What is self-disclosure and what are the benefits of doing it?
Self-disclosure is an aspect of communication that involves intentionally sharing personal information about ourselves with another person. Or, it may be thought of as the process that grants other people access to our secrets or ‘real self’ (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). Technically, any form of communication reveals something about ourselves—the topics we choose to discuss, the self-assuredness in our voice, and the levity in our storytelling all communicate 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.
There are several features of self-disclosure that scientists have explored (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). They are:
Accessibility – How easy or difficult is it for the discloser to share the information?
Reward value – How positive or negative is the experience of self-disclosing for the discloser or the listener?
Informativeness – How much breadth (variety of topics disclosed) or depth (level of intimacy of topics disclosed) is there?
Truthfulness – How true is the disclosure and how much does it represent the discloser’s true self?
Social norms – How much does the disclosure adhere to or go against what’s socially acceptable in the larger society?
Effectiveness – How much does the disclosure help the discloser and listener achieve their goals (e.g., building intimacy, connection, or understanding)?
These factors, along with the intensity and frequency with which we self-disclose personal details, shape the types of relationships we 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 when it comes to self-disclosure, just the right amount of sharing is what we’re aiming for.
The 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:
People like someone more who discloses to them
People like someone more who they have disclosed to
People disclose more to someone they like (Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006).
This is how self-disclosure not only builds on itself but generates upward cycles of self-disclosure that help build strong, intimate relationships.
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 might not be there.
If Self-Disclosure Is Good, Why Don’t We Disclose Everything?
If self-disclosure is so good for our relationships and emotions, what keeps us from disclosing things? Some common reasons include:
The topic is taboo (e.g., sexual fantasies)
The topic feels too personal to share (e.g., being abused as a child)
The topic is too undesirable (e.g., a habit of nose picking)
The topic is too difficult to divulge (e.g., having cheated on a romantic partner)
The topic is too burdensome (e.g., debts or disease)
The topic is private (e.g., information that one desires to be theirs alone)
Sometimes self-disclosure of these difficult things doesn’t feel right to us, and that’s okay. 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.
So before self-disclosing, it can be helpful to decide if you want to disclose information in person, through a letter, in a phone call, through video, through another medium, or not at all. 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.
Self-disclosure—or sharing intimate details about yourself—isn’t always easy. It’s not always apparent why you should even do it. But when we look at the research we can see that sharing our authentic selves with others may just be the key to happy, intimate relationships.
Greene, K., Derlega, V. J., & Mathews, A. (2006). Self-disclosure in personal relationships. The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships, 409-427.