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Self Disclosure

Jun 8, 2013

couple that does not self-disclose
Perhaps the man and woman in
Grant Wood's American Gothic
haven't learned the value
of self-disclosure.

There is some relief that comes from telling someone you trust about the thing that is difficult for you to admit.  There is value that comes from honestly telling a friend about your failure at work or in a romantic relationship, and how that disappointment made you feel.  We often exert mental energy inhibiting ourselves from thinking and talking about difficult emotional matters. That wasted energy could be spent instead on creativity, enjoyment, and forming deeper bonds with those around us.

Neuroscience doesn't have a lot to say about the therapeutic consequences of inhibiting versus expressing our thoughts, but we know that the frontal cortex of the brain, and especially the prefrontal cortex, is critical for inhibiting behavior, thought, and emotion.  Sometimes that inhibition is useful -- e.g., inhibiting the fear that keeps you from doing something that you know is worthwhile.  But like any tool, it can be used too much, and in the wrong circumstances.

The habit of inhibiting oneself from thinking or speaking about emotionally difficult issues is likely problematic because when we strongly activate these inhibitory control regions of the brain, the inhibitory control mode is hard to turn off.  And the inhibition is diffuse.  We don't simply inhibit ourselves from thinking one specific thought, but find ourselves in a psychological state of general inhibition. Like a car with sticky brakes, once the brakes have been applied, the car continues to drive slowly even when you hit the accelerator. 

When we speak about self-disclosure, we're not referring simply to allowing ourselves to think about difficult emotional issues, but allowing ourselves to speak to another person about them.  In fact, thinking about an issue and not talking about it sometimes ends in rumination, endless inner-chatter that leads to a sustained state of anxiety.   Not a very useful state of mind.  During a conversation with another person we are unable to ruminate -- each one of our thoughts no longer stimulates the next.  Another mind has been added to the mix, even if that other mind is mostly listening. 

Psychotherapists have differing views on how client self-disclosure operates to improve mental health.  However, two benefits seem immediately obvious. The understanding listener, the good friend, the thoughtful therapist allows us to see that the issue which loomed so large in our mind's eye is just another issue that one can talk about openly.   This helps to put things into perspective.  Also, if the listener is someone who cares about you, you feel connected at the very moment you are most vulnerable.  Surely there is value in that.

After self-disclosure, the person often feels relief, greater perspective, greater tranquility.   The emotions bouncing around in their conscious or unconscious mind now become additional colors in their life's tapestry.

As a neuroscientist, I spend my time speaking the language of neurons, brain regions, and neurochemicals.  But when we ask about the value of self disclosure, we are dealing with psychological experiences at a level of complexity that neuroscience is not even close to understanding.