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 topic, 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:
- First, overly guarded people can be reluctant to make the kinds of personal self-disclosures that help deepen relationships. Usually as people get to know each other they move past safe, surface-level topics and start opening up to each other and sharing more and more of their vulnerabilities and true selves. They start with milder disclosures, and if they're met with acceptance and understanding, they step it up. The expectation is that if one person reveals something about themselves that the other will match them and disclose something similar. If they don't it disrupts the connection process. The person who opened up may be left feeling unfulfilled, rebuffed, and perhaps a little unfairly exposed. If someone shares too many times and doesn't get anything back in return they may decide they've hit a limit on how close that friendship can get.
- Even worse, someone may have trouble giving details about themselves that most people would share freely with anyone. Like they may clam up when asked what type of movies they like, or what they did over their summer holiday. Similarly, they may not want to share things that most people wouldn't reveal to their boss or grandparents, but would be fine telling to anyone they're at least a little friendly with (e.g., the broad strokes of their dating history or funny party stories). If someone is this guarded it's often noticeable and their peers may wonder why they're like that. It can interfere with their day-to-day conversations, since they end up shutting down a lot of topics.
Reasons people can become overly guarded
- They're embarrassed about their secrets and flaws and are trying to save face by hiding them. This can be a side effect of a lack of social success. They don't want to talk about their weekend because they unwillingly stayed in and played on their computer for the sixth week in a row. They don't want to talk about their dating history because they're 22 and have never been in a relationship. They shy away from telling party stories because they don't have any. If someone is generally unconfident they may think everything about them is boring and strange and shouldn't be revealed.
- They're shy and socially anxious and see social situations as more high-stakes than they are. They view other people as judgmental, choosy, and mean-spirited. They think sharing their vulnerabilities, or even their taste in music, is a high-risk move and they'll get rejected if they say the wrong thing.
- They've been picked on in the past and had their secrets and weaknesses used against them. Maybe they've had the experience of bullies pretending to start a friendly conversation, when they really wanted to mess with them and dig for material they could use as ammunition later on.
- As teenagers they had nosey, distrustful parents who always grilled them about their lives. They learned to be secretive and deceptive to protect their privacy or avoid getting in trouble over nothing. When a co-workers asks how their weekend was they instinctively feel like Dad is interrogating them and become tight lipped.
- They had a rougher childhood and picked up closed-off habits they have trouble breaking as adults. Things may have gone on at home they were legitimately wary of anyone finding out about. They may have gotten good at covering up their family's problems and making it seem like everything was perfect on the surface. When they tried making self-disclosures as kids their parents may have harshly shot them down.
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 poor 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 other would 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, or bland and unmemorable. 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 someone 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 what you revealed is fine. 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.
Sometimes just being told your secrets aren't dealbreakers is enough to change your perspective on them. At other times you'll logically know they're okay, but a deeper part of you can't shake the sense that they're disgraceful. If that's the case there are other things you can do to shift your minsdet.
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 way 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 dangerous and often has a positive result, and that on the odd occasion that one of your secrets is received badly, 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 horrible. If a friend finally hears 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:
- Figure out what information about yourself you're most and least comfortable disclosing. In general, you'll want to get used to sharing minor things about yourself, then work up to disclosures that make you feel more exposed and vulnerable. It's totally normal if you have some really personal things you'd never want to tell anyone, or only to your most trusted friends. Becoming more comfortable with self-disclosure doesn't mean you're obligated to tell everyone all your darkest secrets.
- Share things about yourself anonymously online.
- If you're seeing one, share things with a therapist.
- Share things about yourself to strangers you'll never see again (e.g., people you meet while traveling far from home, taxi drivers, etc.)
- Share minor things about yourself with people you know, and who you're comfortable with.
- Share slightly more serious things about yourself with people you know, and who you're comfortable with.
- Share something minor with someone you've just met, and who doesn't intimidate you at all.
- Where it's appropriate to do so, share something you're a bit more uncomfortable disclosing, with someone non-intimidating you've recently met.
- Share something minor about yourself with someone who is more intimidating to you.
- Share some medium-level info with someone who intimidates you slightly.
- If you want to, share a few bigger secrets with the people you're close to.
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 be straightforward about it. That doesn't mean you have to spill it to everyone right 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 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 shoulders.
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 hide it. 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 because your parents asked you too many questions every time you got back from a party. If keeping things close to your chest was a matter of survival when you were growing up, your mind isn't going to drop that habit overnight. 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.