we’re coming from.
Video: The Danger of Hiding Who You Are
Self-Disclosure in Therapy
Another area of research that appears to be almost entirely separate from the previously discussed research is on self-disclosure in the context of therapy or counseling—specifically, it is on self-disclosure by the counselor him- or herself. Therapist self-disclosure involves sharing personal information with a client.
Therapist self-disclosure might involve facts (e.g., I got my degree from such-and-such school), feelings (e.g., In situations like the one your experiencing, I felt angry), insights (e.g., I realized that judging my emotions makes them worse), and strategies (e.g., When I’m feeling really stressed, I find it helpful to go for a run).
Therapist self-disclosure is a controversial aspect of treatment that is supported by some theories and discouraged by others. Psychodynamic theory, for example, suggests that therapists should strive for anonymity. Humanist psychologists, on the other hand, suggest that therapist self-disclosure demonstrates to the client that they care about them. These psychologists believe that the goal in therapy should be to strive for authenticity and realness, as this is what helps clients to develop trust, openness, and intimacy—all prerequisites for the therapeutic process to work (Hill & Knox, 2001).
We fall in this camp at The Berkeley Well-Being Institute—that is, we strive to self-disclose relevant examples, experiences, and insights whenever possible. In fact, we view this as one of our main advantages. Therapist self-disclosure helps clients feel more reassured and normal while also serving as an example to model positive future behaviors after.
Despite the benefits of self-disclosure—and the fact that clients rate therapist self-disclosure as more helpful—most therapists do not use this approach (Hill & Knox, 2001). That’s probably why people tell us that our approach to well-being is highly relatable, useful, and authentic in comparison to other available mental health resources. If this sounds like a good fit for you, consider signing up for our newsletter.
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Books to Help You Strengthen Your Self-Disclosure Muscles
Want to keep learning about self-disclosure? Here are some books to explore:
Self-disclosure—or sharing intimate details about yourself—isn’t always easy. It’s not always apparent why you should even try. But when we look at the research we can see that being our authentic self and sharing this authentic self with others may just be a key to well-being. Hopefully, you learned some tips that’ll inspire you and help self-disclose in ways that help you improve your life and relationships.