Rein in desire to confide?

A friend (let’s call her Jane) happened to phone when I was feeling upset with another friend (let’s call her Sue). A caring listener, Jane helped me to feel better.

But Jane didn’t feel good about our chat. The next time I spoke with her, she said she worried that I talked about her, too. “You talked about Sue,” she said, “so why should I think you don’t talk about me?”

Was it excusable that it was a problem and not gossip that led me to confide in Jane?

My sister chided me about talking with friends after we argue, giving them a “horrible” impression of her. I felt guilty and ashamed about how I portray people I love when I’m upset with them.

I always considered it healthy to be open, to confide in friends, to have a sympathetic ear when I’m upset.

Feedback like the above, though, has me thinking that I should rein it in somewhat. When I’m upset, it is usually with another person. That means that when I talk about my upset, I’m sharing not just my own business but another’s. Do I have the right to be open about someone else?

A long-ago therapist told me that I own the details of my interactions with other people and am free to share them. I’m less convinced as I go along.

Of course it feels good to confide in a sympathetic listener. Talking can help me to think things through and usually validates my interpretation. But there’s a rub in validating my interpretation: It’s just one side of the story that the listener hears. Those sympathetic (to me) listeners are forming impressions of the other person from the information I’ve given them. If they know the other person, the disclosures create negative perceptions about someone with whom they interact. Even if they don’t know the other, do I want my friends to have a negative view of her after peace has been restored?

Ups and downs are inevitable in close relationships. I may need to sit longer (to use therapy lingo) with the downs. That’s not easy for me; when I’m most upset is when I most want to talk.

I can’t take back what I’ve already disclosed about people I care about, but going forward I can be more discreet. I used to think that telling all was the mark of real intimacy. People with whom confidences didn’t flow were considered casual friends, appreciated for their companionship but not really close. Since making a good friend who is more into doing things than talking, however, I’ve pulled back from ranking friends on “confideability.” Each friend has a unique role in my life and is valued for different things. Everyone processes disclosures differently, affecting whether afterwards I feel that it was right and good to confide. There may be some things that should not be said to anyone but a therapist or in my journal.

The mental health messages I absorbed and lived by for a half-century of adulthood — it’s good to talk, don’t keep it all bottled up — could have had a more nuanced application. I’m not saying that I want to wall myself off. I’m saying that letting myself be seen as I am should not involve showing other people as I perceive them to be at their worst.


On the subject of protecting the privacy of people I care about, a couple of recent incidents suggest it would be good to think about where to draw the line when I’m not upset, too.

Someone who disclosed a story about helping a friend in trouble took me aside to say that he hoped the incident wouldn’t find its way into my blog. “Of course it won’t,” I said, but it bothered me that he thought I needed to be told that. The time two of my siblings asked me to delete a post about our parents’ long marriage came to mind. I ought to go back over these posts to confirm that I’ve been disguising people’s identities or asking their permission to mention them.

Another example: A distant relative was asking prying questions about family members. I don’t remember whether we had ever spoken about them, but her impressions were wrong. We can’t control how intrusive people interpret information, but we can avoid giving them information in the first place.

I have things to think about on this subject of when to open up and how much.



“Some people collect stamps or take up Jazzercise — Donald Trump lies.”
— Bess Levin, Vanity Fair

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