Self-disclosure: Removing your mask

The extent to which we’re able to reveal ourselves to other people, has important consequences for our social relationships and happiness—and possibly even our physical health as well.

Dr Edward Hoffman

 Do you easily share your emotions and experiences, or rather, prefer to keep others at an emotional distance? How difficult is it for you to reveal your innermost joys, goals, and disappointments? Through consistent scientific research, it’s now clear that your answers bear strongly on your happiness. In this regard, the pioneering work of the Canadian-born psychologist Dr Sidney Jourard has been amply confirmed—for more than 50 years ago, he developed the concept of self-disclosure. During a prolific period ending only with his sudden, accidental death in 1974, Jourard’s work on this topic has influenced not only international psychology, but our broader civilization too. As Jourard correctly asserted, the extent to which we’re able to reveal ourselves to other people, has important consequences for our social relationships and happiness—and possibly even our physical health as well.

Curiously enough, none of the major founders of personality and behavioral study had written significantly about this topic. For Sigmund Freud, sexual repression was always the key issue; and for his early colleague Alfred Adler, it was our inborn need for a sense of mastery or power. As for Carl Jung, the third figure in the twentieth-century triumvirate in this field, he showed even less interest in understanding our capacity to reveal ourselves to others. Though William James—founder of American psychology—wrote eloquently about the varieties of religious experience in his influential book with that title, intimate relationships were not his focus. Of course, such leading American behaviorists as John B Watson, and later BF Skinner, based their theories predominantly on experimental studies with laboratory rats and pigeons. Not much opportunity for understanding emotional intimacy there!

By the late 1950s, the field of psychology clearly had a gaping conceptual hole with regard to the topic of healthy close relationships—and Sidney Jourard brilliantly helped to fill it. Because he never provided a memoir or even a biographical sketch, it’s hard to determine what shaped his groundbreaking work on this topic. From information provided online by his son, we know that Jourard was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Canada, and grew up during the Great Depression in a large extended family. It included five siblings and a live-in aunt, as well as sundry relatives who boarded intermittently with his relatively prosperous parents, who owned a successful clothing store in Toronto. He seems to have had a happy childhood with many friends, and was close to his mother throughout life.      

In 1958, five years after earning his doctorate in psychology, Jourard jointly authored his first professional paper on self-disclosure. In this study, Jourard and his colleague Dr Paul Lasakow created the first questionnaire on this trait and ever since, it has remained the prototype for research in this field. The following year, Jourard produced a detailed theoretical paper on self-disclosure, and it generated tremendous, enduring impact. 

    Then in his mid-thirties, Jourard asserted that, “Activities such as loving, psychotherapy, counseling, teaching, and nursing all are impossible without the disclosure of the client. It is through self-disclosure that an individual reveals to himself and [others]  just exactly who, what, and where he is. Just as thermometers, sphygmomanometers, etc., disclose information about the real state of the body, self-disclosure reveals the real nature of the self. You cannot love your spouse, your child, or your friend,” Jourard stated, “unless he has permitted you to know him and to know what he needs to move toward greater health and wellbeing.”  

Jourard followed up with a series of books about self-disclosure in daily life in rapid succession. These included The Transparent Self (his most famous work), Disclosing Man to Himself, Self-Disclosure: An Experimental Analysis of the Transparent Self, and Healthy Personality. Since then, a host of psychological studies have confirmed his viewpoint. Especially when it involves intimate romantic relationships such as marriage, both men and women feel greater satisfaction when self-disclosure is present—in particular, regarding one’s ability to open up freely. It’s also important to feel that one’s spouse is open about their emotions.

Research also consistently shows that spouses tend to match each other in how much they self-reveal, and that cultural forces certainly play a part. For example, there’s indeed evidence that Latin Americans self-disclose more than their North American counterparts, though people in both cultures avoid talking about family conflict and sex. Latin Americans seem more willing to talk about a wider range of topics, such as personal taste in music, movies, and hobbies. Though research involving self-disclosure in India is sparse, evidence suggests that revealing one’s feelings to trusted others is valued positively.

Psychologists have also found that that self-disclosure has a mutual, reciprocal effect—so the 19th century British novelist, Jane Austen, seems to have been mistaken in lamenting that, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” That is, there’s solid evidence that when we hear someone reveal information about themselves, it encourages us to become more forthcoming as well. And that event leads the other person to respond more deeply. Recent research shows that this happens with online communication as well, such as social media and dating websites.  

Self-disclosure isn’t important only in romantic relationships, it also seems vital for emotional intimacy between parents and children. In a recent study that my colleagues and I conducted, college students felt significantly closer to mothers and fathers who reminisced about their childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, as compared to those with aloof parents. Of greater salience from a parental view perhaps, is that students with self-disclosing parents were likelier to seek their problem-solving help or advice. The takeaway is clear: If you’d like your children to be close and value your guidance, then talk freely with them about your life experiences.

Does this mean to reveal everything? Of course not. As Jourard would surely have agreed, it’s necessary to use sound judgment in what you disclose to others—whether as a parent or spouse, friend or colleague. Especially when it comes to the workplace, most psychologists recommend caution about what to share. Still, most of us would benefit by un-bottling what’s inside us. How to accomplish this? Start with small matters, like opening up about recent TV shows, movies, or books that have moved you in some way. But remember: avoid intellectualization and keep the focus on your feelings.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org 

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