High-intensity emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, and despair are straight-up exhausting. It’s only natural to want to keep them to ourselves so as not to upset others — or come off as an uncouth over-sharer. But going too hard in the opposite direction is just as harmful in its own way. Here’s what chronic under-sharing does to your mental health and relationships, and how to stop it.
Under-sharing isolates you from other people
Everyone knows that ignoring feelings doesn’t magically make them go away. It simply internalizes all that stress and pain, which in turn makes you more stressed-out and unhappy. After a while, you might start to feel totally alone — like you’re the only person in the world who feels the way you do. As Northeastern University behavioural science professor Dr. Kris Lee points out in an article for Psychology Today, this only gets worse the longer you let it go on:
The more we hide, the more we want to. Rather than reaching out, we stay isolated to avoid being seen when we’re not in a great place, doing nothing to help us chip away and make progress.
This sense of isolation is what makes under-sharing so dangerous. People who know you well, like close friends, family members, and therapists, can sense that something’s wrong — but unless you tell them how you feel, they have no way of knowing for sure. To friends and family, your under-sharing looks a lot like the cold shoulder; they may start to worry that they did something to upset you, and more importantly, grow concerned that you seemingly won’t talk to them about it. Under-sharing with your therapist for fear of shame or judgment is almost worse: They can’t help you with problems they don’t even know exist.
For obvious reasons, under-sharing is less problematic in a professional environment. Even so, it’s not entirely without risk. If you’re going through something in your personal life that makes it hard to concentrate on work to the point that your boss or colleagues may notice, it’s usually a good idea to let them know what’s going on — at least to an extent. A good manager will care about you regardless of performance, but a little bit of (appropriate) context will keep a less-understanding manager from reading your distractedness as laziness.
How to break the habit of under-sharing
Opening up takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve been discouraged from (or punished for) doing so in the past. It’s OK to start small: Practice identifying your feelings and really letting yourself feel them, either on your own or with a therapist’s guidance. Once you find the words to describe what you’re dealing with, talking about it gets much easier.
The specific whens and hows of sharing your feelings depend on the audience. A trusted therapist is the safest possible option; they’re trained to handle anything patients throw at them, so don’t hold back. With family and friends, a heads up is always nice. In other words, don’t randomly send someone a multi-paragraph message about your life problems — check in first to make sure it’s a good time for a tough conversation. A simple “I’ve been having a rough time recently, can I talk to you about it?” should do the trick. In the unlikely case they say no, respect that boundary, and don’t give them a hard time.
It’s harder to know how much to share with mere acquaintances, coworkers, and anyone else you don’t know well, so discretion is key. For example, someone who’s openly mocked people with mental illnesses isn’t a great candidate for a spur-of-the-moment chat about your depression — but if they’re your boss and you need accommodations for a mental health crisis, you might not be able to avoid the topic. In that situation, using specific, accurate language can be really helpful. You obviously shouldn’t go into graphic detail, but choosing words like “depression,” “anxiety,” or “panic disorder” (to name a few) over a vague “I’m not feeling well” makes it harder for someone to discount what you’re saying. Plus, who knows? You could end up bonding with someone over a shared experience you didn’t know you had — and feeling a lot less alone in the process.