James Pennebaker is a social psychologist and researcher who for the last 40 or so years has studied how and why sharing deep thoughts and feelings about one’s life experiences is good for one’s health. He wrote an excellent book in 1990 about the nature of self-disclosure and how to do it entitled Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. In this post, I explore the importance of finding your way to share deep thoughts and feelings with oneself through writing, with trusted others through conversations and with God through prayer. Opening up is not a new strategy for mental health and wellness, but it is a difficult skill to practice and maintain, in part, because the risk of opening up in the wrong way and with the wrong people can be devastating. On the other hand, according to Pennebaker and many others, safe and prudent self-disclosure is quite natural for social beings like humans and more importantly self-disclosure heals.
Anxiety, Stress and Self-Disclosure
Pennebaker begins his book sharing various examples of the natural instinct among humans to confess. He calls it a natural urge among our species. Why does he say confession is natural? It it is natural because our bodies do not store stress or secrets very well. Our bodies and minds want to get rid of stress and keeping secrets about painful relationship betrayals is stressful and often leads to the development of an anxiety disorder.
The stress I’m referring to is not the normal anxiety of life. Normal anxiety, as Rollo May would say, is inescapable, stimulating, life giving and a source of creativity. Normal anxiety keeps us alert and helps us feel alive. It’s a good thing. In contrast, neurotic anxiety, as May described it, is what I believe effective self-disclosure reduces or eliminates. Pennebaker points out many times in his book how his research showed that self-disclosure of traumatic experience led to few doctor visits for his research subjects.
This makes a lot of sense to me as a therapist because I see patients and clients do all sorts of destructive thing to themselves and in their relationships in order to avoid neurotic anxiety. I see it on a daily basis. For example, some of us repress memories. We constrict our faces and body language to hide our discomfort and emotional pain. We turn to substances of all kinds to relax and distract our bodies and minds from intense work of hiding our thoughts and feelings. We do all sorts of exhausting things to avoid Neurotic anxiety and inhibit ourselves. The sad consequence of such commitment to neurotic anxiety is that our closest friends and family cannot tell how we’re doing, so they assume everything is fine. Self-disclosure acts as an antidote for isolation of this kind.
Necessary for Survival
Learning to open up is difficult. If one will remain open to the idea that self-disclosure is necessary for survival, then there is hope for recovery. Humans have developed an amazing system to expel neurotic anxiety and stress, a system John Bowlby in the 1950’s called the “attachment system.” It is a system of self-disclosure and comfort seeking through building relationships that allow you to share deep fears and vulnerable thoughts with a few available people throughout life (It is unclear to me if Pennebaker was familiar with Bowlby’s work when he wrote Opening Up, but I suspect he is very aware of attachment theory by now). Self-disclosure taps into the resources of our attachment system. Here’s how to try it.
How to Open Up through writing
Pennebaker recommends addressing past or recent trauma in a solitary fashion by either writing or through prayer as an easy place to start. (If you appreciate the Judeo-Christian traditions of prayer I recommend reading Psalm 13 and 31 as good examples of King David self-disclosing through prayer). Another great example of literary self-disclosure can be found in Shakespear’s plays. Read any of his characters soliloquys or watch any modern cinematic adaption of them to get a sense of this way to open up.
The key to opening up through writing is expressing deep thoughts and feelings. It’s not enough to write down the facts of a traumatic experience. It’s not enough to just write down feelings either. Pennebaker makes it clear in his book that receiving the benefit of fewer health problems only seems to happen when we write about everything. Consider it a “free writing” exercise like the ones your English teacher assigned you in junior high or high school. No self-censuring allowed.
How to Open Up through talking with someone
Self-disclosing with people is the a good place to complete the stress and neurotic anxiety expulsion process. I believe the human to human part of experience of self-disclosure is so important because it most directly engages our internal attachment system. It’s just very difficult to get all the naturally occurring comfort chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brains to release unless we are in the presence of another person. As a therapist I know full well that not everyone has a good support system. Sometimes we don’t have the right support available to open up with, like a good listening friend or family member. When that is the case, a support group or a therapeutic group is a very good alternative. Individual therapy is another great option. Here in San Antonio, Texas, there are some great groups led by non-profits like NAMI, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, and local mental health friendly churches like City Church. All of these groups can offer the stressed and inhibited person relief. One doesn’t have to share everything right away to start receiving the health benefits. In my experience, it is perfectly fine to start by sharing that it’s hard to share. Baby steps are quite meaningful steps.
What psychologists, social psychologists, artists, and other wise sages have confirmed (probably since the beginning of written history) is that humans function best, even in adversity, when they can self-disclose, confess and open up to themselves through writing, to God through prayer, and to available others through taking the risk of self-disclosure.
If you would like to learn more about how to open up with others and through writing I encourage you to check out Pennebaker’s book. If you’re interested in the Rollo May’s ideas about anxiety that I referenced, here is a fascinating 1978 interview with Psychology Today on Understanding and Coping With Anxiety.
©Ryan W. Gano – www.ryanwgano.com – 2016