Being Too Guarded And Secretive - Having Problems With Self-Disclosure

Shy, awkward people are sometimes overly guarded and secretive. When everyone is talking about more personal subjects they're good at hanging back and not contributing, changing the subject, taking the attention off them, giving vague, evasive answers, or deciding now's the right time to get up and see what everyone else at the party is doing. There are topics they're uncomfortable with, and they're always a little on edge when they're socializing because they never know when they'll come up. They may dread situations where their feared subjects are more likely to arise, like when their friends are all sitting around and drinking. They can become touchy and defensive when certain people try to ask about their lives, like a lonely teenager may feel grilled and interrogated if his parents good-naturedly ask him about his friends, when he doesn't have any.

There are two broad ways the problem can show up:

Reasons people can become overly guarded

How to become less guarded and open up to people

However, and why, it is that someone's too guarded and self-protective, it's a self-defeating strategy. It's stressful to carry around a bunch of supposedly shameful secrets and worry about what will happen if someone finds out about them. Ironically, secretiveness can sometimes bring on more scrutiny and judgment than it helps avoid. If you have a secret no one may think it's a big deal if they found out what it was, but they'll form a bad impression of you if you're always closed-off and cagey. Their imagination may run wild and they'll assume something worse about you than what you're actually hiding. Here's some advice for breaking the secretiveness habit:

Change your attitude about what it means to reveal your flaws

People who are guarded and secretive believe that others will reject them if they learned about their weaknesses. Similarly, they think that the way to be liked is to come across as flawless and impressive. Actually the opposite is true. When we reveal our vulnerabilities and rough edges we seem endearingly human. When we try to act like there's nothing wrong with us we become distant and unrelatable. Have you ever met someone who totally had it together and came across as a little too perfect? People like that are often seen as mildly annoying.

Many secrets are only shameful and embarrassing if you feel they are

Say your mom was an alcoholic while you were growing up. You could see that as a humiliating family secret and do anything to keep people from finding out about it. Or you could be comfortable with it. You could see it as something you went through, but not a personal reflection on your worth as a person. You could think that alcoholism is sadly fairly common, and it doesn't make a person flawed just to be exposed to it.

Say you don't have many friends at the moment. You could take that as a sign that you're a loser and dread being outed. Or you could adopt the perspective that being lonely isn't fun, but it happens to many people from time to time, and that you're not completely defective just because you could be a little better at putting together a social life for yourself.

Being at ease with your flaws creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell someone about your vulnerabilities, and display a calm, self-assured attitude about them, they'll often go along with those cues and feel they're fine as well. On the other hand if you present your issues as if they're shameful confessions, they'll seem that way.

Of course, there is a practical side to keeping some personal information under wraps. Even if you're self-accepting and comfortable with yourself, there may be people who will respond negatively to your secrets or use them against you. However, even if that does happen it doesn't mean you and your vulnerabilities are inherently faulty. It's people's responses that are the problem.

Gradually face your fear of being more open

Guardedness comes from a fear of what will happen if people learn certain things about you. The best to overcome fears is to get used to them in a gradual, controlled manner. You can get introspective and dig into why you're guarded, or try to take on a healthier perspective towards self-disclosure. That may help somewhat, but in the end the best thing to do is open up to people more and see that it's not so bad. You need to experience firsthand that sharing pieces of yourself isn't that bad and often has a positive result, and that on the odd occasion that one of your secrets is received badly, that it's something you can handle.

I can tell you that a lot of the time when you tell people about your supposedly embarrassing problems, especially if you talk about them in a casual, confident way, they won't think they're that bad. If someone knows they're finally hearing a big secret you've been scared to share until now their reaction might very well be, "Oh... that's it?"

Here's an example of how you might slowly get yourself use to opening up:

If a particular secret is holding you back socially, consider getting it out in the open

For example, if you're in college and your friendships have trouble getting off the ground because you're worried about people finding out you've never had a girlfriend, it may ultimately be easier to tell them. That doesn't mean you have to spill it to everyone straight off the bat, but if the topic comes up you won't steer clear of it. Start by telling the friends you trust most, and then work up to telling people you know less well. The first time may feel awkward, but it's often mixed with a sense of relief and getting a weight off your chest.

Doing this takes away the power your secret has over you. You may still not like that fact that you haven't had a relationship, but at least you don't have the secondary hassle of trying to side that fact. More pragmatically, if people know you're struggling they may be able to help. In this case, they may be able to give you advice and encouragement, or set you up with a friend who seems like your type.

If your guardedness comes from a rough childhood it may help to see a counselor

If your secretive nature originated in a rough upbringing it may be more deeply set and resilient than if you just got into a habit of being guarded due to shyness. It may help to explore the issue with a therapist. As I always tell people, I don't think seeing a counselor is a pathetic last resort for the weak and hopeless. There's nothing weird about it and we could all benefit from some outside support from time to time.