An interesting question on Quora came up, and I thought I’d try my hand at answering:
So, putting on my “armchair psychiatrist” hat, I thought I’d write a response. It’s a very straightforward question that does not have a straightforward answer.
There are two aspects of what’s happening that are worth understanding if you really want to improve the situation – one is your mental/emotional state, and the second is the communication process by which you wish to improve it.
Bear with me. This got a lot longer than I intended. I promise it will be worth it if you read through to the end.
We all want to have a strong connection with people. Not all people, normally, but some people. Those connections are by their very nature, unique, made up of the close, intimate bond that comes from a deep understanding of each other (I’m talking about one-on-one interpersonal relationships here, not relationships with groups).
In this case, for whatever reason, you feel like you are not getting that particular itch scratched. Perhaps you had a loss of such a friendship/relationship. Perhaps you moved from one house to another in a different city, and the bonds you had have strained with distance. Perhaps you have suffered the death/loss of a loved one (I sincerely hope this is not the case, but unfortunately such things do happen in life).
Whatever the reason, you find that you want someone to grok you, and that is not happening. It makes you unhappy, and when it goes on for a long time it makes you even more unhappy, and even more desperate. Eventually each person you meet isn’t seen for who they are any more, but rather you will see them as how much of a potential for a close bond they represent.
So, why waste time? If it’s not going to happen, might as well find out early. No, you aren’t likely thinking this out loud, but when you get mired in your own thoughts and feelings it becomes increasingly difficult to properly gauge the level of self-disclosure necessary for any particular situation.
How It Starts
It is a strange mental process that people go through. By identifying the end result and working our way backwards, it’s as if we say to ourselves…
I want a friend. therefore…
What kind of friend? A close friend.
What does a close friend look like? Someone who knows me.
How does a close friend know me? I have to share information about me that an acquaintance wouldn’t know.
Could this person be a friend? I won’t know unless I share information about me.
When’s a good time to start? Right now!
Try to keep in mind that this isn’t developing a friendship, it’s trying to force a friendship. Not everyone is suited to being in the “inner circle,” and there will come a time when closeness will organically happen without needing to force topics or oversharing.
This brings us to…
I mentioned the word “self-disclosure,” above. At its core, self-disclosure is when you decide to reveal information about yourself, but the part that people often forget (and it sounds like you may be in this boat), is that self-disclosure is negotiated.
Like any negotiation, you have to understand where ‘the middle’ is in order for you to meet. Just like any time you negotiate a sale (for instance), you don’t start out at the ending. You have to feel out the other person and find out just how receptive they are to your negotiation.
Keeping in mind this “selling yourself” metaphor (which is imperfect, and take it only as an example, rather than a literal act), you are offering/selling yourself as a friend, a person with good/bad qualities. But are they ‘buying?’
I’ll talk a little bit more about this below, but this is crucial. You are asking someone to carry your burden. You are, in effect, trying to sell them on that idea.
Here’s what that means in a practical sense. You are asking them for a favor, even if it’s just to hear you out or solve your problem, whether you realize it or not. Now, some people may be willing to accept that burden, but the deeper you go, the more personal the “sad stuff” is, the more burden you are asking them to accept.
The only way to find out if they are willing to do this is through a communication process that slowly ratchets up the self-disclosure once certain conditions are met. What conditions, and how do you know if they’re met?
Time and place. Some people have a ‘feel’ for when something is appropriate to talk about, and others do not. You may have heard people say something about “inside voice/outside voice,” and this is what they’re referring to. Generally speaking, any time there are more people around (and it can be only one person), it’s good to withhold deep self-disclosure. In fact, it’s a social requirement in most cultures.
Context. I live in a world full of tech people. Many of them are brilliant and highly knowledgable about things. Many of these same people are equally ignorant (or just plain clueless) about whether or not certain personal anecdotes are appropriate given the topic of conversation. Tech conferences, for instance, are notorious for people injecting their personal views/opinions/health maladies into conversations that have nothing to do with them. These environments simply aren’t the best conduit for self-disclosure among strangers or even new acquaintances.
