I run a support group for couples that are dealing with cancer. In the support group, one of the topics that occasionally comes up is “How much do I share with friends, family, acquaintances and/or strangers?” It’s a hard question to answer, and not one that has only one answer. It might depend on your need to disclose – because your health status could impact your ability to follow through on commitments, for example. Or you might need to disclose because you need help from others, or simply because having support from others is one of the ways you cope. Or you might prefer for others not to know, because you don’t want their perception of you to be changed by this information. You don’t want to be treated differently, whether “differently” is to your advantage or disadvantage. Maybe your well-being is partially related to your ability to continue to function “normally,” whatever this means to you. And the look of the other impacts your ability to live “normally.” All of these are perfectly valid and rational reasons to disclose or not to disclose, and could lead two people in the same situation to completely different answers.
This is not a question that’s limited to people who are dealing with cancer or any other chronic illness, though. It’s a question we all come across at different times and for different reasons in our lives. How much do I share with others about my struggles? Mental health issues? Physical health issues? Fertility challenges? Financial issues? Marital or child-rearing issues? Learning disabilities? Family history of violence? I’m sure any of you reading could add to the list. One of my dear friends contacted me recently because she had been interviewed for a magazine article that would highlight both her professional career and success, and also her roots – which at times were painful for her to recall, and could possibly also be painful for others to read. “Would I be crazy to let this be published?” she asked. “Is it useful to share? Could it be detrimental to me professionally or personally or hurtful to anyone else?” Her questions came from a place of deep reflection and thoughtfulness – both for herself as well as for others who are a part of her story.
We are in many ways an incredibly transparent society. We over share pictures or ourselves, our families, and our activities online. We share our thoughts and reactions in a sometimes indiscriminate manner. We publish, post, “like,” and comment on things at a breathtaking speed. And yet even for the most public of people, these issues of privacy come up. What might happen if we share the most vulnerable pieces of who we are, where we come from, and what we are going through? If we didn’t carefully curate the story we present to the public to be the lightest and brightest moments (with some occasional truth and struggle sprinkled in), but instead shared the darker corners, the shadows? Will it invite compassion or criticism? Will it help or hurt? Will I alienate myself by sharing, and cause further pain and damage? And in the end, will anybody actually care?
I’m looking back on the past few paragraphs that are full of so many question marks. Part of me, as a writer, wants to delete them and make STATEMENTS. But instead I will leave them and admit to you that I struggle with these questions as well. When do I invite people in and allow them to know me, and when do I play it safe and share selectively? How vulnerable is it safe to be, and who do I trust enough to show up as 100% me?
This need to be heard, known, and understood is often what drives people to therapy; the need for someone to hear their full story (not the edited pieces) and help them make sense of it. In the therapy room, we have the opportunity to build a new relationship in which people are able to test out what it feels like to be 100% themselves. To ask that question of whether they can share their full story and someone else (the therapist) will still accept them. When that moment happens – when a person feels both known and still fully accepted – that is when change happens.
It is wise to be thoughtful about how much we share and with whom we share, both for our own protection and because, quite frankly, not everyone wants or needs to know my (or your) business all the time. It is also, though, incredibly healing to be known fully. There is a cathartic release in sharing your struggle with someone who can handle it – who can see you and accept you exactly as you are. It is a way of feeling taken care of and ultimately safe. And really we all deserve to be both taken care of and safe.