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Carl Rogers suggested that loneliness can be alleviated when one feels understood, accepted, and cared about. This implies that one must be willing to expose one’s true feelings, insecurities, and needs. How can another person understand us if we refrain from sharing what we truly feel? How can we feel fully accepted if we pretend we make no mistakes? How can others take care of us if we are too afraid to share our needs? In other words, to build positive relationships, we have to allow others to look at what we perceive as our “shadow side,” the things we tend to hide out of fear of being judged and perceived as “weak” or “incapable.” This shadow side is everything but exceptional. Failure, doubts, regrets, and insecurities are part of every person’s life.

Evidence for the link between vulnerability and positive relationships comes from the research on self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is linked to increased intimacy, where self-disclosure of emotion is a better predictor of intimacy compared to self-disclosure of fact. People who are more willing to express negative emotions tend to have more friends and form more relationships compared to those who are less willing to share these feelings.

Self-disclosure of personal vulnerabilities has also been associated with support. Shimanoff revealed that when spouses examined messages from their mates, messages that included disclosures of vulnerabilities prompted more supportive responses compared to messages lacking this content. Further support for the link between vulnerability and support comes from research by Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson. In the first of a series of studies, participants were asked to read a series of vignettes in which another person was anxious and either chose to share this information or not. Participants reported they would provide more help when the person chose to express this feeling. In Study 2, participants who believed a confederate was in an anxiety-provoking situation helped her more when she expressed that she was nervous. In sum, these findings support the view that the courage to be vulnerable is an important ingredient in the formation of positive relationships.

Connecting with Others by Self-Disclosure

Self-disclosure involves sharing information about yourself with others. The information you might choose to share includes your innermost thoughts, facts about yourself, and your experiences, dreams, goals, failures, successes, and fears. Self-disclosure is not about telling everyone every little thing about yourself. It is about choosing what you want to share and then sharing appropriate information with the right people. You can be open to others through self-disclosure and still keep a sense of privacy.

Some people find self-disclosure more difficult than others. Sharing personal information can make us feel exposed and vulnerable. However, vulnerability is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it a sign of weakness. It takes a lot of strength and courage to share something about yourself. Vulnerability is a powerful way to create new connections and build more meaningful relationships. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable creates a sense of closeness with others, helps build intimate, more trusting relationships, and encourages others to be open and honest in return.

Step 1: Practicing self-disclosure

In this step, you will get into pairs. One person will play the role of the Speaker, and the other one will take on the role of the Listener. When you complete the full exercise, you will switch roles with your partner and repeat the process so that the Speaker becomes the Listener and vice versa.

Instructions for the Listener

As the Listener, you will ask your partner the questions he or she selected from the Self-Disclosure Question Cards. It is your job to pay attention and listen without judgment. As you complete the exercise, remember that it takes courage to talk about personal experiences. Listen carefully when your partner opens up to you and be respectful in your response to the information he or she shares.

You will have 10 minutes to ask as many questions as this time frame will allow. You do not have to get through all the selected questions, so try not to rush the process. It is more important that you listen and pay attention to what the Speaker is sharing with you. You can always repeat the exercise and include any questions you may have missed.

Step 2: Evaluating your experience of self-disclosure

Now that you have fulfilled your role as a Speaker or Listener, it is time to reflect on your experience. Below you can find a set of questions for each partner to answer. Take some time to consider these questions and answer honestly.

Evaluation questions for the Listener

What did you learn about the Speaker that you did not know before?

Do you share any of the experiences described by the Speaker?

Has this exercise changed the closeness you feel towards the Speaker?

You will now switch roles with your partner and repeat the exercise.

Step 3: Reflection

What did you take away from this exercise?
What did you enjoy most about the exercise?
How would you describe your experience of self-disclosure as the Speaker?
How would you describe your experience of self-disclosure as the Listener?
When we show a willingness to share information with others, they are likely to reciprocate.

Have you noticed this since practicing self-disclosure?

What has this exercise taught you about sharing personal experiences with others?
How did it feel to be vulnerable?
Will you be more likely to share your experiences with others in the future?
Now that you have completed the exercise, what comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘vulnerable’?
With whom else in your life would you like to practice self-disclosure?

Appendix: Self-Disclosure Question Cards

Can you tell me about an event in the past that made you feel ashamed? Have you ever felt like you disappointed yourself? Why?
What is one thing that would make you happy, but you refuse to do it because you are worried about what other people would say? When was the last time you felt alone?
What is the worst way someone has ever hurt you? What is the biggest risk you have ever taken? Did it work out as you had hoped?
What worries you the most at the moment? What has been your biggest struggle in life?
If you could live your life over again, what one thing would you change? What is one thing that frightens you about the future?
When was the last time you felt like everything was out of control? How do you feel when someone dislikes you?
What decision do you wish you had never made? What has been the most embarrassing thing to happen to you?
What are you scared of? If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be, and why?
When was the last time you thought, “I’m not good enough”? What seems easy for everybody else but not for you?
What is your biggest regret? What is something you are really bad at?
Have you ever blamed someone for something you did? Describe a time you felt uncomfortable. Where were you? Who was around?
Have you ever felt excluded? What was the occasion? What is your biggest fear?
What is the harshest thing you have ever said to another person? Have you ever covered up a mistake you made instead of owning up to it?

What happened?

When did you last cry in front of someone? Can you tell me who this was and why? What would you say is your biggest failure?
What is one challenge you are facing in your life right now? Think of a time when you were rejected. What happened?
What has been your biggest challenge in life? Tell me something about yourself that not many people know.
What is one thing that makes you feel insecure? What is the silliest mistake you have ever made?
When was the last time you felt angry? What happened? Think of a time when you felt nervous or anxious about something. What happened?
What is the biggest change you would like to make  in your life right now? Do you have a dream that you have given up on?

If so, why?

Has someone you trusted with personal information ever violated that trust?

What happened?

Have you ever unfairly judged someone only to discover that you were wrong?