Know Your Audience. This is the most important part. What is the mindset of your audience? How do you know that s/he can accept the burden of what you are about to tell them? Perhaps they have their own issues right now that prevent them from taking on anyone else’s troubles. And what you are doing, even without realizing it, is placing a burden on them. You need to find out if they are 1) the kind of person who would do this, and 2) have the capacity to do so right now.
By this point, you may be sensing a theme with these italicized subjects. Before you open your mouth to talk about something that would cast an emotional or mental burden on someone, you need to understand the conditions surrounding whether or not it’s acceptable to do so.
Whether you think it’s a burden or not is irrelevant. It’s whether the person with whom you’re speaking thinks its a burden or not.
The only cure, here, is to slow down. Make sure that you’re in a place (both physically and emotionally) where that kind of conversation is appropriate – or, at the very least, not inappropriate!
Learn more about the person you’re speaking with, try to find out what kind of level of self-disclosure they can handle. What kind of self-disclosure do they engage in? Is everything phatic (i.e., surface-level), or do they move deeper into emotional territory as the conversation continues? If it’s the former, then it’s probably not a good target to unload yourself. If it’s the latter, well, there may be a chance for a deeper connection.
Allow yourself to take more time. Here, you’re thinking in terms of seconds, maybe even minutes. But you may not get all the information you need for weeks, and you have to be okay with that. Your default should be, “No, can’t self-disclose (yet).”
Try to practice getting into the habit of understanding your surroundings from a communication perspective. Trying to figure out the time/place, for instance, might not only help you understand when to say something and when not to say something, but will also help you figure out what is an appropriate alternative topic of conversation in that moment. In other words, “If I can’t talk about my deep and personal sad issues at this point, what is a good conversation that fits in here?”
Do the same thing with people. “I don’t know if this person is able to be receptive to this. So, what kind of conversation are they receptive to?”
Actions Can Have Positive Consequences
Will this help fill that void that is causing your behavior to begin with? Believe it or not – yes.
What is happening right now is that you are gaining a reputation – and not a very good one, I’m afraid. That reputation will precede you, and that reputation will turn into repulsion.
That repulsion from you will ensure that everyone you meet will be a stranger who barely knows you, because only the new people who don’t already know you will want to interact with you. This will cause that void to grow inside you, and you will become more desperate, and the cycle is refreshed.
However, you don’t have to be the person who is known as being a burden to be around (let’s face it, no one wants to have to work so hard to be friends with people). When you understand the context surrounding your communication, and understand the process of self-disclosure, some interesting things will happen over time.
First, you will begin to have a greater understanding of situational awareness. What that means is that you will learn how to harmonize the topic of a conversation with the current environment. Your jokes will be funnier and more on-topic, your insights will be better tuned to the discussion (because you’ll have more of them), and you’ll begin to understand how the ebb and flow of conversations change over time.
And, just like the ebb and flow of a tide, you can’t just jump on a surfboard and start surfing. You need to wait for the right moment. It’s the same thing in a conversation.
Second, you will gain a tremendous amount of insight into other people. You will realize that there are some people who simply aren’t the right people to share information with (because of abject hostility or malevolence), some people you can evolve the depth over time (and actually care about your best interest) and those who are even more desperate than you and simply want to burden you with their troubles because you look like “someone who understands.”
Thing is, those categories aren’t static – they’re quite dynamic. People move in and out of them all the time. You will learn how to watch for those cues, and it will give you a greater understanding of who is worthy of self-disclosure (something for which you may not have even the slightest measurement stick right now).
Believe it or not, despite the length and quantity of items here, this is only scratching the surface. There are subtleties and nuances in communication that have profound implications on the nature of human relationships. What this means is that this is an ongoing process, not something that is a “trick” to get people to like you.
Once you get started down this path, though, good things can happen to get you to where you want to be